All of my stuff, 6 totes full of clothes, a bookshelf that I plastic wrapped all the book into, a guitar, and a suitcase full of records, barely fit in the rental Van and we still haven’t picked up Dad and Seth from the airport and loaded all their stuff in. Jess and I are sitting on her couch, talking and not talking, petting her dog Woopie, and trying to use the last 30 minutes as best we can. I lay my head on her lap and try to shake off all the stress that has been building up in the days leading up to this trip. We won’t see each other for 2 months, when she flies out to visit me in Boston. Jess asks if I’m excited to get this thing started.
“I am, although I feel like for the first day or two it’s going to be three separate people, with three separate ideas of what this trip is supposed to be.”
All in one van, she jokes.
The half hour is up and it’s time for us to drive to the airport and pick up Dad and Seth. We’re quiet in the car, and when I talk I repeat the same phrases I’ve been repeating all week. “We’re almost there.” “It’s gonna be fun.” “I’m gonna miss you.”
I hop out of the car at arrivals and find Dad and Seth waiting at the luggage belt. They look shorter than I remember. I give them handshakes that turn into hugs. Seth is wearing a black leather jacket and black jeans. His hair has gotten shoulder length and he’s wearing glasses from a different era. Dad’s wearing breathable hiking pants and a button up shirt like he usually does, the only thing different is a little more grey in his beard. They wish me a Happy Birthday. I almost forgot I’m thirty. We wait by the belt and I think of something to say. I wonder about what parts of the dynamic between me and Dad will have changed now that I’m sort of an adult. Will I still ask him questions about how things work? Will he trust me to know how to do things I didn’t know how to do as a kid?
“How was the flight,” I ask.
“Long and stiffening”, they say.
I tell them that Jess is outside waiting once we get the bags. They are as enthusiastic as they can be for a girlfriend they’ve never met, who replaced a girlfriend they both liked a lot.
We bring the bags outside, Jess gives them “nice to meet you” hugs, and we head to a mexican restaurant for food. At the restaurant Seth and I get the same thing, fish tacos, and Dad and Jess get the same thing, shrimp bowls. I take that as a good sign that we’ll all get along. We talk about the flight again. We talk about Seth’s watch, an old Casio calculator watch, which Jess really loves because her father had one growing up. Jess asks us during a lull in the conversation what we’re most looking forward to seeing on the trip.
“I’m most looking forward to seeing aliens. I feel like we’re gonna to be in prime alien territory,” I say, half joking.
“I’m really excited about doing some hiking in the canyons,” Dad says.
“Probably New Orleans,” Seth says.
Seth and I finish our meals and sit there antsy, sipping our drink and waiting until the other two are done. Seth goes out for a cigarette and we clean the table.
Back at Jess’s apartment we strap my bike to the top of the van, the last thing we have to do. With Dad and Seth’s stuff packed behind the driver’s seat on top of mine we barely have enough room in there for the three of us. We go back inside Jess’s apartment to check that we have everything, and then Dad and Seth leave me and Jess alone. I kiss Jess like I mean it, but I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m in an eddy of emotion, trapped somewhere between being sad this day finally came, being happy this day finally came, being relieved all the planning and coordinating is over, and knowing I’m going to miss Jess and should savor these kisses, but just can’t focus. I squeeze her small body one last time and say goodbye as I shuffle out the door and onto the stoop.
Seth is smoking on the sidewalk and Dad is checking the straps. I unlock the doors and we all climb in. In the driver’s seat I turn on the GPS and set it for Olympic National Park, the only rainforest in the continental United States, and quite a bit out of our way. I press GO.
We get out of Portland around 4, so we decide to take the 101 through the small coastal towns of Oregon and Washington instead of risking the major highway during rush hour. The city turns into sprawling suburbs, which turn into fields of green sprouts and cows. It’s still early Spring. Technically in two days it will be the first day of Spring. Dad is blown away that the trees on this coast are already budding, and that people are mowing their lawn.
“Back home we’re still covered in snow.” Boston had a horrible sounding winter that I’m hoping is over by the time we get there. The sun begins to set over the coastal town of Astoria just as we cross the bridge into Washington. We still have four hours to go, according to the GPS, even though it’s already 8pm. Dad and Seth have been up since 4am East Coast time. If we drive until the GPS says, they’ll have been up for 23 hours. I look down and realize the gas is getting pretty low, less than a quarter tank. I don’t mention it, because the mood in the van is somewhere between sleepy and grumpy. We drive through the darkness, which appears on the GPS to be a marsh, or maybe a forest. The gas meter dips lower and the GPS barely budges down to 3 and a half hours. Dad is next to me in the passenger seat resting his head against the window with his jacket as a pillow. I can’t see Seth in the backseat through all the darkness, but it sounds like he is resting too, against a pile of my stuff. Back there is the “Best of” compilation of my clothes and books after months of purging and ignoring all my nostalgia. This is where Seth will make his den for the trip. It was revealed in a series of emails midway through our planning that he doesn’t have a driver’s license. It was a joke I made a few times, with co-workers and the woman at the car rental place, but when I tried to make the joke at the mexican restaurant I could see that Seth didn’t think it was funny.
The gas meter dips into empty territory, and the GPS shows nothing but forest. I deepen my voice and ask Dad what I should do. He shakes out of his half sleep and says that he’ll check his phone for nearby towns. Just as he becomes fully upright a town appears ahead on the road. There is a giant glowing Shell sign hovering above the center of town. I pull in and fill up while Dad goes to take a pee and Seth smokes a cigarette behind the store.
We get back in and the GPS says we still have three more hours to go. The sleepiness becomes contagious, but I don’t mention it. I don’t know if any of us can last until midnight. After a half hour we reach the bottom of the Olympic National Park. It’s a huge state forest, maybe half the size of Rhode Island, and we’d planned on camping at the top.
The darkness gets pudding thick, hard to drive the speed limit in. We drive for another hour and start to see pull offs for different campsites. Dad wakes out of his half sleep again to say that maybe we should stay at one of these, and I agree. The next site, Kalaloch, we pull into and drive to the first campsite we see. With quiet tiredness we set up the tents in a small area covered in pine needles. Dad and I will share a tent, and Seth will have his own. The tent making manages to wake us up enough that we decide to each have one of the beers that we brought. I also sneak a pack of cigarettes out of my jacket and say not to tell Mom, they’re just “night cigarettes”. We drink the beers in a rush, not taking breaks between sips for conversation. When we’re done we pile them under my tent flap and all of us pass out in our sleeping bags.
Dad’s the first to wake up. I wake up to the sound of him crunching the gravel outside the tent. I toss and turn in my sleeping bag, and then finally give in to the fact that I’m awake. When Dad hears me rustle he tells me to poke my head out.
“You have to see this place.”
I unzip the front flap and look out to a dewey, dripping forest of green. There are downed logs all around the site that have moss and ferns completely covering them. Above is a huge canopy of evergreens obscuring the slowly rising sun.
“Do you hear that noise,” Dad says. “I’m pretty sure that’s the Pacific Ocean.”
Focusing on it, I can hear the constant crashing of something. I really hope it is the ocean because I dragged us up here to see it, travelling northwest when we should be driving southeast. I did it because I’d always heard about this place while I was living in Portland. A forest so lush that the moss outweighs the trees. I always thought it would be fitting too, if maybe a little completist of me, to start the trip on the Pacific Ocean, because we were ending it right next to the Atlantic Ocean, in Boston.
I put on my jacket and unzip the tent flap to get out. I had never taken off my clothes the night before, which turns out to be very convenient in the morning. I start packing up the sleeping bag and pillows and loading them into the van while Dad is in the bathroom down the path. Seth pokes his head out with a cigarette in his mouth. “Wow,” he says sleepily, “This is green.” We seem to all be in better moods since we got some sleep.
Dad comes back. As we’re taking down our tent I notice that Dad doesn’t make me do the hard parts like he did when I was a kid, like rolling the fabric into an impossibly tight cylinder. He just does them and we get it all done faster. When the Van is packed and locked we walk behind our campsite, towards the sound of the waves. There is a small set of stairs, made of old driftwood, leading down to the beach.
The ocean is unimaginably large. It stretches off into a never ending mist on both sides of us. Scattered in the sand are massive trees that we speculate must have been washed down here during a bad storm. Some of them are over 50 feet tall, and still have their gnarled roots at the bottom. We climb the trees, and the huge rocks that are also scattered about, and take pictures. I jog out to the water’s edge to touch the Pacific. We forgot to bring a container to carry some water back with us, but I figure a touch is just as good. I look back at beach from the water and it looks like a collage of objects. There’s the trees, the rocks, the water, Dad, Seth, and the sand. None of them ready to merge with the others, but all slowly wearing down. We take more pictures, get back in the van, and go. Seth, in his burrowed home in the back, takes out his ipod and asks for the audio cable before I can put in a CD. Dad is driving, I’m in the passenger seat with my computer trying to find a hotel or campground for tonight.
We plan on doing a lot of driving today. To make up for the miles we didn’t get to yesterday, and to get out of the Northwest and into the real meat of our trip. We’re going to skip doing any hiking in the rainforest. Driving around it during the daytime will have to suffice. Then we’ll take a ferry from this side of the Puget Sound into Seattle, and drive southeast from there as far as we can go. I program all that in, and it says it’s going to take 12 hours total to get us to a town called Baker City, close to the oregon/idaho border. It’s already 10am.
“Oh man I have this sinus headache that just won’t go away,” Seth says, rubbing his forehead. Dad asks if he has any medicine for it, and Seth says no, we’ll have to pick some up later.
We drive by a green forest that is so dark it looks plastic. We can’t see more than a foot into it. We catch a glimpse on the left of a lake. Dad says to take out the camera just in case there’s some cool stuff to take pictures of. We take the corner and see such a beautiful combination of sights it’s startling. Dad pulls the car into a small inlet and we get out to look. Down a mossy slope is a clearing to the lake. In front of us are forested mountains, with ridges like fingers digging themselves into the soil. On the top of them is fresh white snow. At the foot of the mountains are small homes, sitting along the lake, with docks and boats. Across the lake, hovering over those homes is a low arching rainbow like none of us has ever seen. Looking down we can see all the way through the shallow pale green water to the rocks below. It is silent except for the rain droplets falling from the trees. None of us want to stop looking at this sight. We take picture after picture. We try to capture the whole thing. When we give up trying we turn around to the rainforest that we’re standing in.
This part is even more lush than our campsite. There are ferns growing on moss growing on redwoods. There is so much green it’s almost impossible to process. It reminds me of what my building super said over beers when I was giving him the keys back just before I left. He was in the army, a paratrooper who destroyed his back, and now he’s a painter. He said that the only time he was truly focused in the army was when everything was crazy, guns were going off and people were yelling. Now, he said, when he paints he has to go to a noisy bar, with music blasting out of speakers and men yelling at each other about games of pool. This is what it feels like in this forest. The water dripping, the rainbow, the snowcapped mountains, the ferns, the moss, the 60 foot trees. It’s so much to take in that I can forget for a second about what’s going on with me. I can forget that I quit my steady job at the Whole Foods so I could take a risk and try writing as a profession. I can forget that we are losing valuable drive time with every minute we keep looking at this beautiful lake.
I catch up with Dad and Seth, taking pictures of plants, and we all head back to the car. The GPS now says we’ll get there at 10:45. We drive for another two hours, around a bend with a sign that says it is the northwest most edge of the continental United States. We get to the town of Port Angeles around 12:30 and get gas. We pass a place that says they sell smoked salmon pepperoni, so we stop there too and get a stick of salmon pepperoni for each of us. On our way out of town and back onto the main road I see a woman at a four way stop. She is carrying a large bag with tupperware and a jacket. She is probably going to work. I think it’s so strange for a second, that someone is going about their daily routine. That was me three days before. But now I have no routine, now I don’t need to make a lunch, or pack an extra jacket just in case. I wanted to yell out the window to that woman as if she were me three days ago, “Just take the leap, see what happens!”
We are back on the main road picking up speed. The houses begin to look like beach houses. Temporary places that never get too lived in. We start to see water on all sides and realized that we are on one of the peninsulas in the Puget Sound. We cross a bridge and we’re on Bainbridge Island.
“I could live here,” one of us says, and we all agree. It’s a quiet place, with old barns sitting in yellow fields of grass bordered by trees covered in vines. The houses are short, and set back against forests, and there’s a whisper of the churning fun across the water in Seattle. We follow signs for the ferry until we find ourselves in a long line with a hundred or so other cars, waiting for the next ferry to pick us up. Seth gets out to smoke, rubbing his head and trying to pop his ears.
The next ferry comes quickly and unloads even quicker. Seth hops in just as we start moving. We drive on in a funnel of other cars, and feel like cattle being led off a cliff. All of our instincts are telling us not to drive into a container sitting on the water. The whole time it feels like this isn’t going to work. And then we’re on the ferry, parked, surrounded by cars on all sides, with a view of the water and the islands beyond just to the right of us. Seth and I peak our heads out the doors to see if anyone else is leaving their cars, if we’re allowed to walk around. The man next to us lowers his seat all the way back and closes his eyes. I step out of the car and look down at the water. We haven’t started moving yet and everything is still.
