Why I passed the exit for Pentwater and rode on to Hart I do not know. Maybe it was because my cold body and tired mind could not respond to the Pentwater exit in time. But they were now on alert for the next exit, and that was Hart My first stop after leaving the highway at the Hart exit, however reluctant, was a chain hotel where the cost for just a few hours sleep was prohibitive. The desk clerk gave me directions to a small motel deeper in town whose price more closely matched my desire for a nap, not a continental breakfast, "free" HBO, and indoor beach. I pointed the front tire of my Yamaha Raider away from the highway and watched as generic America —the one most travelers experience while sticking to the swift and predictable four-lanes —dissolved in to heartland America.
Hart, Michigan, with a population hovering near 2,000 hardworking Midwesterners, is only seven miles inland from Lake Michigan, yet is far removed from the fudge stores and surf shops of the more seasonal towns on Michigan's western shore. Hart, I felt, welcomed tourists more genuinely than the so-called tourist towns nearer Lake Michigan's shore, yet lacked any overt attempt to draw them in. Turning left at the Oceana County Fairgrounds on the south side of town I saw 4H kids tending to their animals. Tethered cows were being led from a pole barn to a grassy corner near the street where others were already being washed and brushed. Their warm, damp backs steamed in the crisp morning air and when they paused their chewing to exhale they did so with a fury of condensation.
Driving north on State Street a sign hung high above crisp, clean siding caught my eye. The Pink Elephant Diner, like the rest of Hart, did not beg attention but did not go unnoticed. I knew I had found a breakfast stop. I used the better part of the next intersection to turn my out-stretched Raider around and then backed its wide rear tire against the Pink Elephant's curb. Before dismounting I warmed my hands near the bike's massive cylinders.
Riding a motorcycle is a deliberate process that I embrace. There is little room for error in maintenance, in securing luggage and rider, or in the decisions made while riding. Though the speed can be fast and acceleration, on demand, blistering, the overall experience I prefer unhurried. Any time spent with the bike is quality time, whether it is riding back roads at speed or straddling it curbside, deliberately removing gloves and helmet while the exhaust cools and contracts with a symphony of metallic clicks.
It was still early and I arrived at the clean, glass door 15 minutes before the 'Elephant woke up. The door, however, opened when tested and I asked the orange-haired waitress if I could come in and wait. She invited me inside with a smile saying, "The grill isn't on yet but the coffee is done." I assured her I was in no hurry as I took a seat at the counter, ordered a cup of coffee, and requested a menu. The Pink Elephant Diner, predictably, was decorated throughout with pink elephants but also with large black and white photos of Hart. I noted, in particular, photos of past county fairs: the old wood barns possessed more character than the metal barns that have replaced them, but the cows were little changed. Evolution is slow and deliberate. Coffee was placed before me and enthusiastically embraced by my cold hands and chilled body, but before taking my first sip I wrapped both hands tightly around the thick porcelain cup and held it near my face. The coffee's heat was absorbed by my palms and radiated onto my face. At that moment I had everything I needed.
I ordered a western omelet and started on my second cup of coffee as the locals began to filter in. They arrived in pairs, in conversation, and with no more than a simple greeting the waitress would slide full coffee cups — regular, decaf, with and without cream — to the edge of the counter where they were collected and carried away by the regulars to what I'm sure were their usual seats in the dining room behind me. My omelet arrived moments after it left the grill and my coffee was not allowed to cool or drop below the halfway mark.
Had I stopped at one of the chain restaurants near the off ramp, or made this trip in a minivan, I would have never met Harvey Reeds. Near the bottom of my fourth and final cup of coffee I felt a gentle squeeze on my right bicep and was asked, "Is it cold on that motorcycle?" I turned to find an elderly man with a cane had sidled up alongside me. I affirmed that I had gotten cold and I would be adding the insulated liner to my jacket before I continued my ride. With that brief exchange I became Harvey's rapt audience of one.
Harvey was a WWII vet, though he arrived in Germany in 1946 after the hostilities had ceased. Trained to fight — a skill now thankfully unneeded — Harvey was pressed in to service in the motor pool. Reminiscent of a scene from HBO's Band of Brothers, Harvey secured himself a German motorcycle with a sidecar but removed the sidecar, freeing all available power to drive a much-lightened bike. Harvey raced his German thoroughbred on the Autobahn, hiding in the pines between the lanes until the pursing Military Police passed by, and then rode, at speed, in the opposite direction. I did not get a sense of how long Harvey enjoyed this game of his — maybe only once, maybe for a few months — but I sensed this was one of his favorite experiences in over eighty years of living. He shared with me more stories of his life in Hart, told me about his wife, Lorna, and eventually, as the others had before him, Harvey collected his cup of coffee and disappeared into the dining area behind me.
