Take the Long Way Home

It began with a phone call from my brother, on the 16th of June. Our mother had been found dead in her home in Scottsdale AZ. The day before, a friend had left soup on her porch because she did not get an answer at the door (apparently soup does nothing but simmer in 110+ degrees). But when it was still on the porch the next day, the police were summoned. The Jack-of-all-Trades, a longtime friend at the Roadrunner Resort, told the police which window to break in and after going through the bedroom window, they found her body beside the bed. And that was why my brother got a much unexpected phone call from a Salt River Police detective.

It was a shock. Mom had been failing in a number of ways but nothing significant. The telling sign, we later realized, was the severe back pain she had been dealing with for the last month. The medical term is “referred pain”. She was probably having a series of heart attacks but it was showing up as back pain. As my brother said, it would take an Act of Congress to get her to go to a doctor. Stubborn northern Europeans often make poor medical decisions. I remember telling her that she should get her back pain checked out but no, she had to tough it out. But this was no back strain that would eventually resolve itself. And now her sons were left with hard decisions to make.

Mom had two requests regarding her demise: cremation and a party. The first was easy enough to grant but the later caused a lot of discussion. We had to have some sort of a traditional memorial service. Tradition at the small church in this small town was to have a formal service, followed by a lunch of open face sandwiches and cold potato salads, served by the women of the church. It’s so Lutheran Garrison Keillor would even call it clichéd. I knew there was no denying this formality so the request for the party was something we had to dwell on for the next couple weeks.

A couple weeks you ask? Well, cremation buys you time. Instead of having a funeral within days of her death, we now had the luxury of having her service on July 1st (the beginning of the holiday weekend and thus much easier for friends and family). It also served as a buffer that allowed us to try to figure out how to deal with getting her cremains home, and getting the place in Scottsdale cleaned and closed up. And knowing our mother, cleaning the place up was not going to be easy.

My mother was a child of the Great Depression, tight with the dollar, and a Class B hoarder. In other words: SHE KEPT EVERYTHING. My wife and I had done an exemplary job of cleaning up her home in ND and my brother had made several preliminary strikes in AZ every time he visited, but only within her limits. Which meant the trailer was packed with stuff that no human other than another 80-something woman would want, and said 80-something woman already had ten of them. And given enough time, whatever she had in the refrigerator was going to mutate into a new life form.

There was a window of time of sorts that was ideal for my wife and I to deal with. The company we had worked for had closed its doors and my new (and significantly better) job wasn’t going to begin until the 12th of July. Unlike my brother, our schedule was open. So if we flew down on Thursday the 23rd, we could have enough time to collect her car and trailer keys from the police, clean the rubble and detritus out of her home, pick up her ashes, and then drive Mom’s car back to ND, making it in plenty of time for the memorial service. And with no one to point out to us that we were absolutely crazy, Carjo and I were in the air towards the land of the blazing sun.

Ah yes, the blazing sun. The Phoenix metropolitan area is often called the Valley of the Sun. This is because in the summer months, the sun sends its heat straight to greater Phoenix at a level worthy of Death Valley. Those who think North Dakotans are insane putting up with the frigid winters should step off a plane in Mesa AZ and sample the heat rising up from the scalding tarmac. Pizza ovens are envious of these conditions. The pilot announced the temperature was 116 degrees but I am certain that he was scraping off a couple hundred just to avoid panic. I knew right away I should have brought my white burnoose.

A wonderful taxi driver took us to the Salt River PD. She was a native of eastern Wisconsin and had just come to AZ from San Diego a few months ago. Her opinion of the weather was no more generous than ours. I called the police detective to let him know we were on our way to pick up my mother’s keys from the evidence room. And then he mentioned that they decided they needed a notarized document from my brother. They had a week to let us know this but they decided to tell my brother a half hour before our plane touched down. So while my sister-in-law was careening over Minneapolis to get a notary and then a fax machine, we sped to the police station over molten pavement. With our cabbie cooling her heels in the air conditioned cab, we went into the police station to find that the evidence room was closed for the day, they never gave evidence on the same day as they got the authorization, and basically we were hosed. And if we tried to break into my mother’s place, we might want to talk to the neighbors so they wouldn’t report us to the same police.

