This is the enchanted place I grew up, except it didn’t look like this to my younger, restless self. It looked like a liquorless, gossipy town with nothing worthwhile playing at the downtown theatre and only a couple of diners with a cup of coffee worth a damn. I used to stare down the jagged, misty landscape that dared me to even try to leave.
Now, the town is no longer dry and there are endless choices of big-box restaurants and fair-trade, organic anything. The highway in has been widened and I can no longer find the gravel turnoff to my childhood home. The new overpass looks like a styrofoam stage prop and that jagged, misty landscape stares back, just daring me to return.
I used to hate this place because nothing ever changed. Now I hate it because everything did.
Don’t let the complimentary barf bags in the seat back pocket in front of you fool you, airlines do not like it when you vomit on one of their planes. Even if you’re neat and tidy about it; even if their “plane” is really a 76 passenger mosquito.
We covered a good amount of ground between Spokane and Seattle taxiing before that Bombardier Q400 took off, and that’s when I started feeling a bit green. By the time our wheels were up, I was frantically searching my neighbor’s seat back for a “convenience bag.” No, seriously. That’s what they’re called.
Why was I searching his seat back? Because marijuana is legal in the state of Washington and my seat mate had already exceeded our cruising altitude, thus precluding his ability to deduce what I, the person squished all up in his personal space, might be about to do as I asked him through barely opened lips if I could use his barf bag. As one must do when negotiating pediments, I took the initiative and searched through airline magazines, safety instructions, credit card offers and dirty tissues myself. Finding what I needed, I proceeded to mostly empty the contents of my stomach into the thin, clear plastic bag.
About those contents: I should reveal here that as I was leaving a five day writing retreat where I’d been on a strictly and deliciously vegan diet, it crossed my mind that it would, in fact, be an unpardonable sin if I were to leave the state of Montana without having tasted one of their cows. Driving west on I-90 didn’t exactly provide a smorgasbord of beef-licking opportunity. Sensing that I was dangerously close to crossing into Idaho without accomplishing yet another item on my wish list (seeing a moose was the first), I took exit 16 and stopped at Lincoln’s $50,000 Silver Dollar Inn. It’s a curious name because A) it isn’t in Lincoln, it’s in Haugan, and B) dollar technically appears in their name twice, and 3) There were no rooms to rent. Back east, we’d call this a truck stop, not an Inn.
I ordered a mushroom and Swiss burger with onion rings, and what can I say? I was not disappointed. I finished my first taste of meat and cheese for nearly a week in very short order. Cows from the northwest do, in fact, taste better than the eastern cows I’m used to. Someday, I may research deeper into the reasons this might be so.
Now, my husband is my favorite travel partner, ever. I would lead him to the ends of the earth and back; just please God, don’t make me follow him – or worse, navigate for him. But even more than traveling with him, I love traveling alone. My experiences, my perception of my experiences, my stories about those experiences are my own. And just a little bit more than sharing the experiences, I love sharing the stories of my experiences with him. Part of traveling alone is eating alone. Truck stop diners are a great place to do this, if you’re into people watching. And I am.
I broke my fried rings into their component parts, sliding out the slimy onions to eat first, before dipping the crispy batter in ketchup. My waitress, who missed a good opportunity to be named Flo, if she wasn’t, flirted with the much younger fry cook. They were bonding over the stupid things they’ve been asked by tourists and there was no way I was going to leave that counter without earning my place on that list.
When Flo topped off my water glass and asked if I needed anything else, I motioned for her to wait a second while I quickly swallowed the fried batter I’d just popped into my mouth. The ill-chewed bulk scratched my throat, so my question came out a little gruffer than I’d intended; all the better.
“Can you tell me if they have the death penalty in Montana?” I asked without actually already knowing where I was going with this. I mean, it’s the wild west. They probably still hang people, but I didn’t know that for a fact.
“Yes, we do.” She answered very quickly, with a smile on her face.
“For women?” I wanted clarification.
I saved her from having to answer. “Never mind. I’m almost to Idaho, anyway.”
The look on her face let me know I’d accomplished my mission. Flo pretty much ignored me until I flagged her down and asked for my check. I spent about twenty minutes after that browsing the attached convenience store/gift shop, resisting the urge to buy any of the many displayed quality home decorating products baring the image of Elvis. I will admit to being a little bit disappointed that anonymously-tipped law enforcement didn’t appear to ask me a few question. I bought a mixed six pack of local microbrews, not giving much thought to how well those wouldn’t fit into my luggage. But hey, I’m nothing if not dedicated to good beer. I found a way, offloading other liquids first. I ended up donating brand new bottles of shampoo and conditioner to the attendant weighing my luggage, but that’s w-a-a-a-y beside the point.
