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
He and I are both now speeding toward our respective destinations. Levi back to school to finish his education and then bolting ahead with life and the possibility of a future with Miss Rachel, and me to the Glad Tidings Assisted Living Home. We both stand at the edge of something new.
And I sense this: both of us fear our destination. Yet neither of us have the will nor strength to alter our course. We are done in the plains. We are done in the streams. We are done in the mountains. We have only a road left to share. Ahead of us lies blue-black pavement, and with each mile we proceed toward our destinies, the opposite of what should happen in a perfect world is taking place.
We are, I believe, both becoming less certain of this road we are on. Whether it is faith or foolishness that keeps us on our south-southwest course, our backs to the sun, I cannot yet say.
I Pitch a Fit and Hurl My Car Keys into the Sagebrush
We got out of the mountains okay. Didn’t see a bear. Cold, sure, but we had enough to eat and a lake to drink from, if it came to that. Three firefighters on patrol came up and pulled us out, and I was glad to see them, although they obviously thought I was some kind of fool from the city who didn’t have the smarts to get out of the mountains when a storm was blowing my way.
Looking back, I guess they were right. I was distracted, which is an easy thing to be in mountains like those. I didn’t have the sense to book it somewhere safe when the clouds rolled toward us.
A little common sense, Levi, can go a long way.
Okay. Whew. It all becomes just another story. It had been an amazing few days since we left North Dakota. It seemed like that was a month ago, but it was only . . . only . . . I had lost track of time. What day was it? I really didn’t know. Friday, Saturday? Somewhere toward the weekend. Where were we? In Wyoming now. I was pretty sure of that.
Bear down, Levi. Focus. Think it through. Breathe. In and out. Make the funny little triangle, like the way you’re supposed to when your wife is in heavy labor and screaming nasty things at you.
I take inventory.
We survived a tornado. Or an almost tornado.
We fell in love with a desk clerk with madness in her hair. Check that. I fell in love with a woman whose stack of hair would require a building code approval in most counties.
We fell out of love. Check that. I fell out of love with a desk clerk.
We got out of a biker bar alive.
We climbed a mountain. Loyal’s first.
We bought a pile of jerky, chips, and juice.
We talked about love. Twice. We talked about life. We talked about taking pictures of people.
We talked about happiness and success and the meaning of life. Light stuff like that.
We’d put well more than a thousand miles on the red car.
We got stuck.
We got unstuck.
And now there was only one thing left to do. It was as big as the mountains on either side of us as we headed down a long, curly road toward a high-desert valley below. Get Loyal to Utah. Then get myself back into school for my senior year. This whole adventure had come down to just that.
Get to where we each needed to be.
I need to call Aunt Barbara. I do. She says she was worried but kept telling herself we probably were just living large, two guys on the road, making the most of the trip home.
So that’s why she hasn’t bothered calling.
Funny how someone like her could come from the genetic pool of Loyal and Daisy Wing.
I tell her okay, I understand, and now that we’d gone fishing and hiking and we are running out of miles between wherever we were and wherever we needed to get to, we’d probably just kind of head toward Utah, and she’d see her dad in a few days.
She asks me how much I had put on the card. I do some quick mental calculations and say, “About a thousand. Maybe closer to fifteen hundred.”
She laughs. Nervously. She hopes I’ll say, “Just kidding,” but I don’t. In the end, she just says, “Oh. Oh. Oh, okay. Okay. Yes, yes, okay.”
Uncle Loyal and I just drove. We had maps in the glove compartment, but I didn’t bother to look at them anymore. We just drove. We didn’t talk as much as we had before. I just followed the white lines on the blue highways, and if there were a river or a mountain range or a pretty valley or a small town, I pointed the car toward it and we drove that way. We didn’t need any more reason than that to get off the highway, take a back road, and see what everyone else seemed to be missing.
We just drove. We drove straight, we drove curly. We drove that red car into the ground.
