MORE THAN LIFE ITSELF
A Love Story by
Diane Stark (McConnell) Sanfilippo
Chapter 50 – Pike’s Peak to Denver
We had not brought an alarm clock with us since Michael was not a child who slept late, regardless, and we knew we could count on him to wake us early enough to get in a good day of travel. We also knew if we found ourselves sleeping too late, we could just ask the front desk for a ‘wake-up’ call. So far, since Billy had allowed plenty of time for sightseeing and a leisurely trip, taking into consideration I had a difficult and painful birth, we had not found this necessary. My one request for the schedule was a midday break since all of us for different reasons would find this a necessity, and I was concerned Billy would be lulled by the sameness of the scenery and find it difficult to stay awake in the warmth of the afternoon sun. He had promised to warn me if he began to feel drowsy, and only once, the morning we drove across the panhandle of Texas, had he thought he might have to awaken me. I am sure the boredom of the drive, and the heat of the day made it difficult for him to keep his eyes open, but he did, and now the scenery was far more interesting. He had also factored in all three meals with a ‘recreation’ break for Michael afterwards, plus Margie needing to nurse, and she definitely let us know when she was hungry, but so far, her schedule adapted well to our own.
This morning, the beginning of the fourth day of our grand adventure, Michael did not let us down when he woke up to crawl into our bed about 8:30. Amazingly, Margie slept for almost nine hours that night, which I thought unheard of for such a young baby, but we knew she was as remarkable as she was pretty from the moment we brought her home. She seemed to have set her schedule and rarely varied from it, although if we had unforeseen delays for a meal, she adjusted easily. Now this was the perfect child for a career Army officer!
Our morning routine had been set the first morning in Memphis, and since it worked out so well we continued to follow it. By 9:30 a.m. with Margie fed and nursed, Billy reloaded the car and drove around to the front lobby to park and check out, and then we went inside the restaurant for breakfast.
During our meal, Billy and I talked over our prospective schedule for the day, although it was anything but rigid. Traveling with the children, we had learned never to hold ourselves to an unobtainable goal, or even become upset if our unstructured plans failed to materialize, since their needs came first. Billy was mostly worried that the trip was taking its toll on me, although I usually took a long nap after lunch, and I would be the first to admit it had not been easy. Although still sore and sitting on a donut cushion, I was more worn out, probably from a myriad of factors to begin with the extra month I carried the baby, then the delayed birth that sent me reeling into shock with very little time to recuperate before we began our long journey. I also knew nursing inevitably took something out of me too, although I would have not have it any other way, and I could not imagine having to deal with bottles and formula. Some days were worse than others were, and I thought by breaking the day in half with lunch, and then any side trips we might take, would help, but I now realized walking up and down trails to wherever was more tiring than riding. Sitting in the car for such long periods was anything but comfortable, and I had known from the beginning there would be times I would have some pain. I had fleetingly thought about asking Billy if he could request a change of transportation from sea to air, but I knew how much he was looking forward to this trip with his ‘little family’, and all his letters from Ranger School reflected this fact. So mostly for Billy’s sake I tried hard not to let him see how very tired I really was, or how much pain I was having. However, there were days when I wondered if we should not have flown. I had never done so before, and I have to admit with a fear of heights and intense claustrophobia, plus allowing another to be in total control of my destiny, I had not pursued air transport. But even more important I was not about to ruin the dream that kept Billy going through those long weeks in Ranger School, while to take his mind off of his own discomfort, he dreamed of our journey and the sights we would see.
My mind was far more concerned with the fear he might become sleepy while driving in the late afternoon sun, and I counted on his promise to wake me, or to pull over if his eyelids began to feel heavy. Although I could not drive, I could talk to him and take his attention off his own weariness, and I hoped he did not sense my almost overwhelming fatigue, but he knew me too well not to notice. Often he asked if I was O.K. Of course, I always assured him I was just fine, when this was far from the truth. However, so far, I had not allowed myself to break down in tears, even though there were days a good cry would have helped a lot. I would always tell him all was well, smile and lean my head against his shoulder where I always felt so very safe and loved, and if the road was straight, he would put his arm around me and draw me close to him.
