Life is a highway weaving
through the magnificent and varied panoramas of the West. In this short
story, Greg Stahl explores a slice of highway striped with the staggered
staccato of uncertain love. Photo by Greg Stahl.
He squinted through
the dusty front window, choking back tears, and watched as the Smoky
Mountains grew with the miles. His reply was delayed and, when it came,
deliberate. He would not reveal his feelings. He had known her for a
very short time, and he considered the unexpected burst of emotion
When he looked at her
to answer the question, hoping his glistening eyes didn’t show, he
analyzed his response for clarity and meaning. As the answers came, he
understood the tears. They were thoughts he couldn’t share with her. To
tell her would be too much. She couldn’t possibly understand how
thoughts like these could emerge from such a brief slice of such a long
He looked to the
highway tumbling out before them, and she put her hand on his leg. He
covered it with his own. He could see in her eyes she had been touched
by his answer. Perhaps she heard what he hadn’t said. She had an uncanny
brain and a logically intuitive sense about things. It’s one of the
qualities he loved most about her.
“The same could be
said about you,” she replied.
It was an appropriately diplomatic response, but the words he uttered
fit her far better than he. Though their miles and hours traveling
together were filled with far-reaching ideas and many words, they drove
on in silence for a while. His mind worked.
Like a man who wants
flight, he could not have her, for the very object of desire was the
obstacle to its realization. He mused that he was a tree who wanted to
grow at the summit of a great mountain with views spreading to the
horizons. He would be the first to see the sun rise and the last to see
the moon set. But trees don’t grow on the tops of mountains for a
In life, it is often
the thing a person cannot have that a person wants the most. That is how
he distilled a rainbow of growing sensation into shades of gray. It was
a fatalistic exercise precipitated by his awe and respect for her.
That admiration was
the fuel for their brief but intimate conversation as the Smoky
Mountains grew on the horizon in the late-day sun of the Snake River
Plain. His mind returned to the question that prompted the unexpected
“What are your
expectations of me?” she had asked.
He contemplated the
question before the weight of his answer settled on him.
“I expect you to use
your powers for good, not evil,” he answered, the idea solidifying in
“What’s that supposed
That’s when he stared out the side window and watched through bleary
eyes as the desert flew by. He could not immediately answer. He could
not let her know how much the answer hurt him.
“I think you are an
incredibly gifted person,” he said. “I expect you to put your gifts to
In that, he realized,
he would push her away for the very reason he loved her. He viewed
himself as a diversion to her eventual greatness.
had begun simply enough. She was bright, and she wanted people to know
it. Despite her hubris, he liked her and found her easy to talk with. On
their third encounter they lay awake on a cabin floor in front of a
dying fire as the stars spun overhead. He wanted to kiss her, but he did
not, and he supposed those events would dictate the extent of their
relationship. He was moving to a town across the barren, windswept
desert. It was not the time to make new friends.
Life didn’t agree.
When he looked across
a crowded patio the following evening and saw her beaming at him from a
corner where she sat alone, he was surprised at his excitement. Their
conversation later that night dug beneath the surface, and he shed a bit
of the shell he used to protect himself. Later, as they lay awake
together, he told her how he had wanted to hold her in front of the
dying fire on the cabin floor.
“I think you think
too much,” she told him, and her kiss was full of feeling.
In that moment, he
lost a friend.
During the ensuing
week, they laid plans to travel across the vast expanse of the varied
western landscape. He thought it was funny when she asked if he was
worried she might be a schizophrenic whose alter ego could kick in
somewhere on the long, lonesome road. They talked about traveling
companions they had known. They worried that, somewhere between the
Colorado Plateau and the granite ramparts of Central Idaho, they might
run out of things to talk about. They thought the vast landscape might
swallow their thoughts and ideas. It wasn’t so. They hardly noticed the
power of the western desert as they drove into each other’s thoughts and
He took a glance in
the rear view mirror and saw the empty highway unfolding behind them.
Seeing where they had been only moments before, he thought about the
lives they had not yet lived in the context of how they would view them
from times yet to pass. He answered the question for himself.
The life he had yet
to live would look good so long as he had a positive effect on a few
people, made a difference every now and then. His deathbed memories
would be happy as long as they flashed across his mind like a slide show
of smiling faces, people he cared about and people who cared in return.
All the rest—ledger sheets, awards, resumes, accomplishments—was all
filler, the nine-to-five hours of a life that included so much more. He
turned the thought to his companion.
“At the end of your
life, when you’re looking back, what do you want to see?”
Moments of silence
ensued as he pondered his infraction and she considered the question.
“Maybe I’ll see this
trip,” she smirked.
Maybe, he thought,
her sarcasm weighing on him.
Days later, he was surprised by the abrupt way their courses diverged.
She had become an easy fit in that short period of his life, and it
didn’t seem natural that something so easy would have an end. Even as he
drove her to the place they would part, he felt invigorated by her, and
her company gave him strength he didn’t know he possessed. She asked if
he wanted to ask a question he had, days earlier, declined to risk. The
time was right, but he decided the answer would come with time. With
that, they bid farewell.
But his question
would be answered. Several months and many trials later, it was.
And the lonely Idaho
mountains consumed him.