Interstate 40 bisects the state of Arizona horizontally between Nevada and New Mexico. Midway along I-40, between Seligman and Flagstaff, lies the city of Ash Fork, population 457. A blue sign on the interstate promises gas and food.
Exiting the interstate, we discover a lone service station set back off the road, the parking lot guarded by a number of bronzed elk in anguished poses. The signs in the station’s darkened windows advertise fresh pizza, a deli, and souvenirs. Dave and I stop to find some lunch and rest, having crossed part of Nevada and more than half of Arizona on our way to Sedona.
Inside, the station is divided by a checkout island: on one side is a convenience store and the other a souvenir shop, souvenirs ranging from “Indian” kitsch to animal hides. Toward the back, a hotbox of unattended pretzels and frozen pizza slices circle a heat lamp. There is no sign of a deli.
Passing on the pretzels and pizza, we buy bottled water, Fig Newtons, and a bag of popcorn and spread our lunch out over one of the two barrel-tops set aside for customers. Behind us, a mop in a bucket props open a solid metal door to the storeroom; inside, surplus inventory draped in thick plastic sheets leans against the wall of unpainted cinderblocks.
We eat quietly, resting and taking in the other customers. A youngish, compact woman with a generous chest presses against the checkout counter, barking instructions into her cell phone: “I need you to find exit 140 on the map . . .” She sounds accustomed to getting her way. Closer, two lumbering men drift aimlessly back and forth along the narrow aisle between us and the checkout. Passing between them, a coarse, weathered man palming a slice of pizza claims the adjoining barrel-top—a stained gimme cap advertising an RV park covers his gray hair, his cracked skin attesting to years of hard living in the desert sun. I silently name him “Old Cooter.”
Just as Old Cooter sits down with his pizza, a slight woman in a yellow apron appears out of the storeroom. “Who ordered the twelve-inch ham?” One of the two men standing in the aisle grunts in response. An exchange follows centered on the word “turkey.” The aproned woman passes back into the storeroom, and the two men continue their wait.
As we finish lunch, I pull out the map. There are two choices: the indirect route by interstate east, then south, or a more direct approach southeast that includes a stretch of about twenty or thirty miles of dirt road. I lobby to take the more adventurous and, presumably, scenic option. Dave acquiesces with some reservation. He then leaves me to study the map while he searches for the bathroom after agreeing to meet outside at the bikes. As I start to leave, I consider asking for some friendly advice. Old Cooter is still working through his pizza. I step toward him, crossing the invisible threshold separating our two barrels.
“Excuse me, sir, are you from this area?”
Old Cooter stops eating; his eyes drift towards the map. “Yep.”
“Do you know this dirt road that splits off of 89 near Drake?”
“Where you trying to get to?”
“Well, we’re headed down to Sedona, and this looks like a more scenic route than 40.”
“I’d stick to 40.”
“Well is the road real bad or is it just dirt? Is it passable?”
“You don’t wanna go down that road. I seen you on them motorcycles. I wouldn’t go down that road on them motorcycles.”
“OK, so the best way is just keep going on the highway?”
“I tried to go down that road in my car once and it nearly tore it all up. I wouldn’t go down that road.”
“Oh, OK. Well, thanks for the help. Appreciate it.”
He nods as I stuff my trash into the bin and walk away, wondering if he really knows the road.
Just as I step outside, a woman rushes up to Dave: “Do you have the number for AAA?”
“No ma’am, but they probably have it inside.”
She presses on: “But we bought AAA and we locked our keys in the car.”
Dave shrugs: “I don’t have the number for them, but I bet they can help you inside.”
Giving up, she steps past us, her husband trailing her, looking guilty. Dave shoots me the “let’s get going” look, and we start pulling on our helmets. Just then I feel a hand on my shoulder. Old Cooter is behind me.
As I turn toward him, a circuit connects and his eyes narrow.
“You go down that road and break down, you’re gonna die. You’ll die out there.”
Pausing, I measure my response. “Uh, OK. Thanks for the help.” A second passes. “I think we are gonna stick to the highway.”
He stares without acknowledgement.
“You better pack one gallon of water for each day, or you’re gonna die from the heat.”
Before I respond, the circuit disconnects. He turns heel and walks back toward the store. I look back at Dave: let’s get going. We mount the motorcycles and press them into gear. Passing the bronzed elk, we head toward the interstate.