Monday, July 13, 2009

Highway Willie

From a paper I wrote circa 1998(?), subsequently published in Oregon Cycling, about a chance encounter in 1996.

The morning we met Willie it was hot. It shimmered off the asphalt pointing ahead, bracketed by dry brown Idaho grass and sage brush. We had been following old Highway 30, or at least the part that had escaped the freeway, all morning. It was only ten o'clock, but the heat was enough that we thought he might have been a mirage up ahead of us. For all we know, he might have been.

I had been on the road all summer and had not seen another cyclist since before I picked up my two companions several weeks before. It didn't take long in the featureless Idaho landscape to figure out why. The heat alone was enough to drive you north into the Montana Rockies where the trans-America bicycle path wandered. We were on a different path, however, our route set by my ancestors one hundred and fifty years ago. We were following the old Oregon trail as closely as we could and I was determined to see and feel as the pioneers did. Willie was on the same road, but with a different mission.

It didn't take long for us to overtake Willie, just long enough for our amazement to grow as we realized how much weight was on his bicycle. It must have been a good seventy pounds precariously lashed here and there. Such clothing and items must have constituted all he owned. It was piled up high enough that it wasn't until we came along side that we could take full stock of what we had discovered. He was wearing well worn cut-off jeans with no shirt to shield him from the fierce sun. The dark tan and deep lines on his face spoke of more than one summer in the outdoors. His only traditional bicycle gear was a pair of leather work gloves with the fingers cut off. I'm sure they were more for comfort than for looks. Nothing about him spoke of extravagance.

Willie didn't seem the least bit phased by our sudden appearance, and began a rapid conversation in clipped English as though we had been there all along. We talked for a while as we plowed through a sea of sagebrush, our pace matching Willie's. He seemed to defy physical laws as he kept his bicycle headed straight and steady with his slow pedaling. The freeway drew nearer as we chatted and pedaled.

"Highway Willie," as he insisted everyone call him, was from Mexico. He was on his way to a small Idaho town called Burley where a friend had a job and a trailer waiting for him to live in. "Her husband die and she have no one to help so she say, 'Hey, Willie, come work for me,' so I am coming," he told us. We had our sights on Burley too, although we were just going to spend the night there and move on the next day. It would take Willie two days to cover the same distance, but considering his load, that was understandable. He didn't seem to be in any hurry, even this close to his destination. "I have a friend in American Falls I promised to stop by and see," he explained. Willie, it seemed, made friends wherever he went.

Old highway 30 was eventually overtaken by the freeway once again and as we approached the overpass Willie informed us that he was going to take a break. We were falling behind our schedule, but we were too intrigued to leave just yet. We pulled off to the side with Willie next to a stop sign. There wasn't a shade tree within sixty miles. Cars whizzed by in air conditioned comfort without even noticing four travelers overlooking them. I pointed out the small teddy bear hanging from Willie's rear fender. "I find him in Arizona," he told us. "The kids like him." Everything on Willie's bike had a story. "I find these too," he said, pointing to an automobile side view mirror held to his handlebars by rusty vice-grips. "It helps to see the trucks coming."

Willie reached into the confusion that surrounded his handlebar and pulled out a beer. "Still a little cold," he said with a sheepish grin. He offered us a sip, but we passed. It was a generous offer from a man who has so little. We sipped casually on our scientifically formulated sport drinks. We discovered that he had traveled the same path we had since Salt Lake City. That seemed to cement our quick friendship and we laughed about the long climb out of the Valley and the treacherous road construction we had survived the day before. Willie informed us how a friendly highway patrol offered to drive him past the miles of fresh gravel and asphalt. "'I'll make it,' I told him. 'Always do. Just got to look out for the trucks.'"

I asked Willie how his bike was holding up. It was a Murray lady's ten speed. "Oh, it do all right. A friend give it to me. My last one wore out." Slight chuckles emerged. I calculated the worth of his bike as being equivalent to what I had spent on my last set of tires. The next statement caught us short. "I overhaul the bearing and stuff in Salt Lake," he continued with a grin. "I think we going to make it." A spare tire poking out of the bundle on the back seemed to verify that he was bit more savvy than we had suspected.

The sun was much higher by then, and we were not any closer to our destination. We tried to explain to Willie that we must be moving on. I doubt he understood. With a smile he told us that he was going to rest a bit more. He pulled out a Marlboro and lit up before waving as we mounted up and started off. We crossed the overpass and picked up where old Highway 30 emerged from the freeway again. Off into the distance the two paths diverged. We had to pedal hard to make up for lost time, but none of us regretted the time spent. Willie would forever be a part of our Idaho landscape memories.


Eldon and Janeil Olsen said...

I love reminiscing in a blogpost. What an adventure you guys had!

Imagitext said...

Wonderful. I should have read that article years ago so I could learn what good writing was. I really wasn't up this late. Sorta.

Anonymous said...

Awesome! Any luck finding your trail site? -Carl

Gail said...

Well, hopefully I won't steal the comment Grant would make, but for a long time after, whenever hay came into the scenario, Grant would say, "Smells like Idaho."

When people would ask him what the trip was like, he'd comment that he saw "a tree" in Idaho.

Both wry comments something my Dad would say, interestingly.

Very neato story, Ken. Hoping you add some more stories of that trip - along with the others who participated.

g said...

thanks ken.

i hadn't remembered a lot of the details ... such as the vice- gripped mirror.

are there any photos or stories of your trip to utah with neil? (it was to utah right?)

brenda said...

It's a good thing you got a photo so you can believe the memory is real.
Thanks for posting this.

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