Often we still acted like two kids in love rather than a young Army officer and his wife traveling with our own two children. In that way I never wanted to grow up. I always wanted to feel as loved as I had when we first started dating, and I did, although our passion had grown and matured into a less selfish, more understanding adoration. We rarely argued anymore, not like the first two years when we were just beginning to learn all about each other, and were testing the waters, so to speak. We both had discovered we could talk about anything that was bothering us. Most of the time we compromised on a solution both of us found acceptable, but the most important factor was I had learned to ‘give’, and not always have to be the ‘winner’.
I still felt like my heart was beating too fast when he held me close, and when I saw him across a room or parade field my body would swirl with emotion. We often talked about how we felt as if we had known each other forever, and perhaps we had, and always would. Life before ‘us’ was not something either of us cared or even thought about. We had grown in concern for each other, and of course, for our children, and I could not find words enough to tell him how much I truly loved and needed him. It would be remiss for me to say I did not worry about a future without him, and always on my mind was that with each mile we drove westward, we were also closer to the day he would leave for Vietnam. In vain, I tried hard not to think about it. Certainly, I did not want to ruin our great adventure with my premature concern, but it was always there, in the back of my mind.
Our first stop for this day would be in Taos, which was just beginning to become known as an artist’s colony, although Billy referred to the longhaired young people wearing their tie-dyed shirts as ‘hippies’. He did not appreciate their stance on the Vietnam War, although this was still early in the conflict and the mass demonstrations had not yet begun. Since we both lived in the conservative south our entire lives, and especially since I was an officer’s daughter, neither of us understood how any group of people could hold our military, or for that matter, our government up to criticism.
Protected by the military community, the raging war in the south against segregation did not touch our lives, and I had never even given it much thought. Of course, we knew that just across the Georgia-Alabama border, there were mass sit-ins, demonstrations and even murders, but innocently we turned our backs and just concentrated on our children and Billy’s goals. Therefore, as we drove into Taos we expected to find a commune of hippies, but the seeming normality of the lovely little village caught us by surprise.
I am not sure what we expected to find, but my mind was on young people, most close to our age, with long hair, wearing beads, and scandals. What we did find was adobe shops lining the main thoroughfare, all well stocked with Southwestern style jewelry, mostly made of sterling silver and turquoise, which just happened to be my birthstone. I was well aware I could only ‘window shop’ as Billy drove slowly through the town. However, with my birthday gift dangling from my wrist, I could not think of any other piece of jewelry that could mean nearly as much. Still I gazed longingly at the tiny shops filled with rich colored blankets, ponchos, sombreros, shawls made of colorful wool, and sidewalks lined with terracotta pottery in all colors and forms. There was one shop that sold Mexican piñatas, another where the window dressing was a lovely white lace gown called a ‘Mexican wedding dress’ that I would have loved to buy, but our budget did not have room for non-essential purchases.
There were restaurants galore, most featuring Southwestern, or Mexican menus, but neither Billy nor I had developed a fondness for the spicy food, so it was just as well it was too early for lunch. Both of us enjoyed the colorful displays. I fell in love with the multi-colored serapes in their rainbows of color, and the delightful full ‘gauze’ skirts made with yards and yards of fabric. I thought what fun it would be to wear one of these skirts, and to whirl around on the dance floor while it filled the room with the never-ending colors of the rainbow! When I was in high school, full skirts and dresses with crinolines had been the fashion. My grandmother had saved the crinolines that fell out of the dresses she sold, and those the customers did not want, and I had one of every color, and two and three of most. Every Saturday I carefully washed the miles of billowing net, starched them until they were stiff, and hung them on the clothesline to dry, but that fashion was definitely not suitable for an officer’s wife! Besides, I was too old! I could not believe at twenty-two years of age, I was too old for anything, but the days were long past when I could wear the billowing skirts. Now, with my handsome husband by my side, I knew I would never look back with longing on the days before we met. Indeed, I felt as if my life had begun with our first kiss.
