Jeeze it was dark. Dark as the Earl of Hell’s riding boots, as the English would say. That darkness that only comes at 3AM in the moonless desert. The galaxy spread above us and winked through the cloud cover that promised thunderstorms. As we rocketed along, the cold, crisp air stung our cheeks, while a dry dusty smell, overlaid with the scent of sage blossoms hit our noses, and the thunky-splat of the occasional bug ended its life on our helmets. It all made us feel alive in ways that no sanctimonious Prius driver could ever understand.
We’d loaded up the Auld Crate an hour earlier at the Cameron Trading Post where we’d spent far too little of the night, and rumbled off into the darkness. The raspy flatulence of the exhaust stretched out behind us, splitting the utter silence of a world where there was no one to waken. The long, straight, two lane light tunnel arrowed out ahead of us into an infinite sea of black velvet. I turned the wick up to about 80 and we thundered on towards our date with the dawn.
Off in the distance, shining like a lone star was the oasis of Tuba City. We stopped for a pee, some coffee, and a splash of gas and were off. In Kayenta, we turned north and could see the barest hint of dawn oozing from the east, turning the inky black to a deep purple. We’d just have time to set up the cameras in expectation of a glorious sunrise in Monument Valley.
Half an hour later, or so, we found our spot. We’d discovered it on our first expedition through the area years ago. In Arizona and New Mexico, there are these abandoned looking stands on the sides of the roads. In California, we’d think they were fruit stands, selling strawberries, oranges, lemons. Here, they sold turquoise jewelry, handmade by a variety of local craftsmen and women. This one was located well into the valley, about where John Wayne’s cavalry troop met it’s doom.
In the growing half-light, we set up tripods and cameras, our fumble-fingers still numb with the cold of the drive and waited for Nature’s glorious light show. We were not disappointed. As the sun made its command appearance, the sky shifted from purple to violet to dark azure and revealed red and yellow tinged dark gray clouds. Then massive rock formations silhouetted first in stark flat black began to make an entrance.
Wordlessly, we klatched off frame after frame of film, knowing that each shot would be different from all the others, as the light changed and we entered the Golden Hour, that time of long shadows, yellow and red highlights, and changing clouds filled with the promise of a new day. Most people shoot sunsets here. Give me the Dawn every time.
In two hours, we shot about four rolls of film each, both color and black and white, then, satisfied and hungry, we loaded the Triumph and set off into the gloriously mundane full daylight to find breakfast. Somewhere, anywhere that didn’t have golden arches.
As we trundled along, feeling wonderfully minute against the giant volcanic plinths, we exalted at being alive. There really is no feeling like an open sports car or motorcycle in such a place. The down side was the loneliness of it all. Although beautiful, it meant that there were no warm and friendly diners to feed the hungry traveller. Not anymore. There were just remnants. Monuments to broken dreams as the Interstates siphoned off all the traffic and the business that went with it.
As our stomachs began to shout for pancakes or waffles, we rounded a bend as the road navigated a split in two formations. Marianne spotted a sign: “EAT”, and an arrow. That’s it, just “EAT”. She pounded on my leg and pointed to the turnoff. The coffee we’d had in Tuba City had worked its way through and I knew she was getting desperate. Women have it rough out in the back of beyond.
I nodded and turned off onto a deeply potholed road that soon turned to rutted dirt and washboard. Great. Fearing for the underside of the low slung sports car, I cringed at every bump and oil pan threatening rock. After a good ten minutes of this, I was ready to turn back.
“Go on,” Marianne shouted, “the place can’t be too far.”
I shook my head and soldiered on. Deeper and deeper we bumped between rocks that rose higher and higher around us. In the full daylight, they’d taken on a deep rust red color that was highlighted with streaks of blue, yellow, and orange. Then it happened. A mighty THUNK of a rock shook the car. I looked in the mirror, and Oh Horror, a streak of black began to follow us. Damn, we’d holed the oil pan.
I shut off the engine and began to swear. We were totally screwed. Literally in the middle of nowhere with a broken car. I spewed out a blue cloud of obscenity that is probably still hanging somewhere over Mexican Hat, Utah. Marianne had the good sense to keep silent.
We got out and I crawled around, assessing the damage.
“She’s done. Toast.” I could just see the gaping hole that was dripping the last drops of the Triumph’s most vital bodily fluid.
“OK, I’ll walk ahead to see if that diner place is just up ahead,” Marianne said quietly, “you go back to the main road and maybe you can flag someone down.”
“Yeah, no bars. Haven’t been any since Kayenta.”
“Figgers,” I mumbled sullenly. “Take some water, you never know.”
She nodded and set off up the road as I trudged back to the highway. Within a minute, I heard her shouting.
“Steve, STEVE, Come here. There’s a town!”
A wave of elation spread through me as I jog-trotted up the road.
I rounded a bend, and there, squeezed in among the towering rocks that only let in light at midday, was a collection of shacks. It looked like what Knotts Berry Farm wished it looked like. Weathered, paintless wood buildings, mostly roofless. A sagging sign said “Beggars’ Corner-Welcoming Weary Wanderers Since 1854”.
In the center of “town” was a stone building made of the local rock. A sign with a huge arrow sputtered to life as we approached. “EAT” it flashed as a generator roared to life and the sound of a jukebox spilled into the street, Fats Domino moaning about Maybeline.
