They take my Nalgene bottle at airport security because I don’t think to chug the water in it. I begin a furious rant against our culture of fear that takes comfort in the false security of such half-assed measures. Tom advises me to stop putting my emotional nickels into every slot that I pass. “As you get older, you’ll see more and more unfairness in the world and you have to decide what to get worked up about. You’ll just waste your time if you get angry about all of them.” Self control is the name of the game. This reminds me of the big C my father invented for me. I know it might be hard to imagine but I possessed very little self control as a youngster. To make matters worse, I believed myself witty and looking back, I was an annoying little kid. Whenever I started to get out of hand, my father would catch my eye and use his hand to make a C. It would be low around his waist, designed to be seen only by me. It stood for Self-Control, a gentle admonishment that usually worked to calm me down. Sometimes I miss the comforting guidance of that C. Now it’s just up to me.
The landscape rushes below me changing from the swamps of Louisiana to the deserts of the Southwest. Roads link small metal structures of inscrutable purpose while curious narrow paths lead to nowhere, too small for vehicles, too straight for animals. Bare wrinkled hills rise abruptly out of the brown hillcocks dotting the plain. The efficient airport of sandstone serves as the perfect introduction to Phoenix, a city planned to the decimal point. The signage in this town would bring tears of joy to my engineer father but nobody walks. I loathe this city of cars and strip malls.
Tom brought me here to help pack his mother for her move to Hawaii. She tells us stories about growing up on a farm in Alabama during the Depression. “We were lucky. We had everything we needed. We grew everything on the farm from apples to cows.” A willful child, she laughs telling us about one winter when her parents refused to buy her something she wanted out of the Sears Roebuck Catalog. She took off all her clothes and laid outside in the cold wood box, refusing to come in until she got her way. This stubborn little girl became a woman of determination who started pursuing her passion for painting as a young mother.
She spent summers in Provincetown taking art lessons and supported herself by running a shop selling magic mushrooms. A clever advertising trick because she made her magic mushrooms out of driftwood and coral, not the ingestible hallucinogens popular among the freaks of P-town in the 70’s. They came in quietly asking, “Where are they? Do you keep them in the back?” A nice little business that left her free to spend her days painting. Now it’s depressing to see this independent woman give up her freedom as the horror of Alzheimers begin. We only have our memories and they will all be lost at death but it terrifies me to think about losing them while the body remains.
I part with this sweet old lady as we put her on a plane to the big island. We load into a car filled with her stuff, an inviting spot to rest in the back on top of four carpets from Kathmandu. I gladly shake the Phoenix dust off my shoes as we reach the true desert. Ancient saguaro cactus cover the hills, the breathtaking scenery interrupted by ghastly prefab towns. The valleys widen as we go east and patches of dark dot the ground ahead as clouds block the sky, a sight that always fascinated me. A pair of hills in the distance, one golden and the other dark. I had forgotten about the barren beauty of the southwest desert as described by Edward Abbey so perfectly in Desert Solitare. One of the most powerful landscapes I have ever encountered on my ramblings. It invokes the smallness of my existence, crushed in the enormity of Deep Time.
We stop in Wilcox, Arizona for fast food and I meet a character that I have seen often on this trip: someone who want to escape but can’t bring themselves to do it. Steinbeck describes them well in Travels with Charley, his memoir about a three-month road trip around the country with his dog (a most appropriate choice for my drive from Phoenix to NOLA):
“I saw in their eyes something I was to see over and over in every part of the nation – a burning desire to go, to move, to get under way, anyplace, away from any Here. They spoke quietly of how they wanted to go some day, to move about, free and unanchored, not toward something but away from something.”
This poor kid at Burger King with his sweet disposition and easy smile of rotted teeth just wants to “hop one of those slow moving trains” but you know he never will. A tumbleweed rolls across the highway ahead of us, an omen.
As we drive, Tom repeats his desire to own one of these hills and turn it into a secret house with windows looking out in all directions. I recognize the hill to our right and realize he first made this statement in the airplane while I looked down at this same spot. It makes me realize that I have been traveling so fast. Flying to Phoenix, two days of hard driving back. After moving so slowly with a meandering walk through north india, scenic biking around the mountains of cape town and waiting for rides along Eisenhower’s highways, this trip felt like a mad gallop, frustrating in its disconnection from the passing scenery and people. Tom offers me a plane ticket to the West Coast as a thank you for helping with his mom but I decline. I look forward to getting back on the scenic route.
Traffic slows progress in El Paso and we study the border. The trees and shacks of the Mexican hillside face the naked subdivisions of America. The sterileness repels me. I feel myself drawn to the honesty of the Mexican side. It’s a harder life, more dangerous, less secure but I’d rather know my neighbors, feel the sense of community that I’m sure is lacking in the “little boxes on the hillside made of ticky-tacky ticky-tacky that all look just the same.” A giant flag flies over Ciudad Juarez, a city in the agonizing throes of a vicious drug war. Down the road, the bored employees at the Fort Stockton Pizza Hut tell us large amounts of weed and coke flow through their town. “That’s why the roads are infested with cops. You should also watch out for deer.” Well, we didn’t see one cop but the numerous deer turned the last hour into a tense drive. I hunched over the steering wheel like a grandma and scanned for any jumping into my path. None did but the frequent red smears along the highway indicated others were not as lucky.
We rent a motel room from an Indian guy with a Texan accent and wake to find a pickup truck parked outside, the bed filled with fruit. More out of curiosity than hunger, I buy some apples and the kindly looking old Latino man tells me he sells the fruit door to door. “Are you a good salesman?” I ask.
“No but my friend here is,” pointing a thumb to his partner coming around the corner.
The newcomer asks with an electric grin, “Would you like to buy a box? Only 48 bucks! That’s a great deal!”
“You are a good salesman. I’m glad I don’t have any more money. Good luck today.”
We spend most of the the day in Texas and I’ve driven through so many times now that it mostly annoys me. You drive all day and you’re still in same damn state. It’s nice to ride with a professional photographer because his keen eye helps me to see new beauty in things I would miss like a farm that looks abandoned, only the goats outside indicating any life within. We progress from the wide opens shrubs of the west into the Texas hill country that gradually merges into the pine oaks of the east. We brave the choking hateful Houston and finally enter the familiar swampiness of Louisana. It’s good to be home.