Good evening, ghostlings!
As I type this it is roughly 8:30 PM Wisconsin time. Today is July 20, which would have been my mother’s 61st birthday. I try not to attach too much significance to such milestones, but it’s hard not to think about them.
You may have noticed that I wrote, “Wisconsin time.” That is because I am, in fact, back in my hometown, in my own apartment, sitting on my own (third hand and heavily worn) office chair. I made it in around midnight last night, after more than 15 hours of driving from Fort Collins, CO. It was probably the gnarliest day of driving I’ve ever performed, but we’ll get to that later. There’s a lot we have to catch up on…
There’s a strange fact about long-distance road travel which I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet. Very often when you find yourself driving on a single highway for several hundred miles, you’ll become eerily familiar with the other vehicles on the road. Sometimes you’ll pass a freight truck at a certain point, stop at a gas station or rest stop 30 miles up the road, then get back on the road and find yourself passing that very same truck.
I don’t know why, but for some reason this feels awkward to me. The fact that I needed to stop and re-accelerate while the trucker simply kept going at a steady pace makes me feel inferior. Sort of like a Tortoise and the Hare situation. It’s probably my own sense of insecurity at work, but I typically imagine the trucker muttering under his (or her, but probably his) breath, “this fucking guy again…”
Or sometimes I’ll have a similar interaction with another automobile. I’ll accelerate to a comfortable pace, slide into the right lane, hit cruise control and find myself following the same car for 30-45 minutes. I’ll examine the car — the make & model, the licence plate, the bumper stickers (there’s about a 40% chance that any given car will have either an NRA or a “Salt Life” sticker somewhere on the rear) — my mind desperate to make some kind of Sherlock-like deductive inference about the character of the vehicle’s driver.
It’s strange that two or more human beings (and it’s easy to forget that you’re dealing with another person) can share a space for such a prolonged period of time without making any connection whatsoever. Think of how awkward it is to share an elevator with a stranger for 30 seconds. Most of us feel compelled to at least utter some fumbled remark about the weather. Yet we can spend 50 times that amount of time on the road with somebody and no one gives it a second thought.
After I’d had my fill of Salt Lake City’s Temple Square, it was time to hit the road again. My ultimate destination was Fort Collins, Colorado, where I’d be staying with my friend D. To get there, I’d have to take I-80 through most of the state of Wyoming.
The drive from SLC to the Western reaches of Wyoming is one of the most gorgeous drives I know of in the United States. I’ve been fortunate enough to feast on more than a few visual smorgasbords during my years of road travel, but the winding passes through the big red rocks of Utah is simply extraordinary.
I wish I had taken more pictures; there just aren’t enough pullovers and rest areas during this gem of a drive. I do have a short little video, but I honestly don’t think it really does the place justice…
As I passed into Wyoming, the terrain began to flatten somewhat, to grow dryer and more yellowish. I began to zone out, flipping between fuzzy AM radio stations (I briefly lost my auxiliary cable and couldn’t play music or podcasts from my phone).
Suddenly I got a call. I knew I had to take it, even though Wyoming billboards explicitly tell you to “hang up and drive.” I had totally forgotten about this call, but it was really, really important.
Let me back up a bit. I may have mentioned in previous posts that my siblings and I have been trying to sell our parent’s house. This was the house that they (and, for far too many years, I) had lived in since 1999, when we all moved up to Wisconsin. It was the place I had always thought of as home no matter where I happened to be sleeping. The place where memories were made, where lessons were learned and love fermented.
Over the last four months, however, it’s been a fucking pain in the ass.
I moved back into the house in 2016, when my life felt stagnated and I realized it was time to quit my job. Even then my parents were talking about selling the place; the market was growing hot and the two of them weren’t doing well financially.
My mother, a genius at remodeling, interior decorating, and generally all things house-related, had a very clear vision of what needed to be done before the house could be sold. Problem was, of course, she died before she could do most of it.
After mom was gone, simply managing the house, let alone trying to sell it, felt like a daunting task for my father, siblings, and myself. None of us could keep it as clean and orderly as she kept it, none of us had any idea how to maintain a garden or anything like that. Hell, my father and brother didn’t even know how to use the washing machine. It would be like if two Boeing 747 pilots suddenly died in mid-flight, and a few random passengers had to somehow step in and land the damn thing. The whole thing felt like a goddamn farce.
When dad died, however, it kind of forced the issue. There was no way the three of us could afford the mortgage and property taxes on that place, even if we had wanted to keep living there. Which I didn’t. I needed to get out of that house. At that point all it did was remind me of death and disaster.
