You Can’t Get Sick Now, Gloria
by Sue Hartman
Somewhere along North Blue Flats on the recently washed-out road to Cathedral Valley, Ward Roylance gestured at the standing water in the gully. We bounced over rocks spread by the flash flood. “This isn’t bad. We can ford it. I saw it worse once. We got stuck here. No matter what I did, the wheels kept digging in deeper. It was fall, and people didn’t come through very often that time of year. The sky looked dark, indigo-colored, maybe even like snow. I didn’t think it was likely that anybody would come by to rescue us and we might have to spend the night out here, but I didn’t tell my wife Gloria that.”
My brother Barry was guiding the second car, behind us, carrying Salt Lake writer Raye Ringholz, her husband Joe and our mutual good friend from New York, WW Norton editor Carol Houck Smith. They chugged straight through the rough spots. Once they climbed up the bank, and our dust cleared, we saw them wave. Okay.As guests In Ward’s mini-van, my boyfriend Paul, my mom Bernice and I felt perfectly safe and spoiled. He was an expert on the Colorado Plateau. Whether you wanted to know in general where to explore, or specifically what kind of formation you were looking at, Ward always knew. You couldn’t do better than to have him as your personal guide.
“Gloria had been feeling tired, and she thought she was coming down with something. She was pale and then she started complaining about being in pain. She thought it might be her appendix.”
“What did you do?” Paul, who was riding shotgun, asked.
“I just told her, ‘Aw, Gloria, you can’t get sick now!'”
“What happened then?” My mom leaned forward from the back seat to hear him.
“After a few hours, the storm blew over, the sun came out hot, and when the mud hardened up some, we drove right out.”
“What happened to Gloria?” I quizzed him.
“Nothing to speak of. Might’ve been indigestion. That was years before she died.”
Then he got quiet. He was the most lonesome widower I’d ever met. Some said he mooned over Gloria too much, too long. She died three years before, in 1990. I thought it was romantic, not necessarily obsessive. Mourning has an individual timetable—it takes whatever time is required. However, I did notice that whatever topic he discussed always contained some reference to his late wife. Everything came back to Gloria.
We stopped for a picnic at the Temple of the Moon. It was a blistering July day. Scorching light bounced off the facets of the monolith. We stumbled around examining chippings, and exclaiming over stones. The tortillas dessicated and crumbled the minute we opened them, and someone—probably me—had forgotten to pack the mustard. Our turkey/lettuce/cheese wraps were bland. When we were ready to climb back into Ward’s mini-van, I suggested that maybe we should rotate, so my mom could ride in front with Ward to hear his stories better. When Paul disagreed, claiming lifetime chronic car-sickness when he didn’t ride up front, Mom declined the better seat. I half-seriously objected. “You don’t need to defer to men!”
Ward furrowed his brows, his bushy eyebrows almost meeting. “Gloria wouldn’t have said something feminist like that.” I wanted to slither under his van, but then I could see in his bright eyes that he was kidding me.
Paul spotted a cow skull about twenty yards from the road.
“All these years I’ve searched,” Ward marveled, “And I’ve never found one. Isn’t that odd?”
We stopped by Ward’s house before we went back to our motel for the night. He’d collected a vast array of rocks over the years, and beneath a stand of towering cottonwoods, his paths were lined with stumps of petrified wood, chunks of agate, and hunks of calcite. He treasured pieces of what he called “wonder stone,” a palate of wavy patterns of differing hues of sandstone. He was very proud of his self-designed and built, pyramid-shaped, shingled home. Behind the woodstove in the house’s main room, an entire wall was embedded with more agate, slivered geodes and sparkling mica.
A foot-square oil painting of solemn Native American boy hung on the kitchen wall. His knowing eyes stared out at the viewer. They followed me around the room like those cardboard fold-outs of Jesus whose eyes glowed and found you out, even when you turned off the lights. The always-wary eyes in the painting were that eery, but I liked it.
