“I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I am satisfied that yours must be an excellent religion to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be judged.”
A hill descends into St. Johns, Arizona, Route 180, on the eastern end of the state. Little did I know, I was descending into hell. My traveling companions John, Mike, and Kevin were ahead because I had stopped to fix a flat tire.
We had toured the Petrified Forest near Holbrook, and had ridden east across arid prairie. A full-blown western sunset with a multicolored light show stretched to the horizon. We planned to pick up Route 380 east into New Mexico. While coasting to the bottom of the hill, I saw my friends talking with a middle-aged, portly man in a blue Chevy Nova.
"How's it going mates?" I asked, pulling to a stop.
"I want you to meet my new friend Joe," John said.
"Hi Joe,” I said, looking at a man who looked like the local school custodian.
"Joe has asked us over to his house for showers and dinner," John said. "We can camp in his back yard."
"Sounds great," I said, noticing Kevin giving me odd eye signals.
"You boys can follow me," Joe said. "My house is two miles from here."
We hopped on the bikes for a quick ride to his place. Kevin rode alongside me.
"What a good deal, huh? Showers and a hot meal," I said.
"I think it's going to cost us a bit of religious conversion," Kevin said. "I tried to talk John out of this but he didn't seem to understand."
"John's an innocent child," I said. "But we can handle it."
"I'm not so sure."
"Don't worry about it."
Famous last words of General Custer. Here were four sweaty bicycle riders following a middle-aged man to his home in the suburbs. We rode up his driveway and withstood the glare of his wife who was standing on the porch like the wicked witch of the North. She was sweeping the porch, but I swear she could take the broom and fly.
I knew things weren't right when this oversized Army drill sergeant wife named Hazel grabbed him by the arm as he walked up the porch steps.
"What do you mean bringing home a bunch of strangers again," she demanded, talking through her clinched teeth. "Wasn't last week's batch enough for you? You haven't clean up after them YET! This time, you clean up! Do you hear me, HUSBAND?"
Joe wilted under her barrage. Kevin faded back. I was ready to punt. John and Mike stood there smiling like two kids in a Norman Rockwell painting. Then she turned her fury toward us. I cringed. We stood there looking into the face of Medusa.
"You boys are welcome to stay the night, since my ‘LOYAL’ husband has already invited you, but you have to realize the problems my husband gets us into. He can't cook, can't vacuum, won't take out the trash, won't wash dishes, won’t mow the lawn, can’t tend a garden, never walks the dog, does nothing around the house, and KEEPS inviting strangers into our place like it's a haven for stray dogs. The kitchen is a disaster area from the last episode. But since you're here, you can camp out back and come in for showers. Just don't waste my hot water."
"Yes ma’am," John said, in a mouse-like whisper.
"You Australian?" she asked.
"Welcome to America!"
At that moment, I wanted to crawl back to the road like a cowardly mutt and find a campsite in a peaceful meadow outside of town. But to my dismay, John was already walking his bike toward the back yard. He had no idea what we were in for.
The wicked witch of the North swirled around on her black heels and stomped back into the house, probably to file her fangs and polish her claws. I was ready to split that second and Kevin would be on my tail. But Joe regained himself and herded the rest of us to the back yard where he made sure we pitched our tents.
"I'm going to take care of you boys. Make yourselves at home," he said. "The bathroom is on the left inside the house. I'm going to make some mountain food for you. There are clean towels in the washroom. I have some interesting reading for you, too."
I showered quickly. My plan was to excuse myself and slip into my tent to avoid the sermon that I knew was coming. But Joe was a master at shepherding his newly found sinners. He was going to save us. He tagged me with dishes and silverware before I could get outside. Kevin was in charge of stirring the gravy. Joe knew we were like two race horses ready to bolt. John and Mike hadn't experienced his brand of evangelism, so they were like gerbils in a glass tank. I gave into Joe because he would haul me out of the tent anyway.
The fact is, I’m a sinner, but sometimes, I don’t think the little sins add up to all that much in the eyes of the Creator. Heck, everybody lies a little. We all have done something we don’t want others to know about. We can’t be perfect. I don’t want to be perfect. I like my foibles. They give me character flaws that others find interesting. The world would be a dull place if everybody was perfect. Because, if they were, we’d have no one to talk about. Look how exciting Monica Lewinski made our lives for an entire year! How about Denis Rodman? What about Clinton’s peccadillos? Madonna’s kissing Britney on stage in front of millions? It’s fun to talk about those characters. As it is, we’re all a bunch of folks going down the road of life doing the best we can. Some of us fail.
