Once upon a time I fell in love with Jack Kerouac, the words of Jack, the ghost of Jack, the idea of Jack. It started with On the Road, and then it wasn’t long before I set out to read everything he’d ever written, nearly fifty years after he’d written it. I was married, middle-aged with kids, living in the suburbs. My 20s had been spent working, getting married, going to grad school, and having my first child. My 30s were spent raising two children and piecing together part-time work as a writer, urban planner, and volunteer. Then, one month before my 40th birthday, further infatuated with Jack’s Visions of Cody and The Dharma Bums, I latched onto the idea that I myself had never driven across the country before, had never experienced the typically American rite of passage known as “the road trip.” This was something Ineeded to do. Now. Alone. At least that’s the story I told myself and my family and friends as I planned and made my escape.
That’s how I ended up alone in eastern Utah, next to the old Dewey Bridge under a fierce midday sun, squinting at some old guy in a cowboy hat and bright orange shirt a hundred yards away, pacing back and forth on the gravel across from a defunct gas station. He had waved as I drove past. Jack would have stopped. My younger self, the person I’d been before I became a mother, would have stopped, but this older version was still getting up the nerve. In the past 24 hours I hadn’t talked to anyone but the motel clerk back in Grand Junction. Out there on Route 128, around the ghost town of Cisco, I was nothing but a speck of dust in an infinite, almost deathly silent, treeless landscape. It scared me then, how small I’d become.
I couldn’t put my finger on it, but this trip already didn’t feel like the liberating, exultant escape I’d thought it would be. I didn’t want to be popping bennies or going on a bender, but damn if I didn’t want to forget I was married and middle-aged with kids, and have some kicks and see the country. My country. It was still my country, although I didn’t always recognize it back then. It was September 2002, and the airwaves were filled with people steeling themselves for an anniversary attack and telling real-life ghost stories about the choking haze, bodies in flight, surrenders, near-misses, and escapes. And in the midst of that larger fear and sadness, I was unable or unwilling to name my own fears and regrets, what was going on in my marriage and my career, such as it was. I took flight instead. With a dog-eared copy of On the Road, I got on a plane going from Philly to Denver. There I rented a car for the drive on to San Francisco, never having driven that kind of distance alone. I had it in my head that I would re-trace Jack’s path as best I could, crossing mountains and desert, arriving triumphantly in San Francisco with stories to tell. But how would I have anything to tell if I was shy and out of sorts and reluctant to talk to strangers?
I pointed my Canon at the old Dewey Bridge and snapped some shots. Off to the right, its modern replacement beckoned. I turned slowly, swiveling my camera back toward the man in the cowboy hat. The telephoto lens allowed me to get a better look at him. He didn’t seem to have any purpose, just shuffling back and forth. It struck me then that his wave had been that of a lonely person, someone who wanted to be acknowledged, who almost demanded it. Why else would he be standing there on a Sunday afternoon? I hadn’t seen any other cars or tourists since I’d gotten off the interstate about six miles back even though my AAA map showed a series of dots along the length of Route 128, indicating it as a scenic byway. The gas station in the distance had a rundown shack attached to it on one side. On the other, there was a long, painted fence filled with graffiti and a large Texaco sign resting on an old heating unit. The heat from the sun inhabited everything, making it all so bright. The old guy’s shirt was like a flame, alive, beckoning.
I got back in the car, drove past the man, made a U-turn, and put down the windows.
“Hey,” I yelled over the whoosh of the car’s air conditioner. “Can you tell me: how much further to Moab?”
The guidebook made Moab sound like a kind of promised land, a bustling town with restaurants and outfitters for the tourists and outdoor enthusiasts who sought out this sagebrush-peppered landscape and the winding road and towering red rock canyons up ahead.
The man leaned his desert-dry hands on the frame of the passenger door, giving me a close-up of his watery eyes and the deep grooves in the skin of his neck—the geography of a long, hard life. His fingernails were dirty, and his thumbnails were splitting right down the middle. The front of his shirt was spattered and stained.
“Oh, 30, 40 minutes,” he said. “You need gas? I keep a little in the tanks.” He gestured across the road at the filling station.
“No, I’m good, I think.” The air conditioner was working hard. “So, that’s your place?” I nodded as he had done.
“Yeah. Texaco made me take down the sign,” he said. “They didn’t like my mural.”
I gave it a proper look. What I’d taken for graffiti turned out to be the Ten Commandments.
“I had it done by a local artist,” he said. “I used to drink too much. Until I found God. And AA.”
“Ah,” I said.
