What do you get when you mix fifty blacktail deer (assorted sizes), two big cows (black), and a cow elk with a tiny wife? Eighty-six pounds of pain, that’s what.
No, no, it’s my tiny wife; she’s not married to the cow elk. That would be just too kinky for words.
A bit of additional clarification might help, though. Read on.
Pam and I rolled out of southern Arizona in our somewhat modified 1996 GMC pickup truck with its heavy duty one ton springs under the back end and 1600 pounds of slide-in camper hogging the truck bed. The idea was to run more than 900 miles north, up through Tucson, Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Page (thus eliminating Arizona) and then covering Kanab, Beaver, Salt Lake City, and other Utah towns before arriving in Brigham City. We had a plan: Meet with Pam’s new primary medical care provider at 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning (Jan. 6), get set up with a Brigham City pharmacy, and then return to Cochise County.
Then, with little more than three weeks to prepare, turn around and do it again–but with the camper loaded to the gills, hauling as much of Pam’s worldly goods as we could cram in there. In early February, her daughter and son in law would be closing on a new-to-them home that included a mother in law apartment. Pam would begin living there more than here, riding back and forth with me on occasion in order to have some time “at home” with the Border Fort and all it contains.
Uh-huh. That’s what we thought. As it turned out, the universe had other plans.
The trip started out A-OK. My wife had managed to pack her own stuff and was ready to depart by 12:30 p.m. on Monday, only a couple of hours behind schedule. For a lady with more disabilities than politicians have excuses, that was flat-out impressive. By dark, we’d covered some ground and were well north of Flagstaff, motoring up Highway 89 toward Page.
We’d also discovered a few things. The camper is as top-heavy as Dolly Parton before a breast reduction. Wind, including buffeting from passing eighteen wheelers, gives the vehicle holy Hell, requiring the driver to make constant steering wheel adjustments to hold course. On the plus side, the stout springs keep everything on the level, but you wouldn’t want a greenhorn piloting the beast. Also, high speed driving, while eminently doable with the strong V-8 engine, sucks down some serious gasoline, dropping the pre-camper rate of 16.3 mpg down as far as 8.8 mpg. (This latter having been experienced during the nasty climb from Phoenix to Flagstaff.)
On the plus side, running at a more leisurely pace, between 55 and 60 mph, allows the GMC to crank the fuel economy back up to anywhere between 12.0 and 15.5 mpg, depending on terrain and wind factors.
All in all, not such a bad deal. We were making progress.
Until we reached a point some 24 miles south of Page, that is. The lights blazed, a regular bank of midnight suns. (Okay, so it wasn’t yet midnight, but hey.) Barricades across the highway. Signs announcing that the road was CLOSED.
As the texting generations say, WTF?!
The blockage was carefully positioned to allow drivers to choose an alternate route, Highway 89A. Ah, the scenic route. I’d driven it once, in 2006. It’s scenic, all right. It also heads up through Kaibab forest lands, switchbacks, speed limits as low as 30 mph, and more, topping out at an elevation of 7,921 feet above sea level.
We passed Jacob Lake, found a wide spot up on top, and pulled over to let Pam climb into the well padded back seat of the truck to catch some zz’s. She took her night meds, got all comfy, and away we went on the downhill side. Never mind that unidentified burning smell we’d picked up when we opened the truck door; I’d figure that out later.
Pammie was just resting nicely, deep in dreamland, when rounding a tight curve suddenly revealed a pair of huge, dark shadows right smack in front of us. For a split second, I thought they were moose; they were certainly big enough. “Look out!” I yelled–apparently at the animals, a maneuver I’ve never tried before in 56 years of licensed driving–and stabbed down on the worthless &%$!! ABS brakes.
