A turquoise pick-up screeches to a halt in the middle of nowhere.
Insert a Utah desert landscape at the crack of 4 pm on a medium warm April day. Insert dust puffing up at the wheels. Insert a long pause before anything in the frame starts to move besides the settling of fine, dry dirt that pauses like fairy glitter in the air.
Some people say there are only two kinds of stories in the world, the arriving kind and the leaving kind. Some people say there are a lot more but then the first people will tell you they’re only versions of Coming and Going. So, what is it when you have a woman on sort of a journey who then arrives in sort of a town? A story with many potential outcomes? Sure. But eventually, inevitably, only one.
Nero, the black dog sitting on the passenger side, slammed into window as Mimi yanked at the emergency brake. She cranked down her own window and bit at her lip. “Tell me why,” she turned to her dog, “it has taken me this long to stop the car, get out, and have a look around?”
The dog, nose twitching with an in-swell of air, turned toward the steering wheel, and then, in a signature move, managed to launch from Mimi’s belly right out the fully open window. Mimi, never quite used to this move, tightened her abdominal muscles just in time and thought of dogs through windows, which is what she thought of every time her dog did this and often even when he wasn’t. Dogs through windows. Some people had lucky numbers, some people had baseball caps; Mimi had the image of canine enthusiasm leaping through a portal to freedom.
The breeze, a dry but flavorful gift, caught Nero’s nose and he stopped just long enough to inhale it in from every direction. Not exactly desert, Mimi thought, breathing in deeply herself, but deliciously close. It was what: a smell of dry plants – juniper, pinion pine, desert sage – coming together into something mystical, something magical, something holding ever-so-much promise.
Can I be the landscape’s pilgrim? Mimi wondered. Pilgrims had a purpose in life, and she yearned to think of herself as a girl with a plan, a mission Pilgrims, she thought, were able to turn life into something bigger than it sometimes seemed.
A sigh escaped her lips and lungs before she could articulate what it was she felt. “La Sal Junction. A little bit of heaven in a big-ass place.”
She opened her door and hopped down, dirt puffing at her boots. They were the Redwings she’d picked up at a second hand store for five bucks, already worn to perfection and just her size. These boots were her glass slippers, her red shoes, maybe not bound for glory but bound for adventure, with toes tough enough to kick any dirt clod into submission. “Many times have I passed you by, La Sal. But not this time. Right, Nero?” The dog, eager to explore, had already disappeared.
The southeastern chunk of the state of Utah lay quiet as a babe in the cradle of the Four Corners of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. Here on the Colorado Plateau – an expanse of cliffs and canyons and mesas created by the Colorado River and nearly as big as all of California – life for the most part rolled on as silently as the river. Occasional cottonwoods near the water continued to bend and bow; lizards continued to scuttle; and cactuses continued to bloom in silent and thorny glory, if anyone cared enough to stop and take a good, long, and appreciative look.
Here before you, was survival. Things survived grittily — but with a grace that seemed far more indicative of mastery than anything civilization had to offer. Time was kept in a simple, straightforward way, by layers upon layers in the thousand-foot cliffs, with a thread of river slicing right through 150 million years, give or take a few hundred K.
And on the verge of the plateau, right across the Utah border but not far from Dove Creek, Colorado – known locally as the pinto bean capital of the world, as chance would have it – stood an ex-outpost of sorts called La Sal Junction, junction referring to a rather minimalist meeting of paths, where a more or less minor road veered off the endless flat black ribbon on highway that was Utah 252. Like a comb pulled right down the middle of a head of root-showing bottle-blond hair, 252 parted the landscape. On either side, the look was the same: sort of flat, sort of hilly, plenty vast, and gut-wrenchingly tender.
Picture it in 1986. In the movie version, there’d be an old Ford Bronco on blocks in the distance. Your soundtrack would be Delbert McClinton, “I Got Dreams to Remember.” Or, no: maybe a lonesome cowboy would be sitting there picking out a tune on his J-45 Gibson that his daddy who’d long been gone had left him (but without any indication of the note he’d tacked to the inside of it for his son to find).
The camera would pan slowly around the aimless land and settle briefly on the distant La Sal Mountains, a small lavender grouping plunked onto a plain, and then the camera would somehow indicate a sky so open and vulnerable that kneeling down to it might not seem so ridiculously far off the mark.
