Every second of travel comes down to a decision—to stop and get out of the car, or to carry on, foot pressed hard on the pedal, to the destination we first had in mind.
I was doing fifty when I saw the small cabin at the edge of the road, prim and square, with windows like eyes that watched the highway. Route 89 follows the Salt River in a straight line along the Wyoming-Idaho border, through brown ranches and a handful of small towns that pop up every ten miles. Each sign that tells me everything I need to know: Thayne, population 356; Grover, pop. 147.
Only in Etna, pop. 164, did I slow down and swing back around in huge U-turn, parking next to the tiny cabin at the side of the road. The old door was painted a dull grey-blue that matched the stern skies. Spots of rain flicked down and the wind seemed to make everything creak just a little.
Rusted horse trailers, half-collapsed barns, and RV’s with missing windows and wishful For Sale signs—all this junk jittered in the wind, while the land itself sat silent and autumnal, brown and yellow but for the black cows that peppered the hillsides.
I forget if it was a funeral parlor or the hardware store whose plastic-lettered sign read, “STAR VALLEY: A WONDERFUL PLACE TO LIVE.” Aside from the horses that hugged the fences, I had yet to meet a living soul out here in Wyoming’s far western fringe, but standing in front of the tiny cabin in Etna, I heard a voice call out at me.
The man wore red flannel and sat in the front sat of his car, engine running.
“Excuse me?” I approached his window, asking him to repeat his question. He was an older man, with the whitest finest angel hair and a face as weathered as the valley itself.
“I said,” he barked, “Do you need any help?” and he stretched his neck towards me for a better look.
“Oh no,” I smiled, “I’m just looking at this cabin here,” I replied and pointed back to the small and solid log structure.
“Oh yeah?” he smiled back, “That’s my cabin—I was born here.”
“Really? You were born inside this cabin?” And with the engine still running, the old white-haired man told me the story of his grandparents, Anna and Alonzo Baker, who came to Star Valley with a herd of dairy cattle in 1887. Two years later, they built the two-room cabin, which remains the oldest permanent building in the valley. With only two rooms, the frontier couple raised twelve children—their son William had eight children, one of whom was Lloyd.
“Lloyd—Lloyd Baker,” the man introduced himself, and we shook hands through the car window.
“Do you remember your grandparents at all?” I asked him, excited for this living link to the valley’s first settlers.
“No—Grandma died before 1900, and I was only born in 1911, so I never met her,” he explained, but I was already guessing his age.
“Wait—You’re 102 years old?”
“Yep,” he quipped, as if this was no big deal at all, and then he reached in his pocket for a business card to show me: Lloyd A. Baker Associates, Surveyor.
“I surveyed most of Star Valley,” he said proudly, and then handed me another business card, much more colorful, which offered his musical services for parties and events, including a list of songs that he could sing, among them “Danny Boy” and “Home on the Range”.
“You sing?” I asked.
“I’ll sing you a song right now if you like!” and before I could even say yes, Lloyd began to sing in a clear and practiced voice, “With someone like you, a pal good and true . . .”
And though were total strangers, his eyes opened wide and sparkled as named me his pal, in song, one hand touching his chest, as if he needed only to press on a button near his heart, and a song would tumble out.
I’d like to leave it all behind—and go and find,
A place that’s known to God alone,
Just a spot to call our own!
The centenarian sang louder and louder to me, with a manly vibrato, and I listened, crouched against the car door.
We’ll find perfect peace,
where joys never cease,
Out there beneath the starry skies
A few minutes ago I was just passing through town, and now here I was, crouched up against a car window, feeling the hum of the engine while a man (who retired before I was born) serenaded me outside the little log cabin where he was born more than a hundred year before.
We’ll build a sweet little nest,
somewhere in the west,
and let the rest of the world go by!
Lloyd lingered on the last line, then closed his lips in a smile having delivered the perfect song.
“What song is that?” I wondered.
“I dunno—it’s just a song,” Lloyd said, and then he tapped his steering wheel.
“You’ll have to forgive me, but I gotta get going. I have an eye appointment in Afton,” he nodded down the road. Afton was more than 40 miles away and Lloyd was not wearing any glasses.
“Well it’s nice to meet you, Sir,” I said, “And thank you so much for the song—that was a great song.” Then I imagined this very spot in the late 1889, with Alonzo and Anna in their teeny cabin, half-buried in snow but warm and lovely inside, alive with so many children. Just like Lloyd’s song, Baker Cabin was their nest in the west, and a century later, here I was—part of the rest of the world that was going by, or passing by their little western dream.
To think that I might have just zoomed past this place and missed it forever—missed meeting Lloyd and knowing the story of the people who made Star Valley—reminded me that every moment on the road is fragile and important. While we might concentrate our efforts on preserving the parks, it’s equally important to preserve the past and never rush across any landscape too quickly.
But my new pal was in a rush, so we shook hands once more, he lifted his brakes, and let his car lurch back into the road. Then, with squealing tires, Lloyd sped off towards Afton, soaring through Star Valley like a wild Wyoming teenager on a Friday night.