“Whither thou goest, America, in thy big, black car into the night?” - Kerouac
In the spare shade of an old cottonwood, I reached into my backpack and pulled out a postcard bearing a picture of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. The image was a part of my emotional motivation to travel west. A pickup truck passed on the bumpy blacktop of the Old Lincoln Highway in Western Nebraska and the driver offered a wave. I was always afraid that Butch’s long hair and untrimmed beard might make us targets of angry rural folks but he had been to Vietnam and had seen enough horror that nothing in America had the power to make him frightened.
“How many times are you going to look at that thing?” he asked. “The picture will be faded by the time we get there.”
“The picture won’t matter once I am standing on the rim,” I said.
“Okay, but what do you suppose we do now?”
“Hope the bus shows up like that cop said it does every day.”
The walk north away from the Interstate took several hours and the sun seemed an angry thing out on the High Plains. A highway patrolman had written us tickets for hitchhiking on I-80 and had taken almost all of our cash. He had driven us across the bridge over the Platte River, through town and out to where there was only the road and the sky, and told us to get out and walk.
“There’s an old gas station out on the Lincoln Highway,” he said. “It’s closed up but the Continental Trailways bus will stop if the driver sees anyone waiting. Get going and you can take it on into Denver and get out of my state.”
Butch had gotten two Army Surplus canteens before we left Michigan and we had filled them with water from the gas station by the Interstate. There were at least a dozen young hitchers hanging signs off the bridge over the divided highway with the names of their destinations scribbled on thin poster board. I did not understand how they might get a ride or where a driver was to stop and pick up a specific wanderer.
“Looks like we might be getting some company,” Butch nodded toward the east. “Isn’t that somebody coming or am I hallucinating?’
“What the hell?” I stood up and squinted into the hazy distance. “Looks like another backpacker.”
“Hope he doesn’t need any water.”
“Wonder how he ended up out here.”
“Probably the same bad cop that found us, found him.”
I walked out to the old gas pumps, rusted but still standing, and waited for the approaching figure. My thought was to be welcoming and make certain he knew we were no threat, but the July temperature quickened my thirst and I went back beneath the tree with Butch. Another twenty minutes passed before the lone walker came in off U.S. Highway 30.
“What you boys doin’ out in this here godforsaken place?” he asked.
“Waitin’ on a bus, we think,” I said.
“I reckon I will, too, though I ain’t got but a few dollars and I don’t think he’ll take me too far down the road.”
His age was hard to guess but he was likely in his sixties and his skin was brown and wrinkled from the sun as if he had been walking across the continent for years. The jeans he wore were shiny with dirt and grease and his tee shirt bore the faded image of a rock concert promotion. When he sat down I saw that he was wearing old running shoes that were worn through in the same two spots of their soles. No one spoke and the wind came up and an old metal Conoco sign creaked when it rocked against its hinges.
“You boys got anything to eat you might be willin’ to share?”
“Sure. I’ve got some nuts and dried fruit,” I said. “Let me just get it out of my pack.”
“That sure would be kind of ya. Wonder if you might let me have a sip from your canteen, too.”
“I guess so, sure.”
Butch was silent, which had become part of his personality after the war. There was some place he went in his mind that required his concentration and he did not engage with anyone during that time. I never bothered him about it as we traveled because he had told me enough stories about what he saw while walking point for his platoon in Vietnam that I understood he needed to fight off an internal and recurrent darkness. One image I knew he carried with him involved one of his buddies walking into a crossfire so intense that the bullets cut his body in half as he stood in a rice paddy, and his upper torso toppled over holding his weapon while his legs remained standing a few seconds before collapsing.
“What’s that there?” The stranger pointed at my postcard on the ground next to my pack.
“Oh, picture of the Grand Canyon. It’s where we’re headed.”
“Can I see it?”
He held it delicately by sitting it in his palm and stared at it for several minutes. His breathing was raspy and easy to hear in the lee of the old gas station. I kept turning my head away to avoid looking at the purple blood spots on his hands and arms but I could not mistake the clouds in his eyes.
“I never been there,” he said without looking up. “Always wanted to go. ‘Spose I’m not gonna make it now, either.”
“Why not?” He carefully returned the postcard, treating it like a personal treasure of mine he was fearful of harming.
“I gotta get up north to Washington for the apple harvest to pick some crop and make a little money,” he said. “I’m not gonna be able to keep movin’ around like this. People don’t pick up scraggly old guys hitchin’ anymore. Besides, my back can’t take much more. I’m gonna need to find me a VA hospital to take care of me.”
“You don’t look so old to me,” I said. “You can still make it down to the canyon.”
“Oh, I’m tired.” He exhaled a rattly breath and looked off across the road, I thought trying to see something unnamed. “It’s in my eyes and my legs, mostly. I’ve got the South Pacific and Korea behind me. I don’t even know what it took from me, but it got somethin’. Can’t put a finger on it, though. Everything felt different to me when I got back. Nothin’ much mattered to me after all that.”
