Fiction

Story: The Last Ride

By J. Ross Archer

I have had an insatiable urge to travel the back roads of the western United States, an urge I have longed to satisfy for a long time. I have no specific itinerary in mind, no particular list of destinations in mind, nor have I set an unreasonable time limit in which to complete the trip I am about to take. Loosely, I intend to follow US Highway 84 for most of the early trip. Moreover, to me, my age of 78 has nothing to do with the trip—good or bad. In my estimation, it is not an issue. Following is my vision for the trip.

Hampton’s set jaw and clenched fists spoke to his determined to take this solo trip out West.

Twenty-six years in the US Army, going through some tough training and combat has encouraged me to stay in fairly good physical shape, especially for my age. I’m physically prepared for a motorcycle excursion into the western states of this country.

“John are you dead set on taking this trip knowing how much I oppose it?”

“Yes, dear, I am; it means that much to me. I know you are not in favor of it, but I also know that deep down you understand my motivation.”

“ I understand that secretly, you expect, and even hope, to encounter adventure and situations that will test your metal as a man who has not given up on living.”

“Then you know I do not fear danger, nor do I expect to shy away from it should it be visited; I want to look danger in the face once again to see, for myself, if I can still handle it. My self-confidence level is high; I can already feel adrenalin flowing in my veins.”

“But there’s one thing you fear, old man, and that is spiders.”

“Okay, okay. Arachnophobia has terrified me since early childhood; and I do not know why. That being said, I mostly want to experience the sights, smells and sounds of being on the road on a motorcycle—wonders and experiences that are not possible to duplicate in an automobile. I’m so excited I’m urinating every ten minutes.”

My duffel for the trip, while most important, is Spartan consisting of two sets of quick-dry clothing, riding boots, a toilet kit, medicine bag, sunscreen, sunglasses, leather vest, and a 9mm pistol I will carry concealed in a holster. Satisfied that I have everything I need, I stowed the duffel in the Harley’s trunk. I am ready to ride.

On the morning of June 30, 2013, I mounted the Harley Davidson Electro-Glide Limited Motorcycle, listened to the engine roar for a moment, and headed west on US Highway 84 from Thomasville, Georgia. My wife gave me a teary-eyed farewell, with admonishments, for attempting this motorcycle trip at my age–and alone. When you are my age, you grow weary of hearing at your age.

When I reached Laurel, Mississippi, it was dusk. The ride here was uneventful, but it taught my body what to expect from consecutive long rides. A cheap motel, a hot shower, fresh clothes, and finding a suitable place to eat, were next on my agenda. Travel experiences have taught me the best way to find good food in an unfamiliar town is to ask residents where they eat, a practice I have found to be reliable. When I travel solo, I usually have a piece of fruit and a pack of crackers for lunch, not much, but a heavy lunch makes me sleepy; I have to be 100% alert when riding.

However, first, to get a sample of Laurel, to stretch my legs, and to garner a sense of the history of this old town, I walked the streets for an hour. If only I could have been an observer during the town’s heyday. My recall of American history is enough to encourage me to investigate monuments, and other reminders, of the events that took place in and around Laurel.

An elderly gentleman—he must be at least 90 years old– on a park bench catches my eye. He is a dapper dresser and carries a walking cane. The walking cane immediately catches my attention because I collect canes—particularly old ones. I stop, introduced myself, and take a seat next to the old gentleman. My decision to stop and talk to the man is fruitful because he’s giving me an hour and a half lecture on the history of Laurel’s growth, development, and rise to glory in a world economy. I am in my element.

He looks like the pictures of Mark Twain I have seen, his voice sounds like he has a mouth full of gravel, he is a virtual encyclopedia of local facts, and he lectured non-stop for over an hour holding me spellbound. It is almost impossible for me to get a question asked, but I love it.

His knowledge of the economic development of Laurel is as detailed as a chamber of commerce director could have flaunted. For instance, he tells me the details of how Laurel’s location in the pine belt helped to put them on the map economically, and as a result, the railroad coming to Laurel. He accents his speech by waving his cane around as though it were a conductor’s baton. He tells me in a sweeping, flamboyant voice how the Eastman-Gardiner Company led the way for giant lumber companies. Then in the early 1900s, he relates with great animation of his arms and hands, how Laurel mills shipped more yellow pine lumber than anywhere in the world. His face is filled with pride as he tells how the lumber business is revolutionized again in 1899 when John Lindsey invents the eight-wheel wagon.

