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The county didn’t fire Mike. Nor did they recall his county truck or reassign him to an inside job. He became more aware of remembering to eat after that humbling event.

Reflecting on the stresses of our jobs, we decided that a respite might do us both some good. Mike had three weeks vacation time built up and, because I had the office staff trained well enough to handle the daily bookkeeping and the month-end close of same, I anticipated being able to take an extra week off without pay.

"Where could we go?" I knew if we stayed at home, it wouldn’t be a vacation at all—merely home chores and probable calls from my job.

"I’ve got an idea." Mike grinned and lowered the magazine he was reading to his lap.

"What?"

"Colorado. I’d like to meet that gunsmith that customized my target pistols. And you’d like it there."

"Why would I like it? Have you been there?"

"Yep. Years ago. Tried to get into the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, just west of Denver, but it didn’t work out. Anyway you’d love the scenery, especially in the fall."

"Mountains and aspen trees," I remarked, tongue-in-cheek. I remembered the photos I’d seen on calendars, always wondering if they were a true representation of Colorado or if they had been manipulated to look more spectacular.

"Yep. And clean air. You’d like that."

"Okay. Let’s do it!" I got the calendar from our fold-up desk and we picked the dates.

The following workday we each requested the last three weeks in October, which carried over two days into November, and received approvals.

I began planning by sending for state and Forest Service maps. I wrote to Chambers of Commerce along our anticipated route, inquiring about places of interest and fishing regulations.

Mike prepared our 4x4 truck and camper for the trip—lube, oil change, tire pressure, tire chains, a safety check, gasoline, propane and so forth—while I saw to bedding, clothes, medicines, first aid, emergency foodstuffs, food and accessories for the dog, film for my camera and, yes, some artist’s supplies. To-Do memos accumulated on our kitchen counter, including a reminder to stow fresh food and fill the camper’s water tank before leaving. Mike called the gunsmith, Ren Cooper, and let him know about when we would arrive, and he and his wife graciously invited us to camp a few days in their yard.

October arrived warm and clear. By the end of the second week, we had completed our job obligations and were anxious to travel. We finished packing that weekend and struck out mid-morning on Monday, after a quick stop at the bank for traveler’s checks.

Late that afternoon we pulled into a campground in Washington State’s Tri-Cities area and accomplished what would become our camping ritual: Mike would raise the top of our telescoping Alaskan camper and lock it in place while I took Duchess for a walk, then tethered her to the truck and gave her food and water.

While the dog ate, Mike would wander outside for a smoke, and I would cook dinner in our less than "one butt" RV. After dinner, I would clean up the space and we’d sit at the small dinette and read, or study the map, or try to find a station on our portable television set. Our Alaskan camper, with it’s limited floor space and telescoping upper half, might be too compact for some, but we enjoyed it and appreciated its stability and efficiency on the road.

Continuing our drive to the gunsmith’s, we traveled through the northeast corner of Oregon, the southwest corner of Idaho and into Utah, where we stopped in Salt Lake City to wander through Temple Square. We stayed that night at Utah Lake State Park, some fifty-miles south of Salt Lake City—a tranquil setting and the only campground I’d ever seen with an outdoor ice-skating rink.

In the morning, I packed snacks for the cab of the truck, and we made the short drive into Provo, planning to stop for breakfast. No businesses were open yet, so we moved on, south through Price Canyon on a faded ribbon of asphalt cupped by barren red-rock bluffs. We crossed the border into Colorado and stopped in Grand Junction for a bite to eat, followed by an hour of perusing an ongoing street fair before climbing back into the truck and continuing east on I-70.

The 178-mile stretch from Grand Junction, elevation 4,593 feet, to the brand new Eisenhower-Johnson Tunnel (commonly called the Eisenhower Tunnel) at 11,158 feet, was steep and snowy, packed with cars and trucks facing in all directions of the compass—a free-for-all of sliding, fender-bending, radiator-boiling, or just plain stalled vehicles trying to reach the less-than-two-mile-long tunnel that ran beneath the Continental Divide. Mike kept our truck moving forward, maneuvering around vehicles that lacked sufficient power or just plain died from the demands of the road. I thought of how his sports-car racing experience must have helped us reach that tunnel without becoming stopped by traffic. We reached the entrance more than an hour beyond the estimated time of two hours and forty-nine minutes, with an excessively hot engine.

