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Road Tales Part 2 - Daniel in Denver

"Daniel my brother you are older than me
Do you still feel the pain of the scars that won't heal
Your eyes have died but you see more than I
Daniel you're a star in the face of the sky "

In the Spring of 1993, I left Lexington, NC at the beginning of what was to be a difficult and long drug-out divorce from my wife of 8 years. A friend in Denver, Dan Black Coal had a 1 bedroom apartment and he said I could sleep on the couch for as long as I wanted if I paid some rent. It was honestly the best offer I had at the time. So I traded my 91 Chevy Corsica even for a 1988 Ford Ranger, packed a twin mattress and whatever else I could stuff in the back and headed for Denver. I made a stop in Illinois to see my 86 year old grandmother. It was to be the last time I saw her alive. My last memory of her was one night, watching the Chicago Bulls play the Phoenix Suns. Whenever Michael Jordan would make a basket, this frail old lady would pull her tired bones out of her rocking chair and throw her hands up in the air and cheer. It was quite a sight. I'm half as old and not that agile.

I made Denver in just a few days. It was not to be the city of opportunity I had hoped it would be. Dan's apartment was in Northglenn in an apartment complex full of pimps, prostitutes and drug addicts and surrounded by a prairie dog colony that was forever getting quarantined by the CDC as a possible source for the spread of bubonic plague.

A half-promised job with the Denver council of the Boy Scouts fell through and I ended up working first for a door to door sales outfit in Colorado Springs and Boulder. That was sheer hell and I spent more money than I made. Then Dan told me there was work to be had at the Pilot Oil truckstop where he was an assistant manager. so I ended up there. The place was in one of the worst parts of town. Right at the convergence of I-70 and I-25. Gas pump drive offs on the car side of the station were common and once when I tried to stop one, I got a pistol shoved in my face for my efforts. Sorry my life is worth more than $8 an hour. If you want the gas that bad, take it buddy! Then there was the trucker from Alabama who was asking me where our ice machine was but with his accent, I could have sworn he was saying, "Excuse me, where do you keep your ass?" I just kept looking behind me.

So when a maintenance job opened up, I jumped at it. I still had to do cashier work at the gas desk when things got busy but at least I wasn't trying to chase down gas thieves all the time. Not that this job was much more fun. Painting curbs, sweeping the parking lot and cleaning up diesel spills when a trucker forgot the fuel hose was still in his tank. Oh yeah and I got to clean the little bathroom stalls after the truckers took showers. I can't describe just how nasty a job that could be. Suffice it to say, people in general are slobs and very few are considerate of the people who have to clean up their messes.

I did meet lots of interesting people though as you can imagine. Most of them didn't stay for more than just a brief chat because of the nature of their work. Eat, shit, shower, shave and drive on. But late at night when I was working the fuel desk, the dregs of Denver society would drag themselves in and grab a cup of coffee and just chat. My manager wanted me to always shoe them out because they were not buying much, but I didn't see the harm in letting them get out of the cold for a bit.

One of these was Daniel. When I think of the old railroad hobos of Kerouac's tales, I think of Daniel. He was older than me and about the same height. Gaunt and drawn and you could tell he'd missed more than a few meals. Always a bit dirty and usually smelled of sweat and road dirt but somehow managed to keep a neat appearance. He had a mop of black hair on his head and sometimes a scruffy beard and mustache and often looked like a hobo Cat Stevens. He would come in shivering in his green army surplus coat and pathetic yellow knapsack that was stuffed full of clothes and a toothbrush and paperback novels.

He'd dig around in his pockets for some change to buy the smallest cup of coffee and then he'd warm his hands up with it. Standing against the wall near my fuel desk and he'd talk to me between customers. Eventually I told him my schedule and if he would come in when I took my dinner break, we could sit at a table in the attached Wendy's and I'd stake him a meal. At least I could be sure he was eating every few days.
It was during these breaks when we would tell each other about our lives. I noticed neither of us said anything about where we were currently living. For my part I wasn't entirely sure he wouldn't just show up there and I knew we didn't have the room.

