Here is how I imagine this.
Her blonde hair is blowing in the wind, a red bandana snapping like a flag, keeping the little wisps out of her face as she’s driving. The cool mountain air, pine-scented and softened at its edges with the warmth from the sun, fills the car like the joy flowing through her veins at being out on her own, finally. There is no one looking over her shoulder, telling her what to do.
But she’s lonely, too. She’s discovered that traveling alone without the companionship of her Papa or her recently broken-hearted ex-husband isn’t quite the same. When she exclaims over a pretty bird, or wants to stop to see “The Thing,” after miles of road signs extolling its virtues, there’s no one to turn to over her shoulder, either. She’s decided at some point, to cheer her up, she’s going to up the adventure ante and pick up the next hitchhiker. A good-looking one, of course. And a man, obviously.
Having driven through Alpine many times myself, I see her yellow car slowing to the town’s 25 mph speed limit, all her windows down and some local ranchers gawking. She’d feel at home here, all the green grass and tall trees, but still feel the adventure of the wide open blue skies of the West, the absence of black people, all the brown people she’s never seen outside of her trip to Mexico and the last drive through Texas. She’s probably got a little fear-excitement sitting low in her belly, though the years of road trips with Papa have helped her feel safer in unfamiliar locations. Nothing bad has happened. Nothing bad will happen.
Mary passes the café with the chainsaw bear sculpture out front, the candy shop with colored flags in the window. She slows at the one stop sign in front of the gas station, where big diesel trucks are pulled up next to the two pumps, their trailers full of hay for the cattle and their drivers spitting tobacco and chatting, leaned up against their doors. Horses come close to the fence, the fields spreading back behind the station into the verdant little valley. She smiles at them, turns right and is already out of town. Just as she starts to accelerate to propel the Bug up the hill, she sees him up ahead, his pack beside him on the ground. There’s my dad. He sticks out his thumb, casually, looking back at her as if willing her to stop. Her fear-excitement jumps from her belly to her throat, and she thinks ,“This is it. “
She slows down, the car putt-putting as she puts it into neutral and pulls up beside him. Her upside-down smile peers out the passenger window.
“Need a ride?” For a moment he thinks she’s a guy, her hair pulled back and her no-makeup traveling face on. She has that strong jaw, and her prominent nose is more so without her hair framing her face. When he looks closer, he grins.
“What are you doing picking up a man by yourself?” I imagine his wheels turning, Ed – always on the prowl.
He’d throw his pack in the back, slam the door, and off they drove into my future.
I imagine it’s like being raised in a commune. Your little network of interactions is so specific and well-known. The outcomes of disagreements are easily predicted; no matter what happens you will stay friends or family, because you have to when your network is only six people deep.
Stepping out into the world of other new and strange people is a different ball game. Relationships are begun, destroyed, fall apart as easily as speaking your mind too bluntly. My second real job was in Glenwood, washing dishes in the institute of a cafe known as the Blue Front (now, sadly closed as many businesses in Glenwood have). I think I was too young to legally work, but the owners’ kids worked there too and besides, nobody cared. Everyone in town worked here or had worked here in the past. There aren’t a lot of options in a town of 500. Being in the back at first was good for me, since I was shy around people and would often freeze when faced with a question. I talked plenty once you got to know me, though. I had and have a lot of opinions, kinda known for that. I might tell you even if you don’t ask, now, though that’s something I’m trying to work on. I’ve discovered people often don’t want to hear what you think, even if they do ask.
The Blue Front started the granting of my freedom, by providing me with a little bit of money and a small group of mostly ladies that at least pretended to listen to me and maybe felt sorry for me. I credit them with the first lessons in relating to “normal” people who hadn’t lived in cars and buses their entire lives before this town.
I began to learn how to be in one place, what it meant to not always walk away from an issue or something I disliked. I’d never had to learn that before. Before, I’d known that it wouldn’t be long and the problem would be a distant memory.
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.
I’ve been at a writer’s retreat in the Big Bend area this week…here’s a little something I worked on as an assignment.
The assignment was to write a non-fiction scene, in the style of a journalism long-form story. This was chosen as a stand out piece of writing to be presented to all attendees and instructors at a reading at the close of the retreat.
Freddy drops a quarter into the parking meter in front of the TV, turns the knob and you can hear it drop and clink with its fellows. The meter is an old-style one with a little gold plate that says “Police Officers Will Not Turn the Knob,” meaning maybe that it was from the day when actual cops had anything to do with parking tickets and people expected that cops should be there to help instead of hinder. The flag inside the glass bulb drops, and Freddy has two hours.
“It’s for Cowboys games, when he tries to come in here and camp out all day,” Harry said in his thick German accent, rolling his eyes. “Nobody wants to hear him going off like that; at least he can pay for it if we have to.” He grins toward Freddy, and you can tell it’s a subject that’s come up through the years over and over. Like the same long Texas evening, like when you step inside this place with the cow bones all over the porch roof, the same day just keeps replaying. Where the fun never stops.