Not too far outside of Taos, Billy turned down a narrow road leading to an abandoned mining town, or as the billboard proclaimed a ‘ghost town’. We had seen other deserted villages dotted throughout the south, but the one we now approached resembled something out of a western movie. The dilapidated wooden buildings, looked as if they would fall into the dust with just a sneeze, and often we found behind a large façade there was only a small single adobe room. We could have become lost in time in this solitary place. I would not have been surprised to find cowboys on horseback, covered with the dust after a hard day working the range, riding into town and heading for the saloon. On the other hand, stretching my imagination even further, I could imagine the sheriff and a gunslinger glaring at each other from the opposite ends of the dirt street and just waiting to see who drew first!
Now the town was completely deserted, and since at that time, none of these treasures had been preserved or turned into tourist Mecca’s, I doubted if it would be standing for very long. We passed the entrance to a boarded up mine with a sign that gave a brief history of the area, the fortunes found, then lost or gambled away, and finally we came to the graveyard. Here, curiosity got the better of both of us since we could not drive close enough to see the crooked crosses and tombstones.
It was time for Michael to have some exercise anyway, so we parked the car, and with Billy carrying Margie and Michael running ahead, we climbed the small hill to the old burial ground. In most places, the fence around it had long fallen into the dust, and had this been the South, kudzu would have overtaken the graves, but not a blade of grass grew on this exposed and barren hill. As I read the epitaphs I thought surely they could not be real since most read like a Zane Grey novel, and we wandered ceaselessly amazed by the wording, “kilted by John Smith” read one stone, “died by his own hand”, yet another. There were mostly young men buried in this deserted place, but a few women and more children. Certainly, there was some kind of epidemic in the late 1800’s since most of the dates on the graves of the latter were within months of each other. How sad to be trying to make a living for your family, digging in the unforgiving earth for either silver or gold, only to lose all of your loved ones to the flu, helpless to do anything but stand by and watch while they died. I could not even imagine what had made these brave pioneers leave their homes in the East to come to this God-forsaken place to seek their fortunes. It seemed as if their only reward was hardship and a nameless grave in a deserted cemetery.
As we got back into the car, Billy mused if he lived in those days, he too would have been an adventurer, although I assured him if he had been married to me, it would have been highly unlikely! Times were hard back then even for the ‘city folks’ who had servants since hygiene was not a word in the dictionary. No, I much preferred my creature comforts, and I thought a simple camping trip would be about the last thing I would like to do! At the end of the day, I wanted a soft bed, plenty of hot water, and a good meal, and that did not include a tent with a sleeping bag and an outdoor latrine! Having spent one of the most miserable two weeks of my life at Girl Scout camp, I knew then I was not the ‘rough and ready’ outdoor kind of girl, rather I enjoyed soft linens, sweet smelling soap, and hot meals.
By now, we were all getting hungry and needed to find somewhere to plug in our daughter’s dish to heat her cereal and fruit, and to feed our newly invigorated son. Back in the car, Billy turned onto the main highway, and it was not long before we found another small town with a rustic log building that simply said, “Lodge.” Although there were no other cars in the parking lot, Billy checked the map and realized this stop in the road was imperceptible. There did not seem to be any populated area between here and Colorado Springs, but with an open sign on the door, he parked and we went inside. Blinking our eyes against the darkness, we decided the lack of windows was more for keeping out the hot dusty air than for privacy, and soon a waitress appeared and led us to a red leather booth on one side of the large room.
Apprehensive that I would find anything on the menu I would eat, much less anything for our fussy son, I was surprised to find the fare relatively simple, very inexpensive, and quite diverse. Billy and I both ordered hamburgers and Michael his usual hot dog while the waitress heated Margie’s little dish for us. As I fed her, rather shoveled, spoonful after spoonful of peaches and cereal into her open mouth, I commented to Billy that I knew now how mother birds must feel when confronted by a nest full of open beaks, and he laughed at the comparison. However, she was full and happy by the time our meals arrived and she watched us intently as if memorizing our faces while we ate.
Since the restaurant was empty and the waitress not otherwise occupied, Billy asked her why someone would run a restaurant so far away from any civilization. She kindly explained the area was renowned for its hunting, and hunters from all over the United States regularly made this isolated region their ‘vacation’ spot. Mostly they hunted bear, cougar, and wild rams and the ‘lodge’ was only open during any one of the multiple seasons, although there were not too many days between one to the other so they did a good business. We had gotten lucky, she continued, as they were closing over the weekend and would not reopen for another three weeks. Like the waitress in Amarillo, she suggested if we were going to do any extensive traveling in the area we should always pack something to eat and drink since it was a long distance between towns, and anything could happen.