The clouds, alive like genies sprung from bottles, now cast time-lapse shadows over the sprawl of earth. Mimi dropped her shoulders and let herself fall in love. Here at La Sal Junction, amongst the ruin, were the three most beautiful buildings she had ever seen. Naturally, they were abandoned – her favorite kind. Three white structures trimmed in red, a gas pump outside one of them, a faded CAFÉ & GARAGE etched on one of the others that gave you a feeling of things having once been. Of needing to be again. They gave you a delicious terminal feeling of roadside attraction.
The buildings stood alone at this junction, with nothing in view for miles but the tar-studded road, the distant mountains, the less distant cliffs, and the raging trout-blue sky. The wind blew and the dust obliged, and at this very point in time, Mimi and Nero, who had circled back, stood actively still and felt the landscape wash over them like some grand and faded, heavily gold-gilded framed painting, dry grasses porcupining the earth, trembling and flashing mustard yellow, and tumbleweed flying across the dustscape in small, hell-bent herds. God, it was spectacular.
This was a land that, though vast in tragic proportion, made perfect sense to Mimi. A dog could run free until, humbled by the greater freedom of the wind and the grass and sky, he’d finally slow down, way down, then on his own come to a complete halt. A person, looking around with all the expectation of someone just given the secret of life itself, would oxymoronically then feel miniscule and yet at peace. There was something about the subtle movements of parched flats meeting windgate sandstone cliffs at 90 degree angles. Something so alpha-and-omega about it, it leveled Mimi every time.
At least a dozen times the two pilgrims had passed this lonely junction on their way to Moab, incipient desert bicycling Mecca and home of the arches and spires of its nearby National Parks. Right now, the two of them were on their way back to Telluride, a very small and undiscovered ski resort, elevation 8,700 feet and set in a box canyon at the end of another road. Mimi’s thoughts were not of home, her home in the mountains, not the next set of skis she would buy (Olins), or the next book she would put on the top of her stack (Still Life with Woodpecker), but of this monument to lonesome diners passing through once upon a better time.
“I could actually see myself here,” she thought, sky pressing down upon her. “Because, for one thing, every single thing about it stirs me.”
Mimi called to her dog, in part simply to break the silence. He had gone off again, and relocated himself, with paws perched, on one of the windowsills of the middle building, the biggest of the three, where he held his position, tail wagging furiously, nosing or eyeballing whatever it was he saw inside. She kicked up some dust and walked over to the window, inserting herself alongside him so she could squint through cupped hands into an open patch in the soaped-up glass.
The inside of the room was rimmed with dust, but Mimi, adjusting her view, immediately felt the stirrings of a story. She elbowed more of the dirt from the window, and scanned. A table in the middle of he room with a lamp hanging low at its center. Two chairs set up on either sides of the table. An old bandana and some tools next to a steel thermos. “Really?” she thought. It was as if a trap had been set for her. An enticement, a farfetched lure. A page from a J. Peterman catalog.
The windows, soaped and dusty and speckled with mud, let in just enough watery light to bring most everything into view, including – there it was — the object of Nero’s rapt attention: a small pack rat (known also as a desert rat) perched on another table in the far corner of the room. The creature, which seemed to be sniffing at something, was fingering it delicately.
“Hey,” Mimi called, surprising even herself by rapping on the window. “Hey, beat it! What do you think you’re doing?”
Petrified, the creature dropped whatever it was holding and all but dissipated into thin air; and Mimi, heartened by her power, began a circumnavigation of the building to get to the nearest door, which presented itself at the southwest, a study in layers of white paint with a bent and blackened knob hanging from it. Nero sniffed intently at the cracks while Mimi worked at budging the thing with her knee and shoulder. Back entrance, side entrance? Finally the door heaved open enough for Mimi and her dog to spill in sideways.
The room’s smelled of too many things to enumerate – of old wood and tar, of oil, and crackly paper, and dust, and nuts and bolts. To Mimi, it smelled also of dreams, a smell coating other smells and sealing them somehow. Mimi knew the smell –of activity and time and history and mildew. She filled her lungs and felt a pang of nostalgia so sharp she nearly buckled with a sudden memory of a cellar in her family home, damp, and redolent of potatoes, apples, firewood, grease, and stories. Where did it all go, this energy of pangs and desire and heartbreak and life being having been lived and then poof being gone?
