The road curved around a small sage-covered hill and along a dry streambed. Ahead of me was the car that I had been following for the last two days. It was a late August afternoon as we headed into Reno where I would say goodbye to my new friend. She was arriving at her destination, but I had another few hours of driving to reach Sacramento.
Three days earlier in Kansas I had stopped at a gas station where I first observed her car parked at a pump. Her Ohio license plate was a friendly sight, and I could tell from it that she was from the Columbus area where I had grown up. Then I saw her. She was young and attractive. I said nothing to her at the time because I’ve always been too shy to approach really attractive women. And when I came back from the restroom, her car was gone. As I headed on west toward Colorado she remained in the back of my mind -- a lingering memory of a link to the past that I had left behind and a future that could have been.
After spending a night in the Denver area, I continued west, and stopped at a gas station near Steamboat Springs where I saw her car again. The coincidence was overwhelming, so I walked over and said hello. We struck up a conversation about where in the Columbus area we were from. She was in her early 20’s, recently divorced, and was heading to Reno where she hoped to get a job in a casino and start a new life. Much to my delight she asked if I would follow her to Reno, because she was very worried about her car breaking down in the middle of nowhere – and there was a lot of “nowhere” between Steamboat Springs and Reno along U.S. Route 40.
I said yes since I was a gentleman, a former Boy Scout, and a typical red-blooded American male who would do just about anything to help an attractive young lady in distress. So I followed her for the rest of that day and well into the night, stopping for fuel, dinner and good conversation.
By 11 PM that night we had reached Nevada, but we were both tired, and it was obvious that we were not going to reach Reno until the next day. We began looking for a motel, but every one we saw had a “No Vacancy” sign posted. Finally we stopped at one, rang the bell for the attendant, and asked about finding accommodations. The owner said that he was full, but that he had a vacant apartment upstairs that we could rent for the night. It had two bedrooms and a shared bath down the hall. My new friend slept in one bedroom and I in the other. There was no shower so we took turns taking baths in the big cast iron bathtub. The next morning we ate breakfast at a cafe down the road and then proceeded on to Reno.
Our goodbye was brief but friendly, and she gave me a temporary address where she would be staying. I did not have an address to give her, so I said I would write her. Over the next several months we exchanged letters. She had gotten the casino job and had moved into her own apartment. All too soon our letters became less frequent as we each became involved with our separate lives and new friends, and finally our association faded into a fond memory of a few days along U.S. Route 40 on the way to Reno.
Now, 42 years later, as I was driving along U.S. Route 40 from Steamboat Springs toward Reno, I thought a lot about that trip. It had been my first trip west -- back when there were no interstate highways, so I had driven the entire way from Columbus to Sacramento on U.S. 40 in my 1962 VW Bug. The details have faded. I don’t remember the town where we met, the town where we spent the night, or even her name.
Route 40 has changed a lot in those 42 years, and it no longer exists in many areas, having been replaced or improved. I recognized nothing along the way except for a general recall of the desolate terrain and wide-open spaces. But I have fond, if somewhate fuzzy, memories of that trip so long ago. And as I drove into Reno this time, I wondered about her; where she was, what she looked like, and how her life had turned out. Perhaps I’m overly sentimental, but brief, chance encounters like that allow me to look back at my life and smile -- and wonder what could have been.