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All shot with a Nikon D3200
When you mention you’ve lived in Mammoth Lakes, California, people naturally assume you are a wealthy brat whose parents have a ski lodge in the mountains, built especially for escapes a few times a year from the sprawl of L.A. We didn’t live there in the winter, though, as we would head south to the blessedly warm desert before the first hints of snow. Living in a car limits your environment, seasonally.
I remember the sweet smell of pine sap and the soft needles underfoot that let you creep up on unsuspecting brothers, the glistening black carpenter ants that hurried up the superhighways of the ponderosas which seemed plain as lighted roadways to the ants, the highways that you could strain your eyes and imagine you too could see. I remember the hush and sighs of the forest, the caws of crows and the yammering blue jays, the tap-tap-tap of the brilliant woodpeckers. I remember how a short walk would take you into the woods, away from anyone. I would settle down beneath a tree and read or write in my journal, cushioned by bark or perched on lichened-softened rocks, I would revel in the protection of the forest. After empty deserts, I felt so protected, so hidden, between the trees.
We were living in the car, then, either sleeping in the back or the tent. It was dry that summer, so we didn’t bother packing everything up into the car each day. Just our food, to keep it from bears. We were out miles from the edge of Mammoth, tucked into a quiet pocket of the John Muir Wilderness of the Sierra Nevadas. Years later, I picked up a photograph of an eagle at a yard sale. John Muir’s signature is penciled across the back- I don’t know if it is a fake but I knew who he was because of his name on the wilderness signs.
Occasionally we would see rangers, but they left us alone. We weren’t littering, and we kept the campsite straightened up so it didn’t look like we’d been there for weeks. I think they felt sorry for us kids, and didn’t want to make things harder for us. They weren’t hard, though, that’s the part no one ever realized. We were happy being kids, and the forest was a playground made just for us.
My book supply was stocked by the bookmobile, driven by Miss Heidi and parked weekly not far from where we were camped, providing “forest service” to outlying homes and the occasional itinerants. She was warm and friendly, and loved books almost as much as I did. Right away she got me a library card, and handed me the first list for the summer reading program so I could get started.
“You’ll have to work to catch up to the other kids, they have a few weeks’ head start,” she said. “Do you want some help picking out books?” I shook my head, and in minutes had a stack that took Mom and me two trips to load into the car. We had library bags with the string top, so we had to hold the bags to our chests so the books didn’t break free from the cheap plastic material. I was back each week, with every single book in those bags on my “read” list, even the little kids’ books we picked out for the younger ones. I gave Heidi one-page book reports so she would know I’d read them. After the first week, the amazement on her face changed to a welcoming smile. She wrote me letters for years General Delivery or to P.O. Boxes in Nevada or Oregon or Arizona, telling me about her husband, sons, and her dog. Another touchstone, and a very grateful little girl.
People can be touchstones, as well as places. There are those who, when you reach out for them, are anchors in this constantly changing sea of time and place. As the type of girl who always had my nose buried in a book, my preferred method of contact was writing letters. Besides not having a phone with which to just give people a call, it was always easier to express myself with time to think and a pen and paper in front of me, ideas coming more freely and no awkward half-formed social skills to rely on. It makes me sad that no one writes letters anymore, only because they meant so much to me through the years. There were people who wrote back to me, who stood as touchstones and took the time to make me feel as if I did have friends, as if I were not so alone, as if I were not strange. There was Heidi, the bookmobile lady in Mammoth Lakes, California, who was floored when this little wood-nymph child from the campground read every single summer program book on her list and wrote book reports for her to be proudly presented each time she parked the long white bus in its weekly spot. There was Jacci, my oldest and first friend and the only one my age. There were Wes and Elaine, the couple with their little ranch in the foothills of Nevada. They may have looked at me with pity, but they also had hopes for me. I know they knew that I would have to make my own chances in life, that starting out in life homeless too often leads to drug addiction, or jail, or hopeless-to-useless-to-nothing. I think they wondered what would happen to me, and that they wished they could help me succeed. They did, even if they don’t know it.