Nero, sniffing out the hole that had served as the pack rat’s escape hatch, barked stridently and with increasing frustration. “Oh please,” Mimi scolded. “You’ll never catch that rat. He’s not going to come prancing out just so you can gnaw on his fleshy midriff for a while–”
Mimi liked talking to her dog and felt they both took comfort in it – even if she only indulged lengthy conversations once safely out of earshot of other humans. She was about to reach over and grab him by the collar when she stopped dead in her tracks, riveted by something on the table to her right. There, exactly where the packrat had sat fiddling with something, was a small burlap bag.
It stood out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t old, and it wasn’t dusty. It was fresh.
She picked it up and squeezed it, staring at the print on its outside. It was a little bag of Anasazi beans, packaged for the supermarket and sold as gourmet beans there. She had bought Anasazi beans herself many times, for if there was such a thing as “local food,” this would have been it. Beans the Anasazi might well have harvested themselves a thousand years earlier – now packaged fetchingly in a small burlap bag by Dove Creek Bean just down the road.
No, there wasn’t any way this bag, sitting on the tale, had been there very long. In fact, it practically vibrated with newness in this otherwise old and dust-filled room, like a glowing orb in the dark. It had energy that Mimi could feel in the palm of her hand.
She looked over her shoulder, wondering if she was truly alone. The dust on the table had not been moved. The room did not look as if it had been entered in years. Slowly turning, she circled herself like a dog chasing its tail. “Have I intruded,” she asked her dog, “or am I supposed to be here?” The hairs on the back of her neck prickled. And though the wind howled, indifferent to woman, to nature, to the vulnerability of the building – and though the screen door fussed and loose parts flapped – not a thing inside moved or made a sound.
Mimi sat down slowly and carefully on an old crate, aware of puncturing the membrane of dust that coated the room like plastic, and crossed her arms. And there she waited, as if someone had told her not to move until an idea came her way. With the bag of beans as her totem, she slipped into meditation and daydream.
What did she look like, sitting there, far from the vanities and poses of everyday life? Her face, relaxed like someone had just massaged it, was flush with blood. Her long and wavy black hair was pulled away from her face, but strands cast shadows across her nose, her left cheek. The shyest of smiles played on her lips with no hint of its either staying or vanishing. She almost seemed at home in the world.
Half an hour later, absorbed in nothing at all but completely and utterly absorbed by it, she returned to consciousness, eyes refocusing on the close at hand from the far away. Nero, who had gone outside, lay still in the dust, alert and watchful with an upright head. Together it seemed, they’d kept a vigil and waited for that idea, that notion that had so evidently been left for the two of them to encounter.
And after succumbing to the feeling of having to let go, to give in to the greater forces of the snow-melting river of life, a curious thing happened to Mimi O’Rourke. She felt that she knew her destiny and that it lay in her lap like a gift, only thinly wrapped in the tissue paper of her own limitations. In this state of mind, she could easily feel and see her future as the wrapping fell away. She knew what was to be. She did. She felt it in her bones. And transfixed by this unbearable power coursing through her, she was overcome. It was simply too much.
Her left boot, smack dap in her line of sight, became the new object of her focus. Boots and where they lived in her mudroom. Next to her Reeboks. Which were next to her flip flops. Which were next to a box of socks, which was her signature mudroom move and that other friends had copied. She felt herself come back to the world, the world of flesh and blood, friends and job, the world of small town politics and coffee and the occasional glass of whiskey. Back in her body, she cracked a grin so big the whole landscape had to step aside for it to fit into the space provided.
She reached for the satchel of brown and white spotted beans and scooped it up swiftly, clutching it to her chest like a bag of gold nugget.
“Beans!” she said with such glee and exuberance, her dog hoisted himself up and barked. “Get in the car, Nee,” she said, “we’re going home–”
Infected with her infectiousness, the dog’s tail began to wag and he bounded to the door of the turquoise pickup, hopped in and settled himself quickly, face forward in the passenger seat like a sphinx, looking dead ahead to that far point on the horizon that only dogs can really see.