I think the old gentleman has finished his lecture; he pauses to wipe his face with a fresh handkerchief and to catch his breath, but I am mistaken. He points to a statue nearby, takes a noisy breath, and insist on relating the story of William Mason’s invention of Masonite sheeting, a major enhancement for the building industry. The process he describes to make the Masonite comes across as a clear picture that I understand and can remember and tell again—as I fully intend to do.

I stand and offer my hand to shake hands with the old gentleman, but…

“Sit down, young fellow, I must tell you of when oil boomed near Laurel in 1942,” and he continues by telling me of his work in the oil fields where he labored until his retirement in 1980.

I did not want to ask the old fellow’s age, but one of the dates he recited in telling his stories would place him at about 95 years old. What an interesting character. I wonder if the old gentleman has anyone to take care of him, and my mind suddenly makes the old man an issue of concern. However, what can I have done? Nonetheless, what I had hoped to derive from the trip is already coming to fruition. This trip, so far, is turning into a calm adventure.

I make the mistake of asking the gentleman about his walking cane. As if our economic development discussion had not satiated me, the old fellow joins me in a lively dialogue about antique walking canes. I have met my match; his knowledge of walking canes boggles my mind, and I consider myself an expert on canes circa European turn of the century. I thank the old gentleman for adding to my meager knowledge of American history, as it happened in and near Laurel, Mississippi, and the new walking cane knowledge of the European genre. For some reason, I feel concerned to leave him; he is so old and fragile; I do not want anything unpleasant to happen to him—he has captured my heart. I am somewhat embarrassed by the feelings I am having, they are a new experience for me, but I like it.

I return to the motel to wash my clothes and get much-needed sleep. My ability to ride long distances depends on my getting seven or eight hours of sleep; good sleep equals good riding stamina. I chat with my wife for a few minutes and tell her that I love her,

Day Two

At 6:48 am, after a high protein breakfast, I mounted the Harley and headed west again on US Highway 84, refreshed and eager to experience day two of the trip. Whatever the day might bring, I was ready.

+++

The further west I ride, the higher the temperature climbs. By 10 a.m., perspiration-soaks my bandana and shirt. The thermometer on the Harley registers 102 degrees, and the air running over my body is repressively super-heated. I stop for and a wet down at a convenience store.

When the Harley is full, I replace the gas tank cap and go inside to pay for the gas. I was halfway to the register when I noticed a glint of polished metal near the attendant. My eyes focus on the glint trying to determine what it is. It instantly occurs to me the glint is a hand gun pointing at the attendant by a large man.

“Give me the damned money—now—quit stalling.”

The attendant is shaking with fear and appears un able to move. Her eyes are wide and her mouth is moving, but no words come out.

“You little bitch I’m telling you for the last time to hand over the money in that cash register or I will blow your fucking head off.” I freeze and hold my breath. My skin is taunt with adrenalin rush. My brain automatically chooses fight over flight. His back is towards me; about ten paces separating me from the robber. I could feel the hair on the knap of my neck rise and an old, but familiar, tingling sensation flooded my entire body. The young girl, did not respond to his demands and he is enraged. “Now what in the hell have I walked into—what do I now,” I asked of myself? The robber is about to shoot the cashier; he has raised the pistol to firing position. Old training surfaced from the depths of somewhere, and I quickly, but quietly tried to slow my breathing, unholstered my 9mm, and crept forward until I was within one foot of the robber’s back. He still had not detected me. I placed the muzzle of my 9mm at the base of his skull. I spoke to him quietly and slowly.

“Drop your weapon to the floor and place your hands behind your neck. If you do not comply with my demand, I will blow a large hole in your head. Do it now; my nerves are on high alert and I might accidentally squeeze the trigger.”

Will I pull the trigger on my pistol if he does not comply? Thank God, he complied, so I did not have to get an answer to that question.

“Don’t move, now, I’m keeping my pistol aimed directly at the back of your head until the cops arrive. Cashier, you have called the cops, haven’t you?”

“Yes, sir, they are on the way. They said to tell you not to shoot him.”

The cops arrive, the cashier, two other witnesses and I give statements to them. The ranking policeman allows me to leave pending recall of my presence if necessary. They record my cell phone number and tell me I am free to go.

The incident shook me; nerves are still on high alert, but I am surprised at how well I handled that situation. I am proud of myself and thankful for my army training. The journey continues. Several miles later I vomit my breakfast.

Huge rice patties, one after the other, line both sides of the highway for as far as my eyes could see. It is a beautiful sight by any standard. Elaborate irrigation systems kept the rice patties adequately watered, and that appearsto be a major factor in an operation of such magnitude. I surmise it takes huge amounts of water to keep up with the evaporation rate generated by a hot sun?

