There is nothing like being on a road trip, especially a Western road trip. On the road, anything is possible. The rest of life falls away into another dimension. If it isn't a frontier of possibility, it's at least a paved ribbon of it.
On a trip years ago, I remember stopping in Truth or
Consequences, N.M., to eat lunch in the park with my wife and two
young sons. After we ate, I walked across the grass to get the car
and bring it around to the swings where the toddlers were playing.
I drove to the end of the block and hesitated before turning. I
could just drive away, I thought. I could turn left and get on the
highway towards Mexico, go off, and live a different life.
This impulsive, crazy thought flashed across the mental
landscape, then I turned towards the swings where I saw the boys
and my wife. Weird.
I've just returned from a
spring-break road trip to California. More than 3,000 miles,
encompassing such disparate experiences as Las Vegas and Disneyland
on one end of the spectrum, and on the other, groves of redwoods
and the Pacific coastline. Jumbled between them: the grayness of
Nevada, the glittering mountains at Donner Pass, the impression
that cell phones have evolved into physical appendages, the
stupendous glut of traffic in Los Angeles, where, among thousands
of vehicles jostling with us through rush hour, there were maybe
six with more than a single person inside.
12-day hiatus, all the linear, day-to-day stuff of living went
poof. I forgot about my bank account, about my work. Back in the
"real" world, we roared into war with Iraq, the stock market
floundered, the Celtics stayed four games back and our pet rat
accustomed herself to the scene at a friend's house.
of it flew out of my consciousness. I have to admit that, to a
significant extent, I encouraged that flight. When, halfway along,
we could have called the house-sitters, Marypat and I looked at
each other, shrugged, and never picked up the phone.
Instead, what I'm left with from that time is a collage of images
unmoored from the mother ship of my life: watching the boys pick a
couple of lemons from trees lining a highway near Ventura, Calif.;
how long it takes spit to fall to the ocean from the middle of the
Golden Gate Bridge; how toneless and soft Snow White's arm looked
as she waved from the parade which ends every work day at
Disneyland; the ragtag line of cars parked next to a strawberry
field, where migrant workers stooped over berry-laden plants.
In there, too, imprinted sharp and vivid, are the
nervous, hand-like motions made by the flipper of a baby elephant
seal we saw, abandoned or waiting, on a beach near the Channel
Islands. Or the time when I stopped to look closely at the bark of
a redwood tree, how there were dozens and dozens of tiny spider
webs hanging in the clefts and overhangs, hundreds to every tree,
their webbed baskets draped with dew, waiting for prey.
was struck, for whatever reason, by a gathering of men at a
McDonald's we stopped at somewhere in California: a bunch of guys
in their 70s, hanging out, drinking coffee, eating breakfast
burritos, jovial and at ease. Driving home across Nevada, I thought
how an underpinning of desperation squats in the air there, a kind
of decay in this state where the whole enterprise is driven by
Now, I'm back, and it’s the aftermath of
war that’s in the news. The kids have homework waiting. I am
rudely reminded just how much I do have in the bank account.
I’m back, but unable to shake a nagging feeling of loss, of a
closing window of perception. It feels, on the treadmill again, as
though I have not only lost the impulsive, impossible-to-sustain
abandon of road life, but that I also might not be able to
recapture the openness to the fragments I found there, those bits
to grab hold of before they float away.
I say loss
because, in the long run, I'm not at all sure whether it's more
important to know what I have in the bank, or whether to hang tight
to the supple way a newborn flipper can move in the sand, grabbing
and stroking, knuckles working under the shiny dark skin, with the
surf of the Pacific boiling in over the black rocks.