Ford and ranch photos by T. Polson.
It was December of 1997, and my Puerto Rican girlfriend and I had planned to stay for Christmas at the family home of my pal from Wyoming. It was a visit we were both looking forward to and had talked about for weeks. For her, it would be the first time in snow country. A novelty on its own. For me, it was a chance to see my friend’s family again, with whom I had spent a pleasant Christmas a few years before. And it was also, a good chance to break away from the rush of my daily life in San Francisco.
No one besides ourselves seemed to share our excitement. Whenever the topic came for discussion with friends or colleagues, a quizzical look appeared;
- Why… Wyoming?
Not that the idea of visiting Wyoming sounded exactly like hell to them. Instead, it was more like some kind of purgatory. A limbo impossible to picture in their minds. In retrospect, only the office’s secretary seemed to approve of the trip. Which made sense. She was a native of Salt Lake City, after all.
But well, such were the mindsets of my 20-something city-dwelling coworkers. The attraction of visiting a place with nothing to do was just beyond their comprehension. If given a choice, waterboarding would have likely been more enticing to a few of them.
Our destination was the little hamlet of Mountain View. A city of about 1,200 souls, at an altitude of 6000 feet right on the plains of the Rocky Mountain range. No cinemas, no shopping malls, no fancy museums. Nearest city? Salt Lake City. A good two hours away. Nearest cinema? A 45 min. drive on the freeway.
The plan was for our Wyoming friend to take us there on his Bronco II. We would leave from his home in Los Angeles and do a stopover in Las Vegas, pushing the second day all the way to Mountain View. Admittedly, the Bronco II’s condition seemed suspect to my eye. Not that I could offer an alternative. Doing such a trip on my ’68 Beetle was at no point discussed. And my 1980 Rabbit had a tendency to provide either pleasure or pain, with little in between. A trait well-known to all by then. So, the Bronco II it was.
Not that the Bronco ownership was in itself a surprise. It only made sense that my pal owned a Ford vehicle, as he came from a –mostly- Dearborn family. To prove the point, besides the Bronco, a ’48 Ford truck sat in his garage in wait of restoration.
Not that his loyalty was completely unwavering. VWs and Volvos had also been part of his family’s history. He swore by Beetles and the way the faithful little critters had gotten him through a few snow blizzards during his high school days. Indeed, he had been the one who talked me into buying one as my first car.
After reaching LA in my Rabbit (didn’t fail on the way down!), we took off on his Bronco II the next day. I’ve absolutely no memory of riding in the vehicle, so I guess it must have been comfortable enough. What I clearly remember is listening to a bunch of David Bowie records for the first time, and liking them a great deal.
That said, I have never enjoyed Bowie songs as much as I did on that trip. Do Bowie records work better inside old Bronco IIs?
As planned, we spent the night in Las Vegas. Mostly for its cheap accommodations. I’d already spent a whole summer working at a Florida theme park, and being more than a few hours in a theme park-like city was not something I looked forward to. Still, there’s no denying that there’s nothing like Las Vegas on the face of the Earth. It’s -hopefully- the only place where a reproduction of Michelangelo’s David can sit next to a bunch of fashion stores, not far from a cheap food court.
The second day was as uneventful as the first, and we reached our destination by day’s end. On our arrival, a thin sheet of snow covered the town and its surroundings in almost postcard-like perfection. As the Bronco II advanced through the streets, the small town was just as I remembered. First, we passed the grocery store/video rental/gun shop that greets you upon arrival, followed by the sole Pizza Hut with the town’s only ATM station. It was an image of perfect Americana; the wide quiet streets, the widely spaced modest wooden houses, all sparsely populated and rather placid.
A few minutes later, we reached my pal’s family home.
We took our luggage into the house and walked past the Volvo 244 that now served as the family’s vehicle. The car was plugged into the electric grid, keeping the engine nicely warm. Not the kind of thing I saw back in California.
It didn’t take me long to approach the house’s kitchen, from where the family’s old ranch could be seen. It was the image that I most fondly remembered; the dilapidated wooden shacks, with the long-defunct old family Ford sitting quietly nearby, amidst dispersed abandoned farm equipment. At some point in the past, all were thriving and alive, doing hard work. A vision hard to reconcile with their present idle and serene condition.
As it had become common by the ’90s, the household’s few acres of land were no longer profitable enough to work. The land sat without use, with my pal’s father having moved on to other jobs.