A fortuitous way to confirm my thinking appeares a few hundred yards up the highway, where a crew is busy working in the patties near the road. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I stop on the roadside to briefly ask questions of a man I think to be the work crew foreman.

He turns out to be the property owner. When I park the bike and introduce myself, he says his name is Bennet, and that he and his father own this rice field and several more nearby. He impresses me as pleasant enough, a burly farmer-businessman, so I ask him questions about growing rice until I have satisfied my curiosity. Mr. Bennet patiently answers all my questions showing satisfaction that I am interested in his livelihood. We drink ice water as he explains the harvest plan from the plantation, the nurturing growth of plants, to the actual harvest of the grain. The fact that the sun evaporates one gallon of water per acre per hour blows my mind. That is much water—this one field alone is 800 acres. Mr. Bennet explains that the main irrigation pipes lay on the ground in trenches between the plant rows. Water drips directly into the earth, so the plant roots can soak it up before evaporation takes it all. Wow! Mind-boggling. I almost forget to take pictures of the field, the irrigation equipment, and Mr. Bennet, but I remember my camera and take pictures during the last ten minutes of my visit.

“Mr. Bennet, you have made my trip worthwhile all ready with the gracious sharing of your time, knowledge, and by giving me a thorough explanation of your rice-growing operation. Thank you so much.”

“It has been my pleasure, sir, stop by anytime.”

Visiting Mr. Bennet cost me valuable riding time, but in retrospect, I was glad I made the stop because my brain soaked up much rice-growing history. Gaining new knowledge and information somehow extends my life so I might enjoy the new brain food.

###

The gas gauge reads nearly empty, and on this bike, when it says empty, that is what it means. It was time to look for a service station, and that is no easy task when one is on back roads in this sparsely populated country. It is a good idea to start looking for gas when the gauge is on one-third full.

Finally, the sign up the road advises me that gas is only four miles away—my lucky day.

The only working pump, judging by its design, appears to be at least thirty-five years old, maybe older, but it satisfys the Harley’s thirst; the old girl is averaging 35 miles per gallon. That is above average for an 835-pound bike carrying 250 pounds of passenger and luggage and cruising at 70 miles per hour.

The place looks abandoned—like a ghost town. There is no one in sight; the streets are empty, no children playing in the vacant spaces—or anywhere. There is only the sound of a brisk wind blowing copious amounts of dust and tumbleweed. A shiver ripples down my spine; could I be on a different planet, I thought. This is like being transported somewhere else surrealistically.

A water hose and spigot catches my attention at a corner convenience store, and I soak myself with the lukewarm water. The water cools me for about an hour before it evaporates. My stomach is complaining, and no wonder, I have been riding for five hours, and for lunch, an apple and a pack of crackers had sufficed.
A chat with the proprietor of the station proves educational and worth the time. He reminds me of Ichabod Crane, old and weathered, but as it turns out, he has a voluminous knowledge of the station and shares it with me telling me stories about the passing of ownership of the station. He speaks slowly with a little western twang. We introduce ourselves.

“My name is Herbert Wainright Spencer, mister, but folks call me Herb.”

“Nice to meet you, Herb, my name is Hampton Porter, you may call me Hamp.”

He immediately shifts into a story-telling mood as though he has anticipated the questions I might ask.

“My great-grandfather started the business in 1921, it passed to my father, and then to me thirty-four years ago. I admit neither owner, including himself, has done much to improve or keep up the property. Everything in and around the place is at least one hundred years old. The paint long ago peeled from the building’s side, and thick vine covers the entire structure, leaving just enough room for the front door and the windows. But who cares?”

Sympathizing with the fellow was easy; I thought it would be a sin to disrupt the natural beauty of this old place by making repairs. The station conjures up visions of another era. The proprietor’s story is fascinating and entertaining; obviously, he told the truth as he had experienced it. We share several beers as Herb tells one story after another.

“For example, my great grandfather was not only the first proprietor of this store; he engaged in human trafficking for ten years or more. His handlers brought women, some as young as 12, to my grandfather, Abraham, and he housed them temporarily in shanties out back of the station until they were sold.

The women had no possessions, only the clothes on their backs. Abraham fed them just enough to keep them alive. There was no heat in the shanties, and in the winter it was not uncommon for several women to die of a combination of hypothermia and consumption. This here old, faded, dusty ledger I’m holding records the sales of girls by the old man to buyers from Mexico and even the United States. According to the ledger, over 250 women were sold into the sex slave market by my great-grandfather.”

