Pitstop at the Soda Fountain
Through the chromed soda fountain handles, a cold metal spoon wrestled a 4th hearty scoop from the tub of vanilla ice cream. The middle mixing shaft of a seafoam-green Hamilton Beach triple mixer swirled the ice-cream lumps together with chocolate malt powder, spooned from a yellow tin kept above the fridge. Little scratches have stripped away any shine or reflection the metal mixing cup may have had. The mirror behind the counter shows a couple joking back and forth over their french fries on a gingham-clothed table. The two girls behind the counter take turns ribbing each other about picking up shifts between moments to turn their commentary towards the customers. An elk head surveyed the room approvingly from its wall mount. The Chugwater soda fountain is one of only two places to gather in the town of 212 people. An hour out of Cheyenne, with no gas left in the tank, I accidentally rolled into town hoping my GPS lied when it said there were no gas stations around.
The young girl looked away wistfully for a moment, imagining her and her friends at a local gas station, before I ask what people do for fun in town.
The town was identical to small towns across the country so far but for one thing: there wasn’t much of anything to hint at a decline. A quarter of the town was still in school, its population young and fresh-faced. The few businesses there were open and full - not a closed shop to be seen. It was small and hardy, as though economic or cultural hardship somehow could not gnaw away at its vitality, as they had other towns. There is a confidence in Chugwater, an air of comfort that other towns were missing. It’s something unnoticeable in other towns until you’ve seen it done right in a place like this. The safety and warmth of people not worried that their home is on the precipice gently buoys everyone that lives there. Conversations all smack of an extended family gathering from a comedy flick.
From the pedestal stool of the Soda Fountain, I watched people wander in and out. They chatted with the girls behind the counter and with each other, speaking the same english as me but with an art and flourish that felt like it had to be scripted. The cadence of their conversations was so fluid and dynamic, each person a well formed character, communicating like it was a well rehearsed play. Every conversation unfurled another bit of history as though the town itself seemed to want to be interviewed.
Topics run into each other in a swirl of controlled chaos. This sort of banter, swinging back and forth between cracking jokes and reveling in local history, is only available with deep sympathetic trust. It’s easier to think of the town as a family than a municipality. That may be the reason Chugwater stood up to the trends that are eating away at other small towns. Family bonds bounce off hardship better than about anything else. The frenetic whirl of communal energy flicks away the apathy and decay sucking the life from other towns like a vampire in slow motion. Intangibles like this are what make the town interesting, a living force, that makes it easier to imagine the heydays of larger towns, now crumbling a bit under the weight of change.