“You sure wouldn’t want to get stuck way out here with those young ‘uns without food, water, and blankets.”
“Blankets?” Billy questioned and she explained that they could still get some bad snowstorms in the mountains all the way into May, and we should be prepared. He told her we would be going over the mountains from Denver to Salt Lake City and perhaps she was right. It was then we found out we would not be able to get through the mountain passes yet since it was still too early for them to be open. There was no way to get to Salt Lake City except to go back down through Albuquerque and then up again, but there would be no open roads over the mountains to the north of us, at least not now.
Disappointed to learn we would have to rework a major leg of our adventure, or eliminate the trip to Salt Lake City. Billy paid the modest bill and left a good tip for the friendly and helpful waitress. We decided rather than waste precious daylight, we would continue on to Denver and with our Atlas; look over alternatives in the room after supper. Maybe we would get lucky and the passes would be open, and we could check with the State Police from the motel.
As we descended from the hills, we found ourselves surrounded by mountains to the east and to the west of us, and far in the distance straight ahead, the Red River Valley stretched as far as the eye could see. The swift mountain stream that had accompanied us alongside the road for most of our journey was now a seemingly innocent and quiet river as if it was resting here in the valley after its rapid descent from the mountains, and now was rejuvenating for the next wild ride downstream. Ahead we could see Pike’s Peak and we stopped to read the signs along the road’s edge. The legend and adventure of the discovery of the valley and the peak was brief on the small signs, but I had additional brochures in the car and, glancing up from time to time, read them to Billy while we made our way down into the valley.
It was then that all of a sudden Michael shouted from the backseat, “Cowboy, Daddy! See the cowboy?”
Sure enough, there was another real live cowboy slowly riding his horse along the side of the highway.
As we passed him, Michael called out to him, “Howdy, pardner,” and the cowboy seeing his little blond head waved his hat at him.
Michael was thrilled! Two days in a row now, he had seen real live cowboys and Indians, although the mesa dwelling Hopi had not impressed him at all. We needed to find some ‘real’ Indians with feathered headdresses wearing loincloths, faces painted for war, and riding their ponies bareback, although I had a feeling we were in the wrong area of the country for this sight, but we were on our way to Hollywood!
Dusk was rapidly descending as we approached the main road to the newly built Air Force Academy stretched out beneath Pike’s Peak. We turned into the entrance road expecting some resistance or at least a checkpoint, but like any other college campus, we were able to drive through, and there was no one to ask us for identification. Probably because the campus was empty. We did not even see security guards so thought the cadets must still be on spring break. Billy parked the car in front of the beautiful chapel that looks like a plane soaring through the sky, and we all got out of the car and walked around the stunning building. It is a magnificent structure!
All of the other buildings were modern and obviously new since the academy had not been formed but just a few years prior to our visit, and the location could not have been more perfect as it seemed to sit poised between the mountains and the valley, on a plain all its own. As we drove back towards the highway, we saw deer grazing in the fields all around campus, most so tame they came right up to the car. I wished then we had some bread or fruit to feed them. Although somewhere I heard it was not good to feed a wild animal since they would become too used to the easy meal and forget how to forage for food. I imagine too that during winter the foraging in this lovely valley was difficult so the tender shoots of spring grass was a welcome treat for them and they were just as happy as if I had a bushel of apples. None of us had ever seen deer so close, and although I tried to explain to Michael that a deer was like the caricatures in his book, ‘Bambi’, I was sure he did not quite relate these graceful creatures to the illustrations in his book.
Then out of the backseat, we heard him ask, “Well, then where is ‘Flower’?”
Our precocious son understood far more than we gave him credit for, and Billy laughed and said he hoped we did not run into ‘Flower’ today!
With the setting sun now behind the western mountain ridge, dark was descending rapidly on this magic place, but by lingering in the valley, we hoped to avoid any rush hour traffic in Denver, if they even had a rush hour.
