Much of this wild Year of Volunteer Travel Discernment could be about the kindness of our families, and we’ve written as much in the past. But today I’d like to talk a bit about the kindness of strangers. The kind that overwhelms and humbles and surprises you, ridding you of stereotypes and false assumptions. The kind that gives you hope when your heart is heavy from laughably offensive rulings in rape cases at Stanford and hate massacres of fellow queers in Orlando.
On the heels of these events, our hearts were heavy. As a woman, a queer woman, a queer woman with Mexican family, I felt vulnerable and emotionally drained. Our little family loaded up the camper—like we always do—bid farewell to my dad and brother and left the Tetons. The plan was to spend 4-5 days meandering through Wyoming before arriving at an amazing community housing in Fort Collins, CO. These plans were interrupted by a Ford recall on the Togwotee Pass. I’d never heard of the Togwotee Pass, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t quite realize we were driving on it. It’s stunningly beautiful, with sweeping views of the Tetons, fields of wildflowers, and grizzly bear warnings every few miles. It’s also tremendously steep. Our little Explorer has the towing package of a semi (hyperbole, but you get the idea), but it still has/had the V6 engine of a standard Explorer. Recently, Ford recalled the thermostat housing unit, along with the attached sensor. We did not know this since our particular 2004 Explorer has had quite a few owners before us and our trusty little camper. As we chugged our way up the Togwotee Pass, the engine was overheating and we had no idea because the sensor wasn’t communicating this important information to us. Because the thermostat housing unit was now cracked—also unbeknownst to us—water was spewing all over the engine. This is all very bad.
The Check Gage light came on just in time for me to pull into the turn lane in front of Togwotee Lodge and Gas Station. As I completed the lane change, the car shut down and began smoking. Bad news. Good timing. We got Riah out of the car as fast as possible and looked like wild women running across the road. Once the smoke abated, I popped the hood to let it cool long enough so that I could pull it into the parking lot. Until then, the smoking car and attached camper sat in the middle of the Togwotee Pass as two frantic moms tried to remain calm enough not to startle their child.
I called my dad, then on his way toward Utah on his motorcycle. Within moments of learning what had happened, dad and my brother changed their plans and rode their motorcycles toward the Pass. In the meantime, I explored the very soaked engine as several people from Togwotee Lodge’s maintenance department came out to help. We Googled stuff and discovered the recall. Everyone agreed that the recall also likely damaged the water pump and it needed to be replaced. Luckily, it’s a relatively easy fix, so dad picked up a pump on his way through Jackson and the people at Togwotee spread out the red carpet of welcome.
First, they invited us to stay the night in our camper on their grounds for free. Then they cleared out the shop, which was otherwise filled with snow mobiles, and shared their tools. Dad and Josh arrived. I treated them to dinner at the lodge and a room, which were well deserved after rerouting their trip to help us. The next day, several folks helped my dad replace the water pump while we hiked through stunning trails and spotted a mama deer followed by a newly born fawn. It was so tiny it looked like a puppy. We agreed this was a fortunate place to break down.
The time came for the inaugural test drive. Dad selected a beautiful spot to pull over to admire the Tetons and take photos. And then we were inundated with white smoke. Dad shook his head. “I was worried this would happen,” he sighed. Head gaskets are blown. Fixing this involves nearly gutting the entire engine. In a full shop it would take at least 3 days (in the middle of the woods without proper tools it takes 8). And in Jackson it would cost over $3,000, plus the cost of towing down the pass for 50 miles. This was not good.
Another kind stranger emerged through the smoke. He sniffed. “Head gaskets?” he asked. Dad nodded solemnly. “What can I do to tell help?” the stranger offered. A beautiful conversation ensued. Recommendations were made. And I hopped into the stranger’s car to go back to the lodge with the soy milk I had mistakenly forgotten to leave for Riah just before naptime. The stranger-now-friend dropped me off with my little family, filled 3 gallon jugs with water, and bought antifreeze on the sly so that I wouldn’t offer to pay for it. He returned to my dad, along with a couple other people from the lodge, also laden with water and antifreeze. No one had to do these things. They just did. Everyone kept saying, “We know how hard it is to be stuck.”
The maintenance and general manager of the lodge hauled the camper to an out-of-the-way spot, plugged us into power and told us to take as long as we needed. This is a nice lodge. The kind of lodge where rooms are over $250 per night. The cabins are even more. They probably don’t want people sleeping in campers and their car—which is precisely what my generous dad and brother did—for a total of 8 days. But they invited us to do this, asking nothing in return. When I slumped past the front desk to fill up my water bottle, someone handed me a chocolate bar and said, “You probably need this.” As I drown my sorrows in chocolate, the bartender left the Saloon and sat beside me. “Broken head gaskets need tequila shots,” she told me. Together, we toasted. And it was good, smooth tequila.
