Before he died of lung cancer, my dad said he wanted his ashes spread along the freeway. Dad traveled for work. What that was exactly, he never said. He claimed to be installing draperies in the high desert with a man named Keith, who my mother and I never met and who never called the house: a true mystery man whom we doubted existed.
It was the late 1970s before cell phones or pagers held anyone accountable. Dad was a former bookie and degenerate gambler — a slave to the craps tables — so we assumed he was spending his time in Vegas. I thought about checking the mileage on his car after one of his trips but never bothered. In those days, the bills were paid, so we didn’t question what he was doing or where he was going every couple of weeks. He was on the road, that was all we knew.
Following my graduation from high school in Southern California, my parents moved to Las Vegas.
Shortly after, Dad was diagnosed with cancer. Chemo kept him alive for a year and a half — long enough to get his life in order. I moved to Vegas to be with him during his final months because, despite his flaws, I loved him dearly.
They had rented an apartment on Harmon Avenue — down the street from the University of Nevada — Las Vegas. Seeking to kill time, I enrolled in classes at UNLV and got a job at a local bakery, New York Bagel Boys, where I met my future husband Gary — the guy who delivered bagels to all the casinos.
My best friend was a guy named Steve, whom I met in my philosophy class. Steve was always there for me, picking up the pieces when Gary and I had a falling out and picking up my dad when he was too weak to make it to the bathroom.
Dad died, I married Gary and had two kids, and Steve went on his way. Five years later, Gary and I were over.
One evening, I ran into Steve at a craft festival. We picked up our friendship exactly where we left off. At this point, I had returned to college as a single mother and was checking groceries at a local supermarket.
Steve was running errands for a coke dealer — JW — who had connections to Vegas royalty. As a kid, JW received Hanukkah presents from Elvis, one of his brothers was an elected politician, and his mother owned a business frequented by the rich and famous. Steve was his right-hand man.
My dad’s ashes were still in my closet in their original box from the Neptune Society. With Steve back in my life, it seemed like the perfect time to carry out Dad’s final wishes. Since Dad, a native New Yorker, loved both California and Nevada, I decided that the best stretch of freeway to spread his ashes was at Stateline — now called Primm — on U.S. Highway 15.
One night when the kids were with Gary, we did a couple of lines and jumped into my gray Chevy Nova. Steve drove, and I sat up front. After we crossed the border into California, Steve found the first place to cross over to turn around and head back to Vegas.
He pulled over on the shoulder, and I got into the back seat — carefully opening the box of ashes. Steve got back on the highway and as he approached the “Welcome to Nevada” sign, I rolled down the window. Steve slowed down a bit, and I gently released the contents of the box. I was determined to get Dad on both sides of the California-Nevada border.
“Turn around,” Steve yelled from the front seat. When I looked back, what appeared to be a cloud of smoke had spread across both lanes of the highway, reaching 30 to 40 feet into the night sky.
Dozens upon dozens of vehicles — eventually hundreds — drove through the cloud of my dad’s ashes. It was one of the most amazing and beautiful things I have ever seen in my life…a sight I will never forget.
I thought the ashes would just fall along the side of the road — like sand. I never imagined that they would billow up in a massive plume. “I hope everyone has their windows rolled up,” I said to Steve, suspecting that it probably was not the case in 1986 before AC was universal.
I felt genuine remorse that scores of people I would never know had just had intimate contact with my dad. I wanted to pull over to watch my dad dissipate into the sky but became concerned that we could very well be arrested for carrying out my dad’s last wishes. “Keep driving,” I said to Steve.
Those drivers on the highway to Hell — I mean Vegas — never knew and never would have guessed the nature of the cloud they found themselves in. I can’t imagine what they thought when — BAM! — they were suddenly in a misty cloud of Dad.
Joyce O’Day is the director of an educational nonprofit and is a retired history teacher with Master’s degrees in History and Urban Leadership. Her stories and articles can be found on Vocal and Medium.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.