Seth and I decide to risk it and make a run for the stairs. Dad yells for us to get him a tea as we weave through the cars. We get to the top of the stairs and open onto what looks like a school cafeteria. People are sitting alone at orange vinyl tabletops. We make our way to the area where they sell food and drinks. As we begin walking our equilibrium is thrown off and something outside changes.
“We’ve started moving,” I say.
“And here I thought I was just really fast,” Seth says and a man alone at a table laughs. I get a coffee, Seth gets a soda, and we get Dad a tea. When we get back to the van Dad’s on the phone with someone from work. He’s saying it’s no problem that the guy called, and explaining everything we’ve done so far. The forest, the northwest most point, the ferry.
Out the window of the van an old vertical wooden logs that used to be part of a dock crawls by. The island we were on, or maybe another one, moves behind us. A tug boat comes into view, pulling a big barge full of trash. The ferry turns and we catch a glimpse of the city with it’s towering skyscrapers. Dad mentions that he can see the Space Needle to the guy on the phone. The buildings look like they are all pushing forward towards the water, each trying to find the best position to see us from. Then there is a slow spin, a drift, an alignment, and we are docked.
I look on my phone for places to eat in the city. I figure I have 5 or 10 minutes, but almost instantly the cars in front of us start moving, and we follow them, under a bridge and into the city. I quickly give Dad directions for a place that has something to do with pizza. We make our way down one ways, past giant metal statues, and onto the street we want. We see a few expensive parking lots, so we drive a little further away from the main drag and find parking for 5 dollars an hour. We’re not going to be that long, so we figure this will work fine, and pull into a spot.
Before we can shut the car off a man from across the street yells to us. We ignore him, figuring he’s talking to someone else. The man crow hops across the street, it seems like one of his legs isn’t doing great. He comes over to Dad’s side of the car. Dad rolls his window down and the man tells him that the spot across the street is only 2 dollars an hour, and he’ll stand in the spot to make sure no one else takes it. Dad doesn’t say anything for a second. I’m ready to say thanks but no thanks. Seth just wants to get out and have a cigarette. Dad eventually puts the car in reverse and we make our way across the street to the man’s spot. I go to the machine to print out the parking receipt, and while I do, the man tells me that this is what he does, he tries to help people, be a good samaritan. I feel around in my pocket for the bunch of quarters I have and give them to him and say thanks. He goes over to my Dad and tells him that he has nine one dollar bills that he’ll trade him for a ten dollar bill. I stop trying to figure out the ticket machine for a second so I can make sure I overheard him right. From around the corner comes another limping man, looking worse in his clothes than our man. He shuffles by saying that we’re in good hands with this guy, he’s the best. That’s when I look at the van full of my stuff. This is everything I own, including the exposed bike on the top. Our man comes over and helps me figure out the machine. We print out a ticket and put it in the windshield and then Dad locks it. We say thank you to our guy and walk towards the pizza place. I ask Dad to lock it a few more times with the clicker.
“Should we have given him more money? Do you think he won’t steal our stuff if we give him more money?” I ask. They don’t seem too concerned.
We find the pizza place and have pizza and beers. I ask if we can walk back to the car, just to check on it, but Seth needs to go to the drugstore to get some allergy stuff, and that’s in the other direction. Then we stop for coffee for me, because I’ll take over the driving from here. Then we head down the hill to Pike’s Place Market, to see the fish throwers and souvenir vendors. All this will push our arrival time in Baker City to something like 2am. But we want to have fun and see things, that’s the whole point of this trip. That seems like it’s also going to be the hardest balance of the trip. When we get to the other end of Pike’s Place Market we head back to the van. I almost forgot that I was nervous about all my stuff, which makes me even more nervous once I start thinking about it again. But the van is fine. From the distance we can see the brightly colored bungee cords holding the bike to the roof.
We set the GPS and head out of the city. We drive on route 90, a route that would take us right through Massachusetts if we stayed on it. We talk about how easy that would be to drive home, but we’ve decided to dip south, get away from the cold, and see more interesting things.
We’re almost instantly in front of the Cascade mountain range. They are towering and covered in snow. These are the walls separating the lush green northwest from the desert on the other side. They are like massive pillows between two sleeping platonic friends. Our highway splits apart, with opposing traffic on the other side of the valley. They look like they are driving on a model train bridge, and we must too. Everything is adorably small next to these mountains. We drive through a thick fog and on the other end we realize that it was actually a low hanging cloud. There are a bunch of clouds sitting in the valley, like white mink, wandering across the road, still woozy from hibernation.
“So far most of this trip has made me feel very small,” Seth says from the backseat. I look back and see he’s working on sewing a pentagram with a goat’s head into some fabric. It’s a whole different world back there, full of unneeded jackets and open bags of chips. If our ideas for this trip aren’t merging yet, at least our stuff is. I wonder about why I’m doing this trip. I told everyone it was a way to kickstart my writing break, and to see a country I’ve never seen, but I’m not sure if that’s reason enough. I wonder about Dad’s reasons too. I imagine they are similar to mine, to see the country, and also for him, to retrace some trips he took to the Southwest when he was younger. I remember Mom telling me that one reason Seth is on the trip is to take a break from his horrible boss, and to take a vacation after three vacationless years. I think about when I used to live with Seth, six years before in Boston, and we bonded then, like we never did as kids, but we’re different people now, further apart again. The unspoken reason we’re all here is to reconnect with each other. We all know it, but none of us say it.
We get on the other side of the Cascades and it’s a slow fade into nothing that interesting. There are cow farms with hundreds of cows packed into parking lot sized pens with huge piles of cow poop in the middle. We joke about whether the cows ask each other “Hey did you fart?” We wonder about why they truck rolls of hay to these cows instead of just letting the cows live on whatever fields they are growing the hay on. The sun begins to set between the mountains behind us. And then everything is dark, and it’s hard to imagine what’s beyond the reach of the headlights.
“Oh my ears just popped,” Seth said. “That feels so much better.”
A few hours later we pull off the highway into Yakima Washington for gas. The first gas station we see is on the other side of the road, and a little out of the way, so we pass on it and go for the one a little further up on our side of the road. When we get out, the pumps are the kind that don’t take credit or debit cards, which I didn’t think existed anymore. We have a bunch of money put aside on a gas credit card, so we go to the next gas station down the way to see if they take credit. The pumps have card takers, but they aren’t taking it. There’s a man underneath the awning of the gas station with bulging eyes and sunken cheeks. I follow Dad inside because I have to pee. The bulging eye guy takes a walk all the way around our car. The woman behind the counter says that they only take cash or debit, and that there’s no public bathrooms. I’m half listening while I watch this guy. He comes back around to the front windshield and sees Seth sitting in the back seat and goes back to his perch under the awning. As we leave the store the woman says that we didn’t get off the highway into a great neighborhood. We go further into Yakima, knowing that we really can’t get on the highway now without getting some gas. We pass pawn shops and places for short term loans. And then we pass a cross street with strings of lights in the trees, and tall bank buildings. We find a gas station in this area and they take cards. While Dad is filling up I walk across the parking lot to have one of my night cigarettes. Across the street there are men in cowboy hats eating steaks in a steak house, and older couples getting into new SUVs. I finish my cigarette and Dad finishes filling up the car and we leave.
At 2am we get to Baker City and find the hotel. We grumpily sort through all our stuff to figure out what we need to bring in. Loaded with backpacks we go into the lobby and the woman gives us our key cards and says that we have to drive around to the back of the building to access our room. With the last energy we have we load our backpacks onto our laps like overweight nephews and drive around to the other side. Dad and Seth take showers that night, and I fall asleep before the first one is done.
When we wake up we decided that, as much as we have a long drive ahead of us, we need to eat a big meal. We go to the diner attached to the hotel and eat enormous omelettes. It’s only us and 4 elderly couples in the big empty place. I start singing along to the song playing on the overhead, and then realize that it’s a song they use to play at work. The next song is from work too. I used to hate the music they played at work. Most mornings I’d wake up with one of the annoying ones stuck in my head. But now, on the road, it feels like seeing my least favorite person from high school in the middle of nowhere. At least it’s familiar.
Seth and I down more coffee and take turns going to the bathroom. Dad finishes his tea and looks on his phone for where we’re heading next. This town feels made to help us out. The hotel was right off the highway, gas is across the street, the bathrooms are open to the public, and they have food with enough calories keep us going. It’s like the people of the town knew that we were coming and designed the necessities around that.
Back on the road, on a route to Bryce Canyon in Utah by way of Idaho, we see what we couldn’t the night before. All around us is just bleach blonde hills and sagebrush all the way to distant mountains on the horizon. We are in the real desert now. For the first few hours of our drive the only thing we see are cows, wind turbines, and no trees. Cows grazing on dried out grass in endless fields. Wind turbines in rows of hundreds the size of skyscrapers. And no trees. Cows all standing alone, keeping their distance from each other. Wind turbines that aren’t moving at all, except one slow one. And no trees. Before anyone else can get a chance to pick music I pick a CD from the big case of CDs I brought.
We pull off to get some gas at an exit that is just a gas station with a convenience store and an unpaved road that goes on forever. When we get out of the van it’s completely silent. There is the roar of a truck driving by, and then it’s completely silent again. In front of the convenience store are two alpacas and a donkey, penned in by a wooden fence. A kid runs out of the store with pellets in his hand and feeds them to the closest animal. I go inside to pee, but there’s a huge line, so I buy some water and pringles and head out behind the store to pee where no one can see me. There is a small bird on the fence back there, whistling a call and response with a bird on some other fence far away. My pee is overly loud in the silence, so I try to aim it at the building to blunt the noise. It seems like they’re growing wheat in these fields, but it’s hard to tell because the plants are still so small. I head back into the car and wait for Dad to use the bathroom and Seth to use my trick of peeing behind the building.
I’m driving now, and realize what I hadn’t before, that the speed limit out here is 75mph. That seems almost insane, because 75mph really means I can go 80mph. I get the car up to that speed and set the cruise control and it feels good. There are only two 16 wheelers and a truck on the road besides us, and when we zip past them it’s just us for a long stretch. I look at the GPS to see if it’s gotten an earlier delivery time since we changed speeds, but it must has already factored that in, because it still says we’ll get to Bryce Canyon around 9:30.
I find myself playing an unfun game of trying to shave off time with the GPS. If I drive 5mph over the speed limit I can slowly shave down a minute or two off our arrival time after an hour or two. But then we lose all those minutes to a bathroom break or a gas fill up and I have to start all over again. It’s a losing game, but I keep doing it anyway because there’s not much else to focus on and keep me motivated while I’m driving. The other losing game that we’re playing is with the time changes. As we crossed the Oregon/Idaho border we lost an hour, which we hadn’t factored into our plans. This seems to be our downfall on this trip, we’re always going to be losing an hour, and we’re never going to be able to drive as much as we think we can.
The valley starts to get more fertile as we keep going. There are horses on horse farms. Water is being sprayed on fields. Trees are hugging tight to farm houses. The mountains to the south of us have snow on their tops.
“How do you think you buy a mountain and start a ski resort?” Dad asks. None of us know.
“How do you think someone chooses between an animal farm or a plant farm?” I ask. None of us know. Dad says maybe you take what’s handed down to you.
We can tell we’re getting closer to a big town or city because the farms start to look like the farms you see on tubs of butter. The streets start to cross other streets to form intersections. There are fast food places and banks at those intersections. The road takes a turn to the south and the Rockies appear, like giant grazing cows sitting on the edge of this town, with houses all tucked up next to the mountains like weaning calves.
We continue to dip south for what seems like forever. We listen to 4 different CDs, then Dad’s ipod, then Seth’s computer. We take pictures of the mountains because each one has a different giant white letter written into the rock. We drive through Salt Lake City. The lake is barely visible through the movie theater parking lots and housing complexes. I try to take a few pictures, but none of them quite get it. I look into the passing cars for signs that the people here are different than the people in other parts of the country, but I don’t see any difference.
The city recedes behind us, the other cars on the highway go back to their homes, and before us is a long stretch of road bordered by mountains and plains. It begins to feel like these things exist only for us, because we are the only ones on the road looking at them. Like they weren’t there before we drove by, and they disappear into nothing once we pass. The sun sets to our right. In the darkness all the towns we pass by look the same, just with more lights or less lights.
We make it to the Bryce Canyon campground at 9:30, just like we had predicted, which seems amazing at this point. We drive around the camping spots and see people drinking around campfires and others casting shadows on the inside of tents. It doesn’t seem like there are any empty spots, but we do another circle around because we don’t know what we’ll do if we can’t camp here. On our last pass we go through a little shortcut we hadn’t noticed before and in there is a spot where we can set up in. There is ice all around and the ground is frozen but we don’t care. We set up fast and silent. We pee, Seth and I smoke night cigarettes, and we go to bed.
