June 30, 2005
Filed under Travel
In Arizona, just west of Flagstaff, Interstate 40 passes Williams. Most people do too, unless they’re headed for the Grand Canyon, some 60 miles to the north, or if they want to see a piece of old Route 66 — it goes right through town. I stopped here for both reasons. Looking back on that particular visit to Williams, however, I now think mostly about Charlie Brown. I was settled at the Railside RV Ranch that spreads next to the tracks of the Grand Canyon Railway. Its only train makes a daily excursion up and back to the south rim of the canyon.
Leaving the depot at 10 a.m., it passes here a couple minutes later. It comes back just before 5 p.m. A long, covered porch that faces the tracks fronts the Railside’s office, which is in a log building. Wooden steps leading to it have a hitching post at the bottom for pets. The porch has comfortable chairs, and the newspaper racks are there, so it’s a gathering place. Guests begin to show up in the morning when the first brew of free coffee is poured — around 8 a.m. The ritual that follows is what you would expect at a campground as affable as this one. The whistle is the cue. The train rumbles by, everybody waves — someone usually has a friend on board — and another day is off to a proper start at the Railside.
A wooden Indian stands tall on the porch next to the door; they call him Jack. He’s been here longer than anyone can remember. The same can be said for Charlie Brown, I guess. Charlie spends his summers here. During the winter, he takes his aging Ford pickup, with its cracked windshield and a camper on the back, down to Yuma or Parker, where it’s warmer. Charlie, at 72 years old, describes himself as an itinerant musician. He has no family, and has never been married. Though he lives alone — it’s all he has ever known — Charlie truly loves people. He sings and plays guitar. It’s the only way he knows to make a living. “If people like what I do, my music, that’s about all I need.
“When I play, I like to be one-on-one with folks.” He plays at the Saturday night cookouts and at other events here. “Sometimes I get help. One night we had 11 musicians pickin’ banjos and guitars.” We were sitting on the porch, the two of us. Charlie’s a little guy. He weighs 150 pounds, and says that he has always been underweight. “When the wind blows, I put rocks in my pockets so I won’t get blown over. But I like to eat. I go over to Flagstaff every so often and pig out at the Sizzler all-you-can-eat senior special.” He told me about his first airplane ride. It took him from Denver to someplace in South Dakota. “I didn’t like it much. I took the bus back. One other time I flew, but that was enough.” He does not consider any place home.
He has spent time in Texas and Colorado, but says that he has never had a permanent address, nor has he owned a house — but he remembers living in one for five or six months. Most of his life has been in motels; now he has a camper. He has never had a phone number or talked on a cell phone. In fact, he really struggled to remember when he last made a phone call. “It was July or maybe August. I talked to a guy about getting a bigger camper. Actually, if I can’t look a guy in the eye, I don’t want to talk to him.” Charlie has never voted or been counted in a census. He’s had invitations to ride the Grand Canyon Railway — I offered one — but he has not taken the trip. “Nah, I just like to kick back here. I have traveled a good bit, and every place gets to look the same.”
He hasn’t seen a doctor in 35 years. “Don’t believe in alcohol, drugs or tobacco. I seem to never watch TV. Got nothing against it, just don’t own one.” “How about movies?” I asked. Charlie put his hands behind his head leaned back to think. “I would say in the last 25 years I have seen six. The one I remember best was Cat Ballou. Lee Marvin played a drunken gunfighter. You remember it?” “No. I am surprised that you do.” “I remember it because I could see the whole screen. No one was sitting in front of me. I enjoyed another one that was set in Roman times. Had I lived back then, I would have liked it.”
“Maybe you were meant to,” I said. “You seem to be out there on the fringe of the times you are living in now.” “Not at all.” Charlie was smiling. “I love watching people live their lives. I like it best when I make them happy playing music. One time an elderly lady came out of the audience. She had beautiful smile. She stood there in front of me for about minute, fumbling with the clip on the top of a coin purse. When she finally got it open, she pulled out a dime and put it in my hand. I thought it was the neatest thing.”
Bill’s e-mail address: [email protected]