Les at the Rose Lake Conoco wasn’t surprised.
He had pondered, as Les sometimes does during his work day chatting with customers, stocking shelves, filling coffee canisters (“That one on the left should be full … the far left.”) whether early season hunters would find birds in their usual early season haunts.
I had just told Les that I walked 3 miles of brushy road in a place usually good for ruffed grouse on September mornings but this morning was a bust.
“I was wondering about that,” Les said. “It’s been so dry.”
Les, who grew up in St. Maries and whose dad in retirement tinkered a lot and flew an airplane, has been grounded in the gas station and convenience store business for decades.
In the chunk of years, back in the day, as they say, in which I spent an inordinate amount of time casting for trout on the west slope of the Rockies I found Les’ coffee canisters always full, and the Java in them was always hot and delicious.
This is an unusual variance from most roadside gas and grub joints where the coffee tastes as if it’s poured from an ashtray and the clerks don’t care.
It wasn’t the coffee though, that had my kids calling Les’ place by its accoutrements.
Over the years they referred to Les’ store as, “the worm store,” because of the bait that Les sold, which the kids used to cast from the docks at Rose Lake bluegills. It was also, “the breakfast store,” for the paper-wrapped meals of sausage, bacon, ham and eggs bought from Les’ version of a hot case — a stand-up shelf in which to eye the steaming, freshly hot wares. We bought the crunchy, burrito-type meals in twos with pocket change because it was necessary. One wouldn’t cut it. So the kids, road bleary and blanket-wrapped on our way to a river woke only long enough to peel back the greasy paper and consume the pork and egg fests one at a time.
And it’s been called the “cheeseburger store” for its hot, foil-wrapped palate busters.
“We better get to the cheeseburger store before the log truck drivers get there,” the kids would mumble knowing they weren’t the only ones whose road-induced appetites hungered for one of Les’ foil-tucked, cheesy beefsteaks.
For the everyday sports enthusiast, however, Les offers more than the photographs of dead animals pinned to the cork board by the door.
He offers insight gleaned from the early-morning coffee crew that pull up in diesel pickups and monopolize the steel, foam-backed chairs as they sip brew from Styrofoam cups and ponder politics, timber, grain and gas prices and how the duck, or whitetail season might pan out.
And he’s spent his years watching the management of North Idaho fish and game.
His observations and questions have spurred articles, and served as a gauge of opinion and insight.
“I haven’t seen a lot,” Les might say regarding dead elk in the back of pickup trucks during the rifle season.
“No one is really talking about it,” he might muse about a topic’s significance.
Or, “I’ve wondered if …”
Which usually starts something.
The store, located at the junction of the Coeur d’Alenes and the road to the St. Joe is innocuous. There aren’t a bunch of dead heads on the walls peering at customers through glass eyes, but there is one particular bass that a mutual friend kept over the coffee pots while he traveled, and for years he traveled a lot.
It was a big enough bass, and wild looking, as if its tail smashed a spray of air careening through the store like droplets of water from Rose Lake proper, which lies just a few miles away.
The bass probably got people to thinking, quietly to themselves, if maybe they shouldn’t be fishing instead of whatever it was they were up to.
Last Monday was just another day at the store for Les.
“I’m here every Monday,” he said.
Laboring as he has for decades.
Grounded and pondering grouse.
“Just because the grouse aren’t there today, doesn’t mean they won’t be there tomorrow,” Les might say, if you stop by the Rose Lake Conoco and ask him.
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Ralph Bartholdt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.