Authors: Donald S. Smurthwaite
Tags: #ride, #retirement home, #cross country, #North Dakota, #family, #car, #road trip, #bountiful, #Utah, #assisted living, #graduate, #Coming of age, #heritage, #loyal, #retirement, #uncle, #adventure, #money, #nephew, #trip, #kinship
“Yep. I see. Quite the pair. She lit you up. Like Evelyn lit up my life.”
“But only because of her hair. That doesn’t count. You must push your horizons further, Levi. You cannot fall in love based on the considerable size of a woman’s hair, splendid though it may be.”
“Are you saying it’s not going to work out with Evelyn?”
“I confess to having some doubts about your future with the lovely Evelyn. Grave doubts, to be completely truthful.”
“I suppose not. I hope she doesn’t take our breakup too hard. I’ll have to leave her a note. ‘Evelyn, this is Levi, and despite the
our names share, and despite everything that we have between us, and all that we felt about each other, I need to move along in life and drive my Uncle Loyal to see his buddy Glenn today. I’ll remember you always, and especially I’ll remember your hair always, and if you ever decide to rent a room in it, let me know. Do you have air conditioning up there?’ Then I’d sign it, ‘Everlastingly yours, Levi, the guy who checked in at midnight with the old fellow.’ No offense, Uncle Loyal.”
“None taken. I
an old fellow. It is fine to call a thing what that thing is.”
“What could have been. It was a beautiful experience. In time, she’ll get over me and move on with her life. But it won’t be easy for either of us.”
“Nor would I expect it to be.”
“So we’d better get rolling. We’ve got almost three hundred miles to Glenn’s.”
“Yes. A good day of driving and visiting ahead of us. But one thing, if I might ask. Your friend Rachel.”
Levi swings his feet over the sleeper bed and they thud on the floor.
“Rachel. It’s like this, I need to find out. I’m unsure. I don’t know,” he said.
“If you need to ask, then you understand what the answer probably is.”
“I don’t know her well enough.”
“You’ll know when you know.”
“Does the room light up?”
“I think so. I’m not sure, though.”
“Is there a sweetness to life when you are around her?”
“Same deal. Not sure. Maybe. Possibly. Could be.”
“Then you need to find out. You need to see her in all four seasons.”
“Okay, okay. I need to find out. I made her a promise when I left for home.”
“I don’t need to know the promise. But I hope you are sincere about it.”
Levi looks me square in the face. I may have offended him by my choice of words. I certainly didn’t mean to. But I saw another side of him. A good side. One not so flippant, not so casual, one that was more mature.
“I don’t make promises lightly,” he says. “I mean what I say.”
Our time for talk is over. We had covered much ground. From Evelyn to Daisy to Rachel, from one corner of love to another. But it’s clear he wants this particular topic to be brought to a conclusion. I oblige him. He has enough to think about now.
“I suppose we can get some good greasy food in the restaurant next door. Are you up for a quart of grease and your monthly supply of fat and cholesterol?”
“Let’s go. I am starving.”
Levi flops onto his knees and says his prayers.
I follow his example.
Then we get cleaned up and eat at the truck stop café, where the food was indeed heavy, filling, and tasty. My sandwich from the night before had long ago worn off.
By eight in the morning, with the sun a dazzling yellow-white and the promise of what might be ahead of us, we are packing the fast red car.
A cheerful, middle-aged man wearing a ball cap that advertised a crop pesticide checks us out of the motel.
“You boys have a good drive today, and come back, see us, next time you’re in these parts,” he says encouragingly.
Levi lets out a long, exaggerated sigh as we turn back onto the state highway. Two blue lanes and yellow broken stripes ahead of us point toward the Montana line.
Evelyn, I imagine, is asleep somewhere, locked far away in her dreams, her hair long and limp and lying spread upon her pillow, blissfully unaware that Levi and I are leaving her life.
Now I Know Why Glenn Leuthold Will Be at Home
We got off a little before nine. The sun felt hot, even in the early morning. The two lanes of blacktop were oily and shimmery in the distance. We pass by little lakes, really nothing more than ponds, with incredible amounts of wild birds. Uncle Loyal calls the tiny lakes “potholes,” and they pockmark the prairie every few hundred yards. We rumble through the tiny North Dakota towns—Starkweather, Cando, Maza, and more—before turning west on Highway 2 and blasting toward Minot. The red car zips along the road. Uncle Loyal rolls down his window, and it is fun to see, from the corner of my eye, what was left of his wispy hair whipping around in the wind. We see sad little homes and boarded-up businesses in almost every town we pass through. It makes me feel empty and aching inside to know that people with dreams once lived and worked in them, and now the dreams were gone and maybe the people too.
