Chapter 24

“It’s when you fear 
you’re spinning wheels that 
things can spin out of control.”

          “I really don’t think this will do it…”

          “It’s got to…what else we…just goose it, will you? Now…”

          “Why don’t we just pull it out…”

          “Didn’t I say no more chains?!”

          Chains, but no monkeys. Much of what Melissa had wired me went for bus fare back to Colorado, but that wasn’t the half of it. When a little car storage money was factored in, plus some comparison shopping was done on the cost of commercially towing the Volks to Salt Lake City, there wasn’t much margin left for sensible moves.

          The Trailways ride proved to be an avalanche dodger, if there ever was one, beginning with the Elko station. After a buckskin brace of casino hoppers had disembarked, the only two open seats were toward rear coach, side by side, that snubbing hitchhiker highwayman proceeding to trap me tightly into the window 36A. He said little, soon spreading wide, snoring like a bearded grizzly; I clutched up, head against the cold glass, just about singing ‘…And I feel the warmth of gun, whenever you’re near’. So much for pick-me-up travelin’ tunes…

          But thankfully he piled out at Wendover, saying that with a little luck, he’d catch me somewhere between there and Reno some day—just my luck. What looked to be an LDS off-shoot polygamist then smiled devoutly into  vacated 36B, as if just back from a sect wedding weekend at some hideaway Nevada church motel. In SLC, we exchanged the pedo-prophet for a dopey snowboarder with his ballooning down ski jacket.

          Hours on, the dark, swaying bus plowed around every black ice switchback, through every Rockies’ rubble slide, felled pine tree and snowdrift between Steamboat and Idaho Springs, the boarder’s over decaled, mid-wide Burton cutting into my extremities at every winding shift and turn. The closest call seemed to be a near collision with rowdy drunken, goggled ski bums sliding, fishtailing toward us in an open bed pick-up truck outside Berthoud Pass. All along, the driver’s intercom happy talk centered on vehicles going over the guardrailed cliffs, past buses getting snow blindingly stranded up amid these peaks, passengers perishing from hypothermia and worse…‘hold on tight, folks, clutch for your life’ until lower Mt. Vernon Canyon/Idaho Springs emerged.

          Melissa had dutifully met me in downtown Denver at dawn, with more pointed questions than answers, mainly centering on routes taken, much less liberties tacitly suspected. But my ears were still popping, I stank to high dudgeon, and the immediacy of the squareback breakdown quickly aced out other, perhaps more delicate concerns. Moreover, long-range weather reports warned that a massive storm system was slowly bearing down by way of Alberta and Saskatoon.

          Midway between Westminster and Broomfield, Moon’s own turnpike conclusion was that the only practical means of pulling out of this dive came via hookchains left in our backyard shed by former tenants.

          Not that it hadn’t already occurred to me, but by Louisville, I was groggily voicing concern for her trusty little Toyota’s drivetrain—by the freshly breathtaking Boulder Valley Overlook was considering trading in my broken down Volks to Raley Jorgen altogether for the homey, snow-capped majesty before us. She wouldn’t hear of it, however, saying as we wheeled up to the cabin that the whole cursed trip was her doing in the first place, and that we still needed the second car.

          “This isn’t going to do it, Kenny…”

          “Ewwph…got a better idea?!”

          “Let me pull it out,” Melissa said back to me from out the driver’s side window. “Just like we did in Nevada—that wasn’t so…”

          “You can’t pull it out,” I shouted from behind the squareback, pointing ahead. “Look, it’s too narrow to pull it out.”

          “So we’ll lever the chain around that tree…like a sideways tow truck…”

          Let’s go make it work, she’d said earlier on, and we had better get cuttin’ at daybreak because snow was a’ comin’. So we did. Neighbors agreeing to watch over Seamus and Biggs, Melissa took the wheel, driven by her relentless optimism. We eschewed steeper mountain passes and perils in favor of the northern route, picking up I-80 at Laramie for the long haul across Wyoming. Our ride was comparatively uneventful, the little Toyota’s heater actually effective, Moon reminding me that, after a steering through the Nebraska trailer jack-knife on our initial move to Colorado, these upper Rockies crosswinds were kid’s stuff.

