Today, I Made a State Trooper Cry
I didn’t mean to.
I’ve been on my painting road trip for a week now since leaving Phoenix, and my next stop is with my painter friend Joanne, in Dubois, Wyoming. I had decided to drive halfway between Park City, Utah and Dubois to a campsite at a little state park in Fontanelle, WY. As I cleared Park City and the ski areas fell behind me, eastbound I-80 opened up and became a nice, easy drive through low canyons and hills. It’s at this point on road trips that my mind begins to clear, and the stuff that’s always lurking back there tiptoes its way forward.
The red bluffs marched by. Perhaps there were a lot of subconscious things working on me- that I had just talked to one of my adopted mommas, Beth, or maybe the signs for natural history museums. Either way, I found tears gnawing at the back of my eyes, and for a moment, my rational mind fought them. I hadn’t even seen them coming: one minute I was singing Creedence at the top of my lungs, next I was gasping for breath.
Jesus, Caroline, if you can’t be honest with yourself completely alone on some interstate, who are you lying to anyway?
And so I found myself bawling while driving on the interstate, unaware that I had even crossed from Utah into Wyoming. Thirty, forty, fifty miles? Vision doubled, trebled, as I screamed past truckers in the left lane with tears streaming down my face.
I don’t know how long it had taken me to notice the cherries flashing in my side view mirrors, but I obediently swung over to the shoulder and rolled down my window as I grabbed my vehicle ID and the big white Suburban herded me over.
“Ma’am, license and registration please?” the trooper said.
“Yes sir.” I tried to control my sobbing, and I could think of nothing else to say as I held my creds out the window for him.
“Do you know why I pulled you over?”
“You were doing 92. Do you know what the speed limit is?”
I had remembered seeing 80 as I was clearing Park City. 80 on 80, I recall thinking briefly. He continued, “Ma’am, the speed limit is 75 here in Wyoming.” I turned to face him for the first time, tears streaming down my face.
“Ma’am, are you alright?” In retrospect, I’m sure he had seen plenty of women attempt to weep their way out of a ticket.
“You ought to take a break if you need to.”
He must have sensed I was not an on-demand tears type of woman, for he inquired more gently, “What’s wrong?”
I put my head in my hands and sobbed.
“I miss my mother.”
I wept for a few more moments before he said quietly, “I’m very sorry, ma’am.”
I turned to look at this person, a stranger, an authority figure, a man, and here I was, a grown-ass woman, crying for her mommy on the side of the interstate.
“Did you just lose her?” he continued.
I could not explain how the loss of my mother 32 years ago had so completely blindsided me on this Wyoming highway, and merely blurted out, “It was the mountains.”
At this point, I had collected enough of myself to realize that I had better start making sense to this highway patrolman.
“When I was little, she said we would go to Wyoming together…”
I was five, just entering kindergarten. I had told my mother when I proudly descended from the big yellow bus one day that we had had a talk in school about what we wanted to be when we grew up.
“And what did you say, honey?”
“I’m gonna be a paleontologist!” I crowed. She knew that, and smiled. My teacher had confessed to my mother during parent-teacher meetings earlier that week , “Mrs. Kwas, that word is bigger than her!”
“And what did she say?” my mother prompted me.
“She said, ‘What’s that?’ and I laughed! She doesn’t know anything about dinosaurs!” I was proceeding to lug one of my big brother’s books, one with maps, off the den shelf. I began pawing through it.
“Wyoming is where this lady found a Brontosaurus! I’m gonna go there and dig up dinosaurs too, Mommy!”
“And I’m going to go with you. We can dig up dinosaur bones together.”
“Really, Mommy? You want to go?”
“Of course! We’ll dig them up together. Tyrannosaurs, and Packy-leps.”
“No! It’s Pachycephalosaurus, Mommy!” I knew even then she was teasing me about the name, and she got a kick out of her tiny five year old hurricane of a daughter pronouncing words bigger than her.
“And we’ll take the station wagon and our shovels.”
“Montana too, Mommy? There were lots of dinosaurs there too!” I loved to talk about traveling with her.
“Montana, Wyoming, and Utah. We’ll get the biggest dinosaur bones, baby.”
Those red rocks of Wyoming and Utah had savagely brought me back to the little girl who had never properly grieved the loss of her mother at 16.
Nineteen-year old me had said, “What’s done is done. Can’t go back,” as she pounded back a seventh or eighth shot of vodka, and her cousin carried her home.
Thirty-one year old me had barked at best friends, “It’s been fifteen years! Of course I dealt with it!” as she tore the cork of a bottle of bourbon and danced on the bar.
It took those red cliffs of Wyoming to silently stare at me in my solitude and my vulnerability, to face the hole in my heart that not only had never healed, but had never been addressed. And I sat there weeping to this police officer– a stranger!– a story I had never even thought to tell my therapist, for chrissakes. He excused himself, clearing his throat. I looked up at him again with pleading eyes, not for the ticket, but for my sanity.
“Sir, I have not been drinking. Please don’t think I’m crazy. I left Park City two hours ago and I was fine, I’m on a business trip. I don’t know what came over me.” I hung my head in shame, and resignation.
“Please remain here.” He strode back to the Suburban. I leaned back in my captain’s chair, wondering why in the hell I had just told a state trooper some tangential childhood story. I was probably going to have to do a field sobriety test now. He returned momentarily, and held out my license and insurance card. I looked up directly at him, prepared for a condescending lecture and a ticket. Instead, he removed his hat with one hand, and his sunglasses with the other. To my surprise, his eyes were damp, and he leaned down to my window.
“Ma’am, I lost a grandfather who was practically my own Pappy. I went off to the service shortly after he passed, and told myself real men get over things, and move on. Some years later, while hunting, I saw a duck blind in Minnesota where I grew up, like where he taught me how to shoot and how to be a man, and it caught me probably the same way these mountains did you. I sat with my shotgun in my lap in the woods and cried like a baby.”
He looked me in the eyes for a brief moment.
“Go find those dinosaur bones. And don’t ever forget where you came from.”
The red cliffs of Wyoming, which hold tons of fossils.