I keep my eyes averted from the rearview mirror as I drive away from Los Angeles. Interstate 15 to Interstate 40. North and then East. Across the Mojave Desert. Back from whence I came. Never look back. Though I don’t place so much trust in that superstition anymore. After all, I didn’t look back when I left Michigan. Never going back, I declared. Never say never. But I did and look what happened.
I drive with the windows rolled down. The hot desert air pulls my hair out of the ponytail strand by strand. The car heater is on full blast to keep the radiator from overheating. 1965 Dodge Custom 880. It’s three years older than I am. It bought it when I first arrived in California, exactly five years ago. With all the financial problems that it’s caused me, I should hate this land yacht. But I don’t. It’s my fault for not making enough money to properly take care of it. It’s my fault for being a loser.
When the realization hit, I was stuck on the 405 freeway, somewhere in West LA, heading north in rush hour traffic. Six lanes in both directions packed with vehicles. Stop and go. The Yves Tanguy painting, Multiplication of the Arcs, flashed across my mind. Countless anonymous entities in a frantic push towards a gray horizon. Towards the edge. And over. Then a whisper, Just give up. Go home.
Underneath the defeat is relief. It’s all over. But when I look into the future, all I see is a void. I’m twenty-three and my life is ruined.
The gas gauge needle creeps towards red. I glance at the road map. A faint dot and the name of a town. But when I exit, all I find are abandoned, weather-beaten shacks. A ghost town. My throat constricts in panic. No one good will stop to help a lone woman who’s run out of gas way out here. If there’s one thing I’ve managed to learn in the last five years, it’s that I attract predators. With each successive wound, I’ve become an easier target. It won’t take much to finish me off.
But up ahead, miraculously, a truck stop. The car drifts to the pump on fumes.
I reach Flagstaff, Arizona just after sundown. Hot turkey sandwich and mashed potatoes dinner in a truck stop diner. Ragged sleep in a Motel 6.
A soft desert dawn. Sunrays diffused into pastel hues of mauve and coral. I drive towards the orb of light on the horizon. At Holbrook, I leave the interstate and follow the signs to Petrified Forest National Park. No time for breakfast, so I dig into the big bag of Trader Joe’s food that my aunt in California bought for my ride back. Trail mix, cookies, and, for some odd reason, tortillas and cans of soup. She always tried to lift my spirits. Look on the bright side! Today is a new day! And so on. And on and on. She meant well, but her relentless cheer made me want to scream.
The road that traverses the national park is empty. The pastel sunlight has morphed into deep orange. I stop at each lookout point, but leave the car running. Too much risk of overheating, even this early in the day. Crystal Forest, Agate Bridge, Jasper Forest, Blue Mesa, The Tepees. Ancient, petrified tree trunks lie shattered across the landscape. The hills and valleys are delicately tinted. Watercolor on shifting sand. At the end of the road, Interstate 40 awaits.
Just past the New Mexico border, a sudden, violent constriction grips my gut. Cold sweat beads up on my brow. I hunch over the steering wheel and take deep breaths. Another thirty minutes to Gallup. I’m not going to make it. I swerve to the side of the road, burst out of the passenger door, and down the embankment. Cars hiss by. I’m too relieved to be embarrassed. No place to hide out here. Luckily I’m wearing a sundress.
Back on the road. What was that all about? I shake my head. As if I don’t have enough humiliation in my life right now.
I stop in Gallup to fill up the car. A Mexican restaurant beckons. Hunger pangs have replaced the cramps. The restaurant is packed with truckers and retirees. A sour-faced waitress named Pilar points at a table and slaps a menu down in front of me. She returns a couple of minutes later and scrawls my order. I smile and thank her. I know what it’s like to be slammed. I’ll most likely be waiting tables when I get back to Michigan. Because I can’t seem to do anything else. She gives me a look of such withering contempt that I flush and look down at the table. She returns with my drink. I say nothing. Twenty minutes pass, then thirty. I’ve got to make Durango tonight. I make the sign of the check at Pilar. Too bad about the food, but I need to pay for the drink. She smirks and looks away. I grit my teeth. Okay, then. I get up and walk out.
Highway 666. Imposing mesas rise from the earth. Cloud shadows dance across their sheer cliffs. I stare at them, spellbound. I want to pull over and take a photo, but if I get out of the car, I will walk until I am standing on the top looking down. A truly majestic place to vanish. Flesh and bones withering to dust. Returning to Earth.
I lift my camera and take a shot through the windshield. The spell is broken.
Thoughts of death lead to thoughts of Dad. He’s started to ask about his tapes again. Long ago, someone stole his prophecies. Maybe the chemotherapy disrupts the anti-psychotic meds. He won’t be around much longer, they’ve said for two years now. I will be able to spend some time with him before he goes, though I believe he will live forever.
I leave the cursed highway behind and drive east, then north into Colorado. Mesas give way to peaks. Beige deepens to gray and green. Another kind of wonder.
My aunt is standing in her front yard when I arrive. Her four children and a big black dog surround me when I step out of the car, but they soon grow bored and scatter. She leads me into the house, which they live in rent-free in exchange for watching over the mentally handicapped man who owns it. She works as a nurse, and her husband takes people on horse trips deep into the surrounding wilderness. Bad luck has followed them around the west, from ranch to ranch. Injuries and unemployment. Such is the cowboy life.
The next morning, after her kids leave for school, she drives me up the winding road to Silverton. Colorful wooden buildings against a backdrop of mountain peaks. Hollywood soundstage perfection. Nowhere is this beautiful.
I buy us lunch in a small cafe. One more charge on the credit card, but I want to give her something. We sit across from each other in a booth and drink margaritas. My aunt’s ornate silver earrings shimmer in the sunlight. I recognize the frustration and fear in her demeanor. We grew up believing that if we worked hard, lived honestly, and took responsibility for ourselves, everything would be okay. If we treated people well, we would be treated fairly. She doesn’t ask why I left California.
After lunch, she introduces me to her horses, and then saddles two up for us. One of the guys who works with her husband shows up. When she tells him that I’m from California, he sneers and ambles away. She explains how to guide the horse. Turn the reins in the direction you want to go. Pull back to slow down or stop the horse. Dig your heels in her sides to go faster. The trail leads up a ridge, then down through a valley. I feel awkward in the saddle. My butt hurts. I hope she doesn’t want to gallop, or something. She looks over her shoulder at me and laughs, a distinctive soft snicker. Out here, she’s a princess. Wealthy beyond measure.
On the drive back to Durango, she invites me to live out here, with her and her family. There’s a small university and restaurant jobs. I can babysit her kids in exchange for rent. It’s a totally different environment from LA. A place to completely start over. After I’ve rested and recovered in Michigan. Maybe this winter. I flush with gratitude and look out the window as she speaks. The aspen trees are so beautiful in the fall. The leaves look like gold coins. I take a deep breath and nod. I’d love to live out here. Thank you.
It is pitch dark when I awaken. Time for the road again. I grab the bag of food from the car and unload the contents on her counter. Her eyes fill with tears. You’re going to give me all of this? Then she picks up the bag of trail mix and starts to snicker. There’s figs in here. That’s why you had the shits. She walks me out to the car. The dog circles around, a barely discernible shadow. The only light outside is that of the stars. A warm hug. See you soon.
As I drive away, I fix my eyes on the rearview mirror. Look back. Go back. But all I see is infinite blackness.
*Highway 666 was renamed to 491 in 2003.
**Image source for Multiplication of the Arcs – Matta Art