That is the dangerous part about caves: you don’t know how far they go back, sometimes, or where a passage behind may lead to, or what is waiting for you inside.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
We left O’Dell’s, obviously in a merry mood, and began our return trip to Omaha. Along the way we planned to stop in Laramie, Wyoming, where Paul attended college for a year. We also figured we’d stay in Paul’s hometown of Lyman, Nebraska for a few days to get some R and R. That evening, our drive north flew by, probably due to a combination of inebriation and the TurboNegro blaring from the speakers (I bought a re-issue of “Ass Cobra” at Wax Trax in Denver).
A song named “Hobbit Motherfuckers”? Yes please:
When we reached Laramie, storm clouds stared us down in the distance. We had a choice to make: get a hotel or risk it in the wild. With neither of us being decision makers, we opted to go to the grocery store to feed our growling stomachs. Our hunger actually made our lodging decision for us with me craving hotdogs and Paul’s appetite for chunky soup – in order to appreciate both of these camping staples, we would need a campfire.
After loading up our cart with processed food, I sauntered into the liquor store next door to check out the beer selection – my buzz from the afternoon of perusing breweries was beginning to wane. Besides, we hadn’t drank any during our night’s camping, and with this being our last outdoor excursion, I decided we needed to celebrate our extraordinary trip with a beer and a campfire. In the cooler I found rows of familiar faces on the labels of six packs. Each label, like photographs, brought me back to the experiences from the past few weeks: Snake River and the snobby snow bums, Bozone and the mutt puppies, Left Hand and our drunken conversations, O’Dell’s and the gum chewing douche, and Grand Tetons where we were treated like kings. I decided upon Grand Teton’s Workhorse, recalling the refreshing American wheat we enjoyed over a week ago in Idaho.
Fully loaded on food and “supplies” we headed toward the outskirts of town where Vedauwoo was located, a state park comprised of rock formations resembling mountain sized gobs of dried bubble gum on God’s headboard. As we drove down the gravel road leading up to the park we passed a sign that read “Closed Due to Bug Spray”. Paul continued driving toward the parking area, so I spoke up.
“Um, dude, I don’t think we’re supposed to be in here.”
“Why not?” he asked.
“Well, that sign said they are spraying for bugs.”
“Good thing we’re not bugs,” he responded, pulling into a parking spot. He had a point…I think.
We got out of the car and the air didn’t smell poisonous, so I followed Paul to the back of the car to load our packs for the last time. After grabbing food, tent, and sleeping bags, I wrapped four beers in a sweatshirt and placed them in the bag. With packs strapped to our backs, we walked a winding path that led us through the scattered rock formations. They looked almost fake, like something out of an old Star Trek episode.
We walked for a while, searching for a camping spot. With the dark clouds still threatening in the distance, we found a large rock that had a sloping overhang, perfect shelter from the storm. But just as I turned to take my pack off, Paul was walking toward the largest mound of rocks, apparently looking for a better shelter. I followed him from a distance, and finally caught up as he was crawling through gnarled branches that led to a crevice between the enormous boulders at the foot of the mound. Soon, he disappeared into the darkness of the cave. I stood in silence for a moment, awaiting his return.
“Dude! This rules!” Paul’s voice echoed from out of the opening. We had found our campsite.
I followed Paul’s trail of broken branches and entered the cave he discovered. Inside it felt cozy, although I couldn’t stand straight up; actually, I had to walk on my knees the majority of the time. Sure, there wasn’t much headroom, but what does that matter when you’re sleeping? After accessorizing our humble abode with sleeping bags and firewood, I grabbed Dharma Bums and told Paul I was going to go read before the sun set. I knew I’d be cramped up in the cave all night and should appreciate the freedom of the open range before bed.
I meandered between the rock formations for a bit, admiring Mother Nature’s grand sculptures. I finally came to a stop when I found the perfect reading spot atop a rock that stood around 10 feet tall. I crawled up the angled side of the rock and sat on the flattened top like a Zen Buddha. I tried reading but couldn’t help spacing off, staring out into the great western horizon, the sun slowly saying goodbye to another fruitful day. I sat there for an hour in a blissful haze, entranced by the skies pastel beauty.
When the wind picked up, I decided to head back to camp. Nearing the entrance of our little home, I could see the glow of a fire, shadows dancing upon the sides of nearby rocks, smoke crawling sneakily out the cave entrance. I entered to find Paul near the back, toking a fire and setting a soup can into the pulsating embers.
