“How far will she go?” I asked, as I stepped up into the cab and gripped the wheel for the first time.
“Just as far as she’s supposed to,” the seller said. “You treat her right, she won’t let you down.”
A decent metaphor for marriage it seemed, as the words rang true to me. I knew all too well what it took to run a marriage into a ditch, coasting on fumes. I thought I had been conscientious with fill-ups and deposits into the ol’ love bank. But alas, she got the horses, the barn, and the new truck; I got the bills, an ulcer, and the old Subaru.
“Okay, I’ll take her I guess,” I said, likely in the same tone I’d had when affirming my own vows.
Aside from being a two-time divorcé myself, I ironically had chosen a career as a wedding photographer. The new to me, old-truck, was going to get me safely back and forth across the miles between Jackson Hole and Yellowstone, where the bulk of my work was booked. Yes, capturing your special moments in a timeless, candid fashion, rather than manipulating the scene with artificial props and poses, was my schtick. I had it all figured out for you. My clients just had to show up with the love and the rest was a cinch. The mantra I had splashed across all my adverts and business cards would take over. I believed it all too. Well, used to. Now, I just had to avoid cringing at every future “I do,” poised before the lovely Tetons. In truth, even a cynic had to admit that a summer wedding in Jackson Hole, garnished with some of the most beautiful wilderness all around, is magical–a summertime postcard.
But now it was winter in Wyoming. My first gig of the new year and it was set for some forgotten weekend in January, during one of the worst cold snaps I can remember. The 200-mile roundtrip drive would be on barren roads, mostly at night, and with temperatures that were well below zero. The underwhelming affair was set in the basement banquet room of an old hotel. An indoor Renaissance wedding where the entire cast of participants were clad in puffy shirts, tall hats and authentic unsheathed weapons of battle. I was told the two families didn’t get along, so goblets, swords and in-laws would be clashing throughout the night. All this, set against the fixed backdrop of orange carpet and plastic, ultra green palm trees. Shakespeare in the park–hell, this was Macbeth in the underground jungle. I just had to capture the theatre of it all without getting impaled.
The truck ran fine on the way down. I was pleased to find the heater worked well. I wore my typical summer get up of coat and tie–clothing that wasn’t well suited for a Wyoming winter.
The only thing more knifing than the weather, seemed to be how chilled the wedding party was towards each other. The two families seemed to loath each other. A curious change from the weepy sentiments of your average fantasy wedding. For the first time in my career, I was expressly told not to photograph any of the groom’s side, except for the groom himself–as the bride’s mom was my boss. Words of scorn were catapulted overhead to each side of the aisle as I clicked away. I photographed every awkward moment with the fortitude of a war photographer in the trenches. Amidst the lobbed insults from a hundred odd cousins and uncles, I got the shots, and all without a single scrape.
But it was the most exhausting event I’d ever covered. I’d like to believe the couple is still together today, but frankly, most of the couples I’ve photographed are in fact divorced–and they had picture perfect weddings. I’ll let your imagination suppose what it will. All I knew at the time was that I couldn’t wait to get five beers into a six-pack and forget about it all.
What I did recall though was something the late Papa Bear Whitmore–an expert in outdoor survival education–used to say, “In order to command nature, you first must obey it. There is no need to die in the wilderness.”
It was just after midnight on a particularly snowy stretch of highway between Rock Springs and Jackson Hole before I started thinking about what a harsh place to live, Wyoming can be. Papa Bear’s handy advice came to mind as I noticed the fuel gauge for the first time … yes, it was hovering just below the empty mark. Operator error was about to be my official cause of death. Mr. Whitmore would be disgusted.
I was basically at that moment, the kid that licks the frozen tether ball pole and get’s stuck on the playground for all to mock. The poor bastard that folks will remember as having that sad, yet hilarious demise. I could see the obit story in my head. Friends would cry, shaking their head when telling the tale, while simultaneously stifling back a giant belly laugh as they read about how I was found preserved in what could only be the frozen act of praying, of trying to drink filtered urine through a frozen dress sock. The question would always be there. Although found dead a mere hundred feet from his vehicle, it took ten days to find the victim’s body after the worst winter in more than twenty years.
