Interstate 80: A Serialized Travelogue, Part 23

Part 23

Wayne Baker (right)

And so it came to pass that while Derek hums “Come Together…right now…over me….” and C. does rear-view detail for vehicles coming up too fast from behind, I take the wheel and we set out across the mountain. I am Odysseus guiding our little Japanese-inspired car with the New York plates through the Charbydis of going too slow and the Scylla of going too fast, while averting my eyes from the writhing, snake-like ribbons of snow across the interstate that seem now, in the last leg of our journey, to have betrayed us.

Near the town itself of Elk Mountain, population 192, on the banks of the Medicine Bow River, we are surprised to see a tiny gas station, open for business. Up here the drifting seems to have abated some, the sky still a vault of winter blue above, the mountains—including the town’s namesake off to the Southwest—blanketed in snow but appearing, somehow in this de-oxygenated terrain, dry. The station sits wind-blown to the north of the Interstate, and is preternaturally run-down with old water heaters outside, fading, stripped-down chip board siding and a dark retail space with a bearded, elderly man sitting behind the counter, reading a paperback western. He’s on oxygen, himself, the tube winding its way back down to a green tank and the other end climbing itself up his neck, around his ears and two-pronging into his nose above a shaggy gray beard. There is a picked-over shelf of candy bars, some T-shirts touting the world-famous trout fishing in the area, an empty freezer chest un-plugged and a cash register. I wait for the bathroom. There is one other car outside gassing up. Oddly, it smells like lavender in here. The man, slumped over in a sweater of wide cables doesn’t acknowledge me, his breathing steady but slightly wheezy. The stuffed head of a deer—or is it a small elk?—stairs down through marble eyes. I try to read the title of his mass market book until he looks at me over his glasses and I look away, finishing the lyrics of Joe’s humming, like a baton has been passed, “One thing I can tell you is you got to be free….”

Back outside, we’ve topped off the tank and we’re ready to roll. Derek has elected to stay in the car. While I am alive with adrenaline from wading through miles of shifting road, and antsy to get out and see the terrain however stark in this high elevation light, he is categorically uninterested in any of it. Suddenly, I’m quite sure he will not be going to WyoTech in motorcycle mechanics, or any kind of mechanics. And this recognition leaves me baffled. How is it that I am supposed to care for this young man when I don’t understand him? For every solicitous turn I take in his direction, he seems to turn away, and those moments where we sit downstairs in front of the computer and he pulls up one You-Tube music video after another, those moments seem now to be pointless exercises in distraction. Could I possibly have been this drifty at his age? Without purpose?

C. would say I had too much purpose in my life at seventeen. Hell, by then I had been made a priest in church, a sort of automatic ecclesiastical advancement in which all boys that age were told after ordination that they now housed in their bodies and souls the power to act in God’s name. “The same power given to the prophet!” it was announced with amazement over the pulpit. Three decades later and I’m wondering if it was just religious delusion that injured me the most, or just the fact that I was burdened with something that neither I, nor my cohorts, were ready for at that tender age. What disservice we do to our youth to give them power when they likely don’t even have the power yet to act in their own name, let alone deity’s? But Derek is in just the opposite predicament as I was at his age. There’s not enough direction in his life. There seem to be no demands. Just suggestions. And he is left wandering through the walls of East High and the video library of You Tube. And yet I see and hear and feel Derek’s potential for something akin to greatness. Yes, something bigger than he that shouts down the frenetic, mindless world with authenticity. Neither my church nor my father could have ever told me at seventeen what or where my own greatness was, though Lord knows both the institution and the man tried, inflected with a kind of programmatic faith that felt industrial. Perhaps what Derek needs, what I needed back then, was to have someone who could tell me, in the right way, to just go out and find it. Whatever it was, whatever it is—just go out and find it. At an elevation of 7,264 feet, this is what I’m thinking of as I climb back into the car and head down the mountain for home.

The closer we get to the cartographic point where Wyoming and Utah conjoin, the more I am reminded of my nemesis, Wayne Baker. In Evanston, on the state line, U.S. Highway 89 shoots north to Star Valley and the unincorporated community of Freedom, and I remember the letter I wrote to his son after his father’s Nigger President comment. The letter went something like this:

“Dear Mr. Baker, You’re father was an asshole recently and you better get him to apologize to me for his bad behavior or, as a journalist, I’ll be publishing something that talks about how the founder of Freedom Arms is calling the current president of the United States a ‘nigger’ and then hawking guns. Very Sincerely Yours…”

Actually, I was much more professional than that, carefully drafting a letter in which I mentioned that I had very little if any issue with the broad interpretation of the 2nd Amendment (largely true) and that the Model 83, 454 Casull revolver is highly regarded by my close friend Mark (very true) who nevertheless was quite shocked (not so true–just rolled his eyes) by my report at how wonderful it was that Wayne, one of America’s “Greatest Generation” had sacrificed (said grudgingly) so much for the freedoms that our country enjoys, blah, blah, blah…. But really, I wanted to stick it to the old guy with the ditto-head wife. This was in January, a few weeks after my unfortunate encounter with Wayne and, being the ninny that I am when it comes to firearms, unlike my friend Mark, I actually returned-addressed the letter to my work, sans the Company name, because I was quite sure that in the middle of the night Captain Wayne and his 40 Thugs 40 were going to creep down to my house in Salt Lake and put a 454 Casull up my ass.

Apparently, Bob Baker, second son of Wayne and Mariam, is a practical man who is concerned about taking care of his wife and kids and actually having a retirement after his old man kicks the bucket, because one rainy morning that following March I got a phone call on my cell phone at 7:30. It was Wayne, the entrepreneur, “Founder of Freedom Arts, Inc. and Many Other Ventures” as the subtitle to his autobiography shouts. In retrospect, I’m sure he was hoping for voice mail. Otherwise, why call so early? As it turned out, he had to talk to a live, bleeding-heart, nigger-loving liberal journalist from–horrors!–the big, homosexual-friendly city of Salt Lake.