So, back to the contents of that thin, clear, plastic convenience bag. In addition to providing me the opportunity to feel through the bag the temperature of my own vomit, which I found very unsettling, it also showed me that I apparently do not chew very well. I could distinctly identify mushrooms; a visual that made me vomit again.
There is an upside and a downside to getting sick on an airplane.
The upside is that when you arrive at your destination, you are not put into a holding pattern and made to wait your turn to land, shaving a good twenty to thirty minutes off of your arrival time. Your airplane is granted permission to land immediately. And if you, like I was, are eager to meet your long lost sister, Felicia who has traveled by ferry all the way from Kingston with her three children to spend some quality layover time with you in the airport before your next flight, those extra twenty to thirty minutes are golden.
But you must land way over there. Away from the airport. Where an ambulance is awaiting your arrival. And here comes the downside. You are then treated like a biological weapon. Despite insisting that you’re only motion sick, a team of handsome men in scrubs will enter the plane with a stretcher and think they’re going to wheel you out before any of the healthy passengers are toted to the terminal and allowed to disembark.
With the plane no longer moving, my nausea was subsiding, so I declined the stretcher ride and walked off the plane by myself; expecting, but then disappointed by the lack of cheers of well-wishing co-passengers. I was told that I must get into the rear of the awaiting ambulance. This ambulance, by the way, was not allowed to leave the airport. It was merely a holding box until the next ambulance arrived. Here is where I’d like to register one of many complaints about this experience. The word ambulance comes from the Latin root ambular, meaning to move about. If it’s not allowed to leave, I really don’t think the airport should be allowed to call it an ambulance. Something with the Latin root station would really be a lot less misleading. Station Wagon, for example. Except now that I think about it, station wagons move….
My blood pressure and temperature were checked. I was asked to recite my medications, which the medically trained personnel found alarming. I promised them this was not a cardiac event; I know because my ICD was not firing. Then they found the fact that I have an ICD alarming. After a very short while, a representative in a formal looking navy blue uniform, complete with an adorable pilot’s hat (wait. Maybe he was a pilot) boarded the ambulance and read me a most formal statement from Alaskan Airlines, excommunicating me from air travel until I surrendered a physician’s note stating that I was healthy to do so. But by this time, I hadn’t been in a moving vehicle for maybe half an hour. I felt mostly fine! I texted Felicia to let her know there’d been a small detour.
Having driven from Montana to Spokane to fly to Seattle, I was now even further from home than when I started out that morning. This was not going well. The ambulatory ambulance finally arrived and took me to the emergency room of Cobain Memorial Hospital. I don’t know which hospital it really was because I still haven’t received a bill from them.
Shortly after I arrived, Felicia and her merry band of awesome children showed up. As not-totally-with-it as I was, seeing their faces was medicine. It did nothing for the residual motion sickness, but it soothed my soul. See, Felicia is a heart sister. I’m not going to explain to you what that is. She is in my tribe and that is all you ever need to know. But that makes those three precious kids my heart neice and nephews. I wanted to scoop them up and just…read to them. My auntie instincts were strong, but overpowered by another unexpected wave of nausea.
This hospital is a bit, how shall we say? Antiquated. There are no walls between the emergency room bays, just curtains. In the room next to me was a man cursing through his seizures as he was detoxing from heroin. On the other side of him was a man who kept stepping into the hallway to masturbate. Because, you know; who wants to do that alone? A woman’s voice kept calling out from across the hall, “It’s Justin Bieber! It’s Justin Bieber!” My nurse finally insisted that Felicia leave with her children. This addiction clinic masquerading as an emergency room was clearly no place for kids.
All of the questions I’d already answered for the flight attendants and the EMTs were asked again. Still, I had to be assertive about my lack of need for an EKG. No need to go poking around where I know they’ll find scary things that are already being treated. At some point, I mentioned to the nurse that I had a headache, so he sent in the ER doc, who clearly had her hands full of actual patients.
“If your head hurts, we should get a CAT scan.”
“It’s sinus pressure,” I told her. Pressure on my inner ear would actually make a lot of sense as to why I got air-sick in the first place. Though motion sickness has become a more frequent visitor as I age, I’d never experienced it this pronounced or on an airplane before.
