I saw him up ahead, walking along the shoulder of the highway leaving Mesa, Arizona, backpack and trash bag full of clothes. As I zipped by with a list of reasons not to stop, I saw the small cardboard sign: “GALLUP, NM.”
My goal was to reach Santa Fe via the Rim Road, up to Hayden, across through the mountains to I-40, then on to Albuquerque and up. I’ve taken that route to Holbrook, then through Gallup, enough that I wanted to see something different. Plus, with Gallup on lock down due to Covid-19, I figured this trip I’d take another way.
Despite the reasons in my brain NOT to stop, I tapped the brake. Then my brain and foot went to battle as I volleyed between braking and accelerating, “stop” … “don’t stop” until my gut won over and I pulled over. I shifted into reverse and headed back for the guy. I was out in this weather the day before and, at 102 degrees, this was no place for someone to be walking along a highway.
The guy hopped in with his stuff and said a quick “Thank you” as I waited for the traffic to clear so I could get moving again.
“I’m not going all the way to Gallup,” I told him up front. “I’m going to Hayden and then east to pick up I-40. I don’t know where is best for me to drop you off, but let me know what works for you.”
It didn’t take long to get his story; he wasn’t shy about it. I won’t share it all. It’s a lot. Chapter after chapter made me realize how great things have been for me in my life. I think 95 percent of the people in this country, if they were riding along, hearing his story, would think the same thing.
His name’s Barry, but “my friends call me ‘Wild Bill.’ That’s my middle name,” he clarified. “Or call me Bardo.”
Barry was born in the hospital in Gallup and was raised on the Navajo reservation by his grandmother, until the age of nine. “People ask me my name, and I say ‘Barry’ and they don’t believe me,” he told me. “They ask to see my ID. They say ‘you don’t look like a Barry.’”
And he doesn’t. With his dark, tattooed skin and black hair under his hat, he looks very Navajo. I would have expected a native American name, like “Rides With Kooky.” So much for stereotypes.
He understands Navajo, he said, but doesn’t speak it very well. “My grandmother put me in a boarding school and they all spoke Navajo, but I only spoke English.” I told them to speak to me in English so I could understand, but my grandmother told me I have to learn the language of my people, or I will lose who I am.”
As he talked of his grandmother, he added that his grandfather was a “Wind Talker” during WWII. I asked his name and put it to memory. I don’t take notes when I drive along, talking to my guests, but I wanted to see if he was pulling my leg. As I write this, I just found a list of the names of the “talkers” and the name he gave me is on that list: Wilsie Bitsie. His grandfather came up in the conversation, because he had told him the same thing, that he needs to learn the language of his people, or it will be lost.
Every time he mentioned his grandparents, he said “rest in peace.” I asked when his grandfather died, and he told me. It checked out. He told me how his grandfather was always asked to speak at the various tribal gatherings. A respected man.
I offered him some water I had in a cooler behind his seat. He grabbed one for me, too, as we started up the mountain out of Mesa.
The reason he was in my car that morning is because he was heading back to Gallup. His mom needed him. He had left Gallup a few months before to find work in Phoenix with a friend who promised him a job. Then Covid-19 changed the world, including his. He lived on his friend’s back porch for months, hoping to find work.
“He had this back patio and I took some wood and built walls around it, and used cardboard to seal it up,” he explained. “I fixed an air conditioner and put it in there and put carpet on the floor. I was set. My friend even found an old TV for me to have out there.”
But work never came. And his mom, at the age of 62, was homeless on the streets of Gallup.
“My sisters wouldn’t help her at all,” he said, obviously saddened by the whole situation.
When the outbreak hit the Navajo hard, and Gallup locked the city from the outside world, the city found her a room at the Comfort Inn out on Interstate 40. That was a few weeks ago, and she’s been in quarantine there. A doctor checks her vitals regularly and makes sure she is okay.
“She called me two days ago, and this man tried to rape her,” Barry told me, tearing up as he talked, “She elbowed the guy and he ran off, and she called the police, but he’s back on the street. So I have to get back to take care of her. It’s my fault this happened.”
