Up in Aspen or Never Let Go ©

For Amber


I first met Zoie not long after her husband died in a motorcycle crash in North Carolina. They had had a daughter together and Zoie was raising their daughter on her late husband’s social security checks. It was a difficult time for Zoie but ours quickly became a relationship of companionship. I was working for the newspaper at the time and Zoie kept busy as a freelance editor. Zoie was living across town in a two-bedroom apartment and I lived in the house my father left me after he suffered a long illness. The house was large and I had one half of the house shut off where it remained unused for several years. I offered the unused portion of the house to Zoie and her daughter and before long we were using the entire house together. We spent money we did not have – as if we were ashamed of economy and afraid of frugality, and we had a grand time together. Zoie and I separated later and we grew apart but we never lost contact. Occasionally one of us would mention driving across country – either together or alone. We decided it would be better to make the trip together, because being alone is one thing, but driving across country by oneself is certain to be lonely. Zoie laughed easily and she laughed often. Her laugh was contagious and that was ticket enough for me, so it was in this merriment that Zoie and I rode in tandem on the same axle of bliss through sixteen states.

We rented a car and fled Winston-Salem with a nod to Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise – or more apropos, to Jack Kerouac. We were on the road.

We stopped in Asheville on the way out of North Carolina to lunch at an Indian restaurant called Chai-Pani. We ordered tandoori fish wraps with masala fries and matchstick okra. The restaurant served Indian street-food that they brought to your table after you ordered at the counter. A girl in a dress the color of the sun stood alone by the window reading a menu. The restaurant was dark and sometimes a couple would lean towards the sun-lit window and point to items on the menu before ordering. We did not stay and visit the Blue Ridge Mountain in Asheville. We had been to Asheville many times and always enjoyed it there. We used to say the mountain in Asheville is indifferent to what we think of it. But whether the mountain is indifferent, we were not, and we understood we needed the mountain more than it needed us, and that it would still be there, solid and dependable on our return.

There was nothing between Nashville and Memphis but a setting sun and two friends in a rented car slowly collecting miles. Tennessee welcomed us with a slow-moving traffic jam where a large slough of land had crumbled away and fallen into the interstate ahead. When the congestion cleared I gazed through the passenger-side window of our rented car as the fast highway slipped beneath our wheels and disappeared into the dusk behind us. We had dinner at a diner in Memphis where a boy who was more enthusiastic than I was comfortable with brought us omelets and biscuits. The diner was the sort of place where you can order by picture from a laminated menu. It was a diner where a vegetarian is left to choose between picking ham from overcooked green beans or ordering a portabella mushroom omelet. I sighed and ordered the omelet and thought of a crop duster I had watched earlier from the car. The plane dipped below the tree line, then rose again ahead of faux contrails of pesticides that fell away into a field of indeterminable crop. We stayed the night in Memphis and in the morning we explored the shores of the Mississippi River before rolling ahead through Little Rock Arkansas and into Oklahoma City towards Texas. We kept our heads down and our eyes forward as we plowed ahead like a couple of dumb and goofy halfbacks.

We battled our way through wind and rain to get to Amarillo sometime around midnight. Fierce wind and cold rain came in sheets then stopped, then came again in sheets. The storm put on a holy show of lightening that splashed across the sky a million miles away. When the lightening crashed, it lit the Amarillo plains with such intensity that you could see nothing in the immediate darkness that followed the flash. We drove into Amarillo with the windows down and our arms out. Our seats and our things were wet with the sweet Texas rain. We laughed and we did not care and we did not bother to put the windows up, but instead let the stinging rain continue to pelt our forearms. We were tired and we were hungry and ready to find a bed. We had not eaten since we left Clinton Oklahoma. In Clinton we had followed Route 66 to a roadside taco dive where we ordered bean burritos and water. The restaurant claimed to be autintico. We did not know what they were claiming authenticity of, but the burritos were bad and we did not finish eating them. We left Amarillo in the morning and drove like mad into New Mexico.

