Pam Houston

Highway 50

Pam Houston
            It’s called the Loneliest Road in America and you are often on it, commuting several times a year between Creede, Colorado, where you live, and Davis, California, where you work sometimes in order to collect health benefits. Highway 50 from Fallon, Nevada to Delta, Utah, and sometimes it is that lonely, like at three in the morning in the no man’s land east of Ely when you are going down it the wrong way—toward California–heading into a late March blizzard that makes it feel as if the car is tilting over on its side continuously–some stomach turning amusement park ride in the dark. You blink and grip the wheel and talk to God and press on into that vortex trying to keep the faith that there is a world on the other side, even though you haven’t seen another car for four hundred miles and eight hours.
            Today, though, the sun is shining and you are the opposite of lonely because in the Prius-V with you are your best friend and your best dog and the three of you are going the right way, toward Colorado. You are singing along to the Alabama Shakes and you’ve got six whole days till your biopsy results come back, and now that you are on the good side of the Sierras everything is spring green and the hills look soft, even here in Nevada. You have driven this road a hundred times, you and the dog. You know the best places to hike, to drink from a river, to pull over and name the constellations, to throw a Thermarest out of the car for a few hours and catch a quick nap. Today, you get to show Steph every one of them.
            You met her a year ago, on a San Juan River trip organized by a women’s group in Grand Junction. You were the perk, the run the river with Pam perk, and you didn’t want to go. You had wedged it in between too much travel, too many jobs, and you didn’t get to the put-in until two in the morning. You stumbled over from the hotel with your dry bag half open just as they were giving the talk about giardia and hand washing and shitting into a rocket box. They were all looking at you, silent now, their perk— the former river guide, the former cowboy lover, the former wild woman, standing there with a misanthropic glint in your eye, dark circles from being up all night finishing some overdue story. When the first one came over to nervously talk to you was when you realized you hadn’t had any coffee. “Shit,” you said. “I haven’t had any coffee!” And that is when Steph stepped around the nervous woman and said, “Come with me. I’ve got a truck.”
            The Tundra had a V-8 and was fully loaded. She called it her cancer truck, bought three days after her diagnosis, seven years ago. Give me all the gewgaws, she told the salesman. I want every single spot on the dashboard filled.
            Twenty-five ladies watched the two of you jump in it and peel out of the parking lot, spewing gravel. They were talking about rattlesnake safety when you got back with your big hot drinks.
            The San Juan had been your river, years ago, when you were a guide, before you let too much work take you away from the wilderness, and the mountains, and your North Face VE-24 which was the house where you were always the happiest. The snap of shock-corded poles, the long zip of the down sleeping bag, the hum of the Svea. What had happened to that life? What had happened to that girl?
            Outside of Fallon, in the Prius’s rearview your three heads line up in a row, Steph’s spikey hair and peace sign earrings, William’s giant wolfhound nose, and then you, much too tan for someone who just had a biopsy, but blue eyes clear and shining because this, this is happiness, and if you only get these five days of it, it is five days more than you had before.
            It’s mid May, and the cottonwoods in the Truckee River bottom are a brilliant baby green, the hillsides almost glowing with new growth. The Shakes have stopped singing because now the Rockies are kicking the Giants’ collective ass at Coors Field, and you are going home to the state that has always made more sense to you than any other.
            Near the hole in the ground that used to be a whorehouse, you stop to give the dog a chance to pee and hike around the petroglyphs. Everybody dies, you think, looking at the ancient circles and spirals and rudimentary bighorn sheep that someone who got to spend more time outside than you do pecked into the rock with a hammer and a chisel. But you don’t want to. Not now, when you are finally starting to learn something, when you have finally stopped trying to be good all the time, when you have finally found a friend who makes the crappy stuff livable and the fun stuff ecstatic.
            When the San Juan trip ended, you ditched the trip leader to ride back to Junction in the tricked out truck. Something happened with a cashier at City Market in Moab that made you laugh so hard you snorted a piece of Pay Day up your nose but it loses something in the retelling. That fall the two of you went to Rockies games, Bronco Games—you even talked her into hockey. Sometimes just the two of you, sometimes you brought your partners, who are uncannily similar, and moderately jealous, but here on the other side of fifty infidelity sounds redundant when there is this much elation in simply sharing space.
            At Christmas they came up to the ranch and you and Steph dug three feet of frozen ground out from around the formerly frost-free pump in the horse pasture while your mates watched movies on their respective computers. The two of you celebrated the gushing water with a bluebird ski day at Wolf Creek. You had never met anyone before who worked even harder than you.
            There is nothing for sale the whole length of the Loneliest Road that would get the green light from Dr. Weil and his Anti-Inflammation Diet, which you have dedicated yourself to with a fervor that has surprised everyone. But tomorrow morning you’ll hit the Love Muffin Café in Moab where they have omega-3 eggs with potassium filled potatoes and peppers so hot you can actually feel them unclogging your arteries five minutes after they burn their way down to your gut.
