I got that message today that you know, in the back of your mind, is liable to come at any time. The tall, thin man with the funny hair and the thick-rimmed glasses was nearly ninety, if not past it, and he’d been ailing recently. So I wasn’t surprised to find a succession of messages on my phone from aunt and mother advising that he had passed, peacefully.
Still, expected and unsurprising as it is, it still seems sudden. These things always do.
We weren’t close. We hadn’t actually spoken in years. Over the last few years, he’s been slipping into dementia, but long before that, we’d run out of things to talk about. My family isn’t a close-knit one. It might have been different, if we’d stayed in Indiana, but we left there when I was three, and we were never good at the long-distance relationships, and the grandparents had stopped traveling a long time ago. So there’s a grandfather-shaped hole, but it’s not a gaping one. I’ve skipped the shedding tears routine in favor of the flickering smile, as memories pop up unbidden. I see him holding a sparkler, that last time we were all a family and whole, back when I was sixteen and I’d insisted on a summer visit. Great provider of the fireworks, he was. He’d always been a provider. The house he lived in to the end of his life was built with his own hands, and he’d never stopped wanting to do for his kids. I remember a photo of him, on a picnic bench outside that house, feeding a squirrel he’d befriended. He was so damned pleased with that squirrel.
The strongest memory, though, is one seared into the little gray cells by sheer terror. You see, I was thirteen or thereabouts, and the grandfolk had come to visit us when we lived in Sedona. They’d roust me out of bed at five in the ay-em for long healthy walks round the neighborhood. And then they wanted to take a drive up to Flagstaff, do the whole Oak Creek Canyon thing, which I was down with. I love driving the canyon. And, what with it being late spring or summerish, there’d be a lot of RVs holding up proceedings and so plenty of time to gawk at the scenery, whilst having a goodish chat with the elder folk. The only thing that worried me was the tape deck, because elder folk are notorious for playing things the youngsters cannot abide.
They put in the Statler Brothers. And we howled the lyrics, once I’d got them. We nearly wore the mylar off that tape, up the canyon and around. This was certainly not the hip music. I’d been listening to stuff like Aerosmith and Pet Shop Boys and (shudder) Icehouse, along with a bit of the old Maxi Priest kind of slightly reggae version of “Wild World” I was absolutely nuts for. No way, you’d say, such a youth would appreciate the Statler Bros. But I did, very much so, and I appreciated the old grandparents for having such discerning musical taste.
We had the time of our lives on that trip. And it was all going along swimmingly until ye olde granddad decided he wanted to take Schnebly Hill Road back home.
The road is about two inches wide, unpaved, with turns that aren’t so much hairpin as a corkscrew dosed with strychnine (which, if a corkscrew were a member of the animal kingdom, would cause it to seize up in a sort of frenzy of right-angle kinks). You may be headed due north on Schnebly Hill Road, and a nanosecond later discover you are, if you were very fortunate and didn’t hurtle into the abyss in attempting to execute the bend, now headed due south. It’s a washboard, with bits often washed out, and there are what the uninitiated call “vistas.” Some even call it “breathtaking,” without mentioning that it’s not so much the spectacular views into the red rock canyon that steal the breath as the ongoing suspense as to your chances of survival. There are no guard rails. There is no shoulder. If you misjudge the thing, you are sailing a few thousand feet straight down into a vista. At least you will die scenically, but that’s small consolation when you are young and wish to live to a ripe old age, like 18.
I dimly remembered all of this from a trip we’d taken along it with a group of intrepid young parents. The parents had enjoyed themselves immensely. The assorted kids had huddled on the floor in the back, teeth chattering from the ridges in the road combined with pants-pissing terror, and tried not to look out the windows. I remember looking out the window once, and coming eye-to-eye with an agave plant that was in full, spectacular bloom. The problem was that it was growing straight up the side of a cliff, and I could have rolled the window down and plucked a blossom, if by that time all traces of bravery hadn’t drained from me and soaked into the potholed road.
“Um,” I said to my grandfather, who at that time was already getting a little shaky in the hands with age, developed some few issues with sight and hearing, had suffered a fairly serious heart attack not too many years back, and had a reputation for not always paying as much attention to the road as he should, “are you sure?”
I attempted to warn him away, listing a few of the many perils of such a journey. I gave it up as a bad job when his eyes gleamed brighter with each warning.
At that point, I would’ve gotten out and walked, if I hadn’t been sandwiched between him and my grandmother on a bench seat. Ah, well, I said to myself as he turned off the perfectly-good pavement onto the gap in the pine forest that marked the beginning of the end, at least he’s old. And he’s from Indiana. He’ll probably take it at a top speed of 5mph. No problem.
I don’t think the speedometer dipped below 35 the whole way down. Most of the time, he seemed to be going a strong 50. Red rocks went by in a blur. Red dust billowed up from the tires. And the man had the audacity to comment on how lovely the scenery was, with enthusiastic assent from my grandmother, whom I’d always considered a sensible sort in the past. How they could even see the scenery at that speed was beyond my ken, and he certainly had no business eyeballing it, in my considered opinion. Not that I could tell him this. It’s impossible to force words past a throat clamped shut like an imperiled oyster.
I had just enough time at the beginning to think that a man who hailed from anywhere as flat as Indiana had no business driving such a steep, windy road to begin with, much less at speeds that even drunk teenagers bent on suicide wouldn’t dare attempt. Then I spent a mile or two contemplating my impeding death several times per second, and bewailing the fact that I was going to die before I’d even finished puberty. The rest of the road finished in one sustained mental scream. I think my grandmother was humming contentedly in between exclamations of delight. I have no idea what my grandfather was doing, aside from slewing the wheel this way and that whilst exploring how far the gas pedal could be mashed. I was too afraid to look or listen.
And then, somehow, as if by miracle, we made it to the bottom of the canyon. I don’t remember where Schnebly Hill Road comes out, because I have never visited it since. I just recall staring at the pavement of good old US 89A with mute astonishment. And when we pulled up at the house, I wobbled out of the truck and refused to ever get back in it as long as Grandpa was at the wheel. Not in Arizona, at least. Not anywhere near a road with so much as a gentle curve or risk of a slight incline.
My mother, damn her, thought it was screamingly funny.
Years later, the immediate shock had faded well enough that I didn’t have too many flashbacks when he drove us to Nashville, Indiana, which is about the only part of the state with topographic relief. And, although the Statler Bros. had played all the way down Schnebly Hill Road, soundtrack for what I believed were the last moments of my existence, I retained a fondness for them. Because it had been one hell of a ride, and in the end, with survival a known fact, sort of fun. You can keep your expensive super-duper-mega-rollercoasters-of-instant-death. My old granddad could do you one magnitude better for the price of a half a tank of gas.
So, in memoriam, here’s a picture of Schnebly Hill Road I filched from the intertoobz:
And the song we’d loved the most on that long-ago trip:
Adios, Grandpa. I’m glad we survived that trip by over twenty years.
In lieu of condolences, funny stories of various aged relatives may be left in the comments.