I’ve had some memorable meals in Wyoming, but I can’t say that any place I ever ate in the Cowboy State would rate even half a star in the Michelin Guide. Except for the annual crawfish boil at the Cam-Plex in Gillette, I’d heartily recommend you steer clear of seafood. Same goes for any and all Chinese restaurants near railroad tracks and truck stops along the I-80 corridor. If you should ever find yourself on a cattle drive in Wyoming and the cook rings the dinner bell, I’d strongly suggest you pretend you didn’t hear it.
And yet today I learn that a man I once met in South Pass City has inspired an upscale eatery in Fullerton, California. In fact, John Bain’s picture now looms larger than life on the wall of the Early Bird, which opened just three days ago and is already winning rave reviews.
“It’s just a man and his stove,” explained chef Joseph Mahon. Mahon never was a guest at Bain’s table, but he and his partners have evidently drawn inspiration from the image. “We’re trying to redefine the American breakfast one step at a time.”
Among the restaurant’s signature dishes is something called “John Bain’s Beast.” I don’t know what’s in it, and neither would John Bain, who, at the time I met him, was the only year-round resident of South Pass City. Much of that time he had spent snowbound, with no one to talk to but his good friend and fellow hermit Dave Haddenham, of nearby Atlantic City. Oh, and on the winter day I hiked in, the pair were entertaining two lady friends from Lander, who had evidently been shuttled in on dogsleds. John, Dave, and the girls passed the hours drinking coffee and playing Canasta as a blizzard raged outside. I couldn’t help noticing that Dave never removed his insulated cap with earflaps. In South Pass City, elevation 8597 ft., hypothermia is something you need to avoid at all costs!
John and Dave both worried that their rustic way of life was about to come to an end—and come to an end it did. When I last visited South Pass ten years ago I could find no trace of John’s house, no trace of John’s Model T truck, no trace of John. The woman who minds the restored Smith-Sherlock General Store told me she had never heard of John Bain. I didn’t bother asking anyone else because no one around was old enough to remember how things were before the ghost town was resurrected as a facsimile of a nineteenth century mining camp. Nowadays you can find painted dance hall ladies and bewhiskered geezers in period costumes lolling about on the boardwalk in front of the Carissa Saloon, and there’s even a privy out back with a picture window—if you can believe it!—so that tourists can peer inside and imagine what life was like back when miners’ quarters consisted of “two rooms and a path.”
I feel privileged to have gotten to South Pass when I did, and regret that I didn’t get there even sooner, before the gold seam pinched out and the old-timers either moved away or passed on. I also regret that I appear to have focused my Leica on the Majestic coal stove instead of John Bain—who, thanks to me, has come back from the dead as a slightly fuzzy enlargement adorning the wall of of a pretty good place to eat breakfast in Fullerton, California.