Earlier this month I spent over two weeks on the road. It was a 2,400 mile circumnavigation of Northern Arizona, Western Utah, Central Nevada, and the California Sierras. It started out as a TCB (Takin' Care of Business) trip; my places in Arizona always need attention and tenants can't be counted on to do anything but pay the rent... sometimes not even that.
During the last couple months of the school year, I'd been looking forward to the trip, though I don't like to plan itineraries in great detail. The general idea was to TCB in Arizona, then visit the Grand Canyon for the first time and thus stop the constant commentary from family and friends about my owning property nearby but never going there. Then I had to make my way over to Reno to deliver a painting of my dad's to my brother and sister-in-law. With a lot of open space between the two places and no convenient way to get around the Grand Canyon in either direction, I ran my finger over a road atlas a few days before setting out, pausing at the town of St. George, Utah.
St. George is just over the border from Arizona, and also quite close to Nevada. It's at the west end of Zion National Park, another interesting place I'd never been to. All this stuff is quite familiar now after traversing it, but when you're hearing the names and trying to find everything on a map to organize a trip it doesn't necessarily stick in the mind.
Long ago I grew up in the Rolando area of San Diego, first in a little house on College Avenue until in 5th grade we moved to a bigger, nicer one a block from Henry Clay, my elementary Alma Mater. Even though it was really the same neighborhood and I saw the same kids at school every day, it's the nature of little kids that once I'd moved even a few blocks away I had to find a new set of local day-to-day companions to hang with.
Sometime during fifth grade, a kid moved to our area from North Park. He's no longer a kid now--of course--but a guy in his mid-fifties, and during the trip I got together with him in St. George on the spur of the moment for the first time in a very long while. His mom's family were San Diego natives from several generations back, but as far as we were concerned back then he was the New Guy at Henry Clay and the oddball. Besides which, he had a Vroom Engine mounted on his bicycle. For those unfamiliar with this footnote of '60s culture, the Vroom Engine was an utterly ridiculous accessory that mounted on the frame of your bicycle and was supposed to make it look like a Harley Davidson or something like that. It was made of plastic, and when you pulled a handle on it it made a noise kind of like "VA-ROOM!"
Though we'd seen them advertised on TV all the time, this kid was the only guy I ever knew who actually had one, and he paid dearly in ridicule, as only grade school kids can dish it out. He'd ride his sister home after school on the back of the bike's banana seat, and we'd buzz him daily with our bikes while making exagerrated "Va-room!" noises. Some of us had attached playing cards to our fenders with clothespins to make an engine-like noise; now THAT was the cool thing to do!
Making a long story short, he lived just two blocks from our new house and out of sheer lack of nearby kids to hang with we became friends, even though we really didn't have that much in common and to this day still don't. High school came along, and though we sometimes annoyed each other we continued to hang out, acquiring a number of mutual friends. His sister was a year older, and during our senior year she had her own apartment. We spent a lot of time there, and because we vaguely resembled each other it was commonly presumed that the three of us were siblings.
After high school he went his way and I went mine, but he stayed in the San Diego area. Our folks were acquainted as neighbors, so we kept in touch loosely through them though we never corresponded by mail or talked by phone. He became a journeyman carpenter and damned good at what he did. I joined the military, got a college degree and eventually a master's, came and went. A pleasant memory of that stage in our lives was Christmas 1979, going over to his rented house, meeting his little daughter for the first time after spending three years in Germany, and noticing his journeyman's license displayed proudly on the wall.
At some point he acquired a nasty drug habit, and--as he put it a few weeks ago in St. George--lost twenty years of his life. During much of that time I was teaching abroad and making pretty good money, while he was living in a camper on a dead end street in front of his folks' house in Rolando, hanging with a couple of mutual friends who weren't doing much more with their lives than he was (One is the old man that God lives in, if you've followed my earlier stories). I'd always stop to visit him, but we antagonized each other more than ever and at some point I just had to admit that--though I would always love him in the way of old friends--there wasn't much point in seeking him out anymore.
His folks retired to St. George eight years ago or so, with a huge custom-built house that cost about a quarter of what it would if it were in San Diego. I was aware they were there but hadn't been in touch with them at all. I'd heard, however, that my friend followed them out there about a year later, having cleaned up his act enough that they'd allow him around. Apparently they agreed with him that he needed to make a new start in a new place, away from all the bad influences.
I arrived in St. George, after seeing the Grand Canyon and camping on the edge of Zion, with no idea whether he was still there, or even still alive... though I figured his folks would be in the phone book. Was kind of glad when his mom answered the phone instead of his step-dad, and it's funny how, once you know someone, you just pick up the conversation where it left off years ago. It must have been fifteen or twenty minutes before I even asked if her son were in town and how he was doing.
To his folks' happy surprise, he lived with them for all of one week before finding a construction job and buying a used trailer. From our conversation, it was obvious that his folks still cared about him, and though his step-dad can be kind of a grouch he's good at heart. After a few months, he loaned his step-son a few thousand dollars to buy a space in a resident-owned mobile home park, which was where his trailer now proudly stood.
I hung around St. George that day, and after getting in touch with him he met me downtown and led me back to his place. I hadn't seen him in over a decade, but there was still that instant rapport that makes you feel that old friends are the best friends. His hair was full, like mine, but cut short and completely gray. He limps around a bit, having had a bad construction accident in the late '90s, after he'd gotten off drugs, that put him out of commission again for years. He says the job is hard on him, but he has to do it and feels happy to be working.
He still likes his beer, which in Utah is "three-two", an acronym I was familiar with from army days, signifying beer sold with only 3.2% alcohol content. We sat up drinking a lot of it on a warm evening, making no effort to muffle or excuse our occasional belches, talking of the Vroom Engine and many other things. As a young soldier in training I didn't much care for three-two beer, but to a couple of men in their fifties it's more about refreshment than about getting a buzz and it suited us fine.
It gets dark about 10 PM in Utah. With their contrarian attitude toward most things, from gasoline octane ratings to alcohol sales, they also do Daylight Savings Time a little differently. We hit the sack about then, as he had to get up at 5 AM to go to work. I crashed out on the sofa in his trailer, and in the morning excused him for forgetting to brew an extra cup of coffee for me. He had his daily routine and it was hard for him to change it.
I was on the road for the next couple of days. Western Utah was fascinating terrain, with back roads running through huge valleys--one after another--separated by low mountain ranges. I'd travel thirty miles or more without seeing another car in either direction. I followed the road map, looking for the most direct way to Route 50 and catching it just over the Nevada border, then staying on it the rest of the way. We'd called my brother from St. George, and he was almost as happy as I was that the trip had included a re-connection with a long-lost friend. After a nice visit in Reno, I'd be on the last leg of the trip, following the California Sierras south to the Mojave Desert and on back to San Diego.
On the trip I saw things I'd never seen before. I hiked the south rim of the Grand Canyon. I swam and camped along the Virgin River near Zion. I got some idea of what much of the non-coastal non-desert Southwest looks like, and was much impressed.
Don't know when I'll be out that way again. Usually a few days on the properties in Arizona makes me anxious for a shower, something cold to drink, and a quick return to San Diego. This time, it turned into quite a memorable vacation trip. Yet the most lasting impression--more than anything else I saw or experienced--was that guy's smile as we recognized each other, and the few hours we spent together talking about old times and the current state of our lives. I have no specific plans to pass through St. George again, but if ever I do I know I have a lifelong friend who lives there and thinks of me from time to time.