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for people who care about the West

On the road, where everything falls away

  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.

During that 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.

All 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.

I 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 gambling.

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.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman, Montana.