Those who know me and know Afton Station well will realize that this is part fact and part fiction. Or maybe it should be called romanticized reality. It's a little piece I wrote one day in the winter, when I was sitting in Afton Station with no visitors. I was cleaning off my desk today and found it. Since I wasn't in Afton today, I figured I might as well post it here. It's a collection of random thoughts, a first draft, in need of work.
I'm not that worried about the screen flapping from the window of the abandoned hotel across the street, being held in place by one corner. It does bother me that the wind could pick it up and slam it into my new gas pump. Well, not new. Restored. At great expense. The trials and tribulations of trying to exist in a ghost town.
I'm determined to make something of Afton. I'm the new girl in town. We (my former husband) and I drove all the way across the country and back twelve times to get all these old cars down here. We bought a ratty old '30s gas station and spent five years spackling and painting and pounding it into shape. The first day I arrived in town, the local flea market owner walked in and asked me if I'd start a Chamber of Commerce. Just me and her. "Hah", I said, I hope not too derisively. The irony of painting the Station and fixing the windows and sealing the roof was lost on me for a while. But when the grocery store across the street "Since 1922" went out of business, I knew. It would be just me and the ghosts from now on.
Sometimes, like today, the wind blows so hard here on the plains that I can feel it through the plate glass window. I sit at the window and wait for the tourists. Sometimes they stop and sometimes they don't. Route 66 is far from dead, but today it's an acquired taste. It seems that most of that taste has been acquired by foreigners, not necessarily by native sons. A couple from Sweden thinks this rag-tag town is charming rather than ugly. A man from New Zealand thinks the '34 Packard coupe is the most beautiful car he's ever seen. The wind blows the tourists in, then blows them down the road to the next attraction -- a giant blue whale or a 66-foot high neon pop bottle.
Of the few people left in town, one or two will stop in occasionally. When I first got here, an elderly man would come in and play the harmonica for me. Betty has become my dear friend. She had the drive-in at the tourist trap down the road, and over the years she dispensed countless bison burgers and lime squeezes. But the tourist trap was closed and bulldozed over several years ago. Betty tells tales of the good old days, when the place was abuzz with road travelers, and they provided Indian dances, peacocks, trained buffalo, and all the souvenirs you could afford.
That kind of tourist trap doesn't exist any more. That kind of tourist doesn't either. Families hike in state forests, or fly to Disney World or tropic islands. Kids don't even know about barrels full of rattlers or two-headed sheep.
That loose screen across the street is still flapping. It's going to let go any second, I'm sure. I'm trying not to make a metaphor of it.
A car slows and stops. A rental. A lone woman is shoved by the wind through my door. I know I won't be lonely for the next few minutes at least. She started in Chicago and is making her way to L.A. Like me, she won't give in to the Interstate and takes only the old roads. We are so alike and yet so different. I am planted. She is rootless. Knowing for for five minutes shows me that she is free, as I was once. I was once the roamer but now, by choice, I'm the one to which other roamers make pilgrimages. I'm an attraction of sorts, written up in guidebooks, the only thing worth seeing in a disappearing town. A sideshow freakish collection of gleaming vintage cars that have survived longer than the town where they sit. And me, the aging divorced shepherdess who herded them down here and pens them up in a town that doesn't care.
The wind finally works its way under the screen and it lets go. After 50 years, it's free to take flight. Instead, it simply drops to the sidewalk below and nestles itself against the wall of the old hotel, where it will stay for another fifty years.