It was 2:30AM, somewhere in New Mexico (or, it could have been Arizona-nights on a bus can be disorienting). We were on a food rest stop at a Pilot Truck Stop. It was, as Pilot Truck Stops go, relatively small, an outpost in the middle of the nowhere, dimly lit with filthy bathrooms and very little resembling food.
I first saw Allen when we boarded at the terminal in Phoenix. He was a man of imposing stature, standing perhaps 6’6’ and easily 250 lbs. He wore a faded, green, tropical shirt. Most of his front teeth were missing, which I noticed because Allen did something that few people on Greyhound Buses can be seen doing: smile!
Middle-of-the-night rest stops are brutal. Most people are sleeping or, like me, hovering between sleep and temporary insanity. The sudden glare of the interior lights, coupled with driver’s always-too-loud-and-rarely-pleasant announcement (“You have exactly 15 minutes at this stop. If you’re not on this bus in 15 minutes, I’m leaving you here.”) shocks the system. Because I rarely sleep, I take advantage of these stops to get some air, stretch my legs. Everyone else chain smokes, chews or both. But nobody chats, the unwritten rule of the middle-of-the-night stop.
So, I was surprised when Allen came up behind me and shared that he was on the crew that built this Pilot 35 years ago. In defiance of the unwritten rules, we struck up a conversation.
Allen was a Vietnam vet, who was wounded in action and honorably discharged. He started a heroin addiction while on duty, and never stopped. He married his high school sweetheart when he returned from Vietnam. They were from Maine, but shared a mutual dislike of the state’s interminable winters. So, in the late 70s, they decided to pack what little they had and purchased one-way Greyhound tickets to Phoenix.
Allen learned how to be a bricklayer and claims to have been a part of the teams that built most of the Pilot Truck Stops throughout the southwest. He was also an active heroin addict the entire time. I asked how he paid for his habit on a bricklayers wage. “Bricklaying paid for the rent and food,” he said. “Selling smack paid for my habit.”
In 2008, Allen lost the love of his life to breast cancer, sending him into a downward spiral. His addiction intensified, ultimately costing him his job and his home. His grown children reached out to help, but once Allen moved onto the streets, they lost communication with each other.
When I met Allen, he claimed to be clean, having entered into a treatment program at a halfway house for the homeless called Ft. Apache. I asked how long he’d been off drugs. “37 days,” he said, behind a wide, toothless, proud grin. “That’s the longest I’ve been off dope for almost 40 years.”
I was curious as to what put him on the Greyhound Bus heading for Tucson. He told me that when he was on the street, before Ft. Apache, an evangelical missionary was walking through the encampment, feeding and praying for people. They struck up a friendship. After a month of sobriety, the missionary approached Allen, offering to bring him to the mission’s headquarters outside of Tucson.
“He bought me this bus ticket and these new clothes,” Allen said.
“What will you do when you get there,” I asked.
“I’ll sweep floors, keep the place looking nice,” he said. “But what I’m really going to learn is how to be a missionary and spread the Lord’s word to addicts living on the street.”
“Were you a believer before this,” I asked.
“Not as much as I am now,” he said. “The Lord saved my life, so now I need to give back.”
Our 15 minutes was up. I didn’t feel like spending the night at the Pilot Truck Stop in the middle of wherever, so I took a quick photo of Allen, thanked him for his story and headed to the bus.
“It’s hard to believe this thing is still standing,” I heard him say, to no one in particular.
He could have been talking about the Pilot Truck Stop. Or himself.