A trip to New Zealand made an unforgettable impression on locally famous Shell, Wyoming, pastry chef Emily Clark while she was on her honeymoon years ago.
“When we were in New Zealand, we were advised to rent a camper van and just travel around from one campground to the next and we were like, are you serious?” Clark told Cowboy State Daily.
Despite their misgivings, Clark and her husband, decided to just do it anyway. They lived in Cheyenne at the time, but now are settled in Shell, a tiny community of fewer than 100 in Big Horn County.
They couldn’t have known then how that journey was the start of an adventure that would ultimately lead them from their home in Cheyenne to a campground and a completely different life in Shell.
‘Turned On A Lightbulb’
Clark remembers that first New Zealand campground well. The couple who owned it were just sitting down to dinner when the honeymooners arrived, and it was like getting a glimpse of another completely different world.
“I have such fond memories of that first campground and how charming, and quiet, and peaceful it was,” she told Cowboy State Daily. “It was just so cute, and really, just otherworldly.”
When the couple returned home to the U.S. and Wyoming, that New Zealand RV’ing experience became part of their shared lifestyle. They bought an RV as soon as they were stateside, and they started having rambling adventures just like those they had so enjoyed in New Zealand.
That eventually led them to a campground in the state of Washington that had been bought by a couple about their same age.
“That turned on a lightbulb,” Clark told Cowboy State Daily. “We had some of the same skills that they had. They were doing something that we suddenly realized we could do, too.”
At that time, Emily and her husband Kevin both felt they had been spinning their wheels at their day jobs in Cheyenne, not really getting anywhere but burnt out. They had been looking for something new inside of themselves without even realizing it — until they stumbled onto that campground in Washington.
It held up a mirror of what their life could be like. And they couldn’t wait to make it happen.
“We put our house up for sale as soon as we got home,” Clark recalled. “And we took a road trip to find ourselves a campground in Wyoming.”
The campground they fell in love with was the one they now own in Shell, which sits along the Bighorn Scenic Byway. It’s a 57-mile drive that winds through the mountains of Bighorn National Forest along U.S. Highway 14. It’s a popular summer journey for tourists and locals.
“A lot of people drive that loop in the summer, and the Shell store is kind of a natural stop,” Clark said.
Finding The One
Many of us have seen New Zealand’s otherworldly landscapes in the “Lord of the Rings” movies.
About 150 New Zealand locations formed the magical tapestry that brought Middle Earth to life on the big screen, whether it was the glorious Elvish home in Rivendell or the less hospitable but still picturesque Mordor, where all the shadows lie.
“When you drive into Shell, it’s like this little green patch amongst, you know, an otherwise very raw, rocky terrain,” Clark said. “It’s this kind of oasis of trees, with the backdrop of the mountain right behind it. I don’t know really how else to explain it. It’s just really peaceful, and so beautiful.”
That peaceful, easy feeling could easily make guests feel as though they’ve stumbled onto a place very like Matamata on New Zealand’s North Island — otherwise known as Bilbo’s beloved Shire. Shell has a similar quality of green space lying against a distant backdrop of brown and rocky hills.
But there’s something else that Clark does at her campground in Shell that would really make a hobbit feel right at home, particularly when it’s time for Elevenses.
Elvenses, as every hobbit knows, is that little snack to tide one over until lunch time. It could be scones or bread with honey and a cup of tea.
Or, for creative bakers like Clark, it could be a choice of almond marzipan cookies, festive chocolate brownies, apple hand pies or cinnamon rolls.
How could a hobbit possibly choose? Why not just take one of each?
Many of Clark’s human customers don’t mind if they do.
Keep The Cinnamon Rolls Coming
Clark is so good at making pastries, cakes, cookies and other treats, some residents in the area told Cowboy State Daily this summer that there was a French pastry chef in Shell.
But Clark is not a French-trained pastry chef at all. She is largely self-taught and just enjoys challenging herself in the kitchen.
“It’s like my stress relief,” she told Cowboy State Daily.
Clark’s first baking experiences were making simple chocolate chip cookies with her mom, but it didn’t end there.
“I have very fond memories of baking with my dad actually,” Clark said. “It was always an event with my dad. He didn’t, you know, just make a batch of cookies, he’d make eight or nine batches.”
That led to all-day cooking marathons in the kitchen, particularly around the holidays. The Christmas music would come out along with the hot cocoa, and father and daughter would roll up their sleeves to roll out hundreds of cinnamon rolls and other Christmas treats.
“Dad didn’t have a lot of different recipes,” Clark said. “But the few things that he did make, he did really well.”
So, when Shell residents told Clark they needed a place to gather, where they could have coffee and maybe a treat or two, Clark knew just what to do.
She took her dad’s old cinnamon roll recipe out and went to town.
“That first Tuesday, I think we only had two people come,” Clark recalled. “And I thought it was a bust.”
But the next Thursday, 20-some people came and crowded into the little check-in space for the Shell campground to enjoy coffee, conversation and cinnamon rolls.
Cinnamon Roll Tuesdays and Thursdays proved to be a hit after all. So much so, Clark soon realized they needed a lot more space, dedicated to the mission of providing an essential gathering and eating spot for residents of Shell and surrounding areas.
And that is how the legendary Shell Store was finally reborn.
The building the Shell Store is located in today is the stuff of local legends. It began as a frontier general store more than 125 years ago in 1896 or 1897.
It carried saddles and supplies for ranchers, as well as fabric and corsets for women. There were canned goods and other staples that the pioneers settling the area needed to survive.
The Shell Store over time wore many hats. It was a lodge at one time, a private residence at another. It was also sometimes empty of any business at all, serving merely as storage.
It was, Clark decided, the perfect place to put her year-round cafe, which she envisioned as a modern-day version of a mercantile store.
The Shell Store today is a living, creative space for Clark to test her mettle in the kitchen. She tries out new recipes every week, and offers them up on Tasting Thursdays. She’s constantly searching for that next thing that’s going to delight her patrons.
Not only does she offer pastries, there are hamburgers, sandwiches and fries, along with daily specials like bacon-wrapped meatloaf or prime rib. She also, true to the general store concept, carries Wyoming-made products that are either useful or can serve as gifts or souvenirs.
Clark’s business is one of many started during 2020 that has managed to take everything the COVID-19 pandemic could throw her way.
“Opening the store was very scary in the beginning,” Clark said. “The governor was saying, you know, close your doors.”
But she had already signed food-service contracts and rental agreements for the space, and she couldn’t just not open her doors at that point. There was too much at stake.
“There was no turning back,” Clark said. “We already had people lined up to work for us and depending on us. So, we had no idea what was going to happen at the time, but it all turned out fine in the end.”
Clark got through it by pivoting quickly to a take-out model for the new café, and adding a robust, outdoor seating area for summer picnics. That area, she added, is one of her customers’ favorites in the summer, when the weather is nice.
There’s just something about a scenic drive and a picnic outdoors that goes together, like hobbits and Elevenses.
Renée Jean can be reached at Renee@CowboyStateDaily.com.