So we start in Monticello, then, you and I on this imaginary journey through the way your life traveled. Georgia, where the mud is as red as blood and the sun sinks in a great glowing ball of fire behind the tightly-ranked dark-coated trees that huddle close to the meandering roads and shoulder out the sky. It’s early summertime, perfect for a road trip. I am only a speck of your future, riding along in your cells. Maybe I’ve been there all along.
The thick layers of humidity permeate the walls, awakening the musty smell of swamp and damp wood, and even seem to extend to the slow voices of Southern people and the veiled layers of politeness, straight-faced sarcasm, and backstabbing. “Well, bless your little heart,” they say, and their eyes speak other words. Who let them in here? They say with their mouths closed tight in prim little lines. Here the black and white lines are as deep and permanent as the lines in the farmer’s faces. Here, the music does stop if you walk into the wrong bar and eyes roll at you. Didn’t you know? This place is not for you, white girl. This restaurant is not your kind of place, black boy. There are modern times with a black President, and then there is the South. Mom had a black nanny from the time she was a child, Lucy, who took care of her when her mother was at work, and who finally took care of her mother when she grew old and lived alone with no one near to help. She had a family of her own, somewhere and somehow, but my mother only knew the Lucy who was a staple of her white family.
My only memory of Lucy was being too young to walk into what must have been her church, and she carrying me in, and many black singing faces coming down close to my own, smiling; them passing me around and pinching my cheeks. Lucy told me not to tell Granny, just to keep it to ourselves. I don’t think she believed I knew where I was, being just a toddler. I never forgot, though.
The heat is so oppressive here in the Peach State that even the buzz of cicadas seems sluggish, difficult. Sweat drips down your back and soaks a round spot onto the driver’s seat at the base of your spine. The mosquitoes attack the windows, big as moths and thirsty for blood.
I think that, didn’t’ I tell you I met your dad in 78. Then we traveled a little bit and ended up living in Tucson a few months. SO the summer of 79 I just realized is when we went to Alaska, so we talked about that. And that was probably September. We had a little bit of money so I think we backpacked around, we must have ended up somewhere in the southern part of the states, probably southwest because it was warmer.
Did you hitchhike?
Yeah, we did hitchhike some. Took the train, couple of places, Amtrak, I don’t think we ever took the bus. It’s kind of all blurry then but I remember somehow we ended up in Lee Vining, were there for a while with this older couple Blanche and Frank, I forget their last names. And we got hired on in Mammoth Lakes at the Motel 6. And that’s, I was pregnant with you already. So it was just a little village back then, I’m sure it’s grown quite a bit since then, it’s become a big resort town. But it was nice, we had a room and a hot plate we cooked our meals on, I craved hot fudge sundaes. There was a little ice cream bar across the street.
I love ice cream, so it must have been me.
Laughs. There were a couple of nice girls there, one was an Indian girl we became pretty good friends. She was working there too.
Indian from India?
No Native American. And of course that job ended, I got tired easily and I was starting to show by then I think. And I don’t know where we went from there, I have no idea.
Well you ended up in Lake Havasu.
Yeah, and we ended up living in a bus. So I think we probably went to Quartzsite from there, because I think that’s where we acquired the bus.
Had dad been there before, was he circling around to all these places like Quartzsite, or…
I think he had already traveled that route. Course they had big swap meets there in the winter and you can live on nothing.
How did he figure out this lifestyle? It’s not something his dad did so..?
No definitely not. I don’t know he was a drifter when I met him.
And that was after the war, right, Vietnam?
Yeah he just couldn’t, stay in one place for long, couldn’t settle down, things would get a little too tough with responsibilities or schedules and he’d just take off and go somewhere else.
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.
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.