We taxied to Roadrunner Resort and pulled up to mom’s place. The resort is your typical AZ retirement community with concentric rings of trailers around a clubhouse/pools complex. The whole thing is by encircled a ten foot fence to keep the riffraff out. We were barely out of the cab when a couple neighbors came out to greet us. One thing about retirees who don’t have much to do but watch Wheel of Fortune, they don’t miss much. I had hoped to find a spare key in the usual hiding place but apparently mom had abandoned that practice and we were locked out. But the neighbors were eager to point out the window the police had broken in and while my wife was escorted away for a cold drink and air conditioning, I was left with a rickety ladder and a garden trowel to use in place of a crow bar. Keep in mind I was doing all this in the aforementioned 116 degree heat. Well, there was an awning over the driveway so maybe it was just 106 in the shade.

After several sweat-drenched and nervous moments, I succeeded in breaking in. Now I’m on the wrong side of 50 but I scampered through that narrow window with the speed and agility of a sixteen-year-old. Necessity often takes years off your life. The air conditioner was barely keeping up with the heat but it was still a damn sight better than what was outside. I popped the locks on both the doors and found spare sets of the car and house keys (the Salt River police weren’t as competent as they thought they were). I found Carjo in a trailer across the street, enjoying a Dr. Pepper on ice while a dog named Minnie cavorted at her feet. I did not begrudge her this fate as I was given a Dr. Pepper and a recliner to collapse in. When I was strong enough I took the car and drove to Fry’s to get garbage bags, beer, wine, and bagels, then to Sonic for supper. And then our Sisyphus-in-the-sun task began.

Mom kept everything. Why spend money on new things when you can use the old beyond the point of utility? Any container (margarine, Cool Whip, cinnamon rolls, etc.) was worth saving. Baked goods bought at the grocery store had packaging that would come in handy in the afterlife. Every issue of Arizona Highways was a keeper. And if she couldn’t use something then she was convinced someone else eventually would. I got a roll of 45 extra-strength garbage bags – you know, the big black things that serial killers are fond of. I think I had less than ten left when we left Arizona.

There was one item I could not put into a garbage bag. I drove to the mortuary in Mesa and picked up the ashes. What a strange and disconcerting thing to pick up a small black box and be told it contained the remains of a person that had been a constant part of your life. I wasn’t bereft at that point so much as bewildered. A coffin is a finality, a small black box was just not something I was ready for.

Still, after a while the urn did not stop me or Carjo from making references from National Lampoon’s Vacation movie where, if you recall, Aunt Edna’s remains were strapped to the roof of the Family Truckster. You gotta keep your sense of humor. Despite her bewildering mood changes, my mom did right up until the end. I put her ashes in the trunk. They could survive the heat.

We established a pattern. Up early in the morning, clean room by room until mid-afternoon, go out for a great Mexican/New Latin dinner and a little recreational shopping, and then back at it until late at night. We were sleeping in the hide-a-bed that had a mattress worthy of a Seinfeld episode so it wasn’t like we were going to get much sleep anyway. I’d spin around the resort in mom’s new and never used golf cart, hunting down her old friends and trying to capture the part-timer that ran their little post office. We got a local charity to agree to pick up what fell between garbage and the take-back-to-ND criteria. I told the neighbors they could take whatever they wanted from that pile. When we got back from Trader Joe’s on Day 2, I found one of them had looted that pile and was sifting through the garbage bags. I am sure her children would be thrilled to know she enhanced her own collection of useless crap.

My brother talked to people that Mom used as housecleaners and they recommended a carpet cleaner in the area. I went back and forth on the cell phone with the guy and we settled on a time on Day 2. About an hour before he showed up, I was picking up stuff from the bedroom carpet. Clothes scattered around, some bedding, mom’s usual mess. I picked up some folded sheets and discovered this green residue. Ewh. There was a towel laid out on the floor and I figured my mom had laid it down to cover something on the carpet and I picked it up. It wasn’t mom who laid it there; it was either the ambulance or the police. Under the towel was the place where her body was found, and of course, where her body emptied out. The green stuff on the folded sheet was part of the contents of her stomach. So I immediately called my brother and said “we might have an issue with the carpet cleaning.” So this sun-tanned water-swilling carpet cleaner showed up. He was a really nice guy, full of conversation and life for someone who was working in 115 degrees. I told him there was something he had to see in the bedroom before he got started. So as we started down the hall Carjo looked up from the box she was sorting and warned, “Watch out, she died in there.”