It’s hot and sticky inside even with the swamp cooler and all of the fans blowing at once, kind of like sitting inside someone’s beer-scented mouth while they’re panting and sighing. Outside, a few locals are strumming guitars and a mandolin, taking turns singing and passing the same couple of women around. One has tattoos above her lady business, and cut off shorts and tube top to make sure you can see them – the other wears sweats and no makeup, with tough eyebrows like the cholas I knew in high school. She doesn’t smile.
“It’s 3 to one men to women out here,” the cute brown-skinned female bartender smiles. “I just stopped dating when I moved to Alpine for school.” She flips her short dark bob as she turns to serve another icy Lone Star – (Estrella Sola! The man she’s serving asks her, and she looks at him like he’s asking for Courvoisier. He explains it means the same thing as what she’d been handing him all night, just only in Spanish this time) – Harry leans in and says she does hav e a boyfriend who she doesn’t call her boyfriend. She disappears a little later with the non-boyfriend. 3 to one odds you’ll end up with one of those out here, I figure.
The guy with the gas pipeline company has been kicked out at least once today, but he comes back in and buys the whole bar a round, so they let him stay this time. He’s good and drunk, having a hard time focusing on anything and sweating all the way through his Stetson. He has small eyes, fat pink lips and I don’t like him, partly because he stands with his sweaty arm against me when there’s a whole bar to his left, partly because I’ve heard him talk about the female bartender who threw him out, repeatedly calling her a bitch and whining to anyone he buys a beer for that “she hates me.” I figure she knows him well enough to judge, since Freddy and Harry both say he’s a good guy. You can’t trust what they say, since they’re drinking the beers he just bought. Miller High Life and Natural Light, respectively.
“I raise pheasants, and let ‘em go out here,” says Freddy conversationally. “I just let 20 go in Ft. Davis. I put an ad in the paper in up there to let people know not to shoot them ‘til December. I want to reintroduce them to this part of Texas. Gotta keep the rednecks and Mexicans from shooting them all, though! At least for a while, give ‘em time to breed,” he laughs, rubbing his big belly. “I put the ad in Spanish and English.” He’s Hispanic – about 45, greying, with the body of a long-haul truck driver. He says he’s not bitter about his wife leaving him with their two daughters. But that was 12 years ago and he hasn’t dated much.
“Freddy’s probably the smartest guy in town, even though it doesn’t seem like it,” Harry says to me, keeping up his revelatory side conversation. “He’s just acting dumb.” I’m not sure why Harry’s giving me the inside scoop, maybe to set himself up as the guy who knows everything about everyone. If I lived here, I don’t think I’d tell Harry anything unless I had a reason for piping information into the gossip mill. Just like when someone tells you “Don’t trust so-and-so,” I make it a rule never to trust the speaker of those words.
Scott the pipeline guy oozes back inside to lean against a bar stool next to mine – too much cologne, undertone of sweat, liquor and ready-to-hump. “It’s so dang hot! I can’t stand it,” he complains, trying to get someone to talk to him. He pulls out his phone and sloppily tries to text. I glimpse the screen and two words in his conversation before he makes a “How Dare You” face and slaps it against his chest so I can’t see it. He pouts his lips, playing coy, like, I can’t believe you peeked!
“She fucks,” the text says. Over the bar, a sign says “We Don’t Rent Pigs.”
Melba had a little sewing and quilting shop on the main drag of
Glenwood, across from the Crab Apple Cabins and next to the creek that
bubbled under the highway. We’d walk through town as kids and stop at
the creek in the shade, to pretend there was a troll under the bridge
or to watch the kids in the summer in town with their parents for
vacation. The strangers in town were always tourists or hunters. The
teenage girls knew when the Forest Service would bring in the Hot
Shots to fight fires in the mountains. As the season got drier and the
heat began, so would the hormones heat up in town. Tan muscled guys
who’d been spending weeks in the mountains would come rolling into
town and the smell of sweat and desire was rank.
Melba gave me another job in exchange for sewing lessons. I helped her
in the shop, and gave her massages after work. Pressing her doughy
flesh as she sighed in her room, I decided I didn’t want to be a
Our first Christmas I was the charity case for the women’s quilting
group. I imagine the meeting they had as they picked their deserving
“That little homeless girl in the trailer, Mary’s daughter? You know
she’d just love a quilt, ladies. Let’s stitch her a new life made of
goodwill and tiny stitched dolls wearing flowered dresses.”
It was a sweet gesture. I wished I hadn’t had to give her massages,
though. I made sure I was as busy as I could be so I could tell her I
didn’t have time anymore for sewing. I never made clothing that fit me
quite right, anyway.
I participated in everything. I went to the ladies’ oil painting group
and painted colorful quick paintings, two to a month, while the older
ladies had been working on the same thing for a year. I livened up
their day and made them laugh.
