Gabe looked outside the window and saw a blue scooter and then a yellow car drive by. His gaze passed over the unattended coffee table outside and he thought of Rome. The drops from the morning shower made the glass top look uneven, almost fluted, pock-marked, and, somehow, imperfect.
He patted his chest pocket to make sure his phone was still there and stepped outside. He inhaled deeply. “A story about what?” Gabe looked down at the brick patio and scraped at the moss of the mortar seam with the toe of his boot.
Gabe Raskin was on a short deadline for a story. It could be anything. But, he wanted to write something light. Something that could lift the heavy monotone mood that settled into him since last October. It was there to stay, even as spring was a couple of weeks away.
He hoped that Jason would call soon.
Matt insisted on playing Bob Dylan but most of the music drowned in the wind and road noise that came through the thin metal of Gabe’s tiny Toyota. They didn’t care. It was spring break and the long drive southbound on I-15 held promise of sunshine, Joshua trees and red monzonite crags. They ran out of things to talk about shortly after passing Provo, Utah. Now, Gabe drove and Matt looked at the rolling sagebrush, either brazen or gray, and hoped to spot a hawk diving to scoop his prey off the ground.
“Lee-Van”, Matt broke the silence. The sign that announced the exit for Levan, Utah also told of its population numbers. “Leavin’ Lee-Van,” Gabe picked up. “Or, we can move here and increase the population to an even three hundred and fifty.”
“Naw,” Matt continued the wordplay. “I wanna fill up in Fillmore.”
They both laughed for a moment and fell silent again. Not quite halfway to Joshua Tree National Monument, the long drive replaced the anticipation of climbing with indolence.
Fillmore, did, in fact, have a truck stop. Matt pulled up behind a VW split-window bus and read a bumper sticker that said: “Life isn’t supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be interesting.” The sounds of “Casey Jones” by Grateful Dead were coming from the inside. “Who was Casey Jones, do you know?” Gabe turned to Matt.
“’Matter of fact, I do.” Matt glowed. “There was a real Casey Jones, a train engineer. The legend has it that he died a heroic death as “he took that farewell trip to the promised land.” Back when they had coal-fired steam engines and all."
“Cool,” said Gabe. “Somehow, I thought you might know that.”
The VW bus moved forward to the next pump.
“I just wonder about the cocaine in those days,” he added.
Ten dollars filled the tank. Matt took the wheel and drove past small Mormon towns with peculiar names. Paragonah, Parowan, Enoch. Then, New Harmony. Gabe took a drink from his water bottle. It had a loop of nylon webbing duct-taped around it, and he played with it and watched the power line catenaries swoop up and down along the highway. “Surreal,” he thought. “Little electrons come here all the way from the Hoover Dam, probably. And, no one cares. They just plug in their toasters and TV’s and expect the juice to be there.”
He looked to his left and saw Matt head-tripping in a similar way.
“Watch out!” He screamed. The car was headed for a chunk of lumber that lay directly in its path. Matt woke up and swerved, but the right rear tire of the Toyota rolled over the piece of wood and blew. Matt jerked the car to the side of the road and stopped; and they just sat there, and breathed.
“I thought it would have been louder,” He forced a grin between rapid breaths. His stomach glued itself to his spine and his feet tingled. Gabe unbuckled the seatbelt and eased out of the car. The ranchland stretched to the right. Even surrounded by the barbwire fences, it seemed as endless as the West. He waited for Matt to walk around the car and look at the tire before he turned to see it for himself.
“It ain’t that bad.” Matt’s words dropped to the dusty pavement. “We didn’t ding up the rim. Well, maybe a little.” His voice was shallow. “You have a spare, right?”
“Yep.” Gabe thought of the fifty or so miles to St. George to have the tire fixed. “It’s Saturday, isn’t it?” He didn’t want to drive much farther on a “donut” spare. If they hustled, they could get to St. George and get a new tire before the shops closed.
“Well, this sucks,” Gabe cleared his throat. “Let’s put that spare on.”
“Yeah…” Matt opened the trunk.
“If we can roll into a tire shop before five, maybe, they can slap it on real quick. And we can be in Joshua Tree before midnight…”
“We can totally make it by eleven if we get a new tire by six,” Matt filled in the pause.
