From North Platte it was an hour drive to my Aunt Barb’s house in Ogallala. Her and my Uncle Vern had started up a business there nearly thirty years ago. Vern had passed away in 2020, around the same time I’d suffered a nervous breakdown under quarantine and then had a seizure. I’d barely given Barb any notice, but the timing worked out as my cousin’s Stacy and Roy would both be there with their families. I took the 80 west.
Ogallala was once a stop for the Pony Express and served as a crossroads between the Great Western Trail and Union Pacific Railroad on cattle drives. My first stop once I got there was the Boot Hill Cemetery, maybe not as famous as the one in Dodge City, but just as interesting. The name came from the practice of burying bodies with their boots on, often in canvas bags. I read about horse thieves and gamblers buried there, one of them, Rattlesnake Ed, who was shot down over a nine-dollar bet in a saloon called The Cowboy’s Rest.
There was a narrow stairway to get up to Boot Hill, with the name on an overhead sign. The centerpiece of it is a sculpture of a horse and cattle driver, leaning on the saddle, gazing back towards Texas, the way he’d just come.
When I got to my aunt’s there was a football game going on between their team, the Cleveland Browns, and the Los Angeles Chargers, formerly of San Diego. Stacy and Roy’s children were nearly grown up. I had never known them well. There was pizza on hand. Aunt Barb had to run to choir rehearsal. I’d recently seen her at a wedding, so we’d had a chance to catch up. It was strange not having Vern around. My father was gone now, my uncles were gone, all my grandparents and great-grandparents were gone. All that remained were my mother and three aunts. Our family had been scattered around like seeds in the wind. There were few cornerstones or hiding places left.
I only stayed until half time. Denver was a long way off, over three hours. When I left, the Browns were winning, though I later learned the Chargers snuck it past them at the very end. It was a good thing I got out of there when I did. I took the 76 all the way through.
By the time I arrived on the outskirts of Denver the sun was setting down behind the Rocky Mountains, illuminating their rugged profile. My stop that night was at my college buddy Riley’s place in Littleton. In the morning I’d try to find the lot where my grandparents’ house had been in Englewood, as well as track down any family members who were available. The plan was to stay with my cousin Gwendolyn that second night.
Even with Karen from Google Maps doing her heroic best, I still got tangled up in the foothills looking for Riley’s place. She looped me through a labyrinth tract of identical suburban homes before finally narrowing down his cul-de-sac. Then I was inside, greeting him, his wife, and grown son. Most of my friends had houses and families by now. All I had were wild stories that had largely devalued with the passing of time. Still, it was fun to catch up. As with my college friends in Minneapolis, there comes a day when you’re just excited that anyone out there still knows and cares that you’re alive. They had a guest bedroom for me with a towel folded at the foot of it. I slept about four hours beneath the towel and woke up bucking to hit the road.
It was not far to Red Rocks, the famous amphitheater chiseled out of stone. I’d never been to a concert there but had been up to hike around it a few times. On this occasion, it was still early in the morning. I parked and walked up to it. The sky could not have been any bluer and the rocks could not have been any redder. The sun shining through a railing on the walkway cut a symmetrical shadow ahead of me. When I reached the amphitheater I found a seat about halfway up, in the very center of it, and sat down on a bench. Workers below were readying the stage and people were exercising, running up and down the stairs.
The weather and temperature were perfect. The sun was not yet too hot. Outside of random voices, the only intrusion was the sound of someone cleaning with a high-pressure hose. A woman to one side of me was doing sit-ups. An old couple were posing for a selfie. They picked up their dog and forced it into a group shot. Some kids were playing at the front of the stage.
In high school I’d gotten a cassette tape of U2’s live show at Red Rock. That’s where I knew it from. The sun was shining in my face. The high-pressure hose was getting closer. It began to drown out the other sounds. One time in college we’d climbed up to the top of the overlook here and tried to smoke some weed out of a beer can. The can had popped back into shape and catapulted our only bud over the ledge. That had been a bummer.
Someone came running up the seats right next to me. That incident in college had happened over thirty years ago. People always ask, where has the time gone. Most of my life I’d been unable to get rid of it. Maybe at the last second, I’d wish to have it all back. For now, I’d found a small eternity inside of it, but the high-pressure hose was on me now. The serenity shattered into a billion bright shards. Denver was waiting below.