On August 24, 2011, I pulled out of Winslow, Arizona, on my motorbike. As I was headed down Interstate 40’s eastbound on-ramp, I rapidly shifted gears until I reached fifth—the top gear of my Harley-Davidson ’02 Deuce. After merging into traffic and then pulling away from the cars and trucks, I was able to roar down the road without a care in the world. I placed my feet up on the bike’s highway pegs and leaned back against my T-bag, which was securely attached to a one-of-a-kind sissy bar pad that had just been fabricated for me by Big Lowry’s Customs of Winslow. Sitting back, I was dug in deep as the Deuce and I headed for Fort Apache.
Arizona’s Interstate 40 passes straight through Navajo County, where Holbrook is located. I topped off my bike with gas in Holbrook and grabbed a quick snack consisting of two hot dogs and a bag of original SunChips. Both were washed down with a Diet Coke (two big bags of beef jerky also found their way into my saddlebag, where they lay next to the emergency-only bottles of water). After the bike and I were both full, I headed south on Arizona’s Highway 77, which hooks up with US Highway 60, and the two roads become one down around Show Low. I was skirting the eastern edge of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest while en route to Highway 73. From those crossroads, I would drop straight into Fort Apache Reservation—void of tourists—on the road less traveled.
Highway 73 is what I refer to as a horseshoe road. It’s a type of road that goes around the bend before bringing you back out at the other end, placing you where you began but with a gap between the two points. In other words, after heading south the road curves and heads back north, bringing one back to near-perfect latitude alignment but with longitude space between where the road started and ended. Highway 73 was perfect for me. It allowed me to take the long way while sending me deep into Apache territory before boomeranging me back out on my chosen route. Bikers study maps looking for any justifiable detour that will allow them to pretend they’re on a direct path to somewhere.
When on a bike run (a long and hard ride) there must be a preplanned destination that serves as the point of return: somewhere where the beginning of the ride begins to end. It’s a place—rather than a destination—where a biker must face the fact the long ride being enjoyed will eventually end. A place where you’re forced to return from whence you came.
Knowing that that is a sad fact of a cross-country bike ride, I chose Florida’s Keys as my preplanned destination before leaving Las Vegas, Nevada. Unable to accept that the Keys would signal the end of the beginning of my ride, I quickly added Washington, DC, to my route. I then added Cape Cod and San Francisco to my itinerary, knowing that when I arrived in Reno, I’d be unable to escape the southbound road that would lie before me, dead-ending me back in Las Vegas—back where the ride began. When I am unable to shake the vision of the ride ending, I entertain myself with Sir Winston Churchill’s words: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
To arrive in Fort Apache proper, I had to exit Highway 73 (also known as South Chief Avenue) and take Fort Apache Road. As I pulled into the community, I noticed there was a gathering of people near a spot where I had decided to park. I slid off the bike, and from where I was standing the gathering appeared to be that of a small farmers market. I was neither close nor far from the slow-paced activity that had been going on; I’d gotten everyone’s attention with my arrival on the Deuce with its Vance & Hines 2-into-1 Pro Pipe exhaust system rumbling noisily and laced with poppin’ and backfiring sounds. It was then I realized that I had stumbled into a community event—and that this outsider’s presence was a rare occurrence. It was time to pull out the ace that I always have up my sleeve. It was time to make new friends.
I have traveled the world as a street performer; well, I’ve performed in America, Europe, Mexico, and Canada. So a more apropos declaration would be that I have traveled part of the world by entertaining people. In my travels I have performed magic, fire-eating, rock balancing, juggling, and balloon sculpturing, all thickly layered with philosophical comedy—just your basic tomfoolery activities. But they have served me well. They provided the means to travel and to have deeply experienced other cultures. At times, those skills have freed me from social jams. In Fort Apache, it was time for me to conjure up a dose of déjà vu.
Because of my work as an over-the-road trucker, when I arrived in Fort Apache, I had not sculpted balloons—nor performed at all—for many years. By happenchance, while I was running around Las Vegas and gathering the necessities for the ride I was on, I ended up in a strip mall, where I purchased a small tool kit. When I left the auto parts store, from across the street a party supply store caught my eye. I decided to buy a bag of balloons, hoping that I’d be inspired to twist a few of them into recognizable shapes and give them away while on my trip. A colorful bag of Qualatex 260Q balloons—two inches wide by sixty inches long—was to become the proverbial ace up my sleeve during my pit stop in Fort Apache.
After my loud arrival, and sensing that my presence was unwelcome at worst, tolerated at best, I dug through one of the Deuce’s saddlebags and located the balloons. I placed the balloon bag on top of the other items in the saddlebag and closed its hardcase lid, leaving it unlocked. My balloons were at the ready, as it were. I then walked over to one of the tables set up in what I perceived to be a makeshift marketplace. I purchased some fruit punch, then returned to my bike and leaned on its seat.
When you’re a stranger in town, people look at you—they size you up—but they don’t look directly at you; they just steal glances when they think you’re not looking back at them. When that happens to me, I feel uneasy. From in front of me and from behind me, that was happening to me. I was being cautiously watched while I tried to nonchalantly act natural.
After a while two little girls who both looked to be six or seven years old cautiously approached me and my big bike. They were smiling while looking up and down, glancing toward me and away from me, as they came nearer. When they were about twenty feet away, they stopped. From their vantage point, they looked the bike over, glancing up and then back down. While they were checking things out, I reached down and pulled out a pink balloon from the bike’s saddlebag. I pinched its neck between my thumb and index finger, allowing it to dangle in the air. Both girls were equally as puzzled by the item I had unfurled before them as they were by me.