The landscape of Tucumcari New Mexico changed in an instant from a flat and endless horizon to one of silent plateaus where red and tan layers of geological chronology ringed the mesas. The mesas stood solid after eons of erosion washed away the surrounding firmament. Oxide clay baked in the distant June heat and verde colored foliage shimmered in smeltering distortion across the land. The surface was so vast and wide-spread that the fabulous vista faded away in every direction into a less than lucid haze of heat. This is the land where a Stetson is not only aesthetic choice, but likely it is also a necessity.

We entered Santa Rosa New Mexico from Tucumcari with no expectations and left it quietly with whatever it had to begin with. There is nothing below heaven near Santa Rosa but pink trailer-homes and more of the same arid earth Tucumcari offered. Outside a home, a life-sized statue of the Mother Mary stood in a rock-garden in a permanent pose of sadness in a dusty wind-blown world. We drove fast through Santa Rosa towards Albuquerque because the road was fast and because a million miles of highway still stretched out before us like one long strip of clean white typing paper.

We picked up miles quickly and poured them out in great heaps behind us, one after another, all the way to Albuquerque before steering north on Interstate 85 to Santa Fe. We lunched on sopaipillas in Albuquerque before we headed up to Santa Fe. We did not know how to eat the sopaipillas but we watched two boys at another table pull the sopaipillas apart with their fingers and squeeze honey onto them from a bottle on the table. We asked for a bottle of honey and we sat and poured honey over our sopaipillas as if it were a thing we often did. We teased one another and said, “No, like this.”
“See the way I am doing it.”
“You must pull it apart like this.”
“This is the only way to eat sopaipillas.”
The doughy sopaipillas were hot and fluffy and they tore easily. The honey made them sweet and we could not stop eating them. I ate the last sopaipilla while I stood beside the table so everyone could see that I knew how to eat the sopaipillas, and so that I could fit in, in Albuquerque.

It was Father’s day and there was a street festival in Santa Fe. Merchants had booths set up in the streets where they sold the things they made. There was turquoise jewelry for sale and paintings of the landscape and lamps made from recycled things; mostly from strips of rusted metal. Zoie wanted to buy a lamp made from recycled and rusted metal. She did not buy the lamp because there was no room in the rented car for a rusty lamp. At least I think that is why she did not buy the lamp. It was hot in Santa Fe and the streets were dirty with festival. Nearly every house in Santa Fe resembled an adobe. Some of the houses may not have resembled adobes, but we did not see them.
“All of the adobe homes that are similar look alike – except for the doors,” I said.
“That is a clumsy tautological thing to say,” said Zoie.
“I only mean that it is the doors that separate the houses, one from the other,” I said.
“I think you mean to say it is the doors that differentiate the homes,” Zoie said, “because the doors certainly do not separate the houses.”
Zoie laughed. Then I laughed, and together we walked through Santa Fe photographing the doors that differentiated one adobe home from another. She was right in correcting me that the doors do not separate the houses. It was the honesty of the language that made me laugh. It was my carelessness that made Zoie laugh.

Durango Colorado is in a doughnut hole of a mountain range called The San Juan Mountains. Durango was mostly silent with tourists going in and out of shops. The tourists sometimes stopped on the sidewalk to discuss the things that were placed in shop windows. A group of motorcyclists passed by in the narrow street making the sound of their motorcycles beat against the store-fronts and echo back across, shaking hard your insides. We had a parking citation on our car’s windshield when we returned from our exploration. It was an unpleasant way to leave Durango but the charge was small and it had been a fine day of walking and exploring under the shadow of the San Juan Mountain range. I bought a copy of “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac at Maria’s bookshop on Main Avenue. I already had a copy of the book back home but this was an original scroll version; the rough and wild and racy unedited edition. This was the edition that started with the line, “I first met met Neal not long after my father died…”, and I could not think of a better time to re-read the bible of the Beat Generation. The doubled “met met” reminded me of a jalopy puttering along. I book-marked chapter one with my parking citation and we headed out of Durango in a northwest direction below snow-topped mountains towards Cortez Colorado.

