TORREY, Wayne County — Forty years after missing a freeway exit and paying $10,000 for a cup of coffee, Randy Austin sits on a bench in front of his general store to greet the locals and ponder what it means to live in one of the most isolated areas of Utah.
“I’m a Catholic Democrat,” he says, “and people have generally forgiven me for the Catholic part.” He waves at two friends driving past in a pickup truck and laughs.
“I ran for county commissioner and I got 485 votes. Didn’t win, but I came close. So even an outlaw like me can make friends here. Wayne County has the most caring people you’ll find anywhere.”
It was 1972 when Austin, then 22, and his wife, Claudia, ended up in picturesque Torrey after missing the freeway turnoff to Price.
“We were on our way to Lake Powell to go boating with friends, and I’d never been to southern Utah’s red-rock country before,” he recalls. “Somehow, we ended up in Richfield, then Torrey. I’ve been here ever since.”
On the day that changed his life, Austin ventured inside a sleepy cafe and rock shop on Main Street for a cup of coffee and found the owner boxing up all of the dishes, pots and pans.
“I asked what he was doing and he said the bank was coming to foreclose at 6 o’clock,” he says. “I asked him how much money he needed and he told me, $10,000.”
Austin had only three words for the man: “I’ll buy it.”
“I was wondering what to tell my wife,” he says, “but when I joined her outside she said, ‘I’d sure to love to live in a town like this.’” Austin’s blue eyes twinkle. “’Well,’” I told her, ‘let me see what I can do about that.’”
Four decades later, now that he is about to hand over Austin’s Chuckwagon Motel and the only store in town to his son and son-in-law, Austin, 63, wonders what to do with the next phase of his life.
“Last season was supposed to be my last,” he says, “but I kept finding myself over here, doing this or that. It’s just a big part of my life. People stop here from all over the world and it’s been a pleasure to meet them. When I first moved here, hardly anybody came through. But Torrey’s not much of a secret anymore.”
Happy to share a few stories about the pleasures of small-town life and the beauty of Capitol Reef National Park, which sits in his back yard, Austin recently met me for a Free Lunch of bacon quiche (real men in Torrey apparently eat it on a regular basis) at the deli he recently opened in the back of his store.
“I remember the first day we did $100,” he says, “and Claudia and I were celebrating, thinking it was a huge milestone. Only 60,000 tourists came through here a year when Capitol Reef was a national monument, but that went up to 800,000 after Highway 12 opened and the president declared this a national park.”
He takes a swig of milk and grins. “That’s the only good thing Richard Nixon did. Because it used to be that when kids got out of high school there was nothing here for them and they had to move away. Now we’re an official destination.”
Randy and Claudia built a motel and turned the rock shop into a grocery, taking odd jobs to scrape by during slow months. Claudia eventually became a nurse at the clinic in Bicknell, leaving the motel upkeep and shelf-stocking to her husband.
Six years ago, when she died of liver failure and Austin had to meet with a funeral director, he was touched on the drive home to see everyone in Loa, Bicknell and Torrey lining the streets in salute to his wife.
“That’s what I like about living in a small county like this," he says, brushing away tears. “People genuinely care about each other. That’s why everybody always smiles at each other and waves at each other.”
And that’s why you’ll find Randy Austin sitting on the front bench outside the store for many years to come, forever grateful that in 1972 he wasn’t paying attention to the road signs.
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Cathy Free has written her "Free Lunch" column since 1999, believing that everyone has a story worth telling. A longtime western correspondent for People Magazine, she has also worked as a contributing editor for Reader's Digest.