He reached across the passenger seat. I shook his hand and told him my name. His willingness to make small talk with a stranger reminded me of my father, from whom I felt largely estranged in those years. Bill Clinton and Janet Reno had made him apoplectic. Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld were already doing the same to me.
Then he said, “You wouldn’t believe the changes I’ve seen,” and he began telling his own story. The flow of his words relieved and calmed me. He would do the talking, and I wouldn’t have to explain myself. The dry, hot desert air swept into the car, overcoming the air conditioner. Climate control was out of my hands. The little cocoon of my Dodge Intrepid had been split open.
Ballard had been on this red rock earth for 88 years. He described his two children as “a boy and a girl,” when they must have been in their 60s by then. He used to be a cowboy, and he owned 40 acres right there on the Colorado River. He made a sweeping gesture with his hand, and for a moment I could almost see cowboys on horses, kicking up dust, disappearing over a ridge. I felt the passage of nearly a century, saw it in grainy black-and-white, felt its elusive simplicity. The land sloped down behind the store and gas station. His house was down there, out of sight of the road. Both it and the store were constructed, he said, from set materials from some movies shot in Moab in the early 1960s. He built his house between 1962, the year I was born, and 1967 by carting various pieces to his spot on the river. But it’d been far from a big-screen, fairy tale life for him. He’d lost two wives. He called the second one “Liz Taylor” because he was husband #4 or #5 for her. She’d had diabetes and he’d rubbed her feet daily as her condition worsened. For his own aches and pains, he soaked a heating pad in Paul Masson Chablis.
His advice to me: “Don’t drink it; wear it.”
His first wife died of bone cancer, which he attributed to the pieces of uranium they sold to tourists out of glass display cases in the store during the uranium boom of the late 1940s and through the 1950s. Fueled by the demands of the Atomic Energy Commission after World War II, the discovery of huge veins of uranium in the Colorado Plateau attracted ordinary folks from all over the country with dreams of striking it rich. For some, all they got was a souvenir sample. Ballard’s wife had worked in their little roadside store all day, behind the cases, never knowing she was being carried along toward her end.
Probably a half-hour went by and my engine was still running and Ballard was still leaning into the car. There was a brief silence, and I drew in a breath and broke eye contact to look straight ahead toward the two bridges. As I recall, they were not quite parallel, but crossed the Colorado at roughly the same place, one rickety-looking, the other a smooth continuation of the road I was on. Rarely had I seen such a clear image of the past lined up next to the present. Of course, I had no choice of which one to take. The old bridge was closed to auto traffic; it couldn’t bear the weight.
Ballard must have sensed I wanted to move on, leaving him to wait for the next lonely traveler to come along.
“Do you want to come into the store?” he asked, breaking the silence.
It strikes me now, more than a dozen years later, that perhaps this moment with Ballard was simply the crossroads between one kind of loneliness and another. My husband and young sons had no idea where, exactly, I was, and only a few of my friends even knew I had taken this trip. Their responses were all the same when I’d told them my plans, how I hadn’t lined up any hotels and would figure it out on the fly, day by day. They said, “Be careful.” They paused and let their questions remain unspoken, the ones about whether my marriage was falling apart, or whether I was having a nervous breakdown or a midlife crisis—those catchall phrases that gloss over the details of the specific alienation in progress.
The bottom line was none of them knew me. In some fundamental way, I was unknown. That’s how I felt most days back then, defined by the broad categories of which I was a member: mother, wife, volunteer, helper. I was a writer, too, with a mostly unheard voice of unmapped heat. Neither my husband nor my friends knew the extent of what was going on between me and Jack, about me and his stories, how they whispered in my ear about youth and love and poetry and altered states and fucking and fuck-ups and running out of gas and time. And being lost, really lost. And hungry, really hungry, for a man who wanted to talk, like Carlo and Dean in On the Road, facing each other cross-legged on a bed, probing each other’s souls, heading to dawn. I wanted some version of that intensity, that insistence on connection. Instead, I’d asked for nine days alone in a wide open, raw, and strange landscape. Somewhere deep inside, even back then, I knew this trip wouldn’t solve anything, that it was just a respite. And what if no one ever felt truly known? Maybe that’s part of what Sal Paradise was getting at when he told Carlo and Dean, “That last thing is what you can’t get, Carlo. Nobody can get to that last thing. We keep on living in hopes of catching it once and for all.”