But most of us don’t want to be reminded that we’re ‘bad’. Because, at times, being bad is good. I mean, it’s fun to be bad because it feels so good, so how can it be so bad? Then, to have Billy Graham tell me I’m going to fry in the chambers of Hell takes away all the fun of being bad. Besides, if I was really good, I’d probably go to heaven and live on the same street as Oral Roberts, Pat Roberston, Reverend Schuler and Billy Graham. To think that I’d have to listen to them every day for the rest of eternity would drive me crazy. I’d be the first man to commit a crime in heaven and be sent to Hell.
Anyway, as Joe cooked the food, we set out the dishes. Soon the table was ready and the food was steaming hot. We sat down to a large spread fit for a king. His mountain food consisted of boiled vegetables in gravy. Joe opened quarts of homemade apricots and applesauce. He added seven-grain bread for sopping up the juices on our plates. Hazel was in the next room, presumably combing the snakes on her head and watching Pat Sajak mesmerize his audience with ‘Wheel of Fortune'.
Not long into the meal, Joe passed around cards that explained his faith. I nodded politely along with Kevin. We had heard the spiel before. It's not that I didn't respect his right to his beliefs, but I hated having them jammed down my throat. With a break in the conversation, I excused myself and escaped to my tent. Kevin followed.
We expressed our relief at having made it out alive. Better that John and Mike catch the thrust of Joe's crusade. It was new to them. As I sat in the middle of my tent, writing in my journal, I felt relieved. Suddenly, my zipper ripped upwards under its own power. In a moment, I was starring into Joe's savior-like brown eyes.
"Hi, I thought you might need some important information that you can read in your spare time," he said, handing me a book.
"Thanks, Joe," I said.
"You're welcome," he said. "I hope I didn't disturb your writing. Good night."
Seconds later, he repeated the same lines to Kevin. That was it. I was leaving at dawn. When Joe left, I whispered to Kevin.
"I'm making like the Pony Express at daybreak," I said.
"I'm making like the Union-Pacific before day break," Kevin shot back.
Sleep came swiftly. I couldn't wait to get out of there.
With the first bird's chirp before dawn, Kevin and I packed our gear for the escape. Not a word was spoken. I didn't tell John because he was such a good-natured friend, and he might talk us into staying. No way did I want to chance that. Like ghosts, Kevin and I vanished into the morning darkness. We would never see Hazel and her Medusa again. When we reached the end of the block, we started laughing and talking about John and Mike's fate.
"Those poor guys are in for a sermon," Kevin said. "We may never see them again. They’re going to answer the call and become missionaries."
"Can you believe that guy broke into my tent?" I said.
"Yeah, but as soon as I heard him talking with you, I blew out my candle, so he would figure I was asleep," Kevin said. "But he had seen my light on while talking with you, so he took it upon himself to open my tent and shine a flashlight on me while he told me about his book."
"Yeah, well, we're safe now. Let's ride."
We cranked down the street with light streaking across the sky. Near the edge of town, we found an all-you-can-eat pancake house. It was too good a deal to pass up. We parked the bikes against the glass.
A waitress took our order. Minutes later, she brought us two plates loaded with buttermilk pancakes. We slapped on butter and poured syrup over the stacks. Half way through my pancakes, I felt nature calling.
"I've got to go Kevin," I said. "Order me another stack."
"Okay," he said, his mouth stuffed with pancakes.
I walked around the outside of the building to the bathroom. The lock was broken on the door, but it was so early that I didn't figure anyone would see me from the street if the door was opened. A few minutes later, I washed my hands and headed back for the pancakes. Rounding the corner of the building, I was flabbergasted at the sight of Joe standing over Kevin, cajoling him. Kevin's eyes rose to the top of his head as he stuffed a fork full of pancakes into his mouth.
"Oh my God, that nut is coming after me," I said to myself.
I ran back to the bathroom, but remembered it wouldn't lock. I'll fool him. The girl's bathroom...that's it. I'll hide in there. In a panic, I bolted for the lady's bathroom. It was unlocked. I walked in, closed the door and punched the button to the door knob lock. It was a shoe-box bathroom with no partition for the toilet. From my nervousness, I had to go again, so I walked over and sat down on the toilet. I felt safe.
Like a scene out of a horror movie, I heard a key slip into the tumbler and the ping of the doorknob lock release. That's all I needed--a little old lady finding me sitting on her toilet. Or worse yet, a gorgeous blond coming in to fix her panty hose. I sat there paralyzed. What else could I do? The worst that would happen would be when she saw me, she would shut the door in embarrassment. I would be embarrassed too, but she wouldn’t know me from Adam, so it wouldn't be a big deal. I sat there holding the toilet paper roll in my hand awaiting the stranger at the door.
"Hi," Joe said, sticking his head into my chamber.
I looked up at him, feeling my skin crawl, and my emotions smoldering into anger. But I kept calm. Joe did not understand his rudeness.