At 45 miles per hour, the green slopes to the east seemed larger. Their color gradually changed to yellow, and, then, to the red of the sandstone mesas that surrounded St. George.
“Of course, I would prefer to have missed that four-by-four altogether… but, it is what it is, I guess… Looking at the bright side, at this speed, we can soak in the beautiful landscape.”
“We usually roll through here pretty fast.”
“Here’s a turn-off to Hurricane. About a half-hour to St. George. You ever been to Zion?”
“No, not yet. I heard there are great sandstone cliffs there.”
“Yeah. I was there a couple of years ago. Gorgeous. But, climbing on that sandstone is like dancing on tiny marbles. Scary… And, the bolts are always working themselves loose. Not my cup of tea. I like solid rock under my feet. Great to look at, though.”
They took the main exit for St. George at exactly 5:00 PM and rolled into a gas station with a couple of shop bays and a collection of tires out front. A tall middle-aged man in “Dickies” navy pants stood outside the small office and watched them pull in alongside the pile of tires. The nametag over his left breast pocket said “Lynn.”
“I see that you be needin’ a tire fixed.” He stated even before Gabe had a chance to step out of the car.
“Yeah, we shredded a tire. It’s beyond fixing. Do you have a tire that will fit?” Gabe exhaled.
“’Tis closin’ time, but I think I can fix you up with somethin’ that’ll work,” Lynn said.
“ ‘Xcept, you’ll have to come back on Monday to have it put on. My tire guy’s gone home for the weekend.”
Gabe drew a breath and looked to the right. Matt was leaning forward in the seat so he could see Lynn through the driver’s door window.
“Really? There is no way YOU could do it?” Matt asked knowing that Lynn didn’t leave much room for doubt. “Are there any other shops in town? We could buy the tire from you and have someone else install it…”
“Not on a Saturday night, I’m afraid,” Lynn was polite.
Gabe took his iPhone out and dialed a number, trying to scrape more moss off the bricks. Raindrops started to fall and he slowly backed a few steps under the shallow orange and black awning.
“Jason?” He asked. “I’m glad you picked up…”
When Gabe needed ideas for his stories, he called Jason. Jason rarely made any literary suggestions, but his day-to-day problems provided more than enough writing material. It has been that way since the first day they met and Gabe took comfort in borrowing freely from Jason’s life.
“How’s it going?”
“Gabe, you won’t believe this!” Jason yelled out. “Those bastards!”
“Who? What happened now?”
“Some fuckers stole the wheels off my car last night! Right in front of my house!” He exploded. “My Mini is sitting up on blocks with no wheels. Unreal!”
“Wow.” Gabe said. “Unbelievable.” He saw a car parked in front of the coffee house and tried to imagine it without wheels. It appeared helpless and violated. “Man, I am really sorry. Did you call the cops?”
“What would THEY do? Take down a report and tell me to call my insurance company? “Good luck finding the wheels, sir.”
“Jason, do you need a ride somewhere?”
Gabe paid for the tire and put it in the trunk. On Monday morning, they would come back to have it installed, but it gave him comfort to have the new tire in his hands. He looked up and down the street, and saw a Suburban full of children drive slowly by. Matt was already in the passenger’s seat, watching Lynn lock up his shop.
“I wonder if there is a Safeway around here.” Gabe said to Matt and started the engine.
They drove down St. George Boulevard, Matt gazing at the red hills on the North, and Gabe at the mesa to the southwest. He could see an airplane descending towards it.
It rolled occasionally from side to side, caught in the air currents swirling from the base of the mesa.
“Gabe, I am sorry about the tire,” Matt turned his head to the left. “I feel terrible about it. Now we’re stuck here for two days. What do you do in St. George?”
“Hey, I think that’s a supermarket. A Safeway!” Gabe turned the blinker on and turned left into a large parking lot. “What should we have for dinner?”
“Oh, I don’t much care. Whatever.” Matt muttered. “Let’s go in and see what we can get.”
