My first stop westward was the western wear section of the famous Wall Drug in Wall, SD, at the entrance to the Badlands. I figured a new phase of life and a new journey deserved an outfit to get started. I really just wanted to shed my old skin and put on a new one suitable to the environment and the adventure ahead.
This isn’t the first time I decided to live in a van and drift around the west. After my freshman year of college, I dropped out and did the same for awhile, though in a far less fancy van. Then too, my first stop was in Wall SD, and me and the pretty girl I was traveling with at the time went to a local bar. Wall was a far dustier, lonesome, outpost back then. In the bar we met two authentic cowboys who had been out on an elk hunt to return home TWO WEEKS later than they had told their wives! So they decided to handle the situation by getting deeply drunk first before facing the wrath of their worried and neglected wives. In the high spirits that they were, they kept buying me and my girl drinks and we all got drunk together. Shortly thereafter, a sheriff walks into the bar, points at me and says, “Boy. Come here.”
The dude looked and sounded just like Sam Elliot. He couldn’t have been a more idealized version of the “western sheriff.” I was nervous at the summons, but quite surprised by what he had to say. “I want you to drive these two men home. They’re too drunk to drive.”
I cautiously replied, “Uh, but, I’ve been drinking too.”
“Yeah, well you may be drunk, but you aren’t as drunk as those two, and I’m the only sheriff in this town.”
So I drive their truck with a dead elk in the back and the two cowboys as passengers out some dusty road into the prairie with my girl following behind in our van. A few miles out, the cowboys tell me, “Just pull over here. Let’s drink a few more beers and then we can take it from here.” No sooner than we were halfway through our first beer, the same sheriff pulls up, points at me again, and repeats, “Boy. Come here.”
Now I was really nervous, feeling I had somehow disobeyed his command. Approaching his car window, he simply pointed to the northern horizon with a big grin on his face and said, “Look. Aurora Borealis!” He pointed to the slight green hue where the sky met the land and then said “Have a good night!” and drove on.
We all laughed a laugh of relief and amusement at the funny encounter, then one of the cowboys pulled out a big buck knife and dug into the dead elk’s mouth in the back of the truck, pulling out one of the beast’s ivory teeth to give me as a parting gift before they made their way home. That was my first experience in the wild west. I’ll never forget that kind-hearted sheriff or those cowboys, nor such a unique and bizarre experience. I hope to have many more. I feel at home out here, my heart breathes easy, and I’m so happy to be back.