He showed me the vestiges of the only remaining shack where the women had been housed. As I stand amid the shack, I can almost sense the pain and hopelessness the women must have endured. The story and the presence of this old structure gives me goosebumps.

Anticipating my question, Herb said, “It is not my plan to offer the ledger to anyone or any organization; the ledger is not, nor would it ever be, for sale. I do not see what value the ledger could have to anyone but myself.” Pity, I thought.

“Herb, how often do you tell this story to people like me?”

“You are one of a very few. I sensed you were genuinely interested. The less attention this story receives, the safer the ledger,” said Herb.

“But, Herb, you deny history a rich story.”

“I do not care about all that, Hamp, besides, I would have to put up with a bunch of tourists; No thank you.”

It is getting late, I thank Herb for sharing the stories, we shook hands, and I walk away from the station shaking my head—unbelievable. Herb is a colorful storyteller. He knows how to bring characters to life, and how to keep his audience interested. In my opinion, one cannot learn how to be a great storyteller because it is a gift—one does not acquire it. An image of Herb will fondly remain in my memory.

The two extended visits make my day, but prevent me from covering the distance I wanted to ride. I later found a motel from hell in a small town. I do not remember it well; I think the name of the place is Oliver. The carpeting is threadbare exposing the sub-floor. The banana-shaped mattress rests on an old, exposed coiled spring. There is only one light in the room, a single naked bulb hanging from a moldy ceiling. The bathroom furnishings I will leave to your imagination. One could read a newspaper through the single bath towel, and the bedclothes are suffering from a lack of soap. I am too tired to care about soap and bedbugs. The proximity of these civil failures was two miles from Lilly Ville and the border of the US with Mexico. Cell phone reception is not possible in Lilly Ville, so. I ride down the highway several miles and find a pay phone. It is in ill repair, but I get a dial tone and decide to call home. My wife and I exchange reminders and love.

Day Three

The next day I ride across northern Louisiana and into Texas, but I could not make it through Texas— too far, and the day has been long and hot. I could not believe it, but I covered nearly five hundred miles in a little over twelve hours, enough to be convinced to find a motel and go to sleep. My old bones ache.

The bike thermometer registers 104 degrees when I pull in to Dillard, Texas at 6:45 pm. The town is composed of only a crossroads and four corners. One derelict Seven-Eleven store, a hardware store of the type that featured one of everything, a pathetic-looking grocery store, and a medical clinic housed in a mobile home occupies the four corner spaces of the little community. Approximately a dozen houses scattered within thirty feet of each other represent the residential part of town. A largely deserted silo covered in rust and vine dwarfs the other buildings. Two gas pumps in front of the Seven-Eleven store appear operational, and as had become my habit, after I fueled the bike, I found water to soak my clothes.

Inside the store, among the well-stocked shelves and bins, there is a wonderful ancient-looking lunch counter complete with marble countertop and leather-covered stools. A cold ham sandwich and a coke have to do for my lunch. To my surprise, a rather good-looking family owned motel was on the outskirts of town, I rented a room and settled in for the night.

Day Four

The entire day includes long stretches of empty road, the stench of cattle feedlots along the roadside, and extreme heat. The bike thermometer registers 104 degrees when I arrive on the outskirts of Euclid, Oklahoma at 6:10 in the evening. While enjoying good vibes from my body, I am also sensitive to the wear and tear on my older body. The need for sleep annoyed me through a great steak dinner. I find a nice air-conditioned motel room, and the rest is repetitive history. The quiet surroundings of the small community were conducive to eight hours of a sound sleep.

I called my wife before retiring, and we had a long chat about the children, grandchildren, and my trip, but mostly about our love for each other. I missed her even though I was thoroughly enjoying my trip.

Day Five

At six o’clock this morning, the temperature is a brisk 65 degrees, and the forecast calls for gusting winds, a heavy overcast and temperatures reaching only 97 degrees—a cool day for a change.

I share my breakfast time with twenty other early rising workers in the only place to eat. I enjoy a meal of bacon and eggs and listening to others.

Their talk includes the price of cattle feed and low on-the-hoof prices for beef. I learn it’s common to use feedlots to fatten cattle the last few weeks before taking them to market. While a little costly, this practice saves the cattlemen money in the long run.

“Sir, could you explain that eating the rich fodder for several weeks quickly adds weight to the animals thus increasing the on the hoof sales price.”

“Yes, sir, spoke up one of the cattlemen, you see, most cattle gain up to ten percent in body weight during the intensive three-week feeding period. The increase in on the hoof weight makes the cow worth more than the cost of the feed.”