I went straight to my pack and pulled out some hotdogs and a couple bottles of Workhorse Wheat. Popping the top off the bottles and placing a couple hotdogs on a stick, I sat down next to Paul and relaxed with the flames at my feet. I’ve sat next to many campfires and bonfires, but none quite compares to the fire that night inside our cave. Paul and I raised our beers and took a sip commemorating our last night of camping.
Once again, our conversation led to The Hobbit, prompted by our stay in a cave which reminded me of Bilbo and the dwarves in the Misty Mountains. I knew we wouldn’t get attacked by goblins, but I questioned whether we might be sleeping in a mountain lion’s den. When asked, Paul responded, “Maybe.” This didn’t put me at any more ease. With the soup cans steaming and hot dogs bubbling we pulled our food from the flames and enjoyed our hearty meal by fireside. Hotdogs have never tasted better.
We sat there for another hour, eating, drinking, and laughing.
When the bottles went dry and the fire died down, we decided to head to our cave floor beds to catch some Zs. The mouth of the cave lay right in front of me and for the first night all trip there was a full moon shining down on us. I laid there for a while just starting at its brilliance, nature’s last big show, bidding us farewell in the only way Nature can.
The next morning I awoke all a shiver. The stone floor felt like a slab of ice beneath my back. I dug into my pack, pulling out a sweatshirt and my trusty BloodRayne hat. I wrapped up in my sleeping bag, letting the heat envelope me. Once the sun peaked over the rock terrain, we packed up camp for the final time and headed back toward Laramie in search of a coffee shop. Our search didn’t last long since Paul knew the layout of the town pretty well. Inside the antique building we ordered up breakfast and took a seat at a large wooden table fit for King Arthur and his knights.
When we finished our hearty breakfast, we headed over to the University of Wyoming store in search of some Cowboy gear. I’ve always felt Wyoming has the coolest colors in college sports: tan and brown. I’ve loved the color combo so much that numerous years I’ve coached the Cowboys on EA’s NCAA Football for PS2. My last coaching stint ended when I realized there was a glitch in the game that wouldn’t allow teams from the Mountain West Conference to compete for the national title, even when I pumped up their non-conference schedule.
When Paul transferred to Laramie, I always asked him to get me a cowboy t-shirt which he never followed through on. But there we were in a store adorned wall to wall in the tan and brown. While Paul looked at sweat pants, I scoured the t-shirt racks, but nothing jumped out at me. The brown basketball jerseys looked like something I might wear to the gym, but then I realized they were women’s and I decided against them. I eventually left the store empty handed.
Our plan was to visit the town’s brewery, Altitude Chophouse, but it didn’t open until noon. With it only being 10, we had some time to kill. Paul suggested giving me a tour of the Wyoming campus, which I thought sounded like a great plan. We pulled into a parking lot located outside War Memorial Stadium, the same field I coached so many digital football teams to victory on. As we got out of the car we noticed a beautiful blond leading a group of business-looking men out of the gate to the stadium.
We watched her walk away, and then noticed she left the gate wide open. JACKPOT. Coach Schroeder would finally set foot on the hallowed ground he once ruled upon with an iron fist. We started off slowly approaching the unmanned gate but progressed to a speed walk. Once we reached the entrance, I gave a quick glance around the premises for security. Seeing the coast was clear, we made our stealthy entrance. Walking toward the track I felt overcome by the immensity of the stadium. Who knew a school of Wyoming’s size would have such a grand football stadium, especially considering how perennially bad they are in football.
I stepped onto the field, feeling the cozy astro-turf beneath my flip flops and then decided to venture up into the stadium seats. Like children we ran up the stairs to the tip top, getting a complete view of the entire empty field that reminded me of “Rudy” when the black janitor dude first showed him Notre Dame Stadium. Paul suggested we head to the opposite corner of the field to explore the athletic facility located right outside the gate. Along the way, we came upon a giant cowboy boot statue decked out in Wyoming brown and tan. In true senior picture form, I asked Paul to take a picture of me posing by the boot.
