Down a Blacktop Road No Name

By Connor Larsen

I find comfort in thinking about a black hole far off in the milky way. A black hole where time is a spectrum that never ends. I find comfort even when it feels like I’ll never be happy again, that within that spectrum you’ll find four young souls sitting on the hood of a Buick; their eyes looking at an infinite Utah night sky. And that’s where we’ll always be.

It wasn’t exactly a peaceful night of sleep. The car was cold, the parking lot lit up, and it was a car with four people sleeping in it. I kept waking up and readjusting my blanket, scooting up and down in the passenger seat, attempting to remain in my wrapped-up blanket burrito form. I tried so hard to sleep a while longer, but by 5:30 I was awake. I couldn’t sit there in the quiet stillness of the car anymore. So I went into Wal-Mart to go to the bathroom—because I was not about to try to pee outside the bank again—and then I wandered around for maybe a half hour. I picked up whatever I remembered Emmy saying we needed. Near the checkout, I ran into Ashley heading to the bathroom. She went to buy some stuff she figured she would need, while I went outside to grab some clothes and toiletries.

I walked outside to the most beautiful sunrise I have seen, to this day. The clouds were low, tinted orange-pink and dabbed with bits of deep lavender. The sun shone through the clouds brightly, shimmering across the sky over the mountains in the distance. The colors cascaded together,  as if they just tumbled over each other, creating the most beautiful rainbow of sunrise. I took my clothes and went with Emmy back into Wal-Mart—a drastically less beautiful view. We changed in the Wal-Mart bathrooms. I put on my green shirt and Emmy hers for St. Patrick’s Day, and Ashley figured maybe she would find one later since she grabbed a purple shirt, forgetting what day it was.

We threw out the Boones Farm bottle and the beer cans and left. We drove to Red Rocks, about a half hour further from Denver. The drive to Red Rocks Amphitheatre was steep. Red Rocks is more than just the amphitheater; it’s also an area people can hike and explore. In order to get up to the amphitheater, you drive up for several miles and then, after parking, you walk up steep flights of stairs to reach the actual amphitheater. Christophe and I wandered into the audience area, gazing at the sky, the rocks, the magnificent colors. Surrounding the stage were these huge rocks—not mountains, despite their height, but rocks that formed throughout millennia to stand there today, acting as a place for residents to exercise and see music and maybe even explore their spirituality more. Standing in the audience seats, I felt a spiritual connection tethering me to that moment, forcing me to pay attention and absorb all that I could. The colors of the rocks were phenomenal—red, as the name suggests, but also all these shades of a Crayola crayon box like Antique Brass, Atomic Tangerine…Burnt Sienna and Chestnut and Copper…Desert Sand and Outrageous Orange. My brain didn’t know what to do with all these beautiful colors composing landscape in a way I had never seen.

I ran up onto the stage, trading places with Emmy as she and Christophe started up the stands, reaching the top before Ashley and I even thought of following. She and I stayed on the stage a bit longer and climbed on the rocks behind the stage. It was exhilarating, standing on a rock so big that a crevice of the rocks allowed me to fully stand inside of it. The air was noticeably thinner than we were used to up in the amphitheater, making it a little more difficult for those of us who weren’t rowers at one point in our lives. The climb up the stairs was worth it though. From the top you could see beyond the stage for miles—beyond the next set of hills and further into the distance until the horizon blends into the sky. The mood transferred from exhilaration to elation as we laughed breathlessly, amazed by the sight. The brilliant colors of the rising sun were gone, replaced with pale gray clouds and a light gray-ish blue sky, though a thin line of rose petal pink still lingered in the horizon.

Leaving Red Rocks, we drove back to Denver. After parking in a garage, we ended up just walking down 16th Street Mall because it was so early yet that this food cart Christophe wanted to eat at wasn’t open. We saw him setting up and decided we would wander Denver until he opened at about eleven. There were a few other food carts on the street, serving breakfast mostly. One of the stands sold exclusively gluten-free food. We had to stop so Emmy could check it out. A young woman and a young man were running the cart, and they had free samples. When we mentioned we were road-tripping for spring break, the woman asked us if we were going to buy some newly legalized weed, but the man cut her off and told us, “Except if you’re going to Arizona, the cops will stop you.”