We stopped to help people. We stopped
, whenever a car was on the side of the road and people looked at us with hope and sadness and worry. We took off flat tires and put on spares. We walked to a creek with empty juice bottles and came back with cold water and poured it into a radiator. We made a call on a cell phone for a tow truck when we couldn’t fix a bad water pump. We once took a man about my age and his young, pretty, new wife to the next town, where they talked with a mechanic and bartered a way to get their car fixed. I took a twenty-dollar bill out of my wallet and stuck it in his pocket when he wasn’t looking, and he never knew what I had done. Once, Uncle Loyal just stood in front of a car, hood opened, staring at the engine. Then he asked for duct tape, and to my surprise the driver had some in a road emergency kit. Deftly, Uncle Loyal rolled the tape around a leaking hose and told the awed driver and his wife and their three kids to head to the nearest town and get the hose replaced but that the duct tape should hold until then.
We never mentioned our names; we never took any money. We just helped. We were all on this road. On it together, and although no two of us were headed to exactly the same spot, we all were headed home.
All of us.
I realized that sometimes we all break down along the road, and about all we can do is look to those zipping by with a bit of hope, an aching heart, and a prayer on our lips. Stopping and helping always made me feel good, and it distracted me from the ultimate purpose of this whole goofy trip. And the next vehicle to break down might have been ours. Would anyone stop? Would anyone help? Who knows? We
stop, so we did.
So we drove. Aimlessly but with a purpose. I had so much time to think. I felt like a knight on a white horse with nothing more to do than set the world straight. I was on a quest. I felt like Quixote. We drove. We drove. Then we drove some more. That’s all I can really say about those few days, somewhere beyond the middle but not too close to the end.
Somewhere we realized it was Sunday, and we found a little church and stopped in, just in time for sacrament meeting. Uncle Loyal found a tie for me in his suitcase, and I scrounged up the closest thing I had to a dress shirt, put on the only long pants I had packed for what was to have been a two-day trip, tops, and we slipped into the back of the small chapel and then cut out of there almost as soon as the amen was said. And then we drove some more.
We drove through Yellowstone, I remember that. Uncle Loyal mentioned that he’d never been there, so I tuned in long enough to follow the signs through Cooke City, past the tall, silent mountains. Then we headed north again, clear back into Montana. We drove through a nice canyon with a beautiful little stream and ended up in a pretty town that was surrounded by mountains.
I got back on the freeway again, and we drove through the old mining town of Butte, and then I saw a sign on a highway that said “Idaho,” and followed it to the south, then doubled back, then turned south again. We stayed at more shoddy motels, ate at little restaurants and cafés, and occasionally I parked somewhere on the side of the road, usually by a stream or in view of a mountain range, and we just stared and talked a little. I could feel things changing. I could feel myself changing. This road trip was doing something to me, and I wondered what and tried not to be scared, and hoped that it would all come down to something I could figure out and live with, something that was true for me.
I thought of Rachel. I thought of my parents. Something was here, large and real, but I didn’t quite know what it was. I knew I was supposed to be learning something, that this trip was more than a coincidence, but the thoughts and the words and the feelings had not come all together for me. I knew I was close but not close enough. I knew I had to drive until it made sense and I understood what I was supposed to learn from this trip.
So we drove some more
We did this for two, three, maybe four days. It was all a blur.
And with each passing mile, something weighed on me.
I could no longer ignore it. It was clear. It was as unmistakable as the big gray mountains shimmering to my right and to my left as we drove through yet another high-plains valley.
I didn’t want to take Uncle Loyal to Utah.
I didn’t want to see him pigeonholed in the Glad Tidings Assisted Living Home.
I didn’t like the idea of him playing shuffleboard with old men who couldn’t remember his name and maybe not even their own. I didn’t want him to be sitting in the lounge, waiting for Mia Maid classes to come and sing to him. I didn’t want him to eat institutional food and use a walker to get around. I didn’t want him to be goaded into bingo games by an activity director or lined up outside the building waiting for a bus to take him and the other residents shopping. I didn’t even want him to be called a resident. I didn’t want him to wake up at night and feel the awful pangs of being away from his brown house in North Dakota, away from his neighbors and the people who had depended on him for all of his adult life. I didn’t want him to be so far from Glenn’s grave. I didn’t want him slumped in his chair, his mind turning to oatmeal as a television set flickered images and the laugh track on the program cackled. I didn’t want any of that for him. He’d cared for people all his life, and now, when he needed it most, no one was caring for him.
