“The story is the real thing, not the nice dress you put it in.”-excerpt from my journal
Day 8 (cont’d)
At last I take over driving. That is probably the most epic thing to happen for the next 4 hours. It just becomes desert. That’s all that it is… for miles.
This is our life now, this changing scenery, the learned adaptability, 6 plus hours of driving a day, these 263 square feet. The road-trip is all we feel; it’s all we know behind us and ahead of us. We’ve seen our fill and still there are so many days ahead. Las Vegas and the beach are beginning to loom, beckon even. But as these glamorous plans come closer, there’s the fear that I will have to see people again.
A few weeks before the trip I sent a text message to the Tara Grey group chat (named after our house) that just said: “also… we have tickets to a show in Las Vegas… bring your spiffiest outfits for that night!” and sent a picture of Miriam at the thrift store trying on her new hot pink dress and turquoise strappy patent leather heels:
So that first night of packing the RV, we’d stuffed our dresses, heels, suit coats, and button down shirts into the far closet in the RV’s only bedroom. It’s still there, forgotten, waiting. I don’t feel I have the time or resources to make a hairdo out of my curly mop, shave the bare (haha) necessities, wash off the layer of filth to put makeup on… and most daunting of all… wear heels?!
I can’t remember the last time I showered… Could it really be Tennessee? Not to mention the fiasco of my clearing out Max’s toiletries from the little bathroom by mistake, thinking they belonged to the RV owners, and taking off with all of his personal hygiene products sitting on our dining room table. The poor boy went to put on deodorant the first day… and couldn’t until we bought him some at a truck stop in Virginia. Then the soap, shampoo and conditioner I’d packed for the kids got left in the RV resort restroom in Pigeon Forge (we replaced those during our Walmart stop in Arkansas). We haven’t done laundry since New Mexico… and it’s getting full (and unapproachably smelly) again.
But for now, it’s just desert. This is the Arizona I had pictured. Tan, dusty, endless. There are small highway bridges on I-40 (we’re back on I-40) with signs that say names like “Rattlesnake Wash” and “Little Lithodendron Wash.” When I see the capillary resemblance of the carved out dirt beneath these bridges, I realize these are names for waterways (like rural North Easterners see little signs for the likes of “Bear Meadow Brook” or “Ballou Creek” along their daily commute). But in the 90 to 100 degree days of summer, the water has abandoned them. The land and our bodies are parched. I remember the stash of chapstick we’d bought to prepare for this. Then I remember my lost water bottle, and take a swig from my refilled Dasani bottle. Since we never completely empty our on-board water tank, the tap water we’re hydrating with is part Pigeon Forge, Hot Springs, Palo Duro, and Albuquerque water. But today it’s mostly Sedona’s, and filled with magical allure. I feel refreshed and strong.
When we cross through the desert town of Kingman Arizona, the road surface turns chaotic and rough. Fearing for the health of our tires, I slow down. When Michael instructs from the back that I shouldn’t be driving above 60 on this uneven terrain, I slow down even more. We are two hours in and still have 5 hours more to reach our destination high above Palm Springs, a spot known for its golf courses, and intolerable summer heat. After Kingman we turn south into giant looming arms of mountain ranges hundreds of miles in the distance. We are approaching the Mojave desert, the smallest and driest of the North American deserts. The immensity of the landscape scares me a little, I don’t feel safe driving roads I can’t understand. (Perhaps that’s a metaphor I should pay more attention to…). But I grip the steering wheel to maintain composure, trying to let the mountains and the heat soften me. I sustain a level of awe at the stretches of lifelessness accompanied by rocky summits where I know green things grow and animals take refuge from the blazing sun. I know I can drive this.
At least until we get close to California…
The Colorado River separates the two states, and I realize with great rivers, come great bridges. Sometime in my mid 30s, I became no good anymore at driving over bridges (I feel like it’s a cosmic shift inside me that is turning me into my mother, who has been stricken by a fear of heights my whole life). I can do it, surlily, in my sedan. Driving the unsteady RV, I give up before trying, take exit 1, and pull over at the end of the exit ramp. Michael curses a little as he hurriedly (he knows my lack of expertise in highway safety), but otherwise without complaint, moves to the driver’s seat and takes us across the bridge and the river (which in juxtaposition with the towering mountains, could both be described as tiny) and into California.
We are stopped by California customs and have to give up the orange Texas flower we’ve been keeping in a water bottle in the sink for decoration. They are afraid of microorganisms that could be destructive to California ecosystems (or more likely California cash crops). We don’t mention the Texan flies that we have been housing and transporting, (and slowly massacring), across state lines for the same amount of time, and she lets us pass.
Then there’s more desert. I check the temperature on my phone’s weather map. 108º. We’re in Needles, California… named after the jagged pinnacles of the Mohave mountains. It’s a border town notorious for having the highest temperatures in the country on a given day. We exit the highway and head south. Even inside our powerful vehicle, barreling along at 70-80 miles per hour, powered by a 50 gallon tank of gas, supplied with 30 gallons of water, 2 batteries and a generator with still a ½ tank full of propane… I feel like an animal exposed… without back up defenses. We drive on through “unincorporated communities” with names like Vidal Junction and Desert Center. There is only one gas station for a hundred and fifty miles. At it we buy the family each strawberry creamsicles. As I pump the gas, I stand still, trying to let the extreme heat reach my bones.
As scared of it as I can get, a part of me wants to be the desert.
I take a panoramic shot at the gas station and send it to my kid’s dad with the caption:
But first I snapped this panorama gone wrong, which better captures what the heat feels like…
Our path turns west at the gas station. Then suddenly, in the middle of desert wasteland, Michael stops abruptly. He’s spotted a sort of Americana totem pole with surprisingly carefully crafted markers nailed onto it at least 25 feet into the air. We jump out of the RV and run back to see it up close. The randomness. The reassurance of knowing that so many people have made this journey, and lived to bring back their artwork the next time through… and we drive on.
The first sign of life we see confounds us. A large clump of palm trees (probably date palms) growing in rows, with nothing but dry dusty dirt on either side for miles. Michael figures it out first, it’s some sort of farm. We are on the outskirts of humanity. Soon we join Interstate 10, an arterial that will continue straight to the heart of Los Angeles. Joshua Tree National park is to our right, but all we see are its rocky foothills. We pass through Coachella and Palm Desert and miles of wind farms nestled beneath the mountains of San Jacinto. I tell my children that this is where the rich and famous of Hollywood come for vacation. Their only question is “Why?” I look out the window in Palm Springs, trying to catch a glimpse of country clubs and palatial houses… but all we can see from the highway are more wind farms, and scragy desert growings. It seems the rich have effectively hidden their private lives away; invitation only, even for spectators. As we round the northern tip of the San Jacinto mountains, our passageway into them, the San Bernardino mountain range looms on the other side, as if vying with each other for kingship of this valley.
We have to climb these mountains… and we’re kind of chasing the sunset. But it looks like this time we might make it. We have a chance. Especially since we are climbing thousands of feet, so the horizon gets lower and lower as we enter into the space of the sun. That’s when I remember what I’d read about showing up late at this campsite… You can do it, but you may have to wait up to an hour for the ranger, if he’s out doing his rounds, to come back and let you in.
We begin the climb. The air has the slight yellowy tenor of late afternoon (very late afternoon, sunset is 10 minutes away)… I quickly google “How long is it still light after sunset?” Google says the trip up the mountain (a road that looks like a piece of string that’s fallen on the floor in ripples) takes 39 minutes. But that’s probably for a midsize car traveling the speed limit… people live up here… people drive this road every day…
Michael is laughing. “Max, quick take a picture! There’s no guardrail!” This is a road you see in movie car chases… the way characters are eliminated from a plot… I have given up the front seat for this, I know I can’t enjoy it as it should be enjoyed. Wide mountain vistas open up at every grand turn around the outer edges of the mountain. Rock is everywhere. The palm trees far below will be our graveyard if we fall. This is the 5th climb like this in 5 days, and we’ve had two flat tires. Miraculously, our tires, and our brakes, and our fearless driver, hold. We snap pictures of the sunset (I shouldn’t lie… not one of them is credited to my name)
Soon we are enveloped by forest, but the road doesn’t change its course of climbing. Fifteen minutes of swinging wide to the left, a tight turn all the way around, and swinging wide to the right, back and forth, straight for a while and another tight turn… feels like an hour.
“You’re a third of the way…” I scoot up to the front and say encouragingly. This spot, sitting on the step up from the cockpit to the cabin, with my hand on the back of the passenger seat and my other hand scrolling through the map, becomes my new spot. I can manage the kids in the back, giving them water, snacks and reassurance (and instructions to put their phones down and look out the window), and still direct the front on where to turn, when to stop, and what to look for. With the trees surrounding us, even the bends in the road that open up to a view are less harrowing for me, I can breathe. These mountains are enchanting. Somewhere near the top is a California forest playground where we will park tonight.
It is dusk before it is dark, but it is dark before we’ve reached our turn off the main road. The road we take switches to dirt and there are tiny vacation homes built along it. The final direction is up a steep driveway. There is a ranger station at the top. It stands empty. I jump out and read the notice, hopeful that a packet with our name on it will be waiting at the lodge like we’ve seen at our other late arrivals. There is no packet, just a phone number to call… and wait. I feel guilty. It was that damn Grand Canyon that I had to see.
When the ranger finally arrives, he is apologetic. “I was just closing down the pool…” (it’s now 10pm). We drive around the campsite, which is built into the top of a mountain so we are amazed at the number of tour bus sized RVs that have driven up and down these steep paths to stake out their perfect spot. Most of the empty spots have bags over the electrical post… which I take to mean they are out of order. We find an open spot and I jump out to guide us in. But the landing is so uneven, we decide to try for another. I stay outside and run ahead with my headlamp and the paper map to look for spots along the human sized anthill of options. The side of the roads are covered in tiny gravel, so on a particularly steep incline, wearing only slides, I slip and fall, scratching up the side of my thigh and my hand till little drops of blood surface. If we were not on the top of the world, in perfect weather, in a woodland paradise… I would be miserable. I wipe away the tears that uncontrollably (because I’m a spoiled youngest sibling) form in my eyes, and keep walking.
I finally find one at the end of a tiny cluster of sites. One that will give us some welcome privacy and a level place to sleep. We decide wordlessly that the sandwiches we ate while driving through the desert will suffice (again) as dinner. The kids turn the couch, dinet and cabover area into their beds and tuck themselves in. I say goodnight to each of them, with a kiss or a squeeze. Then I kiss my husband (which is all the action this imbalanced hunk of metal will allow… as we discovered on night one) and we say goodnight.
Listening to night sounds I don’t quite recognize and feeling the cool air begin to whisper of fall, even in California, I lay awake and still in the dark. What I feel the most is weightlessness. There were so many hurdles to pass over to get here, countless decisions and calculations. But now, even the immanence of our deaths at the foot of these mountains… seems silly. There is genuinely nothing to worry about. Each moment unfolds however it wants to, and we follow along for the ride. We are in a rush… but not really. We have all the time we need. We are hardly responsible to anyone, except each other. And we all have the same goal in mind: To get from here to there… and enjoy what happens along the way.
emails from the writer…
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