Laramie, Wyoming, is a college town full of bars. Bars attached to motels that serve mostly travelers. Bars with giant TV sets suspended high on the wall, set to sports channels. Bars that pump loud tuneless music out into the street and offer all U can drink Jack and Coke for just a few dollars. Then there is the Buckhorn Bar, “the Buck,” my bar of choice for 20 years.
The Buck is one of the places that cemented my decision to move to Laramie from the Midwestern flatlands. I stopped by the Buck whenever I was in Laramie and took dreams of it back home, to sustain me in the time it took to execute the move.
I like many things about it: the ancient stuffed game animal heads that fill the walls; the last bottle imbibed by the late Moe, stowed on a small shelf; the fact that the bar opens in the early hours and on home football game Saturdays hosts its own breakfast club.
One might think I spend my days and nights there, or at least significant portions of my free time. In fact, I do not. Sure, in the summer months I’ll pop in for a spot of something cool after shopping the farmer’s market. On rare occasions I’ll stay up late enough to hear a band, which typically starts south of 10 p.m. But even though I’m not often there physically, whenever I am there I’m always really glad I went.
I like bars because within their walls almost anything can happen. But the Buck does that criterion one better. There, anything can happen, and when it does, it’s met with unflappable nonchalance.
That was the case a few weeks ago when New York City-based artist Maria the Korean Bride (Maria Yoon) held her 48th wedding reception at the Buck. She’s traveling the country with a goal of getting married in all 50 states. She bills herself as “the voice of unmarried Asian-American women.” Maria the Korean Bride says she wants people to do more talking about marriage and all the issues around love, commitment, pressure to wed, trauma of divorce, or whatever else comes to mind. She says she doesn’t want to walk around with a notebook and a tape recorder asking people those questions. But she says as a conceptual artist she can present the subject in a way that isn’t so serious, yet gets people talking.
In Nebraska, she married a bull. In Missouri she married the Gateway Arch. In Mississippi, she married the Great River. In Wyoming, she married Matt Mickelson, a bartender from the Buckhorn.
Maria and Matt tied the not-official knot in a horseback wedding in the mountains just outside of town. She wore a long Korean gown, white with a blue skirt and embroidery on the sleeves, along with a traditional headdress. He wore western slacks, boots, long-sleeved shirt, vest, jacket and hat. Typical attire for a night at the Buck. His, too.
We arrived at the reception about half an hour before the bridal party. Matt the bartender-cum-groom was already there, overseeing the Mylar balloons tied to a wagon wheel, the chocolate cupcakes and the little plastic glasses for dispensing Miller High Life, the Champagne of beer.
He also came and went from behind the bar. The Buckhorn, like all public places in Laramie, went smoke-free about six years ago. That doesn’t stop folks in the back room of the bar from lighting up as though they were taking part in a taste test for a cigarette company. From behind their clouds of smoke they might have noticed service from their regular bartender was a tad slow. But they’re not the sort to complain.
Meanwhile the front room of the bar was starting to fill up a bit more than usual for 7 p.m. on a Thursday night. The regulars were at their stools. Someone kept pumping money into the jukebox. Out on the sidewalk, two best-buddy dogs were tied to the Buckhorn’s window railing, gnawing on each other’s muzzles and occasionally squatting to pee. Two sylphish graduate students who’d never been in the Buckhorn before stood just outside the open door, thumbnails to lower lips, gauging whether they’d be eaten alive upon entering.
Finally Maria the Korean Bride entered the bar, sweeping in still wearing her gown but having removed her cumbersome headdress. Videographer Ali Grossman captured the occasion and onlookers snapped pictures. A few folks who’d come to the Buck just for the occasion presented Maria with gifts. One swung her around the dance floor a bit more vigorously than Maria could stomach, which she made clear after some protest. After an appropriate interval for the guests’ celebration, the bridal couple stood on a low square stage, and most people in the bar raised a glass of whatever they were drinking. Someone temporarily killed the jukebox.
Matt, looking every inch the sort of fellow that most gals at the Buck wouldn’t mind unofficially marrying themselves, gave a toast. Maria thanked us all for coming. Then they stepped off the stage and the regular Buckhorn soundscape filled the air. Jukebox, pool table, chatter.
Aah, the Buckhorn Bar. Where a friend of mine who’d graduated after a long haul paraded up and down the bar in her cap and gown to celebrate. Where my husband and I announced our engagement and where I celebrated my 50th birthday in a crazy hat to which the room was oblivious.
In spite of the Buckhorn being my “local,” I sometimes feel like an anomaly there. After all these years, I’m occasionally addressed by folks there as though I am wearing black socks and sandals on a Caribbean beach. “You come on back Sunday night, cause that’s when we have live music!” one assured me gleefully on a recent post-farmers market visit. Yes, thank you, I am aware of that.
Perhaps recognition of regulars works the way it does among dogs, who learn about the world and each other from scent. Even after 18 years in Wyoming, I suspect I still have a fragrance of the Midwest about me, lingering in my hair like the scent of yesterday’s shampoo. Or maybe everyone there feels alienated, and I am just oblivious to it. Say, maybe I’m a regular, after all.
Julianne Couch is the author of “Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: A Wyoming Bar Journey” and the sequel, “Jukeboxes & Jackalopes: The Photographic Companion.” She ponders art and well drinks from her home in Laramie.