We are on the way to Laramie, and C. wants to stop for the night, even though it’s not even the dinner hour. There is something about driving through Sherman, the highest point on I-80 at 8,262 feet above sea level that has triggered her anxiety. Maybe it is Evan’s Pass, named for the same Union Pacific surveyor who has a Cheyenne street named after him and who was killed by Indians. It doesn’t look like a pass, a canyon or a gorge—that will come later as we descend. Instead this backbone of the Laramie Mountains looks like more prairie, but starker, more arid, reached by an ascent that is hardly noticeable. The Continental Divide is still 200 miles to the west, but this summit marks the apex, literally, of the Union Pacific effort to link the country by rail. Nearby the sixty-foot Ames Monument, a stone pyramid celebrating two railroad-industry brothers that carried the name, sits dolefully, quasi-vandalized, a reminder, along with a lone cemetery, of the town’s death knell in 1918 when the railroad made the decision to relocate its tracks further south. C. wants out while I was thinking we might make it as far as Rock Springs tonight. The descent into Laramie through walls of crumbling rock and the wending of the freeway so that C. alternately grips the dashboard and the bottom of her seat, marks the way we often make decisions, she and I.
“We’ve only gone 350 miles,” I say. “Laramie to Salt Lake is a long ways to go in one day. It’s almost 400 miles, and we have to drop the car off by noon.”
“We’ll just pay for an extra day,” she says, not budging. “I need to get off the road. I need to sit in a hot tub.” What is it about hot tubs? I push her on this, aware that Derek is listening to his grandfather, a man who must appear perpetually swayed by the woman to his right. A man without balls?
I offer silence as we shoot down the canyon. My conversational weapon of choice more often that not, these days. Fact is Wyoming reminds C. of when she had cashed in all of her savings and made the decision to move out west. It was along I-80 twenty years ago that it hit her that she had made a decision that she could not reverse. She had left the East and her daughter and the family of her birth to move in with a fucked-up divorcee eleven years her junior.
“Besides,” continues C., “what’s the point in getting home early if it rattles us to death?” I wish she wouldn’t talk about herself in the plural like this. I’m going to cave to her. I can feel it. Maybe it’s her turn to malfunction. I had my meltdown last night—the storm she says she can feel moving in, brewing for miles, or hours up through the earth and into the soles of my feet, rising to my solar plexus, to me head—a storm that all she can do is wait out. Now it’s her turn to have a temper tantrum. Who will strong arm the other through attrition, grind down the other as the wind and rain continue to grind down this canyon from Cheyenne to Laramie? Or who will employ revenge—violent, sudden but hidden until the devastation can be made, well, most devastating? I am winning this one through my signature Dave Silence even while she points at the sign for the first exit at our last overnight stop on I-80 before our arrival home.
When traveling West on Interstate 80, Wyoming can seem the most dispensable of states. Something about the rock and the worn down hills pummeled non-stop by wind. The barbed wire fences. The sky that looks perpetually unkempt. The oil drills dip-dipping like crazed wood peckers. In the patchwork that is the Mountain West, Wyoming—“Forever West” as its state tagline goes–is forever vast and thus forever unarticulated. Yes, there’s Yellowstone. And the picturesque town of Jackson at the feet of the mighty Tetons. Like Colorado this state appears like the perfect square, but it’s a square that doesn’t know it’s a square. It’s never embraced it—doesn’t have a secured marketing plan. It’s the sort of place where Neil Diamond can be born, but doesn’t seem to have become an identifying mark on him. While Idaho gave us Frank Church, Wyoming gave us Dick Cheney.
Wyoming is also the place where young men can get the best education in auto mechanics, and when C. and I sit our tired bones into the hot tub that night, we get talking with a young man, fresh in from neighboring Colorado, and headed to school. What started out as an expression of interest in cars on Derek’s part, led his over-active grandparents to set him on a track: auto mechanic, the perfect relatively high-paying job for a boy who never cottoned to academics. He would go to a school like WyoTech here in Laramie—preferably for motorcycles which can pay easily an $80,000 annum. The man-boy would train for that and have a life, a good life. Right?
In the hot-tub the future WyoTech student, wiry, tattoo-ed, is only two years Derek’s senior, but he already has a girlfriend who is pregnant. Her parents have driven the two of them up from Grand Junction and will leave him here for his first term. He’s pumped about the whole thing—the narrative of his exciting, terrifying life with a kid on the way falling trippingly off his tongue. “One of the best auto tech places in world!” “Always liked engines, and cars.” “This will provide for me and my family!” He says this last part while looking at his girlfriend, lowering herself and her belly into the hot tub, her ill-fitting, faded bikini from her high school days not exactly fitting, if there is such a thing as a swimming suit that fits the pregnant. But more than looking at her when he says this, he is looking at her parents, in particular her father—a man younger than I am, but still thick with middle age—already planted in the tub next to me, his toes periodically peeking out of the surface foam. He hasn’t said a word to me. Only listened to the story that is being told. The story in which he has so much at stake. He abruptly stands to help his daughter into the suds two beats before it occurs to his future son-in-law that he should be more husbandly. Mid-sentence about the first term diesel track and the boy is leaping to his feet, but there’s really not much for him to do. Dad’s already got the girl’s arm and the boy can only stand there, his arms out like he’s spotting her, moving to her right to make sure she doesn’t fall against the side. A dragon shimmers up his left shoulder blade, mouth agape, breathing red below his neck, the skin smooth, aglow in this dim light and the acrid fumes of chlorine.
