They had first gone there when the world was a more complicated place and their lives were just plain and simple. Everything they wanted or needed, seemed easier to get back then.
They had married in a small church in Big Indian, a town snuggled in the beautiful Catskill Mountains. When Tony had suggested that they go on a honeymoon, he had been thinking more of the Poconos – not the journey that Helen had suggested: to ride a Trailways’ bus from New York, to Chicago and then on to Los Angeles.
This was the 1970s and cheap flights were a thing for future times. As for going by train, well the American rail system had seen better days. So the bus seemed the best solution – it was cheap, even if it was going to take them three days – not that it mattered, they were on honeymoon. That was enough.
They had managed to have forty-eight glorious hours on the West coast before it was time to return. They had sat on the beach on their second night there and promised themselves they would return, one day. No matter what.
Within a week of them arriving back home, Tony was on his way to Vietnam. It had been the reason they had married so soon and so quickly. Tony had picked a low number in the college draft and was told to report for training immediately.
There was no two ways about it – war had changed Tony, like it had for many young men and women over the years. Tony had seen and felt many things that would stay unreported in a lonely area of his brain, only to be taken out and re-lived when Helen was fast asleep and he could shed a few quiet tears.
He had seen buddies, ones who had told Tony of the lives they were going to have when they got back to Philly, or San Fran or a million other towns and cities, and yet Tony had seen many of those guys return in body bags.
So one night before they faced the Vietcong in a final push upstream, Tony promised himself that if he managed to make it back home, then he and Helen would move out West and make a life there.
And they had.
Tony had got employment with a big computer company, and it had given them a comfortable life in California. They had raised three kids, two girls and a boy, and each of them had married and had given Tony and Helen a total of ten grandchildren.
Their boy had joined the army and had been stationed overseas. The two girls had moved to the north, one to San Jose, and the other to Sacramento.
When the doctor told Helen about the spread of the disease, he had advised her to put all those important things in her life, in order. One was to tell Tony – something that had taken her almost seven days to get around to doing. Helen felt that there would be life before the illness and life after – and when the story came out nothing would ever be the same again.
Tony didn’t cry when he heard the news, instead he just picked up the basketball that always lay out in the yard and he shot a few hoops. When Helen took to her bed that evening, he went to the chair on the back porch – one he kept for all the private thoughts in his head – and he wept – he cried for Helen, for his buddies, and in some ways for himself.
In the morning, he tried to shine as bright as the California sun, but for those who knew Tony, they would have seen that his eyes were a little duller.
They spent the next couple of days living as if the news had never broken between the two of them, but every time Helen looked away at something, Tony would try to drink in her face, and smell and laughter, and try to keep them locked in his head for the cold days that lay ahead when she would no longer be around.
It was on the following Saturday, that Tony suggested they have another honeymoon and asked Helen where they should go.
“Home,” she said.
“But you are home,” Tony had replied.
“No, back to the Catskills. I want to watch the sun going down behind Overlook Mountain,” then she smiled at him and his heart broke.
She didn’t want to fly, the trains were still troublesome, and she felt that maybe the bus would be too difficult to ride, what with her illness and all. So she suggested they drive back home along the route the Trailways bus had taken them to LA all those years before.
“We can just take our time,” she told Tony. They both knew she wasn’t coming back from the Catskills – that would be the end of the road.
Tony closed up their home – he would decide what to do with it later, that kind of thinking was for another time.
Helen packed all the clothes she needed and by the Monday morning they set off to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Tony got them a room in one of the smartest hotels in Vegas and that night, Helen went down and gambled for the first and last time in her life. She started out with a hundred bucks and by the time she had played cards and roulette, she was three hundred dollars up. She put a hundred bucks in a charity box and with the two hundred other, she bought a couple of bottles of good champagne. She and Tony sat by the window the whole night and watched the sun come up over the desert. Neither of them spoke, they just drank, and watched the wonders of the world, and then fell asleep.
In the old days, the bus would have gone straight to Cedar City, but instead, Helen asked Tony to take her on a detour to Flagstaff and then on to the Grand Canyon. It had always been on her bucket list and what with the kids and her job, they had never found the time.
The sight was breath-taking – literally – she almost choked at the wonder of the Canyon, then Helen took a deep intake of air and shouted, ‘I love you, Tony with all my heart and soul’ at the top of her voice. A couple next to them applauded her and she smiled back.
It was another day or so before they made Salt Lake City. They checked into a motel and then went for a walk. On Sycamore Avenue, Helen led Tony by the hand to one of those burger joints. It had been years since she had taken the kids to one of those places. Helen and Tony had the biggest burgers with fries and cheese, and when they were finished, Helen cleared away the trash, and hopped up on the table. She asked Tony to join her – and when they were both on the top, she started to dance and Tony quickly joined in.
“I’ve seen it in the movies,” she told Tony. “And I always wanted to do it.”
On the morning they crossed into Wyoming, the sky was azure blue and the wind was fresh. It was one of those days when Helen wanted to hold on to life until the end of time, itself.
In Laramie, Tony arranged for Helen and him to go riding. She’d been on horses as a kid but had lost her way somewhere down the line. It was the greatest feeling in the world, riding horse back and she and Tony felt like they were very first cowboys. Why had she left it so long?
In Cheyenne they had gone skinny dipping in the motel pool and when the manager told them there had been complaints, Helen walked naked from the pool back to her room. In the room, Helen and Tony laughed until their sides were almost bursting.
A couple of days later they made Omaha, Nebraska, and at the bar that evening, the two of them pretended that they were strangers to each other, ones who had just met for the very first time. A tall man with a strange eye tried to pick up Helen that night, which flattered her and annoyed Tony – a little.
They reached the Windy City a day or so later. Helen wanted to go to the top of the Sears Tower, but the following morning she was so ill that Tony had taken her to hospital.
She wasn’t getting any better and the doctor advised her to take several days rest, and then to fly back to New York. That night Helen asked Tony to take her out of the hospital (regardless of the doctors). So Tony dressed up in a white coat, put Helen in a wheelchair, and pushed her right out of the place. The two of them felt like kids again.
They drove around Lake Erie. It had always been a special place for Helen as a child. On vacation, her grandparents, and parents would rent a little cabin near the lake. She asked Tony to drive her to the cabin, but it wasn’t there anymore, it had been replaced by a large hotel and some cheap looking houses.
They stayed the night in the hotel which was someway between Cleveland and Erie, and she sat watching the dawn while Tony was still asleep. It was the same view she had sat watching in her grandmother’s arms all those years before.
She really didn’t feel so good but kept it hidden all through breakfast. It was just as they were heading into New York State, that she asked Tony to hurry the journey up. She felt that there wasn’t so much time.
When they drove through the woods of the Catskills, she let out a sigh. She had been waiting years to exhale this way. Helen rolled down the window and breathed in a large fix of her cherished mountain air.
This was the place that had made her, and this was the land that would see her at rest. She had made it at last.
She was home.
bobby stevenson 2017