Editor’s note: This story first appeared in Dirt Rag Issue #69, published in November 1998.
We met Uncle Ed in a parking Lot in Brian Head, Utah. In fact, what happened was, our kindhearted shuttle driver had seen the “Need Ride” sign strapped to the back of a pile of crap hanging off the back of a bicycle, and had stopped to pick up the man captaining this garbage barge on wheels.
So Uncle Ed was already on the shuttle when our group got on. He remained quiet for the long drive up the hill, but while helping him pull his weighty machine off the back of the shuttle, we couldn’t help but engage him in conversation. He quickly demonstrated his gift for gabbing in a weird sort of road-weary lingo. After great philosophical blurbs such as “four ounces of Lycra and a credit card” and “that was before they realized hanging ladies wasn’t good sport” rolled off his lips, we began kicking ourselves for not getting Uncle Ed on tape.
As we parted ways, I think we were all touched by his generous offer of potato chips, from his personal mini-bag stash. Seconds later, Uncle Ed was rolling off into the distance, heading South.
The following morning, soon after pulling out of town, what did we see up ahead but what looked like a big heap of crap, seemingly rolling along the highway. Guess who? Uncle Ed hadn’t gotten too far.
Dirt Rag: Hey, would you care to be interviewed for our magazine?
Uncle Ed: Are you a magazine?
DR: Dirt Rag, yeah.
UE: You’re kidding. Well … why not?
DR: There’s a copy right there, under that red bag.
UE: Ahh! Well, we’ve done a TV commercial, so what the hell.
UE: A little pizza pizza.
DR: Pizza pizza?
UE: Yeah, you ever watch TV about 1988?
UE: Oh, too bad. You missed me, all four and a half seconds.
UE: Monday night at the movies.
DR: What were you doing, were you on a bike in the commercial?
UE: Oh, no no, I was sitting in front of Kmart like a fool with 500 other people in Falldale. Little Ceasar was doing that lease thing, and really hammering for the store front little strip places.
DR: We were just recalling some of your thoughts on meditation.
UE: What the hell is the race, and where is the trophy? I know there’s an inner challenge, “Climb that mountain, fool, prove something.” And why? What the hell is the rush?
DR: Where are you heading now?
UE: Uhh, up to Panguitch Lake, or whatever they call it.
DR: Oh yeah.
UE: I don’t know how you pronounce it. I’m told it’s on the blast finally.
DR: Yeah, you’ll go up and make this left up here, then you’ll have a nice downhill.
DR: How are your brakes?
UE: Ohh, mmm, fair, we tighten everything before we go down. Failing that, you just rub up against the bank.
DR: Who’s we?
UE: Oh, it’s that French cousin, you know, God, and … King Louis the Fifteenth, you know. Me and the horse. Don’t tell it it’s got wheels.
DR: Is there a name?
UE: Well, they name ships.
DR: Is it a she, then?
UE: Yeah, well, ships are shes … it’s an old grey mare. To tell you the truth, I hate to kind of give it away, but I’m going to.
DR: Can you run us through the features of your bicycle?
UE: Yeah, quite simple. Point and touch.
DR: Let’s have a look [we get out of the van].
UE: [takes magazine] Dirt Rag—well I’ll be dingoed! I thought you were just out horsing around …
DR: Well we are, actually …
UE: And you get paid for it!
DR: … combining business and pleasure.
UE: But for the purposes of whatever … [points to blue jeans panniers] when you do your cutoffs, save em, cut ’em high. Then rip ’em. And uh … stuff ’em. Carry your knife there and the axe.
DR: Is that [axe] for campfires, etc.?
UE: Mostly for digging, and chopping the occasional thing. And the necessary hammer for banging chains together when pins don’t stay in. Brand new chain, lasted 200 miles. I wish I’d have left the old one on. But mostly it’s for digging.
DR: Digging for what?
UE: For your what I call the “poor man’s microwave.” Save your beer can or find one, 16 ounce is lovely, Coors. Chop a hole in the ground about the depth of the can, pitch in twigs, paper, anything you can find, get a bed of coals in the bottom. Put in a little water, and the heat transfer through the aluminum is instantaneous. You’ll have boiling coffee water in two and a half minutes. And no flaming forest fire, virtually no smoke, they leave you alone. And when you’re done, you can crap in it, throw your junk in it, scuff it over and you’ve done a nice thing.