Daniel was from some city back east. He always just said "back east" but I got the feeling from his stories and his accent that it was somewhere like Boston or New York. He was a little crazy and homeless by choice I think. He'd had his share of adventures on the road. Once he talked about college and a pretty girl he'd been in love with who didn't even know he was alive. He had some family somewhere back east too but it seemed like they had distanced themselves from him or he from them.

We'd eat and talk for the duration of my breaks and then he'd sling his sorry pack over his back and out he'd go back into the cold Denver night and I wouldn't see him again for days or sometimes weeks. In the long stretches, I wondered if it had been the last time I'd see him. In the Fall, he came less frequently but each time he did, he'd ask me if I could give hi ma ride when he was ready to leave town. I always told him I would but then he'd never tell me when or how far. He always asked like leaving was this faraway dream he had but was too scared to take the chance.

Some weeks went by and it was getting toward Winter. It was snowing regularly and I hadn't seen Daniel. I was starting to hope he hadn't frozen to death somewhere. That happens to homeless people in Denver sometimes. Then one cold and snowy night after we'd gotten several inches of snow, Daniel showed up again. There was a different air about him now. He had determination in his eyes. He came right up to the fuel desk and said, "It's time for me to leave. Can I get that ride from you that you promised?" I really didn't want to drive anywhere but home that night but I could see in his eyes this was something he really wanted. I never asked him why of all the nights he could have asked, he chose the one with the worst weather. But it seemed like he needed to get out of town fast. So I asked him where he wanted to go. He said he had a friend who owned hotel in Winter Park, CO and he could stay there in one of the rooms for awhile.

Now the last place I wanted to drive on a snowy winter night was up into the mountains above Denver. Particularly because you have to go up Berthoud Pass which is not the best road when it's just raining much less snowing. But the guy obviously needed this. So I told him he hd to wait until I got off work at 10:30 pm, thinking maybe in the intervening 2 hours, he'd change his mind and wait for the morning light. He didn't.

So at 10:30 I found myself gassing mu my truck and loading Daniel and his knapsack in the front seat. He said he had to go to his "place" and get his things. He knew his way around, I'll give him that. We wound our way down narrow streets and alleyways in Central Denver for what seemed like an hour until we came to the last sad alley. He asked me to turn off the lights and go slowly. He told me to pul up near a garage with doors on front and back and kill the engine which I did. Daniel got out and in the dim light from the houses, I saw him open the back of the garage. The inside was piled high with paper and plastic grocery sacks and boxes. Among these I could see he'd made a makeshift bed by taking a couple sacks of clothing and covering them with towels. Another sack flattened out for a pillow. He started rummaging around and seemed to finally find everything he was looking for. There was a box of books and some toiletries. What he could, he stuffed in his knapsack. The rest he stuffed in a plastic garbage bag already stuffed with clothing. It looked to be everything he had in the world. When he had everything, he lowered the garage door and silently placed everything in the back of my truck. When he got back in the cab, he had a long thin box in his hands but didn't say anything about it. Having been involved in some less than honest back alley adventures in my youth, I wondered if I was now driving the getaway car, but saw no real reason to bring it up. "are we off then?" I asked and he nodded and we were on our way. By the time we hit I-70 again it had stopped snowing and the sky was getting clear. A half moon came out and reflected it's light off the snow. The snow plows were already at work and the Interstate at least was drivable. I took my time though.