            You found out about the high blood pressure—the first of your life–two weeks before you found out about the HPV 16, the follow-up colposcopy during which they would cut at least a dozen pieces out of you from places nothing ought ever to be cut out from. The doctor said it was likely the virus had been in there since you were a little girl, dormant, waiting for you to live against your nature.
            When your father dropped dead in 2005 and you found yourself still alive, you were at first amazed, and then relieved, and then suspicious. You’d been waiting for him to take you out since he broke your femur when you were four, or that time you almost drowned when he had you pinned over the drain on the floor of his shower, and now—Goddamn him—he was going to reach across from the grave and snatch you over to his side, but not with something quick like internal bleeding or suffocation. No, it was going to be protracted, painful—full of poisons injected and organs removed.
            You don’t understand why everyone is so surprised that you have quit wheat, sugar, alcohol, saturated fat and—most startling of all—caffeine—because what single thing in your life have you ever done half way? Thirty pounds down, twenty more to go and you are going to hike or swim every single day this summer, and drink hibiscus tea and focus on the good cholesterol, and drive eight hours every two weeks to see Gyana, the masseuse/magician who gets so deep into all your protected places you can hardly keep from snarling at people for the forty-eight hours it takes the toxins to leave your body. You are going to unblock whatever it is that is blocked inside you. You are going to bring your blood pressure down without the medicine whose side effects read like a list of every way you don’t want to live. You are going to shock those darkening pre-cancer cells white.
            Fuck the deadlines, fuck your workaholic father, fuck your doctor who won’t ever call you back, whose office automatically puts you on hold and then drops the call after twenty minutes of Muzak, who sends you emails full of words like High Risk Cervical Cancer with no words on either side to contextualize them—leaving you with no recourse but Google, which in this case, turned out to be the good news, once you learned to stop searching for HPV 16 cervical cancer, and started searching for not every case of HPV 16 leads to cervical cancer—fuck yourself, really, for all the time you spent proving, and what, and to whom.
            At another petrogyph panel outside Austin, William gets on a jackrabbit and you let him go. There’s nothing more beautiful in the world than a giant hound in overdrive, and the sight of him bounding and leaping through the tall grass makes Steph laugh and laugh. It’s not fair to put a wolfhound in a Prius for twenty hours—you know this– but you are going to make it up to him by stopping for as many of these mini hikes as you can squeeze into two days. And when you get to Creede, the wild iris that have lain buried under feet of snow all winter will be ready to burst into blossom and the three of you will hike your legs off for two and a half days more until Steph has to go back to work in Boulder on Tuesday, the day before you’ll find out whether God has a different summer than you were hoping for in store.
            Back in your positions in the Prius and the air is dry and sweet with the smell of spring sage and hell yes you want to live, but if you have to go, you would like it to be at the end of a day just like this one. If they could take you out right now, for example, or take you up—whatever direction you are bound to go—in the middle of this road trip, Steph scratching William under his noble chin, Nolan Arenado hitting a triple off the left field wall, Rockies going up 7-1 in the bottom of the sixth, a million miles of the big nothing out the car windows.
            Last December, when you hit an elk and had to leave your car at the body shop in Denver for two weeks, Steph let you borrow the cancer truck. In March, when you had to fire your house sitter, she came with you for moral support. And just two weeks ago, when your California doctor wouldn’t return your calls, she got you an appointment for the colposcopy with her gynecologist, flew you in on her frequent flyer miles, came with you to the appointment, sat there in the waiting room for the whole two hours you had your legs up in the stirrups.
            And also this: one bitter January night, four months before your health turned south. You were flying through Denver on your way to a three-day job in Tucson, and she drove down from Boulder to meet you for dinner. Your plane was delayed because of an ice storm, and then your cell phone ran out of juice, and you walked into the restaurant late and a little frantic, looking for her. You scanned every table but there was no sign of her pop-up hair, no big smile under freckles. Then her hands and face parted the beads that hung in the hallway to the bathroom, and your heart leapt up—like a child’s, maybe, or like a dog’s when he hears his person’s car come up the driveway. It leapt up and knocked around in your chest and left you a little breathless. You had not realized it could do that anymore.

PAM HOUSTON’s most recent book is Contents May Have Shifted, published by W.W. Norton in 2012. She is also the author of two collections of linked short stories, Cowboys Are My Weakness and Waltzing the Cat, the novel, Sight Hound, and a collection of essays, A Little More About Me, all published by W.W. Norton. Her stories have been selected for volumes of Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, The 2013 Pushcart Prize, and Best American Short Stories of the Century. She is the winner of the Western States Book Award, the WILLA award for contemporary fiction, The Evil Companions Literary Award and multiple teaching awards. She is Professor of English at UC Davis, directs the literary nonprofit Writing By Writers and teaches in The Pacific University low residency MFA program. and at writer’s conferences around the country and the world. She lives on a ranch at 9,000 feet in Colorado near the headwaters of the Rio Grande and her favorite road to travel (if we are talking paved road) is the Seward Highway from Anchorage down the Kenai Peninsula all the way to Homer.