Actually getting it ready for sale, however, proved to be one of the most daunting tasks I ever attempted. The sheer volume of stuff to get rid of — my parents were both pack rats — was simply insane. Entire rolls of garbage bags were used up stuffing clothes, trinkets, and Christmas decorations to be taken to Goodwill. Other things were sold via Facebook Marketplace; a lucrative but also bizarre and time-consuming task whose chaotic vagaries would make a fascinating blog in and of itself. Everything else, from cracked pots to broken DVD players to used mattress frames, was taken to the dump (I was too cheap to rent a dumpster, so I used my dad’s ’95 Lexus to take load after load to the Dane County Landfill, incurring nonplussed stares from burly Waste Management dudes each and every time).
If clearing out the house was an exceptionally stressful process, cleaning out what was left was a flat-out nightmare. Every corner of every room was swept, soaked, scrubbed, every vent and windowsill wiped clean of dirt. Dozens of Magic Erasers hopelessly died in vain trying to blot out the stains on the walls. I remember coughing, choking on the fumes of bleach as I attempted to scrub every last bit of lime out of the tiling in the upstairs bathroom.
Getting the house in perfect condition became an obsession for me. I would walk into a room I had been in millions of times before and all I would notice was another dent, another black smudge that I had failed to wipe clean the previous day. The house that had seemed so immaculate and clean only months before now seemed like a dilapidated mess. I fretted, sometimes came close to tears, over the possibility that it would never be good enough, that we would never be able to compete in today’s marketplace.
My sister had a different reaction to the whole situation. For her it became difficult to even be in that house. Clearing it out felt like a betrayal, that we were throwing away mom and dad’s legacies. She told me that she’d have dreams where mom would tell her, “why are you throwing me away?” Eventually she just had to stop helping out with the cleaning altogether.
In retrospect I totally understand and empathize with this reaction, but during the peak of my house-prepping insanity it just felt like an annoyance, an abdication of duty, a different kind of betrayal. So I clenched my fists and ground my teeth and went at it all alone.
Eventually, somehow, I decided I’d had enough. I realized the house was about as good as it was going to get, and any further investment of time would yield only diminished marginal returns. I called our realtor, told him it was time to put the house up on the market. He agreed, and we agreed on a listing price. Great.
Oh, and by the way, I’m going on vacation next week.
“What?!? Where are you going?”
Um, kind of everywhere. I’m going to be driving to Montana, Washington State, Colorado, probably Utah…
Yeah, our realtor wasn’t thrilled that I was leaving right as the house was going up on the market. But I didn’t care. I needed this vacation; I was on the verge of a mental breakdown.
And thanks to the magic of the digital age, I really didn’t even need to be present. The realtor hooked me up with some fancy app that lets me digitally sign any contract in seconds. All I needed to do, really, was stay on the grid.
Oh wait, did I mention that I was traveling through fucking Wyoming?
Actually, it turns out I did get service. Not the greatest service, but much, much better than I would have gotten even a few years earlier. I think I talked about this in my post about Mount Blackmore in Montana, but it’s simply amazing to me how these days you can get cell phone service in just about any part of the country. It’s getting harder and harder to get off the grid, which on some Waldenesque libertarian level may be a bad thing, but in this particular instance it turned out to be a life-saver.
I took the call, my realtor sounded excited. He told me we had two offers. The first one was for the listing price. The second one was for much more than the listing price. Not only that, but the second buyer wanted us to accept the offer by 5 PM Central Time. When I took the call it was about 2 PM Mountain Time, 3 PM Central. I had to act fast.
I pulled into the nearest exit, in Green River, WY. I stopped at this cafe:
It was here, in this humble, Mayberry-esque diner with cheap food and a hair-twirling waitress, that I sat and waited to conclude the most important deal of my adult life. The feeling was simply surreal. Is this really happening? Am I dreaming? Is something in my life actually going right for once?
I ordered French Toast and two Fried Eggs. The waitress probably thought I was another tweaker; I kept stroking my mustache and wiping the sweat off my palms, all the while staring at my phone like it contained the secrets of Eternal Life.
Finally the email came, the one with the offer to accept. I opened it, tapped the screen to “sign” the offer, hit Send, and that was that. I’d sold a house. All that hard work, all the (quite literal) blood, sweat, and tears… it all amounted to this.
I gave the waitress an extra large tip. Then I headed to Colorado.