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Creek Running North

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December 14, 2004

Big Thompson Canyon

The thing you have to understand about my day attempting to hitchhike down Route 34 is the context in which it occurred.

That winter, Susan and I had decided we were moving to Portland. She would be going to chiropractic school and I would find something to do. I read everything I could find about Portland and started to feel like I finally had a ticket out of Buffalo. As the day approached, Susan said she wanted to go to New York City for a week to say goodbye to her family. At the end of that week, she called, said she’d gotten a job and would meet me out west in a year.

This wasn’t out of character for Susan. We were engaged, and she’d bought a wedding dress, and she’d get up out of bed and say “I need some orange juice, I’m going to the store,” and then she wouldn’t come back for days, having met some guy and gone off to fool around with him. I was unsure of myself and I put up with it.

I went to New York for a week to see Susan before heading west. I saw Susan for maybe 24 hours of that time, part of which she spent making out with someone else at a party. We walked together in the giant Nuclear Freeze march. I spent the rest of that week meeting with my fellow draft resisters and steeling myself to break things off with Susan, though I didn’t know it at the time.

I don’t want to sound too harsh here. Susan clearly had some problems that compelled her to make questionable judgments. In retrospect, I realize she also clearly loved me deeply. When I did break things off a couple months later, after she’d changed her mind and followed me out to California, I think she was really hurt.

I wanted the hell out of New York City. A friend from Buffalo put me in touch with a woman, Cara, who was driving from NYC to Boulder and then to Idaho for the Rainbow Gathering. For some inexplicable reason I thought the Rainbow Gathering sounded like fun, and she invited me along for the ride.

I persuaded Cara to stop in Buffalo so that I could cash in my inheritance – a whopping 500-dollar life insurance policy my parents had bought when I was a baby. We wound up picking up A., the mutual friend who had hooked us up, who was heading back to her house in Boulder.

I am going to trust that you don’t find my accounting of the next couple weeks boastful. It was a long time ago, and before certain public health concerns changed life for young people. Cara and A. and I stopped for a break in Beaver Crossing, Nebraska. Cara went off to mail some things at the post office, and A. took the opportunity to confess that she wanted more out of our friendship than she’d been getting. I liked A. a lot, and that was certainly OK by me. And the times were different, so the fact that A. was living in Boulder with her female life partner and said partner’s long-time boyfriend, to whom A. was legally married, to say nothing of the fact that I was still technically engaged, seemed more interesting complications than impediments.

There’s an important moment in this story where I wake up in the back of Cara’s station wagon, after a night of platonic cuddling with A., and the world looked completely different. We were somewhere between Julesberg and Sterling, on the shoulder of a dirt road a few miles from Interstate 76. There were prickly pears and buffalo grass and no trees anywhere.

I decided I wanted to spend a little time with A. in Boulder rather than continuing on to Idaho. I spent two weeks at her house, in which her girlfriend and her husband lived, along with a housemate, R. Inside of two days, every resident of that house had propositioned me quite bluntly. This started literally the moment I arrived: R. met us at the car, hugged A., turned to me, put her bare foot atop mine, and started kneading my instep with her toes.

I will spare you further details other than to say even as a libidinous 22-year-old with a long and varied sexual history, I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. Not mixed enough not to avail myself of some of the companionship being offered, you understand. But I felt a bit like a side of beef thrown into the wolf pen, and not always in a good way.

I decided after two weeks that enough was enough and I needed to get further west before I stayed a lot longer. I’m not sure why I chose to hitchhike through Estes Park, snug up against the base of Rocky Mountain National Park, several hours out of the way considering I was heading toward Cheyenne and I-80. Maybe because of the scenery. In any event, it took me most of a morning to get to Lyons, and then I stood watching hummingbirds at a feeder for another hour before someone came by to take me to Estes Park. I called a friend in Buffalo from a payphone outside the Estes Park 7-11, chatted for a bit, ate some lunch and headed down Route 34 toward Loveland.

That’s the context. Here’s the story.

I was wearing those black flat Chinese fabric shoes, and walking backwards along the shoulder of 34 with my thumb out, for about an hour, before I realized only three cars were going by each hour. I started walking forwards. Past the riverside resorts, past the private cabins, as the canyon grew up to either side of me. My feet started to ache.

For months, I’d been letting my plans be made for me. Susan picking Portland as the place where I’d spend my life, heading to New York because of my compulsion to see her, accepting a ride to Idaho because someone I knew was driving there, staying in Boulder to get laid, not to mention the many months before that of bouncing from event to event like a pinball. And here I was, on a deserted stretch of two lane highway, listening to the Big Thompson roll past over the rocks, watching the hawks circle on the thermals over the canyon, marveling at the angular boulders interspersed among the trees, and all of a sudden I realized no one knew where I was, and I could decide to go anywhere I wanted, and it was entirely up to me what I decided.

I had never felt anything like that in my life. It was the moment I truly began to feel like I belonged somewhere in the world: among the rugged landscapes of a West I hadn’t even really seen yet.

I walked all the way to Cedar Cove before I got a ride, with an electrician heading home to Loveland after a full work day. Another ride got me to Cheyenne.

A couple weeks after I arrived in the Bay Area, I picked up a newspaper and saw a photo of the phone booth outside the Estes Park 7-11. It was a story on the 1982 Lawn Lake flood, which had just bulldozed through the town and down that canyon, sweeping away much of what I saw as my past started to be swept away itself.

Posted by Chris Clarke at December 14, 2004 11:00 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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You've really got something going here, Chris.

Posted by: beth at December 14, 2004 06:06 PM
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Singer-songwriter Chuck Pyle (who lives in Boulder, I think?) has a song about a police officer who raced the water down the canyon, warning people to get clear, saving dozens of lives. The water finally got him. The name of the song, "Here Comes the Water", was Officer Purdy's last words on the radio. After hearing it a dozen times, I still get a chill from that song.

Posted by: Robert at December 16, 2004 05:28 AM
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Great story. I'm glad I stumbled across your weblog.

Posted by: Z*lda at January 1, 2005 02:07 PM
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