The early morning sun glinted off the dozen or so Harleys parked at a roadside cutout. Around the motorcycles stood a group of grizzled riders garbed in black leathers festooned with patches of every size and shape, their eyes hidden behind dark wraparound sunglasses, faces scowling. A woman circulated among them, making small talk as they waited, and waited, and waited some more. Two American flags stirred listlessly in the breeze.
A small pickup pulled up. “They’re late,” the driver said, as if they didn’t already know it.
While they waited, the man in the truck, Duane Durst, laid out his plan: when the bus appeared they would form a line in the road and escort it four miles to Hollenberg Pony Express Station Historic Site. The bus was carrying a half-dozen students from Hill College in Hillsboro, Texas, embarked on a seven-day, six-state exploration of historic sites relating to westward expansion in the late 1800s. One of them, Eric Monk, was a wounded veteran studying archaeological anthropology.
That he was coming at all was something of a miracle. He’d survived two combat injuries while serving as a sniper and forward observer in Iraq and Afghanistan, and after retiring from the military took up history to follow his grandfather’s stories of Sioux life in the Dakotas following Custer’s defeat at the Little Big Horn. At the last minute he was unable to raise the funds to pay for the excursion and was ready to drop out until Durst contacted several friends who helped raise the money.
Now Durst had another surprise: he’d arranged a motorcycle escort by local Patriot Guard Riders to lead Monk to the Pony Express station. Only the instructor aboard the bus knew of it, and she was keeping it a secret.
“He’s a wounded warrior,” Durst said. “He deserves it.”
Another 45 minutes passed. Finally, Durst’s cell phone rang. “They’ll be here in ten minutes,” he said.
From their vantage the land dropped away in rolling waves toward the Little Blue River. When they saw the bus approaching they formed a tight phalanx and steered their Harleys onto K-148.
Aboard the bus, instructor Kathleen Miller rode shotgun. When the bus began its turn all conversation stopped. She turned to Monk and tried to gauge his reaction and couldn’t and so simply said, “They’re here for you. Would you like to change places?”
The morning’s stillness was shattered by the deep roar of the Harleys. They moved off in pairs with the last pair mounted with flags snapping in the wind of their passing. On the bus Monk said nothing but studied the riders hard and the other passengers remained almost reverentially quiet.
At the station the motorcycles circled the parking lot and halted in a tight knot. The bus stopped fifty feet behind. As the riders dismounted the bus door swung open and a slender man stepped out. He wore a camouflage fatigue hat pulled low and green shoes. He leaned heavily on a cane.
For a long moment he stood back hesitantly. Then he hobbled toward the riders while snatching off his cap. “I’m Eric Monk,” he said, holding out a hand.
Though the students had got a late start and were pressed for time—their next stop would be Scottsbluff, Neb.—they stood around talking to the riders. They said they couldn’t believe how green it was, that everything in Texas was dead from the drought, and the people in Kansas had been so friendly, and now this. Monk spoke about being wounded while fighting in Sadr City outside of Baghdad, a wound he recovered from only to have his vertebra cracked a few years later in Afghanistan.
“That ended my career,” he said.
Now he wanted to learn about post-1880 western history, he told them. His father and grandfather had been raised on the Sioux reservation in South Dakota and he wanted to tie their experiences to the great migrations along the Santa Fe, Chisum, Overland and Oregon trails.
Miller hung back and studied Monk like a worried mother.
“I was so worried about how he’d react,” she said. “I didn’t want anything to hurt his self-esteem. But he took it well.”
The moment inside the bus when they saw the Patriot Guard lined up in array was powerful, she said. “It was spiritual. That’s the only way I can describe it.”
As Durst, site administrator for the station, led the students into the visitor center, Miller waved to the departing riders.
“That was quite a reception,” she said, laughing. “We haven’t had anything like that at any of our other stops.”