It was a quandary common to our days; how could so much material wealth still not be enough?
Just around the old sheds sat the family’s old ’57 Ford. We had on more than one occasion talked about car matters with my pal, with the usual GM/Ford divide often coming into play (I was Team GM, he was Team Ford). After a few years of knowing each other, I figured there was some kind of swagger in GM’s products -in their good days, of course- that was too flashy and just didn’t sit well with his view of the world. What I found homely and plain in many of Dearborn’s products, felt instead honest and straightforward to him. A Ford was trusty, modest, and unassuming; just all that he needed and ever wanted.
(FWIW; he wasn’t too keen on Ford’s flamboyant Brougham period).
The next few days were as mellow as we expected, with us ‘kids of the tropics’ behaving like total snow geeks. As everyone from snow-country knows, snow is fun… for a couple of days at most. But we were ‘snow tourists’ and relished the opportunity as much as our reptile-tempered bodies allowed. Which wasn’t much.
Mind you, winter was still mild at this point, as everyone around reminded us. But still, the most we could do was 15-20 minutes outside, two or three times a day. But once out, we did the whole schtick; snow angels, snowmen, snowball fights, and then just plain snow. We even did some snow-tube-sliding, or whatever it was they called it (above).
I’m not apologetic about such geekyness. Visitors must absorb all they can, especially if they won’t have many future opportunities. I’ve seen Northern Europeans pointlessly standing around under San Salvador’s unrelenting sun just before boarding their planes and I haven’t said anything. I know that ninety-plus-degree weather is not the most common thing in Helsinki.
During daylight’s idle hours, my pal’s Mom got my girlfriend up to date with ALL mid-’90s rom-coms ever produced. Just about every single one seemed to be stacked around the home’s TV, and my girlfriend avidly kept popping each into the VHS deck. Nonstop. The known and the lesser-known, the blockbusters and the flops. I think I somehow managed to skip the one with Freddy Prinze Jr. (I had limits…).
So if you name one, I’ve probably seen it; French Kiss, Notting Hill, Sleepless In Seattle, and so on. Movies I had actually worked hard to avoid. Had it gone on any longer, some rampage was bound to happen. Most likely a wedding rampage, given the circumstances. Not that I can picture what that would be like.
Sunday was the most social day of that short vacation. We had agreed to join my pal’s family for their Baptist church gathering and parted early that morning in their Volvo sedan.
Not being a regular churchgoer, and of Catholic formation, I found the whole service down to earth and very accessible. A novelty to me. The proceedings felt natural and easygoing, with everyone behaving in a casual and neighborly way. Rather approachable and communal, in general. The program was rather loose, with a pair of kids singing at the beginning, followed by some community announcements, and finally, with the pastor delivering a rather down-to-earth sermon. A long way from the sensational images mainstream (and nowadays social) media liked to portray of church life in small-town America.
On the other hand, while it was all amiable, when the subject of us coming from SF came up, a few town folks had some very strong opinions. Most seemed to equate life in California to living in the ninth ring of hell. Something I would have noticed by then. Or so I like to think.
After about a week, the vacation was over and we departed. Against the worst predictions from our pals in SF, we hadn’t frozen to death, had stayed away from mechanical failures, and had not fallen prey to some weird religious cult. Instead, we made a few good friends, parted with some lovely memories, and caught up with a bunch of films I had never cared for (good stuff for small talk in the future).
On the way to meet my pal’s Dad in Salt Lake City for New Year’s Eve, a few miles from reaching our destination, Bowie’s songs were muted as a loud noise filled the Bronco II’s cabin. The noise quickly turned into a bone-shaking rattle, progressively getting worse. More loud groans from beneath followed, with the whole car shaking as if pummeled by jackhammers just before coming to a full stop. The driveshaft’s U-joint had busted, and the car had left us stranded in the middle of nowhere. Just as nighttime was setting in. Images of ‘freezing to death’ quickly passed through my tropical mind.
In the end, my friend would wait a week in Salt Lake City while the Bronco II got fixed. Meanwhile, my girlfriend and I drove back to LA on a rented ’97 Taurus, while taking a detour by the Grand Canyon.
But that’s a story for another day.
I keep close tabs with my Wyoming pal ‘til this day. Sitting in one of my work bookcases, I dearly display a wooden ’48 Ford truck that he crafted for one of my birthdays. A perennial reminder of our friendship, and those visits to Wyoming long ago.