[Dear Blog Followers: As I get closer to sending this project off to an agent for possible publication, I have changed my wife’s name to “C.” and my grandson’s name to “Derek.” Thanks for reading…]
On to Wyoming. In truth this is not the first time C. and I have driven this stretch. It’s not even the first cross-country trip we’ve taken together. In November 1991, after six months of dating, we decided to relocate her to the City of Saints next to the Great Salt Lake where I was based with the airline. I had made numerous trips to Satellite Beach, Florida where she had been forcibly relocated from Maine—and separated from her pre-Derek daughter. First in April when, this being the second and final separation from my wife, she took me under her wing. Three days later, my petulance even starting to wear on myself, I returned to Salt Lake. But the visits continued. I would fly in for a layover to Orlando or Melbourne and she would drive in for visits, and I would whisk away on a Boeing 757 or the MD88 (“Mad Dog”) back to my other life. In June she came out to Utah for my birthday, where the bombshell of our conjugal visits was dropped with my at first disbelieving (very religious) parents. And…the rest is cross-country history. In November I found myself driving a truck half the size of our first New York apartment and towing a little Toyota she called “Chuck.”
All of this to say that this is our second time traversing Wyoming in the winter.
Skirting the corner of Colorado, I-80 takes us through Chappell then Sidney, and we cross the state line at Pine Bluffs at 2 pm, several miles south of where the Mormon Trail still follows the North Platte. There are no pines in sight in Pine Bluffs where, again, I-80 and its predecessor, the Lincoln Highway, converge, running parallel all the way to the state capitol and onto Laramie where the Lincoln heads due north. Cheyenne is of course named after the Native American nation, but as with most big western cities there is little evidence of Indians there except as a memorial. We head down into the historic district, across the tracks, crunching over snow pack and to the Capitol Building, cast in a strange bluing light here in the mid-afternoon. At 6,000 feet elevation this is one of the windiest cities in the country with the Chinook driving down from the Eastern flank of the Rockies. And today, New Year’s Day, the place is positively dead. It has been said that the most enduring relics of those who have gone before will be found in names. It is thus in Cheyenne. In the streets of the downtown area are found the names of the early engineers and officials the Union Pacific railroad: Evans Ave. (James A. Evans, Division Engineer), Seymour Ave. (Silas Seymour, Consulting Engineer), Maxwell Ave. (James Riddle Maxwell, civil engineer). Despite the names, and the memory of the natives who existed long before the trappers, pioneers or the railroad, Cheyenne is an empty city today, unbearably lonely. On airline layovers in Milan or Paris, the streets in August were similarly bereft of denizens, much as they are in American cities on a holiday like Christmas and New Year’s. Here, I suppose we’re all holed up with family watching television and picking over the carcass of a turkey which, I might add, can be an equally distressing scenario. The close-knit blood lines of Western Families ala The Ponderosa outside TV’s Virginia City are as big a myth as what we’ve come to believe of the Cowboy. In fact, in 1982, Cheyenne was the site of a notorious dysfunctional family that ended in patricide, a prequel to the much more notorious Menendez Brothers’ murders in 1989 and the trials that followed.
The Cheyenne incident happened right after I returned from my Mormon mission to New England and involved a 16-year old boy shooting his father with a shotgun while his sister sat in the living room with a rifle in case he missed. An IRS agent, Richard Janke was, by all reports, a monster, abusing his two children and wife Maria while isolating them from any neighbors near their house on Cowpoke Road and, with his first love—guns—praying for a prowler to enter his house so that he could “blow his brains out.” Cheyenne seemed like a distant world to me in 1982, and yet it was just up the interstate—a straight shot—from where I lived in Utah.
Even before the trial of her boy Richie, convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison, Maria had found a new life. In an article she talked to a reporter of the kindness of her neighbors. “I remember leaning down over his body when suddenly I felt a hand touch mine,” Maria reported to People Magazine from her home. “I looked up and saw George Hain, who lives across the street and came running over. He said, ‘I’m here if you need me.’ My whole life I was so isolated; I knew nobody. George called the police station and when they were finished questioning me, the police said, ‘Your neighbors, the Hains, want you to spend the night with them.’ I couldn’t believe it. …Oh, I’m going to live. I’m going to live to the hilt. My son has freed me. He has freed all of us.” (People, March 7, 1983, Vol.19, No. 9)
This is what I think of as we head back out to I-80, the plasma that forms under virtually any human circumstance. How this stream of motorized cells, of semis and sedans, SUVs and little rental Toyotas with New York plates like ours have become a longitudinal site of belonging– by necessity and by proximity, by one’s mere direction, the vector West. That we would watch one another’s backs out here—and not just one another’s back fenders. That we would leap out of our vehicle on a frozen Iowa stretch to see if there was anyone in the overturned car, encrusted in ice. That we would greet one another with good will, even share our stories in the truck shops next to the coffee bar, with the cash registrar—our surrogate mum. And that that she would give us a little something, a nod, a sort of blessing with the bump back of the cash drawer sounding as we gather our wares and turn back to the road, a critical American artery that carries a current of our lifeblood, our history and our future.