          Her mood remained buoyant through icy Rawlins and the tree-gnarled Red Desert, her first trip ever over the Continental Divide. I mostly picked at Tupper containers of home-baked cobbler and casseroles she’d packed for the ride, and gazed past her, grateful nevertheless for somehow missing the snowy creeked, wild deer splendor and drama of the mountains further south.

          We chatted on about my earlier journeys west, especially the most recent, about these endless stretches, all the shaley new oil rigs, what to expect come Nevada—what California was like, what I thought of San Francisco—and how I got along with her pal, Sydney. Where was I during the phone lags? Did I give our game plan some thought along the way—school, work, income-wise? More often than not, we marveled at the vast blue skies of Wyoming’s Highlands, otherwise dabbling at the unsaid edges, papering things over with single-ply Charmin by the roll.

          After coffee at Little America, we pumped breaks down Parley’s Canyon into Salt Lake City, aiming to hook up with my Volks, we had focused on strategy and tactics, namely more detailed logistics vis-à-vis hauling it back. Moon was always the better planner that way, all but ignoring the Salt Lake and Flats, as though they were merely hollow Boulder Valley spaces east of Crossroads Center. I kept checking roadmaps, highway markers, vital signs, fading Top-40 radio signals—anything but the rock gardens Sydney had littered with cryptic Yiddish lingo.

          We hit Wells, Nevada under a clouding, moonless sky, greeted by an impatient Raley Jorgen and a squareback he’d moved further into his side lot. I introduced Melissa and explained as how the eastbound Trailways bus from Elko had basically blown right through town, greasing his outstretched palm with a little extra compensatory storage cash, just grateful he hadn’t junked and compacted the heap altogether. Having hooked and chained between her trailer hitch and Volks’ forward frame, we gassed up, snacked up, joed up and pulled haltingly out of town under cover of darkness.

          I drove the automatic Toyota, she steered my neutral geared heap cautiously behind, by fits and starts, goose and brakes, over Pequop Summit and Silver Zone Pass, links and frames straining, finally getting the hang and pace of it by Utah’s welcome sign.

          From Wendover east, we had furtively crossed the Great Salt Lake Desert like a blinking, teeth-and-chain-grinding wagon train in ragged retreat—bumpers kissing, links stretching, or bucking back and forth. We limped slowly into SLC as the sun rose over Wasatch-Cache, drawing blessedly little pre-rush hour attention.

          Volkswagen dealer technicians soon detected a dead pressure sensor, blaming the minor fuel injection failure on age, roller coaster altitudes and fluky California gas formulations. Then again the dollar damage could have been worse, and we could have easily been intercepted and impounded by the Beehive Highway Patrol.

          We’d ridden that bit of relief all the way across Wyoming in tandem, Moon leading the way in bundled up, heater-fed comfort, waving back, keeping track as I nursed the sub-zero squareback several lengths behind. I fought frostbite and high country crosswinds and side-slide drifting, legs covered with an oil-stained lube blanket, feet wrapped in ragged towels and shop rags, the frigid siege lifting only in frequent coffee stops, where she coaxed me along with visions of heartwarming soup stews, fondues and hot cider by the cabin’s fireplace.

          Storm clouds gathering north over the Seminoe and Shirley Mountains pushed our sleep-deprived pedals further from there. At long last, we beeped and saluted each other’s tenacity and teamwork through Fort Collins on home. Boulder then greeted us with a 24-hour dump-a-thon, this valley-burying blizzard of almanac proportions, effacing the foothills like bottled White-Out, chapter and verse.   Snowy Cliff St.

          “Right, ruin Seamus’ favorite tree,” I gasped, back against the Volks, lifting up on its rear bumper while my rambunctious Setter barked for attention in the fenced back yard. “No way, Moon. And we’ll never get out by Friday, either.”

          “Why not? The mailman’s getting through…”

          “He’s got a four-wheeler Jeep…that’s his job!”

          “So this is our job, right?”

