We woke up in that motel just outside Green River, Wyoming, and hit the highway after breakfast, westward ho. I don't remember any interesting conversations from that morning, but the conversations must have been interesting because Stephanie was there. She did the driving again, while I was Navigator Boy — basically, my job was finding the freeway on-ramp. The terrain was mountainous and snowy, pleasant to look at from a big ol' truck, but you wouldn't want to be out walking in it.
We crossed into Utah, driving down from the mountains. All through the state, we stopped only at a rest area and a gas station, and at both places the soda machines were enclosed in metal cages, behind bars as if they'd been convicted of a crime. The candy machines didn't have cages, but the Coke and Pepsi machines did, which seemed odd. We decided that the Coke machines were caged to prevent anti-caffeine vandalism by the Latter-Day Saints faithful. (And yeah, I know, the Mormon Church isn't officially opposed to Coke, Pepsi, or caffeine — but lots of Mormons are.)
Interstate-80 goes right through downtown Salt Lake City, but we had no interest in seeing Temple Square, or anything else in the area, honestly. Democracy and civil liberties work best when there's separation of church and state, and in Utah they're not all that separated, so we wanted to put the Beehive State behind us.
It was early December, and as the city faded into the rear view mirror, Steph asked, "Do we have any particular plans for Christmas?"
"Well," I said, "I don't do much for Christmas. I don't send cards, and I haven’t put up any decorations in ten years or so. My only Christmas tradition is to blow off Christmas."
"You blow it off?"
"It doesn't mean anything to me, religiously, and my family is a long ways away. I hate all the ads. So, yeah, I pretty much ignore it. My only Christmas thing is, every year on the 25th I treat myself to a movie all by myself, with popcorn and candy and a Coke. How about you?"
"Well, I guess I'll go to a movie with you, if I'm invited."
"Of course you're invited!" I said. "Anything else you do for the holidays?"
"I've always done Christmas, the whole enchilada. I put up a tree, send cards, give presents."
"Well, I hope I'm on your list. You're on mine. In fact, you're my entire list."
She didn't say anything for a few miles, and then we talked about other things.
* * * * * * * * * *
The truck rolled over the salt flats — arid plains where nothing grows, a desert of salty white stretching into the horizon and toward Nevada. We lunched at the Pizza Hut just over the border from Utah, sharing a Supreme pan pizza that was perfect. That lunch was so darn good, it fooled us into purchasing meals at several different Pizza Huts everywhere we lived, trying once or twice every year to have that perfect pizza again, but alas, it was not to be. Every other pizza from every other Pizza Hut was just a fast-food pizza, nothing special.
For a few hours toward the end of the day we talked about finding a hotel in one of the small towns along the way. The places we passed as the sun dimmed that afternoon — Carlin, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, and Lovelock — are dots on the map I'm looking at now, as I write these words many years later. But Steph decided to proceed to Reno, and that's where we spent the night. Our hotel was big, several stories tall, with a small casino under the same roof, but the casino was so small that the gaming area was already closed for the night when we arrived. No loss; neither of us wanted to play blackjack or baccarat. Steph wanted a shower and a nap, so I took the truck to find fast food and gasoline.
In Nevada, even the gas stations have gambling. As the truck's tanks were filling, I watched as a woman inside the gas station, wearing a wedding dress, dropped coin after coin into a nickel-slot machine, while her newlywed husband, still in his tux, cheered her on. In a gas station. She lost every time, and I wondered about the odds on their marriage. I don't have much interest in gambling — it's always a bad bet, at least at a casino, or the casinos would be out of business. But even if I was a gambling man, I couldn't and still can't imagine going straight from "I do" to playing the slots at a gas station.
The next morning, we sat in the truck, and Stephanie inserted the key and turned it, and — nothing happened. I'd left the truck's headlights on overnight. Nowadays, just about any vehicle will sound an alarm if you leave the headlights on after parking, but back then if you forgot to manually click the lights off, the headlights simply stayed on, even after you'd taken the keys out of the ignition. So there we were, standing in the hotel's parking lot, with a truck that wasn't going anywhere without a jump-charge.
"Do you have Triple-A?," I asked Stephanie.
"Nope," she said.
"Oh, man," I said, "you should have Triple-A. You can call them for a free jump, even a free tow, if you're a member. But you have to be a member. I'm not a member, because I don't own a car. But you owned a car — so why aren't you a member?"
She looked at me, and I saw clouds forming. "I'm not a member because I'm not a member. It doesn't help, now, when we have a dead truck, to tell me I should be a member."
"Yeah, I guess you're right."
"Also, I'm not the one who left the headlights on overnight."
"Yeah, I guess you're right about that, too."
Stephanie walked to the hotel's front desk, and asked if they could recommend a service station, but instead the worker wheeled a charging device across the parking lot, and gave the truck a jump-charge. Guess I wasn't the first guest at that hotel who'd left his headlights on. It took about ten minutes, and they didn't even make us pay for the service. Problem created (by me), and problem solved (by Stephanie and by the helpful hotel staff).
When the truck's engine started, Stephanie was no longer miffed at me, but for twenty or forty miles, I mulled over the words I'd said. They were stupid words.
When your vehicle is dead in the parking lot, hundreds of miles from home, that's a time to either shut up or say something helpful. Instead I'd said something thoughtless and counterproductive, and hurt the lady. I had already apologized, of course, but internally I vowed to never again be so careless with words, to never again hurt Stephanie by speaking without thinking. But I did, again and again. I was trying to be a better man, and I never stopped trying, but I also never quite succeeded.
It was snowing heavily as we left Reno, and on the radio they were talking about perhaps closing the freeway, but we persevered and outran the snowstorm. An hour later we were in sunshine, and a few hours after that we were in the suburbs of Sacramento. Soon we were in the East Bay, driving through cities I semi-knew, because BART's trains sometimes took me to Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland. As freeway traffic slowed to a crawl, we could see San Francisco's skyline across the Bay.
We paid the toll, and then we were on the Bay Bridge, inching our way across and toward the city. I started singing the song, "If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair." Steph sang along, with tears in her eyes. This brave, beautiful woman had given up everything she had — her job, her friends, her life in Madison — to come to Frisco with me. How could we not be emotional as we finally crossed that bridge? We thought it was the beginning of happily ever after. And you know what? It was.