We pulled into camp just as the final sliver of sun disappeared behind the buttes. Mom cranked the wheel to the left, braked, shifted to reverse and, looking over her shoulder backed the truck between the other vehicles. “Let me tell your dad about what happened today, OK?” she said, eyeing me intently as I unbuckled my seatbelt. I pulled my greasy hair into a ponytail and smoothed out the crumpled green and blue plaid hat that had been lying in my lap, setting it back on my head. Stepping out into the dark, we walked towards the lights of the campfire, lanterns, and voices in the distance.
Down the hillside below, all the kids in our group were gathered around the fire laughing, drinking sodas, and eating greasy chips. Nine of them, between the ages of 6 and 14, crowded together on about 6 plastic and metal folding lawn chairs. The adults stood in a group outside the fire circle next to the Coleman stoves and lanterns, drinking beers, flipping burgers, and cracking jokes. My stomach growled as I caught the scent of the meat sizzling. It had been nearly six hours since lunch and I was hungry.
The dogs’ eyes picked up the lights of the camp and glowed yellow-green in the shadowy dark. Dry dog food made pinging noises as it hit the bottom of metal bowls. A scramble of fur and dust and the silhouette of a man stood up straight as we walked towards him.
“Hello?” said my dad, which sounded more like ‘yellow’ in his Western Colorado intonation. “What took you so long?”
Mom moved past me and murmured in her low, even voice. Together they turned and walked towards our camper.
Our destination for the long Memorial Day Weekend was a national forest recreation area alongside the Colorado River and adjacent to the Colorado Monument. The area — which darted between the border of Colorado and Utah — was full of old 4x4 roads-turned single-track mountain biking and hiking trails, tamarisk-lined creeks trickling with icy cold water, big rocks, and rural, rustic camping spots.
In the 90s, before mountain biking, climbing, dirt biking, and four-wheeling became the major draws that they are now, there were no picnic tables, trash receptacles, tent sites, or fire grates. You brought in everything you needed, and, if you had any class, packed it all out at the end. That said, the quality of available campsites was unpredictable — some were pristine, while others looked like landfills — full of discarded cans, rusted bedsprings, tattered tarps, used toilet paper. This trip we’d lucked out and found a beautiful flat area set against some mammoth rocks — shielded from the wind with good tree coverage.
That first bright morning we woke to a sunny, bluebird Colorado sky, and spirits and energy ran high. Once dishes were washed and cleared, the campsite became a flurry of spandex, neon, tennis shoes, and tee shirts. Tangled brown and blonde hair was combed and braided, faces washed, sunscreen slathered, and teeth brushed. Bikes were pulled off racks and muscled from the backs of pickups, wheels reattached, tires inflated, seats positioned, water bottles filled, and the group — all eighteen of us + dogs — hit the dirt trails for a mid-morning bike ride down to the river and back.
Upon the group’s noisy and chaotic return for lunch two discoveries were made. The rain from the evening before hadn’t diminished the thirst of the adults: the three cases of beer: Coors Light, Bud, and Miller, had already been depleted by half. The moms protested — surely we could get by on what was left? But the dads felt differently. This was a camping trip. They were here to relax. Beer was part and parcel to that equation.
The second discovery was slightly less advertised but far more immediate. My mom in her rush on Thursday to get us packed and out the door had completely forgotten what time of the month it was. So, though most assumed that beer was the impetus, it was really just a convenient excuse to make a trip to the roadside town of Mack, east on I-70, for a box of Tampax.
My gangly and self-conscious thirteen-year old self could think of nothing worse than being stuck at camp all afternoon. Between avoiding the curious and teasing attentions of the two older kids — boys in the grade above me, who had, in the last year or so, drastically changed their focus from war games and legos to girls and boobs and ignoring the childish games of my ten-year-old sister, my six-year-old brother, and their little friends, the afternoon was already dragging me down. Without hesitation, I volunteered to accompany my mom on her grown-up errand.
Leaving camp and bouncing along the rocky dirt road, I glanced over at my mom. Eyes straight ahead, she was navigating the washboard with confidence and composure. Mom was a gorgeous tomboy-woman-girl. Accustomed to four-wheel roads, camping, backpacking, rafting, biking, and skiing, at 34, she looked 23.
