The unicorn in Wyoming

By Billie Johnson

My friends Susie and Al Matsuura traveled to Greeley, Colorado a few weeks ago to visit their daughter and son-in-law.  On their day of return, a relentless snow started in the morning. They drove out of one storm and into the remnants of another. They crawled into Cheyenne, Wyoming just as that part of the interstate reopened. Al grew up in Idaho, and this was his farthest trip east. He commented to Susie while they waited for traffic to pick up, “See, I told ya. Nothin’ but traffic jams in the East.”  I snicker at his classification of “the East”, but Al’s right about Wyoming in the spring. Traffic jams and snow.

My first spring snowstorm in Wyoming came when I was three. Mom loaded me in some sort of Chrysler or Oldsmobile, something big and boat-like, and we headed to Denver to see her sister and my cousins, Mike and Sarah.  I was so excited because Mike is five years older than I and he had cool toys.

The snow started around nightfall and it fell and fell until we were stuck on the side of the road. I’m not sure if we had other car trouble or if it was only the snow storm galaxy that stopped us. Mom started playing with the CB radio. I begged for a turn, but was relinquished to my imagination and stuffed animals in the back seat window sill.

“Breaker one-nine, breaker one-nine, this is Bossy Billie. What’s your twenty, Pooh Bear? Over.”

I picked my own CB handle. My dad had a radio in his bar. He’d strike up conversations with truckers taking the I-30 shortcut between Pocatello and I-84 in Wyoming and welcome them to stop in at the Lava Lounge. This was well before drinking and driving laws, and well before he quit drinking.

I loved the CB. It possessed such fanciful exchanges and interesting characters. I always wanted to ride with the truckers, but Mom never let me. She wasn’t having much luck in her CB game until a deep voice came over with, “Yes, ma’am this is Unicorn. What’s your twenty? I can gitcha to Kemmerer.”

When Unicorn arrived, my memory tells me he was a Super Mario-looking character with a mustache and curly black hair. My dream was coming true and I was going to get to ride in a big rig.  I was oblivious to leaving our car and belongings on the side of the road. Why did we have the TV anyway?

Unicorn let me blast the horn. He explained the knobs and controls. He let me talk on his CB. What a fanciful snowy adventure with Pooh Bear, Unicorn and a ride in a big rig! I barely noticed Mom crying.

Unicorn took us to a dark mini-mart in desolate Wyoming.  We woke a younger couple and they let us in. It was an A-frame building and I got to pick out an orange push-up ice cream in the middle of the night while Mom and Unicorn explained our quandry.

When day came, mom left for a while and I stayed with these strangers. Until she returned with our car, I played on the spiral staircase leading from their living quarters down to the store. It was like a castle. They let me descend the stairs and pick out more ice cream. For free! To this day, I think spiral staircases are about the most magical thing ever designed.

I don’t recall much more of the trip because it was boring and quick. We didn’t stay with my cousins long and although I was disappointed, I was distracted in wanting another ride with Unicorn. In mere days, we headed back to Lava. There was more crying. I figured Mom was just afraid of snow and car trouble, so I let her know we’d be okay because Unicorn was out there.

I had no idea until years later that this enchanting childhood memory was when my mom left my dad.  Her loneliest, most uncertain and fearful days were a handful of my best so far.

That weekend signified that a traditional fairy tale “happily ever after” wasn’t going to be for my parents. Mom and I moved to Pocatello. She had to find a new job, had to go back to school, and had to find a daycare for me. She had to establish a completely new network of friends and support in a new and foreign town. Hers certainly wasn’t a traditional fairy tale life, but in my head, my child hood was. It may not have held princes and princesses, but I’ll be darned, it did have a unicorn.

Billie Johnson of Pocatello holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a master’s degree from Idaho State University. She works as an engineer, is an avid community volunteer, and maintains a blog about her adventures in a cow suit at www.CowSuitSaturday.com.