MOAB, UTAH – July 23 – I was wide awake for it being only 7:45 a.m. Getting dropped off at a gas station in a town of barely over 1,000 people in the heart of West Texas will do that to you, I suppose.
It may seem like something always works out on this journey, but before it does, we are left feeling vulnerable, intimidated and doubtful that our serendipity will kick in.
We threw our bags down and formed a game plan on a bench.
'Okay, how about this. I'll take a loop around the Flying J and see what's going on,' I proposed to Denny. 'You watch the bags. Cool?'
I returned with the following valuable information:
'Okay, there's a sweet section for truckers to hang out that's completely empty. The chairs look pretty comfortable. And then there's a bunch of booths with outlets.'
We found a booth to our liking. Denny began to work on the blog while I played a round of Big Buck Hunter in the game room while building up the courage to participate in the day's lesson of humility.
'Okay, I'll sit out there for a couple hours while you work,' I told Denny. 'Wish me luck.'
I debated making a sign from cardboard. What should it say? Heading west? Have room for a couple more? Please help?
I skipped the sign, placed my bag strategically on the ground against a pillar so the padding would provide a comfortable hangout and pulled out the Time 100 most influential people in the world edition. I picked up where I left off - Baitullah Mehsud - and prepared for a long game of waiting.
Denny and I learned a slang term on the Appalachian Trail called 'yogiing.' It means asking without asking. Professional 'hinting at' in a way. It's not about taking advantage of people, but simply planting ideas in their heads that their help could be of great importance.
I will admit we are getting good at this, but we only reserve it for times of desperation. I was fully prepared to break out necessary techniques on this morning as I stared into the monotonous, dull landscape of West Texas.
I tried to concentrate on the magazine, but my attention span gave out at Ashfaq Kayani. I traded it in for my journal and tried to express my thoughts in ink.
Middle of nowhere...mid July...sitting on my belongings...at a gas station...in Texas...kind of funny...kind of sh**ty...
'What the hell am I doing with my life?' was the final note I would write that day.
I noticed a 30-year-old woman, four children ages 2-7 and a dog unload from a van that had just pulled up. Obviously Denny and I would not be invited to this party, but the sight broke me away from my frustrations. The children had a bounce to them that would make anyone smile. The mother followed behind the troop and caught eyes with me.
'Got your hands full, huh?' I said from my floor seat, trying to spark up my first conversation since parting ways with Denny.
She gave a polite acknowledgement and proceeded to let the dog pee in the grassy area. I put my pen back to paper, but no profound thoughts released from my mind. The family passed back by, and this time the woman stopped to chat. I'm not sure what people think when they approach us. Do they feel sorry? Or does the curiosity of our story just get to them?
I explained to Nancy that my friend was inside the gas station, and that we had hiked quite a bit in the east, but with the cities being so spread out in the west, we were looking to head toward the pacific without risking disaster in the desert.
I didn't say too much more before she offered - 'Well we're going to El Paso. I'd have to move some stuff around, but I'm sure we could make room for ya.'
El Paso was 445 miles to the west. I trust nearly everyone I meet, but my brain wouldn't let me believe her at first.
'Are you serious?' was all that came out.
'Yeah, if you want.'
'Um yes, that would be so great. Thank you so much! I'm going to get Denny!'
I thanked her three more times and put her 7-year-old son, Dillon, in charge of watching my bag.
'Dude, pack up,' I said for effect.
Denny, concentrating hard on the screen in front of him, asked 'Why?'
'We're going to El Paso.'
'Are you serious?'
I nodded with emphasis.
'How'd you pull that off?'
'I have no idea.'
We packed up quicker than necessary, imagining the ride might be gone if we wasted a second. Denny introduced himself to Nancy.
'You're not going to murder me, are you?' She asked, jokingly with a hint of serious.
What do you say in this situation to someone to comfort them? I can't remember what wise words we attempted to offer. Regardless, we piled in the van, introducing ourselves to our fellow passengers.
'Dillon forgot to watch your bag, so I watched it for you!' exclaimed six-year-old Skylar.
This led to a six-hour special of 'Kids Say the Darnedest Things.'
-'Smell my feet.'
-'Hey Danny? I love you.'
-'Mason is a Cheeto face.'
-'I want you guys to stay forever, but I know that you probably can't.'
-'Our cat is a boy cat because she has a wee-wee.'
-'I remember you. I met you when I was a baby. You held me.'
-'We're going to Texas!' (the trip began in Texas)
-'The house next door is empty. You could move in there!'
Denny played co-pilot the majority of the trip as I tried to entertain four kids who threatened to burst out of their seat belts and car seats with every move. I disposed of already-been-chewed gum and tissues covered in fresh boogers and pretended to smell the girls' feet when they promised they smelled like rainbows.
When the DVD player power cord began having issues (ironically we were watching Short Circuit) I thought I was in trouble. Denny MacGyver came to the rescue by using a hair tie and a pen cap to fix the situation. Everyone was happy again.
I reluctantly let every child handle our digital camera - worth more than everything left in our budget - after they broke out into an improv song begging to take videos and photos. They were too cute. The word 'no' vanished from my vocabulary.
I managed to drift off to sleep. The kids were very polite, allowing me to doze on one of their pillows for a while. As soon as my eyes cracked open, Kendall shouted - 'Can we do another wideo?' Of course she could.
I would say I played the role of babysitter, but the environment made me feel more like a kid. Denny bonded with Nancy in the front seat, then we switched spots for the final leg of the journey. I chatted with our savior of West Texas, ensuring her that although we may not have looked like it by hanging out at a gas station, we were in fact ambitious guys.