“Some people hate that,” Ward confessed. “They call it bad art and sentimental, but Gloria loved it as much as I do.” It wasn’t museum quality, but it certainly was haunting. Ward actually knew something about art, photgraphy and writing, having published detailed guidebooks over many years. He wrestled with his writing, and his critics. His style could be described as archaic, perhaps grandiloquent, given to running-on, hyperbolic sprawl of adjectives. A writer in search of the perfect metaphor. One curmudgeonly critic had described Ward’s prose as “…blushingly purple as the sunsets he describes.” Ward ran his fingers through the thick shock of white hair when he quoted that remark, “I meant to say that sunset was so splendid it felt like looking into heaven.” He shrugged that critique off, but he was stung. “They just don’t get it.”
His expert conversation was more straightforward. He memorized the Plateau—its topography, geology, ecology. In later life, he pared down his description—red rock country was more than indescribable landscape. It was Art. He promoted his dream–a coalition of artists, writers, geologists, enviornmentalists, musicians, incidental hikers—any and all who appreciated the Colorado Plateau as much as he did. The ones who “got it.” He recruited people to celebrate and protect the region and “its glories.” He envisioned a non-profit organization, centered, perhaps, in Torrey, maybe in his own house. He pitched it to everyone who would listen. He would call it Entrada, his favorite variety of sandstone.
The interior of his house was stuffy and dim. Dust and cobwebs. He apologized, “Old man living alone.” In his early seventies, physically spry, and mentally engaged, he didn’t seem so old to me.
Something brushed the top of my head, ruffling my hair. I swatted, half expecting to swipe an escaped canary. A giant moth. A bat? A frisson ran along my spine. I looked up to the top of the pyramid. Only a shadow flitted past, but I felt something there.
“Who’s that?” I asked Ward, but I already knew. It was Gloria.
Early the next morning, I watched Ward stroll down the road to the Capitol Reef Inn where we were staying. He was enjoying one of his periodical spats with Southey Swede, the establishment’s owner, and didn’t want to eat breakfast there. He surely wasn’t going to pay for pancakes that would never be as good as the ones Gloria used to make. He wouldn’t let us treat him, either. Paul and I had heard about his ornery spells, and his penchant for cussing, but we’d thought it was a rumor. “Godamnit, I said I wasn’t hungry!” he snapped.
I thought maybe his tour guide activities the previous day had worn him out, more than he would admit. That could explain his moodiness.
“Nope,” my brother Barry confided in a whisper. “Grouchy’s how he is. Godamnit’s his favorite word.”
We cajoled him into joining us for at least coffee. “You going to eat that toast?” Ward asked me, just in time. Already through with his breakfast, Paul had been eyeing what was left on my plate.
Carlos Nakai’s flute dwindled and the tape at Southey’s looped around to repeat “Ride of the Valkyries,” that had been playing when we marched in. Watching other diners forking in their eggs in synchrony with Wagner for the second time, Carol speculated that Southey’s must not enjoy an extensive musical selection. She was engrossed in personal conversation with Raye. That seemed to disappoint Ward. He was missing a chance to prosyletize: he would have liked to elicit NewYork support for Mission Entrada.
“This is for you,” Ward handed me an envelope. “Don’t look at it now. You’re the person I know who would appreciate what’s in here. Just put it in your handbag.” I didn’t want to get scolded, so I folded it in half and stuck it in my purse.
We stood in Southey’s parking lot, lingering over goodbyes. I probably wouldn’t see my mom or brother again until Christmas season in Salt Lake. I hoped I’d meet up with Carol again the next summer after the Writers at Work conference in Park City. Maybe we could fanagle another road trip to Torrey. Paul and I were torn between staying a few more hours in Wayne County with people we loved, or heading home. Ultimately, we had to go, stopping briefly in Canyonlands to accomplish a private mission that we’d planned for months, and already put off for a day. We’d drive home from Moab during the cool of the night, to Boulder, Colorado.
“I’m going to Colorado next spring,” Ward mentioned slyly. I hoped he was fishing for an invitation. I would’ve loved to have him visit.
