How the West was lost — almost

“How was your trip to Las Vegas?” grins this friend who knows I never gamble. “Did you win a million bucks?”

Not exactly. The truth is I nearly lost everything — twice.

So he asks to hear the story about a trip I took in early spring. Not that he has much choice. We are almost nose-to-nose on the morning train and it’s a long ride.

“Start at the beginning.”

Yet I prefer the end . . .

“I went to this restaurant by the casino and barfed on the floor.”


“And then I did it again.”

“Why not? You were on a roll.”

No, I tell him, not a roll, a pastrami sandwich. My very first bite lodged in my throat. I was clawing for air when the waitress noticed. She was as thin as a potted plant, but somehow got her arms around me and performed the Heimlich. Otherwise, in another minute I might have cashed in my chips. Literally.

“Instead I heaved on their floor. I suppose that was better than dying”

“Yet a clear waste of sandwich.”

“The funny thing is,” I say, “the lady playing the slots next to my table didn’t even glance my way.”

“Ha ha, that is funny,” he yawns. “She had probably bet against you and once you survived, she lost interest.”

Death dodged once, I move on to death dodged twice. Yet, I am still working backwards.

“It’s midnight. The casino is jammed. I am worn to a frazzle and trembling with frustration.”

“I’ve heard pastrami can do that,” he comments. “I get that way with natto.”

I tell him the reason I was gobbling my food was that I hadn’t eaten since noon. And that was on top of a mountain.

He nods. “America, where the mountains are so clean, you can eat right off the top.”

“And in Vegas,” I go on, “it was about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But on the mountain it was around 20. That is, until the sun went down. And then who knows how cold it got. I mean, we were knee deep in snow.”

Now, he tells me it’s time for the beginning. But when I begin, I prefer a prelude.

“The world is a big place and I have yet to see most of it. It seems I spend all my life crammed in a commuter train.”

“I’m the same,” he says. “Except I don’t call this life.”

“What keeps weighing on me, however, is that of all the places I haven’t seen, a lot rest within the United States, my own home. I have been up and down Japan and I have traipsed off again and again to Asia. But the U.S.? Where I was born and raised?”

“Nada?” he says.

“Well, I’ve visited the cities. Plus I’ve had a few trips on the East Coast. And the Midwest,” I tell him, “is like the back of my hand, only with cornfields instead of hair.”

“Thank goodness. What if it was the other way around?”

But the American West? With snow-capped mountains and purple sunsets and spurs that jingle, jangle, jingle? I had seen almost none of that — outside of a trip to the Grand Canyon long years ago.

So, I explain, I had enticed my older son to join me in Las Vegas, where I planned to head off into North American sightseeing splendor. On my nickel, of course.

“And children all love nickels,” he says.

But apparently not enough. My son couldn’t get away from his work and there I was, alone in Las Vegas.

“And you not a gambler.” He yawns again. “I can hardly keep from weeping.”

“So I set up this tour to Zion National Park in Utah. And it was . . .”

He raises his head.

“. . . spectacular.”

Even the car ride there. For it was all right before me — the stark beauty of the American West: mountain buttes, desert hills and endless blue sky. I was enthralled.

The park kept this thrill going. With two tour mates, I explored rocky trails set beneath sheer canyon walls, while our guide/driver exercised his nap muscles in the car. He had spent the ride up tossing trivia like confetti and was worn out.

Yet the day passed like a dream. Box lunch included.

Last came this: a ride up top the canyon to view sunset over the park.

Going up, we met nothing but mule deer. Odd, I thought, that no cars were coming down.

And then we found out why: a sign reading, “Road closed. No admittance beyond this point.” The way before us sat heavy with snow.

The guide set his teeth and revved our Land Rover. “You don’t think this baby can get stuck, do you?”

Perhaps a kilometer higher we were jammed up to our axles. With no shovels. And no cellphone connections.

So we clawed at the snow with tree branches and gloved hands. Except for the guide, who had no gloves. And no winter coat. The temperature soon drove him into the car, his chatter now not from trivia but from cold.

Cold enough to kill? No doubt.

“Maybe he needed the Heimlich Maneuver on his brain.”

With night upon us, we decided to hike down. A hundred meters later, we got cellphone contact and called 911.

For the next three hours, we sat in the Land Rover under a sugar-spray of stars, while the temperature plummeted to depths far unknown in Tokyo, let alone Las Vegas.

But the rescuers arrived. They offered us a hard tug from a winch and a soft single comment:

“You guys are stupid.”

But we were alive.

“And what better way to celebrate that than with a pastrami sandwich!”

“It could have been worse.”

He ponders punch lines, but allows me to finish.

“I could have ordered to go.”

“Stop,” he says. “You’re choking me up.”

And both of us yawn.

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