I remember the warnings. When my new bride and I first left the relative warm climate and general comfort of the Bay Area for the vast sea of snowy sage that seemed to swallow up most of Wyoming, I was told by many I’d never make it a single winter in the cowboy state. My boss said I’d not last past Christmas before begging for my job back. My family said they’d get the fatted calf cooking for me as quickly as I was ready to come home.
Aside from the dangers of the climate, I’d already avoided demise in many other ways such as being chased and nearly trampled by moose–both on the trail and in my own yard. Mountain lions found curled up on the stoop of my purple door; and grizzly bears so close to camp I could smell their thick, musky stench outside the tent’s zipper. I’ve hit several deer while driving at high speeds and have dodged lighting on the golf course, close enough to perm my nose hairs. And after all that, I was going to die now, due to my own, self-absorbed stupidity.
My only defense was that the truck was new to me. I’d never put gas in the thing. I’d never gotten to know it properly. Much like my former wife, I had no idea how things worked under the hood. Now the truck was about to quit on me too.
I was probably nineteen miles from home when I decided to just gun it. Wherever I was going to end up, I wanted it to happen now, or at least sooner than later. There was nowhere to turn around to, nothing in sight ahead. The needle now pointed to somewhere between empty and the floor mats, sinking a bit further with my hopes. With me in my Buster Brown loafers and a sport coat, I’d probably last the usual half hour or so before lulling myself into a false sense of warmth and letting go. No emergency blanket, flare, or helpful copy of To Build a Fire to reference.
Had my notes from Papa Bear been handy, I might have tried lighting the spare tire on fire by simply siphoning out a cup of gas. But I had no hose, no match. Just myself and the freshly minted memories of my failed marriage, and the worst wedding I’d ever been asked to photograph on endless replay, running loops in my head.
Any moment now, I would be stranded. There was no reason the truck kept going, but it did. Finally, a sign of life. Local radio KPIN locked in to the radio’s auto scan and I never thought I’d be so pumped to hear the tune, Three Coins in the Fountain, cranked up.
The Boulder store, shut tight as expected at this hour, winked at me as I sped past. Not a star nor headlight, nor anything beyond my dashboard was visible in any direction until finally, the flurries dissipated and I could finally see the amber, sweet glow of what to me is simply the coolest, mystical mountain town in the world. Hope wet my lips like a lost lover. Just another couple more miles and I’d be home.
Okay, maybe I was being a bit dramatic about dying. Truth now was, I would still live a normal life even if I had to actually walk for a mile or so. Maybe I’d lose a toe or two, but I’d live. Or, I could just stay in the car for at least an hour or more with all that residual engine heat–sit on the radiator even. Hell, if I burned myself systematically with the cigarette lighter, moving in rapid fashion a little ring of fire at a time, here to there and back, surely I’d keep warm enough to walk away in the morning–Despite the cryptic crop circle tattooing I’d have created. I’d be fine with never removing my shirt again in public.
Then just as quickly as my spirit seemed to brighten, the unmistakable, death-rattle sputtering began. But I was still moving fast. The rig may have lost a heartbeat, but its legs were still kicking. I watched the city limits sign shine before me as ignored all speed limit signs; and then that little place where the great burrito, alligator, hamburger-BBQ-pizza place used to be before it switched hands nine times and then burned down, was in my rear view. I winked and licked my lips.
I didn’t break once, nor did I down shift. I had to risk a ticket in order to coast to the nearest pump. I let the silent rig, roll as she willed, loping alongside of what we used to call Faler’s, then finally I saw the glorious glowing pump lights of what is now known as Obo’s. Four miles per hour, three, until I made the left turn as quite as a mouse across the middle lane and into the gas station parking stall, slowing naturally to a dead stop without the need for braking. I was lined up perfectly next to the pumps. The cab still warm from all the old, hot air I had recycled during the ride.
The truck did take me as far as it would go. Not a molecule of gas further. I guess you get out of life exactly what you put into it. Somehow though, without ever knowing how much gas was actually in my tank, I simply let random chance, dumb luck, pure fate, take over. Or, was I somehow blessed? Maybe I had still had important work to do. Changes to make. A higher purpose.
All the worry, irritation, and frantic suffering my mind had experienced on this most profoundly negative day, was now nothing but a white, distant, healing blip. OM.
As I got out of the truck, murmuring a spontaneous prayer of thanks, reaching for that precious, 24/7 gas nozzle, I realized for the very first time, that I was on the wrong side.