We wake up and it’s freezing. I run out of the tent and into the van for my heavy wool jacket. Then I remember that the bathrooms are heated, so I run in there to sit on the toilet for a bit. When I get to the bathroom, only 30 feet from the van, I’m completely out of breath. I think about maybe not having anymore night cigarettes if this is what it’s going to do to me. When I get warm enough, and realize I don’t need to use the bathroom yet, I go back to our tent. Dad is taking out his sleeping bag and mat, and starting to load the car. I do the same, but now, even the walk up to the van is making me short of breath. I ask Dad if he’s finding it hard to breath. He says yeah, he kind of wondered if he was having a heart attack or something. Seth pokes his head out of his tent with a cigarette dangling from his mouth and says, “Hey guys, you’re out of breath because we’re like a mile and a half above sea level.” We laugh, and after that it’s like a game, like walking on the moon, to see how easy it is to take a few bounding leaps and run out of breath.
“I feel like we should invent a tent that we can just throw onto the ground and it pops right up. No assembly required,” I say to Dad as we’re taking down our tent. “Like what about a teepee style tent that has poles like those snap bracelets, so that the whole thing just rolls itself right up?” Dad said maybe, but he was pretty sure there is already a tent that doesn’t need any assembly. His friend has one.
When we have everything packed into the van we decide to take the hike around the rim of Bryce Canyon. The hike starts just around the corner from where we camped. We start up the trail, littered with green pines and dried scrub. A bright orange glow appears beyond the cliff. When we get close enough we can see that it’s a giant bowl filled with orange rock formations. To our left are striated rocks piled high like columns that look like they belong to a colloseum. They are the color and pattern of a bathing suit, with the shade of orange changing sharply as they go down. We are amazed. We keep wandering to the right, through some more woods, to see what else there is.
“So this was made when something wore down the soft parts and only the hardest parts stayed?” I ask.
“Yeah,” Dad says, “It’s like looking inside a mountain, this is what you’d see.”
When we get to another opening we realize that everything we saw in that first part was barely an appetizer. In front of us is a gargantuan cliff, going down for thousands of feet, full of, what look like, the places that sea monkeys lived. Dad says it looks like that sand that you pour into the water that comes in bright colors and forms funny shapes. We learn that the tall spires of rock are called hoodoos. It goes on further than we can see.
We walk down a path and into the hoodoos a bit. In the canyon, everything that is possible is there. There is a giant rock balancing on a tiny point, a naturally formed bridge arching for hundreds of feet, and a column so tall and skinny it looks like a needle standing on it’s head. This is a million year long experiment in probability. The sun rises above the plateau to the east and shines its rays into the canyon to create a moving shadow that changes the colors to even more vibrant shades.
We linger a little longer, not able to take our eyes off the colors and shapes. Tourists start to wander around from some parking lot that we can’t see and we take that as our cue to leave. We get in the van and set the GPS for Zion Canyon, another canyon that is supposed to be equally beautiful and is close by. On the drive there we can see cliffs on the side of the road that have a small edge worn away to reveal a hoodoo within, like the ones we saw in Bryce Canyon, but not yet fully exposed. The sun gets higher and the temperature begins to rise as we keep driving south. An hour later we’re in Zion Canyon and it’s 70 degrees.
Unlike Bryce Canyon, in Zion we drive into the bottom of it, and are able to drive through the whole thing. It feels like a giant mini golf course. There is an strange unearthly contrast between the asphalt road and the brick-red and plaster-white rocks. The view from the bottom of the canyon is definitely more overwhelming than the top down view we got at Bryce Canyon. All the rock formations here seem to be pointed in funny angles, like lawn chairs quickly shoved into a storage unit.
“This is the park for lazy people,” Dad says, pointing out cars pulled over to the side of the road with people taking pictures through the windows. It is also becoming our favorite park. The views of hidden caves hundreds of feet up on a rock face, rock formations that looks like giant cribbage boards, complete with peg holes, and dry river beds that wind through the park like snakes are more amazing, and closer, than anything we saw at Bryce Canyon.
And then we enter the tunnel that was dug through one of the mountains. It seems to come out of nowhere, around a corner and we’re driving through solid rock. Every hundred feet or so there is an opening on the right hand side that let’s in light, and a quick view of the amazingness to come. When we leave the mountain tunnel we are looking down on a series of switchbacks that will take us even lower into the canyon. Around us are towers of rocks that look like amphitheaters, that look like picture frames, that look like street lamps, and that look like perfect cubes. We stop and take pictures, but we can’t quite capture the true enormity. We stop again, we take panoramas, but still there’s cactus at our feet and a blue sky that becomes blinding next to the red rock that we can’t capture. Our heads can’t stop looking around, like kids in a toy store. Even me, as I drive us around the curves, can’t help but stare at the hundred foot walls of rock.
We get to the bottom of the switchbacks and follow the road to the parking area. There are cars parked along the road a quarter mile before we get to the parking lot. In the distance is the high pitched screaming of children chasing each other. We get to the parking lot and are amazed to find an empty spot tucked in a corner under a tree. Dad gets the map out, Seth smokes a cigarette, and I find water. We decide to do a hike that goes into some waterfalls and then loops back to the car. There is a sign at the first fork in the road, talking about a place called “Angel’s Landing” where at least 10 people have died. That trail is to the right, so we stay to the left. We are amazed at how much like a Disney reproduction of a desert landscape this looks like. There are cacti that almost seem painted onto the landscape of red rocks and red sand. We all agree that it’s more of a compliment to Disney than a bash on the real world. The rest of the hike is similar to hikes that all of us had done a hundred times. There is the climb up, the water feature, and then the climb back down. It’s pretty, but nothing compared to the drive down here. We cross back over the river into the building with the food court. Seth and Dad go to the bathroom while I lay on the grass. The sun dips behind the giant red wall of rock, a side effect of living at the bottom of a canyon I guess. The sun must always rise extra late and set extra early here. I get sleepy and cold almost instantly when the shadow creeps over me, so I pull my sweatshirt hood over my head and close my eyes. From around the corner I hear someone yelling, “Lieutenant Dan! Ice cream! Ice cream Lieutenant Dan!” Seth and Dad are in front of the door to the food court. “Come on, we’re gonna get some ice cream,” Dad says.
We ask the girl serving us ice cream if the views here ever get old. She says that after a while you do get used to them. We told her about how this morning it was 30 degrees and there was snow on the ground, but now, down here, it’s 70. She says, “Yeah, that’s why I live in St. George!” We don’t know what that means. On the way out of the food court I say to Seth and Dad that I could totally tell that she was a St. Georgie girl. We eat our ice cream as we walk along the rest of the trail back to the car.
“Ok, what about a shirt that has some grass coming through the sidewalk, like the way the grass is here, and it says something like, ‘Find a Way’” I say when we get to the car. “That’s pretty inspirational, I think people would like that. Maybe I could sell that at like flea markets.” They both say maybe, neither really enthusiastic about the design.
We type the Grand Canyon into our GPS and it directs us to go back through the canyon the way we came. As we climb the switchbacks the sun comes back out from behind the wall like time reversing. The sun heats up the car, and we’re all warm again. The views are still amazing the second time around, except now they seem more manageable. I know where it’s more important to look, and where I can ignore now. We go through the mountain tunnel again, and this time, instead of being amazed that we’re driving through a mountain, we’re amazed that humans in the 30’s were able to do this. Back out on the main road we take a left where we had come in from the right, and now we are heading towards Arizona.
Down on the right side of the road Seth is the first to notice a geodesic dome, with solar panels sitting next to it, and a small garden next to that. There is a long fence along the road that says “Private Property” and “Do Not Enter”. A few miles away there is another fence like that. This one is surrounding a small body of water, tucked under a rock face. Next to the water, built into an inlet in the rock, is a house made of hodgepodge materials. This one also has solar panels, and a small garden. There is nothing around besides cow farms and desert. We speculate that these must be people living off the grid. Someone asks if any of us could live like that. I instantly form an opinion, even though I’ve never really thought of it before, that I probably couldn’t do it for more than a year. Seth and Dad agree.
As we enter Arizona we rise up out of the canyon completely, and start driving on a flat plateau. Ahead of us, just to the left, is a rain cloud making it’s way across the road to the right. It is massive, taking up almost half the sky. But the craziness is, that even though it is enormous, we can take it all in. We can see it’s beginning and it’s end. This is the first time today that we’re able to see the entirety of something, and it feels good. The storm doesn’t seem as powerful as it would back home, where it would sit on us and seem to go on forever. We drive underneath it and use the rain to clean some of the red dust off the windshield. And then the rain is gone and the cloud moves down the plateau.
The sun slowly sets to the right of us. We’re all quiet for a bit, and then Seth asks Dad how he quit smoking. “I did a program where we kept cutting down how many cigarettes we smoked until we were down to one or two a day. Then we had to buy weaker and weaker cigarettes, until we weren’t really feeling anything from them. That and lots of fruit juices. They had us drink a lot of different juices.”
“Yeah I think that could help,” Seth says after a while. “I think my biggest problem is that I’ve carved out holes in my life to fit the cigarettes in, like all my breaks at work, and now it’s hard to fill in those holes with anything else.”
When we get to the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park it’s hard to see anything. It’s only 9pm, but the heavy darkness makes it feel like 1am. We take the long drive down the north side of the canyon. Along the right hand side are pull offs to look down at different points of interest. There are still a few cars in these parking lots, which confuses us. We wonder if those people fell in.
We get to the south part of the park, where the campgrounds are. According to the map we grabbed at the information center, all of the campgrounds are open. We go into the third one on the left, figuring most people went to the first or second. But when we pull in there are cars everywhere, and fires going and music playing. We forgot that maybe this is spring break for some people. We pause in front of a spot that we don’t think is taken and a girl across the way comes out of her campsite and screams excitedly at us. We pull away from her into our sight and she goes back to her campfire. We hear her do this three more times to different cars as we’re setting up the tents. She must have finally got excited for the right person because she stops after the third car.
When the tents are set up we get some beers and turn on Dad’s water boiler to make one of the dehydrated rice dishes that we brought with us. The sky so vibrant we’re pretty sure we can see the Milky Way, but it might just be a long cloud. We sit around the table eating the rice and drinking our beer.
Dad shows me a trick you can do to make a lantern out of a water bottle. He takes a flashlight and puts it over the open top of the water bottle and the light fractures in the water and illuminates the table. I ask if maybe we could invent something that’s specifically for that. Like a little plastic ball with a light in it that you could drop in your water. Dad says that’s not a bad idea. We start passing possible options back and forth for how to best build it. The bottom has to face into the water, so we’d have to weigh that down somehow. There would be batteries and light bulbs, so it would have to be waterproof. We should probably use LED lights, because they are so small and cheap. We talk about it until we’ve solved all the issues that we can see arising. I wonder if maybe I could make money off an idea like that, maybe not have to go back to work after this writing break. I don’t get my hopes up, but I do write the idea down.
After our second beer we realize how long of a day we’ve had, starting out in the frigid Bryce Canyon this morning and making it all the way to the Grand Canyon. Somehow that convinces our bodies to become tired, so we zip up our tents and go to bed.
When we wake up it takes us a minute to realize that we are in the Grand Canyon. The feel is different than the other canyons. On the way to bathroom I notice that there are a lot more pine trees here than at either of the other two canyons. I take a pee and wash the dishes that I brought with me at a water pump outside the bathroom. Waiting to use the pump next is a guy in his thirties. I had seen him and his girlfriend camped next to us. She had a video camera out that morning while they were eating breakfast, talking about the trip they were on. When I’m done washing I step aside to let him use the pump while I shake the water off my dishes. He asks where we’re coming from, and where we’re going. I trip over our plans like I do every time I say them.
“My Dad and brother flew out from Boston to Oregon to pick me up, and now we are driving across America, dipping south to avoid the snow and cold.” And then I go over the places we’ve seen and places we plan to see. He says that him and his fiance are from L.A. They are spending a day in the Grand Canyon, and then going for some “deep backpacking” in Utah. I tell him we were just in Utah and it was really pretty. He agrees, as if he already knew that.
When I get back to the campsite Dad and Seth are taking down the tents. Within a few minutes we have everything in the van and we head towards the Grand Canyon headquarters. I expect something regal, overwhelming, and uninviting for people in half dirty clothes like us, but instead the headquarters are located in a large building with 70’s style architecture and a huge, school style cafeteria. Dad gets eggs and Seth and I get pancakes. It’s fun sitting in the cafeteria looking at the maps. We are so close to something of massive beauty and grandeur, and we can’t see it. It was a pleasant tease, like those few seconds before I open my pack of night cigarettes, telling myself I probably don’t have any left, but knowing I do.
We go back to the van and get all our supplies. Water, cameras, hats. The day is warming up but I bring a sweatshirt anyway. We walk around the grounds, trying to figure out what the map is telling us. Eventually, cutting through small wooden cabins that we all agree we should stay in next time, we come to the edge of the canyon. It is the biggest canyon yet by at least a factor of ten. Layers of red stone and white stone are piled on top of each other, with small puffs of green trees sprinkled around. It is also the least dynamic of all the canyons, it’s form suggesting solid unmoving strength instead of flow or erosion. We talk about how all of Boston or Portland could fit inside the canyon.