I pulled the floppy ball cap further down over my face, stared at my knobby knees, and tried to sit up taller. Having a beautiful mother was a lot to live up to.
To compensate for the silence, I pushed play on the tape deck. The next fifteen miles of dirt road were full of sagebrush and the direct and honest lyrics of Mary Chapin-Carpenter. It was also mostly empty. About ten minutes into our drive we passed a single mountain biker heading in the opposite direction.
“Nice socks” I muttered, noting his neon skin-tight clothing choices. My mom chuckled, and wondered out loud what he was doing out here all alone.
“Guess his wife doesn’t like to bike” I said, feeling somewhat sympathetic. We turned the music up and resumed our silence.
Mack, Colorado wasn’t a town but a truck stop. A one (functioning) gas station truck stop. It had seen a slight boom in population in the 1940s-60s because of the uranium mining and bomb testing in the area, but by 1995 it was back to ranchers, shepherds, truckers, and drifters. The gas station on the left was closed — no explanation why — but the Sinclair on the right with the big green and white dinosaur sign had two pumps and a convenience store (with 3.2 beer) inside. Three-point-two beer — the watered-down, 3.2-percent alcohol, blue-law concoction that was only sold in grocery and convenience stores in Colorado. I didn’t give it much thought, but adults who knew better loved to moan about the ridiculous rule that kept liquor stores closed on Sundays but allowed the sale of this fake beer in grocery stores and gas stations. All pride aside, in Mack, Colorado, this gas station and 3.2 beer was our only option.
The clerk standing behind the counter was reading a Star newspaper, sagging in an oversized green and white striped polo shirt. My mom, in short blue shorts, a stretchy black tank top, and red sport sandals, greeted her with a friendly hello while I followed behind, swimming in a pair of baggy, fraying black Umbros, a tent-sized tee, and a pair of dingy, white canvas Vans.
“Grab some lighter fluid, please,” mom said over her shoulder as she beelined towards the aisle that carried the unmentionables — tampons, condoms, pregnancy tests, and painkillers. Scanning the shelves, she grabbed two blue and white boxes and continued to the cooler to get the beer.
I shuffled my feet towards the stack of cans against the windowed wall, my toes pushing uncomfortably forward in my shoes.
“Nineteen thirty-five” mumbled the clerk.
Mom pulled a twenty dollar bill out of her pocket and handed it over. Without a word, the woman put the tampons into a brown bag and pushed it and the case of Bud over to my mom, along with her change. I grabbed the lantern fluid and turned, opening the heavy glass door to a rush of dry and dusty air.
We reached the exit for camp around 3:15pm. The tape needed to be flipped, so I hit eject and turned it over as we merged onto the dirt road. As the person in our family who, at my own election, “managed” the play list for all of our road and camping trips, I’d spent the full Sunday before with my Sony boombox speaker system (my thirteenth birthday present) recording from CDs, other tapes, and the radio. For this tape, a mix of Traveling Wilburys, The Talking Heads, and The Highwaymen was arranged on side B. Belting the lyrics to “Tweeter and the Monkey Man”, we rolled the windows down and turned up the volume.
About halfway back to camp, we spotted another vehicle driving towards us. A beat-up truck, late 70s/early 80s. Tan and dark brown with a busted headlight and two men sitting tall, silhouettes dark and wavy through the fractured windshield.
As they drew near, my mom’s hands tightened around the steering wheel, her gaze focused intently ahead. Then, a flash of action as she reached for the gearstick, downshifted, and steered with her other hand as far to the right as the road would allow. Just as our hoods passed, the brown truck veered, and mom, in a panic, cranked the wheel even further right. In what felt like slow motion, our truck angled down towards the shoulder and into the sand along the side of the road. With a solid thump, the tires sank fast.
We looked at each other, expressions of concern and confusion marking our faces and without hesitation mom restarted the truck and frantically attempted to drive us out of the sand. But the back tire just spun, no matter how hard she tried — reverse, forward, 4-wheel low, hi… The engine made a high whirring sound. Mom turned the key with a click.
From the rear view window I could see the brown truck had also stopped, and was backing up.
