To my left and about half a mile up 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. With one eye on the road, my other eye followed the truck’s 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, 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 disappeared altogether, because once it did, it was like drawing a thick, velvet curtain in front of my face, at which point I would have to rely solely on headlights to guide me down the other side.
“I should probably pull over at the top and let the engine cool before I start down the other side,” I said out loud. I was a bit nervous, as I always am when I travel in new territory in my big rig, especially over foreign mountains. 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 enjoy adventure as much as the next carefree traveler, my enthusiasm diminishes quickly as visions come 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 miles-per-hour.
I will pull over. 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 rig traveling on, me now suspended several miles above the valley floor.
My week had begun on a Sunday evening. I would have to drive about three hours on my first day in order to reach my first delivery by Monday night. I loved traveling west. There is less traffic, fewer major cities, and almost no traffic jams. And one can feast one's eyes on the broad plains and the open skies of the west for a thousand miles and find comfort in the knowledge that the entire population of the world could fit into this space, and there would still be plenty of room left over.
But this week was going to be different. On every other trip west, I had taken one of the major truck routes, dropped the load, then come back on one of the major routes. 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, 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 told him. “If I had to choose, I’d pick something more adventurous, like a load of wild elk, 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 twentieth-generation Navajo Indian that they get their water supply from the Rockies, through irrigation pipelines.
I was informed that The Navajo live by 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. The Navajo, like so many old-school, laid back communities, are struggling to retain their youth. And so, their population slowly dwindles 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 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 made this discovery after getting only half loaded, whereupon darkness descended abruptly upon the land. I was left to camp out in my truck, some thirty miles from the nearest town, with not even a 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 either. I never realized how very dark it gets when there is not one streetlight, water tower, porch light or even a 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 a forlorn feeling of isolation as I have never experienced at any truck stop, roadside rest area or off-ramp in even 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 5000 pumpkins per trailer, by hand, is slow. This meant I would be making the eleven-hour drive along an unfamiliar route through the Rockies in complete darkness, if I had any concern about 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 had a fleeting sensation that I was leaving a piece of myself behind. The Navajo are 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 world 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. Perhaps they are not so different from the Amish lifestyle I grew up with.
I turned north on Highway 550 and headed for Colorado, and a part of the Rockies I had yet to explore. The higher I climbed, the lower the sun sank, until it finally disappeared completely from sight, and then it got dark. Really dark.
As I approached my first true test, Wolf Creek Pass, little could I know that Carrie, Stephen King’s first novel, and the latest audiobook 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 descends, and one-horse towns that popped up every fifty miles.
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 using her mind to spin nuts off fire hydrants, and I was just beginning to form the impression that her “mama’s” days were numbered, when I finally felt the road flatten out before me. An hour later I crossed the border into Kansas. The time was 4 a.m., and my GPS told me that I was on pace to make my first appointment exactly on time.
As the last of the Rockies faded behind me, I breathed a word of thanks to the invisible hand that had guided me and kept me safe for another week of life as a trucker.