Cool breezes blow up from deep below. It feels like someone just opened the door to an air conditioned room. I look down at the different layers, each with different types of pine trees. Across the way, on an outcropping of rock, I can see tiny people looking down at the same thing as me, and it makes the scale seem even less processable.
We go back and forth on which trail to take. There is one that goes down a number of switchbacks, to a lower plateau in the canyon. Depending on how far you go down, the sign for the trail says, it could take between 3 and 9 hours. The other options is the easy trail that hugs the edge of the canyon all the way along the top. This one also has buses to take us back once we get to the end. We decide to do this one, but can’t stop watching the people doing the other one, zig-zagging their way through the rock and sand.
“I’m glad we did our trail,” one of us says. “That one would be cool, because you get to see all the different layers, but we get so many more different views of the canyon.” We all agree, but none of us stop looking at the progress that the people on the other trail are making.
We talk again about how water and time created this. We see a tree on the side of the cliff whose root has split a rock in half, and that helps cement our thoughts about time and persistence. We’re quiet for a bit as we make our way to the next lookout. Our steps fall in sync. Seth begins to talk about how much he loves his boots. They are big thick boots from the Vietnam war, but because they were made for the jungle, he says, they are really breathable. Without really processing what he said I mention that I like my shoes too, they are made by a biking company, so even though they look like low top converse they are completely waterproof. Somehow we’re in competition about our clothing when really neither of us wants to be.
We get to the outcropping where I saw the people in the beginning. I look back and it’s equally beautiful, and just as hard to quantify. Signs around the outcropping guide us where to look. Down the center, perpendicular to the rest of the canyon is a ridge that wasn’t created by the river, but instead it was created when a fault line pulled those two pieces of earth apart. Reading this is when we realize that there is still a river down there, but the canyon is so deep we’re not able to see it. Dad says that he thinks there’s only a few spots where you can actually see it. I forgot that he’s been here before. When he was in his twenties I think.
We walk to the next look out, only a few hundred feet away and it’s all new views. From the left side of this lookout we spot a pulley system going into a hole. A sign talks about the uranium mining that used to go on in the canyon. That fact, and the story on the next sign over, of the white explorers who rode the river through the canyon for the first time, make it all more accessible. It creates a place for my imagination to get steady footing. Before that the canyon seemed like an epic poem in a foreign language. It seemed impressive, but had no connection to me. Now I imagine the men going into the Uranium mines, and whether they even knew what they were doing. I imagine explorers seeing these curves and inlets for the first time, and wondering if they speculated on how they were made. I used to do that at church, imagine men climbing across the ceiling beams and rappelling down from the lights. It made it so that I can still remember exactly what that church looks like.
We get to the next outlook, this one with a bus full of people unloading. We follow them, and their tour guides, to the guard rail. One of the tour guides is pointing out an eagle’s nest tucked hundreds of feet up on a rock face. The other one is talking about how there are over 200 miles of river winding through the canyon, and more trails in the park than anyone could walk in a lifetime. It makes the scale overwhelming again, or both overwhelming and manageable at the same time. A condor flies in towards us. It gets so close that we can see it’s featherless head and basketball player wingspan. An older man behind us points out that he could see the number tagged on the birds body. A kid on the left points out that he can see the river. Everyone within earshot pushes close to the boy and we all “Awww” in amazement at the tiny triangle of caribbean blue that starkly contrasts the dusty reds and tans of the rest of the canyon.
The people pile into the bus and we keep walking down the trail. The views as we go along are slightly different, but it’s getting hard again to process so much canyon at once. We all start more manageable goals. Dad begins to collect rocks for his gardens, especially the baby powder white rocks that seem unique to here. I discover that the pines trees along the trail had recently been trimmed, so small amounts of sap are solidifying in the exposed areas. I collect little bits of this sap from each tree and put it in the bottlecap of my water bottle. The combined smell of all the saps is warm and sawdusty. I make everyone else smell it but they don’t seem as excited. Seth trails back every few miles and smokes his cigarettes.
We get to the end of the trail, a place called “Hermit’s Rest” that has postcards, trinkets, and coffee. We each get something and sit out in front of the gift shop to wait for the bus to arrive. Families pour past us. Young kids run up the rocky slope next to the gift shop that says “Do Not Climb”.
The bus comes and we all get on, all with a bit of tiredness. The sun is on the way down, and the day feels like it’s gone on forever, in that good way and in that tiring way. The bus turns the corner and we are looking down into the canyon again, and the magic is new again, it is as beautiful and unimaginable as it was the first time we saw it. The setting sun makes the bands of red, brown, green, and tan all stand out more. The river is an endless sliver in the corner that turns a corner to someplace we’ll never see.
Dad had said that if everyone who visited the Grand Canyon took a rock the whole thing would be gone. We all took a few rocks. I look up on my phone if it’s true, but only find how many people you could fit in the Grand Canyon. It says that you could fit all 7 billion people into the canyon many times over.
I look back into the bus, at the other people going back with us. There is a young couple with two kids standing up next to us. From their accent I can’t figure out if they are Irish or Australian. Across the way Seth is sitting next to an older woman. It’s heartwarming and scary to think she did this trip on her own. In front of me is a couple probably in their mid sixties. The man has a shaved head and an underarmor shirt on, maybe a retired coach. The woman has earrings with little scottie dogs on them. I wonder about those earrings. Is she wearing them for the same reason a high school kid wears a shirt of his favorite band? If she really likes scottie dogs through, why does she have to prove it with these earrings? Is she constantly reminding herself about her love of scottie dogs? Maybe they are just conversation pieces to help make meeting other scottie dog lovers easier. This line of questioning makes me realize how tired I am, and how loopy I’m getting, so I close my eyes until the bus brings us back to the car.
In the car we debate how far we should go. We are pretty much on schedule, but if we sleep in Winslow Arizona tonight like we were thinking, it’s going to be a 12 or more hour drive the next day to get to Austin. We all agree that we’re pretty tired though, and would love to call it an early night in a warm bed. We drive through the park to leave and on the way we see a crowd of people. Inside the crowd, on a small patch of grass near the cabins is an elk, grazing and looking around.
I find a hotel in Winslow and call in a reservation while we drive the 2 hours south. The feel of the town is halfway between Baker City and Yakima. It’s somewhat run down, but the dangerous parts seem pretty benign. It’s still early enough that restaurants are open. We search for pizza places and find one close to the hotel. It’s called Captain Tony’s Pizza. When we walk in it’s just us, four firefighters in Winslow FD t-shirts, and a mom and her two boys, both wearing headphones and looking away from each other.
We order some pizza and beer. Sitting in our booth we are all mesmerized by the big screen TV playing a college basketball game. None of us are big basketball fans, but the respite of pre-packaged entertainment feels like a good break after the hike. The firefighters leave just as a drunk man walks through the door. He stumbles back into the claw grabbing game when he sees them, then plays it cool and says “officers” as they walk past him. The waitress that took our order comes out and tells the mom that she just spilt a big tub of ranch dressing all over her clothes. For a second I think about it as if it’s my own problem. If I got ranch dressing all over my clothes I’d have to wash them in the hotel sink, then put them in a trash bag and make sure they don’t mold. But then I remember that she can just go home and wash her stuff. She lives here.
After dinner we go back to the hotel. Seeing my bike on the top of the van under the harsh street lights I get nervous about our stuff getting stolen again. We park the van right outside of our bottom floor hotel window, and when we get into our room I crack the window a bit, to be able to hear if someone breaks into the van. I finally have reception so I go out for a night cigarette and call Jess to tell her how the trip has been going so far. She is sitting at home reading a book with her dog on her lap. We feel worlds away but we both make the effort to connect. We know this part is tough, with me traveling and getting no reception. We talk about how it will be easier once I’m home and the only trouble is that we live on different coasts. The easier hard part. After the call I head back in the hotel room. We all hang out on our laptops as each of us take turns using the shower. We upload photos and check out what people are saying about the trip. When all of us are done showering I pour us each a whiskey drink as a nightcap.
“You know what song I like,” Dad blurts out halfway through his drink. “That John Prine song ‘Hello in There’”.
I say I hadn’t heard it before. Seth says he has and finds it online so we can all hear it. It’s a sad song with a country twang about people not connecting and getting lost in themselves. When the song is over I tell them that my favorite John Prine song is “How Lucky”. We play that one too, and it’s equally sad, although played with happier chords. After a while we finish our drinks, put our laptops away, and go to sleep.
The next morning we get breakfast at the Mcdonalds across the street from the hotel and head towards the statue of Jackson Browne near the town center. It’s there to commemorate the song he wrote, that The Eagles later made famous, that has the lyrics “Standing on a corner in Winslow Arizona”. On the corner is a bronze statue of Jackson Browne, with artifacts from the song surrounding it. There’s an old pick up truck, like he talks about, and a couple in a window, painted onto the building behind him. We take some pictures, funny ones and serious ones and then head back out of town.
In the van we play the song a few times, trying to pull new meanings from it now that we’ve seen where it was written. Eventually we move on to listening to Dad’s ipod because he has the most classic rock and we want to stay in that mood.
We’re heading to Roswell New Mexico, a little out of the way, but hopefully a halfway point between where we are and Austin Texas, where we want to be by the night. There is nothing on the highway. Small plateaus and tiny canyons appear every couple miles, and then they go away and it’s just fields of rock and dirt all the way to the horizon on both sides. It looks like the roadrunner and coyote cartoons, and a little like the old westerns.
We get close to Albuquerque and buildings rise out of the desert like a major city that’s been misplaced in the middle of nowhere. The highway overpasses are all colored with a desert pink and a turquoise blue. There are more cacti and other desert plants growing on the median strip than we’ve seen for the last few hours. We talk about how Breaking Bad took place here. We talk about how the band The Shins were from here. A man in a black truck goes by us with balloons in his back seat that say “Happy Birthday”. Tall buildings full of bank employees and dentists offices wizz by us. And then we’re on the other side of the city and it’s all just desert again.
This is the most boring kind of desert. We’ve seen the type of deserts in Utah with colored rocks and jutting hills, and we’ve seen the type of deserts in Arizona that have short trees and cacti, but this desert, on the way to Roswell, is only dried grass and fences. There are long stretches of short fence running along the highway, and then every few miles there are perpendicular fences going off into nothing, dividing one persons huge stretch of desert from the next.
I get bored, and start thinking about why Albuquerque planted all those cacti on the median strip. Driving through that city there were so many cacti, and so much variety, that it contrasted strangely with the actual desert. It was like Albuquerque was trying to be more deserty than the actual desert. Like when a Harry Potter fan knows more about the characters than J.K. Rowling. I lose my train of thought. I realize that we have been making a lot of speculations about things and people because, even though we are driving through these places, we are doing it in a bubble. We don’t ask farmers why they raise the cows they way they do, or why a city chooses to plant so many cacti. I didn’t ask the lady why she had scottie dog earrings, although I could have. Instead the three of us are in a bubble going by these things and wondering about them. Which we have to do, we can’t stop and figure out everything.
“I could see why someone out here might want to fake an alien landing,” Seth says. “There is just nothing else to look at.”
“Yeah, but this is also kind of the perfect place to hide an alien landing,” Dad said.
The only colors around us are beige, khaki, light green, and concrete. The grey blue sky almost becomes invisible after a while. A person in a pink shirt drives along one of the fences in an ATV and we all notice and comment on it. It’s the only change in color any of us has seen for miles. Everything goes back to beige and khaki once the person is out of sight. On the horizon of some of these plots of land, almost imperceivable, are tiny black farm houses. Grazing around them are smaller black shapes that we guess must be cows.
“Area 51 has to be around here somewhere,” Seth says. “Probably pretty easy to hide in a place like this.”
Suddenly there’s grass. To the right is a giant circle of bright green healthy grass. To the left, a few miles down is another circle of emerald green grass. Next to these circles are small shacks, and above them are watering instruments. We all speculate that they must be testing out different types of grass that they could maybe grow in these fields. There’s another circle of grass on the right hand side, and then a farm closer to the road. There are more and more farms and houses, pushing in towards each other, which means we are getting close to Roswell.
“Oh wait, Area 51 isn’t near Roswell, it’s in Nevada,” Seth says from the back seat as he looks on his phone. “And so is that famous black mailbox. All the stuff I thought was in Roswell is in Nevada I guess.”
We pull into downtown Roswell and there are aliens on everything. The Taco Bell has an alien out front. The gas stations say they are official alien destinations. Even one of the banks has an alien on it’s sign. Seth had found a museum for us to go to just past downtown. When we look up the address again, we realize that they closing in 15 minutes. This, plus the Area 51 thing, plus Seth revealing to us that he’s needed to get out and smoke for the past half hour creates a strange tension in the car. We finally find a parking space and Seth jumps out of the car and smokes. Dad and I wander over to the museum.
Inside it looks like a school gymnasium. When we get to the desk they say it’s no charge because we’re so late. Seth keeps his distance from us. I muster some enthusiasm for the place, because I feel like someone has to. Dad seems to too. It’s an odd place though. There are articles from local newspapers about the crash, but then there’s also a lot of strange paintings of what people thought the crash looked like. There is a life sized replication of aliens landing in a UFO that we take our picture in front of. Close to the end of the tour there’s a poster for the now cancelled TV show Roswell. I take a picture of it.
