It seems that whenever I go into a coffee shop, almost anywhere in America, there’s a small group of old guys (as in my age) sitting around a table for their morning chitchat. In La Jolla California, I have heard the old guys talk about their financial investments. In Ashland, Oregon, I’ve heard some discussing who they were in their past lives. In New Mexico, I’ve listened to a long conversation about the price of dirt. In Oklahoma, the old guys I sat near were talking about the weather and the price of cattle. Here in Bourbon, Missouri, this morning’s group was made up of friends who’d lived in this small town for nearly 70 years. One worked In lead mine. Another salvaged scrap metal. A couple of the guys were mechanics. All were talking about their buddy Daryl, who’s claim to fame was that he drove his lawn mower 4 hours to a neighboring town – and back.
Erick, Oklahoma seems to be another Route 66 town fallen on hard times. It’s been a dot on the map since 1906. King Of The Road singer Roger Miller, grew up in Erick. Roger Miller is gone but there’s another musician there. He is not as record-sales-famous, but he’s well know around the planet in the Route 66 guide books. If anyone can bring folks back to Erick, Oklahoma – it’s Harley Russell.
We slowly ride our bicycles, zig-zagging the empty main street. It’s already getting hot and we need some shade and some breakfast. A boy on a bike coasts down the sidewalk, eyeballing the new strangers in town. I steer over to him and ask, “Where’s a good place to get some breakfast?”
He shrugs and replies, “In this town? I don’t think there is any.”
I look across the street and notice a cafe. “How about that place?” I ask.
He looks over at it and remembers, “Oh yeah.”
Inside, a waitress repairs a broken chair with a tube of Superglue laid out on top of a cafe table. Quincy and I choose a spot nearby and order a couple of stacks of pancakes with eggs. The only other folks in the restaurant – a rancher and his wife – sit at a table over 2 cups of coffee. I walk over and ask him about a guy in town named Harley. He looks me over from under the brim of his tan cowboy hat. He’s already spotted our bicycles outside and asks where we’re coming from. When I tell him our story, he puts down his coffee and slides his chair back, as if needing more space to comprehend it all. Then he turns to point out the window to where Harley lives. “Right there on that corner – the old red brick building with all dem signs all over it. He’s different,” he tells me. “I’ve known him my entire life. When we was kids, he was just a regular guy. Then he got a little wild. Now that his wife has passed, he’s gotten a little – well I’ll just say – he’s not do’n so well.”
When the pancakes are gone and our plates are toast-mopped clean, Quincy and I wheel our bikes across the street to the porch of the Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. At first, I’m not sure if it is a grocery store or an antique store or maybe even a museum. I notice an old sign, “We open when we wake up, and close when we pass out!” The old door squeaks as we walk inside. It takes me a moment to take it all in. Road signs, antique furniture, guitars, books, and photographs of some of the thousands of roadies who’ve stopped in over the years, nearly fill the room before spilling out onto the front porch. Also filling the room is the sound of guitar music. I feel as though we are crashing a party. Harley is standing tall, strum’n loud. He’s grizzly looking with long gray hair and a shaggy beard, shirtless, wearing red and white striped overalls. A few teeth are missing. He is surrounded by a circle of black leather motorcycle bikers from Sweden, who sit spellbound on folding chairs – foreigners in a very foreign land.
“I want to welcome you here to Erick, Oklahoma, the redneck capital of the world, where you can see rednecks work and play in their own environment. You’re in the world-famous Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. My name’s Harley.” Then Harley pauses, widens his eyes and asks, “Who the hell are you?!”
Harley launches into his version of the song, Route 66 A few of the bikers try to keep a beat with the tambourines Harley has handed out. I watch his left hand slide through the frets, up and down the worn neck of his guitar. The bikers clap and smile, lost in Harley’s world.