Driving to Burning Man for the first time on my own, I stopped at the Stagecoach casino off Highway 95 next to the gas station with an old photo of a little boy on its sign. As I entered the dark, smoke-scented bowels of the casino I saw my dad for a second with a beer in his hand, leaning against the bar in front of the ex-prostitute bartender with only a few teeth and none of her dignity left. I remembered the hopeful feeling I’d get when we rolled into Beatty after a long stint on the road, or after money had gotten tight and we needed a place where Dad could work for a while. Wes always gave him a job doing something on the ranch. He loved me, and he’d let me tag along to the chicken coop or would take me out to the greenhouse where I could pick fresh tomatoes warm from the vine. One time he bought me a purple Huffy mountain bike that I somehow held on to for years, across miles and states and while we had a place to stash it in the trailer. At some point, it was left when the trailer was left.
Wes and Elaine were right next door to a brothel with a crashed plane as a signpost. I’d always peer down the dirt road to the red building hidden in the trees and try to catch a glimpse of a whore. What was it like for those women? What would it be like to sell yourself all day?
I walked slowly through the casino, a dizzying sense of déjà-vu slowing my usually fast pace. A flash of me getting caught beneath a rickety merry-go-round and being dragged in a circle while the flesh tore from my thigh, the faint memory of Wes filming us kids playing in his front yard, my dad soaking in the hot springs at the Beatty trailer park. All of the letters through the years, the cow Wes named after me, the glances I would catch Elaine giving me that almost looked like jealousy. He had his own kids, but they were gone.
I sat in the café in the back of the Stagecoach and had coffee, listening to the servers chat about town gossip and stare at the tourists. I didn’t see much that had changed, but when I drove by the ranch I remembered Wes had died and Elaine had moved away. The place looked the same, the strong old cottonwoods rustling their coin-leaves over a bright spot in my childhood, over the earthy smell of the chickens and the peace I would feel there.
There were people we saw in what passed for regularly. We would be around the same place at around the same time on certain years, and we would be camped next to other wanderers that had a pattern that followed the seasons as ours did. Call it happenstance, or just people being people and needing some kind of routine. One of these families of regulars was the Millers, a bunch of redneck Okies that fit any stereotype you could come up with for Okies. They had thick accents that we thought meant they were dumb, and they were pretty dumb, which we thought meant they were Okies. Not having much to compare them to, we listened to my dad when he said they were all like that. He put them somewhere in the same categorical area as Mexicans. The old Millers, Mr. and Mrs., Dad had met through their son Junebug, a scruffy, skinny guy who always wore trucker hats and had one eye that always looked off to the left, on its own. They had probably run into each other at a bar in Lake Havasu, since there wasn’t one in Vidal Junction. It really was just a junction, with a post office. If you took the first 95 south from Needles, instead of crossing the river into Arizona and taking the 95 that led to Lake Havasu, you’d be driving through empty desert for miles on an old highway crisscrossed with repair lines and bleached dove-grey by the summers. When you hit 62, you’re there. 62 takes you right on into Parker by way of Earp. Parker was our “town” when we lived in Vidal Junction, the place we went into to get groceries. The food stamp check would come General Delivery to the Vidal post office, and then it would be time for a trip of such bounty that we could barely think about it without getting shivers of joy. We’d load up on books at the Parker library, and food that would last for weeks. We might get ice cream which had to be eaten right away, and maybe real store milk instead of the thin excuse for milk, powdered milk, that Mom bought because it kept without a refrigerator. We would be away from Dad for a whole day, a day where we were all lighter and freer than any other time. We didn’t have to worry about laughing too loud, giving him a headache, or talking to strangers. Mom smiled more, too, when we went to town, and all of us loved to see her smile. She even had a friend in Parker, Jacci’s mom, who was also homeschooling her kids and who provided a welcome refuge when Mom was able to get away from the desert for the day.
Mrs. Miller had a particular way of talking, a combination of a gasp and her Oklahoma accent, and she would cut off the ends of words in a way that made mocking her particularly fun. Blythe wasn’t too far, and sometimes Dad would make a trip to the Blythe swampmeets from Vidal. Mrs. Miller called it “Blyyyyy..” and so did we. “Is Dad going to Blyyyyyy today?” we’d croak, laughing, and Mom would say it back “Blyyyyyyy” with her tongue sticking out and her upside-down smile.
