I rose early and broke camp then rode out of Hazelton heading for my next campsite in the small town of Gackle. I’d had two good days of tailwinds since Dickinson and out on highway 34 the wind blew at a steady 15 miles an hour. The sky was clear, the air was warm and I anticipated a grand, 63-mile lark. For the first 55 miles I barely turned a pedal. The road cut through miles of green fields and every once in a while I’d pass a small lake. The two-lane back road was flat and straight with only a slight jog to the north about 58 miles into the ride... And that’s where the trouble began. The wind that had made my ride nearly effortless now turned against me. I had only five miles to go but riding in that tempest turned out to be a lot more work than I had bargained for. It was the worst windstorm I’d been in since that day outside Havre and it was getting to me. The wind would send me toward the edge of the road and I’d overcorrect so that I wound up swerving from the shoulder to the center line and back to the shoulder again; I was weaving like a drunken sailor. It was early evening now, and I could see Gackle in the distance; a few lights were just coming on when a blue minivan pulled up alongside. I could hear a woman’s voice over the roar of the wind.
“Hi,” she said, “where are you going?”
“Gackle,” I replied.
“Where are you staying tonight?” She asked.
“Can you make it that far? This wind is pretty bad.”
I leaned in the window, keeping a firm grip on my handlebars. “How far is it?”
“About a mile. Can you make it?”
“Yeah, I can make it.”
“Well, I think you should stay with me tonight. My place is up ahead on Main Street; it’s the double-wide mobile home on the right. I’m going to go ahead and I’ll meet you there. Remember, the white trailer on the right, the only mobile home in town, you can’t miss it. I’ll leave my van out in front.”
I nodded, “Okay, I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Soon I reached town. As I pedaled slowly past the first few houses, I could see up ahead, a young man and woman and two small children.
As I neared, the young man called out to me from the sidewalk. “Hi,” he said, “welcome to Gackle!” I smiled and waved and wobbled on. The young man came out into the street and walked along beside me. “So, where are you coming from?”
“Seattle,” I said.
“Wow, long way!”
I stopped and stood astraddle the top bar. “Yeah, it’s a long way.” The wind was not as strong in town, the few buildings that lined Main Street blocked out the worst of it, and it was a real treat to be able to stand still without having to brace myself.
The young man looked to be in his 20’s, he was trim and fit. He waved to the woman who stood on the sidewalk. “Honey, come over here, I want you to meet someone. This is my wife,” he said, “and I’m Jason.”
“Glad to meet you,” she said.
“Hey,” Jason said, “wait here a minute, I’ve got something for you.” He dashed across the street and into a nearby house. In a few minutes he returned and handed me a fist full of small packages. “Those are Honey Stingers. They’re an energy supplement that my company makes.”
I took the packages and slid them in my handlebar bag. “Thanks a bunch,” I said, “I could use some energy.”
Just then I saw the woman from the van coming down the street. There was a man at her side. “There you are!” She said. “Come on, we’ve got to get you inside. By the way, I’m Ruthie and this is Jay, my neighbor”
“I’m Darby,” I said and we shook hands. I thanked Jason and his wife then went with Ruthie and Jay up the street. We rolled my bike into the garage and leaned it against a workbench. Ruthie took me by my arm and led me into the trailer. “Now you sit down and rest,” she said, “ later, I want to hear all about your trip.”
Both Ruthie and Jay were drinking whiskey and Ruthie asked if I wanted one.
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“Sure,” I said, though it was the ice that enticed me more than the whiskey.
Ruthie was slim and tall and had an infectious laugh. “How old are you?” She said as she rattled ice cubes into a glass, “I’m 61. Jay here is the same age.” Ruthie went to the cupboard and pulled out a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. “My husband is in Minnesota, he’s a rep for a medical supply company. We’ve known Jay forever, he and Bob, that’s my husband, have been friends since the first grade!”
“Can you put some water in my drink?” I said.
Ruthie splashed three fingers of Black Label in my glass, came around the kitchen counter and handed it to me. “Oh, don’t worry, the ice will cut it down just let it melt a while.” She sat in a lounge chair, leaned in, her elbows braced on her knees, her hands cradling her face, “Now, what are you doing out in this kind of weather?” She sat listening with rapt attention as I told my story. “Well, that’s just about the coolest thing I ever heard,” she said when I’d finished. “But it’s crazy, too, you know that don’t you?”
“I guess,” I said.
“Well, some people think I’m crazy too, so I suppose we’ll get along just fine. Now, while I make dinner why don’t you and Jay go out to the farm?”
“Farm,” I said, “there’s a farm?”
Jay, who hadn’t said much, stood up and walked to the door. He motioned for me to follow. “Come on,” he said, “and bring your drink.” We got in Ruthie’s van and drove a couple of miles out of town then turned onto a dirt road. We drove a few miles farther through fields of native grass dotted with small lakes and finally arrived at an old, white farmhouse. A big, red barn sat on a rise overlooking a pond. “These lakes weren’t here 10 years ago,” Jay told me, “they were just low spots in the hay fields. The water table has risen so much they filled in.” He shrugged, “Climate change I guess.” Jay brought the van to a stop and we got out. He was, I found out, a Vietnam veteran. He’d been a Navy SEAL and had seen a lot of action.
“I guess I better not get you mad at me,” I joked.
Jay smiled, “I’ve changed a lot since those days. Now, I just take things easy.” He was the polar opposite of Ruthie. He was quiet and contemplative and spoke in a soft voice. He had a broad, friendly face with an easy smile that came on slowly then spread across his face in a wide grin.
We walked around the farm, and Jay showed me an old well with a hand pump that still worked. We explored the barn then Jay looked at his watch. “Hey, we better get going, Ruthie will have dinner ready by now.” We got in the van and drove back to Ruthie’s trailer and ate. I took a shower and bedded down in a spare room. The next morning, Ruthie fixed breakfast for Jay and me, and we talked about my destination for the day. I pulled out my map and pointed to a campground 60 miles away on the Sheyenne River.
“You can’t go that way,” Ruthie said, “the bridge is washed out and the road is closed. You have to detour 40 miles.”
My heart sank. “Damn,” I said, “40 miles? That’ll take me almost a day!”
Ruthie thought a moment, went over and picked up the phone, dialed, then spoke for a few minutes. “It’s all taken care of,” she said, “I called someone I know at the highway department, told them you would be coming through on your bike and they said they’d let you pass. There’s an old bridge a couple hundred yards south and you have permission to use it. You can camp at your campground after all.”
As I was packing my panniers, I discovered that Ruthie had done my laundry. My clothes were clean and neatly stacked on the bed. Later, Ruthie, Jay and I stood in front of her trailer taking extra long to say goodbye. We took photos, hugged, then I got on my bike and rode away.
I’ll never forget Ruthie and Jay, they’ll always hold a special place in my heart.