There’s one thing I’m pretty sure of. I am mother of two, wife to one, sister to many because my parents’ 1977 Lincoln Continental Towncar broke down in Podunk, MT in May of 1988.
In 1985 my brother graduated high school. Less than a year later my grandmother died. I hope I find the hook to write about her because she’s a person worthy of her own post. But the point here is that Raoul graduating and Annalise dying freed my parents to relocate. Fewer entanglements and, let’s face it: from a middle-class perspective, Annalise’s death meant that we were now kinda sorta rich. Dad wanted to move to Colorado.
Colorado was Dad’s heartland. Twenty-five years earlier he had briefly worked there as a deejay for a local radio station and he’d remembered it fondly since. Mother may have fed me milk but Dad fed me dreams of living in a mountain paradise where the summers were cool and the winters were quilted in snow. We would watch “Sound of Music” with Grandma Annalise and while she reminisced about Mother Austria, Dad would say “just wait until you see Colorado! It’s just as beautiful as those mountains. We’ll live there someday.”
Someday had arrived. Dad was Dorothy, Mother was the Tin Woodsman, Freddie the Cowardly Lion, Lizzie the Scarecrow, and I was Toto, yipping at my Dad’s heels and eating up everything he said. We were on our journey to find our way to home with the Interstates of the western United States as our yellow brick road. Dad would buy enough acreage that all ten kids could each have a house on the homestead and we’d live in an eponymously-named town. Let’s go!
So we took an epic road-trip: Phoenix to Disneyland with a stopover at Grandma’s old farm, north up Route 1 to Berkeley to see my sister’s graduation, pausing in Portland to visit Multnomah Falls and then Seattle to see the Space Needle. We stayed a few days in Spokane to visit Mother’s step-mother and do a courtesy search on homes to let her think we might move there (Dad had no intention of it). We hopped onto I-90 east to make the trek across the Panhandle and then south through Montana, Wyoming, and eventually Colorado where we’d stop for several days to check out the colleges (where my mother would teach and I’d eventually attend) and look at property.
“What’s that smell?” I asked from the backseat. “It’s like rotten eggs.”
“There’s a problem with the engine. We need to turn off the a/c,” Dad said.
Had this been Phoenix, I would’ve protested mightily. This was just east of Wallace, ID. I could take it.
“Do we need to stop?” I asked.
“Nah, we just need to let the car cool down.”
Around St. Regis, I remember asking again. “It smells really bad. Do we need to stop to fix it?”
Mother said, “No, it’s just the fuel they use up here. It’ll be fine once we get different gas.”
A little more time passed and we approached Alberton. “Do you hear that clunking sound?”
Dad snapped from the front. “Yes, we hear it. Will you please stop talking!”
I took the hint. When we hit the next city, they didn’t need my pithy observations any more anyway. The car made the decision for us. It stopped around I-90 exit 98. We were towed to the closest town. Nothing turns Dad’s spirit of adventure around like an unplanned misadventure. He was in a foul mood when we reached the hotel. Mother put on her air of forced cheerfulness, a perverse quality that only comes out when everyone else is crankier than she is.
“Timmy, this is a beautiful place to be stuck! Look at how cheap the hotels are.”
Dad would harrumph. “Just wait,” Dad said, “until you see Colorado. Pueblo is beautiful. It’s absolutely untouched.”
Mother would persist. “Did you notice they have Shakespeare in the Park on Wednesdays? We can take the girls down to see it!”
Dad would harrumph. “Just wait,” Dad said, “until you see Colorado. Boulder is amazing. It’s a small community about 50 miles away from Denver.”
“Look! The restaurant next door is actually perched over a river and you can see the water pass underneath you.”
Dad would harrumph. “Just wait,” Dad said, “until you see Colorado. I once visited Littleton. It’s nothing but farms. It’s so quiet there.”
“Did you notice how cheap the property is here? We could buy 1000 acres just from selling our home in Phoenix!”
That piqued Dad’s interest. He’s an Old World man who holds two truths: One, always pursue education – no one can take it from you. Two, always obtain more land – no one’s making any more of it. So we looked around a bit. Mother was, for once, not exaggerating. A person really could buy a thousand acres of lushly forested land for only a couple hundred thousand dollars or less. Yertle the Turtle had lower aspirations than Dad at that moment. But he held out for Colorado.
And so went on their respective refrains. Mother always a new verse citing Montana’s virtues, Dad offering the Greek chorus. Where were Rogers and Hammerstein when you needed them? But eventually the car got fixed, six days after we smelled the first whiff of automotive despair. Time to hit the road, Jack. Colorado, here we come.
You know how this story ends. Eight hundred miles later, we’re in the cooler, greener version of Phoenix with urban sprawl in every direction, expensive land, and nothing like the city of 20 years earlier that Dad remembered.
At a certain point (and I’m sure this happened even though I don’t remember it) I know Mother turned to Dad and, with an impish look said, “Honey, just wait until we get back to Montana. It’s amazing.”
Forcing that car to drive 300 miles over mountain passes was the domino that resulted in me being here on a coffee shop porch in the Pacific Northwest, chilled and wearing a hoody on August 8, 2011. At home I have waiting for me two cuddly-warm sleepy little boys, the product of a relationship I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t gone to college when I did with whom I did and, most importantly, where I did. If someone had laid realities in front of me like tarot cards and asked me to choose one, I’m not sure I would’ve picked this one – even now I’m unsure. But I’m not unhappy with it. Some of this stuff might’ve happened anyway, but I don’t like to play games with fate. I like this way better.
It took more than two years, but Dad finally got his dream ranch in Montana. It didn’t quite work out in many ways as they had planned. No children but one live nearby. Their business ventures have largely failed. Neither education nor land has brought my parents financial security because neither compensates for crappy decision-making ability. But I don’t think they have many regrets and, really, neither do I.