CHUGWATER, Wyo. – It all began when a man with black shoe polish smeared all over his face exited Interstate 25 and barreled into town one evening last winter.
A witness said John Barberini didn't brake before he crashed into the Horton's Corner convenience store Dec. 30, starting a fire that burned up his sport utility vehicle, burned down the store and caused a massive lingering headache for the 200 people of Chugwater, a prairie community nestled beneath sandstone bluffs in the southeastern corner of Wyoming.
Horton's Corner wasn't just any convenience store, see. It was the only place for miles around to get gas. It was Chugwater's lone grocery store. And it was one of the town's biggest employers. The fire cost a dozen people their jobs. "They're just twiddling their thumbs away, not knowing what to do," said the local mail carrier, Lori Whinery.
The economic ripple extends down the street and around the corner to Chugwater Chili, which sold packets of its award-winning chili mix at Horton's Corner. "Horton's was our biggest customer," said Raece Wilkerson, a co-owner of the chili company that employs 15 people.
As for the gas problem? Four months after the fire, folks still have to drive to Wheatland, a 48-mile round trip to the north, or Cheyenne, an 80-mile round trip south, to fill up.
All because of ... Well, the denizens of Chugwater aren't quite sure.
Barberini, 52, of Casper, told police he was headed to San Diego and needed to get there -- a 1,200-mile drive -- by 9 a.m. the next day. He gave conflicting statements to a Platte County sheriff's deputy about what happened after he pulled into Chugwater just after 6 p.m.
First, he said the crash was an accident: His 1998 Chevrolet Blazer plowed into the store after it slid on ice. Later, he told the deputy he crashed into Horton's Corner "because the hot dogs were cold, the chili was cold, the bathrooms were dirty and the girls needed to be warmed up," according to the deputy's affidavit.
A witness told the deputy the Blazer didn't appear to slow down before crashing.
Nobody was hurt. Store clerks pulled Barberini from the wreck, and local Jim Crawford offered to let Barberini warm up at his place. Crawford said he thought Barberini's face was covered with soot so he offered him a washcloth to clean up.
"He said, `Oh, no. That's shoe polish,"' Crawford said in an interview. "I said, `Well, you mind me asking why you got shoe polish on you?' He said, `Well, it helps keep me insulated and warm."'
Barberini also said he wanted to get to Times Square to watch the ball drop on New Year's Eve, Crawford recalled -- "just a whole bunch of off-the-wall stuff."
Barberini is charged with reckless driving and felony property destruction. He remains in the Platte County jail on $100,000 bond. His attorney, Eric Palen, requested a mental evaluation for his client, but the findings were not included in the court file. Neither Palen nor the county prosecutor, Eric Jones, returned messages.
Between the fierce blizzards of the high plains and Wyoming's boom-and-bust economy, life in Chugwater always has been a bit on the edge. The town is named for the "chug" sound that bison made when they landed in Chugwater Creek after being chased off a cliff by American Indians, a once-common hunting technique.
Close to 1 in 3 people who lived in Chugwater in 2000 have up and left, census figures show. Eight years ago, the town tried to counter the exodus by selling lots for just $100 to anybody willing to move there. Four were sold.
At the very least, people passing through Chugwater would stop for gas. Some still do, but only because they didn't see the electronic highway signs informing them: "No gas in Chugwater."
"They go, `My GPS says you have a gas station.' They don't pay attention ...," said Mayor Ladonna Sand.
The owners of Horton's Corner did not return messages. Sand said they told her Horton's Corner might get rebuilt this fall or maybe next spring.
"Most people take it in stride," Sand said. "Everyone in Wyoming, they're tough people. They work to whatever the situation is and come out ahead of it."