Uncle Loyal, though, seems happier than the day before. I get the feeling he was down on the first part of our drive, and I can’t blame him, leaving his home, his town, his friends, and heading off to Utah. I have to admit, I wonder how he will do in Utah, how he’ll fit in. There must be a hundred thousand old guys just like him. Nothing special, most people would think of him. But I know better. I know he is special. Maybe they
I wonder, too, if Aunt Barbara was moving him to Utah for his benefit or to somehow feel more at ease with her own self. You think of people and why they do the things they do. Sometimes you like the answer, and sometimes you don’t.
I’m beginning to sound like Uncle Loyal.
Darn. I’m starting to understand this problem I have.
I didn’t want to care for him. I didn’t want to get involved.
You know my theme: The Easiest Six Hundred Dollars Ever. And now I’m worried about him, hoping that Utah will work for him, that he’ll have some friends to hang out with, stuff to do. I understood how much I was trying to fool myself, how much I didn’t want to connect with him, but I
the old fellow. I’m not sure I like what I see ahead for him.
This will not be an easy six hundred dollars.
Scratch my original theme and start over.
We had a good talk that morning. He told me a lot about life. He told me, in so many words, what I needed to see in Rachel, and she in me, if things were to work out for us.
What did he say?
The room would light up for me whenever she walked in.
That I would know I knew.
That if I had to ask, something wasn’t right.
Something about sweetness, sweetness in life, seeing her in four seasons, and making our decision right.
I imagine Rachel, and if she would prefer the man who picked up Loyal and wanted to drive straight through to Utah and cash in or the man who is driving about two hundred miles out of his way so Loyal can see his old pal Glenn. And it tells me something about me, as well. I wanted her to prefer the guy who could deliver Loyal to Glenn.
Uncle Loyal said something that got to me. Something about taking promises lightly. I must have shown I didn’t care for what he said because I saw his hand roll into a fist and his jaw tighten slightly. I also knew he felt bad because he quickly changed the topic of our conversation.
I may be a flake at times, but I remember telling him that I don’t make light promises. I think he believed me. My word is good, I think, and I hope.
We cruise down the state highway. Uncle Loyal pulls a map out of his deep, baggy pocket and waves it in the air. “Voila!” he says. “A map of the Big Sky country. Seek, and ye shall find.”
“Where did you get it? Awesome.”
“In a rack as we checked out. When you were paying the bill, I spied it in the corner. It was free. We now know where we’re going. To Glenn’s.”
“To Glenn’s!” I shout over the sound of wind whooshing through the open window, and I raise my hand in the air and he smacks it in a perfect high five. “Pedal to the metal, we’ll be in Minot for lunch, easy. Then we’ll zip right into Montana on Highway 2, and we’ll have you at Glenn’s in time for a walk around the block, the exchange of grandbaby photos, a tall, cool lemonade, and out for supper,” I cheerfully call to Uncle Loyal above the whipped-wind frenzy. “And I’ll buy,” I add, smug in the knowledge of the yellow credit card in my pocket.
“Very generous of you, Levi. My thanks,” Uncle Loyal said. “Glenn doesn’t have much of an appetite these days. I doubt he’ll be hungry. I really should tell you something more of him. The truth of the matter is that Glenn is . . .”
Forget about it!
I told you I’d get you there. I keep my promises, remember? Now just where is it that Glenn lives?”
“A little beyond the town of Glasgow. Maybe a hundred miles past the Montana border. A little wide spot in the road. That’s where we’ll find him.”
My mood and feelings soar. I want to meet Glenn, listen to him talk with Uncle Loyal, swap stories, tell each other how great they looked, recount their war stories and their double dates with the amazing Hecht sisters. For the briefest of moments, I wonder about Glenn, what he will be like. Probably a lot like Loyal. And that was good.
The sun rises higher in the August sky. First it was warm outside; then it turned hot. I switch on the air conditioning. Uncle Loyal looks content as we zoom down the North Dakota blacktop, moving ever closer to Montana. I dream of what Montana must look like—mountains, of course, snow still at the tops of their peaks that were shaking and dancing in the heat against the bright blue sky. Lakes and rivers filled with fish, steep roads that crawled up the sides of black jagged mountains. Cool air, fresh with pine. It is too good a vision to keep to myself.
