THE TALL YOUNG MAN looked like me about forty years ago. I mean: the spittin’ image. He was doing jumping jacks next to the northbound lane of highway 65. Northerly traffic sped by.
About twenty miles from the barn at the end of a 300-mile day during which temps touched 100, I was thinking about how good a cold Pabst Blue Ribbon would taste. I’d just crossed the UP tracks and saw his antics. He was exercising next to a stalled motorcycle so I pulled the Beemer onto the opposite shoulder just to see what might be going on. Deliberately, I removed my gloves and helmet, then looked across the road. Furious traffic sped by in both directions. It would be futile to call out.
I waited. Breaks in the southbound rat race didn’t coincide with breaks in the northbound. This fellow’s problem, whatever it was, was not worth me getting crushed by an on-hurtling Subaru or a gravel truck bound for the Yuba River pits, so I looked across the two-lane and smiled. Two or more minutes elapsed before I could saunter across.
“It just died back there.” He pointed southward. “Back by those houses.”
Immediately adjacent to him rested a vintage Yamaha Virago, circa 1980. Its seat was removed, sitting in the weeds next to the pavement along with a jacket, a helmet and a duffle bag.
“It just died,” he repeated pointing at on-coming traffic, “and nobody stopped.”
More cars whizzed by.
“You must have seen me waving.”
“Looked to me like you were doing calisthenics for some reason. You know. Jumping jacks. You always work out next to the Interstate in 96 degree heat?”
“It just died back there.”
I’m not a mechanic by any stretch, so all I could do was ask: “You got a cell phone?”
He pulled one from his pocket. “Yes. But I couldn’t pay the bill last month so it got cut off.”
I reached for mine. “Use this.”
He dialed a number.
I looked at the Virago and imagined its history. Clearly, it was older and perhaps far more experienced than its young rider. Once upon a time, it was smoke gray in color. Now most of the color had faded under decades of sun, rain and other elements. The machine reminded me of a trusted bird dog. Skilled. Smart. But just plumb tuckered out. During another one of those quiet two-way breaks in traffic, I heard the soft tink, tink of the hot engine cooling to ambient temperature.
“Who you calling?”
“Grandma. But she isn’t answering. I’ll try mom. They live together.”
PICK UP. PICK UP MOM. I’m broken down by the side of the road just below Sheridi… “Hello. Yeah. I’m okay. I just broke down on 65 just below the tracks at Sheridan… I don’t know… Yep… No… Okay.”
Graciously, he wiped my phone against a dry portion of his upper shirtsleeve and handed the unit back to me. “Thank you sir.”
“Ah. You’da done the same for somebody else, I’m sure,” I said. “Someone coming?”
Another one of those sporadic breaks in traffic. I started across. “You gonna be okay?” I asked from the middle of state route 65.
He nodded. And there was some eye contact.
“Where they comin’ from?”
“Just Lincoln.” (Lincoln, California is about six miles south.)
“Then you’re okay.”
LESS THAN FIVE MINUTES had elapsed. Hopefully, the young lad’s day would improve. I knew the beer would still be cold once I got home.
Church of the Open Road Press