That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Upheaval
Conjuring the power of dreams, memories, and Google Maps, Charlie Quimby ponders the complexities of place and the importance of stories—whether they're in books or not.
The Phantom Parking Meters
by Charlie Quimby
I am visiting my grandmother at her old stone house on the steep eastern outskirt of Rifle, Colorado.
Though Mom and Pop’s home is small and dark, a post-frontier box made of solid gray blocks, it is roomful enough to supper our family each Sunday after eight of us pack the station wagon and follow the river downstream a marathon distance. We stay after to watch Lassie, since our television did not survive the move back from Virginia, and reception via the mountain microwave tower in Glenwood Springs is too snowy to justify buying a new one.
Other times, I am alone here, learning cribbage and contesting checkers with Pop, who never throws a game. The first time I stay up until midnight is in that living-dining room, counting the nineteenth-century ticks of the windup clock that now tocks in the house of a brother named Bror, after Pop, railroad man who never drove a car and subscribed to a Swedish weekly his entire life. I am Charles, after the grandfather who died when my mother was twelve, and Russell, after both of my parents’ fathers, who fortuitously shared a middle name, since my other grandfather forbade saddling any child with the name Homer. The brother in between is Robert, our father’s name.
I bounced little Bror off the porch settee where I was supposed to be watching him. He banged his head on the floor and set up a fuss. I didn’t confess it was my fault. He went to Harvard, so there is justice in the universe.
From this house, my grandmother walked me down to the Colorado to fish. Taught me to shoot at the dump.
From this house, my grandmother walked me down to the Colorado to fish. Taught me to shoot at the dump. Hired me to do inventory at the Dodge dealer where she was a bookkeeper. Gave me my first rifle, a cornet, vocal lessons, and unconditional love.
Later I live a summer in her house. My visiting Dutch girlfriend and I watch men first land on the moon. Later, we ease down the vertiginous stairway to two cellar bedrooms. We make one bed after the Folks go to sleep; this is socially advanced for all of us. A back door leads to a garden where we share a smoke and then pluck fresh carrots from the ground, wash the dirt from the crevices with notoriously putrid Rifle city water, and crunch our way to clean breath.
The entire spread could not have exceeded two acres, but scaled child-size with a chicken house on the back of the garage and a vacant barn on an adjacent lot, it seemed like a farmstead. Besides the vegetable plot, my second grandfather grafted fruit trees that sprouted varieties of plums, including one he called an Italian prune. He water-witched with a forked branch from one of his trees. I don’t know how many wells resulted, but people paid money in that parched country for him to try.
My visit was intended to drop off something that I had left in the car out front. When I excuse myself to fetch it, my grandmother says, “Oh, no. You didn’t park on the meter, did you?”
Rifle is not the kind of town that would countenance a parking meter anywhere. Yet, when I step out on the porch, I notice a picket of black posts filing down the street. A ticket flaps under my wiper.
I should say now this visit came to me in a dream. All the rest here, though, is as real as I can make it. Sleeping on army cots in the former chicken coop. Raised worm beds producing bait that helped my uncle pay for college. The trickle of water down the shale hill where we played uranium miner. A grassy two-step knoll we rolled down laughing until we were sick. The Hilltop Motel my dad helped Pop build by hand, which regularly received wanted bulletins from the FBI in case fugitives should make the mistake of staying the night in Rifle.
I still have the Eldridge Cleaver poster I intercepted from the motel mail, but the Hilltop is no more, taken by an interchange connecting the old state highway with the new Interstate across the river. The five little rooms were trucked up to a Bible camp. The house built into the hill was immoveable. I’d like to believe its stone was salvaged.
Writing this from Minnesota, I check my memories of the site against Google Maps but become disoriented by the lack of familiar landmarks. Ditching the aerial map, I follow Street View down the highway where in 1969 I picked up an English hitchhiker who told me about an amazing music festival he’d just attended in a muddy New York farm field.
In those days, this stretch of US-6 was a speed trap threaded between Hospital Hill and the Union Carbide plant. Around that curve ahead, the Hilltop sign beckoned travelers. A quick buttonhook maneuver led to the driveway thirty feet below and behind the motel. A state trooper once tailed me there, thinking I was trying to elude him. I sort of was. He let me off with a warning once Pop came out to establish that I was a road crew worker living there with his grandparents.
Instead, today there’s this.
The houses across the street still stand, but there’s no trace of the Folks’ lot. Not even a contour of the fertile land remains. Those fruit trees in the traffic triangle are ironic transplants, one patch of greenery where the motel parking lot used to be.
With their proceeds from eminent domain, the Folks bought a smaller house in Grand Junction close to my mother. Sometime after they died, it became a rental owned by the university, and now students park on the flattened block.
My family had a minor talent for locating in the path of progress, which tends not to benefit people on that side of the bulldozers. My great-grandmother’s homestead was surrendered for taxes in the early fifties. My father’s youthful addresses were irregular based on unpaid bills and the breadwinner’s tendency to find work and drink in other states. Our own sweet little Northwoods lake cabin was spoiled when the landowner across the road clear-cut the pines in favor of a gravel pit. My cousin’s rustic home was wiped out this year in a California wildfire.
Place, in my clan, has been a moveable feast and famine.
When writers describe the West, we tend to eulogize natural wonders, backcountry epiphanies, and the consolations of the wild. Special landscapes indeed have restorative properties and ought to be preserved, but a more intricate sense of place dwells in the niches where our energetic species has settled down, weathered in, and sometimes flamed out.
Yes, landscape speaks to me. It says, “Don’t be a sucker.” However, we are born suckers until our long bones close and our hormones steady to a slow perk.
These hoodoos and sedimentary hogbacks cry home to me. But when I hiked this country a decade ago, I thought not of Utes and coal miners and land speculators. This is the Cappadocia region where