a turn of the key and the engine sputters and pops to life. just a hair after 5 in the cold morning and they pull away from that dark suburban house, waving goodbye to family and their home for the last two months. thus begins two weeks of driving. small hints of dawn grow in the east; the road beckons westward. in fifteen days they will be pulling into the driveway of another temporoary home in bellingham, washington. but there are 3,840 miles yet to travel as they make their rumbling way through lonely streets and into quiet cornfields.
the first day was almost fifteen hours all told. she naps as they cross the mississippi. by the early afternoon the low hills of iowa are behind them. nebraska gives way to flatlands again, a winter’s brown with barely the hope of the green rebirth of spring waiting. the twisted grey trees give the impression of a post-apocalyptic wasteland from some movie. a long afternoon is spent in this long, flat state. they eventually, thankfully, dip south into colorado. closer to denver they top a rise and see before them the rockies’ jagged silhouette through a haze of the golden high plains sun. this is the first they have seen of snowy mountains in quite some time. not counting, of course, that time they flew over the alps on their way to africa’s hilly heart. there they stand mighty and glorious over the sprawling city. out of the midwest and into western mountains is an amazing feeling for this west coast boy.
they stay for a couple of nights with an illinois friend in denver. and of course make their way to the intersection of colfax and broadway mentioned in a five iron frenzy song. that weekend finds them at higher elevations surrounded by mountains and ski resorts. another two nights with good friends who moved out from urbana to mountainous glory just months before. in fact, everyone they visited and met with while in colorado had moved there from illinois. the four of them walk over the thick layer of frosty white with snowshoes, the weather alternating flurries and sun. the two travelers try their best to gulp down more than enough water to adjust to the 8,000+ feet difference in elevation from where they had been living for years. after a fitful night of meager sleep they arise early, leave a note of thank you, and continue west on i-70.
the rougher parts of the world grow and roll around them. through canyons like crooked smiles gaping open beneath the faces of the mountains they drive now, descending to dusty deserts. he finds it difficult to keep focused on the road; there are too many beautiful things to see, experience, absorb. he has this problem often. morning sun swallows the last of the snow-capped peaks, now replaced by red-orange cliffs and bluffs, walls of a towering and mighty earth. eastern utah keeps the marvels coming as the afternoon builds. they head south now; dark mountains splashed with white here and there, the orange ancient rock enchants them. utah, they decide, needs to be its own journey for another year.
and then the storms come. first wind, then rain, then great walls of rusty clouds cover the land. dust swarms everywhere, climbs into everything, blocks out visibility at times. he grips the wheel white-knuckled, watches the lines on either side of the car, tries not to notice how the vehicle ahead – and the road – disappear into dust. a dead and dislodged bush, the size of the car itself, carried forcefully by the wind, is thrown into the side of their blue saturn, startling them both. at rest stops they pick pieces of the bush from the doors. there are moments of clarity, between clouds orange and monstrous, when again they see the sights of these rugged canyonlands, enjoy what they can see for free passing through monument valley. northern arizona hits them again with heavy, wet snow for more intense driving. but, oh! when the clouds gave way to the high desert plains encircled by looming darkness with a triumphant burning blue above. they make it to the great rend of the earth that is the grand canyon and spend another strange night trying to endure more snow, crammed together in their little tent. in their bitter and frigid weariness they finish the night in a hotel.
the next morning brings clearer skies, higher temperatures, and a chance to hike down a little into the belly of the canyon. it’s like standing next to an enormous painting, the vast cliffs seems so unreal, it defies description. they drive through gorgeous arizona over many hills to grandma’s house. there they spend a relaxing day and some taking time to sit and talk for as long as they wish after meals with grandma watson. they pick oranges and grapefruit from heavy branches and make the overpoweringly sweet natural juice. they carry the jugs with them as they drive away two sleeps later, drinking the nectar in the desert sun, smiling.
the freeway outside of phoenix is slow with traffic as crews scramble to clear the road of debris from a fedex trailer that, as far as they can tell, spontaneously exploded.
while forests and tall trees feel like home to him, there is something about the great brown desert that captures him and holds a very special place in his heart. they spend the next two nights with another desert grandmother. he spends a morning climbing and jumping around rock formations at joshua tree, breathing deep the high desert air and feeling energized by the physical activity after a week of driving. he ponders the nature of these little moves they do from house to house, the little unpacking and repacking of the car that they perfect into a quick art. and the great hospitality they meet at every stop. they don’t want to expect meals and a place to sleep, but more beds are offered than they have nights to stay. they are humbled and thankful. sheesh, what a life. he climbs on.
he meets two dudes from cal-poly at the top of one formation shouting to make echoes, who ‘have never done anything this intense.’ he pushes himself until his illinois legs, unaccustomed as they are to boulder jumping, begin to shake and he walks desert paths in the afternoon sun past dr. suess joshua trees back to the truck.
california holds for them a handful of shorter stretches in the car. from morongo valley to l.a. to santa barbara, soquel, san jose, san francisco, and willits. they see aunts and uncles, cousins, an old friend from childhood neighborhoods, a student once under wing at youth group in bellingham, a friend from camp and her german boyfriend, the parents of good friends. the weather holds bright and blue, the land flying by their car shifts and changes; amazing sea cliffs to deepest forests, desert mountains to farmland, winding hill and river roads away from the big cities. they read on the road aloud to each other, marvel at how closely sal’s first journey parallels the start of their own.
near the end of the journey comes another long day in the car, during which time they cross into oregon, following a river through the mountains. he goes a little crazy on this longer stretch of road, having gotten used to short trips between stops. both of them are ready to be settled. they stay a relaxing night and morning with relatives in central oregon, playing with hilarious animals, perusing books, talking about coffee. and then the home stretch. driving through the pacific northwest again after far more open lands south and east, he remembers just how buried in trees everything is up here. they drive for six hours with rows of trunks and branches lining i-5 the entire way. even the cities are carved out of the forests. and oh how they welcome it.
he finds himself in a place he once called home, still calls home. now they have to make it a bit of their own. but he knows that wherever they are together they are home. whether in the forest, or the car, or the heart of africa, they, together, are home.