Going Back

ROADTRIP04

August 1992

I keep my eyes averted from the rearview mirror as I drive away from Los Angeles. Interstate 15 to Interstate 40. North and then East. Across the Mojave Desert. Back from whence I came. Never look back. Though I don’t place so much trust in that superstition anymore. After all, I didn’t look back when I left Michigan. Never going back, I declared. Never say never. But I did and look what happened.

I drive with the windows rolled down. The hot desert air pulls my hair out of the ponytail strand by strand. The car heater is on full blast to keep the radiator from overheating. 1965 Dodge Custom 880. It’s three years older than I am. It bought it when I first arrived in California, exactly five years ago. With all the financial problems that it’s caused me, I should hate this land yacht. But I don’t. It’s my fault for not making enough money to properly take care of it. It’s my fault for being a loser.

When the realization hit, I was stuck on the 405 freeway, somewhere in West LA, heading north in rush hour traffic. Six lanes in both directions packed with vehicles. Stop and go. The Yves Tanguy painting, Multiplication of the Arcs, flashed across my mind. Countless anonymous entities in a frantic push towards a gray horizon. Towards the edge. And over. Then a whisper, Just give up. Go home.

Underneath the defeat is relief. It’s all over. But when I look into the future, all I see is a void. I’m twenty-three and my life is ruined.

multiplicationarcs

Multiplication of the Arcs – Yves Tanguy

The gas gauge needle creeps towards red. I glance at the road map. A faint dot and the name of a town. But when I exit, all I find are abandoned, weather-beaten shacks. A ghost town. My throat constricts in panic. No one good will stop to help a lone woman who’s run out of gas way out here. If there’s one thing I’ve managed to learn in the last five years, it’s that I attract predators. With each successive wound, I’ve become an easier target. It won’t take much to finish me off.

But up ahead, miraculously, a truck stop. The car drifts to the pump on fumes.

I reach Flagstaff, Arizona just after sundown. Hot turkey sandwich and mashed potatoes dinner in a truck stop diner. Ragged sleep in a Motel 6.

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A soft desert dawn. Sunrays diffused into pastel hues of mauve and coral. I drive towards the orb of light on the horizon. At Holbrook, I leave the interstate and follow the signs to Petrified Forest National Park. No time for breakfast, so I dig into the big bag of Trader Joe’s food that my aunt in California bought for my ride back. Trail mix, cookies, and, for some odd reason, tortillas and cans of soup. She always tried to lift my spirits. Look on the bright side! Today is a new day! And so on. And on and on. She meant well, but her relentless cheer made me want to scream.

The road that traverses the national park is empty. The pastel sunlight has morphed into deep orange. I stop at each lookout point, but leave the car running. Too much risk of overheating, even this early in the day. Crystal Forest, Agate Bridge, Jasper Forest, Blue Mesa, The Tepees. Ancient, petrified tree trunks lie shattered across the landscape. The hills and valleys are delicately tinted. Watercolor on shifting sand. At the end of the road, Interstate 40 awaits.

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Just past the New Mexico border, a sudden, violent constriction grips my gut. Cold sweat beads up on my brow. I hunch over the steering wheel and take deep breaths. Another thirty minutes to Gallup. I’m not going to make it. I swerve to the side of the road, burst out of the passenger door, and down the embankment. Cars hiss by. I’m too relieved to be embarrassed. No place to hide out here. Luckily I’m wearing a sundress.

Back on the road. What was that all about? I shake my head. As if I don’t have enough humiliation in my life right now.

I stop in Gallup to fill up the car. A Mexican restaurant beckons. Hunger pangs have replaced the cramps. The restaurant is packed with truckers and retirees. A sour-faced waitress named Pilar points at a table and slaps a menu down in front of me. She returns a couple of minutes later and scrawls my order. I smile and thank her. I know what it’s like to be slammed. I’ll most likely be waiting tables when I get back to Michigan. Because I can’t seem to do anything else. She gives me a look of such withering contempt that I flush and look down at the table. She returns with my drink. I say nothing. Twenty minutes pass, then thirty. I’ve got to make Durango tonight. I make the sign of the check at Pilar. Too bad about the food, but I need to pay for the drink. She smirks and looks away. I grit my teeth. Okay, then. I get up and walk out.

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Highway 666. Imposing mesas rise from the earth. Cloud shadows dance across their sheer cliffs. I stare at them, spellbound. I want to pull over and take a photo, but if I get out of the car, I will walk until I am standing on the top looking down. A truly majestic place to vanish. Flesh and bones withering to dust. Returning to Earth.

