Our itinerary began in Las Vegas and continued to the Grand Canyon by way of Hoover Dam. Then it was on to a dude ranch called Tanque Verde, way out at the edge of Tucson where the city’s valley meets the Santa Catalina and Rincon mountain ranges. This was expected to be the highlight of the trip for Kris, who is something of a horse nut. She and our son Wells used to take riding lessons together ten or more years ago.
The original plan had us arriving at the ranch on a Sunday. We would stay a few days, and then on Wednesday morning, Wells would fly in from his summer gig in Colorado. We’d pick him up at the Tucson airport and take him to the university for an orientation session before raiding the local Wal-Mart for school supplies. He’d stay in his dorm room, and we’d move from the ranch to a flophouse next to the railroad tracks.
This was the simple and logical plan to which Kris and I agreed. Never satisfied with a simple plan, I decided to have some fun. Months earlier, after verifying that the ranch had a two-room suite among its accommodations, I asked Wells if he’d like to join us for a few days of R&R before beginning school. He was enthused by the idea, so I told him to wait for details and to keep his lips sealed about it when speaking to his mother.
After a late night on the Internet, I had all the arrangements made. The suite was booked, Frontier Air would fly Wells from Denver to Tucson – arriving at 3:00 p.m. on the Sunday of our own arrival – and the folks at the dude ranch would send their courtesy van to the airport to surreptitiously transport Wells to the property. They were advised of that this was all strictly hush-hush, and agreed to play along.
I spoke to Wells just before we left for Las Vegas, and the plan was set. Since I refuse to have a cell phone, we would be out of touch for nearly a week before meeting at the ranch. Several events in the preceding weeks had seemed to threaten the likelihood that everything would go without a hitch, but I decided not to worry about it.
Kris and I departed the Grand Canyon and headed for the ranch at 5:00 a.m. on Sunday morning. The rental car’s GPS unit estimated that we’d arrive at our destination at 11:17 a.m., and its prediction proved accurate within three minutes – amazing device (I’d much rather have one of those than a cell phone). Kris has always been quite willing to let me handle the business of checking in to hotels, but she surprised me this time by accompanying me to the front desk. I hoped that the clerk would see the note about the surprise and play it cool.
“Howdy!” the young woman gushed. “Welcome to Tanque Verde Ranch!! Are you checking in?”
“Yes,” said Kris. “When is the next chance to ride a horse?” That explained why she wasn’t waiting patiently in the car this time.
“Two o’clock is the next trail ride. May I have your name, please?”
“Mr. and Mrs. Holleran.”
The woman thumbed through some index cards and seized upon one of them. “Ah!! The Holleran family, party of three.”
Kris made an exasperated expression. “No…it’s just two of us. There must be some mistake.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” said the woman, truly regretting the error. “I’ll have to fix the computer record. We charge by the person, and this would have been an expensive mistake!”
I cringed and tried to signal the woman that she should just leave well enough alone. She seemed to notice that I was making funny faces and gestures, but she apparently didn’t get the meaning. Kris was growing impatient. Our room wasn’t quite ready, and there were a number of formalities to be completed at the desk. I needed a distraction.
“Why don’t you go look at the horses?” I asked. It was half suggestion and half plea. Thankfully she bit. Once she was out the door, I addressed the clerk. “There really are three of us. You’re picking my son up at the airport this afternoon and bringing him here as a surprise for my wife.”
I could see the understanding creep across her face. It emerged from her lips as, “Oh. Oooooooh!” She glanced at our reservation card. “It says here that it’s a secret! Oh… Oooooooooooh! I’m so sorry! I didn’t know.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “She’s so excited about the horses it probably didn’t register.”
The clerk verified that Wells was on the airport pickup schedule, and after we’d completed the formalities, I caught up with Kris next to the corral. I’m not much of a horse guy, but the sight of a hundred and fifty of the critters standing side-by-side is impressive. I convinced Kris that we should have some lunch in the dining hall before going to the room, and it was nearing 1 p.m. by the time we finally parked in front of the casita and used a key card to enter room 15. Kris entered first and I heard her draw a sharp breath as I struggled to get the luggage through the door. In a moment I drew a sharp breath, too.
“This must be another mistake,” said Kris. “We’re not supposed to be in here.”