“Thank you for the explanation, I’m embarrassed that I could not figure that out for myself.”

His explanation almost made the stench more durable for me. If only they could find a way to make money off the stench of the feedlots. That could mean much money to the right entrepreneur.

+++

Entertainment for my ride this day comprised two 18-wheelers that played with me by hemming me in with the aid of a third 18-wheeler. The result of such a game creates a rough air pocket for the rider who is caught in the trap. If the rider is fortunate enough to be riding a powerful bike, he can accelerate out of the pocket and save himself. Moreover, that is what I did. I’ve heard stories of bikers who are caught in these traps and do not ride away from them.

The Harley responds when I open the throttle, and I quickly slip out of their trap leaving the trucks far behind. They show their displeasure at my escape by honking their horns. The horns sound victory–for me. The rest of the day’s ride bored me. Dang, nothing but feedlots; it is difficult to get the stench of the feedlots out of one’s nostrils. It just has to neutralize over time.

+++

When I cross the Texas border into New Mexico, it’s time to look for a motel.

I check into the Silver Moon Inn, the only lodging around, pay for a $30 room and ask the proprietor for his recommendation for a good place to eat.

“There haint no good place ‘round here to eat, but if I was decidin’, I’d pick Maude’s Kitchen down the street.”

“Why pick that one, sir?”

“For two good reasons, stranger. First, I’d eat there ‘cause it’s the only place in town, and, second, ‘cause my wife owns and operates the place.”

“Well, that’s good enough for me. Thank you, sir, I’ll go that way right now.”

+++

The restaurant was easy to locate. It sports a modicum of design and decor. Someone who knew what they were doing had decorated the small building and made it blend into the local western landscape. The place is whistle-clean inside and out. While looking at the Remington prints placed artfully on the walls, I had not noticed the woman standing at my elbow. She is a waitress. I suppose I am too focused on the prints and their power to transfix me. Being in this place makes me think of what life must have been like one hundred years ago.

The hostess seats me at a table on a wall at the back of the room. It is a good vantage point. I can see the many patrons and many of the wall decorations that were Western prints by well-known artists famous for their interpretation of life in the Old West.

A handsome young man of apparent American Indian descent presents a menu, takes my order for a drink, and waits at a distance for me to choose a meal. His attire is in keeping with the well-executed interior décor. He recommends the daily special of pot-roast served with a local lager beer, and his recommendation proves outstanding. I eat the seasoned meal and enjoy its perfection. The good meal foretells a good night’s sleep. I pass on the beer.

While walking back to my bike, I notice a young girl, perhaps 15 or 16 years old, sitting on a bench near the front door. She is holding a baby that could not be more than a few weeks old. They both appear malnourished and in need of a bath and fresh clothing. They conjure an image of inmates at the Nazi Treblinka death camp.

I pass by them on the way to my bike without taking further notice; after all, they are none of my business. However, by the time I reach my bike, my heart was putting a guilt trip on me. I do not want to admit it, but my heart is breaking for them, and I know nothing of them or their circumstances. Why am I reacting this way? A higher power pushes me most of the way back to where they are sitting. For all I know, they are waiting for someone.

I approach them not knowing what to say to the mother because I diddown and out.n’t understand how to handle this situation; it is a new experience for me. I am ashamed to admit it, but I have not always had a lot of compassion for those down and out. However, something, or someone, put words into my mouth. When I spoke, my words sound as though someone else is speaking them. Nevertheless, when the young woman smiles at me, I become calm. I am surprised at the compassion I feel for her.

“Young Lady, if you don’t mind my asking, are you waiting for someone? Are you and the baby OK? Do you need help? Are you having difficulties?” I am nervous because of her reluctance to answer my questions. Besides, I do not know what questions to ask. Did I cause her concern by asking too many questions at once? My initial attempts at comforting the woman must have sounded clumsy. I tried to use a gentle tone of voice when I spoke. She finally spoke in a guarded back-country manner.

“Thank you, mister, but you do not want to get mixed up with me, my ex-boyfriend would hurt you real bad for helpin’ me.”

“Well, let me be the judge of that. When did you and the baby eat last, Ma’am?”

“I must admit it has been a while, maybe two days. The baby ain’t had no milk in three days. I’m awful worried ‘bout her. She don’t even cry no more.”

Tears flooded her cheeks as she spoke of the baby not having milk.

“I’m sorry, mister, but please don’t fool with us. We’d jest get you cross-wise with my ex-boyfriend, Buford. I don’t know why you even care, mister, but the baby and I will be jes’fine, thank ya anyways.”

