In 2004, A film maker invited Ryan Jennings and me to go to Devils Tower, Wyoming and help him make a short National Geographic documentary about the 1941 rescue of George Hopkins, a daredevil who parachuted to the top of Devils Tower in 1941 to win a $50 bet — then couldn’t get down. The six-day rescue effort made headlines all over the country.
After we’d got the film in the can, Ryan wanted to sample the nightlife of Sundance, Wyoming. Knackered from three days dangling from the Tower’s south face, I preferred to flop in the cheap hotel from which we’d based our production. A loosely jointed, easy going, athletic Coloradan with prematurely thinning hair and a phenomenal appetite for a good time, Ryan refused to accept my fade. “Don’t be a wanker,” he said. “You’re getting up. We’re going out.”
I rallied to join him.
Sundance clings to the north shore of I-90 where the Black Hills roll out into the high plains of northeastern Wyoming. Seat of an eponymous county, it boasted 1,161 souls to the 2000 census takers. Its nightlife centers on a few downtown bars. We had a drink in each one before deciding to entrust our evening to The Dime Horseshoe Bar on North 3rd Street, notorious in certain circles for hosting “Burnout Wednesday” during the nearby Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. (Click on the burnout link at your own risk.)
The bartender, a lean, attractive blonde of a certain age tucked into tight jeans and a T-shirt, served us with a warning, “You take care, boys, these ain’t no city drinks.” Her cocktails could have fueled an expedition stove. Around us, locals sipped whisky and blew foam from drafts of American beer. As the bar gathered steam, the drinks began appearing in low-impact plastic cups.
Somewhere in the fray, Ryan and I ran out of money. The bartender rescued our night by loaning us the same $40 cash we’d already spent, which we immediately set about drinking for a second time. (For the record, I mailed a $40 check — with a generous tip — from California once I’d recovered from the hangover.) Across a small dance floor stood a jukebox and a Foosball table. Ryan fished out some quarters and nodded me up for a game. I squirted a ball onto the table. Click-click-click, Ryan shuffled the ball back and forth and flicked his wrist. A white streak blurred down the table and ended, thwack, in Ryan’s first goal. From there, they came like rockfall, every sharp thwack driving home the point that I was grossly outclassed.
A squinty eyed, stocky fellow with the biceps and hands of a man who worked for a living drained a Budweiser and shouldered me aside. He tipped back the brim of a grease-stained baseball cap and grabbed the rubber handles determined to teach this upstart Coloradan the what-fors of Foosball. Except that he couldn’t. Ryan Jennings was a Pelé of table soccer, and try as he violently might, the little Napoleon of the Dime Bar couldn’t beat Ryan — couldn’t even come close. The poor fellow got salty, but the harder he heaved at the table, the faster a quick flick of Ryan’s wrist rifled the ball — thwack — into another goal. I was steeling myself for imminent fisticuffs when the good witch of eastern Wyoming, that miraculous bartender, appeared with a calming round of free drinks. A skinny kid, another local, fell into conversation and defused the tension. We were soon all bosom buddies.
When I looked up to survey the establishment, a dwarf sat on the center of the bar, holding court, beer in hand, his back braced against the draft taps and his feet propped on a stool. Beneath beetling forehead and bushy eyebrows, he leered and scowled and grinned, firing quips into a posse of revelers. The jukebox blared the first bars of a lively country and western number. The dwarf tipped in his beer, spread his arms wide, and to my utter astonishment, a robust Wyoming lass hoisted him from the bar. The dwarf wrapped his arms and legs around her waist and torso and she gently sashayed him around the dance floor. As the song climaxed, the dwarf turned his head, closed his eyes, and lowered a cheek. Utter contentment glowed from his face.
When the tune ended, she deposited him right back up on the bar where she’d gathered him. I must have muttered some amazed expletive, because the skinny fellow who’d soothed the Foosball situation mentioned that the dwarf was a good guy, one of his buddies, and just happened to be the misdemeanors judge of Sundance County. That last detail I refused to swallow, but the kid assured me it was true.
I’ve never been sure how he did it, but Ryan shortly had us enmeshed in the inner circle of the dwarf’s many friends, buying drinks back and forth like we’d been pals all our lives. To my shame, I can’t remember the dwarf’s name, but he was a regular guy, just like anyone else, out with friends for end of the week shenanigans and generous enough to include a couple of strangers. At last call, the dwarf invited everyone to his house.
In the line of muscular pickup trucks parked out on North 3rd Street, he owned the biggest one, a lifted, extended cab monstrosity he could almost walk under upright. It looked like it could have towed an aircraft carrier. He flipped down two steps hinged to the running board, clambered into the cab, and settled himself into a booster seat. Ryan and I squeezed into the back, a well-lubricated pride of Wyoming smushed between us and another perched on my lap. Other locals crammed the front bench seat, and the dwarf drove us to his house manipulating a throttle and brake mounted to the steering wheel.
Things got crazy at the dwarf’s bachelor pad. His skinny, college kid friend, poured rum and coke into red plastic cups Toby Keith wouldn’t make famous for another decade. The dwarf popped a VCR into a player wired to an enormous flat screen TV, the first I’d ever seen in a private abode. Suddenly, the pendulous gyrations of hardcore pornography filled the wall. From the stereo, Bon Jovi joined the moaning cacophony. The dwarf charged a bong that towered six inches above his head. One of the ladies sparked the bowl while he huffed at the wide end of the gurgling contraption, perfectly at home, among friends. We were the awkward guests. Swaying nearby with a bottle of Captain Morgan’s, the skinny kid confessed his life’s ambition to Ryan.
Ryan, ever the instigator, nodded in my direction. “Talk to him. He does that.”
The kid staggered over and steadied himself on my arm. “Are you kidding me?” he slurred. “I wanna be a writer. I’m studying Russia over in Spearfish. I wanna write about Russia for National Geographic.”
My eyebrows shot skyward. “Dude. Your best friend is a beer-swilling, bong-hitting, porno-watching, misdemeanors-judging dwarf in Sundance, Wyoming and you want to write about Russia? Have you lost your fucking mind?”
That remains the best piece of professional advice I have ever given.
Tragically, Ryan Jennings, an avid climber, was killed in the collapse of an ice pillar outside of Redstone, Colorado in late December, 2015. My story about his exuberant existence, “Life Interrupted,” is in the October 2016 issue of Rock & Ice magazine (№237). Ryan leaves behind a wife, two children, a mother and father, two sisters, a huge coterie of friends and climbing partners and one of the best alpine-style first ascents ever accomplished in North America.
Gregory Crouch (@gregorycrouch) is the author of China’s Wings (Bantam, 2012), Enduring Patagonia (Random House, 2001), and a host of magazine articles for the likes of @NatGeo, @TheAtlantic, @rockandice, @islandsmagazine, and many others. He regularly reviews books for @wsjBookReviews, Washington Post, @nytimesbooks, and blogs at www.gregcrouch.com