Without a hint of embarrassment or irony, June of Boca Raton, Florida, explains that her toaster is possessed by the devil.
How has she come to such a conclusion? “I heard a voice say, ‘I am the devil,’” she replies. To validate her claims for the Today show story I’m reporting, she produces supporting evidence—several slices of burnt toast with messages scraped into their blackened surfaces, allegedly by the devil. One has the number 666, another a pitchfork; a third says, “Satan Lives.”
The chrome toaster is given a chance to prove its innocence or guilt while the camera rolls. As the woman struggles to insert a slice of bread, she warns, “It seems to be aware.” Within seconds, a flash and flames shoot from the coils. Finally, when asked why she keeps this appliance in her kitchen, she gives a simple answer: “When all is said and done, it makes good toast.”
To my surprise, that interview from 1984 recently went viral on the Internet, inspiring me to reflect on some of the other characters I’ve encountered during my lifetime on the road. I’ve always had a fondness for people who have veered off the interstate and are wandering the back roads, navigating life without a map. Their stories may strain the bounds of credibility, but their tales are nothing if not memorable.
In southern California, I recognize a fellow traveler in Ruth — or Uriel, as she’s known at the Unarius Academy of Science in El Cajon. In fact, she insists not to be from this planet. Now, I’ve occasionally suspected that certain acquaintances were not of this world, but never before has anyone stated as much so directly. Uriel, however, does not keep secrets, telling me (and anyone who will listen) that she has lived on 33 planets.
She wears a ball gown that doubles as a 3-D map of the galaxy, studded with glowing orbs that represent the many planets where she’s had a mortgage. It’s a confirmation dress of sorts — confirmation that she’s a stranger in a strange land.
But why did Uriel wind up on our primitive little ball of dirt floating through the cosmos? It seems she came to Earth to prepare a landing site for her “brothers from other planets.” Uriel passed away before the spaceships were to have arrived in 2001, and last time I checked in El Cajon, the ships had not landed.
Maybe the flights have been delayed due to intergalactic solar flares, or maybe the space brothers are using the Maya calendar, which has proven easy to misunderstand.
Over in Page, Arizona, I meet a couple who seem to be a perfect match. The wife makes wallets, hats, and lampshades from fragments of old beer cans that she stitches together. But it’s her husband’s job that really grabs my interest. He collects the beer cans from along the highway — or, when he can’t find enough empties, he takes it upon himself to drink sufficient quantities of beer to keep his wife stocked with art supplies.
Near Albuquerque, New Mexico, I meet another artist, Tony. He makes kachina dolls for peace out of scrap metal sold by the pound from the nuclear weapons lab, Sandia. In rural Arkansas, I find a couple who earn a living by teaching chickens to play the piano.
Under the Joshua trees off a California highway near Hesperia, a guy named Miles gives me a tour of his open-air home that’s part roadside attraction, part folk-art emporium. To me it looks like a couch and a defunct refrigerator. On a small platform, Miles tap-dances, tells stories, and quotes poetry for tourists who stop by. As we’re saying goodbye, he hands me a bank statement, explaining, “I don’t want you to think I’m a bum because I sleep in my car out here.” The account balance is $98,000.
And for years during the 1980s, wherever I go in the United States people claim to have seen, spoken to, or slept with Elvis after his 1977 death — or, as they would put it, “his alleged death.”
A woman in Atlanta swears to me, in front of her current husband, that she had lived with Elvis for three years; as proof she produces fuzzy pictures of a heavyset guy with hair dyed black. She is positive he was the real thing, because he always carried a briefcase full of pills. A gas station attendant in upstate New York shows me the autograph that “Elvis” signed after filling up his tank at the self-service pump.
But for every person who promises to have encountered Elvis posthumously, I meet at least a dozen others who are pretending to be the King. In Boone, Iowa, a woman pulls on a jumpsuit, a pair of sunglasses, and a black wig to lip-synch to Elvis records at the local Elks lodge. In Chicago a 12-year-old boy in a jumpsuit shakes his hips as the hired entertainment at small parties. Unsurprisingly, I see many overweight guys doing their versions of “Elvis: the later years.” My main takeaway? Girth plus hair dye does not equal talent.
I may not share the lifestyle choices or even the same perception of reality with the characters I’ve met on my travels, but I will always appreciate their commitment to carving out little spaces of their own. Their stories make the world a more fascinating, entertaining, and curious place to explore. And when it’s all said and done, they make good toast.
Boyd Matson is one of Traveler‘s editors at large and pens the “Unbound” column for the magazine. Follow his story on Twitter @boydmatson.
This column appeared in the June/July 2013 issue of Traveler magazine, but there’s a lot you can’t get online. To see all we have to offer, subscribe to the print edition for $10 a year or download a digital copy to your iPad.