US 40 was another story. It had been closed for part of the day and had just been reopened with warnings of bad road ahead and the need for snow chains. I had chains but didn't look forward to putting them on in the snow. I looked over at Daniel and he just stared ahead not looking at me. I knew he was hoping I would keep going. So I pulled off and put the chains on and started off again. The Pass with snow on it was pretty terrifying. We were the only vehicle on the road which made it even more so. More than once we slid sideways and off the road and I knew Daniel was looking down the 1,000 foot drop off on his side. In the end, I kept one set of wheels on the road and the other on the shoulder for better traction and we inched our way up and over what most drivers would agree is one of the worst passes in Colorado. It crests the Continental Divide at over 11,000 feet. I'd have thought it was beautiful if I wasn't scared we were going to fall off the cliff at any moment. It took us over an hour to make it over and it was now into the wee hours of the morning. My hands hurt from gripping the wheel and my eyes hurt from straining to see the road. Daniel apparently had more faith in my driving than I did because somewhere amid the terror, he'd fallen off to sleep, leaning his head against the passenger window.

So on I drove another hour until the light of Winter Park shown ahead. Winter park is one of those places where if you sneeze you might miss it. But on this night it looked even more small and desolate than normal Not a single light shown from inside the houses and businesses, only the street lights. I reached over and gently shook Daniel awake and told him we were here. I don't think he had any idea how scared I'd been up on the pass. He directed me down one of the few streets and to an old and sagging one story hotel back by the railroad tracks. It seriously didn't look liek anyone had been home in a long time but there was the smallest bit of smoke coming from the chimney over what looked like the main office. So I pulled up and he got out to bang on the door. After several seconds, a woman with a bad case of bed head came to the door in a fuzzy cotton nightgown. She gave Daniel a look like, "oh it's my husband's hobo friend come looking for a handout." but she gave him a key anyway and directed him to a room down the breezeway. There were no other cars in the parking lot and no other footprints in the snow when I helped Daniel get his stuff into the room.

He looked like the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. he slumped down on the only bed and just stared at the floor for awhile. I took a chair and just sat there resting. We said nothing for a long while. Finally, Daniel looked up and there were tears in his eyes. He said, "Thank you Mark. You don't know what this means to me! It's a fresh start." He said this last with much relief.

We shared a cup of tea he made with hot water from the sink and a couple of hotel cups. Then he said I could sleep there if I wanted. As tired and worn out as I was, I told him I had to work early the next day and needed to get back to Denver. we stood and he gripped my hand, shaking it hard and then he hugged me. "Thanks man!" he whispered against my shoulder. I told him I was glad to help and meant it. Then I wished him luck and started out the door. Just as I was closing it he said, "I left a box on the seat of your truck. I figure you can use them for your future." I looked at him questioningly but he just smiled and held up his hand to wave. I closed the door and went on out.

I was in the parking lot and getting into my truck to look at the box. It was the long thin one he'd gotten in the cab with. But then something happened to make me forget the box. A state trooper pulled into the lot when he saw me turn on my headlights. He pulled up beside me and motioned for me to roll down my window. He asked me where I was headed. I told him back to Denver and he told me I couldn't go back the way I'd come. It had started to snow again in the high country and Berthoud Pass had been closed. Wonderful!

So I asked him if there was another way back to Denver. He told me going North up US 40 then catching US 34 on around to Estes Park and then back down US 36 to Denver was a lot longer but was also a lot flatter and the road was still open. So I started out. Up the long cold road through Rocky Mountain National Park. I knew it was 150 miles back to Denver but at hat point I didn't care. I drove as fast as the road would allow which at no time was more than 50. I had to slow down often for snow drifts and animals crossing the road. I saw lots of bighorn sheep and several elk and mule deer and once a bobcat just sort of relaxing on the side of the road. By the time I got around to Estes Park, the sun was coming up. A glorious sight. I pulled off and had breakfast in a little diner by the side of the road. Never was a more happy to see tourists than that morning after having driven all night and being the only human around. With a couple cups of tea and some real food in me I was feeling human again. I got back in my truck and found a gas station and filled her up. I got back in an put my seat belt on. The long thin box fell to the floor. I'd forgotten about it all night.

