I met Randy in October of last year while passing through Holbrook, Arizona. There is an A&W restaurant and gas station on Navajo Blvd, and my brother Michael and I stopped there for food and fuel on our road trip to the Grand Canyon. We had just spent a few hours driving and hiking through the Petrified Forest National Park. The journey had been ethereal; while taking in the Martian landscapes, stone trees, colorful vistas, and cobalt sky, I imagined that we had passed through a wormhole to a time when this corner of Earth had served as God’s personal art studio. We entered Holbrook just minutes after exiting the park, and I pulled the little black rental car up to the pump and shut the engine off. As I sat there in a moment of silence outside that A&W, a desire to turn the car around and disappear into the desert fell upon me; I needed a beautiful escape from the ugly reality that had become my life over the previous five months.
Michael and I were on a quest; our brother Jared took his life last summer, on June 3rd. He had been missing for several desperate days before my wife Elizabeth and I found him lifeless in the woods behind his house. This was not his first attempt at suicide; only two months prior to his death, Jared had quit his job of more than 12 years, jumped into his car, and headed west to see the Grand Canyon. His plan was to gaze upon its beauty before ending his life surrounded by it. He ran out of money in Kansas City, and so in a quiet and lonely roadside motel he had taken a bottle of sleeping pills chased by a bottle of liquor. The maid service found him unconscious on the floor, and he was rushed to the hospital in time to pump out his stomach. We were blessed to have him with us for a couple more months, and while his struggle was day to day, we thought he might make it. Little did we know that he would make anther attempt so soon, and little did we know of the agony and suffering that we have dealing with since his passing. In an effort to find some peace, and in a desire to share something special with my little brother and fulfill one of Jared’s last wishes, Michael and I were driving from Kansas City to the Grand Canyon to finish Jared’s journey. We carried with us some of his ashes to sprinkle into the canyon on his birthday, October 25th. The time with Michael in the painted desert had been a bittersweet and beautiful escape; to return to civilization, even a one-horse town like Holbrook, Arizona did not appeal to me in the least.
So, with the back-story now in place, let us return to that A&W service station and my desire to escape into the desert. When I snapped out of my desert trance, I hopped out of the car and pulled my credit card out of my wallet to swipe it and pump some gas. It took me a moment of slow confusion to realize that there was no credit card slot. Slow to modernize, this gas station was old school, the pump an older model with the numbers that spun vertically, counting the gallons and their cost with a whirring and clicking sound.
“Michael, check this out, the pumps here are so old!” Michael walked over and snapped a few photos of me smiling like a mouth breathing simpleton, my eyes wide in awe at the numbers as they rolled past. The whirring and clicking of the pump, the spinning numbers, the smell of gasoline, all these things combined to re-construct the memory of Jared and I scrounging for change to gas up my ’72 Chevy Nova every morning after seminary. It would only take a buck or two to get us around until the next day, when we would do it all over again.
“They don’t make ‘em like that anymore, do they?” The words came from a throat that had sucked in the smoke of more than a few cigarettes over the years. I turned to face a pot-bellied, scruffy faced man wearing grey sweats and a maroon tee shirt dribbled with stains. On his head he wore a dark baseball cap with “Marines” in bold script across the front, the anchor and globe emblem to one side.
“Hi guys, you look like you’ve been on the road a piece. My name is Randy, and that’s my van over there at pump number two.” He extended his hand, and I took it. His fingers were pudgy, but strong and calloused.
What followed was an hour-long conversation over delicious A&W hamburgers and root beer floats. Michael and I sat in a booth across from Randy, his wife, and his mother, who was confined to her wheelchair, which had an oxygen tank strapped to one side. Randy was a llama and emu rancher from Denver, and he had some very interesting stories to tell about emus killing coyotes and stomping their carcasses into the prairie. He loved his ranch hands like family, and they were welcome to any of the food in the freezer. He moved on to the purpose of their road trip; he had purchased the van because it had wheelchair access for his mother, who had been given very little time to live. Her last desire was to take a road trip from Denver to California, taking a ride through the beauty of the Southwest and visiting family along the way. He was hoping she would last the week to see her sister.
“Nothing matters more than family, you can’t take nothin’ more than family when you go.” Randy told us this more than once during that conversation.
Michael and I shared our story about Jared, his death, and our quest to finish the trip he had started. Randy sat and listened to every word, empathetic to our loss and pain. He spoke then of his own attempt at suicide, and how his own brother had succeeded at taking his own life, adding to the pain and misery that was Randy’s life. Randy confessed to having spent some time in a wheel chair. He had only truly needed it for a few months due to an accident, but depression kept his sitting in it for seven years. His self esteem and will to live were all but non-existent for nearly a decade, until one day he woke up and decided his pity party had lasted long enough. Since that day he had done what he could do make amends for those dark days and the pain he had caused. He had started loving himself and his family, trying to be a better husband to his wife and son to his mother.
As we wrapped up our conversation, we wished each other well, and Randy invited us to spend time on his ranch outside of Denver anytime we were in the area. We said goodbye and thanked him for crossing our path, leaving us better off than when he had found us. Michael and I drove to Flagstaff uplifted by having met a fellow traveler on a mission who at first glance had appeared to be so unlike anyone spinning around within our normal social circles, but had proved to be the kind of person that each of us should welcome in. It made our journey, already an unforgettable experience due to its purpose, that much more memorable and life changing.
Had you been sitting in that A&W that afternoon, you could have reached out and squeezed the tribulation out of the air; full of sadness, regret, loss, pain, suffering, worry, agony…my little brother Michael and I felt as if we had been set adrift in a sea of strife aboard a rubber dinghy. The hope for a calm, safe harbor and blue skies had all but faded amidst the dark clouds above and the grey of angry waves that threatened to crash down upon us and swallow us whole without mercy. At times we could not see past the next sorrowful wave, and would just lay in the bottom of our little craft, the cold waters of Jared’s death soaking our skin and draining us of our will to go on. In a moment of extreme conditions, Randy and his little band of experienced sailors pulled their large and seaworthy ship up along side our little boat, creating a temporary shelter from the storm. His life story, coupled with the selfless, loving act of driving his mother across the desert in her waning days demonstrated to Michael and I that we could weather this storm, and that a safe, warm, blue-skied harbor lay in wait. Randy stocked us with provisions, patched a few of the holes in our hull, and reminded us of the map that we had been given long before this ordeal began. The journey would be long, the dangers many, the urge to despair overwhelming, but we would make it.