“There’s a young friend of Gloria’s and mine who’s getting married in Grand Junction. I sure wish I’d found that skull. I would’ve liked to give it to him as a wedding present.”
I looked at Paul. “Why don’t you take it, Ward? You should have it.”
“No, that wouldn’t be right. Paul found it.”
That skull was messed-up, a little skin and spotty patches of shaggy hide still attached. Paul and I knew what to do—we’d scrubbed a fox skull for Carol the year before. And we’d once soaked a horse skull in a bucket of bleach for six weeks. That was after Paul took it to the car wash, because he knew I’d never let it anywhere near my house in the shape he found it. The cow skull clean-up might require sanding, if not scraping with a wire brush. I’d done that on the horse skull, and you have to be in a real snarky mood to appreciate the task. It helps if you are pissed off.
We could’ve sneaked over and left the cow skull in Ward’s yard on our way out of town, but I wasn’t sure the bride would be thrilled to unwrap it in its present condition Paul and I watched Ward amble toward home and we devised a plan—we’d haul it home, clean it up first and ship it back to him as a thank-you. Then he could keep it, or gift it, whichever he chose.
It was still early morning, as Paul and I sped through Capitol Reef in his dad’s two-wheel drive truck that we borrowed for its air-conditioned cab, and for the camper shell, in case we roughed it. When we passed the entrance to Cathedral Valley, Paul asked, “What did Ward give you?”
I’d forgotten. I fished a recycled envelope out of my purse. It was addressed to Ward Jay Roylance, and he’d scrawled on it, “Sue: Excerpts from Ward’s automatic writing.”
Folded into one copy of his resume, were seven single-spaced pages of channeled writing, mostly from Gloria, coaxing her “Jay” to live fully now, advising him to be patient—they would be reunited soon, and reassuring him of an afterlife, in a realm of “glorious light . . . not light a light as you know light. Not a physical light. It was a radiance not known in your world. . .”
I read aloud. We were moved by it and by Ward’s trust that I would respect and understand what it meant to him. “See you soon, darling,” it ended.
We heard on the radio that it was 104 degrees in Moab by ten am and hotter still in Canyonlands, but we were determined to do what we came to do. We turned off the main road towards Needles Outpost at Dugout Ranch. We intended to stop along Cottonwood Creek under a thick stand of cottonwoods. We had a pound of frozen hamburger we’d picked up in Hanksville in the cooler, some fruit and cookies and two gallons of water. We were going to make lunch, and spread my dog LaRue’s ashes, not necessarily in that order. We’d nap during the afternoon, and drive home through the night in time to go to work.
When it came time to choose where to spread my dog’s ashes, I knew where it should be: Cottonwood Creek. Two years earlier, Paul and I and our buddy Joshua had camped there with LaRue. At the time, she was twelve, and aging fast. She had splayed hips and dimming eyes. She’d suffered intermittent problems requiring bladder surgery, to remove rocks, which came out smooth and round as tumbled stones. I was careful of her fragile health.
Paul and Josh clambered up the tallest cottonwood tree, swaying branches overhanging the wash fifteen feet below. They coaxed LaRue to scramble up behind them. I threatened them with dire consequences, if anything happened to her up there in the creaking tree. I stood on the cooler, reached and stretched to grab her and haul her down, but she dug in her claws and scrambled even higher. Can dogs laugh? I swear she did. For the two remaining years of my Grosser Munsterlander’s life, (no, I didn’t make up that breed,) LaRue nimbly climbed every tree she could manage. For the joy that adventure gave her, and her newly aquired arborist trick, this was the spot to scatter her, in her favorite cottonwood tree.
With a beer opener, I pried the lid off the ornate faux pewter dish the veterinarian had provided and poured out half. Bits of bone, clumps of ash. Gray, like the grizzled muzzle of LaRue’s last years. Black and white, like her fur. Her ashes resembled her. I had sometimes suspected that the pet crematorium might sweep out their home fireplace and shovel in any old scoopful. Who would know the difference? Surprisingly, I would. There wasn’t any doubt—this rubble was LaRue’s cremains. I saved the rest of the ashes. For what, I couldn’t say; I just knew I would need them later.