Checkout line wasn’t much busier than the street. Only two check stands were open and a woman with a full shopping cart just got to one of them. Matt pushed their cart to the express register and stood behind a man with only a couple of things in his basket. He looked twenty-four or twenty-five, with a sky-blue baseball hat over light-brown hair and a white t-shirt that said “BMW” in large letters on the back.
“How’re you guys doing?” He turned halfway and looked at them.
“We’re doing,” Matt replied.
“Where’re you from?” The young man’s eyes lit up and focused on Gabe. “Not from St. George, that’s for sure.” His voice lilted up and down, with a casual confidence of a well-travelled man.
“No, we’re stuck here for a couple of days. On the way to Joshua Tree for some rock climbing.” Matt took the lead.
“Rock climbing, that’s great! Have you ever climbed at Zion? The walls there are amazing.” His eyes got even brighter. He paused and reached out his hand towards Gabe. “Hey, I’m Jason. I’m stuck here, too.”
Jason’s campsite was a short distance from St. George, on the west bank of the Virgin River. There, the dominating reds and browns suddenly ended and the narrow band of riparian growth shouted with green. Several willows grew in an open semi-circle and he pitched his tent closer to its north side, with the entrance facing the river. A few feet away was a makeshift fire ring with a bundle of store-bought firewood next to it.
Jason stopped his motorcycle behind the tent and rocked it back on the center stand. The yellow Toyota was not far behind.
“Not bad for this close to town, don’t you think?” Jason pulled his helmet off, hung it on the handlebars and put on his baseball cap. Gabe already got out of the car and took a few strides towards the river.
“This is a cool spot, man. How did you ever find it?” His voice carried across the campsite.
“Thanks for inviting us here. It’s very nice of you. Really.” Gabe kicked a stick to the side. “Great campsite. The dinner’s on us.”
“So, where is Twisty’s Tavern?” Matt took another bite of a burrito and pointed at the baseball cap. The fabric was unraveling at the edge of the bill and a few dark stains could be seen around the top.
“Ha!” Jason dipped another chip in the guacamole. “Not in St. George.” He moved his eyes around the camp. Almost at the vernal equinox, it was rapidly getting dark. He got up, picked up another piece of firewood and dropped it on the fire, sending a handful of embers into the branches of the willows.
“Arizona. Not far from the South Rim.” He sat back down and crossed his legs.
“Is there a story to it?” Insisted Matt.
“Existentially, there is a story to everything. I’m not sure if we have enough time for this one.”
Matt rose slightly off his sleeping pad and straightened his back. As he turned and looked at Jason over the campfire his eyes turned orange. “Existentially? Are you into philosophy?”
“Oh, a little, here and there.”
“Existentially, that has a meaning, you know.”
“The meaning of anything is the meaning that you give it, don’t you think?”
Gabe twisted the vanilla cream sandwich cookie apart and started to eat the part without the filling. He took a second small bite and chewed it almost imperceptibly. The firelight lit up only half of his face. With the other half darkly shadowed, he looked wraith-like.
“Even though no one has been able to define the meaning of existence in concrete terms, I believe that consciousness, the awareness of existence provides the foundation for whatever meaning there may be.” Matt cast the line.
“Perhaps, it is the awareness of death, just the opposite of existence, that illuminates its meaning.” Jason replied.
“Most people acquire the awareness of death only when faced with their own mortality. Contemplating death isn’t exactly a popular pastime. Even as I take a calculated risk rock climbing, I don’t practice being aware of death. I celebrate my existence. Through my actions, through my freedom, through my decision-making.”
“To you, at that moment, existence means action. What if at another time, surrounded by different circumstances, it takes on another meaning?”
“Then, I will have the opportunity to exercise my fundamental freedom to decide whether there can be another meaning. Freedom is essential to existence.”
“Do you mean that there is no set meaning to existence?” Jason hasn’t moved since the conversation started.
“There may be. I don’t know. What if the meaning itself isn’t real? We can think anything away, including reality. But we can’t think away our own thinking, the reality of our consciousness. Then, the reality of your own thinking becomes the reality of meaning of your existence.” Matt shifted again.
“I don’t agree.” Jason said and turned to Gabe. “Can I have one of those cookies, please? They look good.”
