Stephen W. Starling and his mates ride into small town Nevada on their Harleys and get a quick lesson on US bar etiquette and avoiding trouble
The sun is setting as Jim turns his Harley off the highway into Wells. It looks like a place the interstate has passed by, which it has. Wells, in northeast Nevada, is a shantytown of neglected wooden buildings, some boarded up, others abandoned. A lonesome wind sways the weeds in run-down yards and rattles loose tin on a rusted roof.
Down the deserted street cracked timbers creak, threatening the collapse of some unsound structure. Wells’ good days are long gone; it is becoming dilapidated and derelict, and now it is no more than a ghost town in the making.
However, the shadows are lengthening and it is getting too dark to ride on. This forsaken and forgotten settlement has to be our stop for tonight — that is, if we can find a bed.
Abandoned restaurant on Route 66 (Dreamstime)
Peter and I follow Jim into a sidestreet, looking for a place to stay. There's a solitary light shining from a window of a shabby motel. At least there is a welcoming bar across the street with signs promising 'Budweiser' and 'Hot Food'. We have no choice but to pull in and park our Harleys in a dusty parking lot where a “Best Western” sign lies in the dirt.
Later, a lingering sunset is fading to a dark moonless night as we amble across the deserted street to the bar still wearing our riding jackets to keep out the cold. A streetlight throws a circle of yellow and the chilly wind blows dust down an alley between abandoned buildings. Our boots clump along the wooden boardwalk; there is no echo, no other sound, the street is still and silent.
The Budweiser sign flashes like a beacon behind a weather-streaked window set into a wall built from rough sawn timber, the planks nailed overlapping, like the carvel timbers of a boat. Inside, the bar is also timber; stout columns thick as tree trunks support a sloping ceiling panelled with pine similar to a ski lodge. Elk, Pronghorn and Moose heads hang on the wall behind the bar. A black iron stove radiates heat from a corner. Across the room a jukebox, all curved chrome with gaudy lights, is playing a country rock number by Keith Urban.
A thickset man in a baseball cap sits at the bar drinking beer with a smaller, wiry fellow. A couple of young dudes are shooting pool at the back with their girlfriends – the boys in big hats, tight jeans and check shirts, girls in stretched T-hirts and skirts too short for stretching over a pool table to take a shot. Two truckers are devouring huge steaks and mountains of fries at a table beside them.
Playing pool in small town USA (Dreamstime)
A homely barmaid asks, "What are you having?"
"I’d like what they’re having," I say, gesturing towards the back of the room.
Peter orders beers as we take stools at the bar. Above, a TV is screening a football game where great hulks in helmets and tight grey Lycra huddle. It’s the Oakland Raiders, Jim’s team. We watch the short bursts of action, trying to figure out who’s gaining and who’s losing. Jim starts a long, low "Raai-dars, Raai-dars" chant. The big guy in the baseball cap throws a disapproving look.
"Out here we’re Bronco fans. You’d best watch out who you cheer for in Nevada," he cautions.
Jim explains that he's a Raiders supporter of long-standing, well almost a week.
The big guy says, "That’s a week too long."
To make amends, Jim buys a pitcher of beer that he shares around.
Dropping the contentious topic of football allegiance, the big guy asks where we're from, then about our ride. He introduces himself as Albert, and his mate Wayne. They're working their way across the prairies patching the roads before the winter frosts seep in to crack them apart. I suspect they have been drinking since knock-off time, as they are clearly three or four beers ahead of us.
Albert’s expansive gestures and easy smile have ancestry far from Nevada. He proudly tells us his forefathers came from the Basque country of Northern Spain, who travelled to America with herds of Merino sheep to settle the wide-open spaces of Wyoming. But Albert’s sheep farming days are over; now, it is road maintenance in the summer and what he can find in the winter.
"We used to be trappers," he says sadly, "running lines for beaver, muskrat and mink."
"No money in trapping now," Wayne chimes in despondently, his bright blue eyes downcast.
"Yeah, no money in it now − Russians ruined it," says Albert.
"How?" I ask.
"Flooded the market. When Russia fell apart, they flogged off everything – warehouses full of furs. Price went through the floor, never came back," says Albert.
"Yeah, prices crashed, not recovered in ten years," says Wayne.
Mountain lion on the prowl in Nevada (Dreamstime)
"So what do you do now?" I ask.
"Hired hand, odd jobs, what comes along," says Wayne.
"Least we got more time to hunt," says Albert, straightening up on his stool and cracking a grin.
"Huntin’ big around here," says Wayne
The trophies above the bar are testament to that.
‘Deer, elk, mountain lion too − lion is hard to spot, even harder to hunt,’ says Wayne.
"You’ve got to watch your step ‘cause they start to hunt you," says Albert. "Gets scary in mountain country — gullies are bad, caves worse."
"I hate caves," say Wayne. "Sometimes you can hear them scratching in the back, in the dark. Dogs don’t like it either; sniffing and snorting, ready to run."
"Remember that time, up near Beowawe, we was tracking down a gully, that cat circled behind us," says Albert. "I turned and he was up on that ledge, ready to jump."
Wayne turns to Albert with an exasperated snort.
"Yeah, you started blasting away, your gun in the air, like you was duck hunting. Damn near took my head off."
"I saved you," exclaims Albert. "He was going to jump."
"Saved me? Blew my damned ears out. They were ringing for weeks," complains Wayne.
"I wasted that critter, didn’t I?," trumps Albert, leaning back on the bar, smiling from ear to ear.
Sharing hunting tips in the bar in Wells (Stephen W. Starling)
Then Albert orders another pitcher, filling glasses for a celebratory drink. Still chuckling, Albert leans forward and drops his voice to a conspiratorial tone.
"You boys found the whorehouse yet?"
Our quizzical looks indicate we haven’t. Like a genial Father Christmas granting wishes, Albert describes a brothel full of willing women only a short walk away. "Out the back, across the yard, look for the light, follow the dirt road over the tracks."
The pitcher is passed around again. The night rolls on. Jim watches the screen trying to learn the rules of American Football while Wayne speaks of winters so cold that your spit freezes before it hits the ground. Too many pitchers later, we bid Albert and Wayne a hearty farewell.
"Good hunting," I say.
"Good hunting," says Albert, with a wink and a wicked grin.
Staggering out of the back door and across the yard, cold air hits me like an avalanche. There is no light to be seen, no moon either, only a ghostly glimmer from a few stars lights our way out beyond abandoned buildings, as we stagger on like lost souls into a dark, dark night.
Stephen W. Starling is an author, photographer and motorcycle enthusiast. You can find more information about his epic ride across America and his book, Three Harleys, Three Aussies, One American Dream on his website, StephenWStarling.com