To my left and about half a mile up, jutting from the side of the mountain, like a fragile shelf glued to the side of a very tall rock wall, I saw an eighteen-wheeler crawling along a path parallel to my own.
Leaving one eye on the road in front of me, my other eye followed his route. “How in the world did he get up there?” I mused out loud to myself. “There must be a tunnel coming out of the mountain, and that must be an old coal mining trail. Surely he does not belong up there.”
I had been steadily climbing Wolf Creek Pass for almost thirty minutes, plugging along, twenty miles per hour, peddle to the floor, engine whining wearily under the load, and now, at an altitude of just over two miles above sea level, I was convinced I had almost crested the top. The sun was low in the sky, and I preferred to get down off these mountains before it sank completely, because I knew out here, once it disappeared, it was like drawing so many thick velvet curtains before one’s very nose at which point one begins relying solely on one’s headlights to guide you down the other side. With time, most truckers learn it is not the climb, but the descent that makes one’s latest meal hover on the verge of digestion or dash panel art.
“I should probably pull over at the top and let the engine cool down a bit before I begin my trip down the other side,” I said out loud. I was a bit nervous; as I always am when I travel a new highway or mountain pass I have not been on. I have seen too many burning piles of metal, flamed to life after the engine, overheated by the climb, gets fanned by the increased air circulation as the truck’s speed increases down the other side. Although I enjoyed adventure as much as the next carefree traveler, my enthusiasm diminished quickly as visions flashed through my head of me maneuvering the eighty-thousand pounds of pumpkins down the other side of the mountain, in a blazing ball of glory, brakes now useless, taking twenty mile-per hour curves at eighty or even one-hundred mph.
“I will pull over,” I said out loud. “Live to see another day.” But still the climb continued, gradually curving around and into a complete 360, and before long I found myself on the same fragile shelf I had seen the other big truck traveling on, glued to the side of that same rock wall, suspended several miles above the valley far below.
My week had begun on a Sunday evening after tucking my children in bed. I knew I had to drive about three hours on my first day, to reach my first delivery destination by Monday night. I loved traveling west! There is less traffic, no major cities, and no lengthy traffic jams. And the scenery. One could feast one’s eyes on the broad plains and the open skies of the western horizons for a thousand miles and find comfort in the knowledge that one could pack the population of the entire world into this space, and still have room left over.
But this week was going to be different. On every other trip to the west coast, I had taken one of the well-traveled truck routes, dropped the load, and then taken the same, or one of the other four routes back. This week I would be traveling through the Rockies from north to south, from the Badlands of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota, all the way to Albuquerque, New Mexico. I would reload at a place yet to be determined in New Mexico, then come back across the Rockies, once again, most likely not on one of the four major trucking routes.
By Wednesday evening I was in Albuquerque, the last of my three stops. Earlier that day I had been contacted by my dispatcher, informing me that I would be picking up a load of pumpkins from a place called “The Pumpkin Patch” in northwestern New Mexico.
“Well that sounds innocent enough,” I thought. “If I had to choose, I’d pick something along the lines of a load of wild elk from deep in the heart of the Rockies, herded into my trailer in a blinding blizzard, to be delivered to a zoo in Washington DC, but I reckon I’ll be happy with a load of pumpkins. Besides, tis the season!”
I discovered that The Pumpkin Patch is a large farm, on a Navajo Indian Reservation, encompassing an area that makes up almost 30,000 square miles, population over 350,000. The reservation stretches across the four corners that make up New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. It is located in a very dry region of the United States, but I was informed by a twenty-something generation- Navajo Indian; that they have a very large source of water that they transfer from the Rockies, through irrigation pipelines, to water their crops.
I discovered that The Navajo has their own set of laws, they still live off the land, and they make a comfortable living farming crops and shipping them out to every corner of the world. I discovered that the Navajo, like so many old school, laid back communities, are struggling to keep their youth on their reservations. And so, they slowly dwindle every year, losing their own when they travel to the big cities to go to college, never to return to what their ancestors worked so hard to leave behind for them.
I also learned that I, not as efficient in the ways of the land as the seasoned Navajo, must nevertheless; learn to exist, even if for only one night, in the very middle of a large field of pumpkins. I discovered this while I was driving between two rows of pumpkins, and after getting only half loaded, darkness descended abruptly upon the land. I was left to camp in my truck, some thirty miles from the nearest town, with not one single speck of light for as far as the eye could see. I stared at my cell phone for entertainment for a good half hour before realizing that it was of no use in this vast desert that had no cell tower within a fortnight’s travel. I never realized how very dark it gets when there is not one streetlight, water tower, porch light or even the occasional glitter from the headlights of a traveling automobile. For when the sun goes down in Navajo country, man goes down with it, and there comes with it such a forlorn feeling of isolation as I have never experienced at any truck stop, roadside rest area or off-ramp in even the farthest corner of our nation.
I spent twenty-six hours at The Pumpkin Patch, largely because they load and ship out around eighty semi loads of pumpkins a day, and the process of loading some 5000 pumpkins by hand is a rather slow one. This meant that I would most likely be making the eleven-hour drive along this particular unfamiliar route through the Rockies in complete darkness, if I had any chance of making my first delivery on time the next morning.
I left Navajo country pulling exactly 44,000 pounds of pumpkins. I would be tasked with unloading these at three different churches across Kansas, for benefit functions and church youth group projects. As I drove away, I was overwhelmed with the feeling that I was leaving a piece of myself back on the reservation. On that reservation I had discovered a group of people who have found a way of life that is foreign to most of us who are caught up in the fast-paced lifestyle that consists of weaving traffic, marriages to our cell phones and computers, and a whirlwind of daily negative news on the air waves that we can’t escape from.
I turned north on Highway 550 and headed for the border of Colorado, and a part of the Rockies I had yet to explore in my travels. The higher I climbed, the lower the sun sank, until it finally disappeared completely from sight, and the darkness once again enveloped me like a thick black quilt.
As I approached my first true test, Wolf Creek Pass, little could I know that Carrie, a novel by Stephen King, and the latest audio book that I had downloaded, would help distract my frayed nerves from the perils that I encountered over the next four-hundred miles of climbing, sharp curves, steep descending, and the one-horse towns that abruptly popped up every fifty miles or so.
Carrie rode with me all the way across those mountains, and I was somewhere between the part where she was setting fires to gas stations, and spinning nuts off fire hydrants with her mind, and I was just beginning to form the impression that her “momma’s” days might possibly also be numbered, when I finally felt the road flatten out before me for good. An hour later I left Colorado and crossed the border into Kansas. The time was four am, and the time on my GPS told me that I was on pace to make my first appointment exactly on time.
As the last of the mighty Rockies slowly faded behind me, I breathed a word of thanks to the invisible hand that had guided me and kept me safe for another week in my travels as a trucker.
By Mose J Gingerich