Two gravelly and unanchored voices, incoherent even with our windows rolled down, grew louder. The sound of doors opening, a bottle hitting the floorboard and rolling, doors slamming shut. The men synchronized and stumbled toward my mom’s side of the truck.
“You stay in here” mom said through her teeth.
“Well damn. Are you having trouble keeping that big truck of yours on the road?” the taller of the two grinned as he walked up alongside.
“Not until now,” mom said. She quietly shut the door but leaned tight against the side.
“Here, let me try. I bet I can get you out darlin’” said the smaller man, stepping closer.
I hadn’t moved from my seat, but through the driver’s side window I could see his pallid and pinched face. The hair that sprayed out from under his dingy bucket hat and sprouted on his chin and neck was dark blonde. The other man faced my mother. Though she was blocking most of my view, I could see that this guy, the skinnier and taller one, was wearing a green and white trucker hat, but with more facial hair the color of rusted steel.
They looked related, cousins, perhaps brothers, but the tall guy must have had a shorter haircut or hair loss because he had an oddly long neck and a very knobby Adam’s apple.
“Oh, thanks guys, but we’re alright” mom said, keeping her back to me and leaning further into the door. “We’re pretty good at taking care of ourselves.”
“What are you doing out here all by yourselfs?” asked the smaller guy, spitting a wad of foamy tobacco spit out of the side of his mouth. “You’re a ways away from Junction. Not much to do out here all alone.”
“Oh, on our way back to camp. My husband and his friends ran out of beer. They’re probably getting thirsty and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them any minute since we’re already later than we wanted to be,” she replied.
“Well, seriously. Let me give it a try,” the smaller guy said, but this time with a softer, friendlier, yet still uneven tone. He moved closer to my mom and put his hand on her shoulder. At this violation, I unclipped my seat belt, and slowly pushed the door open, inching my right foot outside.
“No really, you don’t need to bother. You should just keep going where you were going. We’ll be fine. I am sure my husband or one of his buddies will be by real soon,” I heard her say.
As I made my way around to the front of the truck I hesitated. The heat radiated from the still-warm engine. How far had we come since the highway? I think we’d been driving for at least ten minutes — camp must only be another fifteen-to-twenty minutes away.
“Jenny?” my mom asked with urgency.
The men continued to leer as I emerged from behind the hood and hurried beside her. They paced back and forth while hungrily maintaining focus on my mom, and then, with recognition, on me as well.
Reluctantly she handed the keys over to the guy with the fishing hat, “Well, give it a shot then.” She grabbed my forearm tightly, pressing her fingers into my skin and maintaining her grip.
Both of us moved to the center of the road as he pulled himself into the driver’s seat. The skinnier man, hands still deep in his pockets, leaned over and whispered something to my mom. She recoiled and turned her head. Unabashed, he walked to the rear of the truck to direct.
It started up easily and fell into reverse with a grinding lurch. Stunted episodes of tire spinning and sand spitting and a futile rocking back and forth ensued. Both men hurled garbled directions at one another.
“Forward. No. Left!”
“What? Jesus! I can’t understand you!”
“Crank it left!”
The truck stopped lurching and the engine calmed to quiet. Opening the door, the small guy stepped down, rolling his ankle as he hit the red dirt.
“Fuck!” he spat. Looking sheepishly at my mom and me, he slammed the door behind him, and called out to his partner. “Gary, you still got that tow strap?!”
“Dunno. I think so. Should be in the tool box” said the skinny guy, apparently named Gary.
“Well go get it!”
Gary spit into the dirt again and ambled towards the brown truck.
“Listen guys, we’re fine,” my mom said. “We can figure this out ourselves. We appreciate the help, but you really should get going.”
“Pete, it ain’t in there” shouted Gary, oblivious, now standing in the bed of the brown truck.
“What about rope, you got any rope?”
“What’re we gonna tie it to?” said Gary.
“I can think of something…er, someone I’d like to rope up” said Pete, winking at me for a brief second and then my mom. Looking with disgust at Gary, “you tie it to the other truck, dumbass” and back to us, “real genius, that one.”