I am hoping Derek will join us here in the hot tub. I want him to witness how nesting occurs, and what his role is in all of it: education or training, work, provision for the mate that fate will choose for him… how to tell the story to keep the father-in-law at bay. But my boy is not coming over. He’s standing chest-high in the much cooler pool, hat-less finally, the fine, thick, twisted hair of his head falling forward over half of his face. Compared to the volcanic whirlpool of the tub, where he stands is like glass. And he is looking at himself in it, his head cocked down, the fair flesh of his upper arms and back exposed like marble. Having to report later to him what I heard about this “Great opportunity at WyoTech. Remember when we were talking about that? This guy seemed so excited…” will not be the same as if he were here, with me, listening and watching. Instead, he is listening and watching somewhere else, alone. And when he emerges, all the shining, troubled length of him, his hair will still be dry.
He is pining for his parents or, more likely, the concept of parents. To Derek, C. and I are only replacements for them. We are willing and ready for this. Have been now for years, despite our failing him at times. WyoTech is the answer, just like his moving in with us four years ago was the answer then. Like everything we’ve managed to throw his way—taking him on vacations, giving him kick-boxing lessons, wrangling LPs, watching Johnny Depp’s Jack Savage wobble through Pirates of the Caribbean for the 15th time; talking long and late into the night about why he sleeps with a baseball bat, and why in the middle of class he erases himself and returns only at the sound of the snapping pencil in his hands under his desk.
Next morning the light has moved in toto to the sky and it is windy. Everything earthbound feels small, unlike when we arrived last night and Laramie was a pool of light, the interstate shooting out of the canyon and sweeping around this university town in a giant parabolic arc. At the last exit before we head toward over Elk Mountain to Rock Springs, the truck stop envelopes us. I gas up the Toyota while Derek and C. head for the store for provisions. Not that we really need much, if anything. But the Pilot Plaza is one of many truck stops along the way, important touchstones, dots we are connecting as we inch our way back home. Inside, everyone’s a-buzz but in that reserved way strangers are as they edge toward each other through their tasks—some critical, others more for comfort–and the inchoate need that none of us can quite admit to or even determine. This is as good as community will get today for us—ad hoc, searching and mostly filled with a good will. A microcosm not of America but, again, of the world of how humans relate, fill the void temporarily then move on. And I am grateful for it.
Those traveling east explain the warp and woof of the way over Elk Mountain to those of us headed west. This ostensibly to the cashier but really to all in line waiting to buy their coffee and their bag of Cheetos, their latest CD of Country Western, a pack of cigarettes. At the sugar station where coffee is being mixed, someone discloses trouble at the exit near Wagonhound Road where a trailer was blown off the road last night. The Wyoming wind is out and, even though the sky is clear, drifts across Interstate 80 are making visibility virtually zero. C. listens carefully to a trucker young enough to be her son and whose flannel shirt with corduroy cuffs and collar are scuffed with grease. We’ve already headed out of town once this morning before realizing that we had forgotten to fill the tank and that one hundred miles lie between Laramie and the next sizeable settlement of Rawlins. But even in that brief interlude on the road we realize what we’re up against.
C., approachable and solicitous at the same time, is listening intently. We’ve already had the shit scared out of us as we realized that the asphalt is nothing more than a shifting dream of drifting snow. Not only is there no way to see the road but what covers it is in constant motion. We are accustomed after exactly 1,769 miles to register the road in front of us as if it were a rope we are pulling ourselves along, the rope whose constitution and even direction we would never dream of questioning. The road that will take us home. Just follow it. That is our task. But at times now we aren’t even sure that it’s even there, that we’re not driving off into the high prairie grass and the rock. And who’s to say that the truck or car ahead of us isn’t itself veering off? You can’t even follow the tail lights ahead, not if you want to be sure you’re on the yellow brick road.
The guy in flannel and the baseball cap is the size of a wall. He’s been talking about all the chains that loop underneath these rigs like clanging genitalia and how he lent half of them out, used the other half on his own eighteen wheels but is now needing more. “Two of ‘em broke and I had to pull ‘em off the wheel. Fishtailed all the way down the damn mountain. Scared the bejesus out of me. Still don’t know where some of them chains went. Sitting in the snow somewhere on the summit, I guess.”
“How do you stay on track?” asks C.. I move in so I can hear better. So do three other guys, one with an expensive hair cut and in a Gore-Tex jacket and leather gloves. “You can’t see the road. It moves,” she says with a nervous chuckle, her smile perpetually warm.
“Ma’am, you don’t look at the road. For all intents and purposes, it ain’t there. You gotta look at the road markers. They’re your life line.”
C. is persistent, tiny as she is in this coterie of fellow travelers looking for advice, or tips, for “best practices.” “But you can’t even see them sometimes,” she says. Even though we’re under florescent lighting and awash in the persistent twang of Dwight Yoakum rendering “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” ala camp, we’re like 19th Century pioneers who must have stopped and listened to every sentient being coming the other way through mountain passes and churning rivers. “It’s like they’re not there,” C. repeats for emphasis.
The young driver is thoughtful, even philosophical for a moment. “Well, ma’am, I guess you just always keep your eyes peeled for those posts and imagine you’ll see one in time, because they’re most likely there. The government put ‘em there for a good reason. Just don’t get mesmerized by the snow on the road or you’ll end up in Canada.”
Everyone in the group nods, except for C.. She doesn’t like this answer. But she trusts the messenger. I know this because she touches his sleeve before moving on.