YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Oasis Is a High Point for Interstate 80 Travelers

Buford, Wyo., is home to a store rebuilt after a devastating fire a year ago. It beckons visitors braving the road in summer and winter.

September 26, 2004|Robert W. Black | Associated Press Writer

BUFORD, Wyo. — At 8,000 feet above sea level, this little town is not only the highest community on Interstate 80 between New York and San Francisco, but perched along a notorious white-knuckle stretch, it may also be the most welcome.

Once a railroad town with 2,000 residents, Buford is a shadow of its former self. But its convenience store, recently rebuilt after burning to the ground a year ago, still beckons winter travelers wrung out from blinding blizzards, and it looms like an oasis for summer motorists who failed to check their fuel gauges or appetites before leaving Laramie or Cheyenne.

Buford sits on the high plains of southeast Wyoming along a stretch with few other signs of civilization for 50 miles -- where the highway can quickly become glare ice, and snow driven by 70-mph winds can obscure everything but the dashboard.

Don Sammons, owner of the Buford Trading Post, has seen the wind literally blow out windows on cars parked at the pumps. He had operated a towing service for seven years -- a lucrative business when called on to rescue the countless motorists from winter storms, but quit when he couldn't keep employees and run the store at the same time.

Since Buford has no motel, many stranded travelers over the years spent the night in his home. No one ever complained about sleeping on the floor.

"They were just happy that it was warm," he said.

On a recent summer day, a trio of 60-ish tourists from Louisiana pulled up and barraged him with questions.

"Why do you have that funny looking fence by the side of the road?" a woman asked.

"Those are bleachers, so the wildlife can sit and watch the cars go by," Sammons deadpanned.

"Really?" the woman asked, only somewhat disbelieving.

Eventually Sammons explained the theory behind snow fences, designed to force moisture-laden air to drop snow next to the fence instead of drifting onto the highway.

"How cold does it get here?" another visitor asked.

"Forty-two below," Sammons answered, drawing gasps.

Sammons, 53, a transplanted Californian, wouldn't want it any other way. He fell in love with Wyoming's wide-open spaces, sparse population, abundant wildlife, even its capricious weather, while driving a moving van across the country.

"I had a young boy and I wanted to get off the road and spend more time with him," he said. "I always liked this area and one day I decided to move."

He bought a home near Buford in 1980, purchased the store 12 years later and settled in with his family to enjoy the Western landscape and lifestyle.

Prairie dogs skitter a few feet from his front door. He often sees deer, elk, fox and, occasionally, lynx. Mountain lions roam the nearby Laramie Range, a rounded-off evergreen-pocked ridge to the west.

To the north lie the odd-shaped granite formations known as Vedauwoo, a popular climbing and picnic spot, and to the south looms Colorado's Mummy Range and 14,255-foot Longs Peak.

While pastoral, Buford certainly is not quiet. Semitrailers roar down the highway a few hundred feet from the store.

"You tend to ignore it, just like the trains back here," Sammons said, nodding to the tracks 200 yards to the south, one of the busiest Union Pacific lines in the country.

As traffic picks up, so does business, which had been good in Buford -- until last year.

At 1 a.m. Aug. 18, 2003, a trucker banged on Sammons' door to inform him that his store was on fire. Lightning caused the blaze, which destroyed the structure.

"I lost everything," he said.

Then in November, a heart attack put Sammons in the hospital for three days.

A friend talked him into rebuilding the store, but leasing so he could "semi-retire."

Placed at a different angle and with a steeper roof, the new store opened its doors June 25.

"We changed it so it was more pleasant to come in the front door so the wind wasn't beating you to death," he said.

Sammons retained the rustic log style for the new building, which his lessee, Dean Daywitt, has stocked with Western goods and souvenirs.

"We're mainly an Indian store," Daywitt said.

Indeed, besides the usual array of beef jerky, chips and soft drinks, one can find Indian-style souvenirs -- peace pipes, mandalas, dream catchers, blankets, pottery and jewelry.

Although the store was closed nearly a year, business is returning.

"Once we got the state signs up, and now I have my billboards, it's picking up," Daywitt said. "Don had a real good business here before it burned down."

Los Angeles Times Articles