“It’s not that hard?” The man sighed as he combed his hand through his loose hair once more. He placed his worn jacket across his legs and folded his arms.
“You’re too idealistic. I can’t see how you can possibly enjoy a place like this.” The woman spoke in dignified tones as she pursed her lips and placed her handbag on the seat next to her. Her hair looked recently washed and had been left to dry in the cool spring air.
The train attendant passed through the car and checked for tickets. “Ma’am, do you have your ticket?”
“Yes,” she responded in a tone of superiority. “It’s in my bag.” As she sorted through her bag, she made sounds of annoyed frustration.
“Ma’am, if you don’t have a ticket, you may purchase one at this time.” The attendant suggested dryly.
“No, it is in my bag, just let me find it. Just hold on!” her voice rising.
“Sir, do you have your ticket?” the attendant turned to a man in the seat across the aisle from her.
He produced his ticket from his shirt pocket. The attendant nodded at the paper slip and, after tearing off the end, handed it back.
“Hey, there… For her ticket.” He said calmly as he handed the attendant a 5 dollar bill.
“Yes.” The attendant nodded and left the two alone.
The train started to turn to the north providing a look across the valley from the man’s window. He looked out at the mountains to the west, and surprising himself, he realized he remembered their names. Vivid memories came back of winter alpine ski tours. He couldn’t recall the last time he had strapped into a pair of ski boots.
“Well, it’s not difficult.” He expressed again, although his attention was still out the window. Sunlight from the opposite side of the car illuminated his face, highlighting his beard.
“What was that?” she said tersely.
He looked away from the window now. “What?”
“You just paid the attendant for my ticket. Why? I have money, you know.”
“Yeah, well, so do I. I was trying to save you the embarrassment of not having a ticket.” He smiled.
“But…I had a ticket.” She began tearing her purse apart again. “I know it’s in here. I put in in here.” She demanded of her purse.
“Well, did you have a ticket?” he asked rhetorically. “You seemed pretty preoccupied with your phone earlier. Whoever you were talking to, you seemed pissed.”
“What are you talking about? That idiot on the phone…Please. And yes, I have a ticket. Why wouldn’t I have a ticket? she asserted.
“Idiot…hmmm. A new guy, huh? I don’t know the guy, but yeah, he sounds like an idiot.” He smirked.
“Well, I assumed you didn’t have a ticket, because I saw the scene you put on back there. You were really something else on the phone. Your arms waving around. Really quite a sight. You should have been there,” he was in story mode now. She hated story mode. “Right as you stepped to the machine to buy your ticket, your bag flew off your shoulder as you made one last phenomenal gesticulation. When you reached down to pick it up is when the train blew the horn. You rushed to the door and barely got in. Still on the phone, mind you. From what I could tell, you were too pissed at the ‘idiot’ to realize you never even bought the ticket. That’s why I think you didn’t actually have a ticket.”
“Well… well. La ti da!”
“I was just glad to see you made it. I was sitting in here wondering if you’d even show. By the time I finally saw you run up to the gate, I had just about written you off. Punctuality never was your strong suit. But, I’m glad you made it.”
“Well, thanks but no thanks.” she rolled her eyes and looked out her window.
For what? Thanks for what?” he seemed confused.
“For the ticket.”
“Oh, right.” you’re welcome.
By now, the train was nearing the south end of the valley. Next stop. Draper Station. Please remain seated as the train comes to a stop. The voice on the intercom said in a robotic voice. The train jolted and started to slow. A couple bikes clattered together in the rack – someone didn’t strap their’s in properly.
“I always liked when the train conductor actually announced the train stops. Gave a certain air of humanity.” The man said in a reminiscent tone.
“You know, I never could understand how you could like it here.” The woman scolded. “The church runs this whole place. Everyone is so goddamned happy all the time, like a cult. Too happy if you ask me. No one should be that happy. And… To top it off, you can’t even get real beer here.”
“Colorado has similar beer laws, you know.”
“Oh, god. You are always defending this place. Well, Colorado has legalized marijuana.”