“Then what do you want from us?” Dr. Busy was getting impatient with me.
“Some prescription strength Dramamine and a note saying I can go home!”
“Oh. Alright then.”
I got a nice dose of meclizine and Zofran through what I hope to God was a clean IV, and a handwritten note, whose acceptability to the airline I had doubts about.
Before I left the excitement of a Seattle ER, I peeped into the room of the woman who had been announcing Justin Bieber. She was probably in her mid-twenties, but they looked like they’d been a hard couple of decades. Her pale face was cracking, lips sunken in where her teeth used to be. She had a blanket wrapped around her shoulders and was rocking back and forth, still repeating, “It’s just a fever. It’s just a fever.”
Great. Now I’ve not seen both a moose and Justin Bieber, but that disappointment was nothing compared to my sadness for what this woman was going through, and will likely continue to go through until she finally overdoses one day. Sorry. I’m not an optimist about some things. Many things, actually. This thing, for sure.
A taxi took me back to the SEA, where the airline dealt me my final insult. See, I’ve been leading a charmed life. Go ahead and hate me. For the last six years I’ve been mysteriously bumped up to first class nearly every time I’ve flown somewhere. There was no first class service on that flight from Spokane to Seattle, but when I printed out my tickets that morning, both my Seattle to Dallas and my Dallas to Raleigh legs were seats 1A. For me to continue on my charmed, first class carpet ride, I would arrive back home ten hours later than I’d planned. I was already cutting it really close to get back into town before Mike left for a week, as it was. The earliest I could get home was 5 hours later than planned, but I wouldn’t be flying first class from Seattle to Chicago to Raleigh. The choice was mine, but not really. I needed to get home as soon as possible.
The next week I flew from Raleigh to Atlanta to Orlando, and then direct from Orlando to Raleigh the week after that, each leg with only mild, annoying air-sickness, but also sadly, no mysterious first class bumps. I had to fly like the ninety-nine percent I actually belong to. My streak is broken. But my spirit is not. I’ve got to get back to Washington to spend some actual time with Felicia and Ellie, and Eoin, and Ethan.
Well, shit. I thought, not for the first time. So this is how I die. Murdered, in Idaho.
It hadn’t occurred to me when I whipped my rented Camaro around in the middle of Hwy 95 that driving onto the gravel driveway to photograph a field of sunflowers and a couple of old Willy Wagons might be considered intrusive to the person who lived there. But in all fairness, it also never occurred to me that someone might live in the small brick building with only a single, white garage door.
The man walking toward me was probably handsome when he was younger. Actually, he still kind of was, in the way that old cowboys can be. I considered it a very good sign that his .45 was still holstered, as he approached. I lowered my camera and moved to introduce myself. Embarrassed, I felt caught.
“Hello. I’m Serena. I was just driving through and your flowers and cars were so pretty I just had to stop and take pictures. I hope that’s ok.” Seriously? Your flowers and cars are pretty? He should murder me on principal.
“Hi,” he said back, not entirely friendly, but not entirely threatening.
Sensing it would be up to me to fill the silence, I asked him, “What year are these Willy Wagons?”
He shifted the set of his jaw and asked me in return, “What year is that Camaro?”
“I don’t actually know,” I said as he was already walking away from me. I considered it a good sign that he turned his back on me, but was a little concerned that he was walking towards the open driver’s door. “It’s rented.”
I’d left it running when I got out, not anticipating sticking around very long. In fact, I noticed this was the first time I’d seen the Camaro I’d been calling Louise in day light. It was dark when I picked it up from the rental counter at the airport the night before, and it was still dark when I got in it that morning. I looked around. Mountains to the east; mountains to the west; one long road leading from the mountains in the south to the mountains in the north. Yep. This was not going to be very helpful if I needed to escape, so I started studying his features in case I somehow lived to give a description.
The hair under his dark green Cabela’s cap was solid white, like his short beard. He wasn’t much taller than me, maybe five-foot-six. His crystal blue eyes were accentuated by his layered oatmeal and baby blue henlys, that together with his butt hugging Levi’s, showed quite a bit of muscle on his thin frame. This was a man who looked like he caught all of his food. I wasn’t liking my chances of escape or defense.
He stopped just shy of the car door and asked me, “Do you mind if I have a look?”
“Nope. Go ahead,” I lied.
