I stopped in Ely, NV for lunch after two days on US 50, the “Lonliest Highway in America.” After a month of visiting with friends and doing touristy things in Denver and Vegas, I was unaccustomed to being so alone. Generally when I eat, I want to be around people. Maybe this stems from my youth when all activity was in the kitchen. Everything was shared around the dinner table whether it was dinner time or not. If there was a crowd at my grandmother’s you could count on every seat at the table being filled no matter the occasion or time of day. So whether it’s an opportunity to be around people or some relic from my child hood, I don’t like to eat alone. Even if I don’t utter a word to another person the entire meal, just being part of the crowd is comforting and fun. Sitting at a lunch counter gives you a front row seat to the lives of the people around you, the servers, the bar tender, the cashier, and the folks walking in asking for directions. I was hoping for a bar/lunch counter kind of place where you can be social with folks but had to settle for a soda fountain counter in a busy drug store.
Finding the counter stools occupied, I was doomed to the solitude of an empty table for four. It was the shoulder season – just after the summer crowd and too early for the winter crowds so not really a good time for leisure socializing. Most of the folks were locals stopping in for a quick bite or to pick up a to-go order. I quickly finished my simple sammich and headed out to find a place to spend the night.
After a fitful night of sleep at a BLM pullout somewhere between Ely and Eureka (70ish miles to the west) – I was in desperate need of conversation and coffee. There was exactly ONE place in Eureka open at 9am on a weekday morning. During the early morning hours it served as the town breakfast diner and sometime after lunch it morphed into the happy hour saloon. A pretty clever concept if you ask me. There was one long low bar running down the left side and pool tables and dart boards along the right wall with the gap filled with diner-style tables. There was no one else at the bar when I walked in, the weathered waitress idly wiping down the ghost crumbs of meals past and looking bored until the door chimed my entrance.
I was just savoring my first sip of coffee when the door chimed again. A linebacker of a man came in and sat a few seats down from me. We exchanged pleasantries. He kept looking my way curiously, but not saying anything. I figured he was working up the courage to start a conversation, and despite being desperate for conversation, I was too focused on coffee to help him out. Finally, after getting some coffee down his own gullet, he turned to me and asked bluntly “Weren’t you in Ely yesterday?”
I was stunned and apprehensive all at the same time. I had been in Ely. But should I confirm to him, this obvious stalker that I was in fact there? My face must have registered my dismay because he immediately offered that he thought I looked like someone he’d seen at the Ely lunch counter the day before. We laughed over the absurdity of running into the same random person in two different towns, but soon realized that we were both passing through and just happened into the only open restaurants at the same time.
We talked for almost two hours – he was a friend to someone who had purchased a truck in Texas and he was kindly delivering the truck to said friend. His plan was to bicycle back to Texas. From Tahoe. The bicycle was, in fact, in the back of the truck (you know I had to look on my way out!) He looked nothing like anyone that could ride a bicycle around the block, much less across 1500 miles and several mountains. But he told stories of leading safaris in Africa and other excursions in war-torn countries for veterans and other adventure junkies. He’d never been in the service, but had an affinity for those that did. We talked constantly, sharing unbelievable stories and comparing notes about leading groups into back country settings, seeing the constellations in the southern hemisphere, odd people we’d met, until finally it was time to part ways. We joked as we parted that we’d see each other in Austin or Fallon, the last two towns along the route in Nevada.
As we paid our checks and stood to leave, a woman sitting a few seats beyond the guy commented that she was sad to see us go. She had slipped in unnoticed and had enjoyed listening to our adventures. She was a local and explained that most folks just pop in, have their coffee and leave. But we had been a sweet diversion in her day. We hadn’t even realized she was sitting there.
That’s sometimes me. Just sitting there, listening. Enjoying the conversation around me. Feeling like I’m part of it. I don’t recall anything else about Eureka. But the guy that I spent two hours talking to over eggs and coffee sticks out in my mind. I wonder if he made it back to Texas on his bike? I wonder if his tales of fighting lions in Botswana were true. I even wonder, a little, if he wasn’t stalking me after all.