I met a drifter in Arizona near the New Mexico border on Interstate 80. I walked into a rest stop for a bathroom break and to look around, when I heard a weather-beaten voice beckon my attention to a skeleton of a man sitting on a concrete bench under a canopy.
He rode a bike but had almost nothing with him, no bike lock or lights, no means to fix a puncture. The long-distance riders one passes on the long highways of the West were in stark contrast to my friend. Whereas they rode for the adventure and the fun of it on well-equipped bikes, he seemed to ride a bike long distances with almost nothing because he didn’t have anywhere else to go.
I was curious about his bike, a kelly green Specialized Stumpjumper, I think. It was a mid-level hard tail mountain bike. The bike’s bottom bracket wobbled and needed to be replaced, but the rest of the bike looked fine — well-ridden, but fine.
He wore faded jeans, a tshirt and sneakers or maybe boots. He was tall and thin with the type of weather beaten beard one would expect on a fisherman or Arctic explorer. His explorations were along the highways of the American west, sleeping in rest stops and subsisting on handouts, kindness and other means. Really, I have no idea how he got by.
The drifter and I talked about places we’ve been (I was on my way back from Burning Man) like Salt Lake City, Albuquerque and Reno.
He said he knew people in Texas and planned to keep heading east on his bike along I-80, making his way to Austin or maybe San Antonio. It seemed like a plan he rotated and studied in his mind and shared with anyone who stopped to talk. I wonder if I said I was heading to California, would he be heading to Redding or Barstow?
Does it matter?
Hopefully I’ll run into him again. I forgot to take a photo while we spoke, I forgot to ask about how he lives, where he’s been and where he’s going. As we spoke, the sky was darkening for a storm as the sun crept lower and more red toward the jagged mountains limiting our western view.