We sailed through the tunnel, exiting I-70 somewhere on the other side to follow Clear Creek Canyon to Golden. My delight in the winding creek-side roadway ceased when we stopped briefly at a scenic spot, and I noticed an old tire, broken boxes, beer bottles and other debris in the stream below. Surely, I thought, the Coors Brewery would not use this source for their beer, touted as "Brewed with Pure Rocky Mountain Spring Water."™ (I determined later they indeed did not.)

"There it is." Mike called attention to the renowned brewery as we approached, then pointed to the east beyond it. "Look way over there. That’s Denver."

"Euuuu." I twisted my lips in disgust. "It’s covered in brown fog." Disappointment came over me. I’d visualized Denver with silver skyscrapers brightly reflecting the morning sun through clean mountain air and golden aspen trees applauding its beauty. "It’s dirty."

"Yep." He followed the highway curve east, toward the Mile High City. "Denver sits in a basin on the Front Range of the Rockies. The smog just hangs there, not able to get out."

"Well, it looks awful." I raised the map I was holding and ran my finger southward on the line for I-25 from Denver. "We want the next exit," I said. "I-25 south to Colorado Springs."

"Okay."

"We’d better stop there and call the Coopers. What’s his wife’s name?"

"Beulah."

We pulled in at a shopping mall on the east side of Colorado Springs, found a payphone, and made the call.

"Hello?"A female answered.

"Beulah? This is Helen."

"Oh, hello Helen. We’ve been expecting your call. Are y’all getting close?" Her soft, sweet voice put me at ease right away.

"Yes. We’re at a shopping mall in the Springs. We should be to your place in an hour or so."

"That’s wonderful. We’re so looking forward to meeting y’all in person."

"Us, too," I said. "If you haven’t had dinner yet, we could bring something to share. Can you eat pizza?"

"I’ll eat anything I don’t have to cook!" She laughed a little. "We would enjoy that very much. Thank you."

"You’re quite welcome. We’re going to find the restrooms here and wash up, then pick up a pizza and we’ll be on our way."

Beulah thanked me again and we said good bye.

The sun sank beyond Pike’s Peak as we drove into Coopers’ driveway. Ren rushed out to greet us, then told Mike where to park the truck. That done, I grabbed the pizza and went into the house to meet Beulah, while Mike pumped the camper up in preparation for our overnight stay and secured and watered the dog.

We ate pizza and drank iced tea, and listened to humorous tales of early area settlers recounted by Ren with such enthusiasm and gesticulation that we laughed to tears. It was as if we’d come home to a family not seen for decades. A family who welcomed us with open arms.

We retired to the camper near midnight. Mike was snoring within minutes, but my brain was running amok—from the joy of meeting these new friends, to whether or not our empty house back home was safe, to the hazards of Mike’s driving. I knew he would have preferred to drive non-stop to the Coopers but, for my own benefit, I had insisted we stop each evening to rest.

Whenever he drove, I strove to stay awake, especially during prolonged periods over monotonous highways. That’s when I’d watch his eyelids drop more and more closed with each revolution of the tires. Did he need sleep or food? It didn’t matter which. It was dangerous.

"Mike!" I’d yell, and his head would jerk awake. "You were falling asleep!"

"No, I wasn’t!" he’d holler back, and I would respond, "Yes, you were," which escalated into a back-and-forth redundant exchange, totally unproductive except that it did keep him awake.

Three long days of my having to stay awake while he drove, as well as when I did, took its toll. Sleep-deprivation made me cranky. Not so for Mike, as he had no trouble napping soundly while I was at the wheel.

I looked forward to this short stay at Cooper’s and the opportunity to spend quality time in the arms of Morpheus before starting our journey home.


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