DR: Do you hallucinate when you’re riding long distances?
UE: Ah, mostly. Yet it’s dangerous. I find myself “mental masturbating” I call it. You know, what would you do if you had hmm or hmm. You get into this story mode. You know, I can go to Mexico, and discover oil. But all of a sudden five, ten miles seems to evaporate. You look up at the mile marker, oh my god! What happened to mile marker hmm or hmm.
So. Uhh … baskets. Had to get the center of gravity down. Had to. This used to be dangling here. That was the whole function of this. To saddle bag everything. When the center of gravity is down you could go up the bank.
DR: Hey, is that a handlebar on the back?
UE: Yes it is. This came off a Schwinn, and the handlebars are for if I had to get a ride, I wanted to be able to grab hold of this hunk.
DR: To heave it up into whatever.
UE: Yes. Normally what happens is, I have somebody stabilize the front, he grabs one handlebar, I grab the other, up into the back. I come around front and we roll it in.
DR: What happened to your “Need Ride” sign?
UE: Well, it only works now and then. Mostly I keep it out there because there’s a panhandling instinct, I swear. People come roaring down the road in California and Nevada. If you’ve got a help wanted sign, or [will] work or something like that hanging out, or “need ride,” they instantly knee-jerk over. If they’re walking down the sidewalk and a panhandler comes out, they just do this [makes avoiding motions.]
Guard rails. Damned nastiest invention they ever put together—when they put it right up against the white line. Coming up outta eight in California—goddamn logging truck like him, [points to passing truck] green hand behind the wheel. Car coming. He don’t know enough to throw the wheel over the line. Move the mother over. So I’m standing there, and he’s walking right on by and I’m banging on the side of the sonofabitch and looking in his mirror and trying to visually give him the finger. I can see in his mirror he’s terrified, and he’s getting closer and closer to the guard rail. He saw me out there, but he’s got to go for it. And the fool coming down is in la-la land.
DR: Hose clamps and a lawn chair.
UE: Yeah. You can torque everything up as it wiggles and waggles. The beauty is it’s a natural cradle. All the light stuff and bulky stuff goes in the back end. Heavy stuff—keep throwing it forward. Going up the bank, you’ve got to have the weight on the front.
[Uncle Ed looks at our bike seats] How do you guys ride on these prostate
DR: Not so good today; I was feeling a little pain.
UE: Is it a macho thing or something?
DR: We’re out of the saddle a lot when we ride the trails.
UE: Momma’s got those big fat-ass ones—that’s the one you want. Then you’re Harley Davidson-ing all the way down the road. Again—sissy bike [points to his girl’s frame.] What’s this stuff with this bar across here? It’s a pain in the ass. You step on, step off.
DR: I’m all about sissy bikes.
UE: It gets a little goofy going down hill. But you’re a dumbass for going that fast with this much stuff. And if it’s wet, quit.
DR: Can you control your speed with the brakes?
UE: Oh yeah. Failing that, the foot is ever ready to jam up between the front wheel and the frame.
DR: Do you have a home or do you just stay on the road?
UE: Arizona seems nice, you know. Prescott is where I’m headed now, just to see, but if it’s going to be cold, forget it.
DR: So you might go to Arizona and end up staying there over the winter?
UE: Oh yeah, yeah. Why not? A 4,000 square foot house, you have to pay to heat it. Who cares? I don’t pay interest, taxes or insurance. You know, you can get by on a couple—three bucks a day. If you don’t have things like wives, children and dogs and governments to pay for. I concluded that all the people that had money would have to pay all the bills for all the people that didn’t. And it’s not that I’m homeless, it’s that I’m carless. Nobody steals this [points to bike], I never lock it up. Been downtown Vegas. You can pick up thirty-forty dollars a day helping people move. In Vegas it’s nice—the dealers and gamblers—twenty dollar tips are standard if they like you. So you can pick up a hundred dollars and [be] gone.
DR: Where do you go to eat?
UE: You reach a point when you’re mature—do you really really need three meals a day? Do you really need twenty-thousand calories? I think you can get by on twelve- or fifteen-hundred if you don’t get silly.
DR: Do you go to the grocery store and buy stuff there?
