June 1, 2018
After you spend enough hours on the roadside, you can start to feel a need to shake it up a little. You can start to get superstitious, like a gambler who fingers a button on his sports jacket or a ballplayer who circles the plate before stepping into the batter’s box. You start to glorify rituals. Posture. Positioning. The angle of the hat. Am I squinting? Why do they keep driving right past me? If I can just figure out what’s in the mind of each of those drivers passing by, maybe I can alter my routine and magically, the next car will stop. And if that works, I tell myself, I can get out of Craig and move on westward.
Then you run out of tricks, and if you stay out there long enough, you run out of patience. It had been a long morning already, and after two cars stopped on the roadside to check their phones, making me think they were stopping for me, I decided that it was time for a complete makeover. My plan had been to keep hitching west on Highway 40, to stay off the Interstates. I-80 was less than a hundred miles north, and Interstate 70 just an hour and change to the south. In consultation with my son, Rob, who lives in Colorado, I decided to find a road headed north into Wyoming to catch 80 West to Salt Lake City. Neither of us had any idea what Highway 13 looked like, or how friendly Creston, Wyoming might be to hitchhikers, but right now it seemed like getting out of Craig was a goal worth pursuing at all costs.
It didn’t work, but in the eight miles I spent walking through Craig, I met two people who brightened my day.
I had read about the Museum of North West Colorado in the Craig Daily Press, a spunky publication which, despite its name, comes out in print three days a week. The Press reminds me of why I love reading a dead tree paper as opposed to scrolling through a website on my phone. Here’s an example. When is the last time you clicked on the obits tab of a news site? Probably when someone you knew had passed away and you wanted to know where to go to pay your respects. Well, I don’t know a soul in Craig and hadn’t packed any clothes fit to wear to a wake, but that morning in the Daily Press I flipped a page and came face-to-face with Mr. Lyle Valora, a recently departed coal miner and heavy equipment operator from Hayden, Colorado.
Mr Valora, the Press informed me, had badly injured an arm in a 1982 chain saw accident, and that injury put him out of work for 10 years. He got cracking as an advocate for people with disabilities, including going to Washington to advocate for passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Lyle is quoted as saying that he wanted to change the laws so that he could go back to work and support his family. When he was legally allowed, he went back to work for the Colowyo Coal Company, retiring in 2013 with 30 years in the mine. I know I’d be a poorer man if I had not spotted the smiling face of Mr. Valora as I sipped my coffee. May he rest in peace.
Another tidbit in the Daily Press caught my eye, a rather pedestrian but well-written piece about the county budget. Coal is key in Craig, and coal, you might have heard, is having a bit of a poor spell. Mostly because natural gas has become a cheaper source of energy, but also because people and the government have gotten tired of coal, the dirtiest of fossil fuels, fouling the air and warming the atmosphere. Note that I am writing this after having (spoiler alert) gotten out of Craig at long last, because I did not want to offend the good people of Craig, not one of whom has a bad word to say about the 11 local mines that pay more than $20 per hour, double the minimum wage that they’re likely to be offered when the mines close and they go hunting for work in a tourist trap in Steamboat Springs.
And coal money funds everything in Craig – including the sole museum in town, which is on the chopping block if they can’t find another way to keep the lights on.
Though it’s hard to imagine today, coal mining had its moment at the forefront of the progressive movement in the United States, a little more than a century ago. In 1913, the largely Greek immigrant miners working the Rockefeller-owned Ludlow mine in southern Colorado got fed up at the wages and working conditions, organized and struck, sparking a nearly two-year long battle known as the Coal Field War.
The war in the coalfields was an important part of the labor movement history, an effort that led to the establishment of the eight-hour working day. It inspired this gruesome ballad by Woody Guthrie, The Ludlow Massacre.
Bill Mackin looks old enough to have been a witness to the Coal Field War. I met him when I crossed Yampa Avenue on my way north toward the edge of town in search of a ride to Wyoming. The Museum of North West Colorado was open, and Bill was the only one there. He has trouble hearing. He breathes through a cannula on his nose which runs to an oxygen tank strapped across his chest. But none of that bothers Bill. It’s his memory that bothers him, he confides to me, just moments after I walk in. “I’ve got Alzheimer’s,” says Bill. “I’m kinda the local historian. And a historian without a memory ain’t worth much.”
By the time I left Bill an hour and a half later, he had proved his introductory statement false. He may feel that he’s slipping, but his memories of an amazing life on the high plains were crisp and fascinating. Bill had grown up in this area, traveling all over the west trading guns and horses, both of which he considered enjoyable hobbies. He was a hunter, and the museum was full of both the weapons he used to hunt as well as dozens of stuffed mule deer, mountain lions, and other prey he has managed to kill. Somehow along the way, he ended up in Salt Lake City, where it is hard to find liquor, but Bill proved to be skilled at hunting this as well. In time, he took the first of twelve steps, turned his life around, and became one of the first substance abuse counselors in the State of Utah. He eventually became a psychologist, and made a career in mental health and alcoholism treatment that lasted 30 years.
I’ve never managed to attain the status of a full alcoholic, though I’ve been associated with enough “friends of Bill” that I feel like if they had a JV team I might be allowed to pitch, or at least ride the bench. Bill’s story moved me enough that I told him the story of my own father, a friend of Bill for decades, and a recovered alcoholic who also dealt with Alzheimer’s in his final years. This hitchhiker and the old horse trader shared an embrace and wiped a tear before departing.
I left Bill at the museum thinking that, if I had walked all the way cross the country just for this hour to spend with him, it would have been completely worthwhile. And he didn’t even give me a ride.