I pulled my Intrepid onto Ballard’s lot and cut the engine while he crossed the road behind me. I used to be more fearless, entering unknown buildings all the time. My first full-time job out of college was with the federal Section 8 housing program in Trenton, New Jersey, which had a population of around 90,000 at the time. It was 1985. I did inspections of apartments and negotiated contracts between landlords and low-income tenants—the working poor, elderly, disabled, and welfare clients. I first learned to read a map then. I loved figuring out how to get around the city, making sense of something that had once seemed incomprehensible and dangerous, all those criss-crossing lines, obscure alleys, one-way streets, and abandoned buildings. Crack was finding its own home in the city. A couple times I had to make snap judgments about whether it was safe to go inside a building. I learned to listen to my gut. I stood up straighter when I got out of the car. I carried a long flashlight that looked like a cop’s blackjack. It was important to not look vulnerable, to not look lost. But this was what I was now—lost, vulnerable—and it was okay. Ballard was waiting at the door to his store now. I grabbed my camera and crossed the threshold behind him.
The inside of the store looked as if he’d realized—about 20 years earlier—that he couldn’t keep up with it anymore and just gave up. The wall to my immediate right appeared at first glance to be from an old-time post office with its dark oak paneling, slots for mail, and an opening with a counter. But beyond the counter, it was obvious that the whole thing was a façade, just a prop from a movie set. The ceiling sagged in the back left corner of the room, where the roof had leaked. Cobwebs, wispy and fragile, clung tenuously to everything.
Ballard offered me a wooden folding chair next to racks of old postcards and dusty glass display cases with a few gemstones still in them. All this, the coffin of a former life. I thought of his first wife: were those stones emitting radioactive waves, snaking their way toward us and into us at that very moment? There were all these forces at play that we couldn’t see, much less control. Was this what it meant to really live—to accept that you will someday die and go on with your life anyway, run your business with your man, pump the gas, support each other, and ride the boom for all it’s worth, ‘til death do you part? I’d been with my husband for nearly two decades. I’d met him when I was 20 and he was 30. He’d come of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I had lived vicariously through his stories of driving back and forth across the country and living in Oakland without ever having done any crazy shit myself. At 17 I’d left Pennsylvania to go to college in New Jersey. I got married the day before my 23rd birthday and became a homeowner. I’d found a way to insulate myself from certain kinds of suffering—the messiness of lousy sublets, bad boyfriends, bad cars, bouncing checks. Yet, as I approached my 40th birthday, I had started to want some of my own stories. Chapter upon chapter, actually.
The year before I’d met Ballard, my husband and I had moved from a home on six acres on a rural road a few miles outside Princeton, New Jersey to a nearby country club development, largely Republican, but I still saw myself as a rough-and-tumble tomboy from a former steel town in southeastern Pennsylvania. I’d played Little League the first year they let girls in. I’d been Student Council President in high school. I’d played two sports at Princeton. I’d kept my last name when I got married; my husband had encouraged it. What had happened to that daring young woman who had been someone out in the world? At some point a kind of powerlessness had crept in. I’d been passive about my career and, as a result, I lacked economic agency, and it grated on me. We’d become our parents—male breadwinner, female homemaker. For a long time I linked my dissatisfaction to my not maintaining a well-defined career—urban planner or writer. It would take many more years to acknowledge that it was my marriage, too. Something had gone mute inside me on the subject. It had something to do with mothers and fathers and history repeating itself, something big and inscrutable that I couldn’t put my finger on. We didn’t talk about our emotional lives. It would be years before I would seek out therapy for the first time, to peel away the layers of silence in my family of origin. In the meantime, it was more acceptable to say, whimsically, “I want to be like Jack,” rather than, “I’m test-driving a separation.”
Ballard urged me to pick out a few postcards, and I chose three: the Colorado River from Dead Horse Point; Fisher Towers; and Castle Rock and “Priests and Nuns,” red rock formations near Moab. I didn’t realize until much later that this was Thelma and Louise territory, the place where two women, who are running from their ordinary lives and then running for their lives from the law, choose to sail over a cliff into oblivion in their 1966 Thunderbird convertible. In the moment, though, the postcards reminded me of my planned destinations for the day: Moab and Arches National Park before dark. Soon I’d have to leave Ballard and get back on the road.
Then he offered me some feathers.
“I feed a lot of birds down by my house,” he said. “Pigeons, sparrows, wild turkeys, peacocks. Used to have seven peacocks. Now I’m down to two. Even though the government keeps telling me to stop.”
“Some kind of health hazard, they say.”
I picked three turkey feathers and seven peacock feathers.
“I wonder if I’m gonna have some kind of post-9/11 security problem at the airport on the way home,” I said, and I was halfway serious. In that time of orange and red terror alerts, anything out of the ordinary might have raised suspicions.