“If the key worked, then this must be the place,” I said. The room before us was at least 20′x40′ – 800 sq. ft for the mathematically inclined. The ceiling rose 15′, and an adobe fireplace soared from the floor up through the roof at the far end. At least it looked like a fireplace, but I’d need to unpack the binoculars to be sure.
“This can’t be it,” said Kris. “There’s no bed.”
“It’s probably in the bedroom.”
“You mean there’s more?”
We ventured into the space and found the bedroom situated beyond the kitchenette, across the hall from a two-room bathroom big enough for five elephants – one on the john, one in the shower, one in the whirlpool tub and two at the counter in front of the mirror, each with their own sink. Upon leaving the bathroom, Kris began flipping wall switches frantically.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“I can’t get the lights to go off,” she said.
I pointed high overhead to the skylights flooding the space with daylight. “The lights aren’t on.”
“Did you know it would be like this?” asked Kris.
“No,” I answered, and unlike everything else I’d said in relation to our visit to the ranch, this was strictly true. I reserved the space because it had two rooms. It was only marginally more expensive than the next largest room, which would have put Wells on a cot at the foot of our bed. I like family time, but there is a limit. This suite was, as I calculated, almost half the size of our comfy home – and I’m not including the covered porch we stumbled upon a little later. The two of us could live out our days in bliss within this space. “I knew it was their nicest room, but I had no idea.”
We walked through the main room. Along a fraction of one wall there were two large fine-wood panels separated by a massive built-in armoire. Kris tugged on one of the panels to reveal a queen-sized Murphy bed.
“Look at this! Oh, honey!” When I hear this particular term of endearment, I know something’s coming. “We should call Wells. He would LOVE it here. We have plenty of room. He could relax for a few days…it would be such a nice break between work and school. He could bring a friend – there’s two of these beds. Oh honey! Do you think he could change his flight? Maybe he could come down tomorrow. We could ride horses together and…”
“Hey,” I said. “This is supposed to be a romantic getaway for the two of us. Don’t you want to just hang out with me?”
“Yeah, but…Look at this place! This would be perfect. We have our own room, and the bathroom is huge…”
“Yeah, Wells is such a slob that he’d need this much room to spread all his dirty clothes around. Forget it.”
That made her pause and think for a few seconds. “Ah, c’mon. This is so perfect.”
I scowled and growled theatrically.
“Please?” she implored. “Would it cost more?”
“Of course it would. It’s all-inclusive – they charge by the head.” I reminded her that we’d lost the entire $60 we’d wagered in Las Vegas during our three days there, and needed to be restrained in our spending. “Let’s just enjoy our time here, and we’ll see Wells in a few days. We’ll still have four days with him once he gets to Tucson.”
I thought that would end the conversation, but Kris was completely obsessed with the idea of having Wells join us. For the next hour, she persisted. I actually began to get just the slightest bit annoyed (a rare occurrence), but two o’clock was approaching and I knew that Kris would be rushing off to do some horse whispering soon enough. When she finally rushed out the door, I breathed a deep sigh of relief.
Wells likes beer. I admit that at his age, I did too. These days, neither Kris nor I have much of a taste for it. Ever the thoughtful one, I decided to take the opportunity to drive down the road and pick up a six-pack for Wells, who would no doubt be thirsty upon his arrival – which I estimated would be in another two hours, around 4:00 p.m. The Circle-K Market didn’t have much of a selection, and I was practically forced to buy a 12-pack of plain-old Budweiser. I returned to the room and strolled in with the beer under my arm only to find Kris there waiting.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. It came out in a way that made it obvious I’d been up to no good.
“There was lightning, so they canceled the trail ride,” said Kris. “Beer!? What are you doing with beer? You don’t drink beer. I don’t want any beer. Did you get me a candy bar? What’s with the beer?”
“Ah, er, I…I thought it might be nice to have some beer while you’re out riding every day. I’ll just be sitting on the porch relaxing, and that’s the perfect time to have a beer.”
“Yeah, Budweiser. I’m feeling patriotic.”
“Whatever… I still think we should call Wells and see if he can change his flight…”
“Here we go again,” I thought as I put the beer in the fridge. I took one out and opened it just for effect.
“Could we pick him up at the airport? How far away is that? I’ll probably be riding, but you could go…You could find it – right? How long is the flight? Is it easy to change a flight?”