He turned to her with this big walleyed look. “Ooooooo-K.” Upon looking at the 2’ x 6’ stain he breathed a sigh of relief. As long as there was no blood or tissue, he would clean it without a problem. Which he pretty much did though you could still see a shadow of a stain once the carpet dried. And this was just one more reason why Carjo did not want to spend another night in Scottsdale.

By the end of Day 2 (Saturday), we had a car stuffed with what was worthy of bringing home, mom’s TV, the ashes, and $170 worth of dry goods from Trader Joe’s. After a year away from the Twin Cities and Trader Joe’s, you didn’t think I was going to pass up that opportunity did you? It was 9:00 pm and we were covered with sweat, it was still 95 degrees, and we were sick to death of Arizona. We headed out for Flagstaff.

Flagstaff is temperate. Flagstaff is in the mountains. Flagstaff smells like juniper pines. Flagstaff was also the place where every fool in Phoenix who could afford a motel room drove to on the weekend. I must have tried a dozen places and they were all filled. We were told to try Winslow (yeah, like in the insipid Eagles song) or the Grand Canyon Village. Well, one bad decision deserves another and we decided to head for the Canyon at midnight.

As far as I recall, my parents never went to the Grand Canyon. Mom always said it was a very long drive from Phoenix. I’ve seen her get Dad to go 100 miles out of her way to check out an Indian casino or drive to Sedona for shopping, so I figure her perspective on distance was as warped as her ability to determine whether or not to save a margarine tub. I decided we could do it. As we drove northwest on a 2 lane highway, the amount of cars steadily decreased. There was only a sliver of a moon, no clouds in the sky, and we were surrounded by what was likely great scenery that could not be appreciated on a pitch black night. We stopped at a motel in a reservation town called Grey Mountain. It looked like the kind of decrepit motel you would see in a horror movie and say to yourself “only an idiot would try to check into that place.” So we decided to check it out. The desk clerk was a nice fellow about the size of a mountain but with prison tattoos. He had a pit bull guarding the door. He also wanted $70 for the privilege of killing us in our sleep. The Grand Canyon Village sounded real good even for someone who was prying his eyes open with stale potato chips.

We did manage to find the correct turn off what passed for the main highway. Now there were no cars on the road. Even the coyotes had gone to bed. I could see the outline of dark mountains against the star field out my window. We were beginning to wonder if we were on the right road. I pointed out to Carjo that I thought there were mountains to my left and she said “all I can feel out this side of the car is something VAST. There’s just this sense of this big empty space.” And then we crossed into Grand Canyon National Park. It was 2:00 am.

We were at something called The Desert View. Outside the car the wind was blowing strong and cold, ripping through our thin sweat-encrusted Phoenix clothes with ease. There were no lights, still no moonlight, and we had no clue where we were. The sky was filled with every cold star in creation. And we could feel the damn canyon out there. Maybe it was sleep deprivation, maybe it was the way the air acted but you could sense this void that was sprawling just beyond the pavement. Ten miles wide, one mile down and we had no idea if we were 50 yards from it, or just 5. The proverbial hair was standing on the back of my neck. I could strike out walking and fall to my end without ever knowing where I was. The prospect of walking into certain death was definitely waking us up.

Where Grand Canyon Village was we had no idea. I could not see a sign and was not about to stumble around in the dark trying to find one. You know, because of the one mile straight down thing. So we got back in our car and went back down the lonesome highway, waiting for our hackles to lower.

At about 3:00 am we found the town of Tuba City in the Hopi reservation. And in the middle of nowhere there was a hotel of practically Vegas splendor. At this point we would have settled to sleep anywhere that did not involve being killed in our sleep or falling down one mile. The desk clerk was a young Native American man who was so gay it was visible from outer space. Man, it must be miserable being so meant for an urban life and living out in the sticks. He gave us the manager’s special for $105 and a king size bed. Said bed had a mattress that was there as a promotion from Serta and felt like sleeping on a soft, dry cloud. I could have married that bed.

Lunch the next day was at a Burger King in Kayenta AZ. We were still on the reservation and the Burger King had a little museum for the Navajo codetalkers. It was right next to the kiddie section. Well, there’s one way of getting the tourists’ attention. And being it was the reservation there were stray dogs working the parking lot. My wife, the ASPCA nerd, decided to buy them a 20 piece serving of chicken nugget things. We stepped outside, saw no dogs, and wondered where they had gone. And then the sandstorm hit.