The museum announces that we have to leave, so we go across the street to an alien themed gift shop. The strange tension is still there, and it feels like no one really wants to be in this town. The gift shop has really tacky shirts with picture of aliens wearing sunglasses, or aliens drinking beers. After flipping through shirts for a few more minutes we all agree that we need some food. Dad looks us places for burritos in town. We figured that if we’re in the southwest, we should have a burrito.
We get back in the car and set the directions to a place called “Fat’s Burritos” not too far away. I look at the clock. It’s already 5:30, and we have a solid 7 hours of driving left if we’re going to get to Austin. We find our way to “Fat’s Burritos” but it’s closed. The tension in the car seems to build. We meander around trying to see if we spot anything else while Seth looks for another mexican restaurant on his phone. Eventually, after driving up and down the strip, we settle on a place called “Pepper’s Bar and Grill”.
We order our food. Seth gets a Margarita. Dad calls Mom and updates her on our progress. The lady at the table across from us hasn’t stopped talking since we sat down. The man with her hasn’t said anything, he just nods. She’s talking loud, like maybe she wants other people in the restaurant to be interested in her story. “I got grabbed by security, asked for my autograph, lost $250, and was proposed to…” she says.
We finish the food and get back in the Van around 6:30. We set the GPS for Austin Texas and come to the realization that we won’t be able to drive that much. We keep the destination as Austin anyway and head out of town. I say that I’ll find a hotel or campground along the way while Dad is driving.
The roads leading away from Roswell have the same nothingness as the road going in did. After an hour we start to see small oil pumps scattered around the fields. They look exactly like they do in old movies, except that these ones are smaller and aren’t moving.
“I don’t think I could live out here,” I say.
“Yeah,” Dad agrees. “I mean what is there to do? Read, watch TV, and drink.”
The road is going exactly east. We realize this because the compass in the car says so, and because the sun is setting directly behind us. Dad starts playing a game of keeping the long shadow of the car inside the lines of the road. It seems easy at first, until the sun sets even lower and the shadow of the car becomes unmanageably long. Eventually everything turns into a shadow. I put on the radio and we’re all quiet for a while.
“If we’re going to see aliens, I feel like tonight's the night,” I say, looking up at the sky through the windshield.
A large bug slams into the windshield. So big it scares us, and Dad has to use the wipers to get it off.
“Where did that come from?” He asks. “I guess there is stuff living out here that we’re just not seeing.”
I look out at the fields and don’t see anything except five small oil rigs. One of them is pumping slowly. On the radio there’s a commercial for a construction company that mentions that they have “Christian Ethics”. There’s another that isn’t connected to any company, it’s just a public service announcement telling people the best time to start planting certain vegetables. Then the music comes back. It’s a classic rock station that touts itself as being one of the best in the world. I think that’s a funny statement until I hear two songs, both deep cuts, one from early Queen and one from early Aerosmith. It is one of the best classic rock stations I’ve heard. We listen to it until it fizzles out into static, sounding exactly the way the landscape looks.
“There’s no stereotypical cactuses out here,” Dad says. I agree. “Like the tall kind, with arms.” Dad puts one arm up like he’s making a turn on a bike. We both wonder if those kinds of cactuses even exist. They must, because we both feel like we’ve seen pictures of them. Seth is quiet in the backseat, working on sewing the patch he made to his shirt.
I search the internet for campgrounds, figuring we’ll keep up our rhythm of camping after we’ve been to a hotel. It will save us money, but it also feels like we have to, like camping pops the bubble that we’re in. When we’re camping we aren’t sitting behind a windshield where the bugs can’t get us, or in a hotel room where we can’t tell what the temperature is outside.
I find a campground in San Angelo, a small college town two hours outside of Austin. I give the phone number on the website a call. The guy on the other end has a thick Texas accent, and almost seems thrown off by my lack of one. I explain our situation, about how we’ll be coming in late, and he says that’s no problem. He slowly reads me the combination for the gate to the campground. I wonder if he’s going so slow because he doesn’t think I can understand him. I also think it’s funny that I can just have the combination that easy, he says I don’t even have to pay over the phone, we can just pay on our way out tomorrow. Then he tells me to wait just a moment while he finds a campsite that’s available. He makes some mumbling noises and I can hear the click of his mouse as he looks. Finally he comes back and says that he’s got a few sites available, between 16 and 20. He tells me that there’s a map at the entrance to help me find those sites. I say thanks and tell Dad and Seth what’s going on.
We drive through a few more cities and towns, all looking like Lite Brites in the dark. Off to the side of one town are hundreds of blinking red lights sitting high up in the sky. At first we think it’s a fleet of planes, or possibly those aliens that I was hoping for, but then we figure out that it’s just more wind turbines. They all blink red at the same time, and then turn off, and then turn back on.
We get off at the San Angelo exit and make our way across town towards the park. It’s a medium size city, and it’s completely asleep, even though it’s only 11:30. We wind our way through smaller and smaller roads until we get to the park entrance. Dad gets out and dials in the combination that the park employee gave us, and I’m kind of surprised when it works. I wonder why everything couldn’t be that easy. Dad grabs a map and hops back in the van. As we enter the park the night becomes even darker. It’s hard to see the road. Seth mentions that we probably need to watch out for snakes and scorpions.
“Not to mention coyote,” Dad says.
“So shoes inside the tent?” I say.
When we get to the section of campsites that we’re staying at there is no one else at any of the other sites. We park at 16 and begin to set up. Looking out we don’t see a single other light in the whole park, and no noise at all besides the distant howling of dogs.
“Are those coyotes?” I ask.
“No those are definitely dogs,” Dad says.
When our tents are set up we each have a beer and just pace around the campsite. It’s still warm enough that we can’t say it’s cold, not after the actual cold we’ve experienced, but it still makes us shiver a little. We finish our beers and I take extra care to put them in the car and lock it up.
I’m more tired than I thought I was, and immediately I start to drift off to sleep when I get in my sleeping bag. Maybe instantly, or maybe a half hour later, it’s hard to tell, Dad and I both wake up to the sound of something walking around our tent.
“It’s gotta be deer, they must have heard us and come over to see,” Dad says. It sounds enough like hooves on rocks, and not paws on rocks, or feet on rocks, and I’m tired enough, that I believe him and go back to sleep.
We wake up to a cold grey morning. When I peek my head out of the tent I can see there’s a haze over everything, blocking out the sunrise. My nose is stuffed up and the pressure in my head makes it hard to think. I finally get why Seth was complaining about his sinuses so much at the beginning of the trip.
“Seth I’m all stuffed up,” I yell from my tent to wake him up. “This is miserable.”
Seth pokes his head out of his tent, a cigarette dangling from his smirk. “See, now you know how it feels.”
Looking around, the campsite is really nothing. There are low growing cacti and thorny bushes growing along the edge like weeds. We all take turns peeing in the bushes, and check out what is supposed to be a reservoir beyond the edge, but is just a dry bed of more cacti and thorny bushes.
“We did our part at filling the reservoir,” Dad says when he’s done peeing.
We pack up and drive back out to the entrance. Dad and I go into the little house to pay while Seth smokes a cigarette. The woman asks us what campsite we stayed at. We tell her 16. She looks on her computer and says that we shouldn’t have stayed there, that sight was already booked. Because of my headache I can feel my patience fade away to nothing. I want to yell at this lady that there’s no one else here, can’t we just give her the money and leave? She fiddles around with the computer a little more and says she’s going to tell the computer that we stayed in a different campsite.
“That will be 16 dollars,” She says. Dad pays her, and buys some patches. She sorts the bills slowly, making them all face the same way. Then she asks us if we found the restrooms down the path from our campsite ok. We take too long to answer, Dad finally says we didn’t need to use them, but I can tell by her face that she knows we’re lying. She knows we peed all over her park without a care in the world. She rips our receipt from the machine and hands it to Dad and we leave.
On the way out I think about how many bridges we’ve burned along the way. How many people we’ve cut off on the highway. How many people we’ve offended by calling their towns “cute” and “little”. This lady will be one more in that pile.
When we get back on the highway we are finally able to see Texas in the daylight. The landscape is very similar to New Mexico, flat land forever, except that here the soil is much darker. There is green grass growing for miles, instead of dried out yellow grass. There are hundreds of cows grazing right along the highway. Some of them look up and watch us go, some have babies stumbling close behind. In the distance are oil pumps, these ones are bigger and more active than the ones we saw in New Mexico.
I think about how this is where our stuff comes from. Cows, corn, oil. If not from here, from places close by just like this one.
“I guess you let the cows eat the grass if you have the space, and then those places where they don’t have the space they just keep them all penned in like that and feed them hay,” I say.
I can tell we are dipping down towards sea level because my ear need to pop, but the sinus pressure won’t let them. I pinch my nose and push air into my mouth but it doesn’t help.
As we get closer to Austin the trees become more familiar. They have some of the same deciduous trees, like elms, oaks, and aspens, that Mom and Dad have at their house. My house now too, I remind myself.
“This is our halfway point,” Dad says and points to the trip-o-meter, which says we’ve driven 2500 miles.
We stop at Mcdonalds to get some coffee and breakfast. Getting out of the car we notice that every vehicle in the parking lot is a truck except ours. Inside there are eight men in their 70s sitting around a table, all wearing the same tan colored ten barrel hat. They all stop talking to look at us. I’m wearing tight black pants and a tight sweatshirt, tight for this part of the country. Seth is wearing a sleeveless black vest with patches on it, and torn black shorts. Dad is wearing the most similar clothes to them, khaki colored hiking pants and a button up shirt.
We get back in the car with our breakfasts, and instantly the coffee makes my headache start to go away. No one is playing music at first, and Seth and I must have realized at the exact same time, because he calls out that he has a playlist ready to go just as I reach for the cord. I pass it back to him and he puts on his music. It’s bands I haven’t heard before, but I like the sound of them. He tells me about them, and about other bands I’d probably like. I tell him about some bands I’ve been listening to lately. A few minutes later, when I take out my notebook to write down the thing about the men in cowboy hats he shows me his notebook. It’s a moleskin notebook with a really durable cover. I show him that mine is a Rite-in-the-Rain notebook with waterproof pages. I wonder why we’re being so competitive. I hope it’s a last gasp at our independence, before we give up trying to have three separate trips together. I wonder if we’re any closer now than we were in Portland. It’s hard to tell.
I look out the window at the cacti that are growing here. They are so much bigger than the cacti that were growing in New Mexico and Arizona. I wondered why the cacti ever try living anywhere else. This place seems like the ideal environment for them, so why not just stick it out here. Why leave home and risk not being able to survive?
“How do you think they name those ranches?” Seth asks, pointing to a sign for “The Long H Ranch”. “Cause they always have letters in them it seems like.”
“It’s probably because they have to brand something onto the cows, and a letter is easier than a whole name,” Dad says assertively, without the usual speculation that we all have for the things we see along the road.
Right outside of Austin we see purple flowers growing in patches all along the highway. This is the first bit of color we’ve seen, outside of the dirt and the grass. Beyond a tangle of highways in front of us we can see Austin. We head towards the high rises, towards the “flagship” Whole Foods, a giant city block of groceries. It seems like it’s harder than I thought to completely leave Whole Foods. When we get there I head to the coffee counter to keep the headache at bay. Behind the counter is a girl with a familiar face, l but I can’t figure out why. Seth walks by and I grab him to ask how I know the girl.
“Oh that’s Jina, remember she used to work in bakery. Hey Jina!” Jina worked in the Bakery department of the Whole Foods that Seth and I briefly worked in at the same time.
Jina comes around the counter and give us both a hug. She seems so happy to see us. I feel bad that I didn’t remember who she was. She asks what we’re doing, and we tell her about the trip, and a few of the highlights so far. We talk a little about what she’s doing down here, and then she says she has to get back to the counter. We all wave goodbye, until I realize that I haven’t got my coffee yet, so I get back in line and say another, more awkward, goodbye to her after she gives me my receipt.
We stock up on groceries, and more beer. We buy Mom a new Whole Foods bag. We all take turns using the bathroom. We linger a little bit, like we would in an old familiar home before moving out of it, and then we head to the cash registers and leave.
We don’t know what to do next. We have a little time before we have to leave, which feels strange, because so much of this trip has been rushing around. The only thing we have to do is drive the 6 hours to get to New Orleans by that night. The amount of driving we’re saying “only” for is getting a lot bigger. We park the car near the big wide river that runs through the city and take a walk along the path next to it. Out in the river we spot turtles and frogs sitting on rocks. I check on my phone for places to eat. There are a few good looking places, but then I see one for a sausage house that has veggie sausages and a huge selection of beer. I say that we should check out this place and no one complains.
We walk towards the restaurant, walking through old children’s parks, and crossing a highway on-ramp we probably shouldn’t be crossing. On the other side of the on-ramp we get to a street that has tight rows of houses on both sides. Each house though is a different bar or restaurant. There’s a barbeque house, a whiskey house, a burger house, a house of beer, and then our sausage house. It’s closed until 4. That’s only a half hour away, so we walk past it and towards a large structure to the right. On our way down the street we pass a house that is actually someone’s house. There are a bunch of signs that say “No Trespassing” and “Private Property” and there is a car in the driveway.