“But only if they know they’re college kids from Colorado,” the woman interjected. She asked, “Where are your license plates from?” Which I thought was either a strange question or a great question coming from someone a little too experienced in the transport of legal weed.

“Minnesota,” we replied.

The pair laughed and each said, “Oh, you’ll be fine,” at the same time.

Now, we didn’t buy any, but the thought had crossed our minds. It was just that, legally, in order to buy weed, you had to be 21. Unfortunately, the oldest of us was only 20. Even then, I imagine it wouldn’t have been terribly difficult to acquire, but we decided it wasn’t worth it at that point. Though we did discover that there is an app for finding dispensaries in Denver.

Someone was thinking entrepreneurially.

Not wanting to wander so far that we couldn’t find the food cart again, we took a right down the next street. About halfway down the block we stopped again. Outside a restaurant, there was a really young puppy, a husky with bright, ice blue eyes. His tags said his name was Atlas. We sat and pet Atlas, tied up on a pole, for about ten minutes. We even thought about stealing him—well, mostly Emmy. I asked where we would put him.

“The Buick,” she answered like it was the most obvious answer in the world. We kept wondering where the owners were until I looked up at the restaurant and saw a couple laughing at us. We assumed they were Atlas’ owners and felt mildly embarrassed—and also a little bad for thinking about stealing him. The owners waved, and we left shortly after, saying goodbye to the puppy.

We went back to the hot dog stand area  and sat on the cement since the owner was still setting up the cart: Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs. Since the cart wasn’t open, the four of us sat and people-watched. As Christophe and Ashley played a game, I tuned in and out of Emmy’s conversation. She was talking to this old, white guy, who I assumed to be homeless. He and his friends were sitting on the same part of the concrete wall as the four of us were, and this old man struck a conversation with Emmy. The old man wished us a Happy St. Patrick’s Day and then gave Emmy a green plastic toy ring as he “proposed” to her. He proceeded to tell Emmy that she would make “beautiful white babies.”

Emmy, being her usual not-racist self, responded, “Oh! Uh. Thanks?”

“You’re welcome,” replied the raggedy old man, not noticing Emmy’s utter confusion  and certain displeasure. The kind of displeasure you get in the pit of your stomach after being told something abruptly unpleasant, and you’re just not sure how to respond. This old man would not, I think, have taken kindly to being called racist and, beyond that, it took us a long time to process what he had said anyway. After we managed to wrap our heads around this, Emmy and I stood up and slowly walked away. Ashley and Christophe followed suit. Finally, Biker Jim’s Gourmet Dogs was set up and Christophe got his hot dog so we could get going.

Finding The Hulk with surprising ease (thanks in part to the parking garage being right next to the construction orange Union Station sign), we climbed back in. I promised Tara we would stop by and say hi before we moved on. Her house was only twenty minutes from where we were. We beat her to her house. The sun was out though. It was one of the first moments of warm sunlight any of us had felt in months. We got out of The Hulk and sat in the driveway smiling in the warmth. I changed in the driveway, really quickly in case Tara pulled up to her driveway. Everyone was getting anxious to get back on the road—except Ashley, who was Beanie Baby-ing it up, relaxing in the sun. (For reference, to “Beanie Baby” is to be along for the ride, to not make decisions. It is an action to be called and used when you have literally no opinion on the subject at hand.) I insisted we wait because it had been about eight months since I last saw the Swygmans. 

Once she got home, we talked with Tara long enough to see her house and for all of us to use her bathroom (which Christophe did for a noticeably long time). She gave us directions to head toward the Rockies as we made our way to Utah.

As we left, I thought about home a little. I really do miss the Swygmans. I wish they lived in Minnesota still. I wish Katy could still hang out with her best friend. I wish my parents and I could drink “wine” (Arbor Mist and Boone’s Farm) with Mike and Tara—but without me puking. I suppose that I wish for a lot of things that probably won’t happen, but there’s hope in a wish and it makes reality easier to swallow.

