At border motel, New Year rings in twice
Baker, Nev. » Early Friday morning, the loneliest outpost on America's loneliest highway was filled with kids and cowboys seeking to celebrate the New Year twice.
The blue moon peeked in and out of clouds, hovering over the little neon-tinged sign advertising the "Border Inn: Motel, Cafe, Slots" 89 miles from Delta and 64 from Ely on U.S. 50 and 6, a small oasis straddling the Utah-Nevada state line in a sea of sagebrush in the middle of the Great Basin.
Denys Koyle, the establishment's colorful owner for the past 33 years, hoisted a glass of champagne when the clock struck midnight Mountain Standard Time and offered a toast "to all of you from Utah who had enough sense to come to Nevada for the New Year."
An hour later, after several rousing songs by Beaver rock band Loose Connection inspired cowboys dressed up in flat hats and bandanas to spin gals wearing belt buckles nearly as big as plates around the small dance floor, Koyle hoisted another glass of bubbly to bring in the New Year again, this time on Nevada's Pacific Standard Time.
The celebration continued with a minor scuffle at 2 a.m. just outside the little casino-cafe-grocery store-pool hall-bar-video game parlor-motel-gas station followed by the sound of a truck spinning rocks into the motel a few moments later.
It was all part of a New Year's Eve tradition that brings between 100 and 150 mostly rural residents from Millard, Beaver and Juab counties on the Utah side and White Pine County in Nevada for a prime rib dinner, some dancing and drinking.
Rita Robinson has driven from Hinckley for the past 10 years for this party, usually staying in one of the 29 small but clean rooms on the Utah side of the Inn. The event brings Koyle badly needed winter business at a time when few folks visit nearby Great Basin National Park.
"You don't have a lot of people, and everybody has so much fun," explained Robinson. "Everybody talks to everyone. ... It's a smaller crowd, so you feel welcome. I was in my room looking at New York City [on TV], but I wouldn't trade that for this."
Loose Connection band member John Burton said that the five-member group usually plays at bars, but they find the mix of young children, teens, adults and seniors at the Border Inn more than a little fun.
"You get that crowd from 5 to 85," he said. "You have to try to play something for everybody."
Indeed, when the band started playing at 9 p.m. after Koyle, her son Gary Perea and a small staff served a prime rib and chicken buffet dinner, the longtime owner pointed to two young girls who were the first dancers on the floor.
"This is a redneck bar and kiddie corner," she chuckled.
Indeed, there are diverse amusements for the different kind of folks who gather here. Adults played 40 slot machines or ordered drinks from Koyle's grandsons Jeremy and Brian Perea, who scrambled to keep up with orders such as "a captain and a root beer", a rum and root beer concoction that proved surprisingly popular.
"It's a blast," said Torin Overson of Fillmore. "I won $37 on Wheel of Fortune. All my friends came here."
In an adjacent room, kids played on two pool tables, an air hockey table and seven video games. On this night, the juke box was quiet. Some teen girls coyly stood at the edge of a relatively new addition that serves as the stage and dance floor. They were shy, giggling and looking as if they wished a boy would ask them to dance, but then looking afraid when one actually did.
As the night progressed and the booze began to flow, flat-hatted cowboys dressed up in bandanas instead of ties suggestively twirled their girls as the band played a mixture of blues and rock --- with John Burton wailing on a harmonica and the sounds of "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Psychotic Reaction" filling the small hall.
At one point, Byron and Carole Letham, of Oasis, a Utah town about 100 miles away, joined the dance, undeterred by Carole's large oxygen tank.
While all the rooms were reserved on this night and again in two weeks for the even more popular two-night "Old Sheepherder's Party," Koyle admits she turned the heat on and made the beds of a small empty trailer in the RV park in case folks who have had a bit too much to drink shouldn't be on the road, no matter how lonely it is in the middle of winter.
She knows her clientele well and, in 33 years here, has built a business in the most unlikely of spots.
When Koyle bought the Border Inn in 1977 with her ex-husband, it consisted of an eight-stool bar, floor tiles that didn't match and two ancient gas pumps whose maximum price was 50 cents.
She built the first eight motel rooms in 1978 and, when the national park was designated in 1985 and the staff needed a place to stay, she found some more pre-fabricated rooms in Rifle, Colo., and expanded. A new restaurant building is decorated with gifts from local sheepherders who appreciate what Koyle does for a small community. Baker, about eight miles away, all but closes during the winter months when tourist traffic is scarce.
There have been moments of fame for this remote site. David Letterman recorded a segment here and then, right after the 9/11 attacks, repeated it again to show what America was all about. Famous basketball coach Phil Jackson once reportedly stopped here. In a 2000 USA Today cover story, the New Year's celebration at the Border Inn was featured alongside events in Moscow, Berlin, Paris, London, New York, Boston, Denver and San Francisco.
And everyone who shows up ends up feeling like old friends.
"This is the third time I've been here," said "Loud Mike" Worden, of Delta. "A lot of the same people show up. They are friends. Diverse people come here from lots of different places. But, when you get here, they're like lost friends."
Indeed, there are few lonely people at this loneliest of outposts on the loneliest highway in America.