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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 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.