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The Milk House: The giant man wearing a top hat in the desert

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 06 May 2016

It wasn’t long after we left Wells and set out into the lifeless gravel that I realized I underestimated the amount of water I should have carried. Even before I ran out, I became faint. Not wanting to validate the danger of the situation, I let Paul go ahead of me while I dug out a few energy bars.

Paul and I were bicycling across America and, toward the latter part of the journey, entering the desert. The town of Wendover split the border between Utah and Nevada, although once it left the Mormon-influenced mindset, it brassily transitioned into casinos, legalized brothels and Walmart-brand vodka.

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The side of the road was littered with bottles of urine, and every 50 miles one came upon a small interstate town tenanted by slot machines and silent people hunched over their beer.

Suddenly, a giant man in a top hat pulled up next to me. He was riding a bicycle, too. His large frame towered over me and blocked out the sun. “Hey there,” he said, in a booming voice not unlike that of God in the movies. Then he pedaled harder and passed me.

I pulled off to the side of the road. I had never imagined my death before. Realistically, I couldn’t be sure whether it would be an angel or the devil that collected me. Which one was more likely to be wearing a top hat in the desert, I also couldn’t say.

I slapped myself a few times. I looked around at the quiet desert brush and the empty cracking road that ran through it. The sky did not part nor did the ground open up. It still hurt when I pinched myself. I jumped on the bike and pedaled as fast as I could.

“Did you see him?” I shouted when I came up behind Paul, out of breath. “I’m almost afraid to ask, but did you see a giant man in a top hat on a bicycle?”

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That night, Paul and I ate dinner at a casino buffet. The flickering lights of slot machines floated around us. We slouched over the lacquer booths and stared into our iced tea, our faces still burning. That was when I heard the voice again.

“So you guys made it.”

In the table across from us sat a large man in his 50s, his top hat in the seat next to him. His body was tanned beneath his tank-top, which was lifted off his body by the gray hair tangled over his chest and arms. It creased when he laughed.

“Mitch,” he said, extending an arm across the alley.

He was on his way to Burning Man, which he described in detail as a sudden Utopia that rises up in the desert for one week, where people express themselves artistically, barter for the things they need and enjoy a sense of community. He was going in a tuxedo to profess his love to all of the women there and propose to them.

We left Mitch that night – only to run into him several more times in Nevada. We eventually decided to ride together and share motel rooms. The third day we knew Mitch, his history came out.

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It went like this: He was hitting a bucket of balls at a golf range when his wife called him and told him not to come home. He didn’t. She was embezzling money at the sheriff’s office, and Mitch blew the whistle on her. She then claimed that he had a bomb, so when he went to get his car licensed at the Wyoming bureau, they impounded it and arrested him.

His wife was having an affair with the sheriff, and the sheriff and the rest of the office gave false testimony against Mitch. He went to jail and performed a hunger strike for 130 days. “Like a deflated balloon,” he said, pulling his skin. He was also up on the additional charge of being a terrorist.

This was because one day he found a USB stick in the snow outside a café. When he plugged it into his computer, he saw that it belonged to the Salt Lake City mayor and had on it classified military information concerning Iraq.

He was going to give it back – but it was in the car that got impounded. During the proceedings for that case, a lawyer forged his signature, forcing Mitch to admit to something he didn’t do. Presently, he was waiting for a new lawyer and new trial date and, if unsuccessful, the giant man in a top hat would face five years in prison.

Mitch’s fortunes would get no better while he was with us. He woke one day with a cold sore and then an eye infection. He feared how his eye would hold up to the dusty conditions of Burning Man.

Then he found out that the ticket to the festival he was buying from someone on Craigslist had already been given away. He came out of the motel to tell us that – only to see his bicycle with a flat tire.

Mitch eventually shot himself. It was apparently unsuccessful because he emailed me about it six months later. He said that they put him in jail and that the judge said that he was a dangerous man.

Talking with him then, it struck me that his actual troubles might not be terrorist charges or a lying sheriff’s department but related to mental health. Regardless, he was, if anything, a man conflicted.

Still, when I think of Mitch, what I think of is this: The sky growing dark was the only thing that changed among the landscape. It was our third day of the three of us riding together. There was 25 miles to go to the next town, Battle Mountain, and we had no choice but to press on.

Once in a while, a truck would beep as it passed us because it couldn’t see us very well. We also could not see the potholes and the bottles of urine on the shoulder or any other hazards.

The darkness covered over the dirtiness and harshness of the desert, and for a moment maybe of life too, as we rode carelessly and recklessly through the night. We became silhouettes, ghosts floating along the open plain, merging in and out of the shapes of the mountains around us.

To say that any of us needed it would only be half-true because there was something essential about being on that Nevada highway that somehow every human requires. In that moment, there was no past nor future, but just three people riding a bicycle where they weren’t meant to. And one of those people was wearing a top hat.  PD

Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. The Dennis family dairies and maintains a 100-plus cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.

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