The 16-year old Richie may have saved his mom and his sister, but he couldn’t save himself, sentenced for a prison term of five-to-fifteen years. The Governor eventually commuted the sentence and the boy spent his remaining months as a minor in a reform school.
The radio plays Led Zeppelin, and Derek talks about Jimmy Page, the great guitarist who still can jam with the best of them.
“Is he the greatest guitarist?” I ask, the high plain moving toward the mountain pass that will drive us up, up and then down, down into another windswept Wyoming city, the second largest. “We’ve already talked about that,” he says annoyed. He reaches through the two of us up front, a long arm with the hair and musculature that seems teeming with life, and turns up the volume.”
Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.
Okay, so this is where he is. I can hardly blame him. He’s been stuck in the back of the car going on five days. It could be worse. He could be so sullen that he doesn’t even acknowledge us.
Oh, oh, child, way you shake that thing, gonna make you burn, gonna make you sting.
Hey, hey baby, when you walk that way, watch your honey drip, can’t keep away.
At least this group, at least in the relatively early album that included “Stairway to Heaven” wasn’t trying to reinvent popular music through a disco beat. No. It’s more of what we’ve all known and loved: barely legal lyrics smothered in a penetrating beat and waling guitars. Honey drip?
Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah. Ah yeah, ah yeah, ah, ah, ah.
When the song ends, I turn down the volume.
“I remember when my sister brought that album home in the 70s.” I’ve said the right word: Seventies. Derek’s obsession with The Simpsons led us, for a time, to buy him his trove of 70s-style junk—not just the turntables which are making a comeback, but a portable 8-track player and even mounted phones with rotary dials in powder blue and bright red. Fully operational and hanging on the walls of our little Salt Lake cottage even as we streak home.
“Really?” he says with renewed interest. “Wasn’t that scandalous?” He’s mocking me now. But playfully. I use the term “scandalous” all the time, mostly because we seem to be living in an age where nothing’s not been tried, printed or broadcasted or internet-ized, from porn to politics. Truth is, nothing’s a scandal anymore, not Super Pacs, not a pre-emptive war in Iraq, not students at East High School in Salt Lake City who live in cars.
“My parents didn’t know what was in those lyrics. The beat drove them away before they could comprehend it. Hell, we didn’t even know was in those lyrics. Still don’t.
And as we wind on down the road
Our shadows taller than our soul.
There walks a lady we all know
Who shines white light and wants to show
How everything still turns to gold.
And if you listen very hard
The tune will come to you at last.
When all are one and one is all
Huh? But a song like “Stairway,” a group like Led Zeppelin, a guitarist like Jimmy Page, it all served to delineate us from the generations before us. That and the album art which my sister Karolla—my grandmother’s name, not the name of the Toyota we are driving– prominently displayed whenever the album was on the family console stereo upstairs while she did her Saturday chores. It was a stairway to somewhere, and we were on it.
Not sure if Derek is on that stairway too. But then…I wouldn’t know, right? I’m on my parents’—my grandparents’ even—he’s the one “buying the Stairway to Heaven.”
Derek looks thoughtful in the back seat, thinking, perhaps about all of this as I am. Or just bored out of his gourd, lost in Derekland which can terrify me and C. as much as it disables him. There is a territory Derek’s generation regularly goes to—it’s more than a kind of built-in cyber space; it’s too much talk of end times, a stark hopelessness that the older generations have fallen to in this so-called Great Recession. It’s a landscape that Derek and his age group travel to, sometimes live for a terrifying amount of their day. And it’s a place that can’t be gotten to. So as parents, we just have to wait. Wait out not the storm but the lull and absence of our children who seem to have accepted that this time around America isn’t going to be found in forging ahead. The actionable deliverables of your historical frontiersman, Students for a Democratic Society. Unions. A conjoined cowboy president like Bush/Cheney. “How fragile we are,” to quote Sting, the one rock star that seems to have at least tried to grow up, move on. So fragile that all that had to happen to tip us over as a people was not being able to buy at Walmart anymore all the collective shit we demand.