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A Hike to Valhalla
Skye is barely under way when he discovers Hotel Denver, a big red block of a building, and checks in. The king-size bed is magically comfortable, and he falls into a deep, dream-filled snooze – so deep that he wakes the next morning feeling a little woozy. He suspects that he’s also suffering Lindsy-withdrawal, all those sex-triggered chemicals seeping out.
Out of lifetime habit, he dismisses the hotel restaurant as too expensive, and then recalls the digits in his checking account. He sits at a window that looks out on the street, and gathers from the serious expressions of the natives that it must be a weekday. He orders a breakfast steak with eggs and home fries, feeling decadent. Sipping at his coffee, he envisions Lindsy’s return to Salt Lake and guesses at Thad’s reaction. Thorny self-righteousness? Calm forgiveness? Morose ambiguity?
The sun is out and frisky, making it feel like the last day of summer. Glenwood Springs looks so appealing he’s tempted to stay, but his inner gyroscope is pushing him east. It could be the magnetic pull of curiosity, the 15th century explorer standing on the shore of Portugal wondering, What’s out there? Or the promise of all that shiny metal under his hood.
He’s had enough of barren landscapes, and enjoys the sight of trees, rivers, wooded lakes. He clears the Vail Pass and takes an abrupt northward elbow at Copper Mountain, passes Dillon Reservoir and enters the Eisenhower Tunnel. The tunnel is fantastically long, one mile, two. When he finally re-emerges, the light is blinding. He fumbles for his sunglasses, and has just put them on when he sees the word BOULDER on the back of a guitar case. Skye is not usually a proponent of hitchhiking – has seen too many horror movies with untoward consequences – but the musical element eases his anxieties. Through the dustcloud appears a tall, surprisingly well-dressed man in a yellow windbreaker. He opens the door and slides in, framing the guitar case between his knees.
“Wow, man, thanks, I… holy shit!”
Skye laughs. “I was about to say the same thing. Why don’t you slide your guitar behind the seat there.”
Peter twists around to settle the case over a sport bag, then buckles himself in.
“Wow, this is so weird. But… I’m sorry. I can’t remember your name.”
“Skye. Don’t worry. It’s unusual.”
“Yeah, but you bought ten CDs.”
Skye watches his left-side mirror, waiting for an opening, and enters the roadway, kicking out gravel. “Don’t tell me you’re hitching the whole tour.”
Peter lets out a theatrical groan and rubs his forehead. “My Beetle! I stopped at a McDonald’s in Vail and I couldn’t get it to start. Tried to jump it – nothing. So I left it there and stuck out my thumb.”
Skye takes a moment to enjoy the mountain on their right, a gravelled spine with traces of snow. Gray’s Peak.
“I admire your determination, but aren’t you being a little drastic?”
Peter lets out a horse-laugh, a sound that will never match his face. “I’m not completely nuts. An old school-buddy got me a sweet gig at the University of Colorado. A five-hundred-dollar check on the other end. Which I’ll probably spend on my damn car so I can get back to California. Okay if I smoke?”
“Sure.” Skye slides out the ashtray. Peter takes a drag and eases back in his seat, shedding a couple layers of stress.
“Were you actually going to Boulder? I don’t want to mess up your plans.”
Skye takes a moment to recall his cover story. “Nah. I recently inherited some money, and I’m taking a joyride. Going wherever the wind and hitchhiking guitarists take me.”
Peter smiles and closes his eyes. “That sounds awesome!”
Peter crushes out his smoke, watches the mountains roll past and falls asleep. Skye drives on toward Denver, working out the jigsaw puzzle of Peter’s troubles.
Skye is wily enough to skirt the big city, taking 93 through Eldorado and up to Boulder. Peter wakes up in time to guide him to the university, the sun tippling the Flatirons, the triangular formations that loom over the town. They park near campus and hustle through the red-roofed buildings, checking at map kiosks until they reach their destination. Built in 1876, the Old Main Chapel projects a regal bearing, a red brick exterior lined with tall, narrow windows, capped with a hexagonal belfry.
They talk their way inside, where a willowy guitarist with straight brown hair accepts an applause and describes her next song. A tall white man with a tremendous orange afro embraces Peter and takes them into a small hallway.
“Skye, this is Sigh Cavalier. Sigh, Skye. Skye, Sigh.” He lets out a snort. “Sorry. I’m a little punchy.”
Sigh takes Skye’s handshake and flips it into the soul shake/clinch combo. He grins with lips that never seem to stop moving, like a shaky stop-motion animation.
“Thanks for savin’ our asses, dude. Really not cool to book your friend and then have him disappear in the Eisenhower Tunnel.”
“Got a place I can tune?” asks Peter.
“Yeah, let me take you backstage.” Sigh taps Skye’s shoulder. “Um, try the balcony. There’s always an extra seat somewhere. And here.” He hands him a business card. “If they give you any trouble.”
Skye climbs the stairs and finds a seat on the far left. The Old Main’s auditorium is a gem, maybe two hundred red theater seats before a small stage. The front of the stage features alternating bands of blonde and reddish-brown hardwood, and the sound – at least as produced by Katie Garibaldi – beats the hell out of the Kickstand Café.
He worries that the classy setting will give Peter a case of nerves, but his first instincts about him prove correct. After the sound-more-Chinese schtick, Peter recounts his day.
“So I pull into a McDonald’s in Vail, Colorado and I’m thinking, Wow, there’s a McDonald’s in Vail, Colorado? The guy at the counter wore a top hat and tails. The value menu includes foie gras, and they call the french fries pommes frites. They have cloth napkins folded into the shape of Mayor McCheese, and an attendant in the men’s room.
“So anyways, after eating a McSmoked Salmon McPannini, I go out to the parking lot and my Volkswagen is absolutely dead. So I hitchhike to Boulder like Woody freakin’ Guthrie and here I am. So if I seem a little flustered… it’s because I’m a little flustered. This first tune is a bitter love song. If there are any women in the audience, I apologize.”
Nothing ingratiates an audience like humorous confession, and the rest is easy, because Peter’s talent is obvious. Afterwards, they take a hike to Valhalla, a biergarten on Boulder’s main drag, and sit at a broad-timbered picnic table hoisting oversized steins.
“To our guardian angel,” says Sigh. “And to Peter. Dude! You sound even better than I remember. Which is good, because if you sucked I mighta lost my job!”
The eventual goal of a toast – to actually drink – has been lost, so Skye takes a quaff on his own and studies the scene. The garten features two dozen tables, brimming with yammering, laughing students. The yard is bisected by an actual creek, guarded over by three German-looking sprites that Skye takes as Rhinemaidens. He soaks in the post-adolescent energy and smiles, feeling like somebody’s cool uncle. When he returns his gaze to the table, he finds Peter looking suddenly somber.
“I guess this is my last hurrah, man. I’m glad it could be at your most excellent theater.”
“My honky ass!” Skye exclaims. “Where’s your next gig?”
“Coffeehouse in Denver,” says Peter. “Two days from now.”
“Okay then. Assuming the mayor of Boulder here can get you a ride to Denver, I say he and I head for Vail and rescue your car.”
Peter waves a hand. “No, no, I couldn’t.”
“You could, and you will. Listen, I’m doing this strictly for my own amusement, and I’m playing with house money. Please allow me to help you.”
Peter takes a sip and slowly grows a smile. “I am going to have to take you up on that.”
Sigh, who cannot hold it in anymore, doesn’t.
“Road trip! Hahahahahaha!”
Photo: Old Main Chapel, Colorado University