RAWLINS — Rain clouds gathered over Rawlins, Wyoming, on Thursday evening, making it seem a little dreary and drab outside.
But inside Mike’s “Big City” Steakhouse, everything was all cheerful and warm.
A full house was gathering inside the restaurant. Some were regulars, but the back room were all members of the Rawlins High School volleyball teams. All 45 or so had been invited for a free dinner at the restaurant. The free meal is part of a longstanding tradition that honors restaurant owner Mike Lujan’s mom and dad.
“My family, when we opened this restaurant, because the interstate came through here, there were a lot of people who came through here, walking and down-on-their-luck and transients,” he told Cowboy State Daily. “They’d stop here.
“It was the first place that they saw, and so my mother and father made it a point that nobody left here, that everybody had something. I’m so blessed that I can continue that, and I want to share that with people.”
Each week, Lujan invites a different local Carbon County team to enjoy a free meal at his restaurant. Sometimes the sheriff or police chief come as well to help serve and provide a community presence.
“I get to pray with the kids and just thank them for coming,” Lujan said. “I tell them a little story about Mike growing up in sports and athletics and failures and triumphs.”
The Best Of ‘Terrible’ Rawlins
Mike’s Big City Steakhouse is just one of many places in Rawlins with this kind of community-first focus.
And it is just one of the many great places in “terrible” Rawlins that YouTube celebrity Nick Johnson, who has nearly 900,000 subscribers,missed on his tour of Wyoming’s “worst” place to live.
In fact, the title of the video is, “I Went To The Worst Place To Live In Wyoming.”
Lujan isn’t upset that Johnson missed his restaurant and ultimately claimed that Buck’s Sports Grill is the only decent place to eat in town.
His steakhouse has a full house almost every night eating great steaks — prime rib anyone? — or the fried chicken recipe that’s a family variant of a certain chicken from a Kentucky-born franchise. Then there are the world-famous chimichangas that are served alongside every entree. They’re so good, Lujan turned them into an appetizer, after a customer suggested it.
“Even though this restaurant has been here 50 years, people forget that we’re here,” Lujan said. “We have award-winning food, and I’ve received recognition and awards, national awards, but people forget we’re here because we’re on the west end of the town.”
Lujan is a little bemused watching Johnson’s nearly 40-minute video, which he posted last week, which pans from the dilapidated hotels across the street before landing on Lujan’s restaurant and concludes there’s nowhere else to eat but Buck’s.
“Hello, we’re right here,” Lujan said, laughing. “The best advertising is usually through word of mouth, but obviously that didn’t work for this guy. Not even a mention. I was just heartbroken because I would have loved to have had him come here.”
Lujan wouldn’t have just served the guy a great steak. He would have had a few things to say about how cool Rawlins really is and what’s wrong with the perception that would prompt anyone to label Rawlins the “worst place to live in Wyoming.”
“He didn’t talk about how the color of Rawlins Red was mined from the iron ore pit north of town, and then that was used to paint the Brooklyn Bridge,” Lujan said. “He didn’t talk about how General Rawlins came in and said if anything is ever named after me, let it be a fresh stream of water, hence Rawlins Springs.
“He didn’t talk about the very first sheep wagon that was ever invented here,” Lujan continued. “I mean, that was a big deal that revolutionized the whole industry.”
A Town That Gives Everything
Over at Buck’s, where Johnson apparently ate most of his meals while he was in Rawlins, owner Shawn Dahl said the YouTube celebrity never introduced himself or asked anything about Rawlins.
It was all a “secret shopper” kind of approach.
“I never knew he was here the whole time he was here,” Dahl said. “I guess I would do it more like he did, too. An honest review.”
On the other hand, that approach didn’t allow Johnson to really get to know the real Rawlins, Wyoming either, like Dahl has — namely, it’s people.
“I came to Rawlins after getting out of alcohol rehab and I opened up a restaurant, and the town has wrapped their arms around me,” Dahl told Cowboy State Daily. “Now is Rawlins the easiest place in the world to live? No. The winters here are harder and longer, and we’re at an elevation here on the Continental Divide that’s a little bit crazy, and the wind blows like crazy, too.
“But you couldn’t beg me to say something bad about Rawlins because it has literally given me everything.”
Dahl also doesn’t believe Rawlins really has that much more wind or snow than other place in Wyoming, and there’s a silver lining. The windiness that brings so many complaints also brought a big wind farm to the area, which means jobs.
“These windmills are here that are full of people who come to Buck’s to eat, and to our Walmart to spend money that generates taxes,” he said.