“Have you ever spent much time in Montana?”
Uncle Loyal looks over at me. “Very little. Mostly I’ve passed through. I never really stopped to see the sights.”
“We’ve got the time. We should take a look around the place. We’re in no hurry, remember? All the time in the world.”
“Yes. All the time in the world.”
“Big mountains, big fish. Have you ever been fishing, Uncle Loyal?”
“Some. Not much, Levi. A little fishing for bass and sunfish in ponds. Nothing more than that.”
“Whoa! Are you kidding me? You’ve never been creek fishing? Never snagged a rainbow trout? Never stood in water that reaches up to your hips, knocks you off balance, and jerked in a fat fish? Never?”
“Then it’s time you did. You have missed one of life’s biggies.”
I could hardly believe what I was thinking, and before I knew it, the words came tumbling out of my mouth.
“Well, we’re headed to Montana, and there is no way you and I are going to leave that state without standing in a cold stream catching some fish. Trout fish. No mamby-pamby sunfish from a Dakota pond.”
“We have no gear, Levi. And I know you are in a hurry to get home.”
“Gear, schmear, who cares. We’ll buy some. Utah has fish too. We’ll get you to Utah and head up Provo Canyon or hike in the High Uintas. It’s time you learned how to fish, Loyal Wing. An important part of your education is lacking. You are among the unwashed, the uncouth, the uncultured. You are a Luddite, a Hittite, a babe not-in-the-woods. Remember, feed a man a fish, and he has eaten a fish. Teach a man how to fish and he can eat more fish, right up to when he limits out. You need to learn how to fish.”
“Perhaps so. I’ve often thought that fly fishing would be enjoyable. It seems peaceful and amiable, other than it might not be such a pleasant experience for the fish. Eh?”
“There’s nothing like it.”
“I look forward to it. If you think we can fit it in.”
“We can. We will. What else do you want to do? Levi and Loyal, the road warriors, turned fearless fisherman, in charge of our own destinies, all the time we need to do whatever we want.”
His eyes roll upward, and I see the slightest of grins cross his features. I’d never quite believed that eyes could really twinkle. And then I saw Loyal’s eyes do just that. Twinkle, sparkle, set off a little fire. He is thinking of something else.
“Tell me, Uncle Loyal. You can’t hide it. I can tell by looking at you that you’re thinking of something.”
“Well, in North Dakota, we don’t have many mountains.”
“If you’re a purist, I suppose you’re correct. Like none.”
“And so? Eh?” Good grief. I was developing a Dakota twang.
“I’ve always . . .” And here he stops, and he seems to be selecting his words carefully. “I’ve always wanted to do this. This one thing. Since I was a lad.”
“And the one thing is?”
“Climb a mountain. A real mountain. Not just a hill, but a real mountain, something with snow on the top. A place where I could look down and see snow on my shoes. It would be most satisfying.”
“You’ve never climbed a mountain? Uncle Loyal, we need to get you out more often!”
“Age doesn’t count. No worries. We’ll find just the right mountain. Not too steep, but a real mountain. We’ll take pictures of you on top of it. We’ll find a flag, and you can pop it in and pose. We’ll put you on YouTube. We’ll get you your own Facebook page. Loyal Wing. Mountaineer. You’ll be like Sir Edmund Hilltop or whatever that guy’s name is, and I’ll be like your faithful Sherpa guide. We will conquer that mountain.”
“Do you think we can?”
“Just the right kind of mountain.”
“It sounds intriguing.”
“When we get deeper into Montana, where there are more mountains. Catch some fish, hike a mountain. I will open new horizons to you. You’ve really led a sheltered life, Uncle Loyal. You’ve missed a few things by living on the flatlands.”
“I would not disagree. Other than the war. Nothing too sheltered about that.”
He pushes his feet forward and lets his back relax. His head tilts back on the car seat. He looks happy and pleased with himself and a little excited. This is going to be an amazing trip. The car lurches ahead, the air conditioning blowing on our faces. It is crazy and wonderful and exhilarating and fun all at once. Me, a twenty-four-year-old guy without hardly a lick of experience, and I am going to show Loyal something new in life. He’d given me a few things on this trip; now it was my turn to give something back.