Losing it in Denio

Denio, Nevada

© 2018 Dale Smith


East of Lakeview, Oregon, Highway 140 winds through the Warner Mountains, then empties into the vast grassiness of the southern Oregon desert. “This must be what East Africa looks like,” I think as I motor along, keeping Donna and her F650 in my rearview mirror. 

Across the valley a shadowy butte rises in the distance and I wonder if the road will skirt it. Then I see a faint scratch in the dark lava, a road rising sharply over the plains. We make a hard right at the base of the butte and climb quickly over the valley. Screeds of red volcanic rock pepper the steep slope on the right. There is no guardrail, nothing to keep an inattentive rider from sliding into oblivion. It’s third-gear all the way up, no time of mistakes. I keep checking my rearview mirror for Donna’s headlight and she’s right there behind me. This is her first extended ride and this is a difficult road.

At the top of the rise the road straightens out and I roll on the throttle. A check of the rearview reveals that Donna is no longer behind me, but I see the pinpoint headlight at the side of the road. “I kept waving at you,” she says when I reach her. 

“Flick your high beams,” I tell her, “I can’t see you waving.”

“Well, that doesn’t mean I’m not there.”

Signals established, we’re on the road again. Sixty miles down the two-lane, in the geographic middle of nowhere, a rest stop shimmers like a mirage. We stretch out on the industrial strength picnic tables and complain about our aches and pains – neither of us are spring chickens.

A lanky man in black leather rides up on his cruiser and says hello.  “Do you know how far it is from Denio to Winnemucca?” I ask him. “Ten or twelve miles,” he says, which doesn’t sound right to me. I retrieve my map and spread it on the table. “I think it’s more like 100 miles,” I tell him. He mumbles something about hoping the gas station at Denio Junction is open. I ask him about his bike. “Paid cash for it on my 50th birthday,” he tells me. “Got divorced, then got this bike. Got more miles out of the bike than I ever got out of her.” He smiles, revealing an assortment of crooked yellow pegs protruding from his gums. He seemed to think Denio Junction is 80 miles to the east. Again, I don’t think he’s right but have no way of proving it as we’re out of GPS range. I’m hoping it’s more like twenty.

Nestled into a grove of alders and cottonwoods at the Highway 140 and Highway 292 intersection is Denio Junction. I duck walk my R1100GS up to the pump. Duct taped to the pump are several signs that indicate which parts of the pump work and which do not. One part that does not work is the credit card slot. A young woman with a couple of kids in tow comes out of the store, which is also a restaurant, bar, mini-market and social club, and tells me she’ll turn on the pump as soon as she turns on the water misters. She seemed more intent with keeping her kids cool in the 98 degree heat than to deal with a customer’s gas needs.

Meanwhile, Donna is having a hard time maneuvering her bike to the gas pump. The morning’s challenging 115-mile ride over Highway 140, lack of slow-speed skills in jockeying her bike into a precise location and the loose gravel beneath her tires and boots conspire to freak her out. The pump suddenly wheezes to life and I gas up. By now, Donna has parked her bike in the shade of a cottonwood near the cafe and her Alabama drawl-whine reaches my ears. “Can you do mine?” I shoot her a “If you can ride your bike, you can sure as hell gas it” look that she misses as she frets over her helmet hair in her rearview mirror. I gas Donna’s bike while she goes into the café to procure one of Denio Junction’s six rooms for the night. While she is doing this I move her bike back to the shade. Smiling, Donna approaches me from the direction of the café. “I’ve made a decision, we’re staying here tonight.”

“Sure you just don’t want to ride down to Winnemucca? Only another 100 miles.”

“I’m tired, and besides I’m not feeling one with by bike anymore.”

“Did you check out the room?” I ask.

“It’s fine,” she answers.

We move the motorcycles to the concrete parking pad that adjoins the room and unpack the bikes. The room is a spacious L-shape with hardwood floors and a bathroom with a tub–sort of rustic backcountry luxury. No TV, no phone, adequate reading lamp by each of the standard beds, air-conditioning.

“Did you pay for it?” I ask Donna.


“I’ll take care of it,” I say, and go to my bike to retrieve my wallet from my tank bag. I unzip the Marsee and it yawns open, its oversized zippers like black teeth. My glasses case, iPhone, GoPro, document and map bags are all there–but my wallet is not.

Panic hits me like a seizure. This isn’t happening, can’t be happening. Some people lose wallets but I’m not one of them. My wallet and me are one; we are joined at the hip. I don’t go anywhere without it and I know it feels the same about me. I disengage the tank bag and take it into the room.

“My wallet’s gone,” I tell Donna.


I toss the contents once again, thinking that it somehow slipped under my fleece document bag. But it hasn’t. Then I check the exterior compartments, where I keep my Gerber, harmonica, flashlight, tissue, lens wipes, face shield de-bugger, gum and mints–compartments too small to even hold my wallet.

“Did you leave it at the rest stop?” says Donna. The rest stop–about 50 miles out of Denio. We sat at the table, drank water, shared a Clif bar, and chatted with that guy who swapped his wife for a new bike.