His next song is so different, it nearly lowers the temperature of the room. Smiles fade. Harley sings a sad, deliberate version of the Beatles song, Yesterday. It takes just a moment to realize that he’s singing about his wife, Annabelle. Although no one else in the crowded room knew her, it doesn’t matter. Harley’s sorrow comes through with every lyric.
Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
In 1987 Annabelle came to town to visit here grandparents. She was a slender woman with long, silky hair. Annabelle walked into Harley’s shop, hoping he would tune her guitar. She never left. Through the years she sang every song, standing next to him, greeting every tourist who walked through the doors, with a smile and a free cold drink.
A couple of years ago Harley posted this on his Face Book page:
“Dear friends, my Precious Annabelle just passed away 1:10p.m. this afternoon Sept.30, 2014. Thank all of you for everything you have done.”
Soon the group from Sweden is outside on their motorcycles, revving up to leave. Harley rushes outside and stands in the street, waving a huge Swedish flag, as I if he’s starting the Indy 500. The bikers roar past, waving, and head out of town toward Route 66. When the last one is gone, Harley stands alone in the middle of the hot street in his near-empty town.
Harley, still carrying his flag, slowly walks back to the front porch of the Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. He needs to get ready for the next group of tourists that may roll in.
Recently, the roads that Quincy and I pedal are long, flat and straight. There’s very little traffic – one or two pickups pass us every hour. As the Texas sun heats up the land, the steam rises from the fields around us. The humidity builds. Stop for a moment, and we are dripping wet. Wheat is a favorite crop here. Huge wind turbines tower over the wheat fields and turn with the wind, slowly, deliberately, churning the thick air. Their blades are about 200 feet long, gracefully angled resembling giant propellers on an airplane, mounted on a pole 400 feet high. Texas produces the most wind power of any U.S. state. Wind power accounted for about 12% of the electricity generated in Texas during 2015. I wish they would turn toward us and spin faster like giant house fans, to cool us
My favorite thing about bicycling across America is meeting folks like Archie West. My son, Quincy, pointed him out as we pedaled toward Santa Fe. Mr. West was repairing a part of a fence along the edge of his ranch. Carrying a coil of barbed-wire, he moved down the line, looking for breaks. Watching him, I sensed he was more than just an old cowboy. The way he moved, the way he took off his tan hat and wiped his brow, the way he worked with his hands – told me he’d been with this land his entire life.
I rolled up on my loaded bicycle, almost as if I was on my own horse and introduced myself. Soon, Archie was leaning on a fence post that was as old and weathered as he was – with the grace and pose of a Hollywood cowboy – his elbow at an angle on the post, his hip in the opposite direction, his thumb in his jean pocket – telling me the history of his family, his land, and how his dad had settled here from Oklahoma just before the Dust Bowl era. “This land is too dry to plant any crops. The only thing you can raise here is cattle.”
A black-and-blue thunderstorm circled behind us, unsettling the high desert with strong gusts. Mr. West dug into the dry earth with the side of his cowboy boot and pushed it aside, telling us about the big rain that had hit last night. “It’s never enough,” he said. “I hope we get more.”
I told Archie about our bicycle trip up Route 66. His brow lifted. He adjusted his pose and asked many of the usual questions people ask about our trip. I told him about starting in Santa Monica and about how many miles we tried to do in a day. Then I told him, “The best part about doing this bike trip is doing it with my son,”
Archie understood the deeper meaning of what I was saying, smiled and shot back, “My son moved back on the ranch. I love working with my boy.”
Soon it would be getting dark. Quincy and I waved good-bye and rolled down the windy road, pedaling side-by-side. The dark clouds moved along the distant mountains. I turned to my boy and reminded him, “son, you could take all of the University classes you can find and you’ll never have the conversation we just experienced.”
Quincy and I were fried – way overcooked from a long day pedaling through the desert. We wheeled into a gas station connivence store for a dinner of donuts and chocolate milk. The owner told us that a few miles up the road was a place that had a few trailers. “He charges 10 bucks. Just look for the A-A-Frame building on the left.”
