Just beyond the nose of my old Mazda, its faded green streaked with dried road salt, swayed a Colorado interstate sign that surely lied. The information on the sign, Route 25, matched the Route 25 printed on my map. But never in its wildest dreams could this road pass for a four-lane highway. Across land that might have been ironed flat, a ribbon of bleached asphalt stretched towards New Mexico, proof that parallel lines meet if you can see far enough. Except for snow-encrusted tumbleweeds knocked about by the wind, nothing moved over the endlessness of withered grass and ice.
My travel guide, on which I depended as a baby on its mother, had betrayed me. Only after months of meticulous planning had I set out on this solo trip across the United States. No matter how keen my enthusiasm for adventure, whenever I drove alone into unfamiliar territory something inside me insisted that I would not be seen again. I could never free myself from images of roads dwindling into impassable tracts, losing themselves in fog and gloom. Yesterday that nightmare took on credibility. As I crept over an icy pass into the Rocky Mountains, snow-plastered foothills thousands of feet high, I eyed two huge Mainline Moving Vans slow-skating across each other’s lanes and knew one thing absolutely. I must abandon my northern route to California, my carefully woven safety net of yellow-markered road maps, detailed directions to every B&B, day-to-day itineraries. I must detour south through territory I had never researched.
Now, far beyond the frozen wasteland waiting to gobble me up hovered the outline of yet another mountain range. Cold seeped into the car. Only a mile back stood a small motel, an island of safety and warmth. Yet, wisdom – or maybe pure obstinacy – argued that my supplies included a full tank of gas, food and a sleeping bag, and that hunkering down in a motel would not get me to California. Latching on to the words less for reassurance than to fight panic, I spun the heater dial as high as it would go and drove onto the road.
Gusts slammed the car into a zig-zag course. Frozen puddles crackled beneath the tires. Snow encroached along the pavement’s edge until I seemed to be crunching across the plain itself. My fingers ached from their vice-grip on the steering wheel.
For hours, the land remained the same, the odometer’s changing digits my only proof of progress. When at last the road burrowed into the Sangre de Christo mountains, I pushed on, never stopping for fear the lack of motion would bring on paralysis. Snow berms towered above the car, the road’s surface packed firm as a ski trail.
By twilight, emerging into New Mexico’s winter-brown range land, I was a zombie, wanting only a roof and a bed. A sign, Casa del Gavilan, pointed down a rutted dirt lane that dipped into a grove of cottonwoods sheltering an adobe hacienda. Inside, darkly stained beams, fireplaces of hand-laid stones, and rugs in warm reds and blues created an immense comforting quiet.
“People don’t usually visit at this time of year,” said the grey-haired housekeeper, as she laid a newspaper next to a tureen of steaming soup, her movements unperturbed by the trials of daily life. Below a loosely knitted brown cardigan that lapped across her ample frontage like a favorite blanket, her feet overflowed the embrace of squashed carpet slippers. “I expect you’ve come for tonight’s meteor shower.” The paper’s headlines took up half a page. Leonids hurtle by on annual visit. Unique meteor storm predicted. Thousands per hour. Rare event only once every thirty-three years. Best viewing after midnight. Why would I want to venture out into the cold and wind just when I had escaped? Oblivion was what I craved.
The housekeeper patted a yawn back into her mouth. “Most folks around here don’t get too excited about losing a good night’s sleep to see a bunch of shooting stars.” Her indifference prodded something in me that rebelled against dullness. There was that curiosity again, that call of the wild. Thoughts of the moonless dark and the lonely waiting pressed me to reconsider. But to disregard this opportunity, and the circumstances that had brought me to it, would be almost sinful. That evening I went to sleep early wearing all my clothes, including my boots. I knew that, when the alarm went off at midnight, if I even had to tie my shoelaces, I would never tear myself out of that warm, cozy bed.
So it was, with the silence of the old house hissing in my ears and my heart hammering, I tiptoed out to my car. The motor sounded like a dozen backhoes coming to life. Headlights dim, I drove slowly through the dark until I was far out on the range. The strange world of late hours seemed alive with unseen eyes, stealth and menace. I could scurry back to my warm bed and in the morning give myself credit for trying. Probably I would see nothing anyhow. The only human being for miles around foolish enough to be out in the middle of nowhere waiting for a miracle. Cautiously, I backed the car off the road and down an incline, until the windshield slanted towards the sky, transforming my seat into an upholstered recliner.
Above me the sky was as ordinary as a thousand other night skies, a blanket of darkness spattered with starlight, blending with the horizon. The prairie grass rustled and the wind moaned, finding its way into the car. An ordinary night.
Then it happened. Off to the left, a globe of yellow fire burst out of the darkness and shot across the sky, trailing behind it a swath of white light longer and wider than any banner I had ever seen. Before I could exhale, the globe exploded, scattering fiery pieces of itself in a perfect widening circle. Then all was darkness.
For a second I sat, frozen. Next, I heard myself shouting, “I saw one! I saw one!” No matter if others never came. But they did, arcing across the sky like nothing I had ever imagined, huge ribbons of white light flung through the darkness, streaming behind globes brilliant as head lights. Like gigantic fireworks, they erupted into golden chrysanthemums, illuminating ghostly fences undulating across miles of range land, the dirt road slicing away to a thread. All of them streaking and exploding in eerie silence, no sound carried across the vast void through which they traveled.
As they leapt by the hundreds to their grand finale, I experienced a strange sense of myself perched on the outer skin of my home planet journeying with them through time and space. For the briefest moment, I knew I was part of that incredible beauty and power, an immense, timeless vitality beyond anything I had ever believed was missing from my own life.
I stopped worrying about losing my way en route to California, falling off the edge of the earth. And I went back to my cozy room in Casa del Gavilan with its fireplace and patchwork quilt and slept dreamlessly all night.