I wiped my eyes and Paul reached over and dabbed at my cheeks. “You’ve got ashes in your tears.”
We had one sleeping bag with us, so we spread out my down quilt that we used as a camping blanket. We’d cook later. It was too hot to eat. We were sleepy.
Horseflies. Godamnit-nasty things were raising welts clear through my jeans.
“Let’s drive farther in,” Paul suggested.
“Away from flies,” I agreed. I’d been down that road before. All the way to Beef Basin. The road had been easily passable. The map we’d just bought showed graded road, and the icons for passenger cars tranversing it around the Basin and looping back through Needles into Squaw Flats. We wouldn’t go that far. We’d just head up the road a little, we’d pick a sweet spot and cook there.
Trouble was, I’ve always taken after my Wayne County-born Grandpa, who loved canyon country at least as much as Ward did. I inherited the Chaffin wanderlust—with the “let’s go up the road a piece—I just want to see what’s around the next bend” attitude. Paul was game; he’d heard my stories about the Fremont ruin I’d stumbled across in Beef Basin. He knew the story about our friend Joe stooping down to pick up a potsherd decorated with a lightning bolt zag that was identical to his architecture firm’s new logo.
Paul squinted at the map. “Let’s do it.”
We should’ve known better.
By midafternoon, it was 110 degrees in Moab, or so we heard later. It was so hot the drinking water stung our mouths and we were half-way through the first gallon. My lips cracked. Our hamburger had thawed and what ice we’d put in the cooler had turned to an unappealing bloody soup. I didn’t want to risk that. We still had two oranges and ten cookies. No one else had signed the register that we’d passed earlier in Beef Basin, not for the past two days. It was three o’clock, and we were stuck in a sandy draw. The road had washed out, leaving a steep embankment, and we’d tried to get around it by steering down the wash.
Moreover, the map lied. A passenger car road, indeed! It wasn’t even graded. It probably didn’t really loop over to Needles Outpost, either. Nobody would be coming this way.
We were in a two-wheel drive truck with barely half a tank of gas. Gunning the motor while one of us pushed didn’t work, nor did stuffing my comforter under the wheels for traction. Bits of down exploded in the air, then settled. It looked like the sacrificial site of fifty baby swans. We ripped my comforter to shreds trying to get out of there.
We debated. Should we stay put and wait for help? We truly hadn’t seen a soul all day. Should we hike out? By the map’s legend, as well as we could figure with our heat-addled brains, it was about 35-40 miles back the way we came, or about 27, if we continued on, cutting through Needles.
I insisted we wait in the shade . We’d see if anyone came along and then decide later what to do, if no one did. When the blazing sun finally set, it was still hotter than hell, only a shade cooler. We wrote notes about which way we were headed, and gave contact information for our families. Just in case. We scribbled the date and fime. We left them on the dashboard. We grabbed our hats, tied sweatshirts around our waists. Paul carried our sleeping bag and the full water jug. Mine was nearly empty.
We walked. Within twenty minutes we came upon a sign reading: “Bobby’s Hole—jeeps only beyond this point.” Wouldn’t you know it? Even if we hadn’t gotten stuck, we never could have gotten through. Not this way.
We followed the faint jeep track up and over the swelling boulders, scrambling and stumbling along. It was rocky and very steep.
“Keep on truckin.” Paul was cheerful and surprisingly, so was I. He didn’t blame me for wanting to show him Beef Basin and I didn’t rag him for not wanting to turn back earlier. We were in this together.
Paul had proposed to me five months before. After a quarrel, he showed up unannounced at my Denver house in a white dress shirt, black slacks and wearing a red and blue balloon hat shaped like a heart, that made him a foot taller than his normal six foot three. “I saw this guy on the Pearl Street Mall, making balloon animals for little kids,” Paul confessed. “So I stood in line like with all these children and the guy asked ‘what can I do for you,’ and I told him, ‘I want to buy your hat,’ so he sold it to me.” Paul handed me two dozen red roses, and got down on one knee to propose. I was amused and confused. It had been a month since we’d talked. I’d been married before and didn’t think I wanted to do THAT again. Then Paul said, “Well? Will you?” I didn’t want to outright say no, but I wasn’t sure I wasn’t comfortable saying yes, either, so I answered “maybe.”