I had no words.
He woke at 4:30 am that day to walk to the streetcar, rode it as far as it would go, then started walking out of town. His hope was to get to Gallup before dark.
“I think if you take me to Show Low, that would be best,” he told me a little later. “I can get a ride from there up to Gallup.”
“No,” I said, “I’m taking you to Gallup.”
It was about this point that he volunteered his prison history to me. “I was in prison for 14 years, 9 ½ months,” he said. “I went in at 18. When I came out, I went to college, got a degree, and I’m a different person now.”
As you read this, try to keep in mind that we were together for four and a half hours. I heard A LOT that I don’t have the time to share. I know more now about prison life, life on a reservation, living in poverty, living with discrimination and oppression, and so much more than I did starting out that morning.
“When I first went to prison, I hung out with the Natives,” he explained, going on the tell me how the various cliques were based on race. “After awhile I didn’t need them, anymore…I kept mainly to myself. I mostly hung out with the Mexicans.”
He also told stories of nice cops, cops that just wanted to make his life hard, conversations with other prisoners, and trying to get by.
“See this tattoo?” he asked. “I did this myself. I made a lot of money giving tattoos.”
Prisoners aren’t supposed to do that, but Barry said they would have a scout by the cop’s office and if he walked out they would shout “Hey Michal, that show you want to watch is on” so they knew to hide the gear and sit normally as the cop walked by.
“By the time I got out, I had a thousand dollars saved up,” he said.
Mixed in with these stories that opened my eyes to a whole new world are sweet stories of a really nice guy just trying to live his life. Like when he was telling me he had been craving tacos and burritos lately, so he went into a Filiberto’s for the burrito special.
“They were only 99¢ each, so I ordered two” he told me. Then he demonstrated with his hands how big they were. “I couldn’t eat a whole one. I was walking into a store and there were these two homeless guys and I asked them if they were hungry. I gave them the burritos and told them I would bring them something to drink from the store if they wanted.”
A jobless, homeless man, giving food and buying drinks for guys he calls “homeless.”
“When we get to Holbrook, if you’re hungry, I’ll buy us lunch,” he offered, as I filled the tank in Payson, AZ. So generous…so grateful.
But there’s still some fight left in him, I can tell by the stories as we cruise along. Like the story of the two kids who confronted him and called him an old man. He’s 42. In his words, he kindly told them “not to judge a book by its cover,” but they kept pushing for a fight. At one point, he said, he put down his things, took off his sweater, and started shedding items he would get in the way.
“What are you doing,” they asked.
“You called me out so I’m going to set you straight,” he said, as he tells it. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with here. You think I’m some old man, but you don’t know. You need to learn not to rush to judgement on people.”
It was about here in the story when I got the play-by-play of Barry beating the shit out of both of them, until they begged him to stop and apologized for disrespecting him.
There are other stories like this.
So here I am riding along with a felon, who tells me stories that show he’s reformed, caring and kind…but still willing to stand his ground for his pride…and he’s rushing home to take care of his mother. And so far, I haven’t heard one thing that would make me question any of the authenticity of these stories, other than one factoid about a BMX bike he once owned that had a part made of 38 karat gold.
“Have you seen those TuffSheds,” he asked me at some point.
“Yeah, I’ve seen them,” I replied, not knowing where he was going with this.
“I got a message from someone who says I qualify for Social Security,” he continued. “I don’t know why, I’m not hurt or anything. But I’m going to meet with them and if it’s true, I want to buy one for my mom to live in.”
I’ll just leave that there for you to think about for a second.
Barry clearly loves his mom and wants to help and protect her. That’s why he’s rushing back home. He also told me about how she would sometimes send him money to help him out.
“She’d say ‘don’t spend it on alcohol or drugs” he told me. “’Mom, what makes you think I would do that?’ I would ask her. ‘Because you do that with YOUR money.’”
Then he clarified that yes, he does that with HIS money, but would never do that with hers.
I think it was just after leaving Holbrook when he told me about what put him in prison; well, multiple prisons. The way the system works, if you behave, you are transferred to easier prisons. If you get in trouble, they send you to tougher prisons, or even penitentiaries. He’s done them all.