Entering the Rockies, we were awestruck—truly. There have been a few times in my life when I have been truly captivated by my surroundings: driving through the Rockies was one of them. The mountains were immense, gray and sometimes brown—covered in snow with a sprinkling of evergreen trees on the mountainside. The trees were remarkable, standing straight on the mountain, defying the angles and steepness of the inclines on which they rested. They grew resiliently, refusing to bend or grow in any way other than the way they chose to grow. It was one of the first times in my life that I truly recognized the power of Mother Nature and her command over all living things. Nature’s power shall not be fucked with, nor shall it be disregarded. Mother Nature is not callous, though she may seem to be. She has zero regard for what lives by her beneficence, but she provides so much life. She will continue on with or without humans, and she knows it.

My Buick, unfortunately, does not live with or without humans.

“Connor, why is this light on?” Christophe asked at least an hour into the Rocky Mountains.

I assumed he meant the “normal” lights—for a couple of years, three lights were permanently flashing on The Hulk because the sensor on my right tire was out, causing the anti-lock brakes to quit working. As a result, the ‘ABS’ lights were always on. They turned on and off randomly as they desired for three years, so naturally I just casually assumed those were the lights he was asking about. I replied, “The ABS lights? Nah, they’re fine.”

But Emmy was sitting shotgun and she knew The Hulk prior to this trip. She looked at me. “No, I told you the other day: there’s another light on.”

I had no idea what she was talking about. Of course I remembered her telling me, but I had assumed she was talking about the “normal” lights then as well. Apparently, she meant the ‘Check Engine’ light, which is a very not normal light to have on in The Hulk. I started to freak out internally, but I attempted to appear calm on the outside.

Except I know next to nothing about cars.

So I doubt I remained as cool as I wanted to.

We figured if the light had been on since Madison, it probably actually wasn’t a big deal. Someone suggested it might need an oil change and I tried to figure out when The Hulk last had her oil changed. I called my grandpa to see what he thought about the damn light and when the last oil change was because to be honest, my grandpa spoils the shit out of me and takes care of The Hulk while I’m in Madison a lot of the time. He answered  luckily we apparently have decent service in the middle of the Rockies. Not-as-luckily, he didn’t know about the oil change and there was no sticker on the windshield to tell me when it was. My grandpa told us to stop at a gas station and fill up the oil  except no one knew what kind of oil to put in the poor car.

We checked the oil level and sure enough — the oil was almost non-existent. To try to fix the oil and the light, we grabbed some oil from a gas station in Georgetown, Colorado. I left Ashley to take care of it since I know she knows her to change her own oil in her car. But Emmy and I walked out of the gas station to see Ashley trying to put oil in the dipstick container.

Not that I noticed.

On the other hand, Emmy freaked out when she saw what Ashley was doing. Emmy took over, showing us all up with surprising car knowledge.

After the oil got filled up, we got back in the Buick, hoping against hope the light went away.

It didn’t.

Realistically, we probably should have just stopped—not continued on our ridiculously long road trip. But that’s what we did. We just kept driving with the ‘Check Engine’ light on.

Yolo, eh?

Back on the interstate, we continued through the Rockies, Christophe in the driver’s seat. The Rockies were beautiful but long. I wouldn’t have wanted any of us to drive that except Christophe because of the steep, sometimes winding mountain road that was also a little snowy, being at that altitude in mid-March. Not long after we left Georgetown, my grandpa called again, wanting to check on us and made sure The Hulk was still running, I told him we were fine—got the car filled up, though the ‘check engine’ light was still on.

“Well, as long as the car’s still goin’ fine, I guess you’re set,” he replied in his gruff, old country man voice. “Any of you got altitude sickness?”

“Uh…I don’t know. What’s that like?” I asked. Never having been at an altitude like the Rockies before, I had absolutely no idea if we had it or what to do if one of us did.

