by Scott Laughlin
The cell phone buzzed against my leg. I considered letting the voice mail take it, but what if it were Barb? After backing off the throttle, my CB-900C slowed and I let it drift over the fog line, across the rumble strip and then brought it to a halt on the narrow shoulder, and retrieved the call.
"Where you at?" It was Frank, the redheaded Irishman in Show Low, a popular tourist town in the foothills of Arizona's White Mountains.
"I'm east of Post, Texas."
" John rode in from Oregon a while ago. When will you be here?"
"I'm pedaling as fast as I can."
"Or the next day." After a few minutes of small talk I shoved the phone back in my pocket and pressed on.
John had brought along the ashes of a long time friend, Joe. After retirement in the 1990s many of our generation migrated to Southern Arizona. By chance, some of us took roots at a place called Why, and established extended families. Joe was a member of this group. His final wishes were that his remains be spread at Apache Creek, New Mexico, a place where he’d spent many summers. This last request was the driving force behind our gathering.
I'd left Dallas at dawn. By mid-afternoon the temperature was a significant factor and the hot wind brought one of Green Smith's prophetic phrases to mind. "Crossin' Texas is like wipin' yer ass on a hula-hoop. There ain't no end to it," he once said. That was only one of many homespun adages that propelled him through life. Three decades earlier had been my boss when I wrenched at a Ford store while he was service manager.
Hailing from Texas, he put his southern drawl to good use in the Pacific Northwest.
I recalled one afternoon when he put his talent to good use while coping with an angry female customer. Her bun and the manner of her dress made me assume she was a Mennonite, but the words she used made me think otherwise. Armed with a perpetual smile he nodded at appropriate intervals while she shouted in his face. After she’d had her say he put an arm around her shoulders and guided her toward the waiting room
“How do you stand all the negatives?” I later asked.
“It’s not personal. They’re yelling at Ford Motor Company, but I’m as close as they will ever get to Henry.”
A small New Mexico town shimmering in the afternoon heat brought me back to the present. I stopped at a convenience store and pushed through the door to enjoy some air conditioning and a cold Gatorade. An old man, seeing that I was heading for check out, raced me to the clerk. But once he was there he couldn't decide which scratch off ticket to buy. My patience with gamblers is limited at best, and the July heat had not enhanced my tolerance. I was about to make a choice for him when he put his cash away and hobbled out the door.
Hours later, with the sun in my eyes, I rolled into Roswell. Through the glare I spotted the Stork Motel. It was clean and a Sonic was conveniently located across the street. By the time the innkeeper added the tax the sum had reached $63.68. I tried to chisel him but I probably looked like hell and he wouldn't budge. In hopes of wearing him down I shared a story about cockroaches in an Aspermont, Texas motel. His eyebrows arched when I told him how hundreds of these bugs raced across the carpet after I switched on the overhead light. He assured me that no such thing would ever happen at the Stork. To prove his sincerity he reduced his fee to an even $63.
Shortly after dawn I was back on the road, riding that motorcycle like I’d stole it. By noon I was in the Rockies. Pie Town, one of my favorite places, loomed ahead, along with a menacing thunderstorm. A pavilion, usually vacant except for the weekend of the annual pie festival, has an entryway that accommodates the width of my handlebars. I wheeled beneath the shelter and enjoyed my lunch, peanut butter burritos and cold coffee. Then I stretched out on a table and napped while raindrops the size of my thumb hammered the metal roof. An hour later I awoke to the pungent aroma of damp juniper.
By early afternoon I was in Show Low. In minutes we were all on Frank’s porch and it was time for sharing stories.
John had been a Texas factory rep for Norton and BSA during the '60s and '70s, and in those years he’d harvested a fine collection of Texas tales.