For eight days, my dad and brother worked tirelessly on the car. They rode their motorcycles into town—a 5 hour round trip—to pick up parts that didn’t arrive. And then they drove back the next day. The staff at Togwotee unlocked showers for us so we could bathe, helped on the car during their breaks, gave us directions to secret hikes, drove to pick us up propane so that we could have heat at night, comped one of our meals, and extended an exorbitantly generous amount of hospitality. We kept Riah busy with stunning hikes and wifi-streamed episodes of Daniel Tiger. We saw wildflower meadows and snow-capped mountains, baby moose and elk. They celebrated with us when the engine turned for the first time, and when the car ran, and when the subsequent fuel leak was fixed. It was grace and beauty and hospitality and kindness comingling in one of the most stunning places we’ve visited this year. We agreed, once again, that this was a fortunate place to break down.
After several test drives we determined the car was safe to drive. Hitched and ready, we bid our beloved Togwotee farewell, dropped off a thick stack of Thank You cards, and whitened our knuckles as we drove the rest of the way up the Pass. Dad and Josh planned to follow on the motorcycles to our first stop…just in case. We arrived, set up camp, went to the grocery store, and they were nowhere to be found. Without cell service along the Pass, I began to worry. Finally, I heard from Josh. His motorcycle had a flat tire. Could they not get a break?! What followed was another hilarious night of Wyoming hospitality. We were fine. They were fine. After over three weeks together, our ways had parted.
The next day we broke down outside of Laramie, WY. We overheated. This was not good. With lots of water, I got us close enough to call AAA and get towed. A gracious tow truck driver and mechanic went above and beyond by towing us, dropping us off at a restaurant for dinner, and then insisting that we simply set up camp in the back lot behind the shop. He showed up with 21 gallons of water to fill the camper and a back-up generator in case we needed power. Flanked by two rusted semis, we swatted mosquitoes as bunnies hopped through old car parts.
That night we struggled to fall asleep. Elizabeth reminded me that Laramie was the town where Matthew Shephard was beaten, tortured, and strung to a fence to die. All because he was gay. I thought of the generous mechanic who had lived in Laramie his entire life. He lived there when Matthew Shephard was left to die. He extended hospitality to two queer women and their child. Did he realize that we’re gay? Did he care? Does it matter? With Orlando and Stanford and Shephard on my mind, I felt afraid and grateful at the same time. Grateful for overwhelming hospitality. Afraid that the safety we often feel as queer traveling women with a young child is an illusion. One in three women are raped or sexually assaulted at least once within a lifetime. Two live in our camper. Queer bodies are attacked, legislated, violated, killed, and still preachers and politicians purport that our lives and loves and bodies are abominations unworthy of acceptance, celebration, worth. The semis in the dusty gravel lot cast eerie shadows. Trains whistled a little too loudly. Riah crawled into our bed after a declaring that he had a bad dream. Sleep eluded me.
The next morning, I ran through the dilapidated town to clear my head. I returned to learn that the head gaskets had blown again. The lower part of the engine is now likely damaged. It’s time to bid our beloved Explorer farewell. It was June 27, 2016. Exactly one year prior, we’d left on this wild adventure with a green canoe strapped to the top of the Explorer, dragging a pop-up camper in the direction of Vermont. She had served us well. As we worked with Elizabeth’s dad to call dealerships and negotiate prices and research towing power, I thought about my privileges. I thought of my fears. I thought of the borderlands in which I exist on a daily basis as a white, cisgender, queer woman who is highly educated, but who comes from a poor, working class family who never had the privilege of higher education. I thought about how I spent over a decade privileging myself with degrees, knowledge, and the ability to navigate harrowing situations, while simultaneously examining all the existential questions affiliated with them. I thought about Orlando and Matthew Shephard and the unconscious woman raped behind a dumpster by an ivy league athlete who was simply slapped on the wrist with three months in jail. I thought of the way my own body was violated in college and how I thought nothing of it because almost every woman I know has been treated this way.
I thought of how my poor father could never give me the language to speak in the world in which I now reside as a scholar and author, but he gave me the language to speak to mechanics so that they don’t treat me like I’m “just some girl” who knows nothing about cars. These borderlands of difference accompanied me, my wife, and our child as a nice car dealership drove up from Cheyenne to tow our car and camper to their lot and sell us a shiny truck to tow our little camper off into the sunset of our Year of Volunteer Travel Discernment. With privilege dripping from our pores, existential angst seeping from our veins, and hospitality freely given, we drove away hopeful and afraid and grateful. Raging and wondering and wandering through unlikely places of hospitality and beauty. Likely always.