“Sure, man.” Gabe reached around the fire with a bag of cookies. “So, tell us the meaning of the “Twisty’s Tavern” hat. We can stay up all night. Not like we have plans for tomorrow…”
Jason bit into the cookie, then put the rest of it on his knee. He interlaced his fingers and stretched his arms upwards over his head.
“No, thanks. I don’t need a ride. I still got my bike.” Jason calmed down. “It’s just that I don’t need this shit right now. I have a ton to do today without chasing down insurance agents and tire salesmen.”
Gabe let him go on and kept looking down at the patio, noticing the imperfections in the mortar lines and cracks in the concrete abutments. A large terracotta flowerpot with growing herbs sat off center on its drainage saucer. He focused on the small purple flowers and wondered what they were.
“Anyway. Wah, wah, wah. How are you?” Jason’s voice came to the foreground.
“Oh, ok, I guess. I have a story to write and no idea what to write about. Totally blank.”
“I am sure it’ll come to you. We should drive out to the mountains. Take a short hike.”
“I want a funny story. What kind of a funny story do you find on a hiking trail?” Jason was laughing now. “Besides, it was raining all night. We’ll be hiking ankle-deep in mud.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I got so much stuff to do, anyway.”
“Hey, why don’t I come to the tire shop with you? It’ll be like old times. I’ll see you in a few.”
Gabe hung up, put the phone in the outside breast pocket and zipped it shut. He lingered on the patio for a minute, running his hand through his hair and taking one more look at the terracotta planter.
Jason was waiting for him at the front door, talking on the phone.
“Do you mind if I drive?” He whispered to Gabe, covering the microphone end with his free hand.
“Sure,” Gabe shrugged back.
“Ok, we’ll be there in twenty minutes. Thanks.” Jason hung up the phone and looked at Gabe.
“Good to see you, man.”
“It’s been a couple of weeks.” Gabe met his eyes and noticed the deep crow’s-feet wrinkles around them for the first time. He handed him the car keys and put one arm around his shoulders.
“Here. I drive too slowly. I’m never in a hurry ‘cause there is no place I have to be.”
“The story of Twisty’s Tavern…” Jason put his arms down, picked up the cookie from his leg and finished it. “Not a very existential story. But it has some endearing elements. Like this hat.” He took off the baseball hat, squinted to see the logo on its front and put it back on his head. “I always bring this hat on motorcycle trips. It keeps me from breaking down on the road. Except for this time. But, it’s only a luggage rack and the shop here will have it on Monday morning. I’ll be back on the road in the afternoon. You know, these beemers are great, hardly ever…”
“Yes, yes, we know you like BMW’s. The story?” Matt broke in.
“Oh, yeah.” Jason stopped. He thought for a moment more and went on.
“Hard to know where to start. A motorbike trip, I guess. I rode out of LA planning to follow Route 66 for a while, and then cut up to the Four Corners and then to Aspen to meet up with some friends and bag a few fourteeners. Things went really well till I got to Flagstaff.
I camped out just outside of town and spent the morning hanging around a couple of coffee houses and getting to know the town. Found a great breakfast place. Late in the afternoon I headed up to the South Rim. It was out of the way, so it was a spur-of-the-moment kind of thing. Well, just about abeam Henderson Butte, I roll on the throttle to fly through the curve, and – poof, nothing.” He paused.
“The throttle cable broke. So, there I was. In the middle of nowhere and my bike is running at idle. You would think this is where a beautiful girl with big blonde hair in a convertible stops to offer me a ride. Not true. I sit there by the roadside and not one car so much as slows down. And it’s not like there are no cars on the road. After about an hour of that, I decide I am better off walking. Sure enough, just as I take a few steps away from the bike, a car pulls up. Nice guy. Tells me he can’t take me back to Flag, but there is a place where I can make some phone calls nearby. Twisty’s Tavern was the place with a payphone.” He swallowed hard and looked directly into Gabe’s eyes.
“You guys ever see the old movie “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre? Humphrey Bogart, late 40’s, I think.”
“I heard about it, but I haven’t…” started Matt.
“Oh, yeah, man! A classic! A real sociology major must-see!” Gabe got excited.
“The study of man – the closer to money, the farther from the law. Why?”