"Back in the early sixties," John began, "I owned a Beemer. Another feller, Bert, had a BMW, too. We had fun riding with a Harley group. I knew firsthand about the vibration that set in just shy of seventy. So me and Bert held our speed close to 69. By the time we’d reached Hico, the Harley mirrors and fenders were beginning to loosen up. Bert and me would pull in and drink coffee while the Harley boys got out their wrenches and tightened everything up again. About the time they were done we'd settle up with the waitress and have another go at it. Those poor devils never did get any coffee when they rode with us."
Then it was Frank's turn.
"In the late '60s I was news director at a large radio station in Philly. My future in broadcasting was pretty secure, that is, until Paul came along. Paul, after inheriting a fortune from an uncle, purchased that Philly station.
"After a month he announced that he was taking over as news director. I told him he wasn't cut out to be a newsman, that there was more to the job than meets the eye. But he told me he could be anything he wanted to be because he owned the place. I couldn't argue with that. I handed him the copy I'd gotten off the wire, and stepped aside to watch.
“Astronauts, having just set foot on the moon, were en route back to Earth. Folks at NASA were concerned about the dangers of unknown organisms that might be on their clothing, so they wanted them in quarantine for about two weeks.
"Paul couldn’t read. The dumb shit announced that the astronauts would go into quarantine in case they’d had an orgasm on the moon.
"That evening the FCC announced that Paul would no longer be the news director and I got my job back."
We’re geezers. John is 77 and a Republican claiming to be an Independent. Frank is 69, a staunch Democrat and quick to tell anyone who cares. They've been friends and enemies for more than a decade, taking turns setting one another off. After a yearlong Obama/Hillary shootout I’ve heard more than enough politics. On the second day I promised to pack up and head back to Texas if these heated debates continued.
Thursday arrived. It was time to take care of Joe. We loaded our stuff and headed for New Mexico. Reserve, the closest town to Apache Creek, apparently has only one motel. I fueled my bike while they booked a room. But when I joined them they were both sitting in lobby chairs staring at the floor. The young lady had told them a room would cost us $80. Dividing the cost three ways was affordable, even at that price, but they were hung up on the notion that the room should cost no more than $75.
"Ma'am, we didn't come here to enjoy your fair town," I began. "We're three old farts honoring the final wishes of a departed friend. Tomorrow we're going to spread his ashes at Apache Creek. John has ridden his machine all the way from Milton-Freewater, Oregon. I came from Dallas. Frank lives in Show Low. We’ll have a lot of miles ahead of us before we’re finished. With fuel at more than four bucks, even motorcycle travel is expensive. If there's anyway you can make this room affordable we'd certainly appreciate it."
"Well, I could let you have it for $70."
"We're grateful, Ma'am," I replied.
"How'd you do that?" asked Frank.
"I asked her for a geezer discount," I answered, smiling.
In the end, the young lady won the battle. She wouldn't furnish a third bed unless we coughed up another ten bucks. Our friendliness goes only so far, so we flipped a coin. Frank slept on an air mattress on the floor.
The following morning we headed for Apache Creek. We discussed accompanying John on this mission. But after learning that Joe's daughter and two cousins would witness the ceremony, we decided against it and waited at the store.
Our intention was sincere. Frank and I claimed our seats in the shade beneath the overhang. However, after an hour the sun had moved and the place had become like a sauna. We asked the lady in the store to tell John we'd be hanging out at the Datil store 60 miles to the north where there was air conditioning. He knew the way.
Apparently we were hasty. John was only ten minutes behind us. After fueling we headed east. I assumed we would ride together, but a silent rivalry exists between these two. Sometimes John and Frank are like a couple of kids. I didn’t see them for nearly 70 miles—the other side of I-25 at San Antonio.
While we drank milkshakes and caught our wind on the shady side of a San Antonio store a family, grandpa, pop, and a grandson brought a green pickup and stock trailer to a rattling halt. In the trailer were two horses, saddled and dusty from a days work. Dad and the grandson bailed out and disappeared inside the store, and as they passed I caught the ring of the grandson's spurs. Minutes later both returned with cones on which the ice cream was piled the size of softballs. I wondered if that was the boy's pay for punching cows. Both horses, accustomed to trailer travel, leaned forward as grandpa romped on the throttle and roared on toward Socorro.
