Dr. Balph, my Master of Science thesis adviser, dying but not yet aware, interrupted his argument with the Physiology professor on my Thesis Review Committee. He opened his copy of the manuscript to a section we had not yet discussed and would not, the two hours allotted for defense of my thesis being nearly over. Ripping out three pages that seemed to show more red pencil than black typewriter, he laid them in front of me.
“Fix that, mail it to me and you will be a Master of Science.” I was stunned. In defense of my own thesis, I had said not a dozen sentences during the entire two hours. Dr. Balph and the Physiology prof had spent nearly the entire allotted time debating six of the forty-two pages of my thesis… six pages (two of text, two of graphs and two of photos) I had been willing to drop when I walked in the room since they had little to do with the body of the thesis. And now, with nearly no preamble, I was told I had a degree as soon as I did a bit of editing. I was too astonished to move.
Dr. Balph turned back to his adversary. “This young man has just validated a thirty-year-old claim that relative levels of stress in populations can be determined by simply observing the differences in adrenal glands, and casually dropped it into the middle of his thesis on territories and home ranges just because he noticed it. You don’t like it because there was no analysis of glandular chemistry. Your objections notwithstanding, statistically it’s real. It stays, and so do the photos. We’re adjourned.” He stood up, turned to go… and ran smack into me as I stepped away from my chair.
“Go,” he said. “Pack up and go. Try to get it back to me in time to print and publish it before graduation decisions are made so you can graduate in December.”
I nodded and turned to leave.
Dr. Balph had one last comment to make. “Larlham,” he chuckled, “it’s hard to believe that statistics damned near flunked you out of this program, and now they’re what guarantee you a Masters.” He flicked his hand toward the door.
I went. Laura and I were already packed. Our rent was paid through August. This was the last Friday of the month which left us a couple of days, but we wouldn’t be staying. We had very little money to make the drive from Logan, Utah, to my parents’ home about ten miles east of Kent, Ohio. It was ten o’clock in the morning, and when I got back to the apartment Laura, and our first of a never-ending line of pets who weren’t allowed in the house but lived there anyway, were ready to go.
I had mostly packed the car the night before, and I put the last of our stuff in the corners and hollows of the trunk and back seat. We were on the road before eleven o’clock. Taking the Logan Canyon road east out of town, I hit the first tight bend at road speed (about sixty miles an hour) and looked over at Laura. No longer did she cringe in the corner of the seat, fearing imminent disaster. She was scanning the sagebrush on the mountainsides, searching for deer.
This would be no leisurely completed trip of easy stages and early sleeps. I had arranged just three stops, and the first one was at a giant motel, truck-stop, junk food heaven and all around tourist haven called Little America. It was a short drive of a little more than three hundred miles (well, we started at almost noon).
For most of the first hour we drove the winding canyon road. Occasionally the road crossed the river a hundred or so feet above it, and for some stretches it ran alongside the river at nearly the same elevation. The scary parts, for novices, were the stretches where the road ran along a cliff-side ledge, sometimes man-made and sometimes only man-improved. Along those stretches there were no guard rails, no protection from driving over the edge and dropping into the river… and every so often someone did just that.
That bare edge, beyond which only air awaited the unfortunate as the river rose to meet them, was what had had me holding my breath the first time I rode up the canyon with Dr. Balph, and it was what had terrified the Luvly Laura on the last day of our drive to Logan. But the truth was, there was no protection to be had from guard-rails. They simply disappeared under the mass and speed of vehicles going over the edge, sometimes sending spears of metal through floorboards, seats and people. With time, one got used to the bare edges.
As we reached the peak of the canyon road, about forty miles from Logan, we could see Bear Lake below us, about a mile down a steep mountain slope, but no brakes would have held for that mile, so the road was several miles of switchbacks. This section could not be taken at speed, because each “switch” was essentially a “U-turn” with the road slightly spread as it approached and left the “U” of the turn. It took us nearly thirty minutes to drop to the lake shore road. We swung right onto the lake shore road and headed east across western America.
We had left Logan with about eighteen hundred and fifty miles ahead of us, and it had taken us nearly an hour and a half to make the first fifty. We were expecting to drive for about three and a half days and spend three nights in motels. I had figured the first and last day as partial days of about three hundred and twenty-five miles each. That left about six hundred miles each for days two and three. I had almost three hundred miles to go on day one, and the bad news was I would have very little interstate and a good bit more mountain driving. The good news was that what I didn’t have was screaming mountain winds, frigid temperatures and snow. What little wind I did have came mostly from behind me, meaning the big cubical carrier on top of the car wouldn’t be quite so much trouble this time around. Speed limits in western states were mostly considered suggestions, so seventy-five miles an hour on straight roads was not cause for concern unless traffic was particularly heavy or some other untoward condition occurred. I put my foot in it.