Once, we ran into the Millers in a parking lot outside of Lake Havasu. We were each spending the night there on our way to other places. Dad came back from visiting with them late into the night, his breath smelling of their beer and a twisted smile on his face.
“You shoulda heard her, Mary,” he said, laughing. “I guess Mr. left Mrs. sometime this year, but he’s back now. They were sitting around telling the story to me, him glaring at her over his beer. She just looked straight at him, and said ‘Yeah, he left, but he come crawlin’ back like a yella-belly whip-dog.’ A yellow-bellied whipped dog!” Dad laughed and laughed, and of course we laughed too. It was one of those phrases that stuck deep in our family vocabulary.
We were living in Vidal when Dad traded something at the Bly swapmeet, probably a gun, for a four-seater dune buggy with an American eagle on the roof and an engine that was failing rapidly. It broke down far out in the desert often enough that it stopped being fun and Dad traded on up for an old station wagon. It was mom’s car, and that was good that she had one, but it was bad because it meant we could always leave in it and our trailer could be traded away. I got nervous when things started to trade hands, hoping that our world wouldn’t be reduced in size yet again.
I’m from “the road.” It is less a place than it is a feeling, a feeling of shiftlessness, of moorings being loosened and of floating away down a river of concrete, headlights bouncing back at you from the reaching hands of trees and the bones of bushes in stark relief. It is resting your face against the cool glass of a window in the hot of night in the desert, of seeing endless stars float silently above the backs of dark, sullen mountains, the whir of the tires and the warm sleepy feeling in the base of you, where your seat meets the car. It is not knowing where tomorrow is, nor caring when it arrives. But Arizona will do, when I need a place to write in the blank spot on forms that asks for “Place of Birth.” Lake Havasu City, AZ, I write, and try to recall something about the town. It hides low between hills, cradling the precious water that flows into the big man-made lake as if trying to keep it from the greedy sun. Spring-breakers know it as a good place to get naked and drunk and fall off cliffs, and the guys with the boats far too big for inland lakes like to come and beat up a good wake to make it harder for the water-skiers and wake boarders to have a good time. It’s hot, hotter than death, like the rest of Sonoran Desert. If you go in the summer you’ll want to move directly from your air conditioned car into the bathwater of the Colorado-turned-Lake Havasu. The shores will be lined with people bobbing apple-like and red in the middle of truck tire tubes with cans of beer held just above the water. The tourists will be out snapping pictures of the London Bridge, moved stone-by-stone from London and rebuilt here as a tourist attraction.
That, and my first friend Jacci lives there now with her beautiful family. There’s a Wal-mart and some tourist shops, and lots of trailer parks for the snowbirds. That’s all I know about the place I’m officially from.
We often took the route through here, depending on where exactly we were going at the time, because there aren’t a lot of north-south highways in Arizona. You can take 93 south through Wickenburg toward Phoenix, and there’s 17 south from Flagstaff- a better option but farther east and hills that would suck gas and slow us down especially if we were towing a trailer. If we were headed south it was usually 95, south from Vegas or Needles or Kingman. All of these towns we knew well, where we could park without being bothered, where we could take a shower and where the parks were so we could get out and play and stretch our legs. We spent a lot of time at city parks, making picnics, taking naps in the grass, scaring the town kids.
We also took that route if we were headed out to Jim’s Place. My dad had some kind of deal with Jim, who was just happy to have someone parked out on his place and didn’t care too much who it was. He didn’t need someone to show up on time to work, he just needed some people to keep out the drifters or those who might like some car parts for free. So much the better if the people he had parked out there were armed and didn’t like strangers. Jim had a towing business in Parker, AZ which you can find on Google Maps if you scroll down along the river south of Lake Havasu. He had some property out in the middle of the desert where he took his extra wrecked vehicles, and where he liked keep a trailer for himself and his wife Bobbi-Jo to get some peace and quiet once in a while. Follow 95 south of Parker, and where it splits into 72 follow 72 to Bouse. You’ll miss it if you don’t zoom in far enough, all that’s there is a post office and a general store, and some hardy desert rat souls who’ve scraped out some sort of living away from anything. Now scroll out farther, and farther, following 40 miles or so of the dirt roads snaking seemingly pointless across the brown flat desert. Jim’s Place is out there, and so were we. Zoom in farther, and you’ll see the tank tracks and the spots where people have parked scarred into the earth’s crust. You’ll see the washes, the creosote, and the cactus, you will see the strangely flattened (by satellite imagery) humanoid suspension towers that carried the high-voltage lines along Powerline Road.