“Well, when I walked into that bar, I had a déjà vu feeling of that bar brawl scene in the movie. My skin just crawled with goose bumps.”
Jason took the hat off his head again. This time, he didn’t put it back on, but slowly turned it clockwise in front of his face.
“Well, I needed to make a couple of phone calls. So, I started looking for the payphone. It was on the far side of the room and you had to walk past the bar to get to it. There was a couple in their early 30’s sitting at the bar, with beer glasses in front of them. I remember thinking to myself that a beer would feel good about now. I made my way to the phone and called a bike shop in Flagstaff to see if they had any ideas about what to do with my bike. They said they could work on it in the morning if I brought it to the shop. But, how to get the bike into town?" He stopped and seemed to consider whether or not to go on with the story.
“So, I went to the bar, ordered a beer and sat down a chair or two away from the couple. Normal-looking people. They both looked at me and the woman asked what kind of a bike I was riding. I guess she could tell I was on a bike by my motorcycle boots. Pretty soon, we were talking motorbikes, road trips and cool places in the West. It turned out they were a brother and sister, Bill and Allison, from San Diego, and recently moved to Flagstaff. I think they inherited some money after their parents died and decided to move away from the ocean for a while.
“We talked for close to an hour. As luck would have it, they had a big Ford pick-up and offered to drive the bike and me into town. We finished our beers and Bill and I started working on getting the bike onto the bed of the truck. Allison tried to help but couldn’t do very much and I could tell something wasn’t quite right with her.
Pretty soon we got the bike tied down and started driving towards Flagstaff. By the time we got there, the shop already closed and we got the bike down from the truck and parked it in front of the shop. I was going to look for a cheap hotel when Allison asked me if I wanted to spend the night at their house.
They had a modest but a nice place just south of town, not far from the airport. A tidy little log home on a couple of acres with big ponderosa pines. The inside was clean, but there were unpacked moving boxes lining the far wall of the living room. It felt lived in, like they had been there a while. Yet, I couldn’t shake a feeling that they haven’t really moved in yet and were never going to.
It was already dark, and everyone got hungry. Bill started on dinner and Allison handed me a bottle of wine and a corkscrew. We spend a nice evening talking about different things. It turned out that Bill was a playwright and we talked a lot about the play he was working on. They were really interested in my journey, but every time the conversation turned to Allison, she would change the subject. At the end of the evening, all I knew about her was that she used to work at Scripps in LaJolla, doing some kind of biotech research.
Then, the conversation just ran out of steam. Bill showed me to the spare bedroom and I was happy to get horizontal for the night. I was about to turn out the light, when I heard a knock on the door. It was Allison. She came in and said that she wanted to talk. She looked really striking, with this sense of urgency streaming from her eyes. What could I do? So, I said, sure. She sat on the edge of the bed and the words just poured out of her. I finally got the whole story.
The real reason they moved to Flagstaff was to be near Sedona. Supposedly, in several spots around Sedona there are energy vortices with healing power, and that’s what they came here for. She had ALS -- Lou Gehrig’s disease. For an unknown reason, the disease gradually destroys the motor neurons and it’s a nasty, cruel slide to the grave. It made sense now why she wasn’t of much help loading the bike into the truck.
I just listened and listened. She told me how she was getting weaker and that there is nothing Western medicine can do for her, so they came here in search of energy healing.
But, it hasn’t been working. She said she didn’t want to end up in a wheelchair and be spoon-fed and just wait to die. And, she didn’t want to see Bill spend the next few years of his life caring for her. She had a plan to “take care of it” when things got worse.
But, now, she said, she wanted to live fully.
We made love till 3 in the morning. It was nothing I have ever experienced, before or since. I don’t know how to describe it. Our lovemaking was connected in some special way, as if there were no boundaries between her and I, as if both of us dissolved and melded into some third being. It felt like we were connected by many lifetimes, if such a thing were possible. I can’t recall everything we did, but I remember that it was pure bliss. It was truly extraordinary. Certainly, it didn’t feel like any one-nighter I’ve ever…” Jason’s voice dropped off.
Gabe gazed at the campfire with lips tightly drawn. Matt was poking the fire with a dead willow branch. The wind rustled through the tops of the trees, yet it was calm at the campsite.