UE: Oh yeah, hot dogs. They don’t spoil, they’re so intoxicated with nitrates and everything else. Right now, I have a can of chili and diced hot dogs for emergency rations. Cook ’em the same way, in the same can.
DR: In the hole in the ground?
UE: Yeah, no pots and pans to scrub.
DR: And none to carry around, either.
UE: My only swindle—I keep running into these surprises. You might throw an article out there that 26 is not 26 [points to back rim.] If there was some way to figure it out—a tape measure or something. I passed up the mate of this one. That rim back there is Heffer style extruded aluminum I guess, one piece or something.
DR: Oh yeah. It is, it’s a double wall …
UE: It has one hazard. When you torque up the wheel, uhh, the spokes come through, and they’re pointy.
DR: Pop your tubes?
UE: Ohh, did I get irritated. You’ve got to pay attention. I’m not sure this one’s going to survive. It should be a full flange. But I had to do what I had to do. Seems to function, but it’s a little squigy crawling up the bank here.
DR: What kind of bike is this, a Fox River?
UE: Uhhh, don’t know.
DR: It’s a Huffy.
UE: It is?
DR: Definitely a Huffy. All Terrain Fox River.
UE: I know it has oversize bearings in the yoke, cuz I tried to replace them with standard junk. Surprise. So I didn’t even bother with this one. I’m not sure that …
DR: It should be standard. If you find yourself in a bike shop, they should be able to help you because all the bikes with that one piece crank that goes through, that’s all standard. Pretty much. As much as anything is standard.
UE: I was carrying a set of extra pedals, but I said nahh. When it quits, I quit. Enough.
This invariably is full of tools [points to one of many satchels]. None of which were purchased. At least a dozen vise grips, crescent wrenches. Screwdrivers—tons of them. I pass up socket sets.
DR: Where do you pick up that stuff?
UE: Right there.
DR: Side of the road?
UE: Side of the road. Punches, chisels, files.
DR: What else good have you found on the side of the road?
UE: A lot of bad stuff, stuff that fell off trucks at sixty or seventy miles an hour. Could be quite a missile. I don’t wear this thing [points to helmet] to obey the law. No, I’m protecting myself from shrapnel. You get into some of these states, like Nevada, they get a little sloppy about getting the garbage off.
Other than that, if they would truly manufacture waterproof sleeping bags, it would help. Water resistant is like I said …
DR: Not enough?
UE: Well, an hour and a half and you’re wet.
DR: Ugh. So you use the tarp when it rains?
UE: Yeah. I throw that up over a rope between two trees, and throw the rest of it underneath. The game is, you better get yourself found, and lied down, one hour before sundown. Doing it in the dark is … woof. I met two guys that did in the dark in a storm. Woke up three feet from a railroad track.
DR: Helps to plan ahead.
UE: It helps to have a map. If you don’t have a map, it’s a lovely excuse to ask. “Which way do I go to da da da?” Beware the information. Nobody rides bikes. “Oh, it’s up here da da da.” In their mind, oh, thirty minutes in a car. In my mind it’s all day.
DR: Yeah, it’s like this [makes hand signal for steep.]
UE: If you come out of Congress, Arizona, go up top, 2,600 feet in one push, or something like that, it’s all day. So you sit. Some good Samaritan comes along and throws you in. Dog lovers are really good. Pick up with dog lovers. Love ’em. Malamute.
DR: Spend a lot of time in the back of a pickup then?
UE: Only once, and at 90 miles an hour. Kid stopped just outside of Vegas. No tailgate, little six foot bed. Anyway, we let the bike kind of hang over and bungied it over. So at 90 miles an hour, we proceeded down the freeway. Marvelous time effect, kind of like a time travel movie. You see the highway disappearing behind you, backwards.
DR: Do you need any more water?
UE: Oh yeah, thanks a bunch.
DR: Do you ever hop trains?
UE: No. I was invited to do it. But beware of fools with good ideas that always end with “and then we run like hell.”
DR: On that note, we gotta wrap it up.
UE: On that note.
DR: You probably don’t have a mailing address?
UE: Well general delivery, Parker, Arizona, 85344. I think.
DR: To Uncle Ed?
DR: All right, take it easy.
UE: You bet. Thank you.
—Brian Head, Utah, September 9, 1998.
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