          We had slept through most of it, haphazardly parking our little caravan like squad cars rushing a hostage house, Melissa directly out front of the cabin, a bit on the shoulder, me backing the Volks onto a truncated grassy patch that passed for our driveway. Unloading the bare essentials, we piled into the kitchen as skies darkened menacingly and winds mowed pine and aspen down over the Front Range with roof-raising velocity. She steeped some Sleepytime tea as I scrubbed off layers of road grime, breaking out a few stale scones for the dunking.

          After a groove-worn album side of ‘Tapestry’, we made for the bedroom, diving under three blankets and two comforters, coldly going soporous for the duration. Snowdrifts up, mercury down: then we had awakened to Bemidji West.

          “Try it again, gradual traction—just don’t gun it…”

          “Tsk, and you’ve got a whole heavy motor over your wheels,” she said craning out the driver’s window, over the engine noise and spinning tires. “They just need a little…”

          “A little muscle, that’s all…now!” I spun around and pressed my shoulder hard against the tailgate. As she double clutched, I heaved, the squareback lurching forward just enough for me to slip and fall face down into a spot I’d shoveled in the snowpack.

          “Chains, Kenny,” Moon shouted, braking to keep the Volks from rolling back over me.

          “Give it a rest,” I sighed, looking up, beyond the car, that rolling mail truck—to the snow-sheathed Flatirons and buried palatial aeries rising above the foothills toward Flagstaff Summit. For a moment, I could see clear to Sausalito and the sunny green Arcady of Marin County. “Maybe wait out a little…”             Winter Flatirons

          “Why are you being so bullheaded about it,” she shut down the Volks, jumping out to help brush off my road worn sheepskin and denim.

          “Bullheaded? Who’s being bullheaded?! Not me…”

          “Whatever you say, Kenny. I’ll go fetch the mail.”

          I took to scraping more snow and ice off squareback windows, watching Melissa walk a narrow path I’d shoveled like it was a highwire or balance beam, steadying herself against her freed-up Toyota before vaulting to our tree mounted mailbox. So small, wrapped up in an oversize olive drab parka from my army days: still a bundle of purposeful energy, even after what we’d just driven through.

sr dingbats

          The sun had begun breaking out of the cloud cover, but this snow blanket stuck around, University Hill stirring ever so slightly under blinding layers of white. Greenbelts seemed beside the point, streets like ours were irrelevant, trees flocked around bushes, over fenceposts and woodpiles, spiderwebbing the entire neighborhood, if not all of Boulder Valley, into awed and/or yawning submission. Traffic froze, schools closed, even Pearl Street Mall was immobilized. Joggers and hikers went into extended hibernation; 4x4s stood buried up to their roof racks, garages up to their key locks. The primary means of travel across town was by cross-country skis.

          Upper tree limbs creaked and drooped precariously, skylit roofs sagged under the scantly liquifying load. Hapgood’s place here still looked like an early warning station on Baffin Bay. But any usual sudden thaw promised to refreeze into massy icicles and stalactites overnight, rendering this entire winter wonderland a scene out of ‘Ice Station Zebra’.

          “Not a whole lot here,” Moon said, her vinyl boots squeaking and crunching across the tiny front yard’s snowcover, barely leaving a trail. “Mostly for you.”

          “For me? I pried open the cabin’s front door for her, porch roof cricking under a flurried foothill gust. “What? From the Sosh department or…”                                                                             CU Campus/Old Main

          “No, from the finance office, and Uncle Sam…oh, and here’s one for the ‘Herberts’,” she shuffled in, handing him all pieces, save one. “It’s from Sydney.”

          “Uncle? Must be final payday,” I grabbed it, avoiding the blue envelope with the San Francisco postmark like an election campaign flyer. A dripping tuft of snow dropped into the porch entryway with my slamming of cabin’s front door. “Christ, I’m freezing here…”

          “C’mon,” she waved me back into the kitchen with the orchid-perfumed letter. “I’ve some of my special beefy-vegetable consommé going on.”

          “Again? How come you made so much of that stuff,” I racked our coats, then seated myself at the round kitchen table, kissing my final G.I. Bill check, setting aside the rest. But there was no ignoring that perfume: why the hell would she be writing to us now?