“Not sure when she left. I feel asleep and didn’t hear anything. In the morning, Bill gave me a ride to the bike shop. We exchanged numbers, shook hands and that was the last time I saw him. I was on the road a few hours later and the rest of the trip went well. About a week later, when I got to Aspen, I called them to say thanks. Bill answered the phone, but he sounded like he was on another planet. Allison killed herself 3 days before. Whatever pills she took, she took a lot of them. She died in her sleep.”
The Mini Cooper dealer was uptown and for a few miles they drove without talking. Jason was focused on weaving through heavy traffic and Gabe was busy typing notes on his iPhone.
“You know, I’ve been thinking about the Twisty’s Tavern lately,” Gabe looked in the side mirror.
“Yeah, do you remember it? It’s the story you told the day we met.”
“Of course, how can I forget Allison?” Jason maneuvered through traffic.
“How long has that been? Twenty years now?”
The traffic lightened up now and was moving at normal speed. The rain had turned to drizzle, and patches of blue sky to the West were slowly eating away at the steel-gray overcast.
“I need to tell you something, Jason.” Gabe stared at the crow’s feet around Jason’s eyes.
“That lucky hat you used to wear, do you still have it? ‘Cause I could use it about now.”
“You know I’ve been in a funk for a few months now.” He lowered his voice.
“Yeah, but you go through your male PMS periodically, that’s not unusual.”
“This time, I have a decent reason for it.” Gabe turned his head and looked straight ahead. “I was diagnosed with ALS in October.”
The windshield wipers, set on intermittent, swooshed back and forth. They took that trip four more times before Jason said,
“Are you serious?” He allowed the car to match the speed of surrounding traffic.
“I am dead serious.”
“I don’t know how to respond to this…”
“I don’t know what to say, either.” Gabe said. “Would you accept “Good knowing you”?
Jason signaled to the right and maneuvered for the exit.
“Tires can wait. Let’s get a cup of coffee.”
The green umbrellas of Starbucks stood out from two blocks away. Gabe ordered his usual drip coffee and Jason got a green tea in a paper cup.
“What’s your plan? I know that there’s nothing they can do for you. How bad is it getting to be?”
“Not too bad yet. I am getting weaker in my arms, but, overall, I’m still very functional. The stats say that I got two to five years… But, what am I telling you this for, you know what path it takes from here.”
Jason slowly turned his cup on the table.
“The worst part is watching yourself slowly go to hell, day by day.”
Jason took the plastic lid off his cup and pulled the tea bag up and then lowered it back down. His tea looked more brown than green. He dipped the tea bag several more times.
“You plan to hang in there until the end?”
“I really don’t want to wait that long. You know?” Gabe looked directly in Jason’s eyes.
“My dad would always say that it ain’t up to us to decide when to go; that some things are just not ours to figure out. But, he was full of fear. When he got old, he was really afraid of dying.”
“Are you thinking of an early departure, Gabe?”
“I am. But I am scared, too. I am overwhelmed with all this, man. It just wasn’t supposed to be like this.
I keep thinking about Allison. I remember it like you told that story yesterday. I keep picturing in my mind how great she must have looked when she came up to see you that night. The straight black hair framing her face. Thin and still athletic-looking. So vibrant that you could have never imagined that three days later she would be gone.”
Jason rubbed the bridge of his nose and, almost inadvertently, the tips of his thumb and the forefinger slipped towards the corners of his eyes.
“But you remember her as being full of life. Able. Amazing lover. Great to look at. You didn’t get to see her hooked up to a respirator, with IV needles taped to her arms. Not able to move or talk, or even breathe…”
“I only knew her for one day, Gabe. It’s not the same with you.” He cradled his chin in his palm.
“How much time do I have with you? A month, two, six?”
“I’m ready to go now.” Gabe’s voice was raspy. “But, you know that I am lying. I’m not ready to go. I doubt I ever will be. It’s just a matter of figuring out what’s important. First, finish writing the story. Second, get my affairs in order. Then, find a graceful way to leave.”
“There is no graceful way to leave. You know that. No matter what you do, it’s a bad deal. It’s either an agony for you or a heartbreak for all who love you.”