Not moose after all, but cows. Cows that buy their apparel at the Big and Tall Cow Shop. I grew up on a ranch. I rodeoed professionally. I know a tall cow when I see one, and these cows were tall. At a guess, some sort of Angus-Holstein cross, entirely jet black except for the partially white udder on the one we came closest to hitting. Her sister cow stood motionless in the other lane. “Our” cow took one and one half leisurely steps to our left, giving me just enough room to whip to the right a bit–not too much, what with a top-heavy camper and no road shoulder to speak of, but enough. We slipped on by, no harm, no foul.
But of course my yell brought my wife upright in her sleeping bag like a Jill-in-the-box, staring forward at the dark night outside, momentarily wide awake and burn-wasting her meds.
Yeah, I should be grateful it was only that, right? Much better to have a wife awake than a thousand pound cow as a hood ornament….
Many miles later, after we were clear of that mountain and Pam had been slump-sleeping for…well, approximately forever…I was finally able to urge her back down to a horizontal position. Maybe she’d get some rest yet.
Oops. Not so fast, cowboy. It’s Glendale, Utah, with so many deer in the street that I’m literally herding them toward the shoulder with the truck. When the first batch jumped into position, my “Look out!” warning wasn’t nearly as loud as it had been for the big black bovines, but it was enough. Jill jumped back up out of her box again…and this time, there was no getting her back down.
One blessing coming up: It happened on the crossover road (Highway 20) between Highway 89 and I-15. Pammie was wide awake at the moment, staring forward. The cow elk trotted briskly across the road, one of the few critters we’d seen all night who wasn’t close enough to present any real threat.
My redhead was thrilled. Perhaps because of her early onset Alzheimer’s–or maybe not–she couldn’t identify the species at all…but she did recognize its beauty. It took me several tries to get it through her little punkin head that we’d just seen an adult cow elk.
It was the first live elk Pam had ever seen. This is a girl who’s honestly seen a live Sasquatch…but not a live elk. Not until that moment.
At Beaver, Utah, I decided it was time for me to catch a few winks. The clock said 4:00 a.m. and my favorite café in the area should open up at 6:00. We left the truck running, Pam went back to sleep in her bag, and I leaned the driver’s seat back. Ah-h-h, paradise!
Until 5:35, that is. Pammie’s up. Gotta pee. Gotta find her shoes. Which means I’m done sleeping. It was still nice and dark outside. Pam can go anywhere. We both added to the yellow snow population and settled in to wait for the café to open at 6:00.
It didn’t. Turns out the entire town of Beaver, Utah, sleeps in until 7:00. Go figure.
So we topped off the tank and motored on north.
Up until this point, my beloved had done amazingly well…but from that point forward, things went to Hell in the proverbial hand basket. Daylight came. She began making regular progress report calls to her daughter. Amy swiftly realized that her Mom was fading fast, sounding dramatically worse with each call.
Pammie’s pain was skyrocketing. Meds didn’t help; they can only do so much.
By the time we’d eaten breakfast at Nephi and Pam had found an awesome winter hat in the Flying J truck stop, she knew she was toast. We had roughly 140 miles to go when she called Amy, crying on the phone, admitting that she could not endure a return trip. She would have to stay with her daughter’s family, starting immediately. There would be no return trip to Arizona, not now, not ever. Her entire life had just been flipped on its little punkin head.
Amy and her husband were (predictably) awesome. They mucked out enough of their spare “junk” room to make a bed space for Pam.
And I realized that somewhere along the way I’d lost the keys to the camper. As comedian Jeff Dunham (speaking through his dummy, Walter) mentioned on the radio during the trip, age is just a number but “dumbass” is in your DNA.
Amy understood. She has her locksmith on speed dial.
Said locksmith fixed me right up. I chased out to join Pam and the younger generation to look at they house they’re buying. Freaking awesome place. It should do well for all of them, including Pam.
But my honey was cranky. It was hitting her, not only the pain (though that was more than enough all by itself) but also (and mostly) the realization that she was never going home again. She had to lash out. I didn’t blame her. She needed food (which she was in no condition to accept) and she needed sleep (which she would not consider until we’d been to Walmart for a few honestly necessary purchases including an air mattress).