I took a deep breath while placing my lips around the opening of the balloon, and then I exhaled, filling the latex with air and bringing it to life. The girls’ confusion of what I was holding vanished when the air-filled balloon appeared in my hand—their eyes widened. I twisted the pink balloon into my signature piece: a perfectly shaped heart. Grins appeared on the girls’ faces when I looked through the center of the heart-shaped balloon at them. I could sense that the nearby adults remained unsure of me; they were staring at me with expressionless faces, probably wondering what my motivations were, what I was up to, and why I was there. Undaunted, I grabbed another balloon, a blue one, and I blew air into it, too, and quickly twisted it into a teddy bear shape, attaching it to the side of the heart balloon. When the balloon sculpture was complete, I extended my hand . . . motioning to the girls to come take it. One girl slowly approached me in much the same way that a cat or a dog does when it is unsure about the person who is coaxing it to come nearer—cautiously with a quick exit route available. The little girl took the balloon from my hand and made a rapid retreat to rejoin her friend.
I quickly grabbed a purple balloon and made the other girl a heart, too, but on hers I placed a Snoopy dog that I made from a white balloon. She took her balloon with less apprehension than her girlfriend. Then the twosome ran away together to a table where other children and adults were sitting. The girls were excited, bouncing up and down while talking to the people at the table. The ice has been broken, I thought to myself as I picked up my paper cup and took a sip of the fruit punch I had purchased.
It took a little while before a few more kids came closer to me, their presence silently signaling to me that they, too, wanted balloons. Soon I was surrounded by children, dozens and dozens of them, and I was back in my element—laughter and joyful mayhem ensued. It wasn’t long until balloons were everywhere. The kids were running around, showing off their latex treasures.
The bag I had purchased contained a gross of balloons—144 of them in an assortment of colors. My balloon sculptures required two balloons for each creation. When I had exhausted my supply, every child there had received one. I estimated that I had given away seventy balloon creations, mostly to kids, but a few adults could not help themselves and requested that I make them one too. With my presence now accepted by the people, I walked freely among them, looking at the tables laden with fresh vegetables, cut meats, crafts, jewelry, and food.
I was about to place a food order when a tall elderly man approached me. His face had been chiseled by age. He had a thick Native American accent. He said to me, “I’d be honored if you came to my table and joined us. We are getting ready to eat.” He motioned toward a picnic table off in the distance.
“Thank you,” I said, “but it is I who am honored.” He motioned again toward the table, and we walked side by side over to it.
Over food we spoke about the surrounding land, about my travels, and about how I came to make balloons. I made inquiries about the community I was in, and we spoke about many matters. It was fun, heartwarming, and educational. I learned that Fort Apache is part of the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, which reaches into parts of Navajo, Gila, and Apache counties. The White Mountain Apache Tribe of the Fort Apache Reservation, a Western Apache tribe, is federally recognized. Its land mass is 2,627 square miles, with a population of around twelve thousand people.
As I sat there amid the fine pine forests surrounding the land while listening to that proud man share his people’s history with me, I was entranced. Especially when he spoke of the Apache Wars and of Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. I did not know that fifty White Mountain Apache men served as scouts for General George Crook in 1871. Nor did I know that the Apache Wars lasted fifteen years before they were ended. He told me that because of those scouts’ service to General Crook, their tribe was able to retain a large portion of their homeland. They were “given” the White Mountain Apache Reservation, a reward of sorts for their service and sacrifice. I will never understand the concept of the white man “giving” land to Native Americans. That’s akin to a thief bringing to a birthday party a present that was purchased from the money he stole from the birthday boy—it’s inconceivable, but it happened!
I am always the one who will ask the question no one else dares to ask. I will always point out that the emperor has no clothes. I can’t help myself—god knows I’ve tried. So while the women were packing things up, I asked my host: “Just how in the hell are your people able to tolerate my people, the whites who stole your land and who continually break treaties and trespass upon your people and your land?”
He must have known I would be asking that question, because he smiled at me like only a wise man can when he knows the question is coming. He placed his hand on my shoulder and said, “Brother, all things will go away. Your people’s grip is weakening. Just as we were overtaken and had to learn to adjust—so too will your people. What we do to others will be done to us. I feel sorry for your people, because they do not know how to atone. I wish you peace and safety on your iron horse. You are welcome here anytime.”
I rode away, ashamed, as I often am when I ponder what my people have done to African Americans, to Native Americans, to Mexican Americans, to Muslim Americans, to gay Americans, to anyone different from them. We as white people have much for which we must atone for on behalf of our forefathers, on behalf of our current leaders, and on behalf of our citizenry. Failure to do so will continue to have devastating effects visited upon us. “What we do to others will be done to us,” he said to me. Truer words may have never been spoken.
As I rode away to continue my journey across America en route to her Keys, “What we do to others will be done to us” never left my thoughts. It remains with me to this day. It was not a new conceptualization to me; the vast majority of religions have some derivative of that truism.
I have been exposed to many augmentations of “do unto others” when I was on my spiritual quest. As a child of post-Beatlemania, as someone who remembers the images of people being beaten during the civil rights movement, as someone who knew the Vietnam War was unjust and immoral, I’m unable to view the world through rose-colored glasses. I know that the world is skewed. While I’ll always fall short of my idealism, I yearn for the world to be a better place. The journey toward a better place can begin only after every country owns its history—its transgressions, its trespasses, its mistreatment of its fellow man. Only after worldwide atonement, only then will humankind have a shot at a better world. Unfortunately it’s true that “Sorry seems to be the hardest word.”
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