          “Cold insurance. Got to keep us healthy, Kenny. You can never get enough soup this time of year,” Moon stirred the large stainless pot she’d scarfed from work. “I’ll do some cocoa, too…”

          Her Toyota Corona remained a model of mobility, parked skillfully on the low berm between Cliff Street and our postcard-size yard—arguably too delicately to move. She was snowed in, anyway, this time on the wrong end of the Longmont Diagonal, as far as she and disposable income were concerned. Instead, it left her with a bit too much time to mix, and stir…and read.

          “What’s that about,” I sniffed, as if masking any tic of regard. Instead, I stared down, sizing up the pot, which suggested she had been cooking for more than two.

          “Sydney thanking us for all the hospitality and travel help,” she read, so at home there at the range, granny glasses perched on the tip of her precious little nose.

          “Really, how come so soon,” I asked flatly, staring down into a pile of my sandalwood colored stationery—heavy with goals sketched broadly and generally defined, light on concrete experience and accomplishments—the makings of a résumé in need of padding.

          “She always surfaces a few weeks before her birthday, just like clockwork,” Moon sniffed. “Listen how she’s writing this on a foggy night alone in her studio. She goes on, then…hmm, this is strange. She asks if Lester’s been in touch…”

          “Well, has he?” At this, I jumped to my feet, restlessly dragging a garbage bag to an outside can, pausing through the kitchen door, status checking my squareback and what little had re-emerged of the driveway. But the snowpack held ground, melting slower than appellate litigation. Slamming the screen and quad-windowed doors after me, I scooted back to the table, towel-snapping her dimpled behind.

          “Um, yes…a short time after you left,” she calmly taste-tested the veggie consommé, folding in more cloves. “Twice, actually, trying to sound interested and friendly-like, complete with holiday cheer.”

          “Oh yeah,” I studied her, from the madras tunic to the coverall jeans. “Interested in what?”

          “Don’t ask me,” she puzzled over this compounding interest. “I just wished him well and told him I had a zillion things to do.”

          “That all?”

          “Of course that’s all, Kenny,” she shot me a glare. “What do you think?”

          “No-thing, not a thing,” I dodged, “except I think it’s about time I heard something from the department…”

          “Tsk, these things take time, you said that yourself…”

          “Hmph, you can bet Paul Verniere’s heard confirmation. Christ, it’s like they’re going to wait-list me, or something.”

          “Um, I believe he has, as a matter of fact,” she stirred in a dash more oregano.

          “How the hell do you know that?!”

          “He told me when he called,” she said, turning burners down. “Like, last week… he just wanted to see how you were holding up.”

          “How I’m holding up?” I probed, folding and stuffing envelopes, proofreading addresses. “What’d you tell him?”

          “That you were on the road, biding your time, what else?” A final taste of the soup, and she was ladling two bowls. “Speaking of which, the restaurant should be back open by tomorrow or so, and I happen to know we’re short a waiter…”

          “Forget it, Moon, not a chance,” I fumed.

          “It’d just be part-time, Kenny,” she served the steaming bowls and croutons, then retreated to the range for some cocoa. “To get us over the hump.”

          “I didn’t put myself through all this to bus tables, okay?”

          “You haven’t totally put yourself through it, at all,” she caught herself, bit her tongue, two mugs of hot chocolate in hands.

          “And what exactly do you mean by that?!”

sr dingbats

          Crap, I fretted, where the hell was that letter from the Sosh department anyway? One way or the other, but it just can’t be the other. Not after all those grueling classes in Ketchum Hall, all the after-hours research in Norlin Library—trudging across the quad for the socio-communications electives, ducking into Packer for a quick salad and Mountain High yogurt.

          Campus images ran across my neo-cortex like a contact sheet of 35mm prints. How I would bike furiously past the Pioneer stoneyard, late for a seminar on nonviolent social movements, hooded poncho flapping in the morning rain. Sunning near Old Main between summer school proseminars on conflict management and collective behavior, studying Social Strat and Stats in the shade of breezy aspen trees.

