One Year on the Road

Durango, Colorado

Sculpture at the train station.

I’ve been to this quaint little mountain city twice before. The first time, Kate and I drove through to visit my newfound half-brother and his fiancé. He was the baby my father had with his second wife. When my father remarried, he more or less cut ties with his first family until his much younger wife died suddenly at age 57. So I met Rich Jr. at my father’s 80th birthday party in 2008. Rich was 31 then, and when my sister and I stepped back from hugging him, we looked at each other and said at the same time, “He has our green eyes.”

Kate and I had travelled to that birthday party in Missouri with our teardrop trailer, and Rich insisted that on our way home, we swing by Durango for a visit. We did, and we were welcomed like royalty. Rich hopped around his kitchen like an eager elf, cooking up his special spaghetti sauce, making a salad, setting the table. He wouldn’t let us do a thing but sit back, pet Bailey and their two dogs, and have a drink.

Jenna and Rich in 2008.

We talked nonstop, into the night with the dinner dishes crusting. We told stories about what it was like for each of us growing up with the father we shared, some heartwarming, some heartbreaking. We compared the very different childhoods we’d had, very different mothers. So many years to catch up on, and this underlying grief for all the years we’d missed.

We loved Jenna, Rich’s fiancé, who was also warm and welcoming. Her full given name is Jennifer Anne, just like me, and we laughed realizing we’d share the same name once they married, then got Twilight Zone quiet when we also realized we were both born on October 12.

The next time I came to Durango was for Rich’s memorial service three years later. He’d been so young and hearty, no one suspected cancer when he had a cough that lingered. When he was finally diagnosed, the cancer was too far along to even determine where it had started. He died within the week.

Polar Express train in 2011.

My sister, brother, and I all flew in from different parts of the country and stayed together at the old Stratton Hotel downtown. Dad was at the house with Jenna. It was just before Christmas and a fresh snow turned the town into a Thomas Kincade painting. The old train station next to the hotel ran “Polar Express” steam engine rides up to the mountains at dusk, and parents with children in cozy pajamas under overcoats swarmed the area. It was so absolutely picturesque, it jarred my heavy heart.

The service was casual and down-to-earth. Hordes of friends in a shut-down bar. Food and drinks and long-winded stories. Raucous laughter, unabashed tears. Music with a slideshow celebrating that wild, fearless, grab-life-by-the-balls spirit I had just started to know. I watched photos flash, fuzzy through tears, of a life I should have known, even if from a distance. I barely knew him, yet I fiercely loved him in an incongruous way I didn’t even understand. He was so young, so happy with Jenna and their life together, so eager to start a family. I raged inside at the unfairness of it all.

Jenna now.

So Durango holds heavy emotions for me. We were coming to see Jenna for the first time since Rich’s service three years ago, and I imagine we were all uncertain about what that might bring up. But on the first hug, I was so glad we’d come. She looked so good, happy at last. She misses Rich every day, she said, and when it hits her, she’ll curl up on the couch with a quilt made from Rich’s old shirts and feel him there with her. But she has a new boyfriend now. She’s in love and she’s going back to school to be a dental hygienist, after years of working as a pharmacy tech.

We didn’t meet Todd, who was away on business. But both our evenings in Durango we spent with Jenna. On the first, she took us to a New Mexican restaurant for delicious papusas. The next night, we brought Bailey over to her house to hang out with her dog and Todd’s. We ate chili and went through boxes of old photos and papers that Dad had bequeathed to Rich. It was more than she wanted: my stepmother’s old report cards and resume, newspaper clippings about Dad’s career, and hundreds of childhood photos. I knew Dad planned to drive out for a visit and reclaim a good portion of this, but at 86 it was getting less and less likely that he would actually do it. So we sorted out a bin-full of memorabilia to haul with us until we visit Dad. And we filled a box of things to send to Vicky’s sister in Michigan. Jenna’s keepsakes from Rich’s childhood now fit tidily in one drawer.

Fairground Accommodations

RV lot at the fairgrounds.

As we drove to Durango, we were checking our trusty camping app, AllStays, for a reasonably priced place to set up Bessie near town. We’d been thinking about a national park a few miles north. But AllStays pinned the fairgrounds, right near downtown, as an option. We called and sure enough, we could stay in one of six spots set up in a gravel lot with electric and water for $16.50 a night. As long as we were gone by the time the carnival came to town the next weekend.

Animas River bike path.

This was perfect for us, because everything we wanted to do was right in town. There were two other big rigs in the lot, and it felt perfectly safe. It was next to the horse ring, and from our front seats, we could watch young riders practice barrel racing.

The fairground is right next to the Animas River, which is ushered for miles by a well-kept bike path. It’s also adjacent to the town’s new pride and joy: a rec center that includes pool, fitness classes, and gyms. We were told we could go for $4/day, but we never had the time.

Continuing Dental Woes

Although the antibiotics I got in San Diego and again near Zion had eased the infection in my recently crowned tooth, things were clearly not right in my mouth. Any time my top-left teeth touched my bottom-left, it hurt. For two months now, I’d been chewing on my right side, at times resorting to tongue-chewing soft food.

Evidence of an oversized crown on the bottom left.

Oversized crown on the bottom left.

Jenna’s dentist was closed on Fridays, but I was able to get in to see Dr. Belt at Durango Dental. This new crown has never ceased feeling like a pebble stuck on my tooth, and when I saw the initial x-ray, I knew why. “Oh, my god,” the tech murmured and I leapt out of the dentist’s chair to see. “When I can see something in an x-ray, it’s pretty extreme,” she said. The crowned tooth sat way higher than all my other teeth. No wonder it hurt every time I bit down. I’d been hammering my jaw each time I ate.