“You’ll be all right,” he said. “I’ve given feathers to women from New Jersey and New York before, and they had no trouble bringing ‘em back on the plane. I just got a letter from one of them.”
My mood dipped momentarily.
I was a little hurt to learn that I wasn’t the only person he talked to like this. Years later, I discovered online that Harry Ballard Harris had related pretty much the same stories to other travelers, that he was legendary, serving as the inspiration for Johnny Cash’s “Cisco Clifton’s Filling Station,” Cisco being the dilapidated shacks in the shimmering heat that I’d passed before coming upon Ballard and the forlorn tracks of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. His heart was open. He drew in strangers and made them friends. He offered folklore and feathers, homespun wisdom, homeopathic remedies, and a little bit of Bible-thumping, and all he asked in return was a traveler’s temporary regard and maybe what we all want: quiet moments, a connection with the person right in front of us, time and more time.
Ballard let me take his picture with the post office wall as a backdrop. Then we went outside and he posed in front of the Texaco sign. I got back into the car, wanting to be on my way. I’d read about Moab and the Arches in one of my AAA books, and they sounded like places I should experience, up close. They’re never mentioned in On the Road, but then again, neither was Ballard.
But Ballard held me there with one more story. It was about a man and a woman from Kansas who had stopped for gas. The man went into the store to get out of the sun, while the woman sat inside the car with the door open and her feet hanging over the side. She said she had such a bad headache, she didn’t think she could go on. At first Ballard massaged her shoulders and then moved on to her feet, kneeling there in the dust, kneading them. She said she felt much better after that—she could go on, after all—and that he was the sweetest man.
Then he told me that’s what he had been doing when I showed up more than an hour earlier—he’d been walking on the stones on the side of the road to massage his feet. He did it twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, his own reflexology of the road. He knew, somehow, about the energy channels running from our hands and feet to our internal organs, how massaging certain points on the feet releases the buildup of toxins, improves blood flow, and strengthens chi, and how an imbalance in this life force can cause illness or pain. I certainly didn’t know any of that then. I was the one with a suitcase full of maps, who naively thought that a change of geography would fix what was broken in me, that driving across a huge swath of the country would somehow fill me up. You were living parallel lives. That’s how a female writer friend and therapist characterized my marriage years later, when I told her I was separated. It was one of those moments that shook me awake. Why was I one of the last to know? On that afternoon with Ballard, though, I just wanted to point my Intrepid away from home, as though indiscriminately riding the yellow line would somehow lead me to the connection I craved.
The truth is, I was one half of the missed connection. I didn’t know how to express my wants and hurts, frustration and anger. I didn’t like interpersonal drama, the tears, the words stuck somewhere in the lungs, filling them up, making it hard to breathe. Though part of me wished I’d had more exciting tales to tell by the time I was 40, there were significant parts of my life that I would never change—the community work I’d done, the stories I’d written, the friends I’d had, and the way I’d raised my beautiful sons. I just wanted the restlessness to cease, wanted some stillness, if only in my head.
I learned later that peacocks can eat many poisonous plants that other animals cannot. In Buddhism, peacocks symbolize purity. They’re metaphors for bodhisattvas, enlightened beings that take on the suffering of others—the spiritual poisons of human existence like ignorance, attachment, and aversion—in order to help others attain enlightenment.
The world came to Ballard Harris, bodhisattva to the pilgrims of Route 128. We thought we were just passing through, that our weary feet and the weight of a world on fire and the ache in our hearts for all the things we’d never done, the things we’d never said to those we loved, would always be with us. We were convinced that our real destination was a long way off, that we could pinpoint it on a map, and we were in a hurry to get there. But then we stopped in our tracks—if only we stopped—and Ballard gave us a taste of what we didn’t even know we wanted: a connection to some simpler past, to some younger, bolder version of ourselves, to this hard, dusty earth, and to the human being right in front of us. And if we were smart, or lucky, or just too weak and lonely to resist, we accepted his feathers. We shrugged off fear. We chuckedOn the Road onto the back seat and made our own way through the dusky canyons, leaning into the curves.
I wrote to Ballard that December and sent him prints of the photos I’d taken and thanked him for sharing his stories, promising to return some day. I received a holiday card in reply, signed in Ballard’s shaky hand. I never saw him again. Harry Ballard Harris died on December 14, 2005 at the age of 91. Two and a half years later the old Dewey Bridge was destroyed by a fire; it was 92 years old.
Sue Repko’s work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Literal Latte, The Bryant Literary Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Swink, and elsewhere.
Photos by author. In order of appearance: Old Dewey Bridge; Cisco, UT (1); Cisco, UT (2); Ballard Harris