Two Steps Back

A series of machinations led to another, even younger-looking tow truck driver appearing some 30 minutes after we first arrived. He was prepared to drive me the two hours to Grand Junction and he was short on words. I greeted him and we hopped into the cab with Hank in between us and we were off. The truck strained righteously against the weight of the Land Cruiser, and between its clamor and general state of being a tow truck (“The oldest and slowest one in our fleet,” my first driver told me), what few words we exchanged were yelled and met with the resigned silence of two people who really didn’t want to be driving to Grand Junction.

As we edged out of Moab Town Limits, I noted two young and attractive women hitchhiking their way towards town. Of course I wished my circumstances were different in any number of reasons, both in ways that would put me in a position to give them a ride, and that would put me in a position to never wish I could give attractive female hitchhikers a ride. My driver noted this, too, and an utterly unconcealable smirk spread across his face as we drove by them cheerily thumbing the opposite direction. The last time I’d been in Grand Junction, some two days prior, I had just given a rugged old alcoholic squatter a ride from Carbondale to Glenwood Springs, then driven on to Grand Junction en route to Moab. Perhaps all hitchhikers lead to Grand Junction, Colorado, however indirectly. The universe seems to contract and expand while on the road, and in this way, it is possible to let a few observations lead to a general conclusion about the state of affairs around you.

It was oddly enjoyable to sit in the tow truck, which was probably eighty degrees to instead of the outside air’s one hundred five, watching the landscape become slowly less dramatic as we eased away from Moab and its arches and plateaus. I was covered in mechanical greases and dusts, exceptionally thirsty, and fully accepting that my plans for the next few days were in as many pieces as the gears inside of my transmission. And yet, there was an eerie calm in the cabin. The driver was accustomed to a different relationship between space and time. He still occasionally peeked at his phone like any young American, and yet he seemed somehow immune to the minuscule attention span and tangible impatience that marks so much of our generation. He was driving some two hours to Grand Junction and two hours back to Moab, in a punishing early-eighties International Harvester, and he was quite alright with it. I felt a lot of admiration and kinship towards this young man, whose name I barely ever caught and certainly don’t recall now. Every glance I took in his direction revealed a rich interior life so characteristic of those whose minds aren’t wasted doing someone else’s mental labor. When the task at hand is tangible, the mind is free to do its best thinking, and the glimmer in his eye and calm in his jaw revealed someone whose mind was safely elsewhere, working through its own biggest problems and grandest plans, holding the beautiful and the dreadful in equal regard and vivid detail. Occasionally I caught a twinkle that I thought may have been related to the hitchhikers, but there is no way to know for sure—it was simply far too loud to ask that question with the knowing delicacy it deserves.

And just like that, two hours in the tow truck were dispatched and we were unloading the Land Cruiser from the flatbed in the parking lot of an enormous discount motel in Grand Junction, Colorado amid a less severe heat than Moab’s, but one which was more unfamiliar to our current location. I startled my heroic driver with a $20 bill for his help, which he regarded as a foreign object even though he’d witnessed me startle my first driver the same way in their office. If there’s one thing I’ve become especially adept at on the road, it’s converting my money into coffee and stories that may benefit one or two people at a staggeringly inefficient rate.

As I eased the truck into a parking spot using only its very wounded first gear, I was reminded of a story told by a friend who had hitchhiked much of South America some years prior. He told of long-haul truckers’ willingness to pick up a hitchhiker and share a pinch of coca leaves, so they could both pass the time stimulated and silent, with occasional ranting reveries in a Spanish he could not understand. Over time, he mastered basic questions and requests for slowness and clarity, until finally he was able to ask a driver, “What do you think about all these hours on the road?”