“Well, I’ll be damned!” I muttered. Marianne was beaming with relief.
We pushed our way into the dusty darkness of the place and saw a long stainless steel counter with tattered fixed stools that oozed dirty stuffing. Several bare tables were spread around, some with rickety chairs that didn’t look capable of their once intended use. The jukebox glowed in the corner and shifted to “Blue Suede Shoes.” The Carl Perkins original, of course.
We sidled up to the counter and sat, the cushions sagging beneath us, giving off puffs of filling. An old bent man dressed in stained white shirt and overalls, with the longest white beard I’d ever seen came out of the back, bearing two cups, one smelling of coffee, the other, piled high with whipped cream. Silently he set them down, the coffee for Marianne, the hot chocolate for me, his pale blue eyes shining wetly and returned to the back.
“How’d he know?” she whispered.
“I dunno, I guess we wait. How’s the coffee?”
She sipped and sighed the grateful sigh of the true coffee addict sampling the perfect cup of Joe. I plunged my mustache into the cream and tasted deep rich chocolate with a hint of cinnamon and ground chilis. I smiled through my creamy mustache.
“Damn,” I said, “that is good!” Marianne just nodded and kept sipping.
A clatter of plates and the old man reappeared bearing plates stacked with mammoth sized pancakes dripping with syrup and rashers of thick smokey bacon. Only Marianne’s had a sunny-side up egg. Again, silently, he set the food in front of us, the silverware clattering on the worn and scratched steel counter. We dug in.
Wordlessly, we scarfed down the best breakfast we’d ever had. As if on cue, the old man now supported by a well worn and highly decorated cane came back to clear the plates. Silently but for the clink of forks and knives on plates, he cleared the counter and shambled through the swinging door.
I looked down at my cup of chocolate, and noticed that it had been refilled.
“How’d he do that?” I asked Marianne.
“Mine’s full too. Didn’t even notice him doing it.” She sounded a bit worried, thought a bit, and accepted it.
Sitting there, sipping the cocoa, I looked more carefully around the room. It was filled with an odd assortment of stuff. Anywhere else, I’d think it was an antiques store. All around the walls, shelves were overflowing with stuff. Old candlestick phones, rusted wrenches, cracked Depression Era Green Glass bowls and goblets, walking sticks, weird women’s hats, even a kitchen sink. The swinging door creaked again and the old bent man hobbled back in.
“Wow, that was great!” Marianne said. He merely shrugged.
“Thanks,” I added, “what do we owe you.” He shrugged again. I didn’t know what to do. I fished out my wallet and pulled out a twenty. He shrugged yet again. I pulled out another and dropped the $40 on the counter. He smiled a gap toothed grin behind his nicotine stained beard.
“Have you got a phone?” I asked, “Our car broke down just down the road.”
He slowly shook his head. I detected a hint of a smile behind the beard. I sighed with frustration. I’d have to walk back to the main road and flag someone down. It would be a long wait, I was sure.
“Well, thanks again for the great meal,” Marianne said as we turned towards the door.
I was about to push the ancient sagging screen door open when Marianne elbowed me in the ribs, then pointed to a sign.
Leaving something behind is the surest way home,
Leaving a part of you will aid you as you roam,
Leaving a token
Something not broken
Will mend things in ways surely unknown.
I read the doggerel twice, and not really knowing why, I took off my wristwatch and placed it on a shelf next to a battered celluloid Kewpie Doll. Marianne followed my lead and removed a pair of silver hair clips and set them next to my watch. I looked back and the old bent man with the white beard was nodding and unsteadily managed a tremulous wave. First up and down, then, side to side.
I pushed open the door for Marianne as the generator hum ceased, the sign sputtered out and Chubby Checker was cut off in mid-Twist.
We trudged back to the car. My poor dead beast, unsure of our next step. As we rounded the bend, I stopped short. The pool of oil had disappeared. I shook it off, figuring it had simply been absorbed by the desert sand. As I got closer, the car looked, well, different. For one thing, it was shining clean. Not a bug splatter to be seen. We’d left it covered in dust, now it gleamed, as if freshly washed and waxed. Looking inside, even the clutter of long travel was neat and organized.
“What the hell?” I whispered to Marianne.
“Yeah, really, what the hell?” she whispered back. “Look underneath.”
“Just because. Look underneath.”
I got down on all fours and peered under the car. There was no hole in the oil pan. No hint of oil on the ground. Everything looked shiny and new. I opened the bonnet to reveal a gleaming engine, sun winking off the polished valve cover. It had never looked that good.
Slowly, I got behind the wheel, put it it neutral, turned the key, and pushed the starter button. It roared to life with one touch. Even on a good day, it never did that. Never. I looked over at Marianne. She was as stunned as I was. After thirty-five years of marriage, she’d endured this car. Helped me more than once push start it, gotten rained on, sun bleached in, and generally had a great time. But this...
I nodded to her to get in. We buckled up the racing harnesses, I snicked it into gear, got the Auld Crate turned around and back to the road.
We drove quietly on to the Farmington, the closest big town, all the time wondering what had happened. Believing indeed that Mad Couples in English Sports Cars are protected by a Higher Power. They need it.