Biff America: Scenic grief in canyon country
“Most folks are as happy as they make up their mind to be.” So said Abe Lincoln.
Honest Abe reportedly suffered from depression, so perhaps his assertion was more a product of wishful thinking than the nature of man. It’s been my experience that some folks enjoy a predisposition for happiness, and for others, joy is more elusive.
I was riding my bicycle in one of the national parks in Utah. It was well before the pandemic, so I could be out in public without smelling my own breath. Ellen was hiking with some friends, so I was on my own. I was about 10 miles past my turnaround point, riding a mostly downhill stretch of highway out of the park and back to the camper.
Having gravity on my side, and knowing I would probably get back to the RV well before my mate and our friends, I decided to linger. We were camped on Bureau of Land Management lands — a nice spot, but not nearly as beautiful as where I was in canyon country.
A few minutes later, I came upon a scenic pull-off complete with an incredible view and a picnic table. It was a perfect place to stop, drink and offload some fluids, have a snack and check out the view. The parking lot was large and empty, except for a dusty passenger car with Kansas plates filled with luggage, toys and maps.
That part of Utah, and at that time of year, is famous for “goat heads,” a small thorn the size of a pea that can easily flatten a high-pressure road bicycle tire. So I carried my bicycle past the car and toward the viewpoint. Sitting at the picnic table was a middle-aged woman wearing a T-shirt and sweatpants. Even with a quick glance, I could see she was crying.
I smiled, said “hello,” and walked well past her to give us both some privacy.
I sat on a flat rock and ate some dried fruit. The setting sun reflected off the walls of the canyons, which gave everything a warm, scarlet tint. The air was clean and clear with absolutely no wind, allowing me to hear a quiet sob from 60 feet away.
I guessed she was in her 50s and of middle income. Her hair, once blonde, was brassy, and her clothing suggested suburbia. But by the stuff I saw in her car, I assumed she wasn’t traveling alone.
She sobbed quietly again.
After a few minutes, I picked up my bike and, giving her a wide berth, I walked toward the road. Over my shoulder, I heard her say, “I’m sorry to chase you away.”
“That’s OK,” I said. “It’s getting dark.”
I didn’t know what else to say, but silence seemed cruel, so I added, “I’m sorry you’re sad.”
“Today’s my birthday,” she said. “I’m 49 years old, and I’ve lived my entire life for other people.”
I made it back to the camper at about the same time as Ellie and our friends. The friends were camping about 20 miles away inside the park, so Ellie and I soon were alone in the high desert.
After dinner, we sat outside and listened to a news station on XM radio. As usual, the news was neither happy nor uplifting.
“Let’s shut off that thing.” Ellie said.
I turned off the radio and considered the night sky. I thought of the lady in the rest area and the sad people everywhere. I was reminded again how random life can be. You can play by the rules, work hard, do as you’re told, and you can still find yourself crying by the side of the road on your birthday.
I wondered how the rest-area lady was doing. I hoped I had simply caught her during a melancholy moment. I hoped she was with her husband and kids laughing to herself about how her silly birthday emotions chased that old hippy out of the rest area. I hoped she felt loved and appreciated. I wish that for us all.
Jeffrey Bergeron’s column “Biff America” publishes Mondays in the Summit Daily News. Bergeron has worked in TV and radio for more than 30 years, and his column can be read in several newspapers and magazines. He is the author of “Mind, Body, Soul.” Bergeron arrived in Breckenridge when there was plenty of parking and no stop lights. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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