We took our first really, really long vacation in 1993, when we were in our late 20’s. We’d planned to drive across the US, camping and seeing the sights, for a few months. It turned into two years.
A couple of months into this odyssey, we stopped at a campground in Villa Nueva, New Mexico. We were hot, tired, and fractious as we walked around the campground, looking for a site. Only two sites were occupied, along the peaceful river, but we were looking for privacy, so we disregarded that vicinity.
Suddenly, a booming voice rang out. “How’re you gals doin’?”
At the time, Barry was clean-shaven and wore his hair in a style that today is called a mullet: Neatly cut on top, long in the back, but very evenly cut and brushed. So from a distance, we might have appeared as two girls. Our quarrels evaporated into giggles, and we turned to see who it was.
The voice belonged to a friendly-looking bearded guy with a musical instrument. At the time, it looked like a guitar, but I later found out it was a dobro. He introduced himself, saying, “Hi, I’m Harley, and this here is Annabelle.” Annabelle had a guitar and had been singing in a beautiful voice. We were charmed, and after a bit of conversation, decided to set up camp right next to them — the other site was occupied by Harley’s parents, who were retired and had come for a visit.
We had intended to stay for one night and hurry on towards Las Vegas. Instead, we lingered at Villa Nueva for several days, enjoying Harley and Annabelle’s music, sharing meals around the campfire, telling stories, and feeling like family.
At the time, Harley and Annabelle were staying in various New Mexico state parks, making a living selling musical instruments and accessories at the Santa Fe flea market. One thing they told us stuck in the back of my mind: They had met when Annabelle walked into a little music shop Harley ran in Oklahoma, right at the Texas border on I-40. The shop wasn’t doing too well, so they closed it up and tried the flea markets for the summer.
Those few days changed our traveling style. We realized that encounters with people were just as important as scenery and history and wildlife, and were often more memorable. We became more open to meeting people and talking to them, and within two days of leaving Villa Nueva, we’d already met a couple more people with fascinating life stories.
In the years since then, some of our encounters with strangers have led to our biggest adventures, such as Peter and Mannfred, the two German fellows who talked us into canoeing the Yukon River. And we realized that the magical and hilarious week we spent at the home of Daniel, a man we met on a street corner in Key West, didn’t have to be isolated incidents.
In those days, there was no e-mail, and we didn’t usually exchange contact information with people we met. So we lost track of Harley and Annabelle and the elder Russells, but we never forgot about them.
When we started planning our drive across the country from Seattle to North Carolina, I had a wild hair. I sat down at the computer, and I typed in one simple search phrase, in Google: Harley Annabelle Oklahoma.
“Omigod!” I exclaimed, causing Barry to come peer over my shoulder.
Harley and Annabelle didn’t have a website. But there were thousands of references to them and their shop, the Sandhills Curiosity Shop, “Redneck Capital of the World.”
It turns out that in 1999, they were sitting in the little 100-year-old storefront they owned in Erick, Oklahoma, playing their guitars together. Harley has been a professional musician, and Annabelle is a songwriter with a lovely soprano voice. As they were jamming together, a fellow stuck his head inside the shop and heard the music. “I have a tour bus full of folks outside,” he said. “Can I bring them inside for some music?”
The tourists, who were from the UK, trooped inside, and Harley and Annabelle put on an impromptu show for them. Suddenly, the little storefront, which had been an unsuccessful health food store, an unsuccessful music store, and an unsuccessful antique store, turned into a hugely successful tourist attraction, located on the famous Route 66. Writers, photographers, and filmmakers have visited, and despite the fact that they don’t advertise or promote themselves, hundreds of people come to see them each week.
We stopped in yesterday, and due to an e-mail fluke, our visit was a surprise. But they hadn’t forgotten us, and I was quickly enveloped in a bone-crushing hug from great big Harley. Annabelle’s smile was just as kind and welcoming as I remembered.
We looked around the place, taking in the visual overload of Route 66 memorabilia and collectables on the walls, tables, ceiling, and floor. There were hundreds of photos of the groups they’ve entertained, along with cards and gifts and clippings they’ve received from their worldwide friends. When we arrived, they were entertaining a couple from Holland, Ernst and Annette, who were driving the entire length of Route 66. There was a lot of silly banter, and Harley was flirting outrageously with Annette. I laughed so hard, I got a cramp in my jaw.
Then Harley and Annabelle picked up their guitars and played a couple of tunes. Annabelle’s voice was more beautiful than we’d remembered as they played “What a difference a day makes.” And when Harley started in on his guitar solo, it was just like the good old days in Villa Nueva State Park. They finished up with their trademark, “Get your kicks on Route 66.”
After Ernst and Annette left (with Harley and Annabelle blowing kisses), we visited the “Redneck Castle,” their home behind the shop. It’s a cute little house, decorated with even more collectibles and antiques. Annabelle fixed some lunch, and we talked and talked. Before we left, late in the afternoon, we took more photos with them in front of the Sandhills Curiosity Shop, and Harley recommended a campground where we should stop for the night.
Like other friends we visited as we traveled the west coast, we left a gift, one of Michael’s jars of homemade kumquat marmalade. There’s a small connection between these musical friends of ours. In a few years, Disneyland is planning to open “Cars Land,” based on the animated film, “Cars.” Evidently, the Sandhills Curiosity Shop gave the designers of Cars and Cars Land some inspiration, and Michael will surely be one of the first to see it on one of his many trips to Disneyland.
Harley and Annabelle gave us many, many gifts, from the hugs and the music to the kisses they blew as we drove away. The best gift of all is knowing that these two people, who we are proud to say we’ve known for 15 years, are doing well and enjoying life without even leaving small-town Erick, Oklahoma.
While we’ve been out traveling around the world, meeting people and making friends, they’ve stayed home, and the world and all its new friends are beating a path to their door. I don’t know how long Barry and I will be traveling, but someday, we too will settle down. And then what will we do?
Fifteen years after the first lesson, Harley and Annabelle have taught us another important one. There’s nothing wrong with not traveling. If you don’t travel, and you have a creative, joyous, open heart and something very special to share with the world, then it doesn’t matter where you are. The world will come to you.
Note: There are a few pictures on the site of Bug Ranch and Harley and Annabelle. Go to http://www.mepsnbarry.com/pix/