Roads on Her Face #15: Empty Desert Days

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.

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Roads on Her Face #8: The DTs

I was reading, as usual, lost somewhere in stories of dragons and princesses who were cared for by handsome princes, whose lives were filled with mystery and drama and excitement. Our camp was set up in one of the busier parts of the Quartzsite desert, out behind the Main Event swapmeet where the less anti-social desert rats parked so they could walk in to trade and bullshit with the vendors. We were anti-social, but Mom needed to walk to work.

This time we were in a station wagon, our last trailer disappearing in some trade because Dad needed cash. I was 8, an age I remember clearly because it was the year I had my first job where someone gave me money and not promises. I’d had the unpaid job of helping  mom with the other kids from the time each was born, though they’d argue that if you asked them. Babies don’t remember who changed their diapers, or dressed them, or spent their time preventing them from swallowing crayons. And they are never grateful.

My job consisted of shoveling horse crap behind the stagecoach that tourists paid to ride around the swapmeet, like in the real Old West. The driver, Ron, was a drunk, with a big red nose and a dirty black cowboy hat. He only tolerated me at first, but gradually grew to trust me and even let me drive the horses sometimes when they weren’t acting up. They got tired of standing all day in the sun, sometimes, and once the stagecoach ran away with customers inside and me sitting on the top clutching the railing and praying that the top-heavy thing didn’t pitch over and kill us all. I liked working for Ron, being close to the horses I’d always loved from the stories I read, like Black Beauty. I liked settling the pale tourists inside and closing the latch on the door after them, then hopping up on top of the coach and watching the dusty town from a vantage point above all the cheap Chinese toys and ugly southwestern potteries, above the tables creaking with the weight of rocks and the rusted tools that were still worth money because they were Snap-Ons. I liked wearing cowboy boots and the leather hair cuff with a horseshoe nail through the center that the leather vendor gave me, that he said was free as long as I told everyone where they could get them. Lots of vendors knew me, as they watched us circle lazily all day around the packed dirt roads, clop, clop, clop. Mom worked scooping ice cream at the general store, her right forearm and bicep bulging after long days scooping the frozen-hard 10 flavors for fat kids and fatter grannies. She would proudly flex her arm, saying “Look at how buff I am!” to make us laugh. Jesse, an old Indian man who wore turquoise and a long grey braid down his back, worked at the store as a cashier. He gave me things, too, usually when Mom wasn’t around. I would come home with pockets full of candy, necklaces and rings and small toy soldiers. He gave me anything I looked at in the store, even things I didn’t want. I became more selective, only picking up the things I really wanted so I could hear him say “Hey, take that why don’t you. That’s for you, you can have it.” He always watched me, solemnly, out of dark shiny eyes.

One day he told me that he thought things, about kissing, and not to tell anyone. Confused by that, I asked Mom later. She didn’t say anything, but I wasn’t allowed in the store without her anymore. I never thought about why that might be, or connected it to Jesse, but I wonder what happened behind the scenes. If Dad had known, it would have been ugly.

As I turned the pages, lost in my fantasy world, I heard a strange choked cry that brought me directly back to the reality of how life really was, the life that was ours, that still held drama but very little romance. All of us froze, staring at the station wagon where Dad had been taking a nap. His beard had grown long and grey, and he hadn’t cut his hair in months so it was nearly long enough to wear in a ponytail. He wore his Army fatigues, and a dingy old T-shirt. His eyes were staring and glazed, and he looked out at the sky.

“Get down!” he shrieked. “Get the fuck down!” His head disappeared behind the back door of the car. None of us moved, looking at each other and wondering if we should run away or stay put. Gurgling and agonized cries came from his hiding spot, and that spurred mom into action. She ran to his side, holding him while he tossed and moaned about helicopters and commanded that she get his gun.

“Penny, come here,” she waved at me, frantic. “Listen to me. You know where Jan works. I need you to go to her, as fast as you can, and ask her to call the ambulance, ok? Dad needs to see a doctor.” Jan worked across the highway at a gas station. We saw her and Bear whenever we came to Quartzsite. They were one of our regular stops, the way we had stops all over the country with people who offered us a place to park for the night, and let us use their showers, and gave us gifts at Christmas or hid Easter eggs for us if we were there in springtime.

I felt like the most important person in the world, higher even than when I rode around over people’s heads on the stagecoach. I took off directly, running and not stopping even when the pain in my side threatened to double me over. Those afternoons that I spent tearing around makeshift tracks, packed down by my feet around sagebrush and creosote that marked the circle, paid off. Dad always said I was born to be a runner. Adrenaline carried me most of the way, but it felt endless. I didn’t see anyone else, but they may have seen me tearing across the highway as I gasped and thought about what I would say to Jan. She would know what to do.

