By Melissa A. Priblo Chapman
Rainy, Gypsy, and I enjoyed the quiet trail much of the day, but it came to an abrupt end, feeding out onto a busy road just as it clouded up and started to rain with gusto. All three of us stood at the edge of the pavement, shocked by the soaking downpour, when I heard someone shouting.
“Over here! Right here!” A barely visible figure on the other side of the street was waving and jumping up and down. I looked for a break in the traffic and urged Rainy across the road.
The man continued shouting, even though I stopped right in front of him. “Hey! Are you the girl who’s riding the horse around the world?”
I laughed and nodded as he gestured for me to follow him down a driveway and through a garage door. I leaned over and put Gypsy on the ground, then pulled off my hood and jumped down from the saddle. I was surprised to find myself surrounded by people in white aprons, beaming at us. Everyone was talking at once, and I heard several comments of disbelief that “Louie” was actually backing his Cadillac out into the rain for us.
We’d stumbled upon Louie’s Coral Lounge, a tavern and restaurant tucked in the hills of western Pennsylvania. It was Louie himself who pulled me, with Gypsy at my heels, into the kitchen of the restaurant, assuring me his workers would take good care of Rainy while I had something to eat. He handed me a bunch of white tablecloths to use to dry myself off.
“We got a horse in the garage!” Louie proudly informed the staff as he led me through a set of swinging doors into the dining area.
The room had gleaming hardwood floors and tables set with the same white tablecloths I’d just used as towels. Half a dozen men ate sandwiches and drank mugs of cold beer in the bar area; they nodded hello as Louie deposited me at a table with my journal and pen, and orders to choose whatever I wanted from the menu. Before going back to the kitchen, Louie dumped a handful of quarters in front of me.
“Here,” he cheerfully insisted. “Put some songs on the jukebox to listen to while you eat.”
I walked a little self-consciously into the bar area and flipped through the jukebox, punching in the numbers until Louie’s quarters were gone. The strains of the first song filled the restaurant: Ricky Skaggs’ “Crying my Heart Out Over You.” One of the men at the bar murmured, “Good choice,” and I smiled over my shoulder at him before peeking out the window at Rainy, still peaceful in the garage. I knew Gypsy was where I’d left her, resting contentedly on the pile of tablecloths in the kitchen. I returned to my table and wrote notes in my journal while the rain drummed a steady beat on the tavern window, as if part of the song in the background.
The men who’d been sitting at the bar made their way over to talk to me—all of them truck drivers, stopping for lunch. We shared our traveling stories, as outside the rain slowed, then stopped. One by one, the truckers took their leave, having schedules to keep. The first tried to pay for my lunch, but Louie wouldn’t hear of it. So in passing, the man placed a five-dollar bill on my table, telling me, “For lunch down the road.” I promised I’d remember him with my next cheeseburger.
The other drivers tried to give me money, too. “I’m okay, really!” I protested, but they left it anyway, shaking my hand, kissing my cheek, and wishing me luck and safety on my journey.
The last truck driver paid his bill at the bar and walked over to my table.
“Your parents must be worried about you,” he observed. I nodded in agreement.
“I have a daughter of my own,” he went on, “and if she wanted to do something like this….” He closed his eyes and shook his head. “But y’know,” he said after the pause, “I think I’d give her my blessings.”
The man reached out and tucked a tightly folded five-dollar bill into my hand. I objected, offering it back, but he again shook his head.
“Just take it, please,” he insisted. “It’ll make me feel good and make me think that someday, someone will do something nice for my daughter, too, when she’s out there in the world.”
We smiled at each other in understanding. I asked him if he wanted me to send him a postcard from California.
“Naw,” he replied. “Just remember Ed the truck driver from Jamestown, New York.”
The man turned to leave, stopping to wave again from the doorway, the sun now out and shining brightly behind him.
I watched his truck pull out of the parking lot, then unfolded the five-dollar bill, still clutched in my fist.
It wasn’t a five-dollar bill. It was a fifty. A fifty-dollar bill that had been folded up so I could not insist it was too much. A fifty-dollar bill from Ed the truck driver, with a daughter of his own, back in Jamestown, New York.
This excerpt from Distant Skies: An American Journey on Horseback by Melissa A. Priblo Chapman is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).
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