Growing up on the farm, the best time of the year was summertime. Other than having to make hay and stack it in the barn, there was a lot of free time. My Dad was not only a farmer, but he also owned a small gas and oil business where he delivered gasoline and fuel oil to the area’s farmers and residents. This business also slowed down a bit in the summer time as there was far less demand for heating oil. So the summer holds great memories of trips out West, including the 1963 Great Western Tour that we did with the McCarthy’s in our homemade camper. At that time, the West was just beginning to get itself settled down and was banking a lot on the tourist trade off of the romantic tales of the West.
Everywhere you went West of the Mississippi there were tourist traps. Signs along the road were designed to market the biggest and best of the West. For miles and miles, they would hype what they said was the place of the most significant gunfight or the home of the fastest gun in the West, or the killers of the desert. “Last chance for gas for 150 miles” also was very popular. With all the build-up, I was always excited to see a huge Western ghost town where there would be modern-day gunfights and battles with the Native Americans (back then they called themselves Indians, but in today’s terms that is “outdated cultural depiction”). Finally there, I would jump out to take in the thrill of the moment, but it was usually just a small gas station with a rattle snake penned up behind glass, or a poster of Wild Bill Hickock on the wall.
The real fastest guns in the West became the guys at the gas station. They would rush out to fill up the car with gas. Back then, there was no self-serve. Dad, being in the fuel business, would always check the pumps to make sure they were registering the right price for the gallon—something that has stuck with me even today. These out of the way gas stations were always trying something. They knew how to raise the hood on your car to “check the oil” and pull a quick-draw on disconnecting something so the car wouldn’t run. Then people would lose a whole day and a lot of money paying for the replacement part and the “mechanic.” Dad refused to let them check the oil. We saw a few in our travels who weren’t so smart.
Some places along the way actually put effort into their tourist traps. They would sell the idea of a gift shop or a “boot hill.” One place out near Cody, Wyoming advertised a rodeo. The 50 miles of signs would say things like, “Ride a Wild Bronc,” or “Rope a steer on the range.” I began bugging my parents after the first sign or two to stop there. You know, John 16:24 says, “Ask and you shall receive that your joy may be full.” And as the youngest spoiled child (some say a brat), I was no stranger to that concept. Turns out that there was a coral in the back with papier mache statues of a bucking horse and a steer mixed in with old covered wagons and broken wheels. While not quite what was advertised, I still had a blast riding that bucking bronc. I was a real rodeo cowboy, at least in my mind. Then the tank was full and it was time to go.