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Tech re-unites a tourist with his favorite ballcap

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
The hat, with a note, after it was returned by the rodeo. The hat, with a note, after it was returned by the rodeo.
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives is Huntington.

The moment the wind grabbed my hat and dropped it into the pen with a dozen irritable Brahman bulls was the instant  I realized the wisdom of the wife's comment three weeks earlier as we hit the road:

"Are you sure," Pamela had asked, "that you want to take that hat on this trip?"

This trip was the long-dreamed-of cross-country drive from Huntington to the Northwest Pacific Coast and back again. Seven thousand six hundred miles. Fourteen states in 25 days. A different hotel bed almost every night. History, culture (high and low) and natural wonders along the way, stops that Pamela had planned all winter long, filling a national map on the back of the door in the TV room with colored pins and coded notes.

And that hat … well, it was a special cap. Bearing the words "Legendary Delta Queen" along with an embroidered drawing of the steamboat, it was one I bought five years ago on another memorable journey, our last cruise on that beloved riverboat as she sailed the Ohio River. I'd worn the cap almost every day for years, occasionally having to rush back into a restaurant or a theater or a classroom to retrieve it after a moment of carelessness.

But now it was far removed from my rescue, down in the dirt and left for the bulls to do whatever bulls do to the things that fall to them over their fences.

Later that night, I got a pretty good idea what that would be. We sat high in the "Buzzard's Roost" section of the stands at the Cody Nite Rodeo in Cody, Wyo., and watched the bulls, one by one, deal decisively with cowboys and clowns alike.

Hours later as we left, we could see my little blue cap was as yet unmolested, cowering at the edge of the fencing far below. I even grabbed a picture with my phone.

The next morning, when we were leaving Cody at first light, I dropped a quick email to the rodeo folks through their website. It was worth a shot, I figured. After all, throughout our travels, we had used assorted technology —  iPhones, iPads, laptops and email —  to help us find our way. Maybe a carefully crafted email could undo what the thieving wind had wrought.

In my message, I told rodeo folks what a fabulous time we'd had in Cody, that their rodeo had been the highlight and that we'd loved every moment. 

"Well, almost every moment," I wrote.

Then I related the story. We had been climbing the stairs to our seats, then we turned to admire the double rainbow that had appeared over the rodeo stands after the thunderstorm, and, as I was taking a picture, the rascally breeze struck. 

After describing the cap's sentimental value to me, I wrote, "I know it's unlikely, but if anyone — bull or human — finds the cap and turns it into your lost and found department, I'd sure be grateful if you'd mail it home to me."

Honestly, I expected no more than a noncommittal reply, if that. Sure, decades ago, futurist John Naisbitt had proclaimed that the impersonal world generated by high tech would need to be balanced with human "high touch." That's fine, John. All I needed was a little kindness of strangers.

And I found it.

A few hours later, when we were nearly a hundred miles to the south in Thermopolis, Wyo., (preparing to tour a dinosaur dig site) the iPhone buzzed with an email. Nikki Tate with the Mo Betta Rodeo Company wrote that she, too, had enjoyed that double rainbow. Then she said, "We'll certainly look for your cap! If we find it … it may be a little dirty, but we'll do our best."

Immediately, we pulled the car over to the side of the road so I could answer from the phone. A little dirt from the rodeo would only increase the cap's value to me, I said in my email. Then to my reply I even attached my picture of the cap's last known address (Wrong Side of Bull Ring, Cody, WY).

A few hours later, as we were leaving Thermopolis with dinosaur dust on our toes and preparing to drive through the amazing Wind River Canyon, another email came buzzing into the phone.

"We found it!" Nikki wrote. "I'll get it in the mail to you early next week!"

And sure enough, a week —  and 2,000 miles —  later, when we finally got back to Huntington, the hat was waiting, posted in a box labelled "Fragile." (After what it had been through, the cap no longer qualifies as fragile, I'm thinking, but I appreciate the irony.)

So why did my emailed appeal work? Why did Nikki Tate go to all that trouble?

I suppose the academic in me wants to believe that John Naisbitt nailed it with his high tech/high touch argument; as technology depersonalizes us, he would say, we crave human contact all the more, even in something as disembodied as email. My journalist's soul, on the other hand, wants to say that people simply respond to stories; perhaps I found common ground with Nikki in describing the rainbow, something we'd both seen, then I won her over with the story of what The Delta Queen and this souvenir cap meant to me. Of course, a cynic might say it was all just calculated for maximum PR value, that Nikki had to know I'd retell this story —  within hours, in fact, friends across the country heard it through Facebook —  and with each recitation, Cody Nite Rodeo would be the hero. You can't buy such publicity.

Maybe. Maybe not.

I sometime wonder, though, if folks in small-town western America are a bit different from the rest of us. "We have more antelopes than people," a local man told us at one stop along the way. Such demographics maybe teach a lesson about being kind. After all, if you're out there all alone, you never know when you could use a friend, so don't make enemies if you don't have to.

Whatever the reason, after that happy exchange of emails, it seemed appropriate that at the next gift shop we came to, I temporarily replaced my Delta Queen cap with a snazzy new one. It sings the praises of antelope-rich Wyoming.