When I left on this trip, I wondered if I would have the confidence I needed to get the job done. I usually figure things out when challenges come, but it’s been a rough year, and something felt shaky. Would I be able to handle the logistics? I’ve always been little forgetful. I wondered what important thing I would forget and how much it would matter. I wondered how I would let myself down between home and Palm Springs.
But then the universe gave me a chance to prove myself to myself.
I left Lincoln on Thursday night, because I knew I couldn’t drive the whole way to Palm Springs (by way of Phoenix) in one big chunk. I needed some down time in between. So, the plan was to drive for as long as I could safely stand it on Thursday night and then sleep before continuing. I had checked the weather on Wednesday, and everything looked clear. But when I left town, my phone was telling me the Kansas route could have closed roads. So I chose Colorado. I knew I might run into snow on the passes…but down low, it all looked good.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
By the time I got to Fort Morgan, flakes began drifting down. Just a flurry, I thought. I had, after all, checked the weather. My eyes got heavy and I noticed I was sighing a lot…signs it was time to stop and rest. I pulled into a Love’s station in Hudson, Colorado—way east of Denver. A few hours of shuteye in the back of the Jeep, safely under a bright parking lot light (with permission), and I was ready to wake up and head out.
When my eyes opened, something looked strange. My sleep-logged brain couldn’t quite understand what I was looking at. It looked like nothing. Then I realized…the windows were covered with snow. What?! The forecast said NO SNOW! Come to find out, it was a freak storm that looked like it was just going to sit there, barely moving. My friend in the convenience store said if I stayed, the snow would keep piling up, and I could possibly get stranded for a while. So, I high-tailed it out of there, feeling clever that I had done my research and would be smarter than the snow.
But, if you know Colorado snow, you know that it’s a tricky devil. I spent the next half a day in heavy traffic and sometimes moderately heavy snow on the way up to the Eisenhower tunnel. (See photos on Facebook.) It wasn’t all bad. I soaked in the sight of pithy evergreens mottled with white. I rolled down the windows and breathed in the tangy-cold air with a fresh scent you can only experience in the mountains. I imagined what it would feel like to fly as snowflakes do…and melt.
Once past the tunnel, things began to dry out and I enjoyed a lulling, winding drive through Glenwood Canyon, a place I remember from my childhood. Beautiful green water—another tunnel—deep ravines and towering cliffs.
I traveled along I-70 to 191, where I turned south toward Moab, Utah. The funniest thing about that town was all the Jeeps…so many along the streets, it seemed like a joke! That’s because this is off-road country. I have to come back and do some of that. But this day, I was in a hurry. I got to Blanding, and it was dark. Should I continue? It was Friday night. I’d be leaving the U.S. and going through strange lands in the dark—something my dad always told me NOT to do. I checked it out with a lady at the convenience store and decided it was safe. I wasn’t tired. I could do this. I needed to, if I was going to make it to Palm Springs in time for the conference.
I got to Kayenta, and was ready to get gas. When I pulled into the station, I suddenly felt the steering get stiff, and a loud buzzing, whining noise accosted my ears. I called my sister Karen, who has worked on her own vintage cars and knows a thing or two about fixing them. Truth be known, I really just wanted to hear a friendly voice. She woke up her husband, and between the three of us, we determined it was probably a power steering pump—something I would definitely NOT be able to take care of that night. In the first of many strokes of luck, there was a hotel across the street—a VERY nice one (Kayenta Monument Valley Inn). I checked in and settled in. I knew it would be a challenge in the morning to find help—it was going to be Saturday.
Thus began a saga of waiting, talking to insurance companies, mechanics, tow truck drivers. As I sat in the parking lot of the hotel (for more than six hours), figuring out what to do and getting things set up, I thought about the reservation. I wondered if it’s offensive to call it the “reservation.” I was actually born on one—in Wyoming—but I know very little about it, because we left there when I was still a baby. As I sat in my Jeep, I wondered if the people from there think badly of people like me who wander through and get stuck and form opinions about their home. I wondered what it’s like to be the third or fourth generation after those who were driven off their land and into a strange life of isolation right in the middle of a continent percolating with aggressive foreigners. I’ve studied two of the tribes in Nebraska and helped create video programs about them for school children, but my topic was oral history, not political history. The stories seem like they are for everyone.