Her face froze as I burst into her store, and it took only seconds for me to spit out “Hospital” and “Dad.” I stayed with her as she made the phone call and drove me back to where we were camped. We were there in time to see him loaded into the back of an ambulance, thrashing and being held down by some big EMTs. He wasn’t gone very long, but we left Quartzsite soon after. Something about that event made it time to hit the road.

Mom had been proud of him, not drinking for months. He had bought her a silver bracelet with hearts, but she was mad at him at the time and he gave it to me instead. I thought her cold-hearted, and gave him a hug because he seemed so sad. I still have the bracelet. It always reminds me of the DTs.

Roads on Her Face #5: The Cah, 800, and Whut?

We were living in a station wagon again, all six of us. I must have been around 9 or ten. We’d rolled into Quartzsite, Arizona late the night before after a few weeks out in the desert. Quartzsite is like a yard sale on crack, crammed with what seems like miles of old snowbirds selling shit, and tables creaking under the weight of rocks. They sell a lot of rocks out there, also whirly-gig wind-catchers, plastic Chinese toys, and badly-painted southwestern ceramics. People with 1/18 Navajo blood from an ancestor in the 1800s who raped an Indian sell jewelry as “authentic Native American” for ten times what it’s worth. The place has a pall over it, a dust-colored veil that smells of desperation. Casual visitors can’t see it, instead seeing a place full of great deals and gems, but we were hardly casual visitors. It was a winter deal-making place for Dad, a place to rest and make some money selling guns, working for a month for someone, or wheeling and dealing the way he did. He wasn’t particularly outgoing, but he had a quiet powerful way of making people do what he wanted them to do. It wasn’t the smooth salesman gig, something darker like maybe he’d rough you up if you didn’t pay him what he wanted. We went to school in Quartzsite, once. The school had just opened and was full of desert rats like us, and maybe some of the grandkids of snowbirds. We weren’t the only ones getting the free lunch, this time, or the only ones with worn clothing and messy hair. They fed us that vile peanut butter pre-mixed with grape jam on limp white bread every day, until we finally couldn’t choke it down any longer and just went hungry at lunchtime.

We were all sitting and waiting for Dad, as usual, in the dirt parking lot of some junk salesman. He had a lot of cars parked around a trailer with clapboard wings added on. Us kids cracked the door to the station wagon and tried not to move, sweating and sticking to the seats anyway. The sun beat down already, though it was early in spring. The heat would soon drive the snowbirds north, scattering them toward the coast or back to whatever cool hole they burrowed into up north. I stared up into the pale blue sky, powdered with the heat and the reflection of the barren dirt below. The only escape from the forced closeness of our little nuclear family (nuclear, because we as electrons were always rubbing too close, too close and explosions were so near the surface) was to mentally distance oneself. I almost always put a book between myself and our too-real reality. Thousands of books later, I would sometimes confuse what I had been reading with what had actually occurred at certain times in the past. When we were stranded on the side of the road because our latest rust-heap had broken down, I was actually riding a dragon over some far misty mountain, or was deep in the drama playing out between Nancy Drew and her totally hetero female friend George.

I was daydreaming, projecting far out into the hemisphere as near to cold space as I dared, so I missed the actual final transaction. I saw instead, Dad coming back to the car with a grin beneath his beard and jangling keys in his hand.

“Load up, kids. Let’s get everything out of this piece and put it in our new van,” he said, waving over his shoulder to the stocky bald guy behind him who was sighting down the barrel of a big handgun, one Dad had recently had tucked into his waistband. Behind the guy was a blue and white-striped Dodge van, the kind with the big white fiberglass bubble on top circa maybe 1970. It didn’t look like much, but it looked like it had a hell of a lot more room than the station wagon. And it looked like it could pull a trailer, so we could only hope that the next wheeling-dealing result would be a trailer with a stove, beds, and maybe even room to haul some bikes.

Dad was almost gleeful, coming off his deal high. “You should have heard that fucker,” he was telling Mom. He mimicked the guy’s heavy Boston accent, which we had heard snippets of as the two men had talked. “I offered him the car and 600 bucks for the van, which is worth twice that. He was like, ‘whut, the cah, 800, and whut? You ain’t foolin’ me.’ So I threw in the Smith and Wesson.” He grinned because that had been his plan all along.

As soon as my brothers heard this, they collapsed into giggles, gleeful too as they pulled all of our belongings out of the car and began piling them together. The van was something new, and maybe it meant something good. Plus, none of us had ever heard a Boston accent that we could remember. “The cah, 800, and whut?” Rowdy laughed as he poked Reno, who took up the refrain. “And whut? And whut?” Dad cuffed his boys on the back of their tow-heads. “That’s right, boys, who’s the man huh? Your dad knows what he’s doing.”

Off near the chain-link fence, the Boston guy scratched his head and watched us move. Transferring our belongings took 20 minutes, at the most, because we were good. He stood and watched us as we rolled away, never looking back.