"Your friend promised me that you guys would come back for breakfast," he said. "I'll be expecting you in a few minutes. You don't want to waste my food."
"Yes Joe," I said. "Is it okay if I finish my business."
"Oh, don't mind me," he said, closing the door.
Back with Kevin, my pancakes had cooled off. I was upset.
"Do you believe that guy walked in on me in the girl's bathroom?" I told Kevin.
"He asked me where you were, so I told him I thought you went to the bathroom," Kevin said. "Then he grabbed the keys off the hooks after he got done talking with me. He's a man with a mission. He's trying to save us from ourselves."
"I don't want to be saved," I said. "He told me you agreed to come back to his house for breakfast."
"Are you kiddin?"
"That's it, dude! We're gettin' outta' Dodge after these pancakes are in my belly. I can't take it anymore."
Five minutes later, we were in the saddle, cranking hard. We broke free of the city limits--heading for wide-open spaces. In my mind, the New Mexico border was a haven. We would be out of his jurisdiction, and like outlaws pursued, we urged our iron steeds ever faster through the cactus-covered badlands. Ten miles out of town we relaxed.
"We're cool now," Kevin said, looking down at his computer. "He's probably got Mike and John chained inside his house...."
At that moment, a man driving a blue Chevy Nova roared past us, pulled off the highway and slammed on the brakes. The door swung open. The driver leaped out with his hands spread like an eagle holding his prey to the ground.
"Joe!" I gasped, my spirit dribbling down into the soles of my shoes.
"You didn't come back for breakfast!" he complained. "Listen, if you need food, or shelter, I can get you into one of our churches in the next city."
That did it. Joe pushed me over the edge. Kevin and I stood astride our bikes being pandered by this poor lost soul.
"Joe," I said. "Hold your horses for a minute and let me speak. You're a nice guy, and you've shown our friends American hospitality. But your price was too high. You've bombarded us with your philosophy from the first moment we met. Do you know my name or my friend's here?"
"Do you even remember my Aussie friends' names?"
He looked down, shuffling his feet.
"You don't even care about our names," I said. "You just want to save us, but you haven't even considered that we might have our own philosophies. Did you know there are thousands of religions in this world? Why not respect everyone's religion and leave them be. How would you like me barging into your life, pushing my religion on you? There are two things I never try to change in another person--their religion and politics. It's a waste of time. I'm not going to change yours, or anyone's, so I just let people be. The next time you ask people into your home, ask them about their adventures. I'll bet you will learn more than you ever dreamed possible. Travelers have some of the greatest stories in the world, never seen on television, because they are people experiencing the world. No gloss, no glitter, just reality. Can you do that the next time? If you do, you won't infringe on their personal philosophies, and everyone will have a great time visiting you. Most of all, you will enjoy them, for what they are and what they believe, and you will learn to respect everyone’s' personal choices. There is no single answer to God. In fact, God comes to everyone with a slightly different color, size, feeling and angle. You need to respect that."
"He's right, Joe," Kevin said. "We tried to escape because you made us uncomfortable by pushing your beliefs on us. I'm 24 and I don't mind a discussion on beliefs, but I don't like religion jammed down my throat. I don't care what you believe as long as your religion fulfills your spiritual life. Religion is a personal thing. Our friends were being polite, but you've made it bad for us."
"You're right," Joe said, standing there like a small child. "I've been harping on your friends all morning about joining my church."
"You tell them that we'll be up the road riding slowly so they can catch up," I said.
"If you need anything, money, food...." Joe started in again.
"JOE!" I exclaimed, cutting him off. "We need your respect, nothing more."
"You're right. I'm sorry."
"Thank Hazel for her home canned apricots and applesauce," Kevin said.
Kevin and I slipped our feet into the straps. We waved at Joe as he got into his Nova. He turned his car around and seconds later, vanished from our rearview mirrors.
"Boy, life's a big adventure isn't it?" Kevin said, rolling his eyes. "That poor guy. I feel sorry for him. I think he's lonely."
"It's too bad we can't get him on a bicycle tour," Kevin said. "It would give him new perspectives."
"True, but he'd quit on the first climb."
"Guess you're right."
John and Mike caught up to us in New Mexico on a hill climb. Mike didn't care about our splitting, but John was none too happy about it. At first he rode by us, not speaking, even after we said, "Hello.” I knew he was upset, which made me angry over the whole Joe episode. A short time later, John stopped alongside a guardrail and parked his bike. I didn't know what to expect from my dear friend, but he was reasonable, so I felt confident that we would work it out. He stood there waiting for us, his arms folded and a serious look on his face.
"John, I'm sorry about this whole mess," I said, riding up.
"You boys have all day to explain your abandonment of your mates," he said, with a slight smile slipping into his serious demeanor.