I did not know what to say. Butch showed the same kind of emotionless attitude about living after he returned from Southeast Asia and when I tried to talk to him about it he either walked away or told me to mind my own business. There had to be some value to their sacrifice.
“But you got to be a part of saving the world, right?” I asked.
He laughed. “All I saved was my ass, and maybe some of my buddies. But sittin’ here, a broke ass 67-year-old with no family, no money, not even a high school education, and nothing but a lot of low-pay and back-breakin’ work behind me, I wonder if I should’ve even bothered.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Ain’t your fault. I think it’s maybe this country, the way things are set up. Some of us just don’t get a chance. But what do I know?”
Butch’s eyes had been closed like he was sleeping and his chin was near his chest but I saw him lift a lid and look at the old man.
“What’s your name?” Butch asked.
“Hawk. Ever’body calls me Hawk cuz of this ol’ beak of a nose I got here.” He touched it’s tip and laughed, softly.
“Well, good luck to you, Hawk,” Butch said, and closed his eyes again before finishing. “We are gonna be on that bus and gone when it gets here. Hope you get where you wanna go.”
“Me, too,” Hawk said. “But I got only four dollars and some change. Don’t think that’s gonna buy me much of a ticket.”
Only a few miles from where we suffered the sun, under a different cottonwood, another American son had divvied up a plenty with his fellow riders. Sam Bass, and the “Black Hills Bandits,” robbed a Union Pacific train bound from San Francisco to the East Coast in September of 1877. The $60,000 in newly-minted gold coins, found in stacked wooden crates, worth $1.8 million today, still represents the biggest train robbery in UP history; it was also the first.
Bass, who had been orphaned just as he entered his teens, had run away from his uncle’s farm in Indiana and drifted down to Mississippi and over to Texas, working horses and cattle. There were not many jobs he had not tried as he moved through the West but, whether it was cowboy or playing faro, even tending bar, Bass never stood still. The UP robbery was his biggest heist but when he went south back to Texas with his share of the loot, he resumed holding up trains around Dallas, which turned him into a bit of a Texas legend. His story has no happy ending, though, and he was brought low by the Texas Rangers in Round Rock and died on his 27th birthday from a bullet wound in his back, discovered dead and alone in an open field.
I had been reading tremendous amounts of Western history during my freshman year in college and had encountered the story of Sam Bass but the Big Springs setting did not enter my mind as Butch and I struggled to get closer to the Rockies. Nothing seemed to stop me from pondering unanswerable questions, though, and I constantly wondered how so much always seemed to go wrong. Too much good and hopeful often appeared to break. Beneath that cottonwood, hard by the highway, I sat with two combat veterans from different generations, who had been ruined by war. Back in Michigan, my father, was inexplicably violent toward his family, though no one had ever thought it might have been caused by his time in the European Theater of World War II as a sharpshooter. I blamed America, too, for unkept promises of fairness and equality and opportunity.
By the time I spotted the Trailways bus coming from the East, the sky was turning navy and orange and birds were making their evening songs. I went to the roadside with my backpack and waved at the shimmering headlights as they approached through the lowering darkness. Butch and Hawk stood up slowly and grabbed their gear to drag it across the dirt patch next to the gas station as the brakes hissed across the chip seal. I was first up the steps when the doors opened.
“How far can I get on twelve dollars?” I asked the driver.
“Ticket to Julesberg,” he said, and took my money. Butch was behind me, paid the same amount, and Hawk climbed slowly up to stand by the driver’s seat.
“I got four dollars,” he said, and showed the man his crumpled money.
“I don’t got no four dollar tickets.”
“What’s that mean? Can’t you take me down the road four dollars worth?”
“No, I can’t. I got to sell tickets between stops. Only way I can do it.”
I had taken a seat near the front and Hawk leaned forward and looked at me with a question on his face but I only had three more dollars and hoped to eat in the morning. Butch was already way to the back of the nearly empty bus. Hawk stood there a moment, maybe just a few heartbeats, picked up his dirty nylon bag, and moved backwards down the steps. In a few minutes, when the bus pulled off, I saw Hawk laying himself on the ground with his pack for a headrest. I fretted over how he might ever leave the old Conoco station.
Whenever you are heading west across the Plains states, there comes a moment when you sense, not even feel, the earth begin to rise beneath your wheels. There is no explaining the moment or the emotion but a traveler begins to become hopeful and in those rushing minutes a crooked profile moves across the Western horizon. When the Rocky Mountains come into view, even as a narrow, ragged trace across the seam between the earth and sky, the heart bumps its pace. The air coming over the Great Divide tastes cleaner and feels fresh, coursed over great snow fields and down impossible canyons out to where the long grasses wave. Being alive on the American continent is the easiest thing you have done, and the only question is what to do with that gift.
The mountains, you must decide, are either an obstacle or an opportunity.