In Cortez we climbed to the top of Mesa Verde where at an elevation of over eight-thousand feet above sea level you can see Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. On top of the mesa was a young couple speaking French. The boy wore shorts and loafers and he wore a fedora on his shaggy-haired head. The fedora was gray with a gutter-dent crown and a dark gray stripe above the brim. The girl wore flip-flops and walked slowly in them as though she was as content to be there with the boy as anywhere else. The couple spoke French smoothly and it made us sorry that we did not understand the beautiful words they were using. The couple talked as if they were humming, one no louder than the other, and it was lovely to listen to. Even if we did not understand the words, we knew the words were kind words and we knew the couple enjoyed being together. We walked on in silence as we thought about all the things we do not know. The heavy thoughts of our ignorance passed and soon we were laughing again and using beautifully the words we do know.

In Aspen we had beers and Ahi tacos with apple guacamole and chips in front of a restaurant called The Cantina where our waitress brought us refills and told us of interesting things to do. We talked of buying heavier clothes and of riding up to the Alpine Tundra in Colorado National Park. Our waitress’ name was Emily. She moved to Aspen from Indiana, but lived in Snowmass Village where everything is cheaper than in Aspen. She said she came out during the ski season, then afterwards went home for a week to get her things.
“You could drive up towards Mt. Elbert on Independence pass,” Emily said.
“It is a treacherous drive, but I think you will enjoy it.”
“What do you mean it is treacherous?” Zoie asked.
“The road is often very narrow and it is difficult to pass when two cars meet,” Emily said.
“If that is the worst of it I think we should be fine,” Zoie said.
“Also, there are no safety rails to keep the car from rolling over the edge. And sometimes the drop is over a thousand feet,” said Emily.
Maybe it is a few beers in the Rocky Mountains that makes a man feel brawny, I can not say, but it is a woman that makes him foolish.

We shopped for warmer clothes for our Alpine Tundra trip before heading up Independence Pass. We were shopping in a clothing and hiking store on the main street when a boy came in and said to the empty front-counter,
“HEY – is anybody here?”
A young girl with short black hair and cream colored skin came from a back room.
“What?” The girl asked.
“Can I have a balloon?”
“I already gave you a balloon.”
“I know, but I need another one.”
“I am not allowed to give you more than one balloon.”
“Okay,” the boy said, “I will go get my friend – he also wants a balloon.”
The girl said she had already given the boy a balloon to fill with water from the fountain in the street. It was something the stores did for the children. The girl said the boy had asked for many balloons and that he must stop. We told the girl we needed heavier shirts because we were going to take a trip in the morning up to the Alpine Tundra on Trail Ridge Road. The girl knew the air would be cold at thirteen-thousand feet and she understood we were not prepared for it.
The boy returned with a friend and asked again for a balloon. The girl told the boy she should not give him another balloon for fear she would get in trouble with the shop owner.
“But it is for my friend,” the boy said.
“I think it is for you.”
“No really, my friend wants the balloon.”
The boy’s friend stood without speaking.
“Okay,” said the girl. “I will get your friend a balloon.”
“Get my friend a green balloon,” the boy said. “If you do not have a green balloon just get him any color balloon, it will be okay with him.”
The girl went away and came back with a green balloon and gave it to the boy’s friend.
“Will you blow it up?” The boy asked.
“No I will not – besides, I thought you wanted to fill the balloon with water from the fountain.”
“That was before,” the boy said. “Now I want you to fill it with the helium.”
“I will not,” the girl said.
“I will give you five dollars,” said the boy.
“You do not have five dollars.”
“I will get the five dollars from my mother and I will come back, then will you fill the balloon with the helium?”
“No I will not,” the girl said again.
We paid the girl for our warmer shirts and I bought a cap with the name Aspen written across the bill. We thanked the girl and asked for directions to Independence Pass which would take us up the mountain. The girl was friendly and gave us directions and a map. She then wished us good luck. We thanked the girl again and left the shop. The boy returned and went into the shop as we were leaving. We heard the boy say to the girl, “My mother would not give me the five dollars.”

