The moments we have with friends and family,
the chances we have to make even a small difference,
all those wonderful chances life gives us, life also takes away.
It can happen a lot sooner than you think.
~ Larry Page
I’m driving across the country on my road trip during the summer of 2016, and today I am in Arizona on my way back home to California. This part of the southwest all looks the same to my untrained and unfamiliar eyes. It’s Saturday, the second of July and I have another hundred miles to go to get to Phoenix. I will spend the night there and then drive another hundred fifty miles to Blythe, California where I will have lunch with longtime friends I have known since we were all in college together at UCLA so very long ago.
Randy and Jen hit is off right away when they first met during our first quarter together in the fall of 1974. We had an economics class together every morning, as well as a study hall two afternoons each week. When you spend that much time with people during an experience like attending UCLA as an undergraduate you get to know each other pretty well.
He made it clear from the very beginning he would be returning to Blythe to take over the family farm once he graduated. Randy was the youngest of three brothers and the only one who had dreamed of following in his father’s footsteps since he was a small boy.
Every day when we had lunch at one of the campus eateries he would regale us with stories from his childhood on the farm. Some of them made Jen and I long for the farm life, while others left us wondering what Randy saw in it that made him so adamant about giving his life to this world. It was one that could be quite lucrative, but also very cruel at times.
At Thanksgiving Jen joined Randy at the farm for the long weekend. When I had asked her privately what her family thought about her not spending that time with them, she shared that her family consisted of an alcoholic father and an angry older brother. Her mother had abandoned the family years earlier and she had counted the days until she could move away. A high school counselor took an interest in her and helped her apply to and be accepted at half a dozen universities in California. She had chosen UCLA because Los Angeles was the one furthest away from where she had grown up. That was Sacramento, a city in northern California about four hundred miles away.
Upon our return to classes the Monday morning after Thanksgiving she and Randy announced their engagement. His family had fallen in love with her as he had and they decided to commit to each other and to the farm for eternity.
Even though I had married at a young age I knew that my relationship would never be as strong as theirs already was. It was quite a beautiful thing to observe from my perspective. They seemed to complement each other in every way and enjoyed each other’s company. We remained the best of friends through graduation and that summer of 1977 I was part of their wedding and celebration.
After a good night’s sleep at a Hampton Inn in Phoenix I am on my way down Interstate 10 to meet up with my friends. It’s been almost ten years since I have seen them, and that was only briefly when we met for dinner in Los Angeles before they set sail for a cruise to Hawaii.
When I exit the freeway I note the long dusty roads on either side of me. I could not imagine myself ever living near here, with nothing to do or see and the terrain not changing. It’s so different than my world in California, living in Santa Clarita and Santa Barbara.
Blythe is an agricultural community of just over twenty thousand residents. The climate is typical of the California desert, with extremely hot summers and mild winters.
They greet me on their tractor at the end of the long driveway. Looking like they just walked off the set of “Hee Haw,” a popular variety show than ran in syndication during our years together at UCLA, they are wearing matching coveralls and straw hats. Has it really been thirty-nine years since we graduated and they got married? For a moment I lament my circumstances; me on my own and them closer than ever. Any sadness I am feeling is quickly washed away as we have a group hug before I get back in my car and follow them back to the house.
By the next morning we have all committed to not going more than two years without seeing each other in person ever again. I love how they still include me in their lives after all these years. During the past twenty-four hours I have seen all four of their grown children and bounced the two youngest grandchildren on my knees.
The rocking chair is particularly comfortable and my pain from the sciatica I have endured during this trip is minimal. I almost don’t want to get up, but the road is calling and I am ready to head home. But Jen pulls me up out of the chair and tells me she and Randy want to show me something before I go. Earlier I had overheard their eldest son saying that one of the cows was sick and the vet had been called, but I didn’t think that was what they wanted me to see.
We climb aboard the bed of a full size pickup truck, driven by one of their ranch hands. As we pass acres of cotton and melons and their seventy head of cattle Randy points out various things to me.
“I know it probably all looks the same to you, Connie, but when you make this your life you are able to see the small differences in everything.”
He waves his arms high and low, and from front to back to give his words a more dramatic effect. Jen is smiling and nodding in agreement. They both go on to tell me how they can tell when a crop is ready to be harvested simply by smelling the air. They can tell each cow apart because no two look the same. And they know what day it is, or at least which week without having to look at a calendar because of the small differences they have internalized over the years.
Jen takes my hand in hers and we smile lovingly at one another before she speaks.
“It’s the small differences that make this life so special, don’t you agree?”
I nod in agreement, knowing that I will spend much time understanding this concept of “small differences” in the coming days. Again, just when I think I have a firm grip on life, someone appears to remind me I still have much to learn. A few minutes later I am back on the Interstate, headed west and bound for Los Angeles.