It’s strange to see our windshield filled with morning sun. Strange to be headed east. We spent a week in Yucca Valley, planning a route and trying to decide what our holidays will look like. Whether we’ll be alone in a sprawling wilderness for Thanksgiving and Christmas, or whether we’ll seek out family, friends, and a roof.
We settled on the latter. My cousin in Los Alamos is kind enough to let us stay with her through Thanksgiving, and I’m glad of her kindness. Glad to have family within reach. This is the time of conclusions. More than the calendar or the clock, I can feel our roaming year coming to a close. We’ll need a home, soon, a vehicle to safely move our family about. We’ll need the things we abandoned when we set off, and a job to pay for them. And more than all of that, we’ll need a place to be. A patch of dirt to plant our feet on.
Our route takes us through Phoenix, first. It’s hard for an eastern eye to tell one big desert city from the next. They all look so improbable. You drive for miles. Hours. A day with nothing in any direction but low scrub and pale dirt. Then you crest a rise and see the city sprawled out like a fried egg. First, the suburbs with their identical, earth-tone houses clustered close, then into the chain-store wastes and on to a downtown. So many people stacked on top of one another in the middle of all that wide-open desert.
We spend a night boondocked on a quiet cul-de-sac. Guests of friends. Justin and Kyra are like-minded fools. They have a van, a couple of motorcycles, and not much else. They spend their days travelling, writing, and taking photos. There’s so much that’s similar between us that I have a hard time understanding it, at first. Here’s a guy my age, raised on a surfboard 3,000 miles from where I spent my own landlocked youth. Our paths could not have been more different, and yet here we are at the same point in the road.
It’s the miracle of this country. How any two of the 320 million of us spread across the whole of a hemisphere can share something. Anything. And nothing so small as a flag or an anthem but a common experience. That same chord that went singing in my chest before we set off from Knoxville is the same one that lit in Justin’s heart when he cleared out his Seattle apartment and bought a used Econoline. It’s the chord that said there’s more out there than 4k TVs and the game on Sunday. More to hope for than a Christmas bonus or Friday night. That you cannot fill a hollow with empty things.
We talk until the early morning. Share a drink or three. Neither of us knows what’s over the next hill. Neither of us has a clue what next year looks like. It scares the shit out of me. Justin’s unfazed. A plan? No, we don’t have that, but we do have now. It’s more than we had a year ago.
There’s breakfast at a bright diner. Burritos and waffles the size of serving platters. Kiddo makes a mess of a Mickey Mouse pancake. None of us know when we’ll see each other again, but that’s the joy of knowing fellow vagrants. It could be three years before we share another cup of coffee. Or, it could be a week. It makes us hug a little tighter.
We head north, on to Sedona, back to that familiar red desert. It’s a comfort, knowing where we are and where we can sleep. Where the grocery is. We spend the better part of a week there, getting dust on our boots and watching the weather. Winter’s close, and at night, the temperature cuts to freezing. We burn the heater and double up Kiddo’s pajamas. She stays warm enough.
Mostly, it’s an excuse to be still for a few days. To get some writing done and let our daughter fall back into some sort of rhythm. Our days pick up the familiar syncopation of meals and naps and playtimes. Beth takes her outside to scramble around in the dirt, and she comes back red from the waist down, the color of the rocks around us. The color of the blood in her veins. It’s all rust.
She’s happy, our girl, in spite of everything. We named her after Beth’s mother. Lucy: of the light. And she is. Bright as anything. A glowing force in our lives, smiling and laughing and brilliant. A lover of leaves and puddles. She’ll crack herself up over nothing, and us with her, a wild grin spreading from lip to cheek, her stone-brown eyes narrowing with the glee of it.
I’ve torn myself apart this year, gutted myself with worry. Let anxiety of one flavor or another rip at my walls. It’s made my temper short. It’s blinded me to the wonder of where we’ve been, what we’ve seen and when we’ve done it. Now, when the three of us are young and alive, before the press of years makes something as foolish as this an impossibility. I hate myself for staining it so.
It’s a long march to Los Alamos. It means a hard day of running I-40. We’re up before the sun, make a quick breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, and proceed to pack up. I open the camper door to a cool morning, the sky clear and sharp, the blue of it a shock against the red rocks around us. A single hot-air balloon floats through the stillness. I’m smiling before I know it. Grinning at the marvel of a world that delights in the unexpected. Beth hands me Kiddo, and my daughter won’t take her eyes off the yellow miracle hanging on her horizon.
Her pale cheeks flush in the cold morning air. She takes to wandering through the low scrub bushes, picking her way through the cactus with wobbling steps, all the while pointing at the sky. We’re still working on perspective, and she thinks the balloon is a thing she can put her arms around. I stay close, following her tiny prints in the dirt, herding her from the worst of the spiny plants.
Beth finishes closing up the camper, and it’s time to get Kiddo in her seat. She doesn’t want to go. The balloon’s sinking closer to the ground, and she doesn’t want to leave it behind. There’s kicking and screaming. Hot, furious tears. She’s still going by the time we start the truck and lumber down the rough forest road towards the main dirt track. When we get there, the GPS steers us not back the way we came, but deeper into the desert.
I shrug and follow the route, winding past a handful of early weekend campers as we go. Red dust from the road plumes up behind us and catches in the rising sun as our daughter’s sobs slow, then give way to the occasional jagged sniff. She’s calming, finally.
And then it happens. We round a corner and find her hot air balloon sitting beside the road. I’d forgotten how massive they are. When I turn in my seat to look at my daughter, her still-wet eyes are wide and processing, running over every inch of the balloon’s fabric. Scouring its massive wicker basket.
“Balloon?” She asks again.
Yes, baby. A balloon. I can think of no better lesson in the texture of our world. In the width of it. In the joy it can bring when you least expect it. In the miracles that wait for you to come find them if you’re stern enough to leave empty things behind.