We moved in together in Boulder, and now we were stranded in Canyonlands, on the longest march of our lives. We were physically miserable, stinky, exhausted and quite likely, secretly happy.
The moon rose, not quite full, but light enough to see our way through tall-grass meadows. A seven-inch snake glided across the track in front of us. I jumped. Just a garter snake, Paul reassured me. We paused to let it pass. This was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen. Swallows swooped and we heard distant screes of hawks. Grasses swayed with a slight breeze, moving one direction, then shifting to another, seemingly at the whim of an invisible conductor. An ebbing and flowing green-gold sea. One plane droned above us, very high, a jet headed west. LAX, we decided. Or Orange County. Swoosh of bats. Nighthawks. Coyotes squealed. Then, the deepest silence in the world. This is how it was Back When, I thought, before cowboys, Fremonts, Anasazai. Ward’s Original World. The Enchanted Wilderness.
Hundreds of thousands of stars bloomed admist a scatter of pink-rimmed clouds. As Ward said, “. . .Peeking into heaven.” We’d walked for four hours. Kept on.
At ten thirty, we came upon a latrine. Had we hiked twenty-seven miles already? Where there’s a porta-potty, civilization can’t be far, right? We read the sign: Bobby Jo Campground. And miracles!
A camper-truck with North Carolina plates.
“Hello?” we called.
“Where the hell did you come from?” A young-sounding man with a southern accent trained a flashlight beam on us. He seemed more scared than amazed at our sudden arrival. He wasn’t hostile, but he was hardly friendly.
We told him we came from Bobby’s Hole. it was a rough trek, posted, “Jeeps only” and it might prove impassible for his low-clearance pickup. I joked it would take a tank to get through there. To him, that wasn’t funny. From the looks of tracks and ruts, no one had even been through there lately, we argued, and where we were stuck in Pappy’s Pasture wouldn’t be easy going, either.
It wasn’t that he didn’t believe us, but he wasn’t willing to backtrack, given the terrain he’d already covered. It was brutal and a long, long way. According to HIS map, Bobby’s Hole was the lesser evil. He didn’t plan to share his food, nor water, or give us a ride. He did offer to loan us a sleeping bag.
The womens’ latrine was larger than standard pit toilet, but it was so pristine that in inclement weather, we might have considered camping on the cement floor. I believe I christened Bobby Jo’s outhouse. Proud as I was of that fact, it wasn’t encouraging. How did they ever get it back country anyhow? A helicopter?
We took the farthest camp spot away from his site, and munched on a couple of cookies, saving the oranges for breakfast. We used our sleeping bag as a pad, and unzipped the loaner bag as a blanket, shivering and cuddling for warmth. My calves cramped, my hipbones ached from trying to sleep on stone and I was worried. When we’d asked Mr. North Carolina how far it was to Elephant Hill and the Needles Outpost, he shook his head in disbelief.
At first light, we were up, stretching. We needed to cover some ground before the sun baked us into gingerbread people. We had one gallon of water. I rolled up the loaner bag, tiptoed back and left it on the hood of the truck. If the guy heard us leave, he gave no sign.
“The moon was so bright I couldn’t sleep,” Paul complained. “Every time I nodded off, the coyotes started up.”
Rationing water, we sucked on smooth stones, so we could trick ourselves into not feeling thirsty. Trudging. Paul encouraged me. “We’ve got to be close. It’s right up there, over the next rise.”
That was annoying. After the first ten times, I didn’t believe it.
My knees wobbled. “Drink,” Paul commanded. “You can have my three swallows.”
I needed to pee, but couldn’t. I suspected this was the first symptom of serious dehydration.
