I parked my newly purchased 1995 Triumph Speed Triple outside the biker bar in the early afternoon. A low building with a wide front yard and a sidewalk, you could barely call it a saloon. There were cars and Harley Davidsons parked nearby, owned by bar patrons or independently scattered on the pavement. I walked up the sidewalk and pushed open the door.
Inside was depressingly anticlimactic. The lighting reminded me of a cubicle farm. The tables were empty, but the bar itself almost entirely full. Just like in an old spaghetti western, every face turned towards me with blank expressions, curiosity dimmed by something between distaste and disregard. I got it—I didn’t fit.
In my early thirties, I had fake red braids down my back, and black European racing leathers that looked great on my naked racing bike. This was a Harley place. If I’d wanted to fit, I’d have been wearing jeans and possibly leather but only if the leather was a vest or had tassels. The silence was deafening, and the stares blinding.
I approached the bar. I tried to swagger. I failed.
A seat was open at the left of the bar, so I sat. The bartender studiously ignored me. He was a big guy with a big beard and a belly to match. His hair was a streaky gray and mingled with his beard. Where I so clearly didn’t belong, he epitomised the scene. One of the Harleys outside had to be his.
Everyone else followed his lead. Time slowed down while they pretended I didn’t exist and carried on conversations about anything other than the interruption to their afternoon. I wondered again if my information was correct and if this was the right address. I resisted the urge to check.
After a heavily weighted pause, and slower than a glacier across the North American continent, the bartender casually strolled over to me. His patrons studied the wall behind the bar. Polishing a pint glass and nonchalantly making eye-contact with one of the regulars on the other end of the bar, he drawled, “What can I do for you?” There was a faint smirk on his lips as he finally swung his eyes over to meet mine.
“I’m looking for Mike.” If we were going to play this game, then I was going to put on my best impression of the spaghetti western’s hero. I remained calm, possibly even smug. That was what I was going for, anyway.
The bartender’s eyes sharpened slightly while he continued to polish that glass.
“Who’s asking?” he finally replied.
It was time to lay it out, and hope that he was the guy. He matched the description, but so did at least half the people in the place. So I kept the swagger in my voice and a straight face when I said “Well, there’s a stick horse named Beaker in Amsterdam who sends his regards.” All the way across Wyoming, I’d practiced that line in my helmet. It was the single part of this I was sure I could get right, and I did.
There’s a pause. The bartender’s eyes had already swung back to his audience, and they stayed there while I completed the sentence. His expression was intimidatingly neutral as he set down the glass and towel, stepped forward to the hinged section of bar beside me, threw it open and walked through. Now he stood directly beside me, pinning me with that cool gaze as I sat on my stool.
The silence felt like it could eat me. I could see the bewildered faces of the other patrons behind him.
Those meaty arms flung wide. “GIVE ME A HUG!” he bellowed, and there was nothing to do but walk into them.
Over his shoulder, my confused relief is mirrored by everyone else. And now I knew that this was Mike, who, with his arm still draped on my shoulders, swivelled us around to present me to his friends.
“DON’T WORRY!” he shouted with a laugh, “THIS IS MY GOD-DAUGHTER!”
The afternoon became early evening in the windowless bar, getting to know Mike’s friends and patrons. On this cross-country road-trip, I’d mostly been camping, but hadn’t planned anything yet for the night. One of Mike’s friends became very worried about the idea of staying at Mike’s. He offered his own place, insisting that any time would be fine, even the middle of the night. He made sure I had the address and detailed instructions on how to find it, both from town and from Mike’s. I laughed, but later I understood better, when I left everyone and drove up to Mike’s on my own.
Mike lived way way off the grid, the road up his hill paved until it wasn’t, then gravel until I finally came to a mobile home and some miscellaneous junk and outbuildings. At least 12 non-functioning Harleys littered the property. The entrance to the mobile home led directly into the hallway-style kitchen, and I had to carefully step over the gaping hole in the floor to reach the living room. His guest bed was thoroughly dusted in cigarette ash from a habit of practicing his guitar there while smoking. The bathroom was entirely draped in underwear—apparently where he washed his laundry. There was no official address, no landline telephone, no cellular data access. Mail was best addressed to the bar in town. I considered his friend’s offer but decided to stay. It was definitely cosier than some of the places I’d camped.
Mike returned from work long after I turned in for the night, but he was awake before me in the morning. He already had coffee brewing, and nervously asked if I liked bacon. We feasted on black coffee and the biggest mountain of crispy American bacon I’ve ever seen, and nothing else. We ate, we drank coffee, we talked, we laughed, and soon it was afternoon and time for him to go back to work. I wouldn’t make much progress that day, starting so late, but I headed off westward on my Triumph.
Mike liked salty licorice, so I tried to send him some every year or so after that. Mike was my dad’s best friend in high school and college. Yeah, Mike went to college: Washington State University. Most of my news of Mike after this visit came from my dad’s emails about visits to hunt turkey or elk. According to Dad, he also liked to tell the story of that road trip visit. In his version, his back was to the door when I came in, and when the place went quiet, he turned around to see me, all “fancy leathers and scarlet hair.” The rest continues unfolds the same.
Mike wasn’t actually my godfather. Officially, my uncle Dave is my godfather, and he’s awesome too—stories I hope not to reminisce for a few more decades. But Mike was definitely my godfather too. He named my childhood stick horse, that my aunt Nita made for me for my 4th birthday. Mike pointed him at my tummy, jabbing at me while yelling, “beaka beaka beaka beek!” I still have Beaker, who is downstairs in the dining room wondering what he’s done to deserve such disregard. And Mike was my godfather because he said so.
Mike Sartain died of a heart attack on Monday 19 September 2019. That day, he called my dad from Cedars Bar in Riverton, Wyoming—that very bar he used to own. I will miss him, even if I barely knew him. RIP Mike. I hope one of your Harleys runs.