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Road stories: Mr. H. Ballard Harris and Johnny Cash

26 Sep 2004 by Jason Fried

About 10 miles south of ghosty Cisco, Utah and 30 miles northeast of Moab, Utah is the Dewey Service Station. Well, Ex-service station. What was once a business first and a home second is now just the home of H. Ballard Harris — an 87 year old fountain of history. Originally born in Green River, Utah, he has been living behind his service station and next to the Dewey bridge for over 40 years.

We first noticed him as we sped by the boarded up station. He was (barely) standing out front, tending the grounds. You couldn’t help but think something special was going on here.

We parked the car on the side of the road, walked up, traded waves and howdies, and started listening. He had all sorts of stories. Each one preceded by “You wouldn’t believe the changes I’ve seen in my life.”

He talked about when the ferry would shuttle people down the Colorado river (which flows right behind the station). He talked about his five wives — how they came and went and how much he misses “those ladies.” He talked about his kids. He talked about being a real cowboy (and surviving all the falls). He talked about wearing — not drinking — white wine to keep the disease away. He talked about the Bible and Jesus and how the Lord told him that the doctors were wrong about his pancreatic cancer diagnosis (it turned out he just had gallstones). He even threw a prayer our way. He talked about the Ten Commandments in the schools (“No harm ever been done by kids reading those words”). He talked about the incredible joy that comes over him when he feeds the pigeons and wild turkeys along the river — something he’s been doing twice a day for the past 30 years. He talked about kicking the drink 20 years ago. He had plenty to say and we had plenty of time to listen. About 45 minutes was what he gave us. Twice as long would have been just fine.

And then, near the end, he slipped in this gem… Before he opened up his own filling station, Mr. Harris used to work at Clifton’s Filling Station 10 miles up the road in Cisco. He pumped gas, fixed tires, did whatever needed to be done. He told us about how one day Johnny Cash pulled up. Mr. Cash and Mr. Harris had a little chat and then he filled up Cash’s car with $7 worth of gas. And then Cash wrote a song about it:

Cisco Clifton’s Filling Station (on Essential Johnny Cash 1955-83)
Cisco Clifton had a filling station about a mile and a half from town. Most cars passed unless they were out of gas so Cisco was always around.
Regular gas was all that he sold except for tobacco, matches, and oil. Other than that he fixed lots of flats keeping Cisco’s rough hands soiled.
He’d wipe the glass and check the air. And a hundred times a day he’d patiently give directions on how to get to the state highway.
Usually he’d give them water or a tire or two some air and once a big black Cadillac spent $7 there.
He’d give anybody anything they’d ask And lend anything he had. His tools or tires, bumper jacks or wires the good ones or the bad.
In winter time there was a deep coal stove and a table for the checker game. And every morning at sun up the same checker players came.
So Cisco Clifton’s filling station was always in the red. Personal loans were personally gone, but never a word was said.
One morning at 8 the checker players heard a big bulldozer roar like a freight. And Cisco said “I hope my kids stay fed when they build that interstate.”
He’d managed to pay for the property where his little filling station sat. And friends still came for the checker game so Cisco settled for that.
He wouldn’t say so, but Cisco knew the interstate was too much to fight. But to keep his will and pay his bills, he did odd jobs at night.
He still opened up at a sunrise and the checker game went on. The cars flew past on high-test gas, and the neighbors had sold out and gone.
If a car ever did go by, he was lost. And if they stopped they were treated the same.
So at Cisco Clifton’s filling station, there’s a howdy and a checker game.

50+ hours in a car was all worth it to meet Mr. Harris. If you’re ever in Utah going down I-70, exit 220 to SH 128 towards Cisco and keep going until you see the Dewey Station on the left. Stop you car and listen. It’ll be worth it.

UPDATE: Other pictures from the trip.

14 comments so far (Post a Comment)

26 Sep 2004 | Mike said...

Wow. Absolutely incredible. Nothing like a genuine piece of Americana to really make you sit back and think about things differently.

Great pickup Jason.

26 Sep 2004 | Dad said...

H. Ballard is my kinda of guy!! ---DAD

26 Sep 2004 | Brian Andersen said...

I love Johnny Cash. I love the simplicity and great stories.

It's great to hear the background for one of those.

26 Sep 2004 | Joel Schou said...

Back in 1992, my parents and my little brother and I were traveling the western U.S. for a few weeks. We had just left Arches Nat'l Park and were on our way to Colorado. The car was near the end of the tank and our road atlas showed Cisco not so far away. We were disheartened to observe that there were no gas stations visible from the road and didn't stop driving. Now I wish we had. We might have ended up having our own brush with history.

Fantastic story! Thank you for sparking my memories of our own trek around the West.

27 Sep 2004 | Randy said...

Man that's great. What a story and what an experience. Wish I was there to pull it all in myself. Maybe one day. Thanks for sharing this, J.

27 Sep 2004 | Mark said...

Nice pics and story. What camera were you using?

27 Sep 2004 | Don Schenck said...

Great stuff, Jason ... all around. Kudos. But we didn't see other person in your twosome. She was taking some good pictures.

Harkening back a few weeks ... I notice that the highway marker has been "tagged" with graffiti. Lovely, just lovely (that's sarcasm, folks).

27 Sep 2004 | ben said...

Another great place to meet kewl, old people is at your local VFW or nursing home. I play chess regularly with a man who was a WWII B-29 tailgunner, a professional boxer and an FBI agent.

27 Sep 2004 | engelgrafik said...

What camera are you using for the "other pictures", namely the "Vail: Whitewash" image of the fog over the hills?

27 Sep 2004 | JF said...

I took all my pictures with a Canon Digital Rebel.

27 Sep 2004 | indi said...

Thanks for sharing the story and pictures. Reminded me of my grandmother's stories in a way. I could listen for hours. Now that she's gone I should write down what I remember before it's too late...

28 Sep 2004 | Paperhead said...

hehe, good photos Jason.

I almost expect to see a headless Christopher Walken on horseback come galloping out of this one.

28 Sep 2004 | J C said...

Jesus Christ! You mean that old geaser's still alive!!

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