That makes a “bad” thing good in the end, he said.
Decent, Hard-Working People
Life everywhere is tough in the sense that it requires hard work of one kind or another, Dahl added, often in less-than-ideal conditions.
“You have to want to get up and come down and shovel your sidewalk and unlock your door on these snow days,” he said.
But those kinds of days happen everywhere in Wyoming, he added, and likely everywhere in the country. How “good” or “bad” a place is has more to do with one’s own attitude than the place.
“You can move tomorrow to get away from something and go find that in the next place you move,” he said. “That's a hard lesson for anybody. It took me a long time to get to the point in my life where I could realize that. That I am, and the environment that I am, and the smile on my face or the frown on my face, is the environment I seek.”
That lesson has been driven home for him in Rawlins.
“I didn’t come here looking for anything but great,” Dahl said. “And I wasn’t going to fail.”
Rich History, Outdoor Gems
Stay the night in Rawlins and people are likely to ask if it was in the only room without prison bars in the town. That, or suggest that the trip will be better the shorter it is.
Those who have never even been to Rawlins love to join in on the jokes, too. But the whole conversation never gets around to any of the great things that are right with Rawlins.
Ultimately, some of those were highlighted on Johnson’s video, as he ultimately concluded that if Rawlins is the worst place in Wyoming to live, then Wyomingites must have it made. The town is just not that bad, Johnson said.
His conclusion struck a chord with a lot of Rawlins residents, who are tired of all the tired jokes about their town.
“I feel like Rawlins is super fascinating,” Nicole Espinoza told Cowboy State Daily. “It has rich history. We’re known for our uplifts. There’s the Continental Divide right here and our outdoors are amazing.”
The old frontier museum may hearken to a prison past that has made the town the butt of jokes today, but it is also an interesting historical place and offers a fascinating tour that captures a time and a place that was important to Wyoming history.
But it isn’t the only cog in the history wheel that Rawlins helped turn.
“At one time in history, we were the largest wagon cover producers in the United States,” Espinoza said. “We also had a brick factory. That’s where we got our Rawlins Red from, so that’s pretty neat too.”
Espinoza loves her community for some of the same reasons Lujan mentioned.
“If you get a flat tire, people will pull over to help you,” she said. “If you’re hungry, someone will feed you. It’s just a strong sense of community, and I think we have a lot of good programs and a lot of good teachers. Our parks are beautiful, and there’s the uplifts, that’s a natural geological phenomenon and geologists come from all over the world to see that.”
The Prison Town Stigma
Ted Ford, whose been a tour guide in Rawlins, said he believes most of the jokes about the town stem from the longtime presence of the state prison there.
“These were all rough railroad towns, not for the faint of heart,” he said. “But if you go around the state and you talk to people and you say, ‘Oh, I’m from Rawlins,’ they’re like, ‘Whoa, you’re a hardened criminal.’”
The reason Rawlins has a prison is kind of an interesting bit of history, Ford said.
“We had a lot of clout when Wyoming first became as state,” he said. “The prison was in Laramie and since we had a lot of clout, we were given the choice to either have the university or the prison.”
The decision to take the prison was an economic one at the time, which created a boom for the community and helped build a thriving town.
“If you look at our train station versus Laramie’s, our train station is bigger, and that’s because of the prison,” Ford said.
But it’s also led to what Ford believes is an unfair stigma that the town is just full of criminals.
That’s simply not the case, Ford said.
“I think I might have met, like, two people in my 43 years of living here that were actually out on parole and stayed here,” he said.
“When I see people that are going to prison, it's kind of a sad thing,” he said. “It's that Catholic grandma that sits three pews from the front in church and she drives all the way from Missouri to see her son for a half an hour once or twice a year.”
The prison, meanwhile, offers high-paying jobs that have provided an economic base for the Rawlins community, which numbers about 9,000 people.
Like Dahl, Ford doesn’t believe Rawlins’ problems are any worse than any other small town in America, regardless of the prison being there.
“I think you know everywhere you go in the state has some of the same kinds of issues,” Ford said. “It’s all across the country.”
For those who can handle a Wyoming winter, though, Rawlins does provide a great place to raise a family, he said.
“It’s a quiet little town,” he said. “I was raised here, and I feel like I’m a pretty well-rounded individual, and I don’t know too many people who were raised here that aren’t.”
Lujan, too, feels that Rawlins offers a great place for families to live.
“I don’t want to see Rawlins get so big that it loses any of the charm it has,” he said. “When people are hurting, Rawlins does come together. That’s what makes this a real, viable place.”
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.