I lift my camera and take a shot through the windshield. The spell is broken.

Thoughts of death lead to thoughts of Dad. He’s started to ask about his tapes again. Long ago, someone stole his prophecies. Maybe the chemotherapy disrupts the anti-psychotic meds. He won’t be around much longer, they’ve said for two years now. I will be able to spend some time with him before he goes, though I believe he will live forever.

I leave the cursed highway behind and drive east, then north into Colorado. Mesas give way to peaks. Beige deepens to gray and green. Another kind of wonder.

My aunt is standing in her front yard when I arrive. Her four children and a big black dog surround me when I step out of the car, but they soon grow bored and scatter. She leads me into the house, which they live in rent-free in exchange for watching over the mentally handicapped man who owns it. She works as a nurse, and her husband takes people on horse trips deep into the surrounding wilderness. Bad luck has followed them around the west, from ranch to ranch.  Injuries and unemployment. Such is the cowboy life.

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The next morning, after her kids leave for school, she drives me up the winding road to Silverton. Colorful wooden buildings against a backdrop of mountain peaks. Hollywood soundstage perfection. Nowhere is this beautiful.

I buy us lunch in a small cafe. One more charge on the credit card, but I want to give her something. We sit across from each other in a booth and drink margaritas. My aunt’s ornate silver earrings shimmer in the sunlight. I recognize the frustration and fear in her demeanor. We grew up believing that if we worked hard, lived honestly, and took responsibility for ourselves, everything would be okay. If we treated people well, we would be treated fairly. She doesn’t ask why I left California.

After lunch, she introduces me to her horses, and then saddles two up for us. One of the guys who works with her husband shows up. When she tells him that I’m from California, he sneers and ambles away. She explains how to guide the horse. Turn the reins in the direction you want to go. Pull back to slow down or stop the horse. Dig your heels in her sides to go faster. The trail leads up a ridge, then down through a valley. I feel awkward in the saddle. My butt hurts. I hope she doesn’t want to gallop, or something. She looks over her shoulder at me and laughs, a distinctive soft snicker. Out here, she’s a princess. Wealthy beyond measure.

On the drive back to Durango, she invites me to live out here, with her and her family. There’s a small university and restaurant jobs. I can babysit her kids in exchange for rent. It’s a totally different environment from LA. A place to completely start over. After I’ve rested and recovered in Michigan. Maybe this winter. I flush with gratitude and look out the window as she speaks. The aspen trees are so beautiful in the fall. The leaves look like gold coins. I take a deep breath and nod. I’d love to live out here. Thank you.

It is pitch dark when I awaken. Time for the road again. I grab the bag of food from the car and unload the contents on her counter. Her eyes fill with tears. You’re going to give me all of this? Then she picks up the bag of trail mix and starts to snicker. There’s figs in here. That’s why you had the shits. She walks me out to the car. The dog circles around, a barely discernible shadow. The only light outside is that of the stars. A warm hug. See you soon. 

As I drive away, I fix my eyes on the rearview mirror. Look back. Go back. But all I see is infinite blackness.

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*Highway 666 was renamed to 491 in 2003.
**Image source for Multiplication of the Arcshttp://www.matta-art.com/tanguy/tanguy.htm

58 thoughts on “Going Back

    • Hi Meg – I hit bottom in Michigan and slowly crawled my way back into the light. Bad luck struck again, so I never did move out to Durango. Thanks, as always, for reading. –Julie

  1. I love your writing Julie. I often don’t know where the line is between truth and fiction, or memoir and imagination but it doesn’t matter because it’s so engaging, so real, and so alive.

    • Your kind words are very much appreciated. It all comes down to recreating the mood. If I can’t remember enough of something specific that happened, I don’t put it in. Memoir is tricky. Luckily, I tend to remember random small details to help fill in the gaps or at least add some personality.

  2. “The hot desert air pulls my hair out of the ponytail strand by strand.” I remember a trip like that through New Mexico. But my young adulthood was similar to yours in certain respects and neither could the landscape counter my anguish or hopelessness. Beautifully rendered, Julie. Warm regards, Vivian

    • The desert has a way of enhancing the way we feel. No place to hide. At that time, I never thought I’d live to be as old as I am now – twice that age. Or that the anguish would fade and I would be happy. Thanks so much for adding your thoughts, Vivian.

