The other day I did something I rarely do anymore, which was to take a mid-afternoon ride to get some air and help clear my head. A hundred-mile commute tends to make optional rides less appealing, somehow.
The destination was about fifteen miles away by road, half that as the crow flies; an area that back in the day we referred to as ‘Indian Country.’ It was a crude shorthand for that transitional area between the far edge of the suburbs and the beginning of ‘country.’ It comprised scattered development and industrial parks tossed among fields of scrub and cedar, areas that had stopped being farms and pastures a while ago, but had neither reverted to the wild nor fallen to the developer’s bulldozers. My brother and I both found ourselves exiled to different purgatories in this god-forsaken wilderness for different reasons at a concurrent nadir of our careers.
In any case.
I headed out to ‘Indian Country.’
It may have been most of a decade since I rode out there; the last official record I have is from a cold December morning circa 2004, and maybe a quick traverse a year or two after. But I can’t recall any visits since we left the burbs for the hill in the woods. During that time, the crowding fields of cedar scrub diminished, displaced by more ranks and files of tract houses and strip malls of cellphone stores, fast-food drive-throughs, nail parlors, Chinese carryouts and tanning salons. Office parks, Business parks, Industrial parks—everything but real parks.
You know, every ride must have a destination, if nothing more than an apogee where you cease heading away and begin returning. In this instance, that point was a little country store tucked tight inside a dusty elbow of the road, with a meager swath of gravel outside the front porch and a little more gravel just beside for a parking lot.
When I was billeted in 'Indian Country,' I frequented this little store quite often. It was a timeless oasis smack in the middle of nowhere that sold cold beer, hard-boiled eggs, laundry soap and clothespins, acrid coffee, big sacks of no-name kibble, hunting licenses, any kind of potato chip, night crawlers, deli sandwiches, fishing tackle and live minnows from a converted set of concrete laundry sinks with a big sign overhead, warning all to not shut off the switch or else the minnows would die. The clerks were amiable and laconic, not eager to waste a word when a grunt would do or a grunt when a nod would do, and there was a dusty, sepia-toned quality about the place.
I recall it as the kind of place where you could pull a long-necked bottle of pop from a cooler of crushed ice, pry the crown cap off with the opener bolted to the counter, then stroll out to the worn front porch and sit by the sleeping hound to watch traffic drift past. A nod and a single raised finger acknowledged all who passed by. It probably was never actually like the way I remembered it, but whatever. I liked to stop there, and drop a buck of two from time to time as an investment in keeping places like it around a few more years. It was easy to find a way to make it en route from Point A to Point B, especially when I had no particular desire to be in either Point A or B.
The approach to the store had changed (heavier volumes of heavier traffic demanded such) but the joint was still where I had left it. A sportsbiker on a Ninja was parked in the lot, chatting up a girl in a dusty muscle car. A van full of dusty painters in paint-spattered white overalls pulled in, nicely crushing the safety cone posted to warn-off the ginormous pothole that now threatened the van’s rear axle. The pile of ladders on the roof clattered violently as the van pitched to a halt.
I ungeared a bit and nodded to the sportbiker as I walked to the front porch. He nodded back, sized me and Beast up, then returned his attention to Miss MuscleCar. I opened the creaky front door into a cleaner, brighter, more open, more airy, more spare…mercadito. Tienda.
Hmm. Instead of tackle, and minnows with warning signs, and nightcrawlers, I find international calling cards and Jaritos, Inca cola and pan dulces, prayer candles and sugarloaf, masa and corn husks for tamales. In the cooler beside the usual red-white-and-blue cans of mediocre domestic beers are Sol and Tecate and Corona and Dos Equis—mediocre imported beers. The clerks, who I can barely see over the top of the sparkling clean deli case, are speaking animatedly (en espanol) to the handful of customers gathered around.
But this particular afternoon I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. For better or worse, there's nothing for me here this time. I slip back out the front door, hoping to not seem rude or abrupt. I really only wanted to come here and see if it still existed. It’s a touchstone; a destination; an apogee. And to hell with the ignorant, hateful people who rail against newcomers. It’s a passing of a torch, a brand new coat of paint on a long-standing tradition. I expect that under the new management, I’ll be able to count on this as a destination for some time to come.
More power to ‘em; I’m now looking forward to swinging out to ‘Indian Country’ sometime just to grab an Inca cola y un pan dulce and sit on the porch y ver pasar los coches por un tiempo.