He was told in vivid, poetic detail that rapidly accelerated as it went on of the rich inner workings of a Uruguayan trucker. Daydreams of his young children and long mastication on loves lost, ideas about God and existence and death and hard work. Driving a truck requires a certain concentration that occupies the primal part of the brain and leaves free the imaginative, remembering quadrants which then occupy themselves with mental grandeur since they cannot stare at blinking screens or bury themselves in chemical and physical indulgence. And the stimulants consumed to keep the reptile brain driving also have lovely effects on the creative soul that sprawls like the landscapes it passes through. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I stop at most every coffee shop I have a curiosity about along my route.

Hank and I settled into our cheap motel room and I collapsed onto the papery bed. The thermostat seemed to have no effect on the air conditioning, so I wallowed in the heat that had enveloped me since half past six that morning. At this point, it was sometime after seven PM and I browsed Yelp for dinner options in a town that seems to chiefly be a hub for road trip stops and commerce amidst the sparsely populated areas that surround it in every direction. I was surprised to find more than one Nepalese restaurant, so I quickly settled in on the one that seemed a bit further off the beaten path and hailed a Lyft to take me there. Were it not for the app notifying me that my driver was it outside, I may have never gotten off that bed. Hank was unperturbed by my departure; he, too, was feeling the exhaustion that comes not from raw physical exertion but from spending the better part of the day dipping into a reserve of resolve. I promised him I’d be back soon, which he acknowledged with his signature single tail wag and face smooshed flat on the bed, and I stepped out the door to find my driver.

Dining is a conspicuous component of extended travel. At times, it is a lengthy process to procure and prepare pedestrian fare and which is consumed in a matter of minutes, only to spend an equal amount of time hiding the leftovers from bears. At others, it is a celebratory feast when you’re in town visiting old friends “for one night only,” which means ordering multiple appetizers and a nice bottle of wine and being the cause of someone else’s special occasion. Most of the time, though, it is somewhere in between, and you find yourself wanting respite from the overindulgent feasts of celebration and the sparse meals of necessity. And after a day of mountain biking and grueling off-roading and mechanical failures and a long tow truck ride, I wanted to sit and be served Himalayan food in Grand Junction, Colorado. The restaurant I visited was tucked away in a part of town that my Lyft driver indicated “he didn’t normally take people to.” A standalone building in the same parking lot was a newly-legalized Colorado pot shop, a neighbor in the strip center was the ubiquitous seedy insurance agency seen in outskirts malls from sea to shining sea, and a few other businesses that already escape recall. The restaurant itself was a family affair; a husband, wife, and young daughter all hailed from Nepal and served dishes that immediately transported me back to a South Brooklyn Nepalese restaurant I’d visited many years prior.

Its dishes have distinctive flavors and textures unlike anything else I’ve experienced, and the strangeness of experiencing them in a city I had no idea I’d be revisiting was not lost on me. I sat alone without book or phone and simply observed and waited. The music dancing its way from kitchen to dining room was utterly unfamiliar in language and melody. The movement of patrons and servers was languid and surreal. And the same driver who took me from my motel to the restaurant reappeared some ten minutes after I summoned a ride on Lyft. For all of the dozens of thousands of people in Grand Junction, the world felt intimately small and caring. After witnessing the astounding grandeur of Canyonlands, the series of events that led me to the front door of the motel provided some sense of scale that standing at the precipice of a three thousand foot drop while an additional three thousand feet of red rock towers behind you cannot.

The next morning many tedious events culminated in our arrival at a Land Cruiser specialty shop far off the beaten path in western Colorado. They promised to assess my truck rapidly even though their waitlist for restorations is currently two years long. The owner and his wife were remarkably welcoming and comfortable. I was handed an ice cream sandwich, we sat around the front desk and chatted, and they quickly suggested more possible activities within a few hours’ drive than I would have time to do even while waiting for a new transmission for an old truck. While we talked, mechanics rearranged trucks in the workshop so they could immediately inspect mine and deliver a verdict. I headed into Cedaredge, Colorado for lunch and a stroll and they promised to call me as soon as they had any news.