“No,” I said. “I remember checking the table when we left.”

“What about the bathroom?”

I did use one of those foul restrooms. Could my wallet have fallen out of the unzipped back pocket of my over pants when I dropped them to pee? Surely I would have heard it hit the concrete. But maybe I wouldn’t have heard it if I was wearing my earplugs. But I wasn’t. Donna and I were talking at the table and I know I didn’t have my earplugs in. Or did I?

“Naw, there wouldn’t have been any reason to take my wallet out at the rest stop,” I say, not completely believing my own words. I try to visualize my wallet lying on the concrete floor like a little black pillow. I guess it could have fallen out of my pocket–I don’t know, maybe. It’s sure not here.”

It’s early afternoon and things are jumping at Denio Junction. People pull in and out of the dusty parking lot in all sorts of rigs – RVs, cars, pickups, bikes, ATVs–get gas, snacks, couple of six-packs, head out.

I head to the gas pump and circumnavigate it several times, eyes to the ground like a bird looking for crumbs, desperately trying to recall my every move since we pulled into Denio Junction. But my luck has run out.

I shuffle back to the room, feeling worse with each step. This time I dump the contents of my tank bag on the bed, hoping my wallet will miraculously appear.

“It’s just gone.”


It begins to dawn on me what a disaster this truly is. Everything that allows me to move seamlessly through the world, everything that defines me, is in that wallet. My driver’s license. My VISA and American Express cards. My ATM card. My Medicare and Blue Shield cards. My prescription drug card. My Social Security card. A photo of my daughter when she was 10. My proof of insurance. Fifty bucks and the $400 I had tucked away in my secret compartment. 

I begin to think what a hassle it will be to replace all those cards. Do I have the numbers recorded on my iPhone just in case of an emergency like this? I think so. At least I started to enter the information… didn’t I?

This problem will take hours of listening to pre-recorded messages to remedy. And talking to government employees. And weeks of time, maybe months. Suddenly, I do not exist. I slip into depression mode, one notch up from comatose. I need one of Donna’s Prozacs.

But, hey, at least I’m traveling with Donna… and her credit cards. At least we can get a room, eat in restaurants, and pay for gas. But what if I was traveling solo when disaster struck? I’d be reduced to begging for a room, explaining to perfect strangers what an idiot I was, suffering their dubious glares as they decide whether or not to believe this scruffy, unshaven biker. I would be no one, no rights, and no money, virtually homeless. 

I toss Donna’s credit card on the bar and ask Melanie, the bartender who runs Denio Junction, to put the gas and room charge on it and while she’s at it, how about a Seagram’s and Seven? Melanie slides the drink in front of me and I stare at it like I don’t know what it is. Seagram’s and Seven? I never order Seagram’s and Seven. I don’t even like whiskey. I stir the drink absent-mindedly and obsess about my lost wallet. Above the bar the head of a twelve point buck stares me down. Suddenly I’m feeling sick to my stomach, sorry for the deer and its lost life, sorry for my myself and my lost identity. I used to be somebody, and now I’m just a schmuck without a wallet.

The front door creaks open and in strolls a couple of bikers and a woman wearing one of those black beanie helmets that make you look like you’ve got an olive on your head. One of the bikers is wearing a sleeveless black Harley shirt. His arms are a cornucopia of tattoos spilling out of his cutoff sleeves, mostly stars and squiggly worm-like designs. He looks like a character out of an R. Crumb cartoon. His buddy is clean cut, short hair, trimmed gray beard, gray polo shirt, mid-sixties, my age. He looks at me and says, “Are you Dale Smith?” In his hand he holds my wallet.

 “My wallet!” I sputter, the Seagram’s and Seven dribbles down my chin, pools on the bar. “Where did you find it?”

 “On the concrete post next to the gas pump,” he says.

Then it all comes back to me. I was still thinking I could pay for the gas at the pump when Donna gave up on getting her bike within ten feet of the gas hose. I put my wallet on one of the concrete stanchions that protects the pump from wayward pickup trucks and RVs. Then, just as I had finished filling her tank, Donna had waltzed through the barroom door like an Alabama Annie Oakley and declared that we’d be bunking at Denio Junction that night, no matter what. My routine of paying for the gas by sliding my credit card into the reader was breached. My concentration evaporated like the water rising out of the misters; I couldn’t change gears.

Good Samaritan Jack was from the Redmond, Oregon area. His inked brother Michael and his half-helmeted girlfriend Amy had flown from London to Denver, where they apparently had a Harley stashed. They were on family reunion ride around the western states.

 “Can a buy you a drink? Some groceries? How about a trip to Tahiti?” I asked Jack, relief oozing from my pores like sweat.

 “Maybe some water,” says Jack, sliding onto the stool next to mine.

 “Water all around,” I bellow in Melanie’s direction.

“Check,” says Melanie.

“Jesus, Jack… you’re my new best friend.”

Jack just shrugs. “I wasn’t ready to go to hell for no fifty bucks.”