Before it became too dark to read, Billy took out the Atlas and checked out the route to the motel, which he had carefully marked the night before and we were off to Denver.
I am not sure what I expected to find, but not the cosmopolitan city we approached as the sun slipped over the mountains to our West. Except for the thin air and surrounding snow-covered peaks, it was not unlike Atlanta with less tall buildings. Since we left Atlanta before the high rise ‘boom’, the quiet Southern city, population around 750,000, was not anything like it is today - the ‘New York of the South’, therefore the comparison.
Billy found the motel without any difficulty, and much to our surprise it was just across the street from the U.S. Army Tripler Hospital, the regional hospital for this area, and one of the largest U.S. Army medical facilities. Unfortunately, like many of the military institutions, forts and bases, it is now closed. Again, our room was on the ground floor and convenient. We hoped a Holiday Inn of this size, across from a large Army hospital, might have a Laundromat where we could wash some diapers for Margie, and clothes for the rest of us since our wardrobes were meager and we were rapidly running out of almost everything.
Once again, we followed what had become a quite successful and efficient routine, and within an hour, we were clean and in the lobby. Here, we chose some of the more interesting from the myriad of brochures on display to assist us in planning our altered route. Must to our delight, there was a Laundromat on the premises since, as we expected, this motel was often used by the families of patients at the hospital who also received a discount on their lodging and meals. It was militarily oriented and active duty personnel received a substantial discount, which was welcome, although, throughout the Holiday Inn chain, we had been receiving a 10% discount on the rooms, but nothing on the meals.
The clerk at the front desk examined Billy’s I.D. card, and gave him a discount certificate to present to the waiter before we paid for our meal. This was the nicest set-up we had come across yet and I hoped we would find the same in California since we would be staying there several days after we turned the car into the port near San Pedro.
We knew we had to stay nearby since Billy would have to take a cab back from the port once he turned the car in, then again to board the ship, and we could not afford to pay very much. Billy, always the optimist, and not wanting to have to rework our schedule, asked the desk clerk about the road to Salt Lake City and whether we would be able to get there from here. The clerk, obviously accustomed to such requests, phoned the local Colorado State Patrol office where we learned the passes were indeed, completely blocked by snow, as the friendly waitress earlier in the day had warned us. Now we definitely knew we would have to work on changing our schedule after supper while the clothes were washing.
This night, with the discount voucher, we decided to try Colorado beef and found their steaks almost as tender and tasty as those in Oklahoma. Billy ordered a huge T-bone as large as any I would have bought to feed both of us, and I ordered another filet. The salads were huge and by the time our meals arrived, I had eaten so much salad there was not much room for anything else, so the smaller cut of meat was just the perfect size for my now diminished appetite. Michael ate a fried chicken leg with a fruit salad and French fries since I decided not to push the concept of trying different vegetables on our resistant, stubborn child in public. I knew Billy would not tolerate a temper tantrum in a restaurant, so I took the easy way out for all of us.
It seemed our son inherited his father’s distaste for vegetables, although I tried to get him to try everything, not wanting another woman, someday in the distant future, to have the difficulty I had preparing nourishing meals with some variety. Right after Billy and I married, I hoped to change his set ways about not eating vegetables, and encouraged him to try something new with each meal. Since this led to several heated disagreements, I finally gave up, and now we always had either a fruit or vegetable salad, or LeSeuer peas. At least when we were either visiting family, or on the few occasions we had meals at the Officer’s Club, I relished the vegetables I had long enjoyed. On this trip, I delighted in the fresh produce served with the filets I ordered, and the tiny baby carrots had become my favorite. To say I was looking forward to the meals on the ship would have been an understatement! I was just concerned Billy would not find the food to his liking!
Again our meal was pleasant since Margie’s tummy was full, and she lay fully awake in her seat and watched the rest of us eat, cooing and smiling when her father reached over to tickle her tiny toes. She was already a little flirt and a great traveler, and we were certainly breaking her in young for the nomadic existence of a military life. We were gratefully surprised that with the discount vouchers the entire meal cost less than $20! We knew this would not happen often.
