Go West


I haven’t been further west than Texas much, but one such trip was to New Mexico to see my grandmother, when I was pre-elementary-school age. She lived with her sister Grace at the time, and her sister Tine lived nearby. Aunt Tine’s house was exciting - it was a white two-story with a basement. I’d never seen a basement, so I was scared to go downstairs, fearing skeletons or humongous rats – the usual basement fare. It was anticlimactic, but a relief, when all I saw was a large room with a concrete floor. What I loved most at Aunt Tine’s was her fried chicken. Five decades later, I still recall her perfectly fried chicken – a culinary art form I’ve never mastered. Every time I’ve tried – both times – the outside of the bird was just right, while the inside was still bleeding. Perhaps I’ll put “Learn to fry chicken” on my bucket list. Or, better yet, I’ll just continue to buy buckets of grilled chicken from Colonel Sanders. I make World Class Gluten-Free Chicken Tenders, but the challenge comes with chickens that still have their bones.

My Aunt Vesta also lived in the area. She was sweet, gentle, and soft spoken. But she was also something else, or at least it seemed - she was ditzy. Of course, that’s not to say she wasn’t intelligent. My friend Rosebud once told me, “Kim, you get smarter and smarter, the older you get. But the smarter you get, the ditzier you get!” How do you respond to that? It’s the ultimate complisult – compliment mixed with insult. So, it may be that Aunt Vesta (and those like her, of course) was brilliant, but seemed ditzy because of her naivety and mannerisms. Either way, I always worried that she might get run over by the stronger personalities in the family.

One day, we went to Aunt Vesta and Uncle Gerald’s Collection Shop. To my young eyes, it simply looked like a building full of old junk. Being in New Mexico, with its Native American heritage, it wasn’t a surprise to see pottery and arrowheads throughout the store. I was grossed out to see skulls of small animals on some of the shelves; I hadn’t yet learned that some consider it acceptable décor to hang stuffed animal heads on the walls of their homes. Never, dear reader, will I have animal heads hanging on a wall. I’d never sleep, constantly feeling their searing, glaring eyes, and waiting for them to come to life when I least expected it.

As I made my way to the center of the store, a glass case, about three feet off the ground, stopped me in my tracks. Inside the case was a partial human skeleton. I stood there, in Gerald & Vesta’s Little Shop of Horrors, frozen. I can still see it, and have a photo postcard to prove it was there. It’s fake, I assured myself. Nobody keeps skeletons.

I don’t recall to whom I asked if it was real, but someone answered me, saying, “Oh yes, that is a real human skeleton.” I wished I hadn’t asked.

Who is that? Where are the rest of his bones? How did he die? Why is he here? Is that for sale? Ewww, who would buy it? Fearing the details, I kept those questions to myself. I suppose it qualified as an antique, but why, oh why, was it on display for every terrified little girl with an overactive imagination to see? I’m sure this horrific memory is why I don’t watch any graphic crime shows on TV – dead-people-on-a-slab shows. My photo postcard also shows, in the same glass case as the other skeleton, a mummified Native American child of pre-historic basket-makers; being a child myself, that memory was repressed into the depths of my psyche, never to be remembered again. Until, of course, this week, when I found the photo.

When I was finally able to walk away from that glass case, I noticed the store had two floors, and lots of nooks and crannies. In spite of the stiff on the first floor, it was a cool place, although I don’t remember much after that; I was too busy steering clear of any other dead people.

For years, I credited that trip with creating my disdain for rocky terrain. After countless hours of driving, I couldn’t see the attraction that adults saw. What was beautiful about it? They were just rocks. Boring rocks. My disinterest was similar to that of my nephew Isaac several years ago. Doc and Isaac traveled over 2,000 miles from Texas to California, on a Harley. When they finally saw the majestic redwoods, Isaac said, “Dad, they’re just trees.” He’ll be about 35 years old before he’ll fully appreciate the trip.

The rocks I found especially redundant were the mammoth ones that were carved out for the roads we drove on. Rocks, rocks, rocks as far as I could see. Blah, blah, blah. Of course, I collected rocks from everywhere I went, but that was different. Those were small rocks that I carried home as souvenirs. But, a few years later on a trip to Michigan with Mom, my taste in rocks had grown; those souvenirs were so large, Mom had to re-pack our suitcases, distributing the weight of the small boulders so we could carry our luggage.

New Mexico offered a wonderful assortment of dolls – some smaller than an inch tall, made out of beads, and bigger dolls dressed in Native American garb. I also collected dolls from my travels. They were all plastic, with varying shades of skin color, dressed in clothes that were native to the culture of the areas where I bought them. I also loved the turquoise jewelry on display in most stores. When I was born, Aunt Grace gave me a turquoise ring and matching bracelet; I still wore the ring on my pinkie when I was in college – turquoise is a rock I’ve never tired of. And I enjoyed a side trip to Four Corners, where I thought it was thrilling to be able to stand in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado simultaneously.

Many years later, when Cowboy was a baby, my family and I, plus Mom, drove through New Mexico on the way to Colorado. But that time, New Mexico looked different. Someone had changed it, making it prettier over the decades. I especially loved driving on the roads that were carved out of the rocky hills. I never tired of the scenery. It was during that trip I saw my first mountain, in New Mexico. Well, the first mountain I could remember; all I’d remembered from my childhood were, of course, rocks. I freaked out. I didn’t even know there were mountains in New Mexico. Topography, as well as geography, is not my strong suit. Mom was in the back seat, thinking, If she’s this excited now, wait until she gets to Colorado and sees the Rockies!

Indeed. When we arrived in Colorado, I was overwhelmed as we got closer to those giant monoliths. Driving through Estes Park, with a wall of mountain on each side of the car, I felt like a tiny speck on the planet. “America the Beautiful” comes to mind when I picture it.

Of course, when we decided to drive up a mountain, that’s not quite the song I was singing in my head - “Highway to Hell” reverberated in my brain, followed by “The Lord’s Prayer” repeating over and over. I begged God to spare our lives and help us return to a reasonable sea level. The rest of the family was calm, but I kept instructing Flash, “Babe, be careful,” as he navigated that steep, twisting road to the top.

“I am being careful,” he responded over 50 times. But, being on the side of the car that was closest to falling off the edge of the world, I was not convinced. Finally, he bellowed, “What, in this situation, makes you think I’m not being careful?” Oh yeah, I thought, I guess he does have something to lose, too.

When we got to the top, the scene was one of terrifying splendor as we looked out and could see for miles beyond where we stood. It was peaceful, in spite of my fear – a fear that was multiplied by the fact that what goes up must come down. I talked with Flash about the option of living up there so we’d never have to drive back down. We could work in the gift shop. Friends who loved us enough would come visit, and maybe Flash could get a job parking cars or selling valium to spectators before they drove back down.

When it was time to descend, I thought maybe going down would be easier, like it is with stairs. Of course, most staircases don’t compel me to remind Flash where my Last Will and Testament is kept. As we made the trek down, I thought of all those old 70s TV crime shows where the killer cuts the brake line of his victim’s car, followed by the slow motion scene where the car careens off a cliff. Our van was well covered in prayer on the way down.

“Well, I’ll never do that again,” I exclaimed with relief, when we got to the bottom of Mount Everest. I’m sure Flash was thinking the same thing, if for no other reason than to never have to hear me go through it again.

In spite of any traveling traumas endured in the Land of Rocky Terrain, I love the beauty of rocks and mountains, and long to go further west. Someday, I want to drive from Texas to California. On the way, I’ll view anything larger than a highway overpass from the lowest sea level available. But I’ll appreciate every moment of the trip, including seeing the mighty redwoods.