Wandering around Williams AZ shortly after 8 am on a Friday morning, I spotted a rare sight. A man smoking. It was such a novelty that I went to join him. We’d been stateside a week and he was maybe the third person I’d seen with a cigarette. Ah no, you say, you’re not back smoking? I’m not, but I have the odd one when I feel like it. And sure amn’t I on my holidays. Anyway, this particular cigarette would prove to be the most interesting one I’ve ever had.
He put his out and then stuck it into a hole he’d bored into the street sign outside his shop. He uproots the signpost and empties it when it gets full. One day, he said, he put a half-lit butt inside and the others caught fire. Smoke started seeping through the hole. He told a concerned tourist who happened to be passing that it was nothing to worry about, saying the town was built on volcanic geysers and this was just a vent. He laughed heartily when he thought of the 20 minutes the chap spent taking pictures of it.
Buck Williams was born in Ohio and grew up on a working ranch in Alabama. After a stint in the Marines, he spent three years as a deputy sheriff in his home state, twenty with the LAPD, and six as a US Marshall in California. All this before spending 15 years as a train robber in Williams, AZ. Sharing the same last name as the town, his wife decided this was where they’d retire. And they did. About nineteen years ago. When you’ve spent as long as he has upholding the law, it made a change to break it. Williams was part of the staged train robbery put on for tourists travelling on the Grand Canyon railroad. Today, he’s the local gunsmith and the man to go see if you want to learn to quick draw or use a bullwhip.
He was telling me that many old Arizona laws, while not always enforced, are still on the books. If I parked in front of his signpost and he came along and wanted to tether his horse, guess who’d have to move? And if I beeped my horn at his horse, I’d be fined. And if I scared him, I could be arrested. The horse, that is. Williams would take a lot of scaring.
Lots of international tourists come to Williams, stay overnight, and then take the train ride up into the canyon. He himself has a massive Chinese fan club, thanks to being featured in a book on Route 66, written in Chinese. It went down so well, that he’s due to be featured in a second by the same author on cowboys. He’s also nabbed a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for both his fast draw and his bullwhip. He can draw a gun in 2.5 tenths of a second. I asked him why he didn’t write his own book. ‘I’m in the middle of doing nothing’, he said, ‘and I don’t want to start another project until I finish this one.’
He gave me the rundown on Williams and suggested where we should go for lunch. Himself had taken off earlier that morning to see the Grand Canyon. I’d stayed behind to feed my Route 66 memory bank. I asked Williams, given that he’s been around for a while and has lived an interesting life, what advice would he give someone starting out today. He didn’t have to think for long. ‘Learn to be responsible for yourself.’ Too many people these days take for granted what they’re told. They don’t fact check or research. They believe what their friends believe.
Just about that point in the conversation, a woman came in to mail a package with UPS (Williams is an agent for them). Her stepson was in jail in California and the only parcels they can get are from vendors. She’s tried to send it via Amazon but it came to her instead. The Amazon guy, [‘a middle-eastern fellah’, she whispered, behind the back of her hand] had emailed her a barcoded label that only UPS shops, not the franchises, had the wherewithal to read. Williams told her she’d have to drive the 40 miles to the nearest UPS in Flagstaff. They chatted, her animatedly, he calmly. She didn’t want to make the drive and had come in royally ticked off with Amazon and her stepson both, venting her spleen, but she left smiling. All in the space of two minutes.
Williams took a framed photo from the wall and proudly pointed out his son. He was in the US Coastguard and had been an honour guard for four years when Clinton was in office and spent 17 years as a rescue swimmer. A life so very different from the stepson in jail.
Aside from his love of cowboys and guns, Williams has a love of words. He told me how easy it was to understand modern-day politics – poly meaning many, and tics, meaning blood-sucking pests. He recited one of his cowboy poems for me that knocked me sideways with the punchline. I wish I’d been able to record him but traffic was picking up and his regulars were popping in for coffee. He keeps a coffee pot on the go and it seems like anyone’s welcome.
He put on his hat for another photo and went on to tell me how to read a cowboy hat. If it’s white or light-coloured, they work somewhere sunny and hot. If it’s high-domed, they work somewhere that gets rain and/or snow. If there’s a cord around the crown, they’ve been in the armed forces – the different colours represent different sections. And his, he said, told me that he was right-handed. This stumped me until he pointed out that the left side of the brim was slightly higher than the right – this was from tipping his hat to the ladies. His right hand would always be on his gun.
And tip his hat he did. I was ma’amed a lot and I loved it. Buck Williams was made in America. He’s a real character who says that if you leave his shop without a smile on your face, it’s because he’s thrown you out. I left laughing. If you ever find yourself in Williams, AZ, pop in and say hi. Buck’s Place. 117 W Route 66, Suite 145, Williams AZ. You’ll be glad you did. And I’m grateful that I had that cigarette. Thanks’ Buck. You’re a gem.
For more on the Grateful series, check the blog.
For more on travel in Arizona, check out www.anyexcusetotravel.com