Jack Swanson was tired of living in a Podunk town south of Dayton, Ohio where the most exciting thing to do on a Saturday afternoon was to watch cows chewing grass. Sure there were other things to do, like playing pickup games of baseball in the early morning before it got too hot and humid, or go hiking through the woods behind his family’s home, but those depended upon weather and other like-minded boys.
Sometimes a kindly parent would drive a few of the guys into town to go bowling or to see a movie, but that was only when they had earned money selling fruits and vegetables out of the family garden. Most days Jack spent lazing about in his room or playing board games with his younger sister, or if he was lucky, watching his allotted thirty minutes of television.
He dreamed of big things. Jack wanted to be an engineer and design machinery that would change the world. He loved to take apart broken appliances, find the problem, and then restore them to working order. It gave him a sense of pride. But living in Beavercreek there were few opportunities for that wanted an escape. Completion of high school meant the end of education for there was no money to spare for what his dad considered frivolity. At eighteen he would be treated as a man and therefor expected to pull a man’s weight. Find a job. Get married. Have kids. Jack wanted none of that. He wanted to go to college.
When his mom developed asthma that was triggered by the humidity, his father decided to sell everything and move to California. One day Jack’s father called together the family and said, “Kids, we’re moving next week, so decide what you want to take with you. And it must be small enough to fit in the car.”
So Jack thought and thought. His mother told him he must pack all his clothes that still fit, so that left room for little else. He finally settled on a couple of models he had yet to build, glue and paint.
When the day came to leave, the back of the family station wagon was stuffed with bags of clothes and other precious junk. Jack had no regrets as he took one last look at the home he had lived in for the last five years. Instead his mind was filled with hopes of adventures he would have in the land of sunshine and community colleges.
Boredom ruled Jack’s days as they drove through endless cornfields and land as flat as the back of his hand. There wasn’t much to do. He read. He counted telephone poles. He kept track of license plates, hoping to see one from each state. He annoyed his sister until told to stop. He stared out the window with a vacant look.
All that changed when they hit Colorado. Off in the distance loomed a blue-gray mountain that grew increasingly clear as they neared Colorado City. Their hotel’s front lawn had a great view of the craggy-looking mountain, especially when the sun began to set and the peaks were outlined by a golden glow. Jack figured there must be a road to the top, but his dad insisted there was no time. Instead they hopped on the highway and headed south, stopping at a river gorge for a much-needed break. Standing at the edge of the cliff, Jack saw miniature train tracks winding along. Over his head, spanning the width of the gorge was a pedestrian bridge. Jack wanted to walk across, but there was no money.
Traveling through the mountains brought a monotony of its own. This time there were endless trees, twisting roads that hung on the side of cliffs and billowing clouds high overhead. Sometime after a roadside bathroom break, the clouds took on an ominous dark blue cast. Huge clouds billowed overhead and the air felt moist, although no raindrops fell. A fierce wind rattled the tops of the trees causing them to bend at rakish angles. Fearing being caught in the storm, the family piled back into the car and hit the road.
Rain fell almost immediately. It began with a roar as sheets of dense rain beat against the windshield, nearly blinding his father, who gripped the steering wheel with whitened knuckles. Up and around turn after turn they went, as roads slickened. Jack noticed waterfalls gushing off the hillsides, burbling with frothy mud that puddled in the ditches bordering the road.
As they climbed higher into the mountains, the sky grew dark as night. The rain fell harder. The waterfalls increased in size. Small creeks ran across the road, flooding sections that, thankfully, were still passable. Until they reached a bend in the road where traffic had come to a complete standstill. As they sat in the car, unmoving, the rain pounded on the roof with such intensity that conversation was impossible. Visibility was nearly zero. All Jack could make out was the vague outline of trees bordering the roadside.
Jack’s dad grew impatient with the delay. He pounded the steering wheel, honked the horn and screamed, “What’s the holdup?” He sat for a few more minutes. His lips became narrow lines, which Jack knew meant trouble. “I’m going out there,” his dad said.
Despite the soaking that would come, Jack’s dad got out of the car and strode over to a cluster of men gathered on the opposite side of the road. There was much gesturing and head shaking and shrugging of shoulders. When his dad returned, he slammed shut the door and pounded the steering wheel. “The road is blocked with a mudslide,” he mumbled between gritted teeth. “I don’t know when the road will be cleared, so we’re stuck until someone fixes it.”
We sat silently. When he was in this kind of mood, Jack’s dad could be dangerously explosive. He was quick to slap and even quicker with hurtful words. Jack held his breath, not wanting to attract unwanted attention.
Minutes passed. The rain poured and mud gushed across the road. The muscles in his dad’s arms flexed into knots.
“Maybe we should turn around,” Jack’s mom said. “We can go back to the last town we passed and spend the night there.”
“We don’t have the money,” Jack’s dad screamed, spittle slapping against his mother’s face. “We have to get through.”
Just then a large truck approached from the other direction, the first vehicle to pass through. Mud covered its sides and tires, but it had made it.
“If that truck can get through there, so can we.” Jack’s dad started the car and pulled out of line into the opposite side of the road. As they went around the bend, the wall of mud became visible. It stretched clear across the road and was easily three feet deep and still growing. Jack’s dad revved the engine and stared forward with eyes blazing. The car jerked forward with a sudden burst of energy. The front end climbed the wall of mud, quickly nearing the crest. All was going well until they crested the top. That’s when disaster hit. Just like that the car bottomed out and sank into the mud. Slowly. Until the car was precariously balanced, front end looking up at the sky while the back faced the group of men still clustered behind.
Jack’s dad floored the engine, but nothing happened. The wheels spun, digging ever deeper into mire. When he realized that no amount of gas would free the car, Jack’s dad turned off the engine and sat, staring glumly out at the line of vehicles on both sides of the mud. Jack’s dad pounded the wheel and his mouth reflected his anger and frustration.
No one approached the car and none of us attempted to get out. And so we sat, deep in the mud.
Eventually a bulldozer came lumbering up from the western side of the road. The driver got out, shook his head, and then climbed the wall of mud to attach a winch to the front of the car. The driver returned to his truck, and as the winch tightened, the car slowly moved down the wall of mud. When the tires hit pavement, there was a jolt, soon followed by a second as the back wheels found purchase. The driver walked up to the car and removed the winch. He approached Jack’s father’s window and knocked.
“What were you thinking?” he asked.
Jack’s dad glared at the man. “I thought we could make it.”
“You’re too low to the ground, carrying too heavy of a load. You didn’t stand a chance.”
“Thanks for the information.”
The man put his hands on the top of the glass. “If there’s a next time think about waiting for the road to be cleared or maybe we’ll just leave you there until the mud hardens.” With that he returned to his truck.
Jack’s dad shook his clenched fist at the man, started the engine, and drove away. Silence reigned in the car. Jack crossed his fingers wishing for good luck, that they’d make it to the next hotel without an explosion from his dad. All would have gone well if his mom had kept her mouth shut.
“What an idiot,” she muttered
“Who’s an idiot?” Jack’s dad shouted. “Are you calling me an idiot?”
“Nothing,” she said. “I said nothing.”
“Good, because I could fix your attitude.” His fist punched the air in front of Jack’s mother’s face, missing by a narrow margin. “Keep your mouth shut, okay?”
The rain continued to pound the roof of the silent car.