We stopped in mid-afternoon at a diner in some Wyoming town, and ate a late lunch or an early dinner, spent a little time unwinding and shaking off the hours in the car, and got back on the road. Eventually we found the part of Interstate 80 that was open and made speed for Little America. It was coming dark when we got there (there hadn’t been that many miles of straight road or interstate), but Little America lit up the landscape. The giant plaza had its own interchange with I-80, and its own mythos about its origin involving the only water for miles, the visionary who discovered that water and bought what everyone thought was arid land, the bloom and growth of an entrepreneur’s dream and the glory that was ours to see.
The Luvly Laura and I pulled into the parking area next to the motel lobby and I went in. In the process of signing for the room I had reserved, I somehow neglected to mention the dog in the car that would be staying with us. The three of us entered our room in haste (much later, I took the dog for a walk), and I was dispatched to one of the several eateries on the site to fetch back a light supper and a plastic cup from which to water the dog.
The next day we left early, and began a six hundred mile or more trek to Lincoln Nebraska. The good news was I-80 was complete except for about eighty miles beginning just east of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and ending in Ogallala, Nebraska. From about two miles south of Ogallala it was complete the remaining length of the state.
The bad news was six-hundred miles was a long way to drive, even if the speed limit was eighty miles an hour… assuming the car could hold that. Then, there was the fact that everything at Little America was wet, and puddles of water filled every low spot in the vast parking lot. Nonetheless, we once again headed east. About two hours later we caught the storm that had passed over us in the early morning dark. The wind and rain inside the storm cut our speed to seventy or less for about an hour and a half, and then we pulled ahead of it.
We ran through Ogallala without stopping and took the short road to the Interstate. From there, we drove at the speed limit or better until we came to Lincoln, about a hundred miles west of Omaha. Once again, it was coming dark as we arrived. However, this motel had no problem with “small” animals, so Toffee, our twenty-five-pound spitz-beagle mix was accepted without a murmur.
Our drive had been the expected monotony of thousands of square miles of wheat, wheat stubble, corn, alfalfa hay and other crops grown on a scale unthought-of in the heartlands of Ohio and Michigan. Once again I marveled at the cascades of combines driving in tandem for mile after mile. Laura, who had never seen such equipment, kept asking questions about things I hadn’t seen because I was trying to drive without winding up in those same fields. Eventually we pulled out at a rest stop and spent a while just watching the harvest equipment work… and getting a great many questions only partially answered by me.
The next day was sort of a repeat. We caught the storm again just outside Lincoln, and drove out of it not long before we came to Omaha. There being no air conditioning in our little Dodge Dart, we opened the windows, and were instantly reminded of the difference in humidity in a place like Omaha where a large river evaporated water into the atmosphere at less than a thousand feet above sea level, versus Logan at thirty-five hundred feet and no significant source of evaporation. It felt like we were in a sauna.
Past Omaha, the Interstate tended to break at cities as we crossed Iowa and neared Illinois. Our progress was slowed by a little more than I anticipated. Not only did I have to navigate through several smallish towns, not to mention Des Moines, but the storm had picked up strength as it passed us overnight. When I caught it just east of Omaha, it was a howling monster with high winds, a wall cloud (we saw no tornado) and horizontal rain. It took me nearly two hours at fifty miles an hour, and sometimes slower, to get through it. Eventually we made our way to somewhere east of Gary, Indiana, where I had made our last reservation.
There was no objection to Toffee this time either, and late as it was, we had little interest in a late snack. I had bought a cheap watering dish (for some reason, hers had been packed away in the carrier), and we fed, watered and walked her, and fell into bed exhausted. The next day promised about a five hour drive home. I had arranged for a little later wake-up call than usual, and we were having breakfast when the storm caught us. Despite the energy it had picked up as it came east into higher heat and denser atmosphere, it had slowed down.
It was still drizzling as we swung onto the Indiana Toll Road and headed east. We were through the storm in less than an hour, but the speed limits were lower in Indiana and Ohio, and no one considered them suggestions. With a seventy mile an hour limit, I was not comfortable much above seventy-five. Even worse, both the Indiana Toll Road and the Ohio Turnpike had construction programs activated. My anticipated five-hour drive took nearly nine. It was almost five o’clock in the evening when we finally pulled into the driveway of my parents’ home.
My plan from here? Plan? Frankly, I had no idea what I was going to do from here. I had to edit my thesis, and get it back to Dr. Balph by about the end of October at the latest. Beyond that? Well, I supposed I’d better find some sort of job… but I had no idea where to look. But for now, all the excitement of the return of the long unseen son was mine to absorb. We needed to unpack, get a change of clothes and have something to eat. I’d worry about all the rest later… and I did – a lot.