“Utah legalized same-sex marriage before Colorado.” He fought back.
“Yeah, well. The pious right who run this place refused to issue licenses and so the state went a year without issuing same-sex marriage licenses.” She raised her voice. “You try to defend this place…I have no idea why. It’s all religious nut jobs and their weird happy families.”
“Well, some religious nut jobs and weird families. It’s just not as bad a place as you make it out to be. Sure the religious right stopped issuing marriage licenses to gay couples as they tried to fight the ruling. But, it still happened here. It happened, because a group of activists fought for it to happen. It’s an exciting place to be. I’d rather be here where there are battles being fought than some place where everyone mindlessly drones along with the social tide.” He lectured.
“Yeah, well, maybe you should just move back here then.” She said.
The train had come to a complete stop. A few people walked thru the back end of the car to exit. One woman removed her bike from the rack. A young father entered the train car with a toddler. He helped the awkward boy to the front end of the train and thru the door to the next car. The train doors closed again and the two were alone again. Please use caution as the train accelerates. Next stop, South Jordan Station, announced the automated voice.
“Why don’t you move back?” she asked him. “You don’t have any family in Mississippi. Do you even have many friends out there? Are there even any woman that you are interested in dating?” she interrogated him.
“Blah, blah. God, you really know how to carry a conversation.” he quipped. “Maybe I’m not done out there yet…” He trailed off.
“Done? With what? Starving as a teacher at a pathetically small community college in a town that no one West of the Mississippi has even heard of? What time are we supposed to be there?” She redirected.
“It’s not pathetic.”
“I said pathetically small.”
“I know what you meant… And we were supposed to meet them at 7. She’s bringing her boyfriend.” He looked away and rubbed his scruffy face. Minutes passed in silence as he continued to look out the window. He noticed an Ebay campus just off the tracks. Well lit and thoroughly modern looking. He remembered when Salt Lake Valley was smaller, more simple. Now tech start-ups and software companies were sprouting up all over, and plenty of new college graduates to staff them all twice over. When he left twenty some years ago, he’d heard of the internet. Now, it was the reality of the whole valley. He saw Kennecott Copper mine tucked in the mountains southwest of the Valley. The scar had grown too. He’d heard you could see it from space now.
As if uncomfortable with the long silence, she returned the conversation. “What are you waiting for? You think you actually will save a whole community out of poverty with your history lessons? You think any of your students will remember you in ten years? Even 5? When they are on their Nth child, living in squalor living off government money.”
“Why is everything always so fucked with you?” He returned from his absent gaze out the window. “Rather than embrace the possibility that maybe one, just one student comes away from school thinking they CAN make a difference…That they can do something more with the hand they were dealt. Rather than consider that maybe that one kid is worth all the others who will never care, you just relegate them all to the ‘trash’ pile. Sure, plenty of what I teach falls on deaf ears. Most of what many teach probably falls on deaf ears. But I don’t teach because I want the whole world to listen. I just hope that maybe one student has a better life. Maybe not because they took my class. Or because something I said. But, because maybe they had just enough encouragement. Just enough helpful teachers that they stuck with it. No one person is going to make the whole difference; it takes many people to make the difference.”
“You graduated with honors. You had scholarships…fellowships. You could have had your pick at faculty positions at academic institutions…” She harped.
“And what. Teach a bunch of spoiled middle class kids, who also don’t care much for learning. More concerned about the weekend party. Whose getting laid by who. You know I was never sold on ‘Academia’.
She rolled her eyes and turned to look out the window. Silence again. The snow was all but melted from the towering pinnacles of Lone Peak. She remembered climbing the peak with Owen the first summer they met. She had only been climbing a few months and wasn’t sure she could do it, but with some gentle prodding, he convinced her. She felt safe with him then. And more importantly, carefree. She could do anything. They went to Yosemite that next spring after spending the winter months working on the mountain and training at the climbing gym. After spending a week warming up on smaller crags in the Valley, they climbing The Nose. Then Middle Cathedral, Half Dome, Royal Arches. As spring turned to summer they moved on to higher ground and climbed Daff, Stately Pleasure, Fairview, and other domes in Tuolumne Meadows. She remembered saying “I love you” for the first time from the top of Tenaya Peak. They would share cheeseburgers from the grill and watch the sunset over the superlative Tuolumne Meadow.