A young woman brought a handful of little bags of earrings to show me and I bought a pair of dangling horses. Later, an older woman brought a tray full of beautiful jewelry—I bought turtle earrings and a cascading necklace. I hoped my purchases would help them, and then I felt ashamed for assuming they needed help.
For a while, I sat in the restaurant of the hotel waiting for a tow truck driver. A young lady named Shannon began talking with me and found out I was stranded. Her husband Delmer was a mechanic. She called him, and he came over to look at the pump and see what he thought. Between he and my brother-in-law, Darrel (on the phone in Nebraska), a plan materialized.
We would be unlikely to find a part in Kayenta, if that was even the part I needed, so I would have the Jeep towed to Flagstaff. First, though, I would drive 20 or 30 figure eights to see if it was just a bubble in the line. I didn’t make 30, but I’m pretty sure I muscled in close to 20. Good workout, and it kept me busy. No luck. The wheel was still harder than heck to turn. I might be able to drive it, but if I broke down, Palm Springs on-time would really not be a possibility.
The tow truck driver had been delayed—a tire change had turned into an impromptu tow of a motorhome. American Family representatives kept in close touch with me while I waited, and I never felt alone. They were thorough, friendly, concerned, helpful. In the middle of “nowhere”, their concern was welcome assurance that I was not alone.
At last, the tow truck driver broke free and was able to come get me. Harrison winched the Jeep onto a flatbed truck, and we drove 140 miles to Flagstaff. He told me about his life and asked me about mine. He’s the father of four, with a handful of little grands. He has six quarter horses, and trades on-call duty with two other drivers for Chief Towing. He met his wife up near Salt Lake City and came to Kayenta for a job. He’s a roper, and he’s taught all his kids to ride. He drives cattle down the valley to winter them—he pointed out their grazing land as we drove by. He had been to Flagstaff with another client only the day before.
The land is beautiful. The rock and dirt is red, like Oklahoma, but it’s piled up in layers with rounded edges. One formation is called “Elephant’s Feet”, and that is exactly what the two towers of rock look like. The land is filled with low cedar, spaced out loosely in a regular pattern that almost makes it seem as though the bushes were planted on purpose. The road is pinched between small cliffs of rock, then suddenly unfolds in a long ribbon down the backside of a long, easy rise. The ribbon was filled with traffic going both ways.
We reached the garage I had booked (Seven-Day Automotive is the only one in Flagstaff that works on Sunday) exactly at closing time. It was another favor of the universe, because they were able to put it immediately into a bay and ready it for work in the morning when the part arrived.
With what seemed like hundreds of calls, I hadn’t been able to find a part in 300 miles around Kayenta between Moab and Flagstaff. The nearest part I needed for my eight cylinder 5.7 liter hemi was in Tempe. I called my friend whom I had planned to visit to update her, and she offered to drive up the part. We would make a “thing” of it! We would go to dinner, take the part to the garage in the morning, and then go to breakfast while the guys worked. And that is exactly what we did. Another gift of the universe. I hadn’t seen her in a year, and she needed a getaway. It was a very special time. I forgot how stressed and worried I had been for the last 24 hours.
Once the truck was fixed, I had to say goodbye to my friend, and that was sadder than my truck breaking down. I’ll see her again, of course. And my truck will break down again. But for that moment, I enjoyed the peaceful settling in on the road to Palm Springs…past Sedona and Black Canyon, through Wickenburg, Salome and Blythe, along a two-lane highway flanked by cactus, olive trees and bright green fields of something that looked to me like winter wheat.
The road lifted up and I rolled along almost without thinking, now slowing behind a truck, now barreling along in a line of insistent cars and trucks going as fast as possible with only a slight padding of space between them. I preferred the easy space behind the trucks.
I turned off where Google maps told me to, and the dusty, cars-a-jumble road turned into the clean, ordered streets of La Quinta, Palm Desert, then Palm Springs. I pulled into the JW Marriott and thought I was in heaven. It’s spring here, so the flowers are thick and bright, like nurturing cushions of color at the base of the palms.
As I parked the Jeep in the lot (because the car top carrier rules out the garage), I looked up and saw the most beautiful sunset. The photo I took of the spreading reds and oranges was framed with the silhouettes of palms. I sighed and relaxed. I had done it. I had figured everything out. But I’d had a lot of help from new and old friends. There had been someone up above looking after me. I could feel it. I felt a new confidence—a peace within me. Everything is as it should be.