Out of Austin


It took the Dodge dealer two full weeks to sort the gremlins plaguing the truck. Two weeks I spent worrying the thing would come back to us worse than when it left. I had no real reason to worry. The reviews for Maxwell Dodge were all positive enough, and the place was booming when I dropped the Mule off for work. But the thing’s more than an old machine to us, more than a truck I spent the better part of a year assembling to take my family around this country. It’s our everything.

And yet, to a technician, it looks like a hammered old Ram, 15 years old and ragged with miles. Scratched and dented, rusting where the paint’s worn through. Dusty from a long line of hard years. I couldn’t ask anyone to care about the thing as much as I do, especially not some young tech on the clock.

Alan, the service manager, was working 11 hour days, trying to keep up with the holiday rush. Kept me up to date on how things were going as well as he could. He was the one answering the phone at 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m., too. The one buried under a minor mountain of paperwork when I stopped in to pick the thing up.

It was the fuse box, he told me. They replaced it with the updated part, a new piece that shields the lower wiring harness from water and debris. Programmed the part to play nice with the rest of the truck. Sure enough, the dash lights were in order, all of our power options were back to their old selves. Aside from desperately needing a wash, the truck was as good as it has ever been in my care.

The next morning, we packed up and left Austin. We’d been there better than a month, longer than we’d stayed anywhere else on this trip. Long enough to get comfortable, to know the city’s ebb. Where to eat and drink. The easy knowledge of a local grocery. Long enough to raid a salvage yard or two, to feel strange to be going, to be leaving our people there.

We’re into the gray embers of our year. The last flickers of our wandering. Mostly, it means retracing our steps, sticking close to the Gulf and the fair weather it offers. Revisiting the places we saw in our earliest days on the road. There’s a bitter strangeness to it. A perfect symmetry I could not have planned.

First, to Houston, the compass in the overhead console burning east again, back to our friends, Stephanie and David. After years together, they eloped in Austin. Hitched at last, and hosting a gamut of family and friends at their place. We showed up in time for the party, Beth photographing the reception while Kiddo and I