“We out of beer Pete?… Oh hey, didn’t you girls say that’s why you’re here? I think we deserve some beer for doing all this hard work for you.”
Gary eyed my mom up and down with unguarded lechery.
“Alright. I need my keys back. Now,” mom said. She strengthened her hold on me as I tensed up, ready to spring.
“Give me one of your beers and I’ll think about it. You look good now and you’ll look real good after a few more.”
I could feel the anger rising within her. Her jaw tightened and she looked ready to kick and yell in frustration when, with a loud thump, Gary jumped down from the bed of the truck and yelled, “Oh, hey look! Here comes that little mountain biker pansy!”
At the top of the next rise was the biker we’d passed on the way to town. He was still alone, and at the sight of our two trucks, stopped pedaling, surveying the scene as if weighing his options.
He started pedaling again, and head down, covered the last bit of distance in what was likely a minute-and-a-half, but felt like fifteen.
As the biker got closer, Gary and Pete snickered about his tight shorts, styrofoam helmet, and purple jacket, criticisms that did not lower in volume as he reached us.
“You stuck?” the mountain biker said, pulling up alongside.
Mom made a nasal sound and attempted a knowing glance to communicate the situation. The man walked his bike over to the side of the road near our truck and leaned it against some sage.
Murmuring in a low tone, the mountain biker introduced himself to my mom and me.
“My name is Vance. I’ve got a friend picking me up at the highway intersection around 4 o’clock, but I’ll do what I can to help you until then. How long have you been here?”
“Too long.” I said, under my breath.
“Have you seen anyone else?”
“These creeps are the only ones” said my mom. “Thanks for stopping. We were getting worried.”
Vance smiled and looked appraisingly at my mom, licking his dry lips. Surveying the scene and pacing from the back to front of our truck, he finally said, “Hmm. Maybe we can put something in the rut to help the tire get traction,” and then, directing his thoughts to the whole group, offered “I can cut some branches” pulling a small Swiss Army knife out of the breast pocket of his windbreaker. I stared at my mom in disbelief.
“What is that thing? Looks like we’ve got a little Boy Scout here. Sheesh. What’s happening to this place? Prissy little guys in tight shorts and fancy bikes, good looking girls who won’t share their beer.” Pete sneered, putting our truck keys into his back pocket. “Gary, go grab that axe in the tool box, and the rope, you forgot the rope.”
The spring breeze that had been so soothing earlier had stopped and the day was now hot. The sun, lower on the horizon now, cast a harsh filter on the jagged scene. There was Gary, single-mindedly laying bough after bough of sage in front and behind the rear truck tire. Vance, now busying himself with knots was sitting on the tailgate. Pete, pacing between the two men, was hurling insults in all directions. On the opposite side of the road, my mom and I stood still, watching with worry and uncertainty.
Finally my mom murmered, “I think there’s a spare set of keys behind the gas flap. I bet I can grab them right now and no one will notice.”
“I’ll do it.” Before she could protest, I peeled off from her, and as casually as possible began inching myself in that direction.
For the first time all day, the sun disappeared behind a cloud and the whole valley became cloaked in shadow.
I was reaching for the keys just as I heard Pete yell in irritation.
“The fuck do you know about knots. You a fucking sailor or somethin’?”
The mountain biker backed away in surrender. He had taken his helmet off and was now absentmindedly using it to guard his crotch.
“Sorry man. I don’t want any trouble. Oh geez, what time is it?” he wheezed, turning heel towards the bushes to retrieve his bike, “Errr…I gotta get going, my buddy doesn’t like to wait.”
Buckling his helmet, Vance straddled his bike and stood up to pedal. His skinny behind moved up and down like a piston as he hightailed it out on the road towards the interstate.
“Pedal fast! Don’t want to be late for your boyfriend!” Pete called after him, taking the axe from Gary.
“Well this is just great…” said mom.
I had the spare keys in my hand, but with no pockets, had nowhere to put them except behind my back. The clouds building in volume caused a sudden drop in temperature. The hair on the back of my neck stood up. I’d been boiling just a minute ago, now I was freezing. Desert days can be hot, but nights are frigid. Judging where the sun was in the sky night was not far off.