“I feel woozy, ” I warned Paul. “I feel awful.”
He smiled at me. “Ah, Gloria,” he said. “You can’t get sick now.”
A dust-caked SUV rumbled toward us, occupied by three teenaged boys. The motor idled while we talked. Were we kidding? We weren’t anywhere near Elephant Hill yet! That’s where they came from, hours ago. They weren’t willing to take us out anymore then North Carolina had been, but one kid tossed a full quart bottle of water to me. I was grateful; we’d just run out. They also offered to recycle our empty gallon jugs; we’d have less to carry.
We came out on a trail over Elephant Hill, above Squaw Flat Campground. We met an unsympathetic ranger with a crew of kids working on the trailhead.
“You walked from Beef Basin? Are you crazy? We haven’t even tried that!”
We asked for help. He reported the Park Service didn’t have resources to haul people out of places like that; we would have to hire a tow truck from Moab. There was a satellite phone at the Outpost, another mile down the road. One kid took pity, volunteering to borrow the jeep, and give us a ride to the phone. His boss was reluctant, but relented.
We drank two liters of water, each, and I guzzled an entire six-pack of cranberry juice cartons, before the tow truck arrived from Moab, seventy miles away. I felt wiped out, but fine, as was Paul. We still had to drive back to Dugout Ranch, cut along Cottonwood Creek past LaRue’s tree, and back into Beef Basin. We were crammed into the cab of the tow truck, sweaty, smelly and bouncing atop the mesas, caroming boulder to boulder, at sixty miles an hour. The friendly guy was nuts.
“What happened to you happens all the time. Good thing you were smart enough not to try to drive into Bobby’s Hole.”
We didn’t bother telling him we got stuck before we got there.
“There was this dumb-assed tourist from New York who rented a brand new Lumina and didn’t bother to check things out. Claimed he followed a bad map. Somehow he got that Lumina way back past Bobby’s Hole, almost to Bobby Jo campground, before he couldn’t go any further. He walked out, cancelled his vacation and went home. It took us two trucks with winches and a couple of days back there to retrieve the Lumina. It was totalled, but even wrecked, it couldn’t stay there.”
It took two minutes to pull Paul’s dad’s truck up out of the sand and out of the gully. The driver charged us $600. He took Visa. He tore ahead of us, waiting at the trickiest spot to make sure we made it out of Beef Basin, then he left us eating dust, so he’d make it home to Moab for supper.
First, I called my boss, apologizing that we were wiped out and would stay an extra night at a motel in Moab. To my surprise, she believed me. Nobody could make up a tale like that. We showered and went out for dinner. We had an hour’s wait at Pasta Jay’s. It was packed. There was a movie company shooting Geranimo near Hatch Point and Wes Stude’s party had just left. Surreal. We gobbled two platters of soggy pasta, and guzzled two pitchers of ice water. Moab was expensive, clattering, flourescent, so fast.
“Maybe we should’ve stayed with the truck,” Paul grumbled, and I agreed. It would’ve cost us less and we would’ve gotten home sooner. But then we probably never would have witnessed the back country in Needles. Necessity takes you places you’d never otherwise go.
We got married in a meadow below Long’s Peak, Colorado, on October 2nd. Stirred into a blend of potpourri, LaRue’s ashes were disguised in the faux-pewter cremain dish, next to the guestbook, so she wouldn’t miss a thing.
By Halloween, the cow skull gleamed. I buffed it into respectable condition, ready to ship, when I got a chance.
On November 15th, unexpectedly, Ward Roylance died.
Eleven years later, the cow skull hangs in Robber’s Roost Bookstore in Torrey, Utah, in the renovated pyramid house that Ward and Gloria built. Robbers Roost is homebase for The Entrada Institute, the manifestation of Ward’s dream. Sometimes, when I browse for books, or listen to an author read, I sense that something hovers near the ceiling; someone watching over the bookstore. I take comfort in that, but I’d rather believe that together, Ward and Gloria moved on to that space of light that Gloria described, in a wilderness no less enchanted than the Colorado Plateau.