Dr. Belt took a lot of time with me, going over all the x-rays and assessing options. There was no way to file this crown down to what it should be without compromising it. I really needed a whole new crown. It should be all gold, he said, not a composite of gold and porcelain like it was, because with gold you can get by with a thinner crown. He could prep the tooth and put in a temporary crown, and the new one would be ready in two weeks. All for $1,200.

My dentist back in Eugene doesn’t work on Fridays, so I couldn’t consult with him. My mind was racing with logistics. Should I try to fly back to Eugene and get this taken care of? Should I have Dr. Belt do the crown and stick around here for two weeks, or go to Santa Fe and circle back, postponing plans to meet my sister and brother-in-law near their cabin near Austin? Should I hold off until we follow my sister home to Houston and can hang out for two weeks? And $1,200… Christ! Bad time to not have dental insurance.

I was near tears when I called Kate, who was back in Bessie. “Just do it,” she said. “You can’t keep living with this.”

So I went ahead with the new crown. Once Dr. Belt had gotten the old one off, he realized what my Eugene dentist had been up against… a miniscule tooth base that he was trying to save. If you take the tooth down too far, the crown doesn’t have enough to grip. But in this case, he said, there was no other choice. So he filed it down just enough to accommodate the thinnest crown possible and carved in some ridges that will help keep the crown in place.

In defense of the dentist I’ve seen in Eugene for 24 years, he was racing against the clock on that first crown. He installed it the day before we left town, and he spent an hour adjusting and readjusting it. Had I not been leaving town the next day, I imagine he would have ultimately rebuilt the crown. When I called him afterwards and explained the situation, he agreed to pay part of the bill for the new crown.

It’s been a week now with the temporary crown, and although it’s fallen out three times (I just push it back in), the pain in my mouth has all but disappeared. My sister’s dentist in Sugar Land (near Houston) has agreed to install the permanent crown for $45, and Dr. Belt has agreed to mail it to him as soon as it comes in. Assuming all goes well, my dental saga will soon be coming to a close.

Bad Cuts

Shaggy before photo.

Shaggy before photo.

By the time I reached Durango, I was starting to look like Shaggy on Scooby Doo. (Without the scraggly beard.) In Eugene, one hairdresser has kept my impertinent cowlicks tamed for more than 20 years, and this trip is a good opportunity for me to branch out and let go of my fear of bad cuts. Before we left home, I decided I would get my hair cut only at old-time barber shops with barber poles.


Barber shops are the last holdouts of gender exclusion. There are no signs that say “Men Only,” but women know better than to cross that threshold into the dimly lit, aftershave-infused interior.

Childhood pixie cut.

Childhood pixie cut.

When I was a kid, I envied the Saturday morning excursions my older brother and Dad would take to our small town’s only barber shop. I had short hair, too. An androgynous style made more acceptable by its name (“pixie cut”) and perfected by my mother at our kitchen table.  I wanted to get my hair trimmed at the barber shop, too, where the hypnotically spinning pole looked like a constantly regenerating candy cane. There were comic books, my brother told me, and a radio that played old fashioned music. But that was one of my earliest lessons in male privilege. Barbers were only for boys.

So 50 years later, why not break through those glass doors? Old-fashioned barber shops across the country… here I come.

Durango was a perfect place to start. The tiny shop on the main downtown strip had probably been there for 100 years. It had the required spinning candy cane pole and a barber with a white shop coat and tidy gray hair. I’m sure I’m not the first middle-aged woman to enter their shop, but he looked rather disbelieving when I asked for a cut. He was with someone, so he directed me to the other chair, and after a few minutes, Izzy appeared from behind a curtain and fastened a black cape around my neck.

Not so cute on an adult.

Not so cute on an adult.

When Izzy asked me what I wanted, I wasn’t sure what to say other than, “Just shorter by an inch or so.” (Now I know better and will insist on bangs that don’t look like a shrunken shirt on a pregnant belly.) Izzy clicked his razor to a steady buzz and started on the back of my head. He was done so quickly, I had no time to assess or direct. But I’d put my self-esteem in his hands, and I just had to trust that he wouldn’t impose his own shaved-sides hairstyle on me.

In the end, I had something similar to the pixie cut I wore throughout my childhood, which doesn’t look quite so impish on a 60-year-old. I’m not crazy about the tiny bangs and am jolted when I glance in a mirror. But it’s out of my eyes and is cool in the early summer heat, and it looks fine enough, I guess. This year, my haircuts will be an exercise in quashing vanity, and so far, it’s working well.

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3 thoughts on “Durango, Colorado

  1. Laura Davis

    Jennifer, this story about your step-brother is so sad and beautiful and so well told. I’m so glad you at least had that first visit with him. And so sorry he was snatched away so fast. I’m glad you and Jenna are staying connected. The image of you carrying that box for your aging dad–who you’ve had quite the history with–is a wonderful one for me to carry.

  2. Laura Davis

    PS If you aren’t already, I really I recommend you listen to the Dear Sugar Radio podcast while you’re driving. You’ll be totally hooked. I am. It’s out of WBUR. I listen to it on Stitcher, a pod cast app on my phone. You can also listen via ITunes and any other podcasting app you may have. Start with episode 1 and go from there…

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