I had a particular feeling of dread when we were headed out there, moving there for the winter or sometimes, oh holy Jesus no, for the summer. It wouldn’t have been so bad, summer, if we had had electricity for air conditioning, or running water. When the little digital thermometer stuck to dad’s metal and wood ramada read 110 degrees in the shade, you knew it had to be at least 120 in the sun.
I dreaded the isolation, the long weeks or months with no one and nothing around as far as you could see. We got to where we could hear vehicles coming from hours away, where we could feel the slight change in the atmosphere as an engine grew closer until we could hear it with our ears. We got to where any slight change in the days provoked great excitement, like Mom’s going to town today!! Or Jim is coming next week sometime! Or, it’s fill-up-the-water-truck day!
But there is something about the desert, yes. There is something that digs its claws into your soul, and makes you forever its possession. There are the brilliant skies, the countless stars, the way the day-hidden life awakens as the sun slips away for the day, the day the monsoons come and everything blooms for a week before it dies. There is the season for the ocotillos to bloom, the time for hummingbirds, the migration of geese far overhead. There is great beauty out there. There is beauty in your surroundings, and there is beauty in the inner calm and understanding you gain when it’s just you, your family, and the desert.
To find most of the places we’ve lived, drive to the most deserted and destitute area of whatever state you’re in, locate a dirt road, and drive out until you can’t see any buildings and you hear no traffic from the road. Park the car, shut off the engine, and listen. If all you hear is the moan of the wind and the pissed-off machinelike crank of cicadas, you’re there.
I was the only kid born in Arizona. The rest were born in California. I think they say they’re from New Mexico now, but before we had a place they could consider home they would usually just mention the spot they were born as the place they came from. Where else do you choose? The more honest answer would be “I’m from the road” but that leads to bothersome questions and looks of confusion or an accusatory look like “Why you fucking with me?” California sounds like a nice place to be from. The ocean, movie stars, wilderness areas with ski resorts and massive red trees. If you’re living on the road, though, it’s hard to find a safe place to park a station wagon in L.A., especially if you’ll have all your gear outside on the roof and plan to cook on a camp stove with the back door shielding the flame from the ocean breeze. Instead of beautiful California, most of our time in the state was spent in the ugliest and loneliest areas Dad could find. If you’re taking a road trip, say from Vegas to San Diego, you’ll see some little shitsplat towns at the intersections of highways out in the middle of the most godforsaken desert you’ve ever seen. You might wonder to yourself, “What do these people do out here?” and you might shudder as you crank up the A/C and press just a little harder on the gas pedal. I went to fourth grade in Barstow, while we lived in a trailer park over near the railroad tracks that brought people to that hellhole in the first place, sometime in the 1800s when the mines were running full steam, and the immigrants crawled out of their boxcars to see the promised land, only to be met with Steinbeck’s crowded camps and the heat of the desert. At night the long, mournful howl of the train lulled me to sleep, something in my soul stirring in response to it. It was comforting, somehow, and wild at the same time. Dad told us stories of when he was a kid, hopping trains and riding from town to town. I always thought of him out there when I heard the train.
