The western USA contains vast expanses of land, wide-open valleys dotted with sagebrush and tumbleweeds and basalt. If you aren’t paying attention, if you choose not to look too closely, you might be fooled into thinking the only living creatures are your fellow travelers, zipping past on the long stretches of black asphalt.
The desert landscape has a starkness to it, austere in its sand and heat, in the way it sucks the moisture from your skin and your lips. We realized too late that Katie’s hands, prone to cracking even at home, were suffering from the change in climate, and so our first order of business after stopping tonight was to provide her with a liberal supply of lotion, to gently snip away the hangnails surrounding each fingertip.
As we headed south through the Utah desert, on our way from Ogden to Mesa Verde National Park, we made a rookie mistake:
We underestimated the distance between gas stations.
In the age of Google Maps, when we carry small computers around in our pockets, this is inexcusable. I know it is. We should have paid better attention, should have had a better eye on the gas gauge. And yet, somehow, we found ourselves growing increasingly nervous as the needle on our dash inched farther and farther into the red and the miles ticked by with no town in sight.
In low undertones, as the kids rode oblivious in the back, we played a game of call and response, alternating the asker and the askee every few minutes.
“Think we’ll make it?”
“We’ll make it.”
Good news: we made it. We both heaved a sigh of relief when we pulled into the Loves on the western edge of Green River. Jonathan put 18.9 gallons of gasoline into a tank that holds 19.3.
To put this into perspective: we average between 10-11 mpg when towing.
That’s a mistake we won’t make again.
Early in our journey, during our long trek across Nevada on Interstate 80, we stopped at a park in an isolated one-horse town for lunch. As our time drew to a close and we were bracing ourselves for the ordeal of coaxing the kids back into the car for another stretch of driving, a woman, out for an afternoon stroll, stopped for a chat.
She carried a multicolored tote on one arm and a long pink umbrella on the other, though there was no sign of rain. Her eyes crinkled at the corners as she tilted her head back to gaze at our trailer.
“Traveling the world, are you?” she asked.
We told her some about our trip, and she nodded, asking questions to keep us talking. Her words had a soft lilt to them, a hint of music you don’t expect to find in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada. Jonathan asked her where she was from.
She smiled as though that was the invitation she’d been waiting for, and then, in what may very well be the most HONY-like experience of my life, she shared some of her story with us.
She was originally from Switzerland, she told us, though she hadn’t lived there for a very long time. She came here in 1976, on a holiday with some girlfriends, and their bus happened to stop in the very town in which we now found ourselves.
They had some time to kill, and so they ambled over to that bar over there (she pointed across the way) and got themselves something to drink. There was a man – a very handsome man, she said, with a twinkle in her eye – at the end of the bar, all on his own. They convinced him to join them.
“He was very, very handsome,” she said again, emphasizing her point. “Much more handsome than any of the boys back home.”
She jabbed her finger, moving it down an invisible lineup of hapless Swiss men.
“No, thank you. No, thank you. NO, THANK YOU!”
Her handsome man was originally from here, she said, but he was living in Las Vegas at the time. He was waiting for a bus to take him back home, one that would leave later that day. An hour’s change in either of their schedules and they never would have met.
“We lived in Las Vegas for 38 years,” she told us, “but then we decided to come back to his hometown. We’ve been here ever since.”
“It’s quite a story, no?” she said with a smile.
Then she shifted the conversation back to us. “You have a beautiful family. But this one, I think, is grumpy today, yes?”
She gestured toward Abby, whose small face had been a thundercloud throughout the conversation. Before my girl’s scowl could deepen, however, our new friend – whose name I never caught – rummaged in her bag.
“I have something that will make you happy, I think,” she said to Abby, then looked to me, raising one eyebrow. “Though your Mama, perhaps, not so much.”
When I nodded my approval, she pulled out a package of Reese’s and handed it over. “There you are. A sweety for you.”
She was right, of course. Her gift of candy was a balm for a four-year-old’s heart, though not as much as her story was a balm for mine.
I wondered afterward whether she just happened to have that orange package in her bag, or whether she had bought it purposely, with the intent of spreading happiness and kindness on her walk around town. Was Abby just the lucky recipient of circumstance, or did she carry a ready supply of treats to bestow upon friend and stranger alike?
I have no way of knowing for sure, of course, but I’d like to think it was the latter.
My dad grew up in the desert. He raised his family there. He has always claimed that it has a stark beauty, that there is a loveliness to the mountains and the valleys, to the way the light plays across the varied rock formations, to the vast stretches of sand and sky.
I can’t disagree with him. There is beauty there, if you have the eyes to see it.
But I’ve been to Switzerland. I’ve ridden a train through breathtaking countryside, stood in awe at the base of the Matterhorn. And, given the choice between Las Vegas and the Alps, I know which one I’d choose.
As we pulled out of that small town and headed back onto the open freeway, Jonathan grinned.
“That made my day,” he said.
It made mine, too.
He paused for a moment, reflecting, then said:
“It just goes to show you can choose to be happy wherever you decide to call home.”