The plan was simple. Lisa, our mutual friend Tim, his brother Tom, and I would go for a nice quiet road trip through the Rockies — something we often did for grins and giggles. This time we planned to visit Tom’s college buddy in Grand Junction. We would stay Friday and Saturday, then drive home Sunday in time to watch the Broncos game on TV.

By the time we made it halfway through the six-hour trek, pangs of hunger could no longer be ignored. We pulled into the next town, Glenwood Springs, for a bite. Not able to find a fast-food restaurant, we chose the first eatery that looked casual. It turned out to be a barbecue shack, and the ribs hit the spot. As we savored the last few bites, Tom, with a toothpick in the corner of his mouth, assumed a sober tone and began telling stories about his college buddy. He recounted several tales of drugs, guns, and dubious visitors speaking mangled Spanglish. This inspired a panorama of expressions from Lisa’s face, and she repeatedly commented how little of that sort of thing happened in her hometown, Pilger, Nebraska.

“Don’t worry Lisa, Tom’s pulling your leg,” Tim said, not altogether convincingly. “He loves to embellish. Actually, his buddy did some time for possession of marijuana in the seventies, but I’m sure he’s done with that nonsense by now.”

Lisa looked relieved, but I was beginning to wonder just how well Tim knew his brother.

The final leg of the drive was relaxing. As we reached the mesas and orchards of the area, the sun looked to be in perfect position for a spectacular setting. I was cursing myself for not bringing the “good” camera when Tom, from the co-pilot seat, called for a left turn.

“Only ten miles,” he said as the sound of rubber on gravel began to mix with that of the radio.

“I thought he lived in town,” Lisa said with a distant note of worry.

Tom turned to face her in the back seat, “Fear not,” he said with a crooked smile. “Jasper is wealthy, and he’s actually down to earth. Besides, you like horses so much, I figured you’d enjoy the ranch.”

Lisa looked unconvinced, so Tom continued. “Lighten up my dear. Beautiful this time of year. The parties are fun.”

I think Tom fancied himself a Zen poet. Lisa, however, did not appear amused.

Upon arrival, to my surprise, we found Tom was right. Jasper’s house was beautiful; a sprawling ranch with an outdoor pool and hot tub in the backyard. The green apple and peach orchards stretched beyond the stables as far we could see. Also, a friendly bevy of merry-makers was by the pool, and topping it off, Jasper proved a congenial host.

“Welcome, welcome!” he sounded earnest. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting you,” Jasper said after Tom’s introductions.

Just then the sun was beginning a grand exit and most everybody, for a brief moment, seemed spellbound. The moment was stunning, and after sighs and wows faded, the porch lights came on, and the party began with a vengeance.

This is where I should have pulled back and found a way to get us out. These people seemed to be of a different universe from what Tom had described, and it was apparent that they were deep into a collective cocaine binge. I could tell because their conversations were way too energized and the guys were accompanying each other to the bathroom (a practice that is reserved for girls where I come from). Something was nagging in the back of my head… it just didn’t feel right. After a while, I was able to loosen up and, a few beers later, found myself carried by the kinetic mirth of the moment and that’s when the trouble began.

Someone standing next to me saw them first. Three motorcycles idled in past the parked cars and into the backyard. When the metallic-blue gleam of the guns came into view, the entire crowd broke into panicked chaos. The rapid firing seemed to go on forever, and when the shooting stopped, the motorcyclists rode away.

Jasper’s backyard could have been a turkey shoot, but the gunmen caused no physical injuries, other than scrapes and bruises diving for cover. Mentally, however, I was changed for life. In the short time for the assailants to empty clips, I saw all; my failures, my family, and all the beautiful things that routinely get taken for granted. I imagined myself paralyzed and wheelchair bound. That was the scariest thought. Not that I might die, but without any health insurance, being shot and hospitalized, I would suddenly become a crushing burden to my family.

After the dust settled and everyone calmed down, I began to browbeat Tom for leading us into such a mess. He apologized abjectly; he didn’t think there’d be any hassles. He did admit to knowing of Jasper’s continued involvement in the illegal drug business but never dreamt of exposing us to anything dangerous. Jasper, he thought, was a prudent man in choosing friends and business associates.

To me, that seemed like the central lesson of the day. Yes, these are maddening times; choose your friends wisely.

We drove home that night; fled like spooked horses. We were glad to be no worse for the wear, but no one could sleep, and none of us would ever be the same. “I can see it now,” Tim said as we crested Lookout Mountain. It felt as though we’d never get far enough from that scene, and a heavy sigh of relief came over me as we did. At the time, I felt a great antipathy for the city, “Yuppie-town” as we not-so-affectionately called it, but on this night, as we gazed down at the twinkling lights of downtown Denver, no sight could have been more beautiful.