By Christopher Briscoe
Erick, Oklahoma seems to be another Route 66 town fallen on hard times. It's been a dot on the map since 1906. King Of The Road, singer Roger Miller, grew up in Erick. Roger Miller is gone but there's another musician there. He is not as record-sales-famous, but he's well known around the planet in the Route 66 guide books. If anyone can bring folks back to Erick, Oklahoma - it's Harley Russell.
We slowly ride our bicycles, zig-zagging the empty main street. It's already getting hot and we need some shade and some breakfast. A boy on a bike coasts down the sidewalk, eyeballing the new strangers in town. I steer over to him and ask, "Where's a good place to get some breakfast?"
He shrugs and replies, "In this town? I don't think there is any."
I look across the street and notice a cafe. "How about that place?" I ask.
He looks over at it and remembers, "Oh yeah."
Then he got a little wild.
Inside, a waitress repairs a broken chair with a tube of Superglue laid out on top of a cafe table. My son, Quincy and I choose a spot nearby and order a couple of stacks of pancakes with eggs. The only other folks in the restaurant - a rancher and his wife - sit at a table over 2 cups of coffee. I walk over and ask him about a guy in town named Harley. He looks me over from under the brim of his tan cowboy hat. He's already spotted our bicycles outside and asks where we're coming from. When I tell him our story, he puts down his coffee and slides his chair back, as if needing more space to comprehend it all. Then he turns to point out the window to where Harley lives. "Right there on that corner - the old red brick building with all dem signs all over it. He's different," he tells me. "I've known him my entire life. When we was kids, he was just a regular guy. Then he got a little wild. Now that his wife has passed, he's gotten a little - well I'll just say - he's not do'n so well."
We open when we wake up, and close when we pass out.
When the pancakes are gone and our plates are toast-mopped clean, Quincy and I wheel our bikes across the street to the porch of the Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. At first, I'm not sure if it is a grocery store or an antique store or maybe even a museum. I notice an old sign, "We open when we wake up, and close when we pass out!” The old door squeaks as we walk inside. It takes me a moment to take it all in. Road signs, antique furniture, guitars, books, and photographs of some of the thousands of roadies who've stopped in over the years, nearly fill the room before spilling out onto the front porch. Also filling the room is the sound of guitar music. I feel as though we are crashing a party. Harley is standing tall, strum'n loud. He's grizzly looking with long gray hair and a shaggy beard, shirtless, wearing red and white striped overalls. A few teeth are missing. He is surrounded by a circle of black leather motorcycle bikers from Sweden, who sit spellbound on folding chairs - foreigners in a very foreign land.
"I want to welcome you here to Erick, Oklahoma, the redneck capital of the world, where you can see rednecks work and play in their own environment. You're in the world-famous Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. My name's Harley." Then Harley pauses, widens his eyes and asks, "Who the hell are you?!"
Harley launches into his version of the song, Route 66. A few of the bikers try to keep a beat with the tambourines Harley has handed out. I watch his left hand slide through the frets, up and down the worn neck of his guitar. The bikers clap and smile, lost in Harley's world.
Harley's sorrow comes through with every lyric.
His next song is so different, it nearly lowers the temperature of the room. Smiles fade. Harley sings a sad, deliberate version of the Beatles song, Yesterday. It takes just a moment to realize that he's singing about his wife, Annabelle. Although no one else in the crowded room knew her, it doesn't matter. Harley's sorrow comes through with every lyric.
Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away.
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
In 1987 Annabelle came to town to visit here grandparents. She was a slender woman with long, silky hair. Annabelle walked into Harley's shop, hoping he would tune her guitar. She never left. Through the years she sang every song, standing next to him, greeting every tourist who walked through the doors, with a smile and a free cold drink.
A couple of years ago Harley posted this on his Face Book page:
"Dear friends, my Precious Annabelle just passed away 1:10p.m. this afternoon Sept.30, 2014. Thank all of you for everything you have done."
Soon the group from Sweden is outside on their motorcycles, revving up to leave. Harley rushes outside and stands in the street, waving a huge Swedish flag, as I if he's starting the Indy 500. The bikers roar past, waving, and head out of town toward Route 66. When the last one is gone, Harley stands alone in the middle of the hot street in his near-empty town.
Harley, still carrying his flag, slowly walks back to the front porch of the Sand Hills Curiosity Shop. He needs to get ready for the next group of tourists that may roll in.
Now I need a place to hide away.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.