I didn’t live in a real city until I was an adult. I also didn’t live anywhere longer than a couple of years before my mom settled with us in New Mexico in 1995. I was born in Lake Havasu City, that desert town wrapped around a lake and a strip of tourist-trap shops, the real London bridge carted over stone by stone to its final resting place in a place as far from England as it could have imagined. A few days later we were gone, I hear, packed up in our brown UPS truck with our new family of three. We lived in small towns for a few days, empty stretches of desert for weeks, a homeless shelter in Boise, Idaho for a month. We went to school sometimes, in Williams, Arizona, in Needles, California, in Quartzsite. When I was old enough I schooled myself, “attending” a mail-in satellite school paid for with money my mom’s dad, Papa, had put away for me when I grew up. I needed it before I grew up, for school, and so my mom withdrew it. I don’t know if it all went to pay for school, or if it was filtered away to fund my dad’s various ventures, the way birthday money would disappear from cards from family and a six-pack would appear in the fridge.
My mother’s story is hers to tell, and I will help her tell it soon. I’ve been recording interviews with her, which I’ll publish together with these stories of mine, one of these days. The roads on her face have spread, their tracks now lightly marking my own skin. We are bound together by all of the miles, by the shared joys and pain and the wanderlust that burns brightly in my blood and has dimmed mostly to memories in hers.
People ask, “Was your father in the military?” and I will say yes if I want the story to be over, which depends on my interest in story-telling or whether I am trying to impress the asker. Because he was in the Army, it is an easy half-truth to say we were Army brats. He went to Vietnam for some amount of time, and he may or may not have seen combat, and he may or may not have been dishonorably discharged. I tried to request his DD-214 from the National Archives, but the next-of-kin can request it only when the discharged veteran is deceased. I don’t think my father is deceased, but I probably wouldn’t hear about it right away if he was. Last I heard, he was living in a cave in the Arizona mountains. I drove by the range in a rainstorm, and wondered if he was dry up there. I imagined him in his Army fatigues, maybe a fire burning at the mouth of the cave, the scent of the wet creosote drifting up to him like a prayer. He probably gazed out over the valley, his territory, and either reveled in his solitude or pitied himself. My aunt tells me he has taken to calling himself “Sarge.” He was never a sergeant.
The reason for our wandering was him. Mom had a wandering spirit, too, a product of her father’s life as a travelling fabric salesman, when there were such creatures before you could order samples online or before everything began shipping from a third-world country where barefoot children run the looms. Papa drove around the East coast, his briefcase full of samples for the clothing manufacturers and the upholsterers, and sometimes Mom would ride along with him. After her first love and marriage ended, and before she finished college, she packed up her things in her yellow VW bug, left Georgia and headed west on her own. She made it as far as Alpine, Arizona and then she picked up a handsome stranger hitch-hiking. They spent 18 years and had four kids together. I never pick up hitch-hikers.
Those 18 years were spent out in the boondocks. Maybe it was the 14 other kids my dad grew up with that made him want to run away, out into the middle of nowhere. I can understand that. Six people in a station wagon or sleeping together in a tent made me want to do the same. I can’t imagine 15 kids plus Grandma and Grandpa, in their little farmhouse in Minnesota.
Maybe he wanted the distance from society because he’d lost his faith in the government, the way other Vietnam vets had. The way they were treated when they returned, the way they were lied to before and during service. He turned to conspiracy theory to explain the “whys” to himself, or made up his own explanations. Later, he turned to drinking. I remember that at least me and my next oldest brother, Rowdy, were there when I asked him why he was drinking beer. I hadn’t known this dad, the one who sat in a folding chair and stared morosely out into the desert. I asked mom first, why he was drinking, and she looked at the ground and told me to ask him. I remember crying when he yelled at me. It may have been the first time he had yelled that way, voice cracking and face reddening, but it was not the last. Before that, I had been his little angel.
No one can know all of someone elses’ reasons for anything. You may know what they tell you, or you may hear what others tell you, but you can never really know. Sometimes I feel myself in his shoes, rage building over something small, or the urge to drop everything and leave so strong that I can barely contain it. The difference between him and I, is that I am either stronger than the urge or too chickenshit to give in to it. I have a nagging responsibility that wears me down, that makes me want to finish things I’ve started. If he had the same nag, it could have been so strong that he couldn’t stand it. He left another family, before us, two kids and a wife. That wife never remarried and remained broken enough that her daughter wanted nothing to do with me when I reached out to her as a teenager. Responsibility can be a bitch.