Sweetwater Station, Wyo. — If you blink once or your attention drifts for an instant on the two-lane highway between Muddy Gap and the Lander, Wyoming, you may miss one of the world’s great road signs, a weathered, wooden square flanked by an American flag: “Old Books Fresh Eggs For Sale.”
And if you don’t stop and go inside the two-story, structurally-reinforced, climate-controlled book barn stuffed with more than 75,000 hardback volumes ranging from leather-bound Balzac to first-edition Beatrix Potter, you will miss one of Wyoming’s and the Mountain West’s hidden treats.
Owners Lynda “Mad Dog” German and Polly “The Pilgrim” Hinds moved their Mad Dog and The Pilgrim Booksellers from Denver to Sweetwater Station in 2000 after an unpleasant encounter with the Aurora, Colorado Police Department.
At the time, the pair also operated a cleaning service, WINGS (“Women in Need of Good Skills”).
One night, after cleaning a bank building, they were swept up in a police manhunt. The police confused their janitorial truck with a getaway vehicle, accused Polly of holding a weapon (actually, an ostrich-feather duster), handcuffed the two women, and threw them to the ground.
The police released them in a few hours. But Lynda and Polly, already weary of greater Denver’s big-city tensions, saw the incident as a sign.
“If you pay close attention,” said Polly, “the universe tells you when to go.”
It took them several months to pack up their Colfax Ave. bookshop, the original Mad Dog and The Pilgrim, and move it 341 miles northwest to an abandoned ranch house at Sweetwater Station, population plus-or-minus 5.
The two-story house at 4176 Highway 287/789 was boarded up to protect the building from rampaging moose that live along the Sweetwater River.
“We’ve had moose terrorize us on our own patio,” said Polly. “A cow and calf are like fire-breathing dragons.”
The realtor who sold them the place kept reminding them, “You know it’s more than 40 miles to the nearest town, don’t you?”
Sweetwater Station sits at Sixth Crossing, a popular river ford along the old Pioneer-Oregon-Mormon-Pony Express Trail. The altitude is right at 6,500 feet.
The move nearly killed them, they say. “It took 1,200 Office Depot boxes and 12 trips in a 20-foot Penske truck,” said Polly.
Undaunted by the isolation and fierce winds, without any fanfare or even an ad, they opened for business.
“People who like books will find you,” Lynda explained.
The result is simply one of the country’s best used bookshops, specializing, according to Pilgrim and Mad Dog, in “fine, out-of-print and antiquarian books with an emphasis on unusual titles in military history, Western Americana, technical books, foreign languages, children’s literature, and old fiction.”
Connoisseurs come from as far away as Africa to peruse such diverse titles as The Trail of the Lonesome Pine and Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism. In fact, Polly says Mad Dog and The Pilgrim, which also lists 1,000 titles on the Internet antiquarian book site www.biblio.com, annually sells more books overseas than at home.
“I’ve sold several books to Buckingham Palace, mostly military history and equestrian stuff,” said Polly, who like her partner tends the store in layered ranch work garb, jeans and bandannas, with gloves in the back pocket. “Every year about 10 or 15 books go to Oxford or Cambridge universities.”
The shop is not the nation’s largest. Writer Larry McMurtry, to whom Lynda once offered a job thinking he was an overworked Texas book stocker, has many more volumes in Booked Up Inc., his Archer City, Texas, used-book emporium. McMurtry, who was up on a ladder drenched in sweat in one of his book buildings, reportedly responded to the job offer, “Well, I’ll think about it, ’cause the pay here is crap.”
And, of course, Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, with over 1 million new and used offerings, is significantly bigger.
But for a bookstore on the windy banks of the Sweetwater River 40 miles from the nearest gas station, Mad Dog and The Pilgrim is a real treasure. Here you can find everything from first-person pioneer stories to the complete works of Thomas Carlyle.
In addition to its canyons of books, the barn also displays Lynda’s eclectic collection (not for sale) of antiques and curiosities that include Yoruba fertility statues, pith helmets, framed lace, old dolls, other peoples’ ancestors, a 4-foot-high carved wooden minstrel, and a stuffed Syrian lion. There are plenty of chairs available, so you can take a reading break before resuming the road to Muddy Gap, Lander or Riverton. You might, for example, sample a passage from Don Roberts’ 1966 novel, The Wyoming Range War:
“There were a number of factors which tended to discourage Steve Morgan from returning to White Springs, Wyoming. His father was dead and the bank had taken possession of his parents’ small spread to settle a loan…”
On one of my visits, I found a 1944 edition of The New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling’s The Road Back to Paris. Liebling’s World War II correspondence is legendary and has been collected and reprinted many times, but this volume was published before the war had ended and before its outcome was known. Some sections -– particularly his work from North Africa about the French colonialists’ avid collaboration with the Nazis -– were not included in the many later editions. At just $5, it was a real find for an old newspaper foreign correspondent like me.
On another occasion, we found two books perfect for our daughter, a Yale University graduate history student researching the use of horses in World War I. One book was a self-published memoir of a Nebraska farmer who provided remount horses for American and British soldiers in the war; the other, a haunting French phrasebook the U.S. Army issued to World War I doughboys.
More than a bookshop, Mad Dog and The Pilgrim, both the place and the people, is an experience — a menagerie, antique showroom and eccentric working farm all at the same time. At last count the animals numbered two dogs (a West Highland White Terrier named Rose and a Rat Terrier named Cherry); four cats; 62 chickens; 26 sheep; two llamas; one milk goat; four pea fowl, and two ducks, Miss and Match, who think they are pea fowl because one of the pea hens stole and hatched them.
“We call them Pucks,” said Lynda.
To help control their sheep, Lynda and Polly trained two llamas as shepherds, each with its own flock. One of the llamas, a tall brown-and-white fellow named Joe, is particularly protective. Warning: Joe Pepper [Jose Habanero] the guard llama does not take kindly to strangers accompanied by dogs, particularly dogs who might pose a threat to his sheep.
“I remember the time a man brought his black Labrador inside the gate,” recalled Polly. “I was inside the house but I could hear these faint cries ‘Help me! Help me!’ When I went outside Joe had him and the lab pinned against the gate. I think he might have killed them.”
Lynda and Polly met in the 1970s when they were both students at Colorado Women’s College in Denver. Lynda, a native of Iowa, is an avid fly fisher. Polly, who hails from Maine, grew up in a hunting culture and favors guns.
“She’s a really good shot with her .357,” said Lynda.
Although she is the less mercurial of the two, Lynda picked up the nickname Mad Dog, recalls Polly, because she is “tenacious and loyal.”
Polly is The Pilgrim because she had ancestors on the Mayflower, but the moniker also fits her searching, spiritual side. One of her proudest book purchases was an outstanding metaphysics collection from the estate of a postmistress of Lysite, Wyoming.
“I’ve bought books from people at bus stops,” said Polly. Her greatest find was a pristine first edition of Walt Whitman’s epic Leaves of Grass, signed by the author.
But other than the simple sign on the edge of the highway, the two booksellers do not advertise.
“If you want to know where we are,” said Polly, “you’ll find us. I don’t advertise because if I had $100, I’d buy books.”
Mad Dog and The Pilgrim is open 10 AM to 6 PM on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday; or by special appointment for those who call or message ahead at 307-544-2203 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.