And yet, here I was, delivering him to this fate. A pawn. I felt that I was a small cog in a very large machine, and even if, with all my will, I tried to throw a wrench into it, the gears would keep grinding and maybe chew up the wrench and me in the process. I felt helpless. I wanted to shout that something didn’t feel right, but I didn’t have the courage, and I wondered what others would think.
Did anyone understand? Couldn’t someone help?
I’m broken down on the road. Please?
I was begging for something, and I couldn’t quite figure out what. Why was no one stopping to help? I was on the side of the road, my engine all but shut down, waiting in vain for someone to stop.
Didn’t Uncle Loyal and I stop for everyone?
I felt awful about it. I felt as though my hands were dirty. I wanted to drive into Utah, stop someplace that was really busy, point to Uncle Loyal, and shout, “This is Loyal! He is a man of the plains! He knows more than just about anyone I’ve ever met! He is wise beyond your understanding! You will not put him in a box and let him waste away! He has too much to give!
He is a human being!
Of course, if I did that, I would be the one who was institutionalized.
And who was I really shouting at anyway?
No one, that’s who. And maybe everyone.
What to do? What to do?
Drive. That was the only answer I could come up with. Just drive, fill up the car with gas, and drive some more. And hope that some answer would come of all this, an answer as big and unmistakable as the thunderstorm that trapped us in the mountains or caught us on the plains.
So I drove. The more I drove, the less we spoke. Uncle Loyal could tell that I wasn’t myself, that I was feeling heavy and troubled. And I am sure that he knew the cause of my misery. More than once, he leaned my way and simply said, “It will be okay, Levi. It will work out,” and then he’d pat me on the knee.
I couldn’t drive around forever, conveniently ignoring the circumstances. In the deeper part of my consciousness, I knew I
to get back to school,
to graduate, and I
to see Rachel and find out what was in store for us. If I could only find a way to blend what I
to do with what I wanted for Uncle Loyal, then maybe I wouldn’t have felt as though this predicament and my role in it weren’t slowly strangling me.
I found myself driving through a long valley in southern Idaho. At its pointy end, the mountains loomed, and I could see the road climbing up into them. The signs started to include the mileage to Tremonton, Ogden, and Salt Lake City. It was as if a kind of unrelenting gravitational pull was tugging us toward home.
We pass a small reservoir on our left, then a small town on our right. Outside, high, gray clouds obscure the sun. The wind is blowing hard; I can see trees tilting and feel the occasional jolt when a strong gust slammed into our car. Uncle Loyal stares out the window and says little.
I see the sign ahead that welcomes us to Utah. I slow the car and drift toward the side of the road until we gradually come to a stop. I turn off the ignition and keep my eyes straight ahead.
Uncle Loyal looks at me and says pleasantly, “Levi, shall I plan to walk the rest of the way to Bountiful?”
“I’m not going to do it.”
“Do what, Levi?”
“I’m not going to be the one who drives you to the Glad Tidings or Good Tidings or Bad Tidings or whatever it is. I’m not going to be the one who puts you in a box with three squares a day and watches as you rot. I’m not going to. I can’t. No one can make me.
“Well,” Uncle Loyal says, and from the corner of my eye I can see he is nodding. “Well. It appears we have a problem or two to work out. Levi, we have issues.”
I have to smile at that. “Yeah. We have issues.”
“So what shall we do? It seems that we have few options.”
“This is what we do.”
I open the door and walk around to the front of the car. A big semitruck blows by, and little pieces of gravel spray over me, stinging my face and my right arm. I take the keys to the car and face the open country, and I fling them high and far out into the sagebrush. I hear them tinkle and see them bounce as they hit the ground. I glare out into the sage. It felt good. Pointless, I know. Too much drama, yeah. But it made me feel better. I had taken a stand. I couldn’t quite say what I had taken a stand against, but I had.