from notes in my journal, August, 2001
We've been driving the khaki landscape of western Colorado - it seems for hours. It's a monochrome world. God said, "Let there be brown". There's not much out here, miles and miles of dirt and dust. They could use some rain. We follow the Colorado River, more or less. The water is dark and muddy and I keep waiting for it to grow into its reputation as the Great River of the Southwest. Everything is some shade of brown and even the sky is drab - it doesn't seem to have a color - not blue, not white, not gray.
It is a long way down to the four corners area - all day in the car. I don't feel very well. I'm fighting a headache from lack of sleep. Last night's dinner staged a revolt at 3:00am. Usually a road trip is an adventure, but today seems to be a test of endurance and patience. I don't feel well. The engine drones. Wind buffets the bikes on the roof rack. The Grateful Dead's random plucking occasionally surfaces above the constant current of road noise. Lukewarm dregs linger in the bottom of my coffee cup. I suppose I could get some fresh stuff from the thermos ... but ... I don't know ... I guess I've had enough. The car is always too warm or too cool, depending on where the sun is and which seat you're in. I chew a Tums every once in a while, mostly for something to do. This is a new part of the country for me, but the spirit of adventure has slid into a restless tedium.
It's hot. It's August and it's hot - not a cloud in the sky. In an aging Buick sedan, crammed with two other guys, two week's worth of gear, and a too-small engine ... well ... it gets to be a long drive. It's not that I don't enjoy seeing a new part of the country, but this view changes so slowly. I open my eyes after a fifteen minute nap and see exactly the same stuff in exactly the same places as when I nodded off. Occasionally, the road will pass through a small canyon, and I hope to be awake for the temporary change in scenery. There is a set of railroad tracks, sometimes on the left, sometimes on the right, sometimes close by and sometimes way over there. I hope to see some trains, just for the diversion, but they are infrequent.
We're no longer in the high mountains, we've been going downhill since Vail. Still, there is nothing gentle about this landscape. There's this broad valley with our road running up the middle, and tremendous hills all around. We see this one gigantic ridge forever. My map call is the Grand Mesa. On paper, it is depicted in various browns, with just a hint of green. It is exactly the same color here, in reality. We start seeing it for a half hour before we get to it, it takes a half hour to pass it, and another half hour for it to disappear behind. The perception is that we're barely moving.
Since we left Winter Park this morning, where it was cool, and green and forested, we've sat in construction jams on Berthoud Pass, and labored long and hard over Loveland and Vail Passes. We've been out of the car only once, when we poached a pee at a Pizza Hut that had a sign saying, "restrooms for patrons, only". We figured it was OK since we had, after all, patronized the parking lot. We got back into the car and Mike made sandwiches in the back seat and passed them up to us. Brown meat on brown bread in a brown car in a brown world. Actually, they were pretty good sandwiches. Mike did a nice job, given the kitchen facilities in the Buick. But those sandwiches were a while ago now, and the air in the car is stale and my butt needs to do something other than be sat on.
We drive and drive. I'm in this car with these two other guys, great guys, good friends. But we see each other every day at home and we've been on the road together for a week now. It's not that we're tired of each other, we've just run out of things to say, as guys eventually do. There aren't many new ideas worth sharing in our three heads right now. Just when we need a little outside stimulus to keep the good times rolling, there isn't any. Just when we need a, "hey, look at that", there isn't one. Out the windows ... it's just brown. The openness, the starkness, the brownness are forcing us to look into ourselves for ideas for conversation. That's a pretty tall order. We're tapped out. We have, after all, recently crossed Nebraska.
We leave the interstate highway, I think a couple of exits too soon. My fault, I'm navigating. This is a shortcut around the stop-and-go traffic of Grand Junction and our connection to the highway to Montrose. There's a strip of houses lining both sides of the road. Some of the houses have irrigated, phony-looking green grass lawns. The others have brown dust and some cars out front. The houses briefly give us something new to look at. They're all basically the same size and configuration, but at least they're different colors, and some of the yards have decorative touches like little windmills and concrete deer.