We pushed on. The wind blew. The sun was setting. We rolled over more miles of desert, knowing that a 10 buck trailer was a lot better than a night in a wind-rattled tent, surrounded by grit and snakes.
Six miles later we thought we found home. The A-Frame building was closed and locked. We knocked on the door, hoping someone would let us in. Behind the A-Frame was a meandering row of trailers, rocking in the dust. A freight train rattled across the dessert in the distance, blowing its horn. I wandered among the trailers, looking for signs of life, keeping an eye ahead of my shoes, scanning the dirt for rattlers.
A door popped open. A grey bearded man stood in the doorway and gave me a long look-over. He carefully held on to a railing and hobbled down a few trailer steps to shake hands.
Fast forward a few minutes and a string of questions, in a mist of beer breath, Charles told me the owners were gone for the day. We chatted a bit longer.
Charles had a handsome, chiseled face, trim, gray beard and a tight, rubber banded pony tail. He smiled and revealed several missing front teeth. My first thought was that they were lost in a barroom brawl or during a face-plant fall in the middle of a blackout.
I could tell he was weighing options, considering a plan to help us out. “The only place for you to stay would be in my trailer. In fact, I’ll give you two my bed and I’ll sleep in my recliner.”
Quincy and I glanced at each other with a look of, “should we do this?”
We lifted our bikes up into the trailer and maneuvered them into a cramped kitchen space that separated the bedroom from his sitting room. On the counter was a pile of tobacco and a hand-rolled cigarette.
“Look at this view I’ve got,” pointing through the side window. “I told my brother to come visit. I told him all about the animals I see out my window. It’s the best view in the world! I told him I’d even give him my bed. He never came.”
Charles showed us the tiny bathroom. “Use the shower but be sure to put the plug back into the drain when you’re finished. It empties out onto the sand and the critters like to crawl in.”
Then he showed us the bedroom. A double mattress took up most of the room. He reached down next to the bed to retrieve his 12 gauge shotgun and several shells. “I’ll take this with me.”
A lot of folks who live out here – some call them desert rats – want to be forgotten. They are getting old. Social Security gives them just enough to manage. They like to be alone. Charles was no exception. Three marriages, 2 adult daughters who don’t talk to him, and a mountain of bills offered little to look forward to. A few years ago he broke his right ankle. It didn’t heal correctly. Walking on it is painful. After the accident, finding work was difficult. Looking down, he offered, “Do you think my daughters stepped up to help? Nope. Nothing. Not a damn thing.”
Finally his brother handed him a 4-grand wad of cash and said, “go start over.” Charles sifted through a lifetime of possessions and loaded the remnants into his small car. He left Indiana and headed west.
Quincy and I were awake a 6 am, our sunburned legs still stiff and not quite ready to get back on our bikes and start pedaling. Charles was sitting in the recliner, wrapped in a blue bathrobe, smoking a cig and sipping coffee. He took a drag and looked up, smiling, revealing the gap of missing teeth. “I’d offer you some coffee, but I only have one cup.”
My son and I thanked him for his kind hospitality. We’d grown to like Charles. This was always the best part of cycling through America – being befriended by strangers. Charles asked if we couldn’t hang out for a while longer. It was clear by his tone that he didn’t want us to go.
We carefully backed our bikes out the door and down the steps onto the dessert floor. Charles stood in the doorway to watch us leave. Then he closed the door and returned to his recliner and his favorite pastime: looking out through the trailer window, into the dessert. He watched for animals and birds that might search the parched land for nourishment. He scanned the horizon for the occasional storm that may roll in. His metal box – his home – warmed by the sun, still rocking in the wind. A hawk in the distant blue sky circled. With his shotgun waiting on the floor, Charles took a sip from his only cup, wishing his daughters, or even his brother, would give him a call.