Pete wiped the sweat from his forehead with his arm. Gawking at the small nubs poking out of my oversized tee shirt, he smacked his lips and said.
“You cold darling? How about a beer now? I bet I can warm you up.”
Gary nodded in agreement and climbed into our truck to dig for the beer. I wrapped my arms tight around my chest and heard my mom make a low groan in the back of her throat. She took a step towards Pete, hands in a tight fist.
I think I heard it first, the sound of a car, faint, but definitely approaching. Gary, on his hands and knees in the cab jerked his head up, crashing his forehead against the windshield.
Pete dropped the axe in surprise. Clanging, it bounced off a rock on the road and the handle hit his shin.
He squatted and grabbed the axe, rubbing it clean with a corner of his shirt as he stood up.
All attention turned towards the sound of the engine. A dark gray nondescript sedan appeared at the top of the rise in the same direction that the mountain biker had left. Low to the ground, the car crept forward, slow and steady.
As it reached us and came to a stop, the dusty driver’s side window rolled down and two people — a man and woman — were revealed.
“You folks having trouble?” asked the woman, straining to see around her partner, a hulk of a man planted in the driver’s seat.
“We’re stuck in the soft shoulder” said my mom, kicking her toe against a rock in the road.
The driver’s door opened and out stepped the man, almost as wide as he was tall. His dark hair was long and his grizzled beard was streaked with gray. He wore a black leather vest covered in studs and patches, and his belly, straining against his white tee shirt, protruded over his Levis.
My heart dropped. This looked worse than our current situation. The vest, the patches…this guy was probably straight out of prison.
The woman, looking equally intimidating with thick mascara and heavy hairspray, opened her door and sauntered over beside him. She wore a tee shirt advertising an auto body shop, though her gigantic breasts pulled the shirt so tight that the logo was misshapen.
Pete eyed the couple with sullen obstinance, intently focused on the man’s vest and patches. Gary, emerging from the cab of our truck, hitched up his pants, scratched his neck, and deposited himself behind Pete.
After a brief standoff, Pete flung the other set of keys on the ground, and turning abruptly, bumped solidly into Gary, gawking over his shoulder. Gary stumbled back as he stuttered “fuckin’ moron” and marched to the brown truck. With a long exhale, Gary spat a wad of tobacco from the side of his mouth, gave us all a wary look, and followed behind.
The truck rumbled back to life and pulled away, the ragged duo bouncing in time as they headed towards the highway.
Once the dust settled, I crouched down and picked up the keys. The man in the vest held open his palm, and with some hesitation, I handed one set over. His black eyes glittered in his puffy face, “seems like we came right on time,” and breaking into a friendly grin, “we’ll get you out.”
The woman stood beside us, arms still crossed, watching as the man used his enormous forearms to pull himself into the cab of our truck.
“You never know who you’re going to run into, place like this.” she said, scanning the horizon. “I sort of grew up thirty or so miles from here, dad was military, but my grandparents had a peach orchard. Gone now. We’re just passing through.”
“Really?” mom said with renewed interest, “you from out by Fruita?”
“More or less. … ”
By this time, the man had managed, through skill and some measure of luck and determination, to maneuver the truck out of the sand. He unrolled the window, and poking his head out, said “you gals able to take it from here?”
“Oh, this is so great! You have no idea what we just went through! Thank you!”
Mom walked up to him, holding her hand out for a handshake. He grasped it in both hands.
“Be well,” he said. As she stepped away, he swung the door open, jumped down, and walked over to join the woman who was now leaning against the gray car and pulling a pack of cigarettes out of her tight acid washed jeans.
The breeze picked up again and the sun, hidden behind another cloud, glowed fiery pink and orange. I buckled my seatbelt. Mom pulled herself inside, rearranged the mirrors, smoothed her hair behind her ears, and buckled up as well. Willie Nelson’s nasal voice rang out clear and piercing on the truck stereo:
I was a Highwayman, ‘long the coach roads I did ride.
Sword and pistol by my side. Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade. Many a soldier shed his life blood on my blade.
The bastards hung me in the spring of ’25, but I am still alive…
I looked back once. The couple, growing smaller in the rear window, were still leaning against their car as twilight darkened the valley and the first stars appeared in the east.