Independence Pass was as treacherous as Emily said it would be. Our anxiety levels spiked as we made deals and promises to any divine arbiter willing to accept our terms. The speed-limit on the mountain was ten miles an hour but we agreed that since seven miles an hour was better, then we should go along at six for extra precaution. There were no safety rails and the edge of the mountain was inches from the road. It was terrifying to imagine what sort of predicament we might be in if some mishap or misjudgment caused our tires to leave the relative safety of the road – and send us tumbling into a mountainous abyss. We nearly got out and crawled along at a spot where the pavement dipped so badly it looked as if our lane was ready to crumble away and fall into a bottomless gulf. With slow and exact navigation we descended the mountain just before dark and within minutes broke all the promises we had made with God. Besides, it is times like these when you understand that truth is nothing, it is what you believe to be true that is important.

We left Aspen in the morning and drove through Vail and through Silverthorne on highway 9 towards Trail Ridge Road which would take us up to the Alpine Tundra. We had our heavier and warmer clothes and we were ready for the trip. Along highway 9 we could see fishermen fly-fishing in the streams that the highway followed. They wore waders up to their waists and stood knee-deep in the cold water that ran down from the mountain. The men kept their beer cold by putting the bottles into the icy stream. The trout they caught lay drying in the sun. Later the men would drink beer and clean the trout then put the cleaned and gutted fish into the stream to stay cold with the beers.

Trail Ridge Road is forty miles of winding road that rises through the mountains of Grand Lakes Colorado and into the Alpine Tundra of Rocky Mountain National Park. It is the highest continuous paved road in the United States. The road climbs to nearly thirteen-thousand feet above sea level and some areas of the road are similar to Independence Pass where there is no safety railing and the plunge over the edge would end all a thousand feet below. For every one-thousand feet we climbed, the temperature dropped five degrees. The climate, the wildlife and the plants at this elevation are similar to what may be found at the Arctic Circle. We read these facts in a pamphlet a park ranger handed us at the trail head, but the pamphlet did not say anything about climbing to this elevation, and preparing for nose bleeds.

A man and his boys had pulled over to the side of the road and were looking for photo oportunities. We pulled over to photograph the lazy brown elk and thick snow that covered the mountain-top. There was not as much snow as there might have been in previous years, as evidently the reliable winter snow did not come in as expected. Maybe that makes the snow less than reliable, but it does not make it less than necessary. The winter snow is an essential part of the wildlife’s habitat. After the expected winter snow did not fall, Spring brought unwanted lightening to an arid Colorado landscape. Large forest-fires burned out of control in High Park near Fort Collins. Flames in the north of the state danced and kicked about like an old drunk and wicked man, and it saddened us to think of such things.

The man with the boys was wearing heavy thick jeans with suspenders. He wore boots and his shirt-sleeves were rolled up above his elbows. He said he was an ex-marine from North Carolina and now he runs a boy scout camp in New Mexico. He called the boys little weenies while he waited for the boys to climb the rocks ahead of them.
“Come on you little weenies – let’s go – get up there if you want to be in the picture.”
“But we are tired, we only wanted to stop and take a break,” the boys yelled back down.
“Oh yeah, I always had to stop and take a break too when I was twelve – now come on you little weenies – let’s go.”
The boys did not mind that the man called them weenies. You could tell the man cared about the boys, even if he did call them weenies. Sometimes you can just tell about that sort of thing.

