Wednesday, February 17, 2016

At The Junction

 I wandered into the “Junction” around noon one day. It was after a wet, rainy night and a long walk with much of it in the dark.

The map gave little clue what might be found at the junction. The only person I encountered en route wasn’t sure what I might find there. He apparently didn’t pay much attention when he passed through hitchhiking to the south. There was an establishment at the junction but he wasn’t sure if it was open.

Well, praise be! The one and only business was open after all. Crossing under the Interstate, Pooh and I found a place to get watered and rested for an hour or two. Or so we thought.

Pooh began the rest while I entered the convenience mart looking for some refreshment. I quickly noticed that a good portion of the merchandise was not priced. I also noticed that customers didn’t seem to pay much attention. They just seemed to buy what they needed or wanted. Credit cards seem to induce people to act that way. I bought a few items which had prices marked at the same time I took up conversation with Gary, the manager.

In his fifties, Gary is a bespectacled man wearing a ball cap and orange shirt as well as a graying beard and an occasional smile. He told me he was dealing with a neuropathy - nerve problem - which affected his legs. He seemed a little gruff and testy at time. But, his story eventually explained some of the exterior.

Nonetheless, Gary took a bit of getting used to, especially for a fellow who asks questions. Still he responded to most of my queries and engaged more and more in conversation. I got to know Gary slowly over the coming hours.

To begin, I discovered he was from Detroit, had been a housepainter (some commonality), and had taken his present job at Papa Joe’s a couple years back. A big change and maybe a relief from his recent endeavors. Gary worked long hours and more than full time, but there wasn’t much else to do at the crossing which didn’t even have a post office. 

There wasn’t a house in sight, just a couple commercial buildings and parking lots. The building next door had been a restaurant off and on. On fairly recently, then off both during Gary’s tenure. The food was apparently good enough. But, the owner and the manager didn’t see eye to eye and the venture closed within months. I have to suspect that, like lots of places these days, getting reliable and persistent help may have added to the problem.

Then too, it seemed that the owner had unusual ideas about running his businesses. Besides not marking much of his merchandise, there was another sign of his commercial attitudes. Gary eventually pointed out to me - since I was walking I would not likely have noticed - that gas at the tanks in front of the convenience were priced at nigh on to $5.00 a gallon. The junction was in the middle of nowhere with many miles to the next stop in most directions. So, travelers had to pay the freight to get to the next gas pump.


My intentions were to break at the corner until late afternoon when things cooled before heading on with the trek. So, I went outside and leaned in the shade next to Pooh against the wall of the former restaurant.

That did not last long. I returned to Gary with the idea to clean up his parking lots a bit. He didn’t think much of that idea, but asked if I would mind clearing out the area around the dumpster in back of the mart.

I said, “Sure.” I took some plastic bags proffered by Gary and went to work.

I could have had job security if Gary had let me have charge. But, I contented myself with tidying mostly as he suggested. I filled several bags with trash and threw larger items directly into the dumpster. There was much more that might have been done, but Gary was happy with my contribution.

It seems that I hadn’t even finished the trash duty before my new friend said, “I will give you a ride to the next town, if you are still here at closing.”

Well, I was happy to accept such an offer. So, we would be staying until closing. I assumed that would be around 10, but it turned out to be quite a bit later.

I can’t quite remember where all the time went, since the stay at the Junction was for well over 12 hours. I do believe I returned to trash duty and tidied up some more. There was nothing for scenery or places to visit. Just the desert and highways in all directions. Oh, there were railroad tracks behind the shop, but I don’t remember any traffic.

By evening, Gary announced that he would drive me to the next town after the next town when the day was done. Well, there was further inducement to stay on at the Junction.

As the darkness came on, I spent more time inside the mart. Business seemed fairly steady. People came and went. Put gas in their tanks and bought food for their stomachs.

I found more jobs in the shop as Gary slowly prepared to close. While he did paperwork, etc, I volunteered to mop the floors, clean the bathrooms and fill the pop machines with ice. Gary showed me what to do, and I did it acceptably well.

The little jobs continued and the night moved into the next morning. Gary was to be off duty for a day or two and needed to take care of extra chores.

It was almost 2:00 in the morning when we lit out. By that time, Gary seemed so happy for the company and the help he said he would drive to a distant town on my route and then turn east, then make a loop back to the Junction as an outing for himself.

The vehicle was an old van parked in front. Weather-beaten and aged, but apparently - and hopefully - trustworthy. The passenger seat was loaded, so Gary told me to get in back where I reclined on a mattress. Maybe the van was Gary’s home after work hours. I never thought to ask about his residence.

Ensconced - so to speak - in the rear of the van on the mattress, I asked questions and listened Gary’s stories for the next few hours.

And, I got an earful. Much of which I quickly forgot. Gary’s story was a harsh one of growing up in Detroit with two brothers. Gary’s mother died when he was young and his relationship with his father went from bad to worse over the years. I know not on what side of town he was raised, but he soon enough fell in with ask tough crowd and got on the wrong side of the law.

Somehow, he managed an out by joining the US Army. But, that hardly worked and Gary was absent without leave for a long time for which he had to make recompense. (I have lost much of the story from its telling in the dark of night on the highway as he talked and I cranked my head to listen while wanting to sleep.)

My fellow traveler lost both of his brothers as the result of violence in their early adult years. Fortunately, Gary pulled himself up and out of trouble over time. Took on respectable jobs and gravitated to the West.

Along the way, he had many experiences hitchhiking into the Rocky Mountains and the Far West many years ago. He told me of thumbing with boxes and boxes at his side. People picked him up and got him up - or down - the road. Just like he was doing for me.

I have been fortunate for numbers of former hitchhikers of the past who have seen me on the road and spontaneously volunteered to assist my venture or adventure. “It takes one to know one.” Or at least it helps.

Anyway, the early morning excursion passed on. Halfway up the road, we stopped for gas and refreshments at a relatively new, almost sparkling convenience station. Gary paid for the gas, I paid for breakfast. Then, we hit the road again as conversation waned and I eventually took a nap.

Gary persisted at the wheel no worse for the wear and dropped me off 200+ miles toward Montana. I began the next leg of the journey in one of the larger towns in that part of the desert while Gary turned to the east on a little excursion. Pooh and I stepped out to the north after but a few minutes to get oriented to the town and the map. Almost of a sudden, we had covered a large chunk of our trek and Wyoming was then not too far up the road.

I have been in touch with Gary three times. I sent him a postcard and later a copy of my Montana book. Then, we had a brief face-to-face visit on a quick car trip back to Arizona in September.

I never know whom I will encounter on my travels. Almost without fail, I have met the best of people and they have treated with kindness and respect and generosity.

Gary is one of those friendly Americans. My hat is off to Gary and the millions like him.

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