All that’s left of the ’79 Aspen wagon is a tiny faded stegosaurus glaring out of a Deadhead woven bag that hangs from the rear-view mirror of my blue Pontiac Vibe. There was a 1990 Nissan pickup in between the wagon and the Vibe, but that’s a longer story. The stegosaurus is rubber. It belonged to my granddaughter when she was seven. The Aspen was white and rust and peeling maple laminate. It belonged to my daughter when she was 26.
I bought the wagon from her because she needed the money and I needed to get out of town faster than the Southwest Chief could take me. I was running away from a guy I’d hoped would always be my partner. “Partners,” he’d said, “you know, separate but united.” Then he kissed me and spit down my throat. “Hey, just a joke, sweetheart. You can take a joke, right?”
I found the stegosaurus in the glove compartment while I was looking for the maintenance manual, having driven a front wheel flat off its rim about 40 miles north of I-44, on my way to Pawhuska, Oklahoma. I set the steg on the dashboard, climbed out, and waited against the side of the wagon in what I hoped was a staunch, cheery, non-threatening liberated chick manner for someone to come along. Nobody did. It was July mid-afternoon. Four of my friends had been busted for an Arizona monkey-wrenching in which I had served as public relations flack. I began to wonder in that Oklahoma near-noon what would be worse: if a highway cop came along, or if he didn’t.
The Aspen reflected white heat off its white paint. There was no shade. I’d seen a farmhouse about a quarter mile back. I grabbed my wallet, locked the wagon, and set out through the gaillardia and sage along the highway. Somebody beeped. I looked back and saw a red Bronco pull in behind the wagon, saw a tall cowboy climb out and wave.
He was lanky. He was handsome. He said, “Ma’am,” and looked me straight in the eye with his sapphire eyes. He popped the rim off the dead tire and bolted the spare on in five minutes, told me a gas station was ten miles west down the road, said there was a decent café across the highway, and was gone.
I left the wagon with the garage mechanic, went into the café, ordered burger and fries and some kind of pie, and used the payphone to call a pal in Flagstaff. My friends were in jail. Nobody had narced anybody else out. It was suggested that I do nothing. I hung up the phone, ordered ice cream on my pie, and told the waitress I was celebrating.
“Your birthday?” she said.
“No. More like a passing cowboy.”
“Shoot, honey,” she said, “they’re always passing.”
The Aspen’s second miracle occurred two years and 2,002.18 miles away. I’d backed the wagon over a concrete divider in the Langley, Washington, First Interstate parking lot and ripped the muffler clean off. E.J., the tow-truck driver, was neither tall nor handsome, but he did call me “ma’am.” “Well, ma’am,” he said, you need to take her to Joe up at Coupeville. She’s okay to drive. There aren’t many cops in these parts.”
I roared up 525. It was noon. The light was silvery. The air smelled of kelp and the Aspen’s exhaust. It was Saturday and technically Joe should have closed at noon, but he’d always had a soft spot for a lady in distress. He cranked the Aspen up on the lift. I read Bowhunter magazine, and Family Circle, and had just started to read a People story that was going to tell me some stuff I really wanted to know about Bruce Springsteen when Joe came out. I looked at his face and knew how a maybe-pregnant 15-year-old feels when the Doc gives her the bad news.
“Ma’am,” Joe said, “before you have me hitch up a new muffler, I got some advice.” He waited. I smiled nervously.
“I think, ma’am,” he said, “before you have me do that, you should take this wagon over to Ralph at Coupeville Auto Salvage…” He paused.
“Get a muffler cheap?” I said.
“…and you should have him put her in the cruncher and crunch her good because her gas tank’s hanging by a piece of rust about as big as my little finger. You drove here from where?”
“Arizona,” I said. I could see the Aspen faintly luminous in the dark garage. “Damn,” I said, “she looks like a ghost.”
“She’s not the only one,” Joe said. “By all rights, I’m talkin’ to a dead woman. If that tank had busted loose. Bam.”
“Well,” I said. “Be that as it may, what can we do?”
I drove the Aspen, gas tank baling-wired on, muffler restored to the tune of $59.60 + tax, another nine months. She died just outside Tuba City, a rez town in northern Arizona. A big Navajo kid, Anthrax wailing on the tow-truck tape deck, drove us into town. I gave him a Bob Marley tape and traded the wagon in for 300 bucks on a new Nissan pickup.
She and I had one year to the day the Aspen died when I met a new guy. We lasted 30 months, me and the guy. The pickup and I were best road buddies for 15 years, the stegosaurus watching over me every mile.