Ancient History

Follow Me?



The land is desolate. Volcanic rocks pepper alkaline-white cracked earth. Sagebrush, cactus, scraggly starved pinons and junipers keep to themselves. The canyons in the distance are red and barren, carved by the Gunnison river so long ago the river forgot why. From the passenger seat, I can’t see the waters or the scrambling lizards, but I know they are there.

The stretch of highway is a lullaby of whirring tires and dust. Driving the 65 miles from my parents’ home in Grand Junction to Montrose for my grandmother’s funeral, I was struck by the very real possibility I was making a last trip to a place I knew and loved—her home. To get there, a desert must be crossed. Locals call it the Stinking Desert.

As a child, I hated the trip on the two-lane highway. It was excrutiating to sit in a back seat with a brother, a sister, and no batteries in my Walkman. The land didn’t offer candy. Occasional radio towers marked our progress. There was a ranch with mean ostrich. Once, on Christmas, we got the gift of a flat tire from the highway. My dad got a speeding ticket on a New Year’s Day. It was the kind of highway that took. I have never been on US Highway 50 without seeing roadside memorials. Everything from crude crosses to elaborate wreaths mark exits from this world to the next.

The highway has recently been expanded to four lanes. Crossing the desert has never been more efficient or safe. Adult eyes find a way to appreciate sage and grit, smooth blue sky against ruddy carved earth. As I rode, I knew the coming hills, the impending curves, the way the west-side of the Grand Mesa disappears after the town of Whitewater and its run-down motel is glimpsed in the rear-view mirror. I knew what would startle first-time Highway 50 travellers.

grandma mary christmasThey would see The Tree.

Right before the most trecherous curve on the trip, a Christmas tree on the west side stands decorated 365 days a year. It was a freak of nature, a pine tree without a forest. Years ago someone decided it needed to be decorated. Others added on. Decorations blew away, weathered storms, decayed, faded in the rudely intense sun. Still, people drove to the tree and tended the decorations. As a child, I would temporarily perk up to see the tree and admire how garish garland shone in the sun. I’d hold my breath around the curve-of-death and the rusting cars who fought the laws of physics and lost. I would fade to my normal childish self and sulk because the trip was suddenly boring again.

It never occured to me a day would come when I would make my final trip to my grandmother’s home. As a child, you think a desert trip with a Christmas tree is a life-sentence to be endured.

This week we drove on the highway, twice. The first time took us to her home and her funeral, the second time away forever. I could feel my anticipation rising as we approached the tree. Here it comes! There it is! There it goes!

Don’t blink.

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