Grace Boylan and Herb were the greatest practical jokers I ever met.
I met them back in the days before the Interstates homogenized America, in the days when two-lane blacktops traversed the country.
They lived in a weatherbeaten old gas station in Como Bluff, Wyoming, a few miles east of a wide spot in the road called Medicine Bow.
Dad and I took innumerable road trips during my childhood, loading up our Nash Ambassador, and later a homemade camper on the back of a Chevvy pickup and heading out in whatever direction struck our fancy, looking for interesting things to see and do.
We went rock hunting, looking for arrowheads, fishing, and exploring over most of that paved roads and a lot of the gravel and dirt tracks in Colorado and Wyoming and up into the Black Hills.
One summer afternoon we arrived in Como Bluff, and I said, “Hey, we gotta stop here!” So we did.
There were two buildings, a Texaco gas station built in the Craftsman bungalow style, and to the west of it, a small stone cabin. Built of what I discovered really were fragments of dinosaur bones.
I was fearless in those days, and after we pulled over, I leapt out of the car and ran into the gas station, where I encountered a weathered, white-haired woman with a twinkle in her eye and an equally weatherbeaten Native American. It was Grace Boylan and Herb, whose last name I never learned. I had assumed it was Boylan, but it wasn’t. She later told me they were “living in sin,” laughing as she said it.
I immediately liked them both. Where Grace was voluble and acerbic, Herb was taciturn, though given to wry, shrewdly astute observations, delivered in few words and always spot on.
We paid our admission fees to the dinosaur bone cabin, which inside contained a small, eclectic collection of fossils and photos. I “uuuhhhed” and “ahhhhhed” and felt a bit of envy that their collection was far better than mine, and Grace grinned.
That was the only time we paid to see the museum. On future stops, neither Grace nor Herb would take our money, and Dad and I found ourselves spending most of our time in their gas station home, swapping tales and sharing laughs.
In its day, Como Bluff—the hogback ridge to the north—had been the world’s premiere site for academic dinosaur hunters, the place where paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History discovered and named such species as Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodocus.
Grace and her late husband Thomas [who had been 31 years younger] had built the cabin in 1932 out of a collection of bones originally intended for sculptures outside the gas station. Thomas was nearly a decade gone when we first met.
Whenever we passed through Como Bluff on our explorations, Dad and I invariably stopped at Como Bluff, spending memorable hours hearing the tales of Grace and Herb.
One remarkably consistent characteristic of the old timers of the Rocky Mountain West in those days was a certain disdain for “prissy” folk, especially those who hailed from parts East, way East.
When wandering the vast open spaces of Wyoming, where gas stations were few and far between, Grace and Herb, like most of their sort, was used to relieving themselves behind a hand bush if nothing better was at hand, with the only serious consideration being wind direction.
Now their Como Bluff gas station didn’t offer indoor facilities, with visitors meeting their needs in a pair of well-maintained outhouses between and to the rear of the station and the fossil cabin. Westerners didn’t have a problem with the traditional means of relief, but many Easterners, especially women, expressed disdain and even shock at being forced to conduct their business in the traditional way. Some were rather outspoken, which tended to irritate the high plains couple.
“So we decided to fix them,” Grace explained. “We ran a wire between a microphone we kept under the cash register and a speaker beneath the women’s outhouse [or donnecker, as my father called them, a phrase learned from his Mennonite grandfolks].
“Then, whenever one of these prissy Easterners got all uppity about having to use the outhouse, we’d wait until she got all settled in, then Herb would pick up the microphone and yell, ‘Hey lady, move over! I’m painting down here.”
Then the mischievous couple would head to the window to watch the ensuing show, as the distraught pilgrim came storming out of the outhouse, distraught and horrified. By the time she got back to the station, they’d have composed themselves, listening in mock sympathy to the poor tourists plight. The real laughter began as they drove away.
Cruel you say? Well, a little bit. But I’m smiling as I write, recalling with a warm spot in my heart two of the most remarkable characters I’ve had the privilege to know.
Grace and Herb are long gone, and Interstate 34 has replaced the old two-lane blacktop that was U.S. 30, consigning the cabin and gas station to a lonely plot off an unmarked freeway exit off I-34. On the brighter side, the building has been enrolled on the National Register of Historic Places.
You can find a picture of Grace here, standing in the door of the fossil cabin.