We crammed in the van, smiling far too broadly, laughing far too much.
The music playlist started. We cranked up the bass.
The road stretched forward and soon we left the city behind. We were headed to the Pacific Southwest.
Twelve hours later we were caught in a snowstorm at the height of the Rockies. We ambled along at 15 mph, eventually pulled over to the side of the road. We got out of the van, laughing, ripped off our shirts, and took a picture with the altitude sign behind us.
A few hours later we pulled into a parking lot. The crepuscular grays casting the world in their shadowy haze. Our pupils dilated to pull in the surroundings. We were quieter as we packed water and sandwiches into our bags. PB&Js. Another couple pulled across from us, a couple in their early 30s. We quietly oohed and aahed about the man in particular, a lumberjack hipster in his Patagonia jacket and REI boots.
We climbed. The cairns, precarious. The lone winged form which traced an elongated shadow, stretching, dilating, in the angled half-light, before compressing and vanishing off the edge of the cliff. The sun was no more than a whispered promise, a prayer, mussitation heard in twilight. The surrounding hills streaked green, like varnished copper. I touched my hand to my head to wipe off the beads of sweat. They were gritty, like dust.
An angled spread of path and then the delicate arch. The thin columns leading up to a thick, oranged keystone. The small plant that grew, alone, silent, at the top. A photographer sat quietly in the distance. At the edge of a cliff, four young men in their early 20s muttered muted jokes and snickered. We saw the couple and shared smiles, ogling the man once more. Fifteen minutes later, gold spread like something born — warm, cool, liquid, spread on the landscape — and the sun rose warm and I felt the tickle of a sunburn just begun.
The next day, we climbed Angel’s Landing. My body ached. The fear permeated and sprang downward, spiraling, a mile and a half, along a sheer cliff face to the ground.
Bryce Canyon. The spires. The rain pouring down. We laughed and ran from panorama to panorama, taking in the view with eyes and flashing lenses.
Death Valley. We climbed the dunes. Like some alien Mars. The dryness of the air. The sparse, bare, birch-colored brush. Our footprints. I remembered books from my youth about Egypt and King Tut. We sprinted down the hill face, as fast as we could.
When the sun set that evening, we sat on the top of one dune. For a brief moment, we all were silent, and the sky was pink, and the emotion was felt and not spoken. We felt that we would die and now was now and we were alive; we were ALIVE and the moment and our lives were like origami opening then closing, opening then closing, we were…
We laughed and retuned to the car.
We arrived in Las Vegas exhausted. My friend booked us a penthouse suite at the Bellagio. We went straight to the pool, the grime slicking off our bodies and giving the surface of the water the peculiar gleam of an oil spill. Then we spent at least two hours back in the room getting ready: cutting our hair, ironing our shirts, airing out our suits. When we were finally all dressed, we took photos. We drank cocktails (too many). We used a Polaroid because it’s an inside joke and you don’t need to know.
We barely even left the room that night and, when we did, we just walked outside and saw the people hustling up and down the streets. We got McDonalds and I got two McDoubles and a small fry. We sat in a booth to the right, speaking too loudly for the time of night.
On our drive back home, the car broke down and we were lost in a black cage in a moonless sky on the edge of the highway. The darkness was only broken by the intermittent, intense beams of the oncoming 18-wheelers. There was almost a rhythm to their lights.
I called AAA, and they towed us to the nearest dealership. We slept in the car.
We awoke at dawn. A quick fix, the people inside told us, bemused that we spent the night asleep in their front cul-de-sac. We got some breakfast, talked to a veteran at the table next to us.
When we returned, the journey over, to my friend’s house in Minnesota, I drove home alone. I remembered a conversation, back in the snow, back in the Rockies. My friend’s voice, “I’ve never had gay friends before. I’ve always wanted them, but never really had any good ones ’til now. This trip is amazing. I’m so glad I met you all.”
We shared other things in that car, but, like all things, the specifics have faded, and I can only remember two or three songs from the playlist, and a few snippets of conversation, and the setting sun at the dunes with the silence, and the cool waters of the Bellagio, and even the warmth of my friend as he fell asleep, his head dipped onto my shoulder and I stared out the window at the silhouette of the mountains that divide America.