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A Woman and her Van... I mean man?

Part 2

By Christine ReedPublished 2 years ago Updated 2 years ago 10 min read
A Woman and her Van... I mean man?
Photo by Nicole Giampietro on Unsplash

Summer was getting on into fall when I left Frankie’s place. I considered driving to New England to see the leaves change but decided on Colorado instead. I had always loved aspens and wanted to see them in their golden glory.

I took my time getting to Colorado, taking a detour through the Ozark Mountains. Juniper never stopped talking on the road. At highway speeds she hummed and buzzed, the mirrors rattled in the wind and air whistled in through tiny gaps around the windows. In town, the engine and transmission were in constant conversation. In the first several hours of driving west, I found her company soothing, unobtrusive—a welcome reprieve from my sister’s constant questioning.

In Arkansas, I stopped at a roadside eatery and ate lunch at a picnic table on the perfectly manicured lawn. The place was empty so late in the season and it was strange to be alone. I could imagine the families and travelers milling about on a summer day. Sweat dripped down my back from the August humidity. Cars passed rarely along the road and the silence felt impossible to fill.

I’d grown up in a full house with Frankie and our three brothers. We were rowdy kids—someone always shouting or laughing or banging around. My loud childhood had transitioned seamlessly into a loud marriage with Ben, and Jade came along quickly. Her constant crying was never unhappy, just her way of communicating. As soon as she learned to talk, she couldn’t stop. The noise of family and children were the soundtrack of my life, until Jade became too sick. Seeing her lying in that hospital bed, unable to laugh, too weak to smile, in too much pain to bear the sounds of mine and Ben’s voices.

“Mommy, please be quiet,” she had whispered.

The silence that followed echoed within me from that moment to this one.


Mountains turned to fields of grain and open space in Kansas. I had nowhere to be and all the time in the world to get there. Every choice I made felt both arbitrary and consequential.

By Mary Hammel on Unsplash

In the van, I learned to accommodate small space and resources. I heated water on the stove in the evening to wash my face and my dishes. The seating area had to be transformed into a bed at night and returned to seating in the morning. The long hours between morning routines and evening ones were not as easily filled with driving and whiling away the day as I had imagined. The romance of the endeavor proved difficult to capture between the oppressive heat and the constant churning of my thoughts.

I had hoped that the road might provide some respite from my heartache. I resented Frankie for suggesting that I was running away, but of course I was. I just needed a chance to clear my head. To see something other than my own grief. To feel something other than my own pain.

Campgrounds offered a window into other lives. The old RVers enjoyed their retirement, read books on their lawn chairs, walked their dogs around to visit other RVs. On weekends, families with kids came to grill out and swim in the lake with their inner tubes.

Sometimes the old folks would come over to say hi, ask where I’m from, or if I’d like to join them for dinner. I never did—it would inevitably lead to more questions than I could answer.

As Jade’s birthday loomed on the calendar, I felt some urgency to get to Colorado. I wanted to make her birthday special. Driving west across Interstate 70, I wouldn’t have known I’d left Kansas and entered Colorado if not for the sign, and the aptly named town of Kanorado. The plains continued through Seibert and Flagler and Limon. When I got closer to Denver, the Front Range appeared on the horizon. The Rocky Mountains were little more than a shadowy mass from that distance, but their energy charged the atmosphere.

By Ulysse Pointcheval on Unsplash

I stood at the counter of a fancy bakery in Denver. It was impossible to choose between all the beautiful cakes and cupcakes and pastries. Everything looked so perfect. Jade would have pointed directly to the most decadent combination of chocolate in the case—chocolate cake with chocolate frosting and a chocolate cream layer in the middle. Her tastes were too rich for me. I preferred vanilla or lemon, something light. It was for her birthday, but maybe I ought to get what I would like—she wouldn’t be there to enjoy it after all.

Leaving the city, the road slipped beneath my wheels. Juniper trundled uphill, never breaking 50 mph on the steeper grades. A line of cars formed behind me. People were always in such a hurry to get to somewhere. At Kenosha Pass I saw a sign for the Colorado Trail. I must be the only person who’d never heard of it. Cars lined the sides of the road.

Under the twinkling of the aspen leaves, I found peace. Sunlight danced among the canopy, creating a light show on the path beneath my feet. I ventured off the trail a way to find a lonely place beneath the trees. The thousand eyes of the aspen trunks never blinked.

Writing my thoughts had been a blessing since Jade’s death. In my journal I could write the words of a grieving mother, the confessions of pain and desperation and absolute anguish. There I could let them out without ever having to speak them aloud. Sometimes my thoughts were cohesive—I wrote stories, memories, hopes, regrets.

Today I wrote—I hurt, I hurt, I hurt. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Laying on the blanket with my journal splayed open across my heart, tears rolled from the corners of my eyes into my hair. The aspen leaves were shaped like perfect little hearts. Each golden heart clung desperately to the twig or branch from which it was born. The trees quaked, gently at first, then more wildly. Until the hearts couldn’t hold on any longer and fluttered away.