On the way back to the room, Billy stopped by the car and picked up the diaper pail, and then located the Laundromat and started a load of diapers on their first cycle. With Maggie wrapped snuggly in a soft pink blanket, I sat outside in the chilly thin air and watched Michael run and play in the small garden area around the closed swimming pool, since it was much too cold for outdoor swimming. Michael showed little interest in the water while he played hide and seek with his daddy once Billy joined us. They crept among the trees and rocks highlighted by low voltage lighting that decorated the grounds, and Billy would hide then jump out to ‘scare’ Michael, although Michael was anything but scared of his silly daddy. He just laughed. Although I hated to drag myself away from watching my boys at play, with the children under the devoted supervision of their father, I went to our room where I sorted the soiled clothes into two small loads, and carried them to the Laundromat. While I was there, I started the diapers on their final wash since we always used the first wash to rinse them. Just as I finished putting the wet clothing in one large dryer Billy came in with the children saying it was too cool outside so he was taking them to the room and he did not want me to worry when I came to look for them. He had always been thoughtful in these small ways, which was one of the many qualities I found so appealing about him, not to mention he was tall, dark, and incredibly handsome. As he matured, his face, now more filled out, was no longer that of a ‘pretty boy’, rather that of a remarkably striking young man. He had the bearing of a soldier; ramrod straight, shaved head, and broad, broad shoulders, made even broader by the second phase of Ranger School. His large hands were still rough and calloused from the repelling ropes, and when he took my own soft, small hands into his, they felt so strong and I felt so secure. Even in civilian clothing, there was little doubt he was a soldier, and I always felt so proud to be by his side. I do not think he was ever aware that heads turned when he walked into a room, and for that, I loved him even more. He was mine and I was his, and that is how it would always be, for the rest of our lives.
While the clothes dried, Billy settled Michael down and read to him from one of the several books we packed, although, by now, we both were becoming quite weary of the stories, but Michael delighted in each and every reading.
His favorite was still ‘The Little Engine that Could’ and laughing he would always join in on the phrase, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, I KNOW I can!”
After the last book was read, we listened as he said his bedtime prayers, and as usual prolonged it by asking God to bless everything and everyone he could think of, and tonight he added the ‘cowboys and Indians’, Bambi and Flower!
Finally, with our stalling son tucked into one of the big beds, Billy left to get the clothes out of the dryer while I changed and nursed Margie again.
With both children asleep, I folded first our clothes and then Margie’s diapers, while Billy took out the Atlas to make alternative plans for our aborted trip to Salt Lake City. After he studied the maps for about 20 minutes, he finally said that as far as he could see there was only one way out of Denver and that was to go back to Albuquerque. Pondering the map, he found a different route than the one we had taken today that would make the next day’s trip not more interesting but different. This highway would take us through the mountains on winding roads and across the Continental Divide no less than six times! He assured me he would check with the desk clerk to make sure this road was open and we would not run into slippery pavement, since he would never risk his adored little family.
He then showed me where there was a National park called The Great Sand Dunes National Monument, and neither of us could imagine sand dunes in the shadow of the same Pike’s Peak we had seen that afternoon. Indeed, they were almost exactly on the opposite side of the mountain range from Colorado Springs and it certainly sounded interesting. He also thought it might be exciting to drive onto an Indian Reservation and see how they really lived when not on the mesa getting the tourists’ dollars. Other than those two stops, he did not see anything else of interest, but since the route was so winding and he would have to drive much slower, we decided that was enough, so we could be out of the mountains and hopefully at the motel before dark.
Just before we put out the lights to lie in each other’s arms and cuddle, in anticipation of having to wait only another five days, Billy called the desk clerk and asked him to make ground floor reservations in the same motel in Albuquerque we had just left. That accomplished, he cut off the light and in the dark, we kissed and snuggled until we fell into a frustrated sleep.
My last thoughts were of the wonders I had seen that day, and the even greater ones we would see in the next two days, as we drove ever closer to California and paradise. My darling Billy’s soft snoring, as usual, lulled me to sleep while I felt the rise and fall of his chest against my back and his strong arms around me. I could have slept on forever in this way, but we were young, and we had places to go, people to meet, and years and years of adventures and surprises waiting for us.