She slept that night at Amy’s. I slept in the camper at an RV park. Silver lining: The propane furnace works great. I got up, rested except for a couple of knots on my skull from banging my head into low hanging cabinets. Pam and I got to the doctor’s on time, filled out the forms, had a great first consultation with her new provider, got established with the pharmacy, hit Walmart again, and I headed for home…worrying a bit about Pam’s horribly low weight at her doctor’s appointment, a mere 86 pounds when we know that 90 pounds is her DANGER! point.
I headed for home after Pam found my truck keys, that is. I’d dropped them in her bedroom at Amy’s while helping her dump her purse to find her new meds.
The trip back was good…somewhat. Or maybe not. I wouldn’t say I was depressed–that’s not part of my makeup–or that I felt guilty. But I did feel concerned, realizing that I was not heading home to Pam but rather heading home away from Pam. It felt like I’d failed my mission, failed my wife.
So I thought it through. After all, on a 950 mile run, you have time to think.
Meanwhile, back down at Kanab, Utah, I got there while the Stage Stop service station and convenience store was still open. I asked the clerk what she knew about the road blockage on the other side of Page.
As I’d hoped, she knew quite a bit. “Two years ago in the spring, a big sinkhole just swallowed the road. Nobody got hurt, nobody even drove a car in there, but when they tried to fill it, it just kept sinking more. So the only thing they could think of to do was let it settle for a while, and maybe it would get more solid.”
I wouldn’t want to bet on that scenario, but that’s what she said. She also said that yes, there was another way to travel down around the sinkhole–other than 89A, the scenic route with the cows–but she didn’t know if it was better or not.
What the hey, it had to be worth a try. I’d just come through deer, deer everywhere from Beaver to Kanab; how tough could it be?
Fog tough, that’s how tough. The highway was fine; the fog sucked. Miles and miles and miles of fog. London pea soup in-your-face fog. Pam would not have been a happy camper watching that stuff hide the entire environment.
The detour went through Navajo land, formerly unpaved dirt, now paved since the State of Arizona had negotiated with the Navajo for the right to use it temporarily. You can tell it’s a Navajo road on the map they have at the Stage Stop (the only map I’ve seen that shows it)…because it’s designated as “N-20”. Navajo 20.
When I came out at the Gap, I realized two things:
1. Amy and her husband got it right every time…because they came south first. Heading south, the route is well marked; you can’t miss it. At the bottom end, it comes out next to a big Express brand service station, the only building in the area. Great landkmark.
2. But going north first, as Pam and I had done–and at night at that–it’s another matter entirely. There are no road ID signs, at least that I could spot. The only marker is a small green sign on a light pole that says simply “PAGE”. I was watching the store, watching for traffic, NOT watching for a nearly invisible sign. No wonder I missed it.
Moving right along. Looking good. At the Wauneta Trading Post, 2:00 a.m., I pulled over to get some sleep. No Pam in the back seat. Ah-h-h, paradise!
Up at 5:35 and on down the road. Topped off the tank in Flagstaff. Got lost on my way to I-40 (never mind that I’ve run that route at least 15 times in the past). Asked the guys who’d just opened up at the NAPA store. Went on my way.
Fast forward. Nearly home, between 10 and 15 miles short of Sierra Vista, talking on the phone with Pam, and–“Gotta get off the phone, honey! I just lost the entire transmission!”
I had, too. That tranny was rebuilt a mere 14,000 miles ago…but we’d burned it out on the Utah run with that camper. One quick (honestly quick) wrecker ride later, a few discoveries of transmission shops in town being either closed or (in the case of the one that did the rebuild) out of business entirely, and…. Pam’s son, Zach, and his Dad show up to give me a ride home. We kick it around a bit. At their suggestion–and I concur wholeheartedly–we’ll try filling the transmission case with fresh fluid. If it’ll move the truck at all, I’ll try limping it out to their place, to the shop with the hoist and two resident dudes (Zach and his Dad) who don’t mind fixing the thing.
