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Cottonwood Pass Pentimento

Letter from K. Wills Donithorne

Western Life – November 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine


Over the Sierras, returning from an artists for peace — Vietnam — demonstration in Los Angeles by way of San Francisco to get home to Boulder in time for fall semester with husband Tom and our still in arms daughter, we picked up the fist single male hitchhiker we encountered to help with running starts.

My wallet had been lifted in Berkeley with most of our cash; I’d put it down trying on earrings at a street vendor’s. Back on the road our hard-starting second-hand Ford station wagon became a non-starter. Tom diagnosed it as the solenoid, but since our Colorado checks were of no use out of state we had to rely on down hills and man-powered starts, or on keeping the motor running.

Midday we stopped at a one-street Utah town for groceries. They were out of everything we wanted, but the entire town turned out to watch our rider — with sandals, embroidered tunic, and hair beads flapping — and Tom get us going, with me behind the wheel.

Ten miles or so down the highway a state trooper pulled me over. “Wanted to be sure you had enough water.”

We did, but I didn’t have a driver’s license to show.

“Too bad. You can’t trust anyone,” he critiqued my explanation, “but you’ll have to see the judge. Follow me. You drive, if you have a license,” he said pointing to Tom.

Another 15 miles brought us to a cross-road diner. The trooper motioned us to park and he parked cross-ways behind us. “Wait.” He went inside and came out again in seconds. “The judge isn’t here. You’ll have to wait.”

We waited, wandering outside and in for coffee (no refills), milk, and vegetables for the baby. Woman to woman, I tried to get some information about the judge from the waitress, but she eyed the hovering trooper and volunteered, “The beans are fresh.”

Other travelers came and left. We suggested our rider thumb a lift, but he refused to abandon us. He was sure the trooper had been alerted by the grocery store proprietor and it was all his fault we were stopped. “Those hicks see a hippie and go on red alert.”

We discussed smuggling me out in some traveler’s car trunk, but everyone looked over, and the trooper made frequent spot checks on me. He never did a search of us or the station wagon, however — though he did poke his head in our car window to look around. Asked about the judge he routinely replied, “He’ll be here when he gets here. You’ll just have to wait.”

Our rider pooled his resources and we shared a dinner special. When the baby got cranky, our rider tickled her with his feathers and let her finger his ¾ guitar’s slack strings. But he didn’t lift our spirits with real and imagined scenarios of the worst that could happen to us.

It was bright moonlight and there had been no road traffic for ages when the judge miraculously arrived. The trooper ushered Tom and me into a back storage room — and no I wouldn’t leave the baby in the station wagon. Behind a metal desk, I could just see a bony face and forearms resting on papers. The judge.

He decided to be lenient. The fine was twenty dollars, which he would return if I mailed him proof of a current license within two weeks. And, yes, he’d accept a check — made out to him. I wrote it, and we were out of there.

Tom became the designated driver, with uni-sex rear power. Before dawn we reached Grand Junction. Our rider got out at the south-bound highway and we parked on a hill by a monument. After a little sleep we headed for the market. “We’re in Colorado; we can use checks!”

Nope. Though Tom had photo ID, the address was out of town. Although we needed most of our remaining cash for gas, we used some for canned milk, a banana, an orange, and some peanut butter crackers. We still had a few cans of something to mash for the baby, and T-shirts worked fine as diapers.

On impulse we went to the police station with our problem. They said if we hung around we’d be charged with vagrancy and fed in jail, and that the baby would be put in a foster home.

At an auto salvage place, they wouldn’t accept a check either, but agreed to trade Tom’s new wrench set for used parts. With some haggling, Tom was allowed to use the wrench set first to fix our old Ford.

Shunning civilization, we took to unimproved back roads, however indirect. Near sunset we made it up Cottonwood Pass, tired and disgusted. The scent of pines, a breeze with just a hint of coming winter, a circle of blackened stones where the quiet was only disturbed by the rustling of the underbrush were so inviting we went no further.

We heated up the last of some vegetables in their cans, toasted Spam on sticks, added the orange to some canned peaches. We let the baby sleep in her car bed while Tom and I sat by the fire.

It was a starry night, with no moon. We thought we saw a meteor shower. We didn’t hear, nor see, a single other vehicle. I tuned the guitar and we sang a few popular — at the time — folk songs. The last song I started was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land,” but the words got us to laughing so hard we couldn’t finish.

Two days later I sent the judge proof of license. Our next bank statement included the check — cashed the day after my apprehension. Later inquiries to the judge and the state received no response.

Now, they’ve gone and paved most of Cottonwood Pass, but there are still plenty of places to stop and enjoy…

K. Wills Donithorne

Belfast, Maine

ex-resident Boulder, Nederland, Black Hawk