“Well, ya might be nauseous, or dizzy or have a headache. Just drink some water and maybe take a aspirin,” my grandpa told me in his ‘I’ve been everywhere’ wisdom. My grandpa is a semi-retired bus driver for the bus company his uncle started. Seeing a Ready bus is like seeing a bit of home for me, and you see them in the strangest places sometimes—D.C., New York, a highway in the middle of nowhere Illinois. I always check to see if it’s my grandpa driving. My grandpa knows America’s roads and most of its cities like the back of his hands. Call him for directions and he’ll take out a map to double check, but he starts giving directions before he’s really looked at it. He was in Vietnam — voluntarily — and thinks every American should have to serve in one way or another. Doesn’t have to be in a war zone, but you’ve gotta do your part, according to grandpa. Which I suppose is an admirable belief. I’ve never been able to sort out how I felt about it. He also believes weed should be legalized, but that Democrats and liberals don’t know what the hell they’re doing (maybe our beliefs aren’t so far apart). My grandpa is certainly a product of his times.

I took his advice — as I always try to do — and kept drinking water. He was right: it did help the nausea and the headache. I continued watching the scenery pass by until the end of the Rockies. I was impressed by the view, but the altitude sickness made the drive rough. Emmy told me I looked really pale. I appreciated being at a normal height upon exiting the Rockies.

Not long after, we came to the Utah border. Seeing the Utah sign, Christophe pulled over. I woke Ashley up, and we all ran to the sign for our picture. We took the picture as fast as we could so we could get back into the warm, wind-free car. It was furiously windy and cold. The second we finished the pictures, we booked ass back to the car. Christophe slid back into the driver’s seat. We didn’t drive for too long before we came to a scenic overlook. All day, we talked about wanting to watch the sun set. It was about to, and it turned out this overlook was the perfect spot.

A winding sidewalk ran uphill from parking to a gazebo where a few people stood gazing at the expanse before them. Christophe ran up ahead of us. When we got up to the top of the hill, we saw Christophe didn’t go to the gazebo. He sat on a rock on the edge of the cliff. It was large enough for all of us to sit on but just barely because of the trees behind us, somehow rooted in gravel and sand.

We began the day looking at a gorgeous sunrise outside Denver, and we ended it watching the sunset just an hour outside of Moab. Christophe and I sat in one place for the entirely of the sunset. On the horizon were a few trees—not many, but enough to say the horizon wasn’t flat. They looked black with the gigantic white yellow sun halfway set behind them. The sun looked the opposite of a black hole; it was blindingly white, surrounded by an outer edge of yellow glowing across the sky and casting a yellow tint across the remainder of the blue sky and the few clouds dispersed through it. The view looked like it was straight out of The Lion King’s opening scene. The sun silhouetting the scattered trees could have been picked out of a storybook about the Sahara. From where we sat, we could see the interstate surrounded by the hilly desert brown and shrub-like trees colored a deep olive green. I felt elated. I never watched a sunset like that; never with such feelings of love, joy, and excitement.

We left before the sun went all the way down when Ashley hit her breaking point. She kept scurrying around, shoulders hunched, hood up, head down. It was an awkward, fast paced shuffle where her thighs never really left each other while her lower legs splayed put as she tried to dodge the wind. We let her ‘cold dance,’ as we called it, go on for as long as she let us because it cracked us up.

I swear, before this trip, I had never laughed so much in my life.

Back in the car, Christophe got back behind the wheel, content to drive until we got to Arches National Park, were we were supposed to camp—until we found out about a wind advisory, making our camping plans impossible. We still desperately wanted to go to Arches, but if we couldn’t camp there, we needed an alternate plan. Emmy got on it right away and found us a cheap hotel in Moab—about $60 total.

We stopped just outside Moab because the sky was so clear. We got out of the car and laid on the hood and trunk of The Hulk to look at the sky. It held more stars than I have ever seen before. There were no city lights near us to pollute the sky, no sounds other than those of the natural night that surrounded us. This whole trip turned out to be full of the most beautiful sights I had ever seen. To this day, I still haven’t seen a more breathtaking, emotional night sky than we saw that night outside Moab. That star-filled sky evoked an endlessness of emotions: wonder, amazement, happiness, infiniteness, joy, insignificance, love. The sky held more stars than it had blackness, gave more light to the world than darkness. And just imagine: the world used to be full of night skies like we saw that night.

No wonder people used to believe in magic.