Lynn took me under her artist’s wing, because I loved to paint so
much. She’d come in with her brush and refine my splashes and swirls,
add color and depth when I didn’t take the time. She could tell I
needed a little refinement.
People started asking me to babysit their kids, and I still didn’t
know how to say no yet so I did. After one last overnight with a
couple of little boys who wanted to sleep in the bed with me and tried
to run roughshod, I realized I didn’t have to do this anymore. I was
making enough money at my other jobs…
Windstalker hired me to tie the hundreds of pottery chile ristras they
hung at the door, their best sellers to folks looking for a New
Mexican souvenir. My fingers were raw and bled as I knotted the cords
together and burned the ends with a lighter to prevent them
We spent days at the Catwalk in the cold water of the canyons,
exploring under the rocks and back away from the trail. We swam in the
deep dark swimming holes beneath giant boulders, climbed barefoot up
the cliffsides and swung from trees like monkeys. One of my best friends Adele and I parked with boys in the parking lot of the picnic grounds late at night, watching the stars, and I sighed and was bored as she made out in the backseat. I still looked
like a little girl with zits who didn’t know how to dress, and her
curves and breasts had been womanly for years already. When would I be
desirable? I was in such a hurry and the time was so close. I felt
like I had so many years to catch up on, not realizing the length of
the years before me. I always knew I would want to slow down time,
though, and it’s been a recurring theme in my journals since I started them at 8 years old.
I have always known I’ll be looking back in 10 years, then 20 (if luck favors the bold), wondering where did the time go?
My diary tells me all I wanted was my own room. A place that didn’t move. People who knew me, boys who looked at me and wanted me and asked for my number. Only I’d never had a number. The only telephones we used were pay phones, at a corner behind the casino in Winnemucca while the dust blew by and the clouds settled in, while Dad played cards and drank somewhere inside and we sat outside and tried to be still and patient, tempers growing thin and us fidgeting, hungry. In front of a Bashas’ grocery store in Parker, Arizona, from the safety of a grocery trip that got Mom and I away from the desert on our own for a whole day to civilization, ice cream, the library. She’d check in on Granny, call her friend back in Georgia. Let them know we were still alive – did they wonder how long? But she’d made her own choices, they’d say, shaking well-coiffed Southern heads and not even trying to understand. She always was a little wild, that Mary. I didn’t know the wild Mary existed. All I’d ever seen was a sweet cowed woman that loved us more than anything.
Kids don’t know any better. They’re programmed to want to conform, to fit in, to survive in the herd and not be noticed. If I’d continued on the road as a teenager, if we’d kept going while I decided who I was going to be I would never have been able to stop. I know it in my bones. They say “You’d still be on the road, baby. You’d be somewhere in South America by now. On your way to China.” And I ache to be that person that I might have been. The person that I am feels hollow, too light to pull myself free from the clay of the earth and the roots growing round my feet. I imagine the flutter of leaves breaking free from branches, the flight of each one flashes of tiny freedoms and bursts of joy.
The old Airstream settles on Don’s land, her tires sighing out the breath pumped into them 20 (goddamn!) years ago at some far away rest stop- Nevada- maybe Oregon air, seeping out of tires no longer hard and young. Happens to us all.
I see her aging, flaking, and I know her and my destinies include me making her new again. I have to, I’ll rip out her insides and make her mine, strong and road-worthy again. Not young, I don’t have that kind of magic. But youth is not everything. I’d rather have her history, her wisdom. I don’t care how long or how much it costs. We will travel the road again together. But there won’t be 6 of us packed in there again.
The Airstream will be 26 feet of pure minimalist modern luxury when I’m done. Light and bright inside, and light on the road. I wish someone could buff me up and take out the nascent wrinkles before I reach her state of tired.
Walking into the trailer, our old home, brings back Needles where we first lived encased in her well-kept confines, the relative luxury of running water and electricity, of Karl’s borrowed showers, and his desperate want of my mother. I see that most in retrospect, don’t know if it was true and only assume.
Clackamas and Mt. Hood National Forest, where the rain drummed on the taut aluminum body, until we had to leave, avoiding the rust and must that would surely follow. The previous owners, a sweet Canadian couple with their road-years behind them, carved wooden coyotes and saguaros into her bulwarks (the faces of interior cabinets, and my made up ship-name for them). Crude art, that I don’t like but am loathe to take down. So much love in simple art, mine included.
As most good things, she became ours when Dad wasn’t around to fuck things up. Mom asked Granny for the loan. $5 thousand? $8 thousand? I remember we all took turns holding the check because it seemed like a ridiculous amount of money. The most we’d ever seen.
As the only material thing Mom held on to, I’m glad it was this piece of the past. And I’m honored to take her and make her right again. There’s never been a doubt she was a she- mother, protector, road-ship. All vessels are female, the holders of everything important.
The smell inside, of old must books and wood long un-loved makes me want to scrub and scrub all the neglect away. Make her, and the past, belong to me.