I am close to tears; my throat is knotting up. I have never seen people so needy, right here in the USA, and right in front of a restaurant full of people, go without help. How many times have I overlooked similar situations? It does not compute in my head. Oh, I know there are poor people, but this is up close and personal—in your face. I am having feelings I have never known before. Right now, I would do anything in my power to make her life different—better. I am a witness to shamefulness and physical abuse, things I have not paid much attention to before now. I have always thought people make their fate in life. I no longer believe that. My whole way of thinking has changed and I like it.

Watching the young lady more closely, I see bruises on her arms, and scars from what might have been cigarette burns on her neck. Seeing the condition of this woman and child makes my blood boil. Anger overtakes me, and I tense up because I want to find and hurt the SOB who did this horrible thing and make the rest of his life miserable.

“Ma’am, please come inside with me, and I will get you a decent meal and milk for the baby. It will be OK. You come on with me, please. Don’t you worry?

Forget your ex-boyfriend; he will not be allowed to harm you or the baby.”

I shuffle my feet in a circular motion and lowers my head as I speak to the woman; my voice is softer but higher pitched. I have difficulty making and keeping eye contact with her. I am experiencing mixed emotions, a new experience for me–I am usually a black or white, wrong or right kind of thinker.

The woman reluctantly allows me to escort her into the restaurant. She walks behind me with her head down and covered in a shawl. I hear several grunts come from the woman as we find our way to our table. Many eyes follow us as we make our way through the crowded restaurant. The waitress who seated us looks condescendingly at the woman, but the woman does not take notice. The waitress’s behavior makes me wonder how often this young woman has suffered abusive treatment. Surely, she must have experienced love and kindness at some time in her life? The waitress took our order—steak for the woman, milk for the baby, and coffee for me. The man at the cash register caught my attention and motioned for me to join him. I excused myself telling the woman I wanted to pay the bill. When I approached the man, he stood close to me and whispered into my ear that the woman’s boyfriend was an extremely dangerous man. He had been in prison and might cut my throat if he found out I helped his ex-woman. He advised me to leave the area as soon as possible.

Taking his advice is the prudent thing to do, he probably has personal knowledge of this character. Before leaving, I tuck five one-hundred-dollar bills into the baby’s bib and caution the woman.

“Lady, I want you to use the money to put distance between you and the ex-boyfriend. Please do not argue with me, just do it.”

That act of kindness left me barely enough money to make it back to Georgia, but I figured they needed the money more than I. I left her pondering their future; what else could I have done? I got way too emotionally involved, with the mom especially, but I have to admit it made me feel useful as a human being.

Day Six

I slept later than usual, not getting on the road until 7:30. The radio says it’s going to be cooler than usual and overcast. Good news. It is going to be a good riding day.

I want to spend a few days in Santa Fe, so I connected with the interstate just before noon to make better time. Traffic resembles an army of busy ants, with 18-wheelers dominating the road. I’m riding most of the afternoon weaving in and out of trucks and avoiding truck traps like the one I encountered in Texas. The interstate in this area is void of places to eat and rest until I see a roadhouse up the road and I think I’ll stop. There are many bikes parked around the place–-all of them Harleys. Well damn! Judging by the way these bikes are painted, I have stumbled upon a motorcycle gang. If I go in, I hope they surprise me with friendliness and do not turn out to be of the Hell’s Angels variety. My stomach knotted up, and I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention. My whole body went on high alert, responding once more to an auto-reaction mode learned in the army fifty years ago. I cannot believe how this reaction still happens after nearly sixty years.

However, I am in the West, and some motorcycle gangs out here are notorious for their rowdy and dangerous behavior. Hunger and fatigue clouded my better judgment, and I chose to go inside in spite of that inner voice telling me no. I said a short prayer, parked my bike away from the others and went in.

The bikers’ colors (leather vests), displayed by the monogram on the back of their leather vests, identify them as the Desert Mayhem Riders. I have never seen those colors, nor have I ever heard of that group, but then I am no authority on biker colors. To see how this situation might play out will test my patients. I am wearing my Christian Motorcycle Association colors, and as is my habit when traveling, and I have my pistol on my person. I prayed silently that violence might be avoided, and I would not have to use the pistol. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck still standing. My palms were sweaty, and perspiration trickled down my nose. My mind automatically went to the worst case scenario. I got a lumpy feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I could feel my adrenaline spiking.