We pull into Ruth and Ernest Ball's roadside fruit stand. Our intention is simply to switch drivers and move on ... it was a convenient place to stop. Ruth comes out to greet us, "How would you boys like some peaches?", she already has some in her hands. I brace for a hard sell. This is vacation. While I expect to spend money, I hate being cornered by some huckster who won't take "No" for an answer. "They're free", she sing-songs. "Sure", John jumps in and Mike follows. I hesitate, feeling like there has to be a catch. But there isn't. The deal is this ... Ruth and Ernest aren't allowed to sell until next week, but the fruit is ripening early. So, Ruth says we can eat as many peaches as we want, for free, as long as we eat them right there, at the fruit stand.
I am indifferent toward fruit. I guess I like it OK, but my goal in eating is usually to get full, so I eat lots of dense veggies like cabbage and broccoli and bulky, starchy things covered in gravy. Fruit is just an afterthought - like dessert - light and sweet - you know, girl food.
But, Ruth is in charge here. It isn't a matter of whether we want peaches or not. We have stopped in her driveway, and as a consequence, we are now to eat some peaches. Ruth hands me a peach and rushes to get a second one. She comes back with sparkling eyes, "this one will be good", she says. She must be deranged. I stand looking at the two peaches in my hands. They're big - softball size. The first one looks OK. The second peach, the one she says will be good, looks horrible. Its flesh is squishy. It's brown in places. The skin is peeling off in big slabs. It looks like it has leprosy. If I saw this peach in the supermarket, I would not buy it, nor any other peach in the same box. "That one's the best", she's grinning. I stare at it, wondering how to gracefully refuse this gift that she is so enthusiastic about. "Really", she encourages me. If she'd turn her head for a just second, I'd throw it across the street. But she stands by expectantly, awaiting my evaluation. Ruth, I think, is harmless, but her pressure is real. She is imposing her will. No matter how benign, it is her will that I eat this peach, not mine. I do not wish to offend, and I'm afraid that to decline her hospitality would break her heart.
Sometimes it is just easier to give in. Like when the doorbell rings and you open it without realizing it's the Jehovah's Witnesses. I appreciate their concern for my salvation, I understand they mean well, but I'm happy with my own church. I don't want to be rude, so I talk for a minute, but the whole time I'm wishing that they'd just go away so that I can get back to my newspaper and my coffee, and maybe they will go away if I agree to take this magazine, and so, yeah, thanks, I'll read this ...
It is fantastic. The peach, I mean. I bite right into one of the soft, bruised spots. It is amazing. Peach juice erupts into my mouth - more juice than you can possibly get from one piece of fruit, let alone one bite! Juice squirts out the corners of my mouth. It runs down my arms and drips off my elbows. A tsunami of thick, sugary nectar. This is the peachiest peach I've ever eaten ... intense like concentrated peach candy. This is the peach that Willy Wonka would make. It is peach to the power of ten. It's like all that color that has been missing on this long, brown drive has been stored up and was waiting for me inside this peach. There's a rainbow in my mouth, a Tiffany window, a peacock's tail. It is peach euphoria. Somewhere in my mind, a pipe organ plays and the tabernacle choir sings, "Hallelujah!" This is the peach as God intended. It is unquestionably, absolutely, the single best piece of fruit I have ever eaten in my life. Ever. Period. Amen. The three of us gorged ourselves, grinning like idiots, belching like grade-schoolers and making a huge mess.
We'll call it "the peach effect." My restlessness gives way to contentment. I start to feel better. We hit the road again. Mike takes the wheel and John crawls back into the kitchen for a nap. I suddenly have new affection for this old Buick with its faded paint and stained seats. It has hauled us across the plains, over the mountains and out into the desert. It's a pretty sweet ride after all. As we turn south, the landscape becomes greener. The sky takes on some color and every once in a while one of us blurts out, "damn, those were good peaches!" so conversation is picking up, too. Eventually, forested mountains rise ahead of us, and a fantastic thunderhead is building over them. The peaches haven't actually caused the color to return to the landscape, but they certainly have improved my frame of mind so that I can enjoy it. The generosity of Ruth and Ernest, complete strangers, is a reminder that goodness is everywhere, and it is my choice to recognize it and celebrate it, or ignore it, and deprive myself of its richness.
We are about to climb into the San Juans, some of the most rugged mountains in Colorado, and from the looks of things, we'll be doing it on a cliffhanger of a highway, in a rainstorm. The spirit of adventure has returned.
chris congdon, august 2001