The Coyote Eventually Has His Day

Marvin Shackelford

The summer I turned seven we drove across the black face of Utah in a night, and all through that unseen desert wasteland roadrunners kept crossing our path. My father would cry out, and I’d spring forward onto the armrest between him and my grandmother just in time to watch the birds rocket through the wide headlamps of our rental car: pencil-thin legs, mohawk, the strangely indigenous body like an ancient, angular drawing on stone. My grandmother grunted awake, and we marveled at what we witnessed. Someone, us or them, were interlopers in this world.

We passed Zion Park in the darkness, ignorant of what lay stretched inside it, and countless signs and mile markers directing us to Las Vegas. It’s still the closest I’ve come to Sin City, though I’ve tried twice since. Stopped once by a late snow that crushed the lower Rockies and the second time by a string of small, black spots across a series of x-rays and scans made of my wife’s upper torso. That night with my father and grandmother we turned away without much thought for it. We met six roadrunners before our highway rejoined an Interstate, each fast and feckless in the western night save the last, who cut too near us and bounced from our chrome fender and disappeared forever. We drew sharp breaths. It was the end of something, though we didn’t know what.

We had seen the Grand Canyon in the sunset, orange and red and purple but mostly brown — a big ditch, I’d called it, and everyone agreed — and I woke disoriented to see the sunrise wastefully blanket the Great Salt Lake in the same colors. We stared into the thick water, let it lie to us of the ocean, from a turnout off the highway. Dry at its edges, crusted white. Nothing happened, we were unmoved, and maybe that was our fault.

Well, my father said, I guess if you’re silly enough to call this the Promised Land then a second gospel isn’t much of a stretch. I knew just enough to know to nod in agreement.

In Idaho we ate at a restaurant with no potatoes on the menu, leaving my grandmother flabbergasted. We drove through Yellowstone in the wake of a generational burn but there finally found the beauty we’d been seeking. Buffalo shambled from the past to split the blackened pine, and Old Faithful kept its schedule. We cupped our hands and drank from a spring burst from the stone along the roadside and bought keychains, mesh caps and a t-shirt, three coffee mugs that still sit in my father’s kitchen cabinet. In South Dakota we bypassed Rushmore and the Badlands — it was time to get home, whatever itinerary we were following — but stood mesmerized by the soft, waving grass of the I-80 welcome center: Kentucky bluegrass, a surprise. All the world we saw on that trip and my father still recalls most fondly that dive off the High Plains through endless stretches of tassling corn and late soybeans. Those flat, open spaces kept calling, finally pulled him forth again to dig deep into their black earth, weather the winters, and make his home. He rides a tractor in spring and fall, texts me photos saying it’s the finest life on earth.

My grandmother died without revealing her favorite moments, though I have a picture of us reloading the trunk of the car outside a motel in Independence, Missouri. Neither of us is looking at the camera, but she’s almost smiling. I try to sort it all into memories as large as Americana or small as the heart. Good and the bad, the incomplete. Even Yellowstone is a blur of waiting and leaving, gathered in the warm dust around the geyser or the long descent from a mountain beneath stormy skies. Snowcaps in the distance, always high overhead.

I think I need to see the Canyon again, skip the Lake, follow the wagon trails on to glory. I wonder what all we missed. I trace my finger over the lines of our old atlas, try to rediscover our route. I always think we passed through Nevada at some point, somewhere drifted further west, but the roads just don’t add up. This means I’ve still never even sniffed the Pacific Time Zone, I tell me wife. Never mind the ocean. I’ve been lying for years. Her eyes well up, and I shut my mouth. No, no, no, I tell her. I tell her about the roadrunners, their nearly perfect paths in the night. They’re always there, fleet and uncatchable. I tell her the sun rises and the sun sets and there’s so much falling and surfacing again beneath it. It’s wondrous. There’s Vegas and the desert and a whole coast out there plunging into the sea. I lift her up and hold her tight and try to make her imagine palm trees and pyramids and the light, its break over a land of milk and honey so old the oceans dry and mountains lose their breath. Their generations pass and voices fail, my voice gives at the seams, and we’ll be there yet.


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