Nebraska was a long slog punctuated by some really fine people. On my longest, hottest day waiting on the side of the road, the day that I spent half an hour every few hours cooling off in McDonald’s, I finally got a ride west of Omaha.
The ride was due to the kindness of Scott, a Mennonite who grew up on a farm and whose entire family is passionately dedicated to basketball. He was in Omaha taking his daughter Mesa to a high school hoops tournament.
Scott saw my sign lying on the table and asked which way I was headed. “We have to go to church and then to her game, but if you’re still here when we’re done, we can give you a ride two hours west.” That sounded wonderfully generous, and at the same time I found myself hoping that by the time the liturgy and the tournament had terminated, I would already be far down the road.
It wasn’t meant to be. Omaha and I just didn’t click. But Scott, true to his word, came looking for me at around 4:30 in the afternoon. Mesa’s team had lost by three points. Mesa herself did not play, due to an injury incurred at volleyball practice. I could tell that they were good sports in many ways.
Scott has always been a coach. He makes his living doing other things, first farming, then banking and insurance. He’s driving a 1993 Buick that he bought with 90,000 miles on it. As he talks of his wife and his kids and the land he loves, it is clear where his riches lie. He lives four hours from Sioux Falls, four hours from Wichita Falls, and four hours from Kansas City, which probably means little to my friends back east, but it defines this Nebraska family’s world. We push on past Lincoln, which I only know from a Springsteen song as Scott tells me that he’s never ridden on a railroad train. The farthest east he has ever traveled is Richmond, Indiana (for a basketball tournament). The Mennonite community where they live, and where his parents live, consists of 600 souls.
I ask Scott why he picked me up. I already knew the answer. It would make more sense to ask him why not? “It’s just the right thing to do,” he says. “People need help. If my daughter were on the side of the road with a flat tire, I hope someone would help.” He told me that the sermon at church today included a phrase that stuck with him – be a doer, not a hearer, of the gospel.
Glad I was that Scott had heard and was willing to do. What I failed to do was to take a decent picture of him and his daughter as they let me out of the car in Aurora (a bit past their home, but a place they thought I would be more likely to find a ride). Sorry Scott! And sorry, Mesa.
So this picture is not Scott, but Brodie, my new friend on the central Nebraska prairie. I met him in the Love truck stop after two hours on the ramp trying to get a ride West. One young man slowed down, lowered his window an inch or two, and tentatively reached out to me with a dollar bill in his hand. I walked toward him, thanking him and explaining that I didn’t need money, but rather a ride to Denver. Clearly conflicted, but not stopping, the young man sped off down the ramp.
Back east, Ellen had been checking Trip Advisor and AirBnB for accomodations, and sending me texts that indicated she had no luck. As I walked I surveyed the landscape, looking for a place to sleep. The prairie was starting to come to life in mid-spring, but it quickly became obvious that there were no trees close enough to one another to allow me to hang a hammock. Instead, I found a level spot that looked like a comfortable place to lie on the ground.
That was my plan as I entered the Arby’s at the Love’s truck stop and met Brodie. I asked him what the best thing on the menu was and he said without hesitation that it was the grilled chicken salad. It had been years since I set foot in an Arby’s so most of my info on the chain came from Jon Stewart, who regularly ridiculed the chain on the Daily Show, once famously referring to dinner at Arby’s as “the meal that’s a dare for your colon.”
Well my colon is pretty daring. That chicken salad was the best thing I had eaten in days. Yes, if you’re a careful reader you will have noted that the competition in that category consists of the Denny’s Grand Slam, the McDonald’s Egg McMuffin, the Big Mac, and an aging summer sausage, but this salad was unquestionably the top of the line.
Brodie has to be the nicest man in a prairie full of nice people. As he rang me up he announced that he was giving me a 10 percent discount for smiling. He had a huge smile himself. Being a cynical New Yorker, I suggested that maybe Brodie was finding a nice way to avoid telling me that he was giving me the senior citizen discount. No, he insisted. I can give anyone a 10 % discount for any reason, and I’m giving it to you for your smile. Shucks. We were now fast friends. I told Brodie about my trip, gave him a wristband, and when I mentioned how I got dropped off her by Scott and his daughter, he soon ran through his memory of the residents of Henderson and of course he knew Scott’s whole family.
It was the night of the third game of the Cavaliers-Warriors NBA championship finals, and Brodie got out his remote at my request and tried to find the game. Sadly, his efforts did not pay off. Cornhuskers are big on high-school basketball, and ferocious fans of their college teams, but I guess pro hoops were not enough of a priority.
I sat down for a while and began to do some research on the Nebraska prairie where I planned to spend the night on the ground under the stars. What google offered up were images of copperheads and a variety of rattlesnakes, which are generally averse to bothering people but which will, on a cool evening, find something or someone warm to snuggle with. The forecast was for low temps in the 50’s. Suddenly my idyllic image of an adventurous night under the stars was jangled by the thought of a cold blooded viper using me as a furnace and my sleeping bag for insulation.
Brodie pulled up a chair and set down a pair of pastries. “It’s turnover time.” This really was a full-service restaurant. Brodie and I had a lovely chat about hitchhiking. He told me of his two little kids, how he just moved to this town so that his wife could be closer to her family. He had given up what sounded like a pretty nice Italian restaurant in Wyoming (he is a chef by training). I didn’t mention the snakes, but somehow in the conversation he brought up the midnight bus headed west that comes through the truck stop around midnight. That sounded even better than a 10 percent discount or a free turnover.
And that is how I got to Denver. Driven out of Nebraska by snakes. With fine memories of a Mennonite basketball family and a fast food manager who knew how to make a traveler feel welcome.