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Cy Whitling

I forgot to take a picture so here is one from the internet.

I forgot to take a picture so here is one from the internet.

Muses are supposed to be mountains, or rivers, or political happenstances, or beautiful women, and usually I stick with those traditional sources of inspiration. After all, they’re tried-and-true, they’re an easy fallback. Early this morning though my muse was simply a large bearded man in very small basketball shorts.

I stopped for gas in Ashton, early in the morning. I’d beat the plow along most of my route, wallowing the Scion through fresh snow, face shots flying off the hood into the windshield. I was hungry, and I needed to fuel up before I hit the ridiculously priced fuel stops of West Yellowstone. In the gas station nothing caught my eye. There was a tray of shriveled donuts under a heat lamp, and next to them a foil wrapped parcel that said it was a “Best Loaded Burrito Ever.” But it cost $4, and even in its thick foil swaddling it was still smaller than a microwave burrito.

On the other side of the stand, hot dogs rolled perpetually. Their wrinkled ends reminded me of my great grandma’s fingertips when she used to pinch my cheek. It was just after 6:30 am. I wondered briefly if these sausages had been put out fresh this morning and then dismissed the thought with a dour laugh. These were last night’s hot dogs, no doubt about it. Maybe even last week’s hot dogs, I don’t expect much from an establishment whose main traffic is diesel fuel and wolf shirts. But they looked better than the foil wrapped mystery burrito, and the gas station had one of those little displays with pickles and onions and peppers to drown your mostly-beef-cancer, filled weinner with.

I loaded up two, a Massive Cheddar Brat and a Genuine Jumbo Weiner, with as much ketchup and vegetables as their soggy buns could hold. After all, a balanced diet is key to a balanced life, and I’m pretty good at balancing a stack of pickles on top of the onions on my gas station sausage.

At the counter the lady looked at me skeptically. She was exactly what you’d expect from a gas station in Idaho early in the morning. Her jeans with the sparkly swirls on the back pockets, worn out Sketchers, and beat up hat were at home there. I was not. I guess something about the flowered shorts, the big rubber boots, or maybe the fact that I was buying two hot dogs and a bag of gummy worms at 6:30 in the morning, caught her eye.

“Boy, I woke up this morning, went out to start my car, came back in and put on an extra pair of long underwear!”

“Yeah, I know, it’s a little warmer this week than last though.”

She wasn’t impressed, “What’s your mother think about the way you’re dressed?”

I guess she probably wouldn't be surprised, mud boots and shorts are pretty standard winter wear in my family, and I’ve seen the pictures, she started dating my dad back when he wore shorts even shorter than the ones I’ve got now.

“And what about what you’re eating for breakfast? That’s no way to start your day!”

Before my sleep addled brain could come up with some witty response a cigarette-aged voice from somewhere behind me stepped up.

“You ever heard of a breakfast sausage Lori!?”

Another man had taken my place at the hot dog rack, loading up his sausage with sauerkraut. He was a big man, the kind of man you look at and you know he makes things, and fixes them, and breaks electronic things on accident.

His trucker hat said he was part of the NRA, and the bill was wearing through and fraying. His beard was white except where it was nicotine yellow, Santa with a chew habit. His Carhartt jacket was waterproofed with the grease of a thousand oil changes, and jump starts, and fixed tractors , and his hands wore the story of a lifetime of cuts and bruises and broken nails. But his shorts, his shorts can not have been his own originally, they must have been stolen from a son, a son who outgrew them some time in Junior High.

Where they were clean they were bright purple, and the sides proclaimed in a neon yellow that they were the pro model of Kobe Bryant, the Black Mamba. In case you didn’t understand that last part, there was the outline of a snake striking on them. They tried to cover legs that hadn’t played basketball in decades.

The gas station lady knew him.

“Fair point Dick, I don’t mind breakfast sausage. But look at his shorts!”

She gestured at my Idaho-white legs.

