Over the Gorge
Out of sight of the clinic, Joe looked at the mountains around the valley. I have no idea what I’m doing.
He hadn’t questioned the wisdom of heading off to catch Judith as they had been speaking, but was that really what he needed to do? He could feel the folded lump in his pants pocket—John Smith’s twenties. It was certainly enough to get home, but was it enough to go charging across the country? The man had been dopey, drugged and sick when he’d asked for help. Would he have even asked, if his head were clear?
The air was still cold, and he was still a teenager driving around without a helmet on New Mexico highways. It would do no one any good if he were arrested, or came down with the flu. He wasn’t equipped for this.
But I told him I’d go help her. I’m helping a guest, aren’t I? Go the extra mile. That’s what his dad always said.
At the next intersection, there was a grocery store. He pulled into the parking lot, looking at the colorful items advertised in the windows. They had more than groceries. Angel Fire was a ski town; they were fully equipped for the tourist trade.
It took too much of John Smith’s cash, but he bought gloves and a ski cap that pulled over his face. It would help keep the chill from his head, and at a distance, it might even look like a helmet.
I thought this was enough cash, but I was thinking of gas and maybe a burger. Not a trip ‘north’. What have I let myself into?
He hesitated to wear the girl’s coat, but he needed it against the wind. Blue. Joe sighed and shook his head.
His arms went in, but it was too small to zip closed. It was tight, but if he left the zipper alone, he could breathe.
The store had coats in stock, half price off even. But the cheapest of them was more expensive than his available cash. And he’d need every last dollar unless he found her quickly.
Taos was over those mountains. He breathed in the air and started the engine. He whipped out onto the highway and pushed the speed up faster than he’d dared before.
For a few minutes, all thought other than the road and the mountains just drifted out of his head. The rumble of the bike and the clean, nippy air was enough.
It was spring, and in protected places, the wildflowers were out. The thin clouds had vanished and the high mountain valley was clear and sharp in the sunlight. Off in the distance, there was a beaver mound, a four-foot tall pile of sticks resting in the center of a pond. A lone fisherman was wading knee deep in the shallows, waving his rod for a cast.
When this is done. I want to get a motorcycle of my own. It was great to be out on the road like this.
An image of the motel and a worry about what needed to be done there popped into his head. He ruthlessly beat it back where it came from.
He took a deep breath of the open road.
The highway was lightly traveled and he whipped around the slower cars. Shortly, the valley meadow gave way to pines as he climbed up the steep winding road to the top of the pass.
He leaned into the curves, feeling great. Every turn was new land. Every tree was something he’d never seen before.
I could go on like this forever.
There was a knot in his chest that he hadn’t known existed. As it unwound, he could breathe easier, more deeply than he’d known before.
Behind him, there was a barrier that he’d shattered. It wasn’t something he could see in the rear-view mirror, but it had been real enough.
Why hadn’t he phoned Dad, while he had the chance? There’d been pay phones at the grocery store.
But if he’d done that, would he have been able to keep going—to help Judith as he’d promised?
He shook his head to clear it. Worry about that later.
Can I catch up to her?
Judith was in a good car, with a full tank of gas, a head start, and a strong motive to make miles. She had no idea he was chasing her.
He glanced at the speedometer. Forty-eight miles per hour, and no way to go any faster through these curves.
No sooner did that flicker through his thoughts than taillights up ahead caused him to ease off on the throttle.
A red pickup was braking for the curve. Joe looked ahead, and roared around him.
More maneuverable. That was his edge. He sped up. At least on these mountain roads, he could make better time than any car.
The long road into Taos followed the stream, twisting through the valley. There were little resorts in among the trees. What would it be like to run one of those? Fewer rooms than the motel, and probably a lot more seasonal.
And far from town. He’d have to make regular runs into Taos for supplies.
Quit that! I’m looking for Judith. Concentrate on the road.
Gradually, traffic changed from isolated vehicles to a steady stream, and he was locked into place. He was using the brakes far more than he liked, and breathing exhaust fumes and the sharp stench of cars’ burned brake pads.
The road emptied down into Taos.
Adobe everywhere. Like Las Vegas, this town had a strong rural history. He could see it in the houses, and the old trees. But as he approached the center of town, some of the adobe looked too clean, too freshly painted, to be original.
Traffic bottled up at an intersection. Joe looked hard for a highway sign, but he couldn’t see one.
I should have bought that map in the store. But he’d been confident that he could remember the directions. John Smith had said highways 285, then 24, and then 40. It only made sense to stay on US 64 until he reached 285 on the other side of Taos. Surely, Judith would have come this way.
The only problem was that the road ahead looked like it was dead-ending into a town square.
On impulse, he followed the car in front of him through the right turn at the light. Almost immediately, he saw a highway sign up ahead.
He’d lucked out.
Taos was smaller than Las Vegas, he was sure of it, but the traffic was a lot worse. Was this little two-lane road, the main road?
More traffic, and more money. He frowned at the art gallery as he passed, with some strange looking metal statues in the yard. People must pay for that stuff. The storefront looked well established.
With a grin, he imagined what it would be like to have one of those twisted metal things at the entrance to the Railroad Motel. Not quite Mom’s taste in art.
It was hotter here in Taos. He’d dropped in altitude, going over the pass. Traffic was slower and with no breeze, he was sweating in the leather jacket and cap. Once he got out of town, then he’d worry about it. Maybe it would be cooler at highway speeds.
Keep looking for Judith. In a place like this, he was most likely to miss her. There were cars everywhere, including a number of silver SUV’s. Nor could he stop and check each one out. He was in a stream of traffic that honked every time his attention drifted off to the parked cars.
She could have stopped on any of these side streets for food or rest, and he’d never know.
But she’d searched day and night for her Dad back in town. Would she stop here, or push on?
He kept going.
Soon, the town dropped away, and he headed into a wide desert valley. Sagebrush and rocks, with a wisp of grass sometimes. Good honest dry southwest terrain.
Up ahead was Tres Piedras, ‘three rocks’, according to the road sign. Probably he’d join Highway 285 there. He pushed his speed up into the seventies. Just how far would he need to go, if he didn’t find her? He didn’t know the destination. John Smith was too far gone when he gave him the directions to be any clearer.
Or had he just wanted to keep that secret.
There were some cars parked off the side of the road up ahead. Was it a road-side park?
The silver painted steel of the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge was under his tires before he realized it. Driving a relatively flat plain, the gorge was an unexpected chasm below.
Deep! The Rio Grande River had cut a narrow sharp-edged canyon hundreds of feet down.
Joe saw her brown hair as he whipped by. She was at one of the viewing platforms looking down from the ironwork bridge to the waters far below.
He slowed, but he was off on the other side of the bridge before he was able to turn around.
Where was the car? He looked around; surprised he’d missed it. It was parked with the other tourist vehicles on the Taos side. No wonder he hadn’t recognized it. It was covered in mud streaks, and the side was heavily dented. It hardly looked like the clean streamlined vehicle in the Railroad’s parking lot.
He drove back at a walking pace. Judith turned her head. She saw him, and frowned.
She walked back to the Lexus. He was already there. He turned off the key and stepped off the motorcycle.
Her hands moved, and from a dozen feet away, he understood her.
“Joe! What are you doing here?”