There was just enough space at the bar for me to take a seat and order a diet coke and a chef’s salad. Okay, that went without incident, and I relaxed just a little bit.. Everyone in the room was silent; they just stared at me without expression. When the waitress placed the food in front of me, the biker on my left shouted in a loud voice: “Well, look what we got here, gents. We got in our presence a gen-u-ine old fart pretending to be a biker, and he’s drinkin’ a soda pop.”

“Yeah, where you from old-timer, you’re not from ‘round here for sure? Moreover, what are you doin’ in this place?” another biker asked.

My ears rang with increased blood flow; my entire body went on high alert. I was at a decision point—fight or flight. “I want a snack—no trouble, gentlemen. After I’ve eaten, I’ll leave—no trouble, please.”

My hands were sweating profusely, now; I rubbed them down my pant legs slowly and repeatedly, a habit acquired in Vietnam before a firefight.

“What if your eatin’ and leavin’ ain’t all right with us, you ancient piece of crap?”

“That would be unfortunate. I told you I would eat and then leave and that’s what I intend to do.” I was committed now—fight. In the blink of an eye, a calm settled over me, and I knew I was now in total control of my emotions and body.

Without warning, the biker on my left swept my food off the bar with his heavily tattooed right arm.

“What are you going to do about that, you piece of dog crap? I think you’re so old you can’t even get it up anymore.”

I lapsed into the automatic response mode again. With my left hand, I hit him in his Adam’s apple with a crushing blow that sent him gagging to the floor; I drew my pistol with my other hand.

“I might be old, but I assure you, boys, I can take care of myself. Now, I know I’m outnumbered, but you boys should know I will not fight you, but I will put a bullet in the forehead of the next man who makes a threatening move towards me. Who will be first?”

I waited, hoping the jitters I felt inside did not show on the outside. Thank God, no one moved.

“No takers? Then stay where you are, and I’ll leave. If I see a hand reaching for a weapon, I will shot to kill. I’m leaving now; if you follow me, you might live to regret it. The bartender reached for and was shouldering, a double-barreled shotgun. I fired a shot over his head into the mirror behind the bar, and he chose to lay the shotgun back on the bar. I exited the bar walking backward, watching their hands, mounted my Harley, and sped away.

Once on my bike and heading down the road, I noticed that my entire body was trembling, and I found it hard to breathe for several minutes. Luckily, no one followed me, and my body soon relaxed. I think I aged ten years in that bar, but I must say I handled the situation rather well—and survived. I will be happy if I never have to face a similar situation again. I proven myself enough for the rest of my life.

Days Seven, Eight and Nine

I always enjoy Santa Fe; I have visited the city before, and it always reminds me of a large, sprawling country town, yet it’s modern and progressive. The price of property in Santa Fe helps to keep the growth of the city manageable. The cost of visiting here is much less expensive than the cost of living and owning property here. Visiting this beautiful historic town a few days I thought might erase the sting of my confrontation with that biker gang.

I booked a room in the Eden hotel in the old section of Santa Fe where the shops and restaurants I wanted to visit are located. A distant church bell chimed the time to be half-past eight. I showered, dressed, and walked along the main street looking for a familiar restaurant. As I remembered, it’s not possible to make a wrong restaurant choice in this city. The restaurants here are cutthroat when it comes to competitiveness, and to survive in this town, a restaurant has to consistently produce high-quality cuisine and exceptional service. As I finished that thought, I saw the Shed Restaurant; they have a wonderful beef oriented menu boasting old charm ambiance, a lot of mahogany wood, and large cloth napkins. I was in God’s country again. A wave of calmness enveloped me as I am seated by a hostess. I was thinking of how blessed I am when my cell phone rang. The sound of my wife’s voice intensified my euphoric moment. She said she could tell by the sound of my voice that I was a happy old man.

For three days, I visited my favorite places and ate well at The Pantry, The Ranch House, El Callejon Taqueria Grill, and The Loyal Hound restaurants. The episode with the bikers several days ago remained with me, but was growing steadily dimmer. On the morning of day four in Santa Fe, I reluctantly mounted the Harley and headed for home.

My reasons are several. First, while my riding skills are still sound, I find my coordination and timing is significantly slower because of my age. I am a danger to myself and others. Second, the mileage I have been accumulating every day in sweltering heat has taken too much out of me, and exhaustion has made me even more of a road hazard. Last, my finances are now five hundred dollars less than I had planned, and I have spent excessively on restaurants. I realize I have no choice but to accept my limitations and end the trip. Hell, I must be whom they say I am–an old fart.