Valley of Fire Recreation Area, near Carizozo, was our destination for the day. My National Park Geezer Pass guaranteed a campsite for half the going price—only $9 for the three of us.
A coin flip decided Frank would sleep on the sheltered table. John and I planned to throw our air mattresses on the asphalt and not bother with tents. But the park host pointed to menacing clouds that she said promised rain. It didn’t look good. While Frank kept his table, John and I rented a second site offering two tent-friendly areas. Sometime after midnight a squall line screamed through, fulfilling the pledge. Had we been on the asphalt we would have been two rats on a sinking ship.
After daybreak we packed our wet belongings and swung by Frank's table, informing him that we’d be at the diner in Carizozo. Frank seldom cared for breakfast, so waiting for him to pack would have been a waste of time.
By the time breakfast was finished, a drizzle had begun.
"Where's your rain gear?" asked Frank, his eyes searching my bike.
"Don't have any."
"I threw it away when I left Oregon in '99. I didn't know it rained anywhere else."
Miles later, at Capitan, we found three Harley riders wearing all the Milwaukee fanfare—HD leathers, caps, and jackets. Like us, they were gray beards.
"Where's the young fellers at?" asked John.
"They're probably working so I can keep riding my Harley," one said.
The chatter began. John wanted to talk. Frank wanted to smoke. I wanted to get out of the rain.
"See you down the road," I said.
By mid-afternoon the rain was behind us, but the sun and humidity had taken its toll. Our nerves were in tatters.
"I'm going to tie it up here," said Frank as I prepared to leave Post, Texas.
"We can't stop here. It leaves too many miles for tomorrow. We need to make Aspermont today in order to beat the DFW metro traffic tomorrow," I said.
Frank glared at me. "Well, if we hadn't wasted an hour at breakfast we might already be in Aspermont."
"Really!” I countered. “Let me count the hours I've waited while you packed up that huge kit and caboodle you haul around. Hell, if it weren't for that we might already be in Dallas. See you in Aspermont."
A dozen miles later they swept past, motioning for me to the shoulder.
"We've checked the map. Clairemont is about 70 miles. How's that sound?" asked John.
"That sounds okay, but I can't recall ever stopping in Clairemont."
We pressed on. Eventually we closed in on Clairemont and found two windmills, the ruins of a service station and the rusting hulk of pickup. There was no choice but to continue on to Aspermont where we were nearly trampled by the innkeeper getting a third bed into the room.
"Let's load up and get the hell out of here," shouted John
I blinked against the glaring ceiling light. I thought I’d died and gone to boot camp. "What time is it?" I asked.
"It's a little past three. Let’s go, people. Let's roll."
By 4 o'clock we were ready. I cautioned the two of them about deer and loose cows on the roadway. They blinked their sleepy eyes but said nothing, so I let them lead. And the dark miles dragged by.
About sunrise I found John waiting on the shoulder.
"He’s having a coffee at that store." Following his finger across the four-lane I spotted Frank at an outdoor table.
We waited and waited some more. After a while Frank went inside. I thought he was throwing away the paper cup, but he returned with a refill.
"What the…?" growled John. "Come on," he added.
"You can follow us or you can find us. Make it easy on yourself. We're going after real food," snarled John as he circled the lot where Frank was seated.
Frank blinked, then he poured out his coffee and followed. A few miles further east John found a McDonald's.
"Get me a small coffee while I find some gas," shouted Frank, wheeling back onto the street.
Minutes passed and Frank pushed through the door. I motioned him over and pointed to his coffee. He snapped off the lid and took a sip then stared at John’s breakfast.
"So this is real food?" he asked.
John’s stopped chewing. His eyes narrowed, but he held his tongue.
A half-hour later we separated. John and Frank headed for Fort Worth where they would spend time with John’s daughter.
I was home in an hour.