Motioning to the two cars out by the sunflower field, “Do you mind if I take a few more pictures of your Willys?” Oh, for fuck sake. I hoped my face did not belie the fact that I knew I’d just said something very dirty sounding to this armed stranger.
“Knock yourself out. People are always stopping to take pictures of all of this,” he motioned wide with his arms.
Besides the flowers and the cars, I couldn’t imagine what all of this other people might be photographing. I chalked this up to the fact that I am not a photographer; a fact that made getting murdered over taking a few pictures just that much more insulting.
Instead of taking more pictures, I walked towards the car, to be nearer whatever shenanigan he might be up to. He got in, sat down, looked around, and then popped the hood. Making his way to the front of the car, he asked me if I knew much about them. Camaros, that is.
I told him I did not. It was either this, or the Chevy Malibu and I decided to have a little fun. I don’t know what he saw under the hood of my rental, but he seemed to approve, and walked over to the least-rusted of his Willy Wagons.
“This one is a fifty-seven,” he told me, propping open the hood so he could tell me about the Chevy V8 he’d dropped in, himself. That one was his baby.
Then he turned his attention to his fifty-three and propped open its hood. It was a little more rusted, just a little more dinged, but had the better engine, he told me. It was a 231 odd-fire Buick V6, whatever that means.
He motioned towards tall, golden weeds growing on the other side of his garage. Peeking out from the shadows was the grill of a behemoth sixty-three Willy truck with some other kind of engine in it. He asked if I wanted to go look at it.
I remembered seeing a security expert on Oprah years and years before. He said that you should never let an abductor take you to the second location. That’s where they kill you. The far corner of his garage felt an awful lot like a second location, so I declined the offer, and took some photos of the incongruently new engines on display over here, in the first location, where he hadn’t murdered me, yet.
“So where ya headed?” He asked me.
His curiosity didn’t seem malicious, so I told him, “I’m headed to a writing retreat in Montana.” I motioned with my hand, in a writing motion. “Not a riding retreat. Not like, with horses.” Except that as it turned out, there were horses. But I didn’t know that yet
“That’s very interesting. And you stopped here?” He asked with almost too much enthusiasm.
“Yes. I flew into Spokane last night, so I’m just driving through Idaho.” This was a good opportunity to let him know I’d be missed. It would be noticed if I did not show up. “I don’t have very long to get there and checked in,” I lied.
“What do you write?”
This question embarrassed me a little bit. I don’t know what I write. That’s what I’m hoping to find out. “Fiction,” seemed like an apropos answer.
“That’s great. I’ve had this story in my head for a long time.” He was getting animated, and I was relieved. This man wasn’t going to kill me. He was going to pitch me content!
His story, as it turns out, is not fiction. He is passionate about getting out his message about the eminent return of Jesus Christ. We are, he tells me, living in the end times. As I nodded and smiled while he told me his ideas, I did not have the heart to tell him that his story has already been written; it is the book of Revelations. Though, I can say there is a lot of room for improvement to the ending of that particular story, I didn’t get the idea that he wanted to take liberties with the Word of God.
Two months ago, I would have mocked this man, though not to his face. He’s armed! But I’ve come to understand that all of our stories sound a little bit nuts to the wrong audience. That doesn’t make them any less worthy of being told, nor does it make the teller any less worthy of being allowed to tell them. Plus, this whole end of times, Jesus is coming! is a common theme that has been finding me this year. From the really cool campers on Grandfather Mountain this summer, to the loud, evangelical bikers heading to a rally on my plane from Atlanta to Orlando last month, to the elderly and plump Sunday school teacher sitting beside me at the nail salon last week; maybe I’m supposed to pay attention. God, I hope that paying attention doesn’t mean I have to believe it.
And then he says something I can oh-so relate to. “I’m just looking for my voice. I want to learn how to tell the story.”
I can’t stop myself from saying it. “I know the way! Get in your Willy and follow me.”
He eyed me suspiciously, perhaps assessing the risk of jumping in his car and following me to the second location.
“I’ve got a better idea,” he countered. “You stop here on your way back home and tell me all about it.”
He wants to hear about my writing journey, and where it takes me. We traded phone numbers, for reasons I cannot rationally explain. But maybe he can. Just before I drove away, he walked me to my car and told me, “God sends you the people you’re supposed to meet. I’m glad you stopped this morning.”
It occurred to me then that we’re only one misdemeanor count of trespassing away from a good story.