Barstow had a Tastee-Freeze, so sometimes we walked there to get ice cream. I liked going to school, and I didn’t feel out of place because just about everyone lived in trailer parks with drunk-ass dads. We all paid for groceries with food stamps. Mom was big and pregnant, as big as she ever got. She usually looked like a tiny woman smuggling a basketball in her stretched-out T-shirt, gaining no weight but the baby itself. Both of the boys were still tow-headed, the downy blond tufts of their hair like chick’s feathers. Dad was gone often while we were in Barstow, to the swapmeets in Victorville where he could make some money or get some new guns. The state probably supported the rest of us. We got WIC since the kids were still young enough, and California may have thrown us money for our trailer space rental. Us kids always liked it when we “holed up” somewhere. Dad was probably putting some gas money aside to make it to whatever our next destination was, plus Mom was about to have a new baby so it was nice to have running water and electricity. I don’t think the shower or toilet worked in our old trailer, but they had showers and bathrooms on site at the trailer park so we were happy to walk over and use them. Mom and Dad got a little TV and VCR, so they would curtain off the living room and we would watch movies sometimes. Other times, they kicked us out and we heard moaning coming from the TV, followed by the trailer rocking back and forth. We’d try to get away when that happened, because it was gross.
There were a lot of Mexicans in our trailer park, so there were a lot of kids. We were allowed to play with them when Dad felt like it or he wasn’t around, and I had a pink Huffy bike with streamers on the handlebars and a banana seat so there were always girls that wanted to play with me. Dad didn’t like Mexicans much, though, so depending on his mood he might tell me to stay away from them, then rudely shoo them off and glare at their parents. One time a man came by asking for something, and Mom tried really hard to understand the Spanish questions. She did what she could, but in the end she had to find another Mexican to help the guy. I think he wanted a shower.
Mom made another friend a few trailers down, a bored and lonely young woman named Amy. Her man was gone a lot too, which I figured was just the normal way of things.
One day in March, before it was regularly over 100 degrees, Mom got a strange look on her face and both of her hands went to her belly. Dad had decided to go to the swapmeet that day, even though he had a feeling that the time was almost here for the baby’s arrival.
“Honey, can you go over and get Amy? Can you tell her to hurry?” She was very calm, her gaze directed inward. When I told her mom needed her right away, Amy dropped what she was doing and ran out her door, forgetting to close it behind her. Her husband was home, too, and he ran after her. “I think she’s having the baby,” I called after them. I guessed they already knew.
“I need you to watch the boys,” Mom told me. “Make sure they stay out of trouble and they stay outside.” Amy was bustling around heating water and making the bed, which was the dining table that converted into a bed. She looked stressed out. I checked on my brothers, and they were so focused on the quiet groans coming from the house and the knowledge that Mom might be in trouble that they were perfectly well-behaved. I hung over the railing on one side of the table/bed and watched. Mom didn’t cry. She just got herself positioned, and as soon as my sister’s head crowned in all its dark and slimy glory, I decided that was good and I’d just get out of the way. There were people there to catch the newborn, and I could tell I wasn’t needed. I went back outside and waited for everything to calm down. I also wondered why in the hell anyone would ever want to have a baby.
Sophie didn’t have a name for a while, while Mom and Dad decided what to call her. She was just “Baby” until they settled on Sophie. A couple of weeks later a nurse came by to give Mom the baby’s birth certificate, to prove that she’d been born.
Crazy George lived in a van, moving around from campground to campground. He was an old grizzled drunk, like my dad, so they didn’t get along. They would, however, drink together, because a drunk never likes to be the only one. Dad had an old beat-up chessboard that folded in on itself, each of the pieces glued to a magnet so they stuck to the board when the games were played in parking lots, or bars. He and George would stare at the board for hours, sitting on folding chairs around a small camp table. Someone would move a piece, both would drink. Someone wouldn’t move a piece, and both would drink. Mom was probably off scrubbing toilets or collecting money from campers. Sometimes some of us kids would stand around and watch, but we grew bored quickly and would wander off into the forest or down to the river.
