It was hot that day in April when I met Elmer Long. His long, white beard hung to chest level and a well-worn hat rode high on his weathered brow. After the small group of fellow visitors had left, he and I stood under the glaring sun making small talk until finally retreating to two chairs in the welcoming shade.
“I’ve done something out here that’s for sure,” he chuckled looking out over the thousands of glass bottles creating a maze of colorful madness in front of us. “Shoot, I’ve still got lots to do, too, just no energy to do it.” A deep, smoker’s cough crept up on him at this point. It sounded just like the one my father has.
I sat with Elmer that day for what felt like hours, but in reality it was likely 20 to 30 minutes. He talked about building his roadside attraction 20 years earlier and four bottles he collected with his father back in the 1950s. I told him about travel writing and my story about Route 66. He agreed to be part of it. He reminisced about working at a local concrete plant for thirty years, reading countless books at night when things were quiet. He also gave me investment advice and told me to buy as much property as I could while I was young. “You’ve got to take care of yourself, do things right.” The more we talked, the more we relaxed and the lower we sank into our chairs.
He was calm, easy-going and very welcoming – a testament to who he was and why so many of his fans across the world loved him so much. What struck me most about my time with Elmer was him opening up about his health issues, stating very matter-of-fact that he was tired, his bones hurt and he was getting ready to pass. The ease at which he stated such readiness to leave this living world was both startling and calming at the same time. But often with many we’ve come to know, I thought he still had many years in front of him and that I’d see him again. So it was with great surprise and sadness last month that I learned Elmer had died.
As I write these last words, I wish I would have stayed longer. I wish I had more things to tell you about the time I spent with him in April. I wish we could have shared more stories, more laughs and more time simply relaxing in the shade, even if it was in silence. I wish.
I also realize people come and go in our lives, some for long periods of time, some for very brief moments. I believe that it’s the way you remember them that is the most important, though. So with that said, I’ll remember Elmer for welcoming me to his ranch with a handshake and soft smile, taking the time with a interested traveler, and letting me tell even a small portion of his story. I hope I did you justice.
Rest easy, Elmer.
The Travelin’ Joe