I walked out of the Pink Elephant nearly two hours after I walked in. I was warmed, well fed, awake, and uplifted by this place and these people that I had found simply because I had no plan, no timetable, and allowed myself to venture away from the convenience and commonality of the highway interchange. At the curb I began my pre-ride ritual by starting the bike to warm its air-cooled engine. As I installed the liner in my jacket I felt eyes upon me and I knew they were Harvey's. I checked the security of my bag, pulled on my helmet leaving the visor open, tugged the cold-weather gloves in to place while flexing my hands in each glove's tight, fur-lined leather fingers and, before engaging first gear or lowering my visor, glanced through the window of the Pink Elephant to acknowledge Harvey with a nod and a wave. In that moment I sensed Harvey was in one of two places: 1946 Germany racing a stolen motorcycle on the Autobahn, or climbing on the Raider with me for experiences unknown.
I learned that five months later, in February 2010, Harvey died at the door of the Pink Elephant, in the arms of a waitress. A line in his obituary read, "Harvey never met a stranger and enjoyed having coffee with the group at the Pink Elephant Diner."
When I wrote the original story in late 2009 I could not recall Harvey's full name, though his stories and our chance meeting left an impression on me. I wrote to Hart, Michigan's newspaper requesting that my letter be printed so I may get in touch with Harvey. A few weeks later I received a small envelope in the mail carefully addressed with fine, well-practiced handwriting. The card inside explained that the sender was the wife of one of Harvey's friends, and that Harvey had passed away. I was touched that a stranger would take the time to write me, and saddened by the news.
Shortly after that I received this email:
April 4th, 2010
Dear Mr. Fores:
One of the women at the Oceana County Historical Society sent us a copy of the portion of your article on your motorcycle trip where you stopped in Hart. It warmed my heart to read of your encounter with my father and your willingness to sit and listen for a while as he recounted one of his many stories in regard to WWII. My father would have been pleased with what you wrote and you captured his friendly and outgoing manner to a T.
My dad never met a stranger. In fact, in our travels with him and my mother, he would invariably run into someone he knew or someone who knew someone he knew, no matter where we were.
I loved listening to his stories about WWII and what he did when he was in the army. When he wasn't on duty, he was busy having fun. He never told me those stories until the last couple of years but I didn't mind hearing them over and over.
Dad died on his way to coffee on the 18th of February. Mom told me that he had gotten up and was excited about going down to coffee and talking to the fellows. [He] died in the arms of the waitress who was helping him into the building.
I have been blessed the past 60 years to have this man for my father. We didn't always see eye to eye but I loved him fiercely and miss him terribly.
Please know that my father was blessed by you also. Life for him had been hard as he continued to lose control of so much that he knew and loved to do. By spending some time with him, you made him feel worthwhile and valued, he had something to say and you took the time to listen. For that, I will be forever grateful.
Linda Reeds, Harvey's daughter
The ensuing email exchange prompted a visit with Linda, Harvey’s daughter, and Lorna, Harvey’s wife, at the Pink Elephant despite its location 7 hours from my home. We met during the breakfast hour, just as Harvey and I had, and I enjoyed their company immensely before needing to get back on my bike and continue my ride to Virginia to visit my youngest daughter, Alex, who was there for her summer job. When I arrive home I had another email from Linda waiting for me. And it reads:
I am so glad that we got to meet you face to face. My mom was thrilled with your visit as was I. It really did her a lot of good and it is wonderful to be able to put a face with the name! I haven't seen her look that bright in quite a while. When I told her that you had contacted me and would be coming through Hart, I asked her if she wanted to come along to meet you and she didn't even hesitate when she said yes! You really made her day and that made mine. I was glad to see her so happy.
The interstate highways have given us speed and efficiency, but they have taken away any connection to the ground we pass over, the towns we never see, and the people we never meet. Motorcycling has given back to me what “progress” has taken away. My life has been endlessly enriched by a chance encounter with an old man who was just going for coffee at his favorite small-town diner.
I know Harvey is riding with me every time I pull on a helmet. I know this because I think of him and invite him along.
Take a back road...