Dan and Theresa also lived in a van. They stayed for a while at one of the campgrounds my parents were managing in Clackamas, that magical summer from which each memory is imprinted on my mind the way a flash from a camera imprints briefly on your vision, after you’ve closed your eyes. I am sure they got a special deal, because Dan liked to drink too and he would bring beer by, and Theresa. She had a great big long-haired dog named Woofus, who would sit down behind you and groom you on command, his teeth rubbing against you in little nibbles like fishbites. It tickled, and we would laugh and squirm while he did it. I had never seen mom with a friend before, a friend who was a real girlfriend and not just the wife of one of my dad’s “associates.” They laughed, and laughed, and laughed until they rolled on the ground. They drank beer together, and hid behind trees whispering about boys. I crowded them, wanting to be a friend too. They always let me hang out, never getting annoyed. I liked this mom, one who wasn’t cowed and tired and who acted like a 12-year-old girl. Like me. We set up a dome tent behind the trailer, and we had girls’ campouts where we could watch the campfire die down through the thin grey screen of the tent’s door. Theresa gave me a journal, which she inscribed with her name and the date in a loopy, flowing script. Theresa Sheffield, June 1994. “Don’t stop writing,” she said. “You are going to be famous one of these days.” At that point, I might have believed her. I searched for her years later, finding maybe 10 women of the same name who were still in the area. I called them all, but no one knew the slight blonde who had been called T-Bird in high school, who had a penchant for loser men, who had a dog who thought everyone needed to be cleaner. I wanted my mom’s friend back. I wanted her to have a friend from then, from when we were still a family and when adventure was the only way we knew how to live. I wanted to see if she had changed. I wanted to capture that summer and never let it go.
One night Dan got wasted around our campfire and decided he wanted to pierce his nose. I went to bed, and the next morning he was sitting at our wooden picnic table holding his face.
“What did you do, Dan? What’s wrong?” I thought he had a hangover. He did, but it was worse than that.
Mom’s lips were stretched tight across her teeth, her mouth a thin straight line. She might have been trying not to laugh. Dad was somewhere, taking a walk in the woods or having his quiet time alone. He needed space, especially after a bender of a night. We always welcomed the reprieve, our shoulders floating upward as some hidden weight was taken away.
Mom gently pried Dan’s fingers apart and exposed his nose, his big beak-like nose. He had somehow jammed a large safety pin right through the center of theseptum. She barely brushed against it and he cried out in pain, tears springing to his eyes. The whole area was a furious red.
“What in the heck did you do that for?” Mom asked him, pushing his hands away from his face again, as they had sprung back up in a protective gesture. She grinned over his bald head at me, then looked down again with nothing but concern on her face. Dan was in love with Mom, and everybody knew it. “Where’s Theresa?”
“Sleeping,” he moaned. “Please, get it out, please just take it out.”
Mom cleaned it with alcohol and yanked it out in one smooth move. Dan’s yell echoed through the valley. He disappeared quickly, into the tent behind our trailer. Bearlike retching sounds came from behind the vinyl walls all day, punctuated with “Fuck you, get outta here! Leave me alone!” Every now and then the zipper would open and his head would pop out, spewing the clam chowder he’d had for dinner last night.
We had a chant, after that, “Dan, Dan, the drinking man, he lives in a van. He whips up chowder as fast as he can, and his nose is as big as a beer can!” We ran around laughing hysterically, rolling our eyes and punching each other to punctuate the singsong chant.
Dan didn’t like it, at all, and we had to whisper it when he was around.
After a few months, Dan and Theresa went their separate ways, Dan off in his van and Theresa back to her family. Their short relationship didn’t hold up after Dan fell in love with Mom. She said he needed a mommy. After they left the summer had a strange feel, as if it were curling up and browning at its edges, as if it or we had crossed a threshold. A few weeks later the clouds rolled in, and the days grew darker. Things began to mold, and slugs crawled out of their holes to leave slime trails like silken threads over everything. We were stuck in the trailer together, the musty smell of us overwhelming. Not many campers showed up.
On one increasingly rare sunny day, Dad drove us in the van to George’s camping spot. He was sloppy drunk when we got there, and it somehow quickly degraded into a shouting match. “I’m going to kill you you motherfucker!!” We heard George screaming, and then Dad got into the van with his set and joyous face, the way he looked right before there was trouble. “Come get me, prick,” he said calmly out the window, and then he drove us back to our campground. George waved a big machete at us as we left him at his van.
The rest of the day we waited breathlessly for the blood. George was coming to kill Dad! What would we do? Was someone going to die? It’s all we could talk about out of the earshot of the grownups.
Crazy George had a knife! But Dad had a gun. We thought we knew who would win. A few days later, with no George appearing, we packed up and headed south to escape the rains.
– Edited July 23rd after using some helpful memories shared by my younger siblings.