Days Ten, Eleven, and Twelve

The decision to use interstate highways for the trip back home is a good one. It makes the trip back to Georgia shorter and safer. On interstate highways, good road time and high mileage are possible without so much exertion, and the decision encourages me to splurge for better lodging, and to eat well along the way. I made four hundred or more miles a day riding as long as it felt comfortable; I stop riding when I grow tired. There are probably many gems of visitation that I will miss along the way but perhaps next trip.

Day Thirteen

The skyline of Atlanta looks good, but I find the glut of traffic intimidating. I think the best solution to dealing with the traffic problem is to go straight through Atlanta on I-85 and I-75, avoiding I-285. Traffic moves slowly but steadily.

The ride from Atlanta to Thomasville is uneventful, but the six hours required seemed prolonged. The bike clock registers six-fifteen o’clock as I pull into my driveway. Fatigue has overtaken me but in a strange and gratifying way. I cannot help smiling in a hot shower as I recalled the high points of my trip. It has been an exciting two weeks for this 78-year-old man. I’ll bet my coffee club buddies will be jealous—if they believe my tales.

Day Fourteen (at home)

Sadie Grace is gives a surprise welcome home party for me the second night after my return. The coffee club fellows are invited along with the members of our family. There is plenty of food and drink, but everyone is in a hurry to hear of my adventures, if any were had. So I agree to answer all questions to the best of my ability, but I am uncertain if I can tell everything the way it happened. Truthfully, I am getting a little emotional just thinking about some of my encounters, but I promise myself to do my best to be factual, truthful and accurate in the telling of incidents. Our guests must have seen the pensive look on my face and they grew quiet.

“Well, who will ask the first question? Yes, Henry.”

“Did you have an encounter on the trip that stands out in your mind?”

The young woman and the child immediately came to mind, and surprisingly, my eyes moistened, and I needed to clear my throat. It took me a few seconds to regain composure.

“Yes, Henry, I did have such an encounter.” I related the story of the young woman and child, and the more I talked about that little family the more emotional I became. I almost could not finish the story. Tears flowed freely now, I excuse myself and take a short break in the bathroom to regain my composure. After five minutes, I return to the living room and encourage questions again.

Bill Kelly asked: “Hampton, was there a time when you were in real danger?” You do not have to answer the question if you had rather not.”

“No, I’ll answer the question, Bill,” and I tell them of the biker gang and the convenience store robbery. They are in awe and near disbelief. Their hometown boy, an ordinary friend, did those things, Wow. They were impressed, and I could tell that my family members were impressed. I was not impressed with those incidents; I was just grateful that I lived to tell the tale.

I went go on to tell them about the positive aspects of the trip, the rice fields; the hole-in-the-road store that had been a sex slave market; and Laurel, Mississippi and the walking canes; I related it all, how much I had learned about myself on the trip and how many blessings I had received along the way.

I asked them for their attention once more because I wanted to add something gravely personal to my comments. Everyone immediately grew quiet eagerly waiting to hear what I was about to reveal that was so personal. I cleared my throat again and began.

“Friends, I learned things about myself that I did not know. I learned that I have a good heart. I learned that I am capable of unashamedly identifying with the pain of others, and that it’s Okay. Moreover, I learned that it’s Okay to reach out to those who are suffering. I also learned that I am a brave person who values the lives of others, and I can face danger on their behalf when dire circumstances threaten their lives. Now, you all know who I am, and I’m pleased to have shared these things with you.” Conversation came to a high-pitched buzz and people started asking me a hundred questions; they all talked at the same time making it impossible for me to hear any one of them.

“Please give me your attention one more time. There is one more thing I would like to point out, and I do so in full awareness that it regrettably took me a lifetime to learn. I found out that one can gain so much information and hard knowledge about something, or someone, by just listening and earnestly showing interest. I remind you of the storekeeper whose grandfather bought and sold women into slavery. He opened up to me because I expressed a genuine interest in the history of the store and his family, and because I listened with a genuine interest in what he had to tell me. The rice farmer in Mississippi was eager to share his knowledge of rice farming because he thought I was genuinely interested in learning about rice farming. The more questions I posed, the more he was willing to share his knowledge. I learned true compassion from the young mother with a small infant because I showed a heartfelt interest in their predicament—that I cared about them—and do now.”

“Friends, my only regret is that I did not learn these lessons until my 78th year, and I am profoundly astonished at my failure to learn them sooner in my life. I admonish you all, my blessed grandchildren, take heed of the lessons I learned on my trip; your lives will be all the richer for having done so. Allow my last ride to be a valuable lesson for you. I love you all…”

END

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Categories: Fiction

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