Explore | As the Hole Deepens

Last Word Jam

// By Tim Sandlin   // Illustrations by Birgitta Sif

August—I’m tooling down from the park where I’d visited my secret blueberry patch. Two yearling bears had beat me to the good stuff. They were both a reddish dark brown, about the color of an extra-hot cinnamon matcha. The smallest bear took one look at me and climbed an aspen. The other bear ignored me like he was a teenager in a mall.  

My immediate problem was I didn’t see the mother. Here’s my daily nature lore tip: if there are bear cubs in your patch, find the mother or go home.

So, I headed south toward Jackson, and I came over the hill and right there at the Fish Hatchery, traffic ground to a halt. I mean, a few SUVs and tour buses came toward me in the other lane, but my lane was frozen like a dog’s water dish in winter.

In my imaginative mind, I pictured the stoplight at the elkhorn arch on the Town Square. The light turns green. The huge mass of pedestrians surges across; two colorblind women from Victoria, Texas, bring up the rear, slow as molasses in that winter I mentioned earlier, and one single car, at the very end of the yellow light, turns right.

The entire line of cars, trucks, and buses, from the Square three miles back to me at the Fish Hatchery moves up one car length and stops.

Should you think I’m exaggerating, check out the webcam at that intersection. It’s more entertaining than Netflix.

After 20 minutes of move-a-little, stop-a-lot, my car phone buzzed. I’ve had my Outback a couple of years, but I’d just learned how to use the interior phone it came with. You push a button that looks like an earmuff and you shout, “Can you hear me?” and either my wife or daughter says, “Of course I can hear you, you dolt.”

No one else calls me dolt, so this is like a personal ringtone.

I said, “I’m trapped in traffic.”

My wife, Delores, said, “So am I.”

We exchanged locations. You already know mine. At least I had a nice view of the Elk Refuge.

Delores was stuck in the right-turn lane on Broadway, heading out Highway 22, or, as some locals call it, the 405. The line backs up from Wilson to the five-way Bubba’s light. If today is a wreck day, you might be in that spot for several hours. Otherwise, one hour will take you the six miles from town to Wilson where the Teton Pass Tai Chi practice starts. Pickups in slo mo.

Delores said, “You ever hear of a band called Acid Reflux?”

“Are they Rastafarian?”

“They’re old. Ancient. And their van broke down in the right lane so we all have to merge left to get around them. Two codgers seem to be unloading a drum set to get at a jack.”

“That’s going to back up clean through town to me at the Fish Hatchery.”

Delores said, “[Dirty word]. No one in Wyoming knows the zipper merge.”

“What’s a zipper merge?”

“And if you try it, people honk their horns and flash rude hand signals.”

That’s when my car said, “Incoming call.” It had to be my daughter, Florence. Everyone else texts little emojis I don’t understand.

I yelled, “Can you hear me?

Florence—also known as Last Word Florence because of a habit she has—said, “I’m stuck on Snow King, between the rodeo grounds and the library.”

“Don’t cut over to Broadway. It’s gridlock.”

“There’s a beer truck with Utah plates trying to back into a driveway. People are getting out of their cars and waving their arms, some signing, ‘Come on back. You’re clear,’ others yelling, ‘Stop. You’re about to crush a bollard,’ and the rest yelling, ‘Go back to Utah.’”

I’ve asked various town leaders and politicians about Jackson Hole traffic, and every one of them said, “We’re better than Los Angeles or Washington, D.C.” My shoulda-said to that is, “I don’t live in Los Angeles or Washington D.C. on purpose.”  Wyoming has almost the same population as Tulsa, and we have a lot more room to spread out. Why should it take one hour to go six miles?

The Kia Niro EV van in front of me hadn’t moved the last two times the line crept up a car length. I figured the jam drained his charge.  Suddenly this Dodge Ram with a European siren for a horn blared A-OO-GA and flew around me and the EV, forcing oncoming traffic off onto the shoulder and into the Elk Refuge fence. The truck’s mud flaps were silhouettes of naked playgirls.

After he got past the van, he slid back into his own lane, risking his life and the lives of others to gain 50 feet of asphalt.

Also, just as suddenly, two little boys aged 8 to 10 came flying out of a construction site outhouse on the hill side of the road. They scurried to the EV and jumped in as the outhouse exploded through its roof and fell on its side.

Effluence fell like a monsoon rain. 

Throughout history the world over, boys cannot resist throwing bombs down outhouse holes. Who can blame them?

“My car just took a [bad word] shower,” I said to Florence.

She didn’t answer for a moment, then she said, “My traffic jam is still worse than yours.”

My comeback was quick. “Oh, yeah?”

She said, “Yeah.”

After we cut off the car phones, I finally came up with what I should have said. My should-of-saids always arrive 10 minutes too late.  

I should have said, “The jam you’re in is always worse than the jam you’re not in.”

That would have shown Florence.

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