Chapter One: Betheltown
Bethel, Utah. April 2, 1989
As the desert blurred past in the luminous hues impressionist's palette, Faye huddled tightly against the car door, her eyes closed and her coffee hair spilling over her face. The last of the music, frayed tones from a hayseed country station, had miles back degenerated into a storm of static, and now the only noises were the car's undulations over the primitive road and the occasional sigh of my sleeping companion. We had already traveled fifty miles past the last evidence of humanity, a rancher's lodgepole-pine fence, into the desert's blanched, stubbled plain, and Faye had not yet asked where it was that I was taking her. Her faith in our journey was not unlike her faith in our courtship, attributable only to some godlike quality of the female mystique -- an unwavering virtue of hope and patience -- that, if unable to predict our
destination, found merit at least in the journey.
I had never been to this corner of the earth -- only eight months previously, I hadn't even known of its existence -- but the stories I had heard of the dead town had given it meaning, and I confess anxiety at its approach. I was told
that the town, steeped in the foothills of the Oquirrh range, was constantly assailed by mountain winds. But there was no wind that day, and the spray of red dust in the car's wake hung in the placid air, liberated from a roadway not trespassed for a year's time.
I was glad for this day, for its blanched, cloudless skies, for though I embraced the land's immense solitude -- felt akin to it -- it would be foolhardy to venture so far from civilization with the possibility of becoming stranded on washed-out roads. Flash floods were common in these regions, and most of the ghost town's abandoned mines had decades earlier collapsed under their turbulent runoff. The wash of such cataclysm was a souvenir hunter's ecstasy of relics and coins and an occasional grain of gold. It had always been such with the town, as men came to take from the land or to take from those who had come to take from it, and even in death it was so.
Only, today, I had not come to take but to impart.
Before us the coarse road crested, then dipped into a barren creek bed surrounded by the pink clusters of spring beauties and the scattered stalks of bulrush that proved the creek still possessed occasional life. At the creek's shallow bank I left the car idling and walked to the rill and placed a hand to its stony bed. There was no trace of moisture. I examined our intended route, rolled back a single stone of possible hazard, then returned to the car and traversed the bed. A half mile forward, the timber skeleton of a gold mine's stamp mill rose from a mesquite-covered knoll -- a wood-tarred contrivance of rusted wheels and cogs and corroded steel tracks over which ore cars had once rolled and men and horses had sweat. I glanced down to a crudely drawn map, astonished that after all these years, and with a dying memory, Esther had remembered such landmarks so distinctly. I wondered if she had just never left.
At the mill's passing I turned west and coaxed my Datsun up the hill, where the road vanished into a buckwheat-dotted plain that spread infinitely to the north and south and climbed the foothills of the mountain into the town itself. As we neared the decrepit structures of the once-flourishing township, Faye's eyes opened and she slid up in her seat.
"Where are we?"
Faye gazed on in apparent fascination. "...what's left of it."
We passed the ornamental iron fence of a cemetery "Welcome to Bethel -- the House of God."
"This is where Esther was born?"
"She came here as a young woman." I looked out at the desolate terrain. "Makes you wonder why anyone would come here."
Faye turned to me. "Why are we here?"
"To fulfill a promise."
Faye leaned back in her seat, momentarily content with my ambiguity.
I parked the car under the gnarled limbs of a black locust tree near the center of the deceased town and shut off the engine.
The morning's drive had taken nearly two hours, but it was the conclusion of a much greater journey, one that had taken nearly half a year. A journey that began the day my mother died.
Copyright © 1998 by Richard Paul Evans