Next stop, Murray Central Station. Use caution as the train comes to a stop. She jerked her head at the automated voice and looked back to where Owen was sitting. He was reading a book – The Canterbury Tales. She noticed his hair was beginning to get white in it now. Lines faintly grew from the corners of his eyes. She searched his face for the youth of their past. His shoulders were still broad, making a V to his waist. And his hands. Still powerful. Fingers long and swollen from years of use. Arthritis appeared to have started to take its hold.
What was different now? She thought. Where did it all go. The carefree life we had. Twenty years ago she would have never imagined herself becoming who she was now. A lawyer. A homeowner. Stressed and fried nerves. Two children from two failed marriages. Why had she made life so hard, when it seemed so free and easy.
Owen’s eyes had begun to close. His book fallen to his lap as his head bobbed slowly. She suddenly remembered vividly a climbing trip in Yosemite. A sea of granite stretched out, vertically, horizontally, all around them. Miles of more granite fanned out all around them. She remembered the long splitter crack and the thin face of the route. They struggled. Their only struggle.
On the last pitch, Owen was leading. He was tired and they had run out of water. She should have packed more. He was about 70 feet above her and she no longer could see the him, only feel the gently tugging of the rope as he continued to move up. Everyone once in a while he would yell down, and when the wind wasn’t too loud she could hear him. She slowly fed rope thru her ATC.
They had been climbing for 2 hours now and were 350 feet up the route. Just a little farther. Owen continued up as she fed rope and he slowly came back into view as he began moving out diagonally along a final thin hand crack to the top. He placed his left hand in the crack, his powerful shoulder adjusting the position. Without seeing, she could tell he was jamming his right foot, and his waist was pulled closely to the wall. Then he reached up and locked his right hand into the crack above. She could see the tape on his hands was starting to fall apart. He was struggling to keep his hands in the crack. He always hated thin hands. He glanced over his shoulder and pulled a cam from his harness and battled with it into the crack. His left hand looked solidly placed in the crack at chest height. She slowly fed a little rope as he reached for rope to clip, her calves were beginning to burn. He had the rope within a foot of the cam then suddenly, he dropped it. In a flash, he fell from her sight again.
“Woohoooo!” She heard him yell as she was pulled violently into the wall toward the anchor.
“Owen!” She yelled up. “You OK.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just took a bit of a fall. I’m good! Woooohoooo!” He let out a howl.
It was her turn to climb up after him to the top. As she pulled the last piece of gear and topped out, the granite began to sparkle the late afternoon sun. He was sitting on top, belaying through two pieces of gear and a slung horn. He had a smile on his face and his lips were white with chapstick and dried spit. His hair was sticking at sharp angles. His orange fleece had been ripped in one elbow. She topped out and walked to where he was sitting and pulled in close to him. She could smell the granite on him. The musty smell of his sweat too. They held each other close and looked toward the East to Mount Conness. They were tired. Sore. They shared what was left of a peanut butter sandwich. But they were happy.
They sat atop Daff Dome and watched the trees gently bend in the breeze. Thin cirrus clouds punctuated the clear blue sky above. They watched the light change across the high sierra as the sun continued its daily descent into the Pacific Ocean out of sight. They held each other close and looked toward the East to Mount Conness. They were tired. Sore. They shared what was left of a peanut butter sandwich and watched the scene play out all around them. A bird sailed in lazy circles from below them flapping a couple times as it circled over the cliff edge and back again. Then turning gracefully into the slight breeze it perched on a small pine tree growing out of a crack in the stone above them. She looked up as the bird turned its head to one side, then the other. Its eyes fixed on hers. A breeze picked up and ruffled some of its feathers as it hunched slightly. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it sailed off the tree limb and into the breeze, dropping back below the cliff edge toward the forest below.