It was early December, 1997. We woke up in a motel just outside Green River, Wyoming, and hit the highway after breakfast, westward ho. I don’t remember any interesting conversations from that morning, but the conversations must have been interesting because Stephanie was there. She did the driving again, while I handled the map duty – basically, my job was finding the freeway on-ramp. The terrain was mountainous and snowy – pleasant to look at from a big ol’ truck, but you wouldn’t want to be out walking in it.
We crossed into Utah, down from the mountains, through Salt Lake City, and drove over the salt flats – arid plains where nothing grows, a desert of salty white stretching into the horizon. In all of Utah, we stopped only at a rest area and a gas station, and at both places the soda machines were enclosed in metal cages, behind bars as if they’d been convicted of a crime. The candy machines didn’t have cages, but the Coke and Pepsi machines did, which seemed odd. We wondered whether the Coke machines were caged to prevent anti-caffeine vandalism by the Latter-Day Saints faithful. (And yeah, I know, the Mormon Church isn’t officially opposed to Coke, Pepsi, or caffeine. But lots of Mormons are.)
In Nevada, we lunched at the Pizza Hut just over the border from Utah, sharing a Supreme pan pizza that was perfect. That lunch was so darn good, we went to several different Pizza Huts everywhere we lived, trying once or twice every year to have that perfect pizza again, but alas, it was not to be. Every other pizza from every other Pizza Hut was just a fast-food pizza, nothing special.
Onward across Nevada, and for a few hours toward the end of the day we talked about finding a hotel in one of the small towns along the way. The places we passed as the sun dimmed that afternoon – Carlin, Battle Mountain, Winnemucca, Lovelock, and Ferney – are dots on the map I’m looking at now, as I write these words many years later. But Steph decided to proceed to Reno, and that’s where we spent the night. Our hotel was also a casino, but it was a small one, and the gaming area was already closed for the night when we arrived. No loss; neither of us wanted to play blackjack or baccarat. Steph wanted a shower and a nap, so I took the truck to find fast food and gasoline.
In Nevada, even the gas stations have gambling. As the truck’s tanks were filling, I watched as a woman inside the gas station, wearing a wedding dress, dropped coin after coin into a nickle-slot machine, while her newlywed husband, still in his tux, cheered her on. In a gas station. She lost every time, and I wondered about the odds on their marriage. I don’t have much interest in gambling – it’s a bad bet by definition, or the casinos would be out of business. But even if I was a gambling man, I couldn’t and still can’t imagine going straight from “I do” to playing the slots at a gas station.
The next morning, Stephanie and I had Egg McMuffins, and then discovered that I’d left the truck’s headlights on overnight. Nowadays, you have to twist an extra knob to leave the headlights on after the vehicle is parked, but back then if you forgot to manually click the lights off, the headlights stayed on even after you’d taken the keys out of the ignition. So there we were, standing in the hotel’s parking lot, with a truck that wasn’t going anywhere without a jump-charge.
“Do you have triple-A?,” I asked Stephanie.
“Nope,” she said.
“Oh, man,” I said, “you should have triple-A. They’ll give you a free jump, even a free tow, if you’re a member. But you have to be a member. I’m not a member, because I don’t own a car. But you owned a car – so why aren’t you a member?”
She looked at me, and I saw clouds forming. “I’m not a member because I’m not a member. It doesn’t help, now, to tell me I should be a member.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”
“Also, I’m not the one who left the headlights on overnight.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s right, too.”
Stephanie walked to the hotel’s front desk, and asked if they could recommend a service station, but instead the worker wheeled a charging device across the parking lot, and gave the truck a jump-charge. Guess I wasn’t the first guest at that hotel who’d left his headlights on. It took about ten minutes, and they didn’t even make us pay for the service. Problem created, by me, and problem solved, by Stephanie and by the helpful hotel staff.
When the truck’s engine started, Stephanie was no longer miffed at me, but for twenty or forty miles, I mulled over the words I’d said. They were stupid words.
When the truck is dead in the parking lot, hundreds of miles from home, that’s a time to shut up, or say something helpful. Instead I’d said something thoughtless and counterproductive, and hurt the lady. I had already apologized, of course, but internally I vowed to never again be so careless with words, to never again hurt Stephanie by speaking without thinking. But of course I did, again and again. I was trying to be a better man, but I’ve always been a slow learner.
It was snowing heavily as we left Reno, and on the radio they were talking about perhaps closing the freeway, but we persevered and outran the snowstorm. An hour later we were in sunshine, and a few hours after that we were in the suburbs of Sacramento. Soon we were in the East Bay, driving through cities I semi-knew, because BART’s trains sometimes took me to Richmond, Berkeley, and Oakland. As freeway traffic slowed to a crawl, we could see San Francisco’s skyline across the Bay.
We paid the toll, and then we were on the Bay Bridge, inching our way across and toward the city. I started singing the song, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” Steph sang along, with tears in her eyes. This brave, beautiful woman had given up everything she had – her job, her friends, her life in Madison – to come to Frisco with me. How could we not be emotional as we finally crossed that bridge? We thought it was the beginning of happily ever after. And you know what? It was.
More about Stephanie.