By John Atkins (1999)

While returning to Minnesota on our recent 3 week 6000 mile trip to San Francisco, we wound our way through the glacial lakes area of northeastern South Dakota (the area the locals used to call “the first rise of the hills”) and were attempting to cross over the Bois de Sioux river using a bridge on a little known road that, eventually, leads to Wheaton. This day the bridge was closed for repairs which elicited some discussion about our proposed route and it seemed, for some reason, that we just had to get to Wheaton. So, the detour was followed and Wheaton (with its converted hotel/cafe -- across from the old depot) was attained.

Incidents, like detours, aren't much cause for alarm after weeks on the road sticking mainly to secondary routes whenever possible and/or convenient. Little, seldom traveled, roads like: S.D. 1804 on the east side of the Missouri river north of Mobridge, or the road to Mullen south of Valentine, or the extraterrestrial highway in Nevada, or the almost one lane roads in California's coastal range-like Morgan Territory Road, are where we prefer to spend our touring miles; and with mid-sized bikes like the '94 Yamaha Seca II (in yellow) and the '98 Suzuki Katana 750 (in tasteful black) there's little problem - as well as anything else from city centers to interstates. But, I digress. There we were, once again enjoying a home-cooked meal (me the blue plate special and Mary, fried chicken) -- the trip had become a gastronomical tour-de-force with hardly a meal taken in anything like a national restaurant chain, with the accompanying next belt hole....but, back to Wheaton.

Suddenly, there was a flurry of activity in the fairly full cafe as an octogenarian in a multicolored billcap, aided by a walker, crossed the room and headed for the table he thought seated the motorcyclists. Shaking with palsy, he asked the waitress, “Are these the motorcyclists?” I interceded, "That's us." While introducing himself as “Skippy” he proceeded to tell his life story -- a shortened rendition. He told us about touring the country border to border; about buying a new Harley Davidson in '42 and not spending the extra $50 for the overhead valve engine (they were new and unproven), but spending an extra $50 for the leather saddlebag option. He put 'SKIPPY' in chrome letters on the tops of both bags. He told about later owning and riding BMW’s and Honda’s and trikes -- before the hip replacement. He told about taking a gal to Yellowstone one summer on the back of his bike. I interjected, “You brought her back, didn't you?” “Yea sure,” he said, “she's still alive, you know.” The two diners at the table immediately exchanged a glance. He said, looking out the window at our parked bikes (complete with light luggage and minimum camping gear). “You guys are doing it right, I used to travel like that -- that's the best way.” “How big are the motors?”, he asked. I told him, “Just right.” Skippy continued, “Oh, I've tried those big bikes and, yes, they're more luxury -- but, all in all, yours are the best size.” We couldn't have agreed more. After snow on Lassen, Winnemucca range fires, camping near Sturgis, and all that happened in between, we knew exactly what he was talking about.

Eventually, Mary left the table while I got up to pay; and, amazingly, Skippy was at the till, too. He said to the waitress, “I want to pay their check.” I protested politely but conceded as he, with constantly shaking hands, dug bills out of his wallet and coins from a well-worn coin purse. He said, “I want to do this for all the people who've been good to me out on the road.” When Mary returned to the table, the waitress (bussing the dishes) asked, “Do you know him?” Mary answered, “No, never met him before.” “Well,” the waitress said, “he bought your lunch.”

So, here's to you -- Skippy. May your remaining days be filled with wonderful memories of places you've seen and people you've met on the road -- as ours will be.

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