We raced through Denver in the night, then stayed in WaKeeney Kansas, about half way between Denver and Kansas City. In the morning we continued our charge east and reached St. Louis in time to have dinner at the end of Second Street near the arch by the Mississippi River. A saxophone played jazz music in the distance and horse-drawn carriages rumbled passed our table, the horses’ hooves clopping loudly on the old cobblestone of downtown. We spent the night in Effingham, Illinois where someone at the hotel said they have a cross there made of steel that is one-hundred and ninety-eight feet tall. We did not see the cross. The following day we lunched under an umbrella in Indianapolis before stopping in Lexington Kentucky for dinner at a Caribbean restaurant, and to find a place to sleep. – But then there was the woman in Indianapolis who walked briskly with her arms flailing about. She walked with a slightly bent back and her eyes peered about in an unattached and nervous way – as if someone were looking for her. When she stopped walking her arms bounced like a puppet’s for a moment more. If she made eye contact with any person eating lunch on the street she would stop, her rubber-like arms bobbing to and fro, and she would chat loudly for a minute.
“You drinking already?” The woman nearly screamed.
I did not know what the woman said and so I did not say anything in return.
“Yes we are,” Zoie answered, “would you like to join us?”
“Oh, no, no, no, no,” the woman said, shaking her head yes and no at the same time.
Zoie enjoys people and understands how to talk with them in a way that I do not understand.
“Well the beers are lovely and your city is beautiful,” Zoie said.
The woman grinned like a child and shuffled away with inaudible words floating above her. The woman passed by several more times, each time stopping to interact with lunchers. The city smelled of sewer but Zoie did not complain. Zoie never complained, even when the beers were warm or when the umbrella no longer shaded us from the afternoon sun. I believe that in another life Zoie could have been Ella Fitzgerald. She would have made a fine flapper in a world where even bad flappers were fine women.

Our last stop was Lexington Cemetery in Lexington Kentucky. After we left the cemetery we pushed the car for all it had. We drove home through Ohio and West Virginia and through a small slice of Virginia into Mt. Airy, North Carolina. The closer we got to home, the more despondent we became – and the faster the cities clicked away. We had traveled nearly five-thousand miles in ten days, and we were tired, but not so tired that we could not start the trip again.

In Lexington Cemetery a path encircled a gray pond that was shaded by trees. Some of the trees had fallen into the pond and you could see turtles sunning themselves on the long backs of the trees. A turtle that was quite large had crawled up to the path. It may have seemed that Zoie and I were taking turns pointing and gasping at the turtle, and maybe we were, but it was not intentional. Zoie said the turtle was a snapping turtle and that we should not get too close because snapping turtles can leap onto your face and bite your eyes out. The thought of the turtle bitting our eyes out sent us into a laughing fit. Zoie said our laughing upset the turtle. I do not know whether turtles get upset, I suspect they do, but I do not believe laughing upsets them. Whether or not our laughing upset the turtle is difficult to say, but I believe the turtle did raise itself on its pointed and boney legs and gain an air of sureness I had not expected to witness. I believe if the turtle were the sort of creature that leaps, it may have leapt onto our faces after all. We backed away from the turtle and as the distance between us and the turtle increased, the turtle’s threatening posture and sureness decreased. Zoie said the turtle reminded her of an Alligator with a shell and that this would be an unfair and lethal evolutionary combination. I did not reply, and that seemed to be okay, because moments later we were laughing again. We continued to walk on the path that bent beneath the trees and we occasionally made cute gasping sounds whenever one of us pointed to something sensational. It was what we were doing at the time and it made us laugh. We laughed because we were happy and we were happy because we were together. We were together because we did not know how to be apart. Being apart was something we had tried, more than once, but it never kept and we always found ourselves back together again. Maybe we pick the people we need in our lives, or maybe they pick us, but either way, when you find each other, you should hang on and never let go.