I had asked him if the police harass him because of his prison record. “Not so much,” he replied. “If they go back far enough, they see the homicide on there, but that was a long time ago.”
“You killed someone?” I asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
“You’re not going to kill me, are you,” I jokingly asked.
“No way, man…I’m not that person anymore,” he said.
He was 18 and living on the reservation. He was with a friend who was 17 and a 35-year-old guy was harassing the friend. Barry tried to protect his friend and said, “hey, leave him alone, you’re scaring him. If you have to pick on someone, pick on me”
“Are you scared of me,” the man asked.
“Not at all,” Barry replied. “Just leave my friend alone. If you want to fight, fight me.”
Somewhere in here the man pulled out a knife. Barry tried to get him to put the knife away, even warning him “if you come at me with that knife, I will do everything in my power to take it away from you, and do to you what you plan to do to me.”
That’s exactly what happened.
“I stabbed him twice, in the abdomen, just under the ribs,” Barry demonstrated as I drove. “He bled to death.”
There’s more to the story, but my takeaway is that Barry never denied he did it to the police. He explained it was self defense, took polygraphs and passed, and served his time.
“I was living a thug mentality back then,” he explained. “I saw these rappers with their money and fame and the drugs…I wanted that.”
He thanks God for what happened, knowing that if he continued the life he was living, he probably would have gotten killed.
In all the time he spent behind bars, nobody came to see him, not even a letter. He counted out his step sisters and brothers, on both his mother’s and father’s sides, but none came to visit. He is the only child between his two parents. The family tree is a bit splintered.
His father is still alive, too, and quite wealthy. But he has nothing to do with Barry or his mother. Nor do a lot of the siblings. I heard about a lot of cousins along the way, but few of them want any part of him, based on his past. It all sounded quite lonely.
As we got closer to Gallup, Barry started pointing out his life to me.
“Over there, do you see that fence and the corral?” he asked. “From there, over that hill, is my father’s land. He has a two-story log house he built himself. I helped him some, that’s where I learned a lot of carpentry.”
“Over there,” he said, pointing to the left in the distance, “those mountains are where I was raised. I used to climb them all the time with no gear. One time I was stuck and thought ‘how am I going to get down’, but I did.”
It was nice seeing Barry excited to be home.
If you saw the living conditions on some of the reservations I drove through on this Kooky’s Road Trip, I believe you would wonder how anyone can live there. Areas we passed on the way to Gallup were no different. I saw what looked like ruins of houses, and burned out trailers, with cars parked out front, as people were living there.
During the entire drive, not ONCE did Barry play the victim. Quite the opposite. He owns the choices he’s made and makes the best of it. He’s not upset with his family for not visiting and he understands why they don’t want him in their lives.
But through it all, and I can’t stress this enough, this guy is optimistic, energetic, enjoyable, happy, and not giving up the fight. He WANTS to live another day and keep trying to make his life better.
We finally arrived in Gallup, and while still on the interstate Barry pointed to the hotel where his mom is staying, as he called her on the phone. He’s one of those people who hold the phone away from their face and talk into it like a microphone, then puts the phone back up to their ear to listen.
I heard the phone ring and the automated message. Pause. When the receptionist answered he asked for the room number and gave his mom’s name.
“Mom, I’m here!” Barry said with excitement. “I got a ride all the way and I’m here now.”
They discussed the logistics. Due to the outbreak and lockdown, for him to stay with her in the hotel he needed to go to the hospital and get tested. If he passes, he can then go to the hotel, too.
So we drove through town, up the hill toward where he was born.
I wanted to get his picture, and planned to, but when we pulled up to the Emergency Room area, they were only letting Ambulances in.
“I’ll get out right here,” Barry said, as I pulled over to the curb.
“Hey Barry, I don’t want to embarrass you, but I know you’re just getting started again and I want to give you a few bucks” I said as I handed him some cash. “Don’t spend that on alcohol or drugs.”
He laughed and walked away with his stuff. As he did, I noticed he left his cardboard sign behind.