For someone who spent a winter driving in blizzards, it wasn’t too bad. Visibility was about a quarter to a half mile and I could keep the car on the road. We got into an argument about something that now escapes me. The sleep deprivation of the last three days wasn’t doing our tempers any favors. So Carjo fell asleep angry and I crossed into Utah with a chip on my shoulder.

I don’t think I have ever seen a more glorious stretch of highway as US 191 from Bluff to Moab. Several changes in terrain – mountains, canyons, sandstone and chalk cliffs, rock formations, snow-covered peaks and a slumbering wife that had no input into what CDs got played. It was glorious. Carjo woke somewhere between Blanding and Moab saying “did I miss anything… Oh. Oh wow. Oh look at that.” Moab made Sedona AZ look like flatlands.

We continued up 191, and then hit an interstate leading into Colorado, where we resumed our argument and then started acting civil to one another again. By the time we hit Grand Junction we were surrounded by some real substantial mountains. The Colorado River was all the way up its banks and racing like a thoroughbred. I got a cell phone signal despite the elevation and called my brother. Carjo made me call our pet sitter. And after missing our exit, we managed to correct our course and headed north off the interstate through a town called Rifle.

The drive from Rifle to Meeker is about 40 miles on a two lane highway and was the next best thing since 191 in south Utah. The highway followed a spectacular Rocky Mountain valley and we kept saying, “we could live in this place”. There were spectacular log cabins just off the road, all facing west across the valley towards the sun and the towering peaks. Someday I will make that drive again.

I got a cell phone connection again as the sun was going down. We had no idea how far we could go now and with my brother sitting at his computer in Minneapolis we plotted where to stay the night. I think we drove for another couple hours, still not out of the Rockies entirely until we crossed into Wyoming. We staggered into a town called Rawlins. They had a Best Western that looked like every other Best Western and was as good as a place as any to wash the sandstorm out of our hair, take a deep breath at covering almost 700 miles of challenging roads, and crash for 8 hours.

All the way through this trip a part of me kept saying “this was something Mom would want to hear about”. And then the cold reality would set in with a swift jab. It wasn’t a realization that hurt. I had moved into acceptance well before we got on the plane. But it did leave an empty place, a void that may not have been as wide as a canyon but certainly as deep. Having someone around you for 53 years and then their making an abrupt departure is just unsettling; no matter how mad you get at them for not going to the doctor. And so often on this trip I was seeing things I would have told her about.

The ride north from Rawlins to Billings MT was a perfect example. Vast pastures circled by cliffs and ragged mountains, the Big Horns rising to our left with snow still on their upper elevations, mountain lakes filled with the runoff. I thought the Big Horn Mountains should have shed their snow by now but like North Dakota, they seemed to be experiencing a very late spring. At Sheridan WY, we stopped at Buffalo Bill’s Inn. The bar inside the inn was still the same as the old buffalo hunter left it, with his favorite chair still at the bar. A lovely young woman served me a pint of Bent Nail IPA, took our picture, and agreed with me on the snow. “It should be all gone by now. Which means the river is going to stay this way all summer.” Sheridan was a very cool town, with the sense to not let their downtown decay and to cater to the scenery they were blessed with. We could have spent a day there but time was pressing. When we crossed the Big Horn River, I could see it was at the top of its banks, just like the Colorado. And the Big Horn emptied into the Yellowstone, which emptied into the Missouri, which was already flooding Bismarck with impunity.

The Lakota and the Cheyenne call the Big Horn River the Greasy Grass. I had thought the massacre the Lakota called The Battle of the Greasy Grass was further up in the foothills but nope, it was right by the interstate. When I was young I was quite interested in the tale of General Custer and his last brave stand. My mother had taught school on a reservation and saw the other side of it. So I got a biography of Crazy Horse while I was in mid-grade school and discovered that the man responsible for Custer’s demise was far more interesting than the boy general. And somewhere I once read that Custer may have been buried at West Point, but Crazy Horse’s tactics were actually taught there.