The limping run is successful. 3500 rpm on the engine only moves the truck at 30 mph, but it does move.
It’ll take another new transmission. This one is thoroughly toast. That was the burned smell Pam and I were picking up at 7,921 feet above sea level. Zach had called it from the beginning; he’d doubted the truck would hold up once the camper was mounted. In fact, there’s a sticker inside the glove box (which I did not discover until the day before we left for Utah) that expressly states, “…as manufactured…Do not mount a slide-in camper on this truck.”
Now they tell me.
Ah, but we’re “remanufacturing” the beast. They know the best transmission shop in town. This time, we’ll upgrade the tranny, put the beefiest bugger in there that’ll fit. Not only will the GMC end up being awesomely able to run hither, thither, and yon with the camper mounted–but it will also end up being worthy as a “Rattler Gulch truck”, able to safely climb and descend the 9 miles of steep, rugged road between the western Montana frontage road and the land I recently bought wa-ay off grid.
Okay, so I was thinking, see, somewhere in between northern Utah and southern Arizona. My thoughts went like this:
–Could I have done anything different for Pam, anything that might have helped her avoid the need to move to Utah immediately, wham, bam, thank you Pam!? Answer: Not a thing. So much for the past; it is what it is.
–Could I be doing anything different in the present and/or immediate future? Answer: I’m already planning to ship boxes of stuff up to Pam that she’ll need immediately. Our “other truck” will be gone through to make sure it’s roadworthy enough to pull a small U-Haul trailer full of goodies once she and her daughter’s family are ensconced in the new house. That all makes sense, so I’m okay on that score.
–Ah, but what about the longer term future? And there, I realized, decisions could be made. I pondered some more…and I made those decisions. Our prison pen pal friend gets out of prison in March of 2017. I won’t do anything drastic until she’s safely home with me. (The original plan was for her to live with “us”; now she’ll be living with “me”.) Jennifer has gone through two cancer removal operations on her right shoulder, the second leaving her with no more than 20% function for the rest of her life. She’s got another seven months of chemotherapy to go. Her emotions are fragile and, like Pam, she’s a born worry wart. She does not need to be fretting over me moving right now; the Pam move is tough enough on her.
But after she’s out, that’s another story. I’ll put the Border Fort and its acreage on the market, mostly likely taking a hellacious bath financially but taking whatever I can get. Then Jennifer and I will move to Drummond, Montana, close to both of my sisters and their husbands but most importantly close to the land I purchased in November.
Bonus Surprise: Instead of having 950 ugly miles to cover in order to visit Pam, we’ll have maybe 425 all freeway miles. This last run took me 23.5 hours northbound and 22.0 hours southbound (not counting the transmission breakdown). From Drummond to Pam’s new home–we can cover that in six hours flat, smooth as silk. That’s gentle and brief enough for Pam to ride back with us once in a while, come on up to Drummond for a week or so every now and then, visit my side of the family, hang with her kitty cats and her many beloved chachkas. Conversely, Jennifer and I can pop down on a Friday (for example), hang out with Pam early Friday evening and all day Saturday, leave after my redhead goes to bed on Saturday night, and be back home to Drummond before the sun comes up on Sunday.
Or something like that.
Anyway, that’s the (relatively) short version of the trip involving a whole lot of pavement loving animals including elk and deer and cattle–oh yeah, forgot about the jack rabbit in Orderville I had to loop around to avoid–as well as my wife, my eighty-six pound bundle of pain. Her Utah doctor sent home orders for the family to make sure Pam eats “three meals and three snacks a day”. They’re all encouraging her–“all” meaning one daughter, one son in law, and two teenaged grandsons–and she sounds encouraged by all the loving attention, at least so far.
In the meantime, if you’re looking for a steal of a deal on an awesome off grid home on 20 acres near the Mexican border, let me know; I’ve got one for sale, and as of April 2017, I’ll make you an offer you can’t refuse.