As a rider, you expect to be surprised when you go out on a long road-trip on a motorcycle. After all, you're out there with nothing but the sky for a roof over your head and you're doing something that most people will never accomplish. The sense of adventure that you feel is both compelling and profound. You have a deal with the road that whatever comes, you'll be there to see it and take it in. The road's part of the bargain is to fill your mind with new visions and experiences that you just couldn't have found if you didn't travel in this unique way. You expect new things to come your way. This is why you went in the first place.
Sometimes, though, something happens which is outside of your imaginary framework. Something so unexpected comes along that the realization of it leaves you looking at the sky, thanking the powers that be for your life and existence at that moment in time. Something happens which lets you know that you are not alone on this road of life. Someone else is there, watching over you. This story is about one of those moments.
My friend, Steve and I had already been out on our Goldwings for over a week. We had attended the Golden Aspen Rally in New Mexico and then visited friends in North Central Texas. We had returned to Carlsbad Caverns, New Mexico and then headed on up through Colorado, toward Yellowstone. We had already been through some rain that first day, going north, and the flooded streets of Carlsbad had given us a chilly sendoff. We rode out of that storm and made it through most of the daylight hours in fair weather with scattered clouds. As we rode up into the Rockies, however, the horizons ahead began to get dramatically cloudy and dark with numerous foreboding flashes of nature's fireworks. We were riding toward our evening stop at Alamosa, Colorado with about 75 miles to go when light rain began to fall. There was a major thunderstorm between us and our destination. We had no choice except to ride through it. I should have had my mind completely focused on the oncoming dangers of the storm but that was far from my thoughts.
I was thinking about the ghost town of Thurber Texas and the Smokestack Restaurant where we had breakfast three days before. We had been told that there was a really good restaurant there, beside an enormous smokestack on the north side of the highway. We had ridden toward Thurber in a light rain and there was a spectacular rainbow along side I-20, that day. The big stack was there, all right, a surviving monument to the past that we could see towering on the horizon from miles away. The rainbow oddly seemed to end right at the great smokestack and so did the rain. Sure enough, right there next to the immense brick tower was the Smokestack Restaurant. When we rode into the muddy parking lot, the hot Texas sun was already out and the thought of some coffee and breakfast sort of brightened up the day, as well.
Starting in the 1880's, Thurber was on its way to becoming the largest town between Fort Worth and El Paso. It was a company town and, and at its peak boasted 10,000 residents who immigrated from many different countries to come to Thurber and mine the coal that fueled the nation's railroads. Others worked in its brick-works making the bricks which would be used to build the buildings and pave the streets of Texas cities. Thurber was an amazing place; far ahead of most cities of its time with electricity, water and gas to every house.
With the discovery of oil, however, the town's industries and the town itself declined. By the 1930's it had disappeared into history. Today, the smokestack, the restaurant and the W.K. Gordon Museum across the road are just about the only things remaining, in Thurber, to testify to the city that once was there and the stalwart souls, who called it home.
The restaurant itself was a unique experience. If you've never had an absolutely great meal in a museum, you don't know what you are missing. It's operated by the Bennett family and is the only remaining building, in town, made from original Thurber bricks. When I went up to pay the tab, I asked our hostess if I could come back in and do some photography of all the exhibits in the building. She said 'fine' and I spent the next half hour or so intruding on the privacy of customers by taking pictures of every artifact displayed on the walls. I guess that there were no wanted criminals in the room because no one objected.
We had been at the Smokestack for over an hour and were finally getting ready to go when our waitress caught up with me and asked me a loaded question: "Did you drop something?" When I had gone up to the register to pay the check, I didn't notice (in my semi-conscious state before my coffee kicked in) that the snaps had been open on my dangling chain-drive wallet. My entire bankroll, which at that stage of the trip had shrunk to $440, had fallen out on the floor. When I paid the bill I had used the Visa and I didn't even notice that something was missing. I had gone out to get my camera and spent another half hour photographing the Smokestack along with the exterior and interior of the restaurant. I had probably walked by my own money several times without seeing it as had many other people who were there, that day. When it was discovered, though, the first thought was to find the rightful owner. I thanked our hostess and told her that she had missed the chance to throw one hell of a barbeque. My thanks also went out to the people of Thurber, past and present. They did so much more than just return my money. They allowed me to learn about their lives and they reaffirmed my faith in humanity.
And so it was that I found myself in the odd situation of riding down a lonely Colorado highway into the teeth of a thunderstorm with my mind a thousand miles away. I was thinking about all the people I had been privileged to meet and know in this life. From my family to all the others who watched over me and helped me along the way and to those who went before; they were the real fortune that I carried with me on the road. The heavy rain and the uncertainty of the storm were almost upon us, then. I needed to duck behind the windshield and concentrate on the road ahead but I was somehow compelled to look up, into those dark clouds, just once more, and say with a knowing smile, "Thank you".
By Carl Fisher
Wings Of The Phoenix
My appreciation to the Bennett family, the other people at The Smokestack Restaurant and to the W.K. Gordon Center for their help in writing this story.