The main part of the battle was on June 25th and the day we visited was the 26th. Reno and Benteen were still fighting for their lives on that day, pinned down and down to less than a company of men each. Custer of course had already been dead for a day, lying on a hill top with the last of his men, the trail of bodies leading up from the river bed. So the weather was probably close to what they experienced. The sun was at summer strength, the prairie thick with sweet clover and their scent was intoxicating. You get quite a view from that hilltop but I doubt if anyone took time to savor it 135 years ago. By the Native American accounts, the last stand probably took less than half an hour. It’s a small hill, not exactly the place a Civil War hero might have imagined as his last stand. Custer must have known it was all over even though they reached a position they could defend. Crazy Horse was supposedly circling around it on horseback, giving orders and firing off rounds. The Cheyenne came up the backside of the hill and the Lakota riding up the front, a steady rain of arrows rising up and then down onto the hilltop. The Lakota were yelling their war cry “it is a good day to die” but as we all know, few of them did.

We spent about an hour at the battlefield and then drove on. I noticed that the interstate was angling northwest and it was putting me in a bad mood. We had been traveling north and east, north and east the whole way and this was costing us time. Adding in the time spent in Sheridan and the time we just spent at the battlefield and I was getting irate. I kept adding the mileage left against the time and wondered if we were going to spend another night in a motel instead of our own bed. I was sore from my neck on down from wrestling the land yacht my mother called a car, still a little sleep deprived, and it was two hours past supper time. I finally blew up outside of Billings.

My temper tantrum led of course to my wife having a meltdown of her own. So a good part of the drive from Billings to Miles City wasn’t pleasant but again we managed to find some common ground. One thing about being married this long, you know how to find your way back if you just pull your head out of your backside. And my head was so thoroughly crammed up there I needed a crow bar to get it out.

From Billings on we were following the Yellowstone River (the one that has the oil spill). It’s normally a solid stream, no more than 6 feet or so deep. But the Yellowstone we saw was a mile wide at its thinnest and running like an antelope. And the Rockies that fed it still had snow as well…

It was a race home now. Miles City, then Glendive, then turning north off the Interstate towards Sidney, then the dusty streets of Fairview where I picked up bottles of pop, talked to my brother on the cell, and got directions. I hadn’t driven through Fairview in about 30 years and probably won’t for another thirty. It was midnight and as we passed the confluence of the Missouri and the Yellowstone we were assailed by a horrible stench. Then we noticed from our headlights that there was stagnant flood water lapping at the edge of the highway. On both sides. And on we raced.

They say most traffic accidents happen close to home and this trip did its best to give us an opportunity. Between the hamlet of Trenton ND and Williston, we almost got ran off the road by a psychotic Montanan with a large pickup truck. Apparently he thought my passing him had something to do with the minuscule size of his penis and he had to pass us again at 80 mph to reassert his masculinity. Then the redneck tried to slow down in front of us to bait us further. My headlights went on bright and he got tired of being blinded and turned back to Montana. Eight miles out of Ray a truck driver flashed his trailer lamp at us as we passed; I had no idea that he had issues with the size of his manhood either but he didn’t succeed in blinding me. Two miles from home a doe stumbled onto the highway and we probably missed her by a yard. I was now so alert that I could probably sense life on other planets. Finally we were crossing the city limits and we were pulling into the driveway. I put Mom’s ashes on the vanity in her bedroom and told her she was back to stay.

It was past 1:00 am, the dog was beyond joyful, the cats smothered us, and the bed had not received any vile hairballs in our absence. I think we crashed until 10:00. We had made a 1600 mile run in 2 days and a couple hours, something I swear to God we will never do again.

My brother and I hosted a small party at the Ray Senior Citizen’s Center after the interment. It was mostly family with a few close friends. I played some of mom’s favorite CDs on a boom box and there was way too much food. It was what my mother wanted; just a small celebration of her life, a gathering of friends and family.

Mom’s ashes were laid to rest in a cemetery at a rural church a few miles north of the family farm. The prairie flowers are all in bloom and the meadowlarks sing all summer long. I think more than anything she wanted to be with dad and that’s where she is. Her trip home was long, frustrating, rewarding, and enlightening. In short it was a lot like living with my mother. Rest in peace Mom. Love Jerol.


Two days after the memorial service, I took the last brownie from a plastic container. As I took a bite I picked up the container to toss it into the trash. And my wife said, “Are you sure you want to throw that?”

About jeroljohnson

I guess I'm the crying on the inside kind of clown
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