“Would you like a Bud?” I asked.
“Not me…but Wells would really like to have one, I’m sure. Do you think it would be a problem to add him to our reservation? He’d love it. Oh, it would be so wonderful…”
For the next hour and-a-half, Kris continued on this theme. I sipped the Budweiser and seriously considered taking one of my “flying pills.” I checked my watch every minute or so, and at 4:00, excused myself.
“I’m going to take a walk around,” I said.
“I think I’ll stay here and finish getting settled,” said Kris. “Maybe I’ll call Wells.”
I walked down to the building housing the main office, arriving just as a van marked Tanque Verde pulled up. In the front passenger seat was a familiar silhouette, and I breathed a sigh of relief at the sight. The van pulled into a parking space between two similar vehicles, and I started to walk down the narrow space toward the passenger door, ready to greet Wells. For some reason I stopped before I got there, and retreated to the rear of the van where I waited patiently. Nothing happened. It looked like the only occupants were the driver and Wells, and I assumed that they were finishing a conversation. I paced back and forth, glancing through heavily tinted windows. In the rear view mirror I must have looked like some kind of lunatic.
At long last, the doors opened. Wells emerged from the passenger door, stuck a cigarette in his mouth and planted a cowboy hat on his head before I realized my mistake. This was not Wells. The passenger and the driver eyed me warily and gave me wide berth as they passed.
“Howdy,” I said sheepishly. “I thought you were someone else…”
The passenger tipped his hat and, in a pretty good imitation of a horse, snorted.
I went back to the room, concerned that something had gone wrong with Wells’s travel arrangements. Kris was talking to herself. “He would just love it here…All this space, horses…and the food…he probably hasn’t had a decent meal in weeks…”
Around 5:00, an hour after I expected Wells to arrive and blessedly put an end to Kris’s suffering, I interrupted the monologue and said, “OK, OK, OK – why don’t you just give him a call? I’m sure he has his cell phone.”
“Won’t it be expensive to use the room phone?”
“I don’t care. Call him. Please!”
She did. He answered immediately, and for a good 15 minutes, played the ruse to perfection by pleading every possible excuse. When Kris was convinced that there was no way in h*** he could arrange to join us, she handed the phone to me. “He wants to talk to you.”
“What’s the story?” I said into the handset.
“The driver says we’ll be there in five or ten minutes,” said Wells.
“Okay. We’ll see you on Wednesday,” I said, and hung up. “That’s a shame,” I said to Kris. “I guess it would have been good to have him come and stay with us. I’m sorry I didn’t think of it in time.”
“I should have thought of it, too,” said Kris. “But I had no idea that this place would be so…perfect.”
“Oh, well.” I walked to the sink and dumped the rest of the beer down the drain. This is when we discovered the porch, situated in the rear of the casita. We went out and sat for 15 minutes or so, lamenting the fact that Wells wouldn’t be joining us.
Kris was full of nervous energy. “I think I’ll go do a quick load of wash before dinner. Do you need some underwear?”
“I brought exactly the right amount,” I said. “I’m all set.”
“I’ll do them anyway,” said Kris, seeking solace in a way I never would. I followed her into the room and felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up. There was an unfamiliar suitcase on the couch, its contents spilling onto the floor. Miscellaneous stuff was strewn on the coffee table, and a jacket was draped over the back of a chair. Kris marched right past the mess without even noticing. Once she was in the bedroom, I frantically pushed the evidence onto the floor and draped myself seductively on the couch, my legs partially covering the pile. Kris emerged from the bedroom carrying a plastic bag filled with skivvies and headed for the laundry room, which was housed in a small building a few hundred feet down the path.. “Oh, aren’t you cute?” she said as she passed me. “Hold that pose. I’ll be right back.”
When the door closed behind her, I rushed around to find the camera. I opened the door just in time to capture mother and son. You might be able to guess from the look on her face that despite being overjoyed, Kris had some choice words to say to the photographer. Kris later reported on the meeting. She saw a familiar face walking up the path and was amazed at how much this perfect stranger looked like her son. It wasn’t until Wells said, “Hi, Ma,’ that she believed what she was seeing.
“With all the mysteries I read,” Kris said later, “I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on all the clues…”
There you have it. Kris may never make it as a CSI, but none of us will ever forget…