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Y'all Have a Real Nice Day

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There are two reasons to drive the 39 miles to Calhan (three if you happen to have a heifer at auction). The first reason is, of course, the county fair. Fresh air, the traveling midway, Indian fry bread and the CPRA Rodeo draw suburbanites from the foothills out to the rolling grasslands of the eastern plains in droves.

The second reason to travel to the tiny ranching town is entirely intangible. It's something about the way you feel once you drive over Black Squirrel Creek, under the green patinated trusses of the bridge that may or may not have been built by German prisoners of World War II. It's the dingy white yucca blossoms and purple prairie bluebells, the greasy dark slough grass and the disheveled cheatgrass, how it all grows together to weave a gentle carpet over the sandy ground. It's in the empty two-lane highway, the brief sound of a meadowlark and the distinct meeting of the green-yellow horizon and the immense blue sky.

All the features of this rich, open country breed a mellow contentment in the plains people. I know; I grew up there. Out east, you rarely deal with crime, traffic jams or rowdy neighbors (if you even have any neighbors to speak of). The most visible pollution is the blue security lamps that dot the hills and block out the stars, but only if you're standing right under them. The majority of the B.S. you shovel is the fragrant, organic kind. Wrap all this up with the natural beauty and it can't be beat for relaxation value.

No place is better for getting a first-hand dose of the eastern plains effect than the local café. For years the Midway reigned supreme -- a long, low white diner right on Calhan's main road. But after changing hands several times within just a few years, the café gave up the ghost and closed for good. After the death of the Midway, people needed a place where they could get a cup of joe and spend three uninterrupted hours drinking it, talking summer precipitation and the price of beef.

Enter Western Omelette. Now, most people in Colorado Springs have spent a morning or two in a Western Omelette; it's been voted best restaurant for a hangover numerous times. The blue-collar diner features your basic American grub: burgers and chicken, pancakes and mashed potatoes, corn and chicken fried steak. Nothing too fancy, nothing too expensive, everything quick and filling.

A year or two back the Omelette moved into a new building right off Fifth Street, so the locals of Calhan packed up shop and relocated to the new counter and vinyl-topped tables. It's not the Midway, it lacks the historical stature, but it's still a welcoming place where any time of day you can stroll in and find a friend or two, maybe the postman, and get the latest gossip on the neighbors over a roast beef sandwich ($5.95). And even if nobody's there, the waitress knows your name and has a slice of the best pecan pie you ever tasted waiting in the cooler ($1.25). Sweet and light, but not too sugary, pair it with a cup of coffee and you have an excuse to linger for hours.

A big favorite is the steak -- sirloin, T-bone, tenderloin -- and big pile of potatoes drowning in spicy white gravy. Juicy and generously proportioned, served with a veggie and a side salad, it's a fine supper for under 10 bucks. And get the ranch dressing -- it might not be homemade, but it's the best ranch I've ever had.

The fair is great and all -- bull riding and carnies and mutton bustin', oh my -- but once you get done exploring the showbiz side of Calhan, head over to the diner. If you really want to hear about life out there, stories about the dry spells and tornadoes and the high school wrestling team, sit for a while and listen. Or maybe you just want a break from "town," where everybody has someplace to be and they've got to rush to get there, and they don't have time to ask after your family. Go to Calhan. You could be at the Midway, or the Omelette -- it doesn't really matter. It's the people and their sense of place that make it unique.

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