          C’mon, the evening concerts at Macky Auditorium, noontime swimming and skating with a mountain view at the Rec Center. You’ve gotta see it my way, Dean Cross, gotta make the right call, let me stay. Send me that acceptance later, for chrissake, what’s the goddamn hang up here? I’ve made it this far down the academic career path, but you know I’m nowhere without a Ph.D. Really, dump my sorry ass now, Wallford, and I don’t know what I’ll do…aww, snap to, yo-yo, keep your damn cool…       CU Sociology

          “Meaning nothing, just our team effort,” she backed off, returning to the table with cocoa and marshmallows, her voice betraying untoward disappointment and concern. “It’s only that this school-job transition of yours costs money, you know? And it turns out that trip really hits us hard.”

          “So who’s fault is that, Ms. Traveler’s Aid?” I pounded the table, reaching for the mail once again, ripping anxiously through the envelopes. “Like I said, no waiting tables…”

          “I know, I know,” she sipped some chocolate. “But we’ve got to do something about…”

          “You want money?! Here…” I stood up and threw the government check at her, pushing the others aside, then burning my lips with a taste of some cocoa. “No damn restaurants, I’m telling you. I’ve got a master’s degree now, and too much blessed potential for that.”

          “Potential? Tsk, this is rent money, at best. It’s reality time, Kenny—we’ve got bills,” she replied firmly, slipping the endorsed check into her coverall pocket, well familiar with its amount. “Anyway, if it wasn’t for the Coach Light Inn, I couldn’t have landed your appointment. So to have and to hold, Kenny, to have and to hold…”

          I shuffled over to the rear kitchen window to stem the annoyance, catch my breath, swallow my acidic pride, feeling like a Wild West wrangler and New-Age Boulder mellow man all at once, missing the mark at both ends. Staring out beyond our barnwood shed, I could spot Seamus running about the back yard like a zoo hyena before feeding time. Beyond him, Boulder Creek and the crevices of Four-Mile and Sunshine Canyon Roads cut through a serrated Front Range line stretching well past the valley, bound for Estes Park.

          There was no forgetting long-hair summer treks up to Nederland and Ward, trout fishing outside Fraser over spring break—god, even that bizarro New Years in Wylies’ chateau—or simply ten-speeding around Pearl Street, up and down Broadway. Truth was, everything that happened since the day we first drove down into Boulder Valley couldn’t have gone a whole lot better, been cooler and more beatific—at least until 1978 rolled around and this creeping unease, this hazy squall began setting in.

          “Tell you what,” I exhaled, turning back toward Melissa, holding tight. “Let me just get my resumes out to all these companies and counseling centers, Denver even. I’ll give this interview my best shot…then we’ll talk, okay? Who knows, maybe I’ll even have heard from school by then.”

          “Deal,” Melissa parried, stabbing at her thin vegetable soup with measured relief. “And if all else fails, there’s always Chicago…”

          “Never, don’t press it, Moon—not a goddamn chance in hell of that,” I erupted again, in further chills and sweat, reaching over grab her up and shake her until her clogs flew off—inadvertently grazing her across her forehead, a slight glancing blow, fitfully so. “I mean, don’t even think it. We didn’t come out west to be crawling back east to that…pure suffocation.”

           “Stop it, Kenny! I was joking, just kidding, god,” she cried, stunned but quickly breaking loose to recompose herself, steeling to regain some control over this red-line situation. “But you must admit we’ve scrounged and sacrificed like this long enough.”

          “Naw, it’s just been you, Moon,” I snorted, annoyed that she could even think of some lame retreat to gaudy Chicago, no less alarmed at my visceral, so physical reaction.  This wasn’t me. Where was this coming from?  I stuffed my keys back into my jacket pocket, pricking my finger with the jagged stem where that cheesy little Satalisman used to be. “You’ve done it all.”

          “You should know better…”

           “Aww, c’mon, I didn’t mean that,” I sputtered, muzzy on the back foot. “You’re just missing the bigger picture…”

           “What bigger picture, Kenny? Whose bigger picture, at that?”

Care for more?

Chapter 25. Some reconciliation
and tenderizing help to thaw
foothill drifting, clearing a
fresher path…