By Nicole Giampietro on Unsplash

A shadow passed over me as I lay with my eyes closed. Squinting up into the light, I saw what had caused the moment of darkness. He was like an angel—beautifully unreal and surrounded by an unearthly fire.

“Hey there,” he said.

“Oh hello,” I wiped my eyes and smiled in spite of myself.

“Come here often?” he chuckled at the line.

“My first time,” I said, “and you?”

“Oh, all the time.”

I could tell he wasn’t joking. He seemed completely at ease, as if he’d been born under these trees.

“Landon.” He offered me his hand.

“Sam.” I took it. The black lined edge of a tattoo peeked out from under his short sleeve as we shook.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you,” he said, nodding to my journal.

“Oh no. You haven’t.”

His eyes lingered in mine. The depth of his gaze was encompassing, like another world I’d been sucked into. Surely he could see that I’d been crying.

“Do you mind?” he asked, gesturing to the ground next to me.

“Not at all.” I couldn’t tell if it was the truth or not.

We sat in silence for a moment, both staring out across the hills. His strong presence was disturbing and reassuring all at once. His scent was naturally subtle, not like the rugged male body wash perfumes of Ben and other men I’d known. I had the overwhelming urge to draw nearer to him, to feel the roughness of his hand again, to slide his sleeve up and look at that tattoo, to feel a man’s arm around me for the first time since I’d left home. As my hands tingled to reach out, the alarm system in my brain kept me from moving.

“I come here when I’m looking for the answers to life’s questions,” he said abruptly.


“Haven’t found them yet, but I keep coming back.”

“They must be around here somewhere,” I laughed at the absurdity. The absurdity of his statement, and mine. The absurdity of sitting in an aspen grove with a perfect stranger on my daughter’s birthday, thousands of miles from home and unexpectedly released from my self-imposed vigil of aloneness.

“Aspens hold secrets you know. In their leaves. That’s why they quake. Those secrets just trying to get out.”

I looked back up at the golden hearts. They quaked with secrets over our heads.

“Are they keeping secrets from us or for us?” I asked.

He pondered the question. The leaves continued to quiver and sparkle, giving nothing away.

“I don’t know,” he finally said.

I laid back down on the blanket.

“Why did you come here?” he asked after a while.

“To celebrate life,” I whispered.

He nodded with an understanding he certainly didn’t possess, “You couldn’t have picked a better spot.”

“Why’s that?”

“Aspens are the first to repopulate after a fire,” he explained.

I looked sadly up at him. “There was a fire here?”

To think of that beautiful place burning, black, ashen. It brought tears to my eyes—not that they’d been far away.

“We’re in Colorado,” he laughed. “There’s been fire everywhere. And if there wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I’m here for Wildland,” he explained. “I’m a firefighter.”

I tried to hide the flush in my cheeks, as I pictured him emerging from a burning forest, axe in hand, all muscles and calluses. “Where’s the fire?”

“I’ve just come off a job on the western slope,” he said. “Waiting for the next call. There’s about a dozen active burns going on right now.”

I knew that the world had continued to turn in the wake of Jade’s death. Good and bad things happened in other people’s lives unaffected by her absence. But nothing had been left untouched in my world. I felt the loss of her presence in every fiber of my being. And so did everyone I knew. But not Landon. He was of another universe. He had not known her—still didn’t. He did not know that it was her birthday, that she was missing. For a moment, I found myself there. In his universe without grief.

The sun hung low in the sky and the shadows of our aspen grove grew longer.

“Where are you staying around here?” he asked.

“I have a reservation at the campground,” I said. “I stay in my van.”

His eyes lit up. “I’ve got a van too. I don’t usually stay in campgrounds, too noisy.”

“Where do you stay?” I asked.

“Being a firefighter has its perks. I’ve learned a lot of the forest service roads and where you can camp for free in these parts.”

A long pause hung in the air. I wondered if the silence of the forest would be preferable. I had found comfort in the other campers, in knowing that I wasn’t alone. But I supposed that if I went with Landon, I wouldn’t be alone. I nodded my head. Was I agreeing to go into the forest with a man I just met? Or just acknowledging the information and moving the conversation along to its next destination? I wasn’t sure—but he didn’t press any further.

I dug the plastic clamshell from the bakery out of my backpack. The slice of chocolate cake was covered in purple frosting flowers and layered with lavender cream. It was beautiful—the kind of cake that was hard to cut because you just couldn’t bear to ruin it.

I held out the container to Landon. His eyes widened.

“It looks delicious,” he said.

“I’ve only got one fork,” I apologized.

He took the fork and scooped a bite into his mouth, leaving a smear of purple frosting on his lips. Then went in for another forkful, which he held out to me.

“To life,” he said, as the chocolate and lavender met my tongue.


This is Part 2 of a 6 part story-- Click to PART 3



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About the Creator

Christine Reed

Author of the award-winning debut memoir, Alone in Wonderland. Christine writes about outdoor adventure, familial relationships, friendship, grief and trauma. She's passionate about hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, & storytelling.

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