“Is this David Pace?”


“This is Wayne Baker calling.” (Pause) “I’m sorry for what happened. I just get so angry some times, and I speak my mind and that’s why I’m calling…(muffle, muffle…click).

So that was his apology? Though modesty forbids my articulating the visual I had just then between father and son, it really did sound on my end as though the barrel of a 454 Casull was at minimum being held by Bob to his father’s temple.

And so it came to pass, dear reader, that I got my revenge on the Entrepreneur of Wyoming, Wayne Baker. A man who, like me, was descended from pioneers who settled the West by dint of their vision, their faith and their stubbornness. A man born into poverty, eating a concoction called “Lumpy Dick”–flour, milk and salt and pepper–and who flew bombers over France and Germany and came home to found Mountain States Machinery and Supply. An uneducated but fiercely self-taught man who built with pretty much his own hands nearly a score of bridges over the Salt River on the Wyoming/Idaho border and taught himself to fly. A pilot and gun maven who fathered seven kids and a passel of grandkids. Newly minted as the owner of a coal mine, he is also a man who found an enemy in Democrats and the federal government, the latter being the very entity that had spent thousands training him in the military, honored him for his service, educated his children, bailed out Depression-era families (although not Wayne’s father who would never declare bankruptcy), and built the roads and infrastructure that made it possible for Wayne to build all those bridges in the rangeland of Idaho and Wyoming. For Wayne socialist “if not communistic” schools and politicians during the Civil Rights and Vietnam eras essentially destroyed the country, the fabulist idea of which he carried like a warmed-over nut under his left pec through adulthood and into old age. With money in hand (and savings backed exclusively in gold and silver, of course!) from his mining and mine-scrapping, he not only built Freedom Arms but funded the John Bircher W. Cleon Skousen—a pseudo-intellect in the vein of Newt Gingrich—animated by the obscure, 19th Century prophesy that Mormons would be the ones who would in the “last days” rescue the U.S. Constitution which would “hang by a thread.”

This is not only Wayne Baker’s legacy, but mine. And perhaps that is why my encounter with him in Spanish Fork, the very town that my triple-great grandfather John Lowe Butler ended up in and is now buried, really stuck in my craw. I read all of Skousen’s books which re-cast Bible stories into Mormonese, a grand, purplish story that placed a quaint religious tradition indigenous to America at the center of the universe . I went to Skousen’s lectures at BYU where he told us the exact year of the great, universal flood in the days of Noah and, later, at his Freeman Institute lectures, how the Founding Fathers were chosen—descendants of the lost tribes of Israel via the British Isles—and just how pleading a personified Europe was with their grand-nephew America who was experimenting with socialism the way my friends were experimenting with pot in the mid-70s. “Go back! Go back!” Skousen would intone in this lectures, quoting a personified Germany, France and England. “Go back to capitalism!”

As a senior at religion-soaked Provo High School, I volunteered for Skousen’s “Institute” to build my 17-year old resume to get college scholarships. A descendent of Danish pioneers, he was in fact at the time my hero. After a particularly busy day stuffing three-ringed binders with constitutional study materials, I would walk by his office in a giant warehouse off of State Street in South Provo and find the bald fellow sitting behind a desk with the authority of a jolly Ben Franklin. As with his protégé, Glenn Beck, Dr. Skousen, along with advocating to “Get us out of the United Nations,” had learned that detailing the “murky truths of the known world,” as Steve Almond has said in the online magazine Salon, would never capture the conservative American’s heart over “the ecstatic possibilities of the imagined.” Skousen’s misbegotten American narrative would end up engineering Frank Church’s ouster from the U.S. Senate (after a 24-year career) and, in Utah, vault Orrin Hatch to Washington on the coattails of Ronald Reagan. This is who Wayne Baker became and who I could have become. He helped seed the tea party movement and the likes of Glenn Beck, and the whole thing just pisses me off.

And yet…somehow, hearing Baker’s plaintive voice on the phone on that rainy morning singing his ditty of a song of repentance, made me feel sick to my stomach. There really was no joy in humiliating a man old enough to be my father. Revenge may be sweet, but it is saccharine sweet. And all I can think of now as we fly by the exit that would take us North to Freedom, is how Baker’s oldest boy Alan used to fly “above the clouds” with his bush pilot father all around the west.

The story goes this way. One day in 1964 the two of them made a trip in their Cessna to visit business customers in Ely, Nevada, the airport to which had become snowed in. When Baker radioed in, he told the tower that he was going to land on the highway eighteen miles east of the city to wait out the storm. Shortly after landing at an intersection of the highway and a dirt road, the storm hit. Thirty minutes later two police cars arrived to tell them that the weather was likely to clear up sooner close to town than out where they had landed. With a police escort, and visibility under one hundred feet, Baker drove the Cessna into town. They ended up at the main intersection stop light. Police had stopped traffic everywhere so that they could continue over the railroad overpass and on out to the airport to wait out the storm.

Alan was sixteen, and it must have been the most surreal adventure of his life creeping

through the snowy, blinded streets of Ely with his dad who must in fact have seemed like a kind of god to him in command of the entire place, the lights of the cruisers flashing. Three years later, Alan would be killed coming home from a hunting trip. A mile from the family home, he would fall asleep and run into an abutment of a bridge, perhaps not so unlike the one that Wayne Baker would become famous for building with his own hands in Star Valley, Wyoming. Alan Baker, a dark-haired, quiet boy with the full Swiss face of his mother, was the oldest child of Wayne and Mariam.

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