“Well, there aren’t that many of them.” Gabe’s eyebrows seemed to get a little thicker. “We’re not going to make any decisions today. Let’s get you some wheels, what do you say?”
They drove the rest of the way with just a couple of comments directed at the weather and the terrible Northwest drivers. The dealer had a set of wheels that were much too expensive, but looked really sharp. Jason paid for them without saying a word. The tires had to be bought from a tire shop and there was one about a quarter of a mile away. It was closing time before the tires were put on the wheels, and they threw them in the back of Gabe’s 4-Runner.
“You want to grab some dinner here and wait out the traffic?” Gabe asked.
“Sure. There is a decent Thai place not too far away. We can walk there, but I don’t want to leave the new wheels in your car. I’ve had enough stuff stolen for one day.”
“Tom Yum Goong sounds really good.”
The waiter served the soup in a hot pot with a small tea light candle keeping it warm. Gabe ladled some out into Jason’s bowl and then served himself.
“This is better than I expected,” he said. “What do you think?”
“It’s good. Really good.” Jason chewed on a piece of galangal root. “But, what I am really thinking is that I won’t be able to help you out, man.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I am talking about the fact that I can’t help you do yourself in.” Jason put down the spoon and looked over the table. “That’s what you wanted to ask me, isn’t it?”
Gabe ate two more spoonfuls. The restaurant was full of people now and their voices carried across the open dining area. Someone, two tables over, was laughing hard and someone a little farther away coughed.
“Well, I won’t do it. You do what you need to do, but I’m staying out of it. There hasn’t been much that I wouldn’t have done for you over the years, and you know it. You’re on your own with this one.”
“Jason, there isn’t anyone else I can turn to now. No one.”
Gabe took his eyes of the dashed centerline that went down the middle of I-15 and looked right and left through the side windows. The highway looked familiar despite the sprawling mansions that sprung up alongside it in the last two decades. The hillsides were already awake with grasses and were standing in verdant green. Southern Utah was just the way he remembered. It was made of big spaces with lots of air. Once in a while, a gust of wind came from the sagebrush prairie and made him grab the wheel of the Four-Runner a little tighter.
He drove for the last two days, almost non-stop, with no music and hardly any food. The need for distraction has never showed itself. In the past, he would be on his third audio book this far into a trip, but now he was happy listening to the road noise and the occasional rain drops of an April shower.
Gabe drove through Las Vegas without stopping and, fifty miles later, took the exit for a secondary highway that would take him through the middle of the Mojave National Reserve to Joshua Tree.
It was close to midnight by the time he got to the campground and he turned off the headlights and found an empty campsite by the light of a crescent moon. In its dim glow, he could see a few parked vehicles and an outline of one or two tents. He didn’t bother pitching his and crawled into a sleeping bag in the back of the car. For the first time in weeks, he fell into a deep and uninterrupted sleep, as the cool and dry desert air moved in through the open windows.
The east wall of the pinnacle looked sexy and inviting with the morning sun warming its textured red sides. A beautiful hand-crack ran halfway up it and dissolved into a small ledge. From there, another crack, leaning slightly to the left, reached the top of the crag. The first pitch of the standard climbing route followed the lower crack to the ledge. From there, the second pitch would take the climbers to the top of the three-hundred-foot summit.
Gabe has climbed this route on several occasions. And, on many more, in his mind. As he did so many times before, he taped his knuckles with athletic tape for the hand jams, put on his climbing shoes and started climbing the crack. Within a few seconds, he settled into a smooth “hand, hand, foot, foot” rhythm. His legs were doing most of the work, and, without the rope, harness and protection gear, it was a lot less effort for his arms.
He was surprised at how quickly he got to the ledge and how the short climb exhausted him. Holding on to the rock with both hands, he felt his legs quake under him.
“This isn’t the way I remember it.” He shook his head and looked at his arms.
“But, this is.”
He stood on the ledge panting and swept his eyes over the red crags peppering the Joshua Tree Valley. The Joshua Trees rose like sentinels amid the sagebrush and the long shadows lied about their numbers. He took a deep breath and noticed how hard it was to get air into his lungs.
“I miss it already.”