Ben Powell: Goin’ Nowhere in Mid-America

Ben Powell was smoking behind the Dumpster corral at McDonald’s a few minutes after 9 a.m. when I found him on June 17. He’d already observed me oiling my motorcycle’s drive chain in the truck parking area at the Eureka, Missouri, travel stop along I-44. It was right outside the Six Flags Over Mid-America amusement park, and that was his problem. He was hitchhiking to New Mexico after having walked the Appalachian Trail, and this touristy area with a lot of families was no place to get a ride. He’d spent last night under a cottonwood tree on the lawn of a nearby motel, being consumed by gnats and ants.

I parked in the corner of the lot, and that’s how we met: I smelled the cigarette smoke. When I said hello, Ben went into his travelin’ man routine, as if he were the guy in Johnny Cash’s song “I’ve Been Everywhere.” I asked where he lives, and he pointed to his bedroll—but he said he’s a window washer by trade. Near his bedroll, there was trash: some food wrappers and beer cans spilling out of a plastic sack.

“Got any spare change?” he asked.

I reached for the sixty-five cents in my pocket, but before I delivered it, we started talking about my mission to ride the motorcycle from Michigan to California. Hearing me say I’d be writing about the trip, he said he’s a reader of Edward Abbey, Hunter Thompson, and John Steinbeck. Among the various other things he told me was that he has a hernia. “My guts are falling out,” he said.

Then he warned about the rain ahead. I asked him to pose for a photo. The professional camera I pulled from my saddlebags caught him by surprise. He said some European tourists had photographed him near Zion National Park, in Utah, but this was different. After I showed him where to stand, he clowned for me until I had a good shot.

As I put my camera away and started to climb onto my bike, he said, “Spare change?” This time I gave him the sixty-five cents.

One thought on “Ben Powell: Goin’ Nowhere in Mid-America

  1. We’re from Pittsburgh, motorcycle riding in the west. We ran into Ben last Friday in Page, AZ. He gave me a crow feather. We ran into him this morning on the side of the road on 285 south of Buena Vista, Colorado. We didn’t have any change to give him so he flipped us off as we road away.

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