"Within those smoke stained walls, it occurred to me that the first stories I heard were not Salinger or Kerouac, certainly not Thackeray or Dickens, but were stories that were told with an elbow on a truck bed, one leg crossed behind the other and boot pointed toe down into the gravel."



Summer/Fall 2002

Unlikely Haven

It was just supposed to be a photography assignment, but when he chose the local “biker bar” as his “cultural geography project,” Kyle Nickel found unexpected friends who reminded him of where stories live, and why they matter

By Kyle August Nickel '03

We Wabash men who still run our hands on the smooth banisters of Center Hall, who walk beneath the old limbs of the arboretum so many times a week that we take them for granted, who do not yet have lamb skins on our walls, we are prone to delusions of grandeur. Those who have gone before us have left a legacy of professional success. Our inheritance is an expectation of greatness, and I am no less of a calculated dreamer than any of my classmates. So it was odd for me to find this place, this unlikely haven.

It was just supposed to be a photography project. Get in, get the shots, and get out without having my Wally skull beat into the bar. The first trip I made to this place I wasn't certain of achieving anything more than getting in. I went back, and went back again, and eventually, I found a table to call my own and people remembered my name. I was no longer an imposing photographer, but a guy who happened to take pictures. In the absence of the uncertainty and suspicion my camera first caused, a wonderful thing happened: people told me stories.

I sat alone sometimes. The bartender, Davey, walked by and said, “Sittin’ with all your friends are you?” I smiled and he laughed as he slapped me on the back. I stared off into the smoke stained murals of Canadian wilderness painted on the walls and listened as folks sat down with me for a minute to say hello.

Lil’ Bit quit her job, was selling her house, and moving to Arizona.

Bob rode his horse into town that morning and hitched her up to the dumpster right outside the back door.

Coxy was telling someone “You just tell that girl of yours that school is her job.”

Les showed me a trick with the matchbook on the table and tells me there is no better way to travel than in a boxcar.

And more often than not, the stories turned to motorcycles. Who wrecked, who bought, who sold, where, when, and all the adventures the highway gives up, all told and retold with beautiful passion.

If I could, I'd tell you that on Friday nights we all mount up on our Harleys, that we are rouges and knaves and I wear black leather chaps worn thin from a thousand open road miles and broken beer bottles. I'd tell you that one time; the boys and me blew off work for a whole week and rode out to Mesa Verde to drink whiskey with the rattlesnakes under the stars. I'd tell you it meant something when Coxy called me "brother." I'd tell you I fit in. The truth is, if this is Easy Rider, I'm Jack Nicholson, a wannabe.

At some point I realized that the soil beneath my fingernails was different from the oil and grease beneath their own. These people have steel beam bones, high-octane blood and unstoppable V-8 four barrel hearts that beat on and on and on. I have creek water in my veins, a skeleton of hickory. My clock is set to sowing and harvest and I am certain I don’t have the strength to re-set it to shifts. Maybe farmers and factory workers are not so different. We don’t dissect our stories.

Within those smoke stained walls, it occurred to me that the first stories I heard were not Salinger or Kerouac, certainly not Thackeray or Dickens, but were stories that were told with an elbow on a truck bed, one leg crossed behind the other and boot pointed toe down into the gravel. The tales I love most are not printed anywhere, but linger in some ghostly memory of a hay wagon or canoe, are still being told in the cattle barns and open pastures of my childhood. There is no adequate means to retell the tales I heard in this place. The laughter at just a certain moment, the pause to light a cigarette a sentence before the conclusion, the lips, the voice, the face of the teller, there are no keys on the computer for these things. There are photographs.

Wild Bill looked over at me and fixed his stare. I didn’t know him yet then. This is before I know he is completely mad, homeless, former prisoner, gold miner, lumber jack, magician, before our long talks of East Africa and British imperialism, before he recalled the Kant and Spinoza he read in prison, before he talked to trees and rocks and other things of mother Earth. He was just bright eyes and quick gestures. I was scared again, like the first time I went there.

“I’m Wild Bill,” and he stuck out his hand.

We talked a while and I told him about my photography project. He looked baffled that I would be taking pictures there. As evidence, I point to the bulletin board above his head where a print hangs of Peg kissing Coxy while her sister holds a knife to his chest length white beard.

“Why here?”

“Don’t know, interesting place I guess.”

I wanted to tell him, but how could I find the words for this wild-eyed stranger when I could not yet articulate it to myself? The abundance of narrative without theory or criticism, how these boxcar journey tales and bootleg whisky memories survive with such elegance in the absence of analyzation- how could I tell Wild Bill that his face told the story far better than my words could ever hope for?

When I was drowning in my delusions of grandeur, when the most important things in the world seemed to be to find the meaning of a poem or work of literature and all the word counts, foot notes, and proper citation that search requires, I found a place that reminded me where stories comes from. The aspirations of greatness that flutter like leaves reaching for the clouds were reminded that the roots are not in pages, but on tongues. I was reminded that stories do not live between two covers; stories live on lips.


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