Anyway, when the date arrived, I headed north from Albuquerque on I-25. About six hours later, I hit Denver’s rush hour traffic. Rush hour in Denver apparently starts at dawn and lasts until midnight. You first encounter it as you’re leaving Colorado Springs and you finally get out of it about ten miles south of the Wyoming border. What the heck are all these people doing in Denver?? That’s probably grist for a different article for the old blog mill. Suffice to say, I was mighty glad to cross into Wyoming where cattle outnumber people (AND their automobiles!).
Why is it called Chugwater anyway? Glad you asked. The story is that when the railroads came to southern Wyoming, the railroad boss asked the local Indians what the place was called. Through an interpreter, he was told “Chugwater.” The legend says an Indian chief known as “the Dreamer”…so-called either because he thought outside the box or because he was extremely lazy…decided the traditional way of hunting buffalo was inefficient and too dangerous. Instead, he had his hunters stampede the buffalo off one of the high bluffs from which they plunged to their deaths in the creek below. Apparently, the sound they made as they hit was a “chugging” noise so it was known as the "water at the place where the buffalo chug.”
It subsequently became known as Chugwater Creek.
My host for the weekend was Keith Miller whom I met in Albuquerque in early 2014 when I performed at the Solid Grounds Coffeehouse. Keith liked my music and asked if I would be interested in taking part in the Chugwater Chili Cook-off. I said, “Let me think about it…okay.” Keith has had an illustrious career as an engineer, both at Sandia Labs in Albuquerque and as a professor at New Mexico Tech in Socorro, but he grew up in Chugwater. He learned to be a cowboy at an early age and he also learned to farm wheat around the same time. He loves the cowboy life. The life of a wheat farmer, not so much. He took me for a grand tour around Chugwater and shared a lot of the history.
Did you know the horse pictured on the Wyoming license plate was named Steamboat? I already knew that. What I didn’t know is that Steamboat was raised on the Foss Ranch just west of Chugwater. I got to drive right past the Foss Ranch as we meandered around in the hills towards Laramie. Keith also showed me the homestead of one of his great uncles where Tom Horn reportedly spent a night. Sometime later, Horn was tried and convicted for the murder near Iron Mountain of fourteen year old Willie Nickell, the son of a sheepherder. There’s a controversy amongst Wyoming history buffs about whether or not Horn actually committed this murder. Apparently, the Nickell family and another local family were engaged in a feud. Some suspect the other family committed the murder and tried to cover it up by making it look like a signature Tom Horn killing (he left a rock under the victim’s head, I’m told). One thing most folks do agree on is that whether or not Horn committed this particular murder, he probably got what he deserved. Although his official title was "range detective," he actually functioned as a killer for hire.
The land east of Chugwater is known as the “Iowa Flats” because it was homesteaded primarily by folks from Iowa. It is definitely flat and it spreads out for miles before dropping off precipitously down towards Nebraska. At the point where it drops off, you can see Scotts Bluff many miles to the east. Great land for grazing cattle and a pretty good spot for wheat farming as well.
The descriptions of nearly every place Keith showed me began with the phrase “this is so and so’s place, they’ve been on this land for four generations.” There’s a real sense of permanence around Chugwater. People come and stay awhile. They’re tough, too. Here’s a conversation I overheard at the chili cook-off.
“Where’s old (I can’t remember his name but it doesn’t matter. He’s 84 years old)?”
“He couldn’t make it, he wasn’t feeling well.” (I’m thinking, “No kidding, he’s 84!”)
“Really, what’s the matter?”
“He had a pile-up on his dirt bike. Broke his leg and his wrist. He’s healing up okay though, should be up and around pretty soon.”
Wyoming is an interesting place. It’s the Wild West, for sure. It’s also the cradle of women’s suffrage. The people are hardy and independent stock and they have deep roots. Everyone was really nice to me. I hope they invite me back for the 30th annual Chugwater Chili Cook-off. I also kind of hope they add a beer-tasting event.