After my photo shoot, Paul approached the door of the building, gave it a tug, and we were instantly unauthorized personnel roaming the halls of Wyoming’s Athletic Facility. We walked down the hallway, lined with large circular windows that you’d find in a submarine, descending gradually until we had completely entered the bowels of Wyoming. Suddenly, a pack of four volleyball players came around the corner. They obviously had just finished a workout with their red faces dripping in sweat. Both of us stiffened but continued walking nonchalantly down the hall. As we passed, the girls smiled and said “Hi!” in unison. We replied with a greeting and continued on our way, shocked that they weren’t alarmed by two scraggly bearded men roaming through the athletic facilities. Who did they think we were? Coaches? Students? Or future recruits?!
Whatever the case, I didn’t care; we had passed our first security test. We continued down a silent corridor, entered a practice volleyball court, and crossed the court to enter the darkened wrestling room. We roamed the room with Paul pointing out the different workstations, including a foam mannequin bolted to the wall. Paul tried explaining how you wrestling a mounted foam doll, but it still didn’t make sense.
He led me through the weight room and into the wrestler’s locker room. I’d only seen a locker room of its quality in movies or Spurs Championship videos. The lockers stretched around the plush room, filled with leather couches, white boards lining the walls, and large wooden lockers with name tags.
Spotting the bathroom stalls near the back, I told Paul I needed to take a piss quick. I stepped into the stall and began urinating when I heard a noise behind me. I glanced back thinking I’d see Paul; instead I spied a gentleman in a suit, looking at himself in the mirror as he washed his hands. He looked like a coach or at least someone with power to crush a couple scruffy intruders. He turned his head in my direction so I quickly ducked down. CRAP! He had to hear me. I knew it. I was so fucked. I felt like Marty McFly hiding in Biff’s backseat, except I wasn’t whispering loudly into a walkie-talkie.
I stood still, then heard the man begin pulling paper towels…maybe he didn’t see or hear me? I remained completely quiet, listening to the man dry his hands, wondering where Paul had gone. He had been in the locker room. How did the guy not see him?
I remained as motionless as a wall wrestling dummy, waiting for the sound of a closing door. The sound of hand drying came to a stop, and there was a silence all throughout the restroom. He had to know I was there. I started thinking of excuses, knowing this was probably a wrestling coach who could whoop my ass if needed. Just as I was about to peek over the partition again, I heard the snap of the door handle. Phew. I zipped up, pushed open the door, and headed out the mystery door the man didn’t exit. I came out to an empty hallway and began running toward the nearest exit. Mid-sprint I heard a voice yell, “Stop!” Oh no, I was done for!
I turned to see a smiling Paul walking toward me. “Why are you running?” He asked with a grin.
“Where the hell did you go?” I asked, heaving for air.
“I was just sitting in the locker room…you’re fucking stupid.” He said laughing. I followed him out the door, feeling a bit dumb, and returned to the car. Whoever the guy was, he had seen Paul and thought nothing of it. In the car we saw the clock read 11 o’clock, beer time.
Paul quickly located the brewery downtown and we moseyed in to an empty bar. I guess 11 isn’t happy hour in Wyoming. We ordered up a sampler and sat back to watch some Sportscenter, catching up on all the world happenings we’d missed during our trip. It was like we had entered an alternate universe: Elton Brand was now a Warrior, Baron Davis and Marcus Camby both Clippers, James Posey a Hornet, and Brett Favre was coming out of retirement.
The samplers came out, nine large sippers filled with a multitude of colors. We drank them down slowly in silence. I could tell we were both winding down from our trip, realizing it was coming to an end. None of the beers tasted as special as what we’d tasted the past few weeks. The wheat and porter were decent, but the positive reviews end there. The amber made me yearn for Madison River’s Irresistible Amber Ale; the stout made me wish we were still back at O’Dell’s drinking their specialty black brew.
We left an hour later, and headed toward Cheyenne where we were set to meet one of Paul’s high school friends for lunch. About 10 minutes outside of Laramie Paul asked me to stop at a rest area to take a whiz. When we got out of the car, I noticed a tall statue near roadside. After taking care of our business, we walked over to discover a giant Abraham Lincoln head peering down at us.
Staring up into the earnest eyes of Honest Abe, I was reminded of the first day of our road trip, driving across South Dakota arguing about who was the all-time best president. I would eventually learn about Teddy Roosevelt and his conservative ways – actually, I learned a lot over the past few weeks: music, beer, and most importantly, life. Although my opinion of Abe as the best president remains the same, I will forever be changed by our experiences on the winding roads of America.