The Final Frontier

A few years ago—well OK, 60 or so—roadside taverns were so commonplace you’d think you were in the Twilight Zone if you didn’t come across one every 50 miles. They typically sat at the far edge of a wide graveled parking lot built for automobiles, but many in the West also sported hitching rails for horses, just in case. Most were Mom and Pop operations whose owners lived at the site either in the back of the tavern itself or in an adjacent house. If they were in a remote area they might also tender gas pumps and/or groceries along with basic tire repairs, but that was about it. They relied almost exclusively on selling drinks, and in the summertime could get very busy indeed. One very good reason for that is that cars had no air conditioning, and although the taverns didn’t either, they did offer a cooling cavelike atmosphere and overhead fans which at least created a refreshing illusion. And cold drinks. By the time I became an adult roadside taverns were fading, and by the time I reached the age of 21 they were rare birds indeed. Drinking and driving had become unacceptable, rightfully so, but there was another reason for their demise; cars themselves were changing. First off, the aforementioned air conditioning had become smaller and affordable in both houses and automobiles, threatening to make summertime itself obsolete. Secondly, cars were becoming ever more reliable as time marched on, and the need to stop now and then to ‘let the engine cool off’ disappeared almost overnight, along with those little sweating canvas water bags that hung off the front bumper. However, in 1973, close to the exact center of the state of Nevada, I found the finest roadside tavern I’d ever seen, or ever would see as it turns out. There were no quibbles about what, exactly, it was; a large sign on the false front shouted, “FRONTIER TAVERN”. It was, in fact, a complete truck stop, with gas and diesel pumps, a full restaurant, motel rooms, mechanical and tire services, and a tow truck. All of which were incidental, you understand, to Happy Hour. The owner was a pipe-smoking dynamo named Andy Kaltenbach. Andy had more energy than five of me, but the first time I met him he also had a broken hoist on his tow truck. The flange that held the cable on the cast iron winch had busted cleanly away, the welding of which was beyond Andy’s skill, leaving that part of his business high and dry. I happened to pull up next to his truck just as he finished untangling the cable, and as he hopped down we exchanged polite hellos. “Nice truck.” I said, by way of my lightning-quick conversational skills. “It was until this morning.” He replied around his pipe stem, “In need of some welding before it is again.” Ahem. Well. What’re the odds? I was, in fact, a journeyman maintenance welder for a paper mill in California, and had been for the past seven years. Andy was skeptical—who wouldn’t be?—but with his equipment and my talents we had him up and running in no time, and I’m here to tell you there are few things in life more overwhelming than a Grateful Tavern Owner. Andy’s wife, Gloria, cooked me the largest sirloin steak in Nevada, after which Happy Hour was observed, honored and elongated. I even got a free room out of the deal, although it did spin and rock back and forth a good deal more than I would have liked. Andy and I became good friends just that fast, and although I left the next morning to return to my job in California, I ended up being Andy’s on-call welder for the next several years. The reason was that I moved to Austin, Nevada, the summer after the then-legendary tow truck repair. In the best of all coincidences, Austin (pop. 200) was separated from the Frontier Tavern by just 12 miles of rippled asphalt, but both were cheerfully suspended in a yesteryear that I was awfully happy to go back to. I would go on to spend 32 great years in Austin, but the Frontier Tavern only existed for the first ten of that. After Andy and Gloria moved away, the new absentee owner lost the Frontier Tavern to a fire. Today at the junction of US Highway 50 and Nevada State Route 376 you’ll see a private residence, but for several decades it was the site of the last genuine roadside tavern. In desert areas, where it gets really hot and facilities are few and far between, you can still find a roadside tavern now and then, but they can no longer admit to it. Like me, roadside taverns have to present themselves as respectable these days, but neither of us seem to get away with it for very long.

Thank heavens.