I stared out the window at nothing. There wasn't anything resembling a town for 100 miles. Had Nancy not come along, I might still be sitting on my bag.
I pulled my identification from my Eclipse gum packet to present it to the guard at the Military base in El Paso. Nancy, whose husband is in the Army, had invited us for dinner and said we could camp in the yard - which eventually led to camping on the bunk beds in Dillon's room.
The six-hour ride had not only had no hints of awkwardness, it was a blast. But once we pulled into the driveway and Nancy began explaining to her friends and neighbors that she had met these two guys at a gas station, Denny and I shifted uncomfortably. We knew who we were, Nancy and her kids had a good idea, but I suppose these people didn't.
Jessica, the neighbor across the street, began asking lots of questions. Most of our answers drew a laugh from her and something to the effect of, 'That's crazy!'
Nancy mentioned to her good friend Liz that we might be interested in a ride up to Utah since Liz was moving to Salt Lake City the next day.
'We'll definitely have to discuss that later,' she said.
A few hours later, I found myself on a walk with Jessica and Liz, chatting like we had known each other more than a day. Jessica mentioned that the day was so crazy, she wanted to write a book about it. Liz mentioned that the odds for catching a ride with her in the morning looked good, just as long as she could clear enough space for a pair of wanderers.
Denny and I helped Nancy with a few things around the house - tidying the kitchen and moving some furniture around. We also cleaned out the entire van, removing dirty diapers, peeling suckers from the floor, vacuuming, and giving it a wash. We went to bed that night still uncertain of our fate the next day.
We played with the kids all morning and afternoon. While I worked on writing back some emails, Denny had an internship as Mr. Mom. He ran around the house finding band-aids for boo-boos, cleaning up the dog's poop, refilling cereal bowls, and being an all-around entertainer. While Denny worked on the blog, I had lunch duty, which was a bit simpler since all I did was heat up pizza for the youngsters who were fading due to the heat.
Mason got his head stuck in between the bunk bed and the wall on more than one occasion. Skylar and Kendall then got the idea that climbing on our shoulders would be the afternoon's main event. They agreed each time would be their last. This went on for hours.
'When you get married, tell your wives you're waiting five years before having kids,' Nancy said.
It seemed like a whole lot of work. But I could see how much she loved them and what they meant to her. Hell, I was starting to love them. I was ready to go find a wife.
Utah was a go. Liz made us promise not to kill her.
'I promise you we'll be friends by the end of this,' I said.
About four minutes into the trip, I think we were. We laughed. A lot. At one point, Liz, who was having some medical issues, not to mention her husband had been deployed to the Middle East, let a few tears fall in front of us as she spoke passionately about her spirituality. We had only known Liz for a day, but we were sharing our deepest thoughts about religion, politics, and the very important subject of the opposite sex. People seem comfortable opening up to us. And we're comfortable having them do so. I just hope the things I say have some sort of substance.
Liz proposed the question, 'What drives you?' I've been thinking about it ever since, unable to come up with a definitive answer. She explained a program she designed, initially for Army wives, about the power of positive thinking. She explained that if you say the things you want to be as if they're currently happening, that it will work wonders for the psyche. 'I am a great wife,' she used as an example. Of course, that one didn't really work for Denny and I, but we got the point.
Liz didn't like to drive at night, and the giant storm above didn't help the scenario. We decided to grab a bite to eat at the only open restaurant in town - McDonald's. I ordered the two strangest things I saw on the menu - a Green Chile Double Cheeseburger and a Salsa Roja wrap.
'You can only get these in New Mexico,' I informed Denny and Liz as we chowed down. They took the comment in stride.
I saw Liz scanning the menu.
'Wait, did the woman at the counter tell you that you could only get these here?' she asked sincerely since she hadn't seen the info behind the counter.
She caught me at a bad moment as Dr. Pepper squirted from my nose. We all began laughing hard.
'Did you just make that up?' she asked, boggled that anyone would do so.
I nodded my head, but couldn't get any words out. Finally...
'But I bet it's true.'
We checked into the Super 8. Liz suggested we all split a room since she would be afraid to be in one alone. I was glad she offered this because I didn't want to say anything, but I knew our budget was tight. Denny and I shared a bed, which is bigger than our tent, so we got to spread out a bit.
When I woke this morning, Liz had already gotten her breakfast and Denny was sound asleep. I walked down to the lobby to eat. On the way back upstairs, I paused, figuring a nice gesture would be to get Denny some food and bring it to him in the room. After 64 days on the road together, sometimes I worry we take our friendship for granted.
'I am a good friend,' I repeated in my mind. I think the power of positive thinking worked because Denny smiled, thanked me and wolfed down the food. It was the start to a great day.
We took photos out the car window of the amazing rock formations, endless skies and bright lightning bolts. Something about the west makes my heart beat with a bit more passion. Maybe it's the sense of freedom, thinking that maybe not everything has been discovered. I can't exactly describe the feeling, and those are the best kind in my opinion.
We told Liz to drop us in Moab - a town that has always infatuated me. I convinced Denny it would be a good place for us with its open-minded people, outdoor-friendly attitude and license plates from all the lower-48 states.
I had trouble wrapping my mind around the idea that we were in Utah a week after leaving New Orleans. This certainly wasn't the same trip as walking from town to town out east. The west was a different game, a tougher game in a way. We are simply playing by its rules, knowing that if we don't, there could be consequences.
It may be a different sort of adventure, but it's all part of the same journey of not knowing where each day might lead or who we might meet. The west is much different from the east, but it's all part of one incredible country.