Hauling the News to 11,000 feet

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I WOULD agree: There's more truth to walking along a mountain ridge, arms out like an angel, as sun, snow, and wind rifle you with shooting crystal, than to watch it from below through the windows of a country club. It was on the ridge that I discovered my friend's ability to do his job. We had been driving below those mountains all night, on a grimy paper route that took us from a plains city across two passes in dark, cold fog to towns scattered across the San Luis Valley, so that morning residents could feel connected to the world by a fresh paper with that day's date on it.

Three o'clock in the morning towns, asleep, turned off, except for an occasional leftover holiday home with a string of colored lights in front of snowy elms. Towns with small showy high schools boasted turrets or a sign that said, ``Jack Dempsey passed through these halls,'' - perhaps he had had to fight his way out of this freezing agricultural high plain that could produce a fog below zero from geothermal holes.

I mused that if a car left you off among the great distances between Manassa and Hooper, or Center and Antonio, in this one place in the inner Rockies where roads are geometric, the brown, boiling, freezing ground clouds would leave no trace of your attempt to walk to safety, in winter.

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My friend did this route for minimum wage and no perks but the use of a truck, an old hand-me-down that leaked freezing air on my side. The heater was great if you intermittently cut it off for half an hour so it could build up heat again.

I went along to meet my friend's friends of the night, the people who manned the presses at the city journal, enjoying their 1 a.m. esprit de corps, the grumpy post-office workers who rolled up their dock doors long enough for us to swing the heavy bundles up on the cement, the evangelical women who ran an all-night caf'e to catch the bar flies at closing 2 a.m. The women alternately read their Bibles and did crosswords, kept a place with clean curtains and warmth and nutritious food. We also met those guardians of the night, the dogs of sleeping children in neighborhoods where we were considered invaders.

But our steady fellowship of the night was the Denver Post truck, an enormous modern luxury liner, which we kept meeting at lonely field crossroads, so that it made us feel proud that our little mission was in an area important to the big boys too.

``If we had a truck like that..., '' I said to my friend on a heater break.

``It's a monster,'' he replied. ``A wind would blow it off the pass.''

I went along to see all this, but also to see how my friend did it. His wife worried about his doing a 400-mile run six nights a week, trying to sleep in the day, especially after six months into it a train had demolished one of the company's earlier tin lizzies at a poorly marked crossing. My friend came out in one piece and went back at it. It seemed a good idea that he have someone with him out there.

``How do you keep doing this?'' I asked him. He had taught history at a local community college. Now he ``subbed'' when he could at a high school, sometimes going two days without rest. No, he didn't point to his wife and six-year-old boy, he said, ``Come along. I'll show you.''

I thought the show was over at 5 a.m. at the evangelical caf'e where I had homemade sourdough pancakes smothered with local boysenberry jam and valley butter. That was good enough. Added to my friend's love of American history, pointing out the unseen sights: the pass where gold on its way to the Confederate army was hijacked; Kit Carson's fort down below on our left; and now the remains of the railway station where Bishop Lamy of Santa Fe rode hundreds of miles alone on his burro to get the train to Denver to meet his archbishop. I had to imagine all this in the swirling mist of snow and headlights, as the road signs only marked off the standard miles. As we went on and sun began to lift what I had begun to think of as evil air, we crossed the pass home.

Had we really been there in the night at 11,000 feet? Now the eastern plains were rosy all the way to Kansas and peaks ruffled in cloud were catching the clear reality of a new day in a wild but solid country: pine trees, a rabbit making tracks through the dried grasses above snow - ears gold from the sun - a crow, and then a fast flight of chickadees. My eyes creaked open with all the definition.

``Not over yet,'' my friend said, as if sitting on a Christmas present. ``The papers next to you, I save for last.'' I looked at the computer label they were rolled in.

``But we went past that last night,'' I said.

``Comb your hair. Straighten up,'' he answered.

Then we turned into the club. It was an inn with a swimming pool and restaurant indoors. He laid the papers on the morning clerk's desk, for it was now a working day, Saturday everywhere. Then he took me into the exclusive place, built to catch highway skiers at a resort farther away that never took off. Now, as a club it was doing all right, but it was a place neither he nor I would ever buy a membership to.

``Morning, Pony Express,'' said the waitress with one of the papers under her arm we'd ridden with all night. We sat at a table around the indoor pool where a man was swimming laps in goggles in a closed lane, and a few children were inventing the day's absorbing tasks that kids do around water.

We sat there facing the mountains we had flown across in our little tin can, the snow clouds rolling back off the peaks, the sky blue now, and this warm, safe lake full of vigorous children at our feet. With the huge, pleasing windows braced by beams and a morning in full swing on earth up there, our journey in the night looked as geometric as history: It had a beginning, and an end and yet everything was changing.

``I have a luxurious job,'' my friend sighed tiredly, opening his coat to let the warmth in; pleased to show me this last stop where he put his ``day'' in order. So this was how he did it.

``Yeah, I don't think Lindbergh would have wanted to drive the Denver Post truck either,'' hardly thinking what I said, looking up at the sky we'd been in all night, receding from the peaks. Now I knew the secret of his ability to hammer out those nights. He was one of those greatly cheered to get close to the people of the history of his own time, be what it may.

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