A Story in the Desert

When I was looking to book a room in northern Arizona on my way to Los Angeles, I didn’t really have any plan in mind.  I saw that if I drove a long day I could make it to Flagstaff, but I was exhausted from my drive cross country and just wanted to drive a shorter, less stressful day.  I ended up picking a town at random and I settled on a ‘blink and you miss it’ little town called Holbrook, Arizona.  I expected it to be an uneventful stay, but it ended up being the most memorable stop on my trip.

It would have been an entirely ordinary stay, except I asked the motel owner about his accent (Polish) and what brought him to Arizona, of all places.   All he said at first was that he bought the motel on the internet, sight unseen, and it ruined his life.  He told me he lost his wife, his kids, everything.  He gestured to his dog, and said that he was all he had left.

It was a sad little glimpse into this man’s life.  I wanted to know more, but felt strange asking, so I just said that I was sorry and went back to my room.  The next morning I pulled out my camera and asked him if I could shoot some portraits of him and Sebastian, his giant German Shepard.  He agreed and as I was shooting away all morning and as our dogs ran around together, he told me more.  He told me how much he loves New Jersey, how he used to live there and wishes he could go back.  He showed me a snapshot of his kids, and pointed to his beautiful, blond daughter and told me that he bought her a motorcycle for her birthday.  Then he told me that she died on that same motorcycle.  He told me that soon after he bought the motel and moved out to the desert, expecting his wife to soon follow, he received divorce papers in the mail.  He told me the motel was like a prison for him.  He again said that his dog and his chickens, which he keeps in a coop out in front of the motel, were all he had.

When he saw how delighted I was by his chicken coop, he begged me to wait longer for them to lay eggs that morning so I could take some with me.  So I delayed heading to LA for a good 2 hours, taking pictures and listening to stories, waiting on his chickens to lay eggs.  Once they finally were ready to wander the grounds, pecking at brush and bugs, he let them out and crawled into the coop himself.  I asked him a question as he was crawling in, and he stopped and turned and had a full conversation with me, there on his hands and knees in this coop.   He was beyond disappointed that there was only one egg for him to give me.  But I took it and gently nestled it in an empty mini pringles can, padded with some plastic dog bags I had in my purse.

It was a great morning, the kind of connection and experience I was looking for on this drive cross country.  And even though he thanked me profusely as I was leaving, telling me that most visitors don’t give him the time of day, I don’t think that’s entirely true.  As I was leaving, another guest got out of his car and greeted him warmly, and they started talking about their respective tooth aches, a subject they had breached the day before.   It made me realize that some people are just wired to connect to others, and I left hoping that I am one of those people.

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