I picked it up and slid the top off. Inside, wrapped in white tissue paper like they'd just been purchased were two very expensive Italian silk ties. I was stunned to say the least. I had no idea where Daniel would have come across the money to buy these. Had he had them with him all along? I never found out for I never saw Daniel again. I was grateful beyond words for this gift. Something I can use "for my future." Guess he knew as well as I that I wasn't meant to work in a truck stop the rest of my life. I drove on back to Denver with my head held high.

I worked that day and then that night got a call from my Dad. My grandmother had passed earlier that summer and he was calling to tell me I'd inherited some money from her. The next week, I got a check for $17,000. After cashing it, I walked into the truck stop and quit on the spot. Went down to Sheplers Western Wear and bought myself a fringed leather jacket like I'd always wanted. The rest of the money went mostly for divorce bills. I went back to the depressing apartment and packed all my stuff, gave Dan some money for back rent and then moved over the mountains to Saguache, CO. My ex-inlaws had a house there but were off in another town on a logging job and wanted me to house sit for them. It was to be the start of a new life for me too.

I still have the ties and every time I wear one, I think of Daniel and new beginnings and wonder what ever happened to him.





( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Feb. 20th, 2009 04:53 am (UTC)
You are the 5th person I know, including myself, to run off to Colorado to regroup. Must be the mountains.
Feb. 20th, 2009 05:02 am (UTC)
Or something. Maybe the fact that people don't mind letting you go your own way there.

Feb. 20th, 2009 04:10 pm (UTC)
Possibly. On my adventure back to Indiana from Colorado my car died in Iowa. I slept in it at the garage parking lot while it was being fixed. Those guys were some of the coolest I ever met. Stories like this, of people who come and go quietly in our lives while leaving some good, are the best.
Feb. 20th, 2009 04:30 pm (UTC)
A similar thing happened to me in NC when I was driving my ex-mother in law back to CO one year. Most people I've met on the road have been really nice. Just a few exceptions.

Feb. 20th, 2009 05:04 am (UTC)
That is a truly wonderful story. Thank you for sharing.
Feb. 20th, 2009 05:11 am (UTC)
By the way, sorry I missed your trek out this-a-way. It seems like I've got a rolling 3-week booking block. :\
Feb. 20th, 2009 05:21 am (UTC)
My fault. I got back to SF in time but went to lunch and was planning to come see you. Then all of a sudden it gotto be 4 and I had to beat feet for the airport. If you send me you mailing address, I'll send you your sari though.

Feb. 20th, 2009 05:20 am (UTC)
I saw the tie yesterday and it seemed to be the right time to tell it.

Feb. 20th, 2009 05:51 am (UTC)
What a wonderful story. I love your stories! bless him for giving you those ties, and bless you for being so kind to him. I hope wherever he is, he has a good life.

BTW, New Yorkers don't have accents.
Feb. 20th, 2009 06:00 am (UTC)
Ha, no accents compared to who?

Feb. 20th, 2009 06:03 am (UTC)
"Ha, no accents compared to who?"

Bostonians and you

Do I have to teach you everything?
Feb. 20th, 2009 06:10 am (UTC)
Well I had to teach you the proper way to tell time so...

Feb. 20th, 2009 06:16 am (UTC)
HA! imagine that! yeah proper way is EST or EDT... thanks for the hint!!
Feb. 20th, 2009 08:20 am (UTC)
That was incredibly well written, Mark! That was generous of you to do the drive and I am glad you survived the trip. I once drove a street person to a homeless shelter before it closed when it was snowing but that was only just over a mile away.

Thanks for sharing this story. And that red tie is a standout!
Feb. 20th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
I'd never really had an interest in ties until he gave me those. After that I started looking for ecclectic ties nd now have quite a collection.


(Deleted comment)
Feb. 20th, 2009 03:49 pm (UTC)
Why thank you! It was an interesting time.

Feb. 20th, 2009 08:30 pm (UTC)
Another great story.
Feb. 21st, 2009 03:35 am (UTC)
Thanks very much my friend!

( 18 comments — Leave a comment )