  3. These feelings, these experiences, you write of are embedded and entwined in a landscape that allows a road trip, aren’t they? It’s uniquely North American ( I think). I don’t mean that in a bad way. I am merely thinking about how the landscape reinforces the feelings and vice versa. It’s a powerful combination. We don’t have the type of landscape that allows for road trip writing. (LOL, you’re excused if you don’t have a clue what I am blabbering on about!)

    • I totally know what you’re blabbering about. Haha. As I was writing and reliving this, I felt a rare nostalgia for America. I used to be a fabulous road tripper. There’s something about the American landscape and the roads themselves, that add poetry to the driving experience. Nowhere else comes close.

      • Phew! I have only done one rather small road trip in the US. But I could do nothing at all like that here. As you say “Nowhere else comes close.” Perhaps Australia might come the closest.

    • David Lynch…what a compliment! As for the car – I loved that gaz-guzzling monstrosity. You should have seen how people would mooove out of my way. 😉 Everything that could go wrong, did, except for the engine itself. But I ended up selling it for more than I paid for it.

      As of now this is a stand alone piece, but it may end up in the memoir. Part two of the memoir picks up not long after this leaves off.

  4. The way you write this story, I almost feel I’m beside you. And you re-enforce my dream to take the road in the US. Maybe one day….
    And I look forward to your memoir !

  5. The ending says it all, you take us to that place, the first photo tell us that story too. Like always impeccable writing Julie.

    Wanted to ask you if you can send me your book, I got hack so I deleted the email, forgot about your book. Thanks

    • Thank you, Doris. I’m happy that I took some photos of that trip, even if some were through the car window. Of course I’ll send you my book. Let me know if it doesn’t arrive.

  6. Every time I read something during that time,I get very sad for all the pain you were going through. I am so glad you got through it and can write about that time. Your writing and pictures are beautiful , just like you. Thank you.

  7. Beautiful writing as always. It is hard for me to reconcile that young woman who has absorbed so many kicks that she believes she deserves them to the accomplished blogger who seemingly wanders around unusual places with such confidence and captures beauty wherever. Fortunately life can take better turns.
    Thanks you again for sharing.

    • It took a very long time to stop feeling like I deserved it all, and the change was sudden and unexpected. Sadly, many people who have serious depression never get to this point.

  8. love your writing, as always. This remembered me my trip to California, Utah, Nevada, and then again California…I’m totally in love with these landscapes, with the desert…miss travelling by car in America…

    • Hahaha. Uh, let’s just say that I was very glad that I’d kept so many fast food napkins in the glove compartment. And now I always keep packets of Kleenex with me. :O

  9. Wow, there are the road trips we choose to take and the ones we have to make. What an incredible journey in so many ways for you and, as tough as it was for you, a pleasure to read.

  10. Yes, driving with the windows down as the road miles skip on by; Side thought; Why are road miles different to mountain miles? Maybe it’s about the distance traveled rather than the distance climbed. Your small snippet of tale/life above does both, it climbs and it travels, the best way to yarn on any day. Some how I can almost imagine, Julie,; your memoirs pouring out of a battered, well traveled series of handwritten journals, populated with photographs, rough sketches, mud maps, and line upon line to the moments, places, thoughts.

    Have only visited home twice since leaving over almost three decades ago; Once when some family still lived there and the second when all had moved or where gone. It was out along the Capricorn Highway, originally a route known here as 66 but now the A4. But on both visits, it was the detour drive up into the mountains upon leaving the little town on the eastern highlands that made the road trips. Mountain forest, waterfalls and vertical sandstone faces. A winding gravel road of many round, dirt red pebbles, the kind as a kid one would take a running start on foot and keep rolling upright downhill for 30, 60 feet before losing control (and losing some skin) or just coming to a stop. But it’s now a single lane sealed road, but on top has remained the same.

    Julie, if you ever find you have too much for your memoir, there is always the second book, the detours and their little talks/conversations..

    • Hi Sean – Sounds like going back to your home was a profound journey for you, as well. Especially when those you knew had moved on and all that remained were ghosts of the memory.

      Re: the memoir. This blog has been a place for the “outtakes”. The second book of which you speak.

      • Hi Julie, yes moving from the 70 and 80s to the 90s and 2000s, the whole place just seemed different, but the world around it stayed the same.

        Back on Friday, I’d watched the Manhattan Short (a global short film festival), and many of your outtakes would seem to translate well as contemporary short films; The one above, the one that was about driving through the narrow canyon, and others.

  11. Dear Julie, I absolutely love the way you describe your thoughts on your trip or the eperience you make at the Mexican restaurant or with your aunt and Durango and all this combined with your pictures is really touching. Many thanks and all the best:)

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