Dick looked down at his own, similarly Idaho-white legs.

“It’s called Loungewear woman.”

She had nothing, I had nothing, and Dick had onions to pile on his hotdogs, so the gas station sat silent as I collected my breakfast.

Outside, Dick climbed into his lifted diesel truck, branded with a seed company’s logo. I ducked into my Scion, covered in ski stickers. We sat silently for a moment in the pre-dawn gas station parking lot, eating our hot dogs, two Idahoans enjoying loungewear, and the ageless pickles that are only found in finer establishments worldwide.


Basin Burger

Cy Whitling

The grease is leaking through the paper bag, big dark splotches that become nearly translucent as they dry. I like that, it’s a little preview of what’s inside

McDonald's recently started using brown paper bags to package their burgers. It makes them look more authentic and sustainable, at least that’s what I’d assume they are going for. All I know is that I don’t like the fact that my Big Mac paddy is now the same color as its packaging.

My brown paper bag is a little different though. It isn’t some attempt at revitalizing brand relevance to millennials, or some other drivel. It features no logos, or catchy sayings. It’s just a paper sack, like your mother used to pack your lunch in. Except there are no nice notes with little hearts dotting the “i” sharpied on the outside

From those humble beginnings it has come to fulfill its grand destiny, transporting my dinner from the gas station at one end of town to my house on the other.

When I tell people that my favorite restaurant in town is in the gas station they look at me funny. Inside I can see them judging me, justifying my naivete and lack of class, “poor kid, he’s lived in Idaho his entire life, he has no idea of real fine dining.” Sometimes I think they might be right, especially when I’m consistently impressed by the $4 sushi at the grocery store.

And it is true that I have a soft spot in my heart for gas stations. Most of my favorite stories start at gas stations, and some of my most prized possessions were purchased at these empires of refueling.

But really, Basin Burger is no ordinary gas station fare. Usually the kid who takes my order has one hand permanently jammed into his back pocket, and a toothpick between his teeth. And he never starts the conversation. It’s never some canned “Welcome to Wendys, how can I help you on your transcendental journey to fatty perfection today?!” Complete with a fake smile and a flounce of the hair. I like to think that’s because they know it’s really all about the food. It’s sort of like those high-end sushi places that are absolutely bare and minimalist, no fluff from the staff, no unnecessary decoration, just the food. Except here there are people buying gas and cigarettes at the other counter.

Once you’ve ordered, and the high school kid has finished checking all the correct boxes on the little page, you can head over and grab your soda while they get your order ready.

These are gas station sodas, designed to keep potbelly truckers hydrated as they cruise overnight, so there’s no silly “low calorie, petite sized” options. Instead, for 99 cents you get any size cup you want. To really get your money's worth you need to go for the Large. I did the math, you can fit 5 and ⅓ regular sized cans of soda into one Large cup. That’s really the genius of it too. People might judge if you sat down with 5 cans of soda and drank them all one by one, but just one cup is no big deal.

Meanwhile the deep-fat fryer is bubbling away merrily. This, combined with the sizzling grill, and the occasional screech of a small child, composes most of Basin Burger’s ambiance. If you pay attention, you can watch your food being made in front of you. I’d recommend against this though, I’m happier eating in ignorant bliss.

By this time I’m usually worried that I should have gotten the double instead of the single. I’m starving, and I start to doubt if just one patty will do the trick. However, in about 15 minutes all my weak worries will have been put to rest. I’ve never ordered the double, and never intend to, the single is always more than I can comfortably handle anyway.

Pro Tip: When possible, avoid eating the burger in the restaurant. It’s sort of like that biblical boiling the calf in its mother’s milk taboo, it just doesn’t feel right.

Instead, get it to-go. That way you can watch the grease stains spread through the sack as you rush home. Don’t let your self-esteem get the better of you, suck down that soda, and make short work of your fries and then start making plans for something stupid and painful to do in the mountains so that you can justify getting another Basin Burger.