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Family Weathers Winters at 9,400 Feet

September 29, 2002|BRETT FRENCH | THE BILLINGS GAZETTE

ALONG THE BEARTOOTH HIGHWAY, Wyo. — The heavyset motorcycle rider leaned his black leather bulk over the counter.

"Where do you winter?" he asked store owner Bart Milam, 35.

"Here," Milam responded.

"Here?" the motorcyclist replied. Yes, Bart and Kristi Milam and their four children winter and summer at the Top of the World, a small Wyoming general store, motel and campground sitting at 9,400 feet above sea level, just across the border from Montana.

Kristi home-schools the children, takes care of the motel and keeps the books. Bart tends the store with the help of two summer employees and visiting relatives. He also tends to the generator that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week. He pumps gas and keeps the family's small fleet of snowmobiles running and the woodstove stoked in the winter.

The store is nestled in pine trees about halfway between the Montana towns of Cooke City and Red Lodge along U.S. Highway 212 -- the Beartooth Highway that loops south into Wyoming.

The northeast access road to Yellowstone National Park is a 68-mile stretch of sinuous, sometimes gut-wrenching pavement that at times seems more hospitable to mountain goats than cars. The road is plowed open at the start of summer and remains open to autos until closed by snow in the fall. At this altitude, that's early.

Because of the striking terrain, travelers often comment on the remoteness of Top of the World. There are no phone or power lines, so the family relies on cell phones and often drives a few miles down the road to get a signal. The mail comes once a week, and the Milam mailbox is 14 miles down the road.

But about 250,000 people travel the Beartooth Highway during the summer, so it never seems isolated to the Milams.

They use their satellite Internet service to place orders or to e-mail friends who are coming to visit.

The Milams bought the store two years ago from Phil and Carol Napoli, who ran it each summer for 23 years.

The store's location is one reason it's so popular, Phil Napoli, 62, said from his current home in Powell, Wyo.

"The American public can't travel 68 miles without stopping someplace," he said. "It's lasted because the owners have had some kind of other income or enjoy the lifestyle.

"Like most tourist businesses, it's just marginally profitable."

The store, a four-unit motel, shop and 10 campground sites all sit on Shoshone National Forest land.

The 1,000-square-foot store is stuffed to the gills with unusual gifts, snacks, toys, guide books, fishing gear, liquor and T-shirts.

"Clothing or novelties are the most popular items," Bart Milam said. But he also sells lots of Wyoming fishing licenses to Montanans and hundreds of offbeat shot glasses.

Karen King of Randolph, N.J., is fairly representative of the sort of customer the store attracts. She stopped for a cold drink and a snack but ended up buying a silver bracelet.

Dispensing information to tourists such as King and regular clients who have returned each year for decades is just part of doing business at Top of the World.

"You're like the clearinghouse for the whole area," Napoli said. That includes rescue information when there's a snowmobile accident or a bear attack in the area. The Milams have a two-way radio with which they can call the sheriff in Cody, Wyo. -- more than 70 miles away.

Before moving to the mountains, the Milams were wheat farmers. Kristi Milam, 34, laughs at a customer's suggestion that the couple may get bored in the winter.

"We have four kids," she said.

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