“Do you think he’s the last hold out?” I ask. Seth and Dad agree that maybe he was the only one who didn’t sell his house.
The big structure turns out to be a Mexican-American Museum. It’s a pretty impressive building. Part of it is a triangle, part of it is a cylinder, and part of it is a half circle, all mashed together in one building. We walk around the garden area, amazed at how big the yucca plants get out here. We meander around a little more, walking really slow to help pass time, and then we head back to the sausage house.
We’re the first people there right when they open. We sit outside at picnic tables and talk over the loud country music blasting from speakers. I pick the veggie sausage and an Austin beer that sounds good. Dad gets a duck and deer sausage and a beer. Seth just gets gravy fries and a gluten free beer. My beer comes out and it’s enormous, I didn’t realize how big it was when I ordered it. I tell Dad he has to help me finish it, mostly because I’ll be driving to New Orleans. It’s a delicious beer though, and the veggie sausage is too. It’s some sort of deep fried eggplant. Dad says his is great too. Seth is just picking at his plate of fries. I ask him if he has a crush on the short curvy waitress that keeps walking by, and he says yeah. I’m proud of myself that I know his type. Our waitress bring the check and it turns out that my beer cost $20. I apologize to Dad, who already agreed to pay for the meal, and say I’ll pay him back. He says not to worry, but I keep saying it’s crazy that our meal cost as much as our last hotel.
We head back towards the car. I get my third coffee of the day, to get me ready for the drive. As I’m drinking it I realize that I’m going to hate the smell of coffee, and the smell of cigarettes, for a while after this trip. And then, maybe a few months later, those smells will probably bring back fond memories of wandering around the country.
There’s a bit of traffic as we head out of town. We forgot that it’s rush hour. We forgot if it’s a weekday or a weekend even. When we finally get onto the highway and set the cruise control the sun begins to set. It’s completely dark when we hit Katy Texas. At first we just think Katy is some entrepreneurial woman, because there’s signs for “Katy’s House of Steaks” and “Katy’s Hair Salon”, and then we see a sign for “Katy’s Ramada Inn” and figure it must be the name of the town. The highway expands into 6 lanes going east and 6 lanes going west, with a 7th lane popping in and out of the left hand side for different toll roads. It feels like we’re in a video game. We’re constantly having to merge to the left or right as chunks of the highway turn into exits for other highways, and chunks of other highways join ours. The shops on the side of the highway become more dense and more neon. Trucks fly by us, with double mirrors on the side and huge metal hips covering the tires. They look like longhorn cows in truck form. There are furniture stores, steak houses, waffles houses, hotels, Asian grill restaurants, ice cream shops, high end clothing stores, and more waffle houses. And then we enter Houston, which Katy turns out to be a suburb of, and the stores become taller and denser. It feels like a run down version of the future. There are lights everywhere. The highway is impossibly large. At one point it becomes 8 lanes on either side. I stay in the middle, ready for anything the exit signs throw at me.
And then we enter Louisiana and the highway shrinks back down to two lanes on the right, and two lanes on the left. There are billboards along the side of the highway for different casinos in Louisiana, all with a little disclaimer at the bottom for a gambling addiction hot-line. We pass an adult superstore, and a tiny casino attached to a gas station. For a while we are behind a drunk driver who is swerving in and out of his lane. We keep our distance, until it looks like he’s staying in his lane long enough that we can pass him. The highway shrinks down to just two lanes of traffic. We drive on a long expanse of raised roadway as we make our way across a large marsh.
We finally get to our hotel outside of New Orleans, which turns out to be in Baton Rouge at around 12:30. For some reason they didn’t get our reservation. The woman behind the counter says they only have a single left, but she can give us a fold out bed at no extra charge. We stand around for a bit while she restarts her computer, trying to scan the key cards in. We talk about our different cell phones, about how her sister just got off work, how she should be calling soon to say she’s home, and about how the diner next door has fish burgers on sale because it’s Lent. Finally we get the keys and the fold out bed and carry it up the stairs and into the room. I get under the cover on the fold out bed, Dad puts his stuff on the real bed, and Seth pushes two chairs together. Dad takes a shower while Seth and I get into bed and fall asleep.
Dad wakes up first, turning on the light, which wakes me up. I’m all stuffy again, with a headache. I wonder if part of the headache is from too much coffee. This is the first time I count down the days until the trip is over. We have four more days including this one. I go in the shower and when I get out Seth is gone. Dad says he went to the diner across the parking lot. I’m annoyed because I want to get on the road, and jealous because I want to be around some locals too, but I’m not brave enough to sit alone in a southern diner.
Dad and I get all our stuff into the van and check out at the desk. As I’m walking across the parking lot to get Seth he comes out. He has a small box of leftovers.
“Was it cool in there?” I ask Seth.
He says it was, although the waitress couldn’t understand what he was saying, or maybe he couldn’t understand what she was saying. I look in and see an older couple drinking coffee in a booth.
We get back on the highway towards New Orleans. Everything is green. Even lawns full of broken down cars have thick, lush, healthy grass. There are yellow flowers and purple thistles all over the median strip. I put on a old CD from my collection that has the word “Blues” written in marker. It turns out to be mostly Van Morrison and Led Zeppelin. There are pools of water everywhere, like puddles from a massive rainfall the night before, which we realize is all marshland. We’re driving over marshland, and people’s houses are built on marshland. What we thought was a forest on the side of the road reveal itself to have water at the bottom. There are trees growing on tiny islands, and houses built on stilts.
We get to a bridge and realize that we’re about to cross the Mississippi river. It’s big, but not the biggest we’ve seen. There are docks and boats and cargo all along both sides. Down to the right it seems to go on forever, down to the ocean, down to where we’re going. On the other side of the river we drive by a house with it’s roof caved in and I think for the first time how lucky I am to be going back to a nice home.
We pass by three gas stations, each with a casino attached.
“Is gambling legal in Louisiana?” I ask. We figure it must be. We stop to get gas at one of the gas stations and Seth buys scratch tickets.
“The girl at the counter asked me if I’d buy one for her too, so I did,” He said.
Back on the road I look into the cars as they drive by, looking for classic southern people. I see men with tattoos on their arms, small women with short haircuts, men with mustaches, bigger women, and clean shaven men. I wonder if I know what I’m looking for. The only place where people really looked different than us was Texas, and with their big leather boots and oversized hats they seemed to be doing it on purpose.
We get to New Orleans, and the skyline looks just like Austin’s. It’s a disappointment at first, but then we get distracted by the superdome.
“That’s where all the people were during the hurricane.”
We wonder if we’ll see some of the damage that the hurricane caused. Up until spotting the superdome, I had forgotten that New Orleans had just gone through that hurricane and all it’s aftermath.
We get off at our exit and are immediately in an old neighborhood.
“This must be the french quarter,” I say.
It’s all two and three story brick buildings, with cast iron balconies sticking out of every floor. There are vines growing up the balconies and houseplants growing down them. There are banner and flags on top of every door. We drive by a man cleaning rugs on the sidewalk outside a bar. We see a Brinks truck delivering money. Above us are kids dancing on one of the balcony. Two older men cross the street in front of us with coffees. A young couple dressed in fancy clothes rushes past in the opposite direction. In the distance we can hear trumpets and drums.
We park the car and get out and are almost completely overwhelmed. We don’t know which way to go. We plan on getting a shave from a real barber shop that I found online, but not until later. Dad mentions that we have to mail all our postcards so I find a post office on my phone and we head in that direction. Along the cobblestone sidewalk there are shops packed tight into old buildings. We see a tea shop that also reads fortunes, a place that sells beads and shirts with dirty phrases on them, fancy french restaurants with black and white photographs on the walls, bars playing classic rock with people at video poker machines.
We get to the post office and can’t figure out how to get in. We walk into one entrance, but see metal detectors and figure that it must be government offices. When I finally ask someone they say, no, it is in there, and that I will have to go through the metal detectors. I give Dad and Seth all the stuff in my pockets, tell them I’ll meet them at the other entrance, and go through the metal detectors. The lady tells me where the post office is, but I get lost in the long hallways. I look in on a bunch of people doing the pledge of allegiance in one of the rooms. Finally I ask someone else and they bring me to the room, and I mail all our postcards.
When I get back outside I realize how cold it is. It must be in the low 50s. Seth is itching to get back to the French Quarter, to check out Bourbon Street. We walk back a different way than we came, to see new stuff. There’s a band setting up in a park. There are beads hanging from trees. There is a modern office building shaped like a curved piece of paper, with an old church sitting inside the curve.
We stop at a place that sells beignets to get some breakfast. We each get an omelette, and I get us each a beignet because a woman at work told me I had to get some. I also get the chicory coffee she told me about. It doesn’t taste much different than regular coffee. We find a table outside under a heater and listen to a guy on guitar, and another on bass, playing songs. The guitar player starts singing both parts of “Baby it’s Cold Outside” and everyone gives him a polite clap. We finish the beignets, which are basically doughnuts covered in huge amounts of powdered sugar, and keep heading down the road.
We walk aimlessly, taking pictures and looking into shops, and make our way to the boardwalk at the mouth of the Mississippi. Seth angrily ask what we are doing. I say I don’t know, I was told to check out the French Quarter, and maybe the waterfront, so I figured we’d do that.
“We’re in New Orleans, why are we just wandering around! I want to be drinking in a bar on Bourbon Street! I thought we were going to get a shave! But instead we’re just walking really slow to places I don’t care about!”
Before I get rational I get angry.
“Then say that! Say you want to go to a bar and we’ll go in there. We’ve walked by like a hundred bars and you haven’t said a word!”
I avoid using the phrase, “I can’t read your mind” a phrase girlfriends in the past have always repeated to me and I always hated it.
Seth yells back, “This whole trip has been you and Dad in the front seat planning everything, and me in the backseat not able to hear. I feel like I’m always saying ‘What are we doing?’ and then you guys plans something that I have nothing to do with.”
I look around for the first time. We are yelling as families walk by us to get to the view of the ocean. It seems fitting that we’re getting this all out here, at the mouth of the Mississippi. All these small tributaries of problems have built up and collected until Seth finally couldn’t take it anymore, and the levee burst.
I agree with him, Dad and I have planned most of the things we’ve done, and that does seem unfair. I say that on a trip like this someone has to take the reigns, someone has to be in charge or else we won’t do anything. And since Seth wasn’t speaking up I took charge, or Dad took charge a lot of the times. It wasn’t fair, we should have asked him what he wanted to do, but we thought maybe he would say it, the way we were saying it.
For a second I think about me quitting my job, about how for seven years I expected something to just happen that would let me be a writer, but nothing did, so I had to take the reigns and make it happen. I think about how Mom said Seth had a terrible boss right now. I think about that sausage place in Austin, and how Seth just got gravy fries. He probably didn’t want to go there, maybe I forced it on him. I feel bad.
“Well what should we do,” I say.
“I don’t care.” Seth says, deflated.
“Let’s go for a drink.”
“No, that’s not what I was saying.”
“Ok, let’s go get that shave then.”
We go back and forth a little bit, and then I bring up the barber shop on my phone. It’s not too far. We head in that direction. I walk fast, in front of Dad and Seth. We get to the area where it’s supposed to be and we can’t find it. We walk all around the building, but it doesn’t say anything about a barber. Finally we ask a guy walking by if he’s ever heard of the place and he says he has. He points us a block down from where we are. We get there and ask if there’s anything available for three shaves today. The guy looks through the computer and then says no, not for two days. He asks if we want to book it for then and we say no thanks.
“Let’s get a drink,” Dad says when we’re outside.
We all head back to Bourbon Street. I still walk fast. My heart has sunk a bit because the shaving thing was a failure. I figured that would have been a palate cleanser for us. We would have all been on the same page if we were all clean shaven. We walk by barbeque restaurants, pizza places, tattoo parlors, store full of souvenirs, fancy bars, tourist bars, old fashion bars, locals only bars. Seth sees sign for a bar named “Old Absinthe House” and crosses the street. We follow.
Inside the walls are covered with business cards. There is thick cigarette smoke in the air. We forgot that you could smoke in bars here. Immediately upon entering a woman puts her hand down on the barstool next to her and says that seat is taken. I want to make a “seats taken” Forrest Gump joke, but I don’t. We make our way around to the other side of the bar and I squeeze in between two people to order us drink.
“I got this one,” I say.
I know that drinks won’t make up for the fight Seth and I had, but I feel like it won’t hurt. The lady brings us our drinks and takes my card. I get a whiskey soda, Seth gets a fernet and coke (the lady really drags her feet on finding out if they have fernet), and Dad gets a gin and tonic. Seth let’s me try his drink. It’s good. We stand around. Seth trades spots with me and smokes a cigarette at the bar. I look at the jukebox in the corner, but don’t dare play anything. There are two business men and a woman drinking next to us. One of the men is telling a really loud story. There is a well dressed man on his cell phone at the bar. Next to him is a man and his girlfriend, both in New Orleans Saints sweatshirts, both looking really tired. I go to the bathroom and instead of a urinal they have a trough. The last time I saw one of those was at Fenway Park in the early 90s. I laugh and take a picture before I pee.
When I get out Seth and Dad are done with their drinks. I get my card back and pay the bartender. Seth says that his friend works at a bar in town, but according to his phone we might have to drive. We say that’s fine. We’re close to the car anyway. We find the car a few blocks over, and the sight of my bike reminds me that I was supposed to be nervous about it getting stolen. No one stole it though, and if it’s lasted this long, I tell myself, I shouldn’t really worry so much about it.
We drive to the bar that Seth’s friend works at, circling the block a few times to find parking. Across the street is some sort of market, like a smaller version of the Pike’s Place Market that we saw in Seattle. Dad comments that we should check that out after. In the bar we sit at the counter and Seth waves to his friend. She comes down and says hi to us. We introduce ourselves and tell her the Cliff’s Notes version of our trip. Seattle, the canyons, Roswell was a dud, then here. She asks us what we’ll have, and we each order a different drink. Dad wants a beer, Seth wants a cider, and I want hard alcohol with coffee.
The bar is noisy and overwhelming, just like the city. There are hats from police departments all over the country. We find the Boston one. There are Irish flags hanging on the ceiling. There is a picture of Pope John XXIII, and a picture of Jimi Hendrix. In the corner two guys are talking about having enough ads this month for their jazz magazine.
I ask Seth for a cigarette because I want to try smoking inside while it’s still legal. He hands me one and takes one for himself. We tap our ashes into the same ashtray, and blow our smoke up towards the ceiling. He seems to have stop being angry already. I check myself, and realize I’m still holding a little grudge. I let it go. I tell him if he wants to sit in the front seat on the way up to Tennessee he can. He says no thanks. We finish our drinks and tell the bartender it was nice to meet her.
Dad and Seth want to see the market so I follow them across the street. There is a beignet stand, so I get some more. These ones are made fresh. The lady making them plops the dough into the deep fryer as I wait. I ask her if this is cold for New Orleans. She says no, it does get this cold in the Winter, but not usually in the Spring. I ask her when this market closes. “Only an hour and a half more, thank God, I’ve been here since six this morning.” I look at my phone and it’s already 4pm. We have an eight hour drive to Knoxville Tennessee after this. The woman pulls the beignets out of the fryer, covers them with powdered sugar, and hands them over. I say good luck on the last part of her shift but she doesn’t hear me, she’s secretly passing a little kid a soda through a hole in the side of the counter.
I keep going through the market, looking for Dad and Seth. On the tables are the things I see at all the markets I’ve ever been to. There is the table with hats of local sports teams, the table with fancy wooden bowls and spoons, the table with that battery powered car that runs along the track, the table with African imports, the table with old looking concert posters, the table with leather goods. I do find some unique tables though, like a woman with local photographs of people and places around New Orleans. I see Dad and call him over to look at some of them. Seth is over at a table selling rings and jewelry. We walk over as he’s talking the man down from $40 to $18 for a ring with an eagle on it. Dad finds a table where a woman has air plants, another money making idea I had. We buy a few. I give Dad and Seth the last beignets and throw away the powdered sugar coated container.
“I don’t know how this whole city isn’t covered in powdered sugar,” I say.
We linger a little longer, and then make our way back to the van. In the GPS we type in our destination and the arrival time of 2am sobers all of us up. We head out of town, going through run down neighborhoods. On one street about every third house is boarded up. The water damage on the bottoms of the houses is more evident here. As we get onto the ramp to the highway we rise above the neighborhood and see even more damage. Whole warehouses collapsed, and fences torn down.
“Oh and didn’t they have an oil spill recently too?” I remember. “Poor New Orleans.”
We head north. Seth tells us that he just read about two firefighters in Boston who died trying to put out a fire. We are all quiet for a little bit. I curl up my jacket and tell Dad that I’m just going to take a little nap.
When I wake up it’s dark out. I ask what state we’re in and he says Mississippi, but we’re about to enter Alabama. I can’t see any of Mississippi in the dark. I think about the only thing I know about it, that it’s the fattest state in the country. The states fly by so fast now that we only get a tiny feel of each on them. If Texas was the strict step-dad, then Louisiana was the cool uncle who didn’t care if you drank and smoked, and Mississippi was the mom that still cooked everything in fat, because she knows you like it that way, even though she knows it’s bad for you. We go through Alabama and it feels like the quiet Dad who reads a newspaper at night, and only gets drunk on the weekends, and then we finally get to Tennessee, like the serious uncle with a steady job who you stay with when you’re sick of Louisiana’s lazy attitude.
I had called ahead to the hotel, so when we get there the guy has everything ready for us. He looks like Quentin Tarantino, he’s wearing a t-shirt tucked into army pants, and he seems really hyper. Talking extra fast he tells me that we’re all payed up because we did it over the phone, he’s made our key cards already, and all I need to do is sign the receipt. He hands me a copy and tells us to have a good night.
We go back to the van to get our stuff. When we walk it to the room the guy waves to us through the window of his office. I’m wide awake again, so I so back out and grab the beers from the van, and my computer so we can watch the Knoxville episode of the Simpsons. Seth and Dad had never seen it, which bummed me out, because that’s all I could think of the whole time we were driving to Knoxville. The guy waves to me again when I walk back from the van with the beers. We all relax in bed, Seth sitting on mine while we watch the Simpsons. We all laugh at the part where the kids start chanting “Knoxville, Knoxville Knoxville” and the part where the Sunsphere turns out to be a Wigsphere. Then the alcohol hits our system, or the tiredness does, and the episodes ends and we go to bed.
In the morning we get everything back in the van and check out. It’s a different guy at the desk. This guy seems normal. We head northeast, towards the Shenandoah Valley which one of Dad’s hiking friends said he had to see, and then onto a campsite outside of Gettysburg. This is only a 7 hours drive, with not a lot of stops we need to make along the way. It feels much less burdensome than the previous few days. I play everyone a song called “Gettysburg Address” by the band Lambchop, which turns out to be more depressing than I remembered. Then I give the cord to Seth and he puts on some of his music.
“Who is this again?” I ask.
“Black Angels and Night Beats.”
I write it down cause I’m really starting to like it.
Around noon we stop at a Cracker Barrel on the side of the highway. I’ve never been to one, but any nervousness about the kind of food they serve is overridden by my hunger for a real meal. I get a fish thing, Dad gets chicken dumplings, and Seth gets pancakes. Plus we all get tons of side dishes, like fried okra. I eat like I’ve been living on the streets for the past week, not leaving even a crumb on the plate.
When we get back outside everything looks more like home. The trees here, and the rolling hills, could all just as easily be Western Massachusetts as they could be Virginia. I smoke the last cigarette of my “night cigarettes” in the parking lot with Seth while we wait for Dad to be done looking at the stuff for sale on the patio of the Cracker Barrell.
“It’s a lot of those ‘no neck’ beards out here,” I say to Seth. “Just like a thin line of beard all the way along the jaw line and into the mustache.”
Seth says that maybe all the kids are rebelling against the local Amish, and their beard style. Dad comes back and we hop in the Van.
As we keep driving north the mountains come into view. The Appalachian Mountains, we think. They seem short now, compared to everything we’ve seen. Along the sides of the road are farms of overlapping yellow hills, with patches of forests and black cows scattered around them. Spring is just beginning to wake these towns up. Their broken down cars and abandoned trash are still visible through the leafless trees.
All of a sudden the speed limit drops down to 55mph. It instantly feels like someone took our freedom away. We know we can drive 75mph safely, we’ve proven it for almost 4000 miles of driving, so why not just let us drive that speed. I’m legitimately angry for a little bit, until I look around and see that there are probably 10 times as many cars on the road here as there were in the deserts of Idaho. If my freedom only extends to the edge of their bumper then it makes sense why I’d have less freedom to go as fast as I want here. It makes sense, but it still doesn’t feel right.
We start to get bored. Someone tells a dirty joke, and then someone else throws one out there. Eventually, as we make our way through the small towns before the Shenandoah Valley we tell all the dirty jokes we know. The elevation begins to rise and before us is a dark forest on a hill.
“I guess the valley part is talking about the town, because this all seems like a hill,” I say.
There is snow in patches all along the road. We get to the entrance and decide to just drive all the way through the park, up to the top, where we’ll get spit out back onto the highway that will take us to Gettysburg.
The park is really beautiful. There are rock walls, and pristine forests. Every few miles there are pull offs to look out over the towns below. We see a sign that tells us the elevation is 2500 feet, which we think is cute. We drive past a marker for the Appalachian trail, which passes through the forest, so we stop and take a picture of Dad in front of the post. We see a forest ranger, who says we’re lucky, because he just opened the gate at the top. Otherwise we would have had to come all the way back down.
“Yeah, just a lot of snow these past few days,” He says.
We drive a little further until the sun begin to set. We pull off on the left side of the road to watch the sun dip behind the hills. Seth smokes a cigarette, Dad looks for more rocks along the edge, and I think about how that sun is setting in the west, over those oil rigs in Texas, and those canyons in Utah. Soon it will sink behind the Cascade mountains, and disappear in the Pacific Ocean. Down below, the little town that we passed through is turning it’s lights on. Every couple houses light up, until it’s a whole constellation of houses sitting in the valley, smoke rising from their chimneys. I start to feel the pull of wanting routine again, and wanting to sleep in the same bed, and eat big meals. We get back in the van and head towards Gettysburg in the dark.
“It’s not what I expected,” Dad says.
I ask if he means Shenandoah Valley or the whole trip. “The Valley, I guess I thought it would look a little different than this. Although it probably does in the Summer and Fall.”
We get to Gettysburg and find a Little Ceasars. We get pizza and breadsticks and drive them the rest of the way to the KOA camp. It’s 10pm and the camp is completely dark. The woman on the phone had said she wouldn’t be there. They had some freezing pipe issues and were leaving early. We make our way around a few RVs, trying not to shine our lights too bright. We drive up steep hills to dead ends, and then back down to try another road. Eventually we find an area that has flat dirt and a parking spot and figure that’s where the tent people go. We eat the pizza in the car, steaming up the windows and not talking much. Then we reluctantly go out in the cold to set up the tents. When everything is all set up I tell Seth he should come in our tent and we can all drink whiskey to warm us up. He comes in and we immediately realize that the tent isn’t really big enough for three people. We make it work though, and each have a little glass of whiskey before we all start to fade. Seth goes back to his tent, I zip up our flap, and the rain begins to fall outside. I’m asleep before I can think about bringing my shoes in.
We wake up and everything is wet. Even though we put down ground covers there’s water coming through the bottom of the tent and dripping down the inside wall. Not a life threatening amount of water, but enough to be annoying and cold, and make me worried about my phone once I wake up for real.
We take our time getting up. This is our last time camping. Since everything is wet we don’t pack the tents, but instead just throw them in trash bags so we can dry them out later. Dad and I go down to the main building to pay. We walk in and no one is there. We look through the gift shop trinkets, plastic civil war hats, squirt guns, replica Emancipation Proclamations, chinese finger traps. We hear people coming up the stairs. A woman and a man walk towards us, surprised that anyone is here. The woman walks behind the counter, frazzled, and looks for the button to turn on the cash register. The man opens the door and stands there watching the woman.
“Ok, there we go,” the woman says once the register is on. “Just one night? That will be twenty dollars.”
The man continues to stand there, watching the woman. She pushes her hair back, out of her face.
“Thanks for your help with that Dan,” she says.
“Any time Mary,” he says and walks out, closing the door behind him.
I squint at her, trying to figure out what was going on there. Dad doesn’t seem to notice.
When we get back to the site Seth has everything all packed in the van. We turn the van around, and as we do we realize that we’re only 100 feet from the entrance. Last night we must have taken the road all the way around the camp only to get right back to the entrance.
The town of Gettysburg is only 10 minutes away. We all decide to have breakfast in town before going to the historic part. In town we spot a place called Ernie’s Texas Lunch. The menu in the front window says they have things like omelettes and pancakes so we go in. Before the waitress even comes one of us makes the joke, “I’ve had Texas Lunch, and this ain’t no Texas lunch.” There are two boys behind us that we overhear ordering Budweisers and pancakes. The waitress comes to us next, and I order pancakes and coffee, Seth gets pancakes too, and Dad gets a mushroom omelette.
The diner feels like a regular diner, except that the walls are made out of the same stuff that airplane bathrooms are made out of. Plastic walls, stuck together with metal joints. Dad thinks that maybe it’s because the building itself is a historic landmark, so they can’t alter the real walls at all.
We fill up on food and talk about what we should do in Gettysburg. Dad wants to take a bus tour around the battlefields, with a guide telling us all about the battles. Seth and I talk about maybe a more self directed tour, driving to the spots ourselves, but Dad gets stuck on the idea of a bus tour, and so we go along with it. The waitress brings our check, but never comes back. We sit there for a while, waiting for her to take the card. Eventually we realize that it’s one of those places where you have to bring the check up to a cash register and pay that way.
“How do we not have a uniform system for paying at a restaurant yet,” I say as we walk to the car. Dad points out that it might be a southern thing, because we had to do that at the Cracker Barrel too.
Downtown Gettysburg looks like a lot of the old towns we grew up near, like Concord and Lexington. It has a nice feel to it, the scale of everything is a little smaller. The streets are a little tighter, and the houses are a little shorter. We pull up to the Gettysburg visitor center and it’s the complete opposite. It’s a massive modern structure, with large glass panes and curving metal beams. Inside we sign up for the movie, the museum, and the bus tour.
The movie is narrated by Morgan Freeman, and talks mostly about stuff we already knew. The interesting part comes when they talk about the three days of battle that took place at Gettysburg. They show a top down view of where the armies were, and what sections won battles and what sections lost. It looked hopeless for the North, until the third day, when the South got overly confident and made a charge down the middle that they couldn’t win. And then the movie was over. I’m surprised that’s all that happened in Gettysburg. I thought there were years of battling going on here.
We are escorted to another part of the building. We go up an escalator that brings us into a completely circular room, with a wrap around painting covering all the walls. A different narrator explains that this painting was commissioned a few years after the war. It’s overwhelming, which I think is the point, there no place to let your eyes rest. The narrator goes on to tell the same basic story of the three days of battle, how the North was losing for the first two, but then, thanks to a mistake by the South, won the third day, and drove the South back.
We leave the painting room and head back down towards the parking lot to catch our bus. We can tell our tour guide is almost certainly a retired History teacher. His mannerisms, the way he asks question, and the way he over pronounces the answers really slowly all give him away. Dad says that this is probably the dream job for retired History teachers.
As we get going I’m glad we saw the movie and the painting, and I’m glad we have a tour guide, because the fields we drive by are an open landscape of ambiguity. I wouldn’t be able to tell someone’s yard from a registered landmark. The tour guide tells us the same basic story, about the three day battle, but now we can see the fields where each battle took place. It makes it more imaginable. I can place soldiers on the field, running, the way I placed men climbing across the beams at church when I was a kid, and way I placed men in the depths of the Grand Canyon.
The tour guide tells us about farmers whose fields the battles were fought in, and how they had to make up their mind whether to fight or not, even if they previously didn’t really care about the issues of the war either way.
“The battles and the war drew a line in the moral sand, and now you had to be on one side of that line or the other,” the tour guide says. “There was no room for IN---DETERMIN---ATENESS.”
This makes me think about all the decisions we’ve had to make along the trip, where to stay and what to do. And about my decision to quit my job.
We stop in fields and look at the approach from the Southern side, and then we stop in the hills and look at the defense from the Northern side. The tour guide makes the three days of battle seem more important, but he also makes them seem like luck, like a series of mistakes on the South’s part, and a series of good decisions on the North’s part. We drive back into downtown and he shows us bullet holes that are still in the building. We even see one house that still has a cannon ball stuck into the brick. The bus brings us back to the visitor center and we all get off and say thanks to the tour guide.
We head to the gift shop now, because that’s the one thing we haven’t seen yet. It’s the least cheesy of all the gift shops we’ve been in. There are no t-shirts with cartoon lincolns fighting cartoon stonewall jacksons on them, there are no t-shirts at all. Dad finds a lid for a mason jar, with a solar pad on top and an LED light underneath. It’s our idea for the water bottle light, only better. My heart sinks a little when I see it, but I tell Dad we need to buy it. I flip through the pages of a book about Lincoln. He looked so sad, like he was an old door hinge that had to hold the weight of the whole country as it changed directions. In the same book is a painting of New Orleans getting attached. Ships are blasting cannon balls and buildings are on fire. Poor New Orleans. We each get a few things. I get some old fashion metal cups for my young nephews who I haven’t seen in over a year, and whose favorite uncle I want to be.
Back at the car we type in Newark New Jersey, just as a place to shoot for while we find a cheap hotel outside of New York City. Dad points out that if we drove all night, we could probably get home around 2am, which feels strange to be so close. We get back on the highway, and it looks like all the highways we drive on in Massachusetts.
“Nothing is far anymore,” Dad says excitedly.
We agree, after this drive, going to New York City would be like going to the grocery store. The sun starts to set just as we get into New Jersey. I find a hotel and call ahead to book a room. When we get there it’s 65 degrees out. We can’t believe it, because Mom said there was a snow storm in Massachusetts two days before. The woman behind the desk is gruff, but in the familiar East Coast way that feels like home. She’s gruff until I ask her if they got any of that snow. “Are you kidding me? This winter has made me google ‘Florida real estate’ more times than I can remember.” She gives us our key cards and we find our room. We all recognise at the same time that it’s still early, barely 8, so we turn the TV on and relax a little.
I go out to get some beers from the van, and while I do I give Jess a call. She’s eating an early dinner. I realize that I’m going to have to start factoring in the time difference. We talk for a bit about nothing, and then about the trip to Gettysburg. She had read the wikipedia page about Gettysburg that morning so that she could feel like she was connected to what we were doing. I tell her that’s really cute. It makes me miss her. We don’t say anything for a while, neither of us wanting to hang up.
“I keep thinking that you’ll be at the end of this trip. I forget that we’re ending it on the other side of the country,” I say. She reminds me that we’ll see each other in a month and a half when she flies out to Massachusetts. That makes us both feel better. We say goodnight and hang up. I walk back into the hotel with the beers, past the woman from the desk who is out front smoking a cigarette with some guy.
In the room Seth and Dad are watching the Ashley Judd movie “Double Jeopardy”. Something about the movie looks familiar, even though we can’t put our finger on it, and then we realize that it’s filmed on Bainbridge Island, the island in the Puget Sound that we took the ferry from. In the movie they even get on the ferry. We find this engrossing enough to keep watching, even though we don’t really know what’s going on. There’s a scene change and now the movie is in New Orleans, following the evil husband. We recognize certain streets and cemeteries that we drove by. We’re all enthralled, if not by the plot, at least by the coincidences. I take a shower during a commercial break and when I get out the movie is over. I ask what happened. Seth says Ashley Judd killed the husband, but I don’t even know what that really means for the plot of the movie, so I just say again how weird it was that they went to the places we went to.
We each finish our beers. Dad and Seth take showers, and we go to bed early for the first time on the trip.
We wake up in our soft beds under warm sheets. We’re not in any rush. This is the last day of the trip. We’ll be home in less than 12 hours, which seems unreal. After we get everything in the van we go to the restaurant connected to the hotel and have our complimentary breakfast. It’s the biggest spread I’ve ever seen for breakfast. There is hot oatmeal, waffles, fresh fruit, muffins, scrambled eggs, hash browns and coffee. We all sit at a table and watch the local news. They are talking about a landslide that happened out in Northwest Washington, near where we were, that left 14 people dead and hundreds missing. A young couple comes in and sits down, followed by a businessman. Seth and I get a little more coffee. I can tell this is the last coffee I’ll have for a while, because I’m getting sick of the way it makes me feel, although I can’t stop drinking it. After checking our phones and talking about what we’re going to do when we get home, we get up and check out.
New York City is only a half hour away, which doesn’t seem right, because we can’t see any skyline from here. We drive up the New Jersey expressway and on our right, after the shipyards and warehouses clear away, we can see downtown New York and all the skyscrapers. We go over a bridge, and into a line for the toll to the Lincoln Tunnel. We make jokes about the scene in “Elf” when he walks through the Lincoln Tunnel. I take out a few dollars as we get closer to the booth, and then see a sign that says the toll is $13.
“What the hell!” I say. I take out a $20 instead and hand it to Dad. “That seems crazy,” I say, but we pay it, like everyone else does.
On the other side of the tunnel we are surrounded by buildings that rise 600 and 700 feet above us. People are walking along the sidewalk with umbrellas and jackets. The city looks dirty, or rusty, or like everyone emptied their vacuum bags out their windows. But it also seems to be churning. Cars never stop coming around every corner. People never stop crossing the street. Every empty space is being taken up by a food cart, or a magazine cart, or a sign for band, or a sign for a broadway show, or a sign saying you can’t park somewhere. We find a place where we can park, and we head north. It feels like it did in the rainforest. It’s so overwhelming, and there is so much going on, that we can just be ourselves. We’re like ghosts walking around with the living. I say “Hey I’m over here, and I’m walking” and other dumb variations as I cross the street and no one laughs but no one snides me either. We find the restaurant that they always cut to on “Seinfeld” and Seth and I take our picture in front of it. I say I’d love to find a bookstore, and a block later there’s a sign for a bookstore.
We go in and look around a little, and then Seth says that he wants to find a record store. His phone says it’s probably too far to walk, so we get back in the car and drive there. It’s not as hard as we thought it would be to get around. The streets are pretty self explanatory, and most of them are numbered, which helps.
We find the record shop. It’s a tiny store the size of a studio apartment. Seth already knows where to look for the kind of records he wants. I check out the small book section that they have, and flip through some of the records. Dad and I both say we have to pee at about the same time, so we leave Seth and head out to the street. We walk south, and I take out my phone to see where a coffee shop might be, but before I can even zoom in there’s a Trader Joe’s, so we go in and find the bathroom. We also find some food to eat for the ride home.
When we get to the line there are at least a hundred other people. We consider putting the food back, but in the time we take to decide, the line moves a few feet. We make it around the corner and see that there are thirty-something registers all crammed into a tiny corner of the store. We are checking out in no time, telling the cashier the story of our trip, and she’s saying how she would love to go to the south because she hates the snow and the cold.
We walk back to the record store and Seth is still looking. He has a stack of records for consideration, and a few definites. I go back to the books and listen to the cashier and a British customer talk about stuff. The British guy mentions a productions of Pygmalion he saw recently, and the cashier says he has a copy at home of the six guys from Monty Python doing a completely serious production of Pygmalion before they were famous. The conversation meanders from there, and then the British guy mentions The Beatles, and the cashier talks about how most people don’t know that Ringo Starr was the most sought after drummer at the time, and he was kind of slumming it by joining The Beatles.
Seth comes over with his records and awkwardly steps between the British guy and the cashier. The cashier holds up the Johnny Thunders record that Seth is buying. He says that it’s a great find. Seth agrees, and points out that it was all recorded live in Boston, where we’re from. The cashier thinks for a second, and then mentions that a lot of his friends have guitars that used to be owned by Johnny Thunders because his drug habit got so bad at one point, that he’d sold off his whole collection. Seth laughs, and we all say that’s pretty interesting, and then we leave.
We walk back to the van and set the GPS for home. It says it’s going to be four and a half hours, plus, Seth points out, he wants us to drop him at his apartment in Boston. The trip-o-meter says we’ve driven 5200 miles, but for some reason, probably because most of this stretch of highway is so familiar, this is the longest seeming drive of the whole trip.
We drive up through Connecticut and and Rhode Island. Rhode Island has one wind turbine spinning out near the ocean and we all think that’s cute. I do the math and figure out it would take someone with a 20 mile round trip commute eight and a half months to drive as much as we just have. As we enter Massachusetts it starts to downpour. It becomes really hard to see the highway. At one point I say that it’s really pouring, but Dad corrects me and says it’s more of a heavy mist, and Seth says that it’s really like a rainy haze. I think about how funny this adjective competition is. I wonder if we ever really connected like we wanted to.
It seems like it takes forever, but we finally make it to Boston and we drop Seth off. We linger a little bit, checking the car to make sure he has everything, and then we leave. Dad and I don’t talk much the rest of the ride home. We’re both probably thinking about what we have to do the next day and the next week. Dad has to go back to work in two days, I have to start really trying to make this writing thing work.
“Yeah the Blue Hills group will start hiking soon,” Dad says. “You should sign up, it’s a lot of fun.”
I say that it sounds cool, and I’ll check out the website when we get home. I talk about the new books I want to try and find. I ask where the nearest bookstores are, and Dad says they mostly do Amazon now. We drive past the famous gas tank in Dorchester that has huge splashes of color painted on it. I say that maybe I could get that design printed on a mug and sell those at a farmers market. Dad says maybe, we’ll have to look into copyright stuff.
We get home and half unload the van, too tired to finish the whole thing. I take a shower, we have a big spaghetti dinner with Mom. We tell her all about the trip, and already the memory is fading, and the story is shrunk down to just the highlights. After some ice cream and a beer we all go to bed early.
It feels good to be back home, but also strange, because this hasn’t been my home for 10 or so years now. For a second, as I’m falling asleep, I turn to tell Dad and Seth something, but they’re not there.
The next day we take everything else out of the van and I take it to a gas station to use the heavy duty vacuum on it. It seems like all we ate were pistachios and trail mix, because that’s all I’m vacuuming up. I drive the car back home relatively clean. Surprisingly clean if you consider that three people lived in it for 11 days.
Dad takes his car and leads me into Boston, where we’re returning the van. On the highway the Eagles song “Take it Easy” comes on the radio, and as the part about Winslow Arizona gets close I turn to make a joke, realizing only after I start talking that Dad is in the car in front of me, and Seth is back in his apartment in Boston. It’s sad at first, but it also feels good, because if I miss them this much, it must mean that somewhere in the middle of America the hard sands of our independence were washed away, exposing our true selves to each other, and showing that we really did end up taking one trip together.