"This is Wyoming. Every man for himself."
I had told the bartender I thought we were on the same side, eating steak as I was while my fellow bureau chief, recently converted to vegetarianism, sustained himself with salad, albeit a large one laden with ranch dressing and extra eggs.
We were seated at the bar of a steakhouse that a job applicant had recommended as the best restaurant in Casper, a "boom-or-bust town" in the midst of a minor boom.
I had spent a day in Yellowstone National Park, in the majestic northwest corner of Wyoming the year before. The state's conservative, mineral-extraction-friendly reputation didn't jive with the spirit I encountered there, though, to be fair, that was federal land.
This Wyoming is different.
We had driven almost 400 miles from Helena, Montana, to Sheridan, Wyoming, the evening before. I took first shift, spiraling through beautiful south-central Montana.
My fellow bureau chief, who jokingly referred to himself as the pack mule, had the unenviable duty of driving the rest of the way through much less majestic parts of Montana, first to Billings with its unsightly oil refinery on the edge of the city tucked below large cliffs, before heading into the isolated Crow Reservation.
As the light began to fade a small bird headed for the windshield of our car. Instinctively, we both ducked. The bird missed. I said I'd never experienced that before. Pack Mule agreed. I looked to the right. Small dead birds lined the shoulder of the road. We were lucky.
As we approached Hardin, Montana, a while later I got just enough cell service to check for food options. There wasn't much, and what there was did not appeal to us, hungry though we were. We decided to press on to Sheridan, still a few hours away.
I called a highly rated steakhouse that told me the kitchen closed at 9:45. Though I don't like to show up just before closing, we didn't have many options, and we were on schedule to make it there by 9:30.
We made it to the relative metropolis of Sheridan a few minutes early, but blew right past the not very well marked restaurant. By the time we waltzed up to the bar after righting ourselves it was a few minutes after 9:30.
The young bartender stared at us for a second when we asked for food menus before grabbing two and plunking them on the bar.
I said I was sorry for showing up right before closing. She replied, dryly, "Sure you are."
Not a good start.
When my companion finished ordering what turned out to be a gargantuan salad, the bartender turned to me, lips pursed.
I ordered the ribeye dinner, rare, with the red beef chili, a potato and vegetables. She almost smiled.
We explained why we arrived so late, and said we’d eat quickly and skedaddle. She warmed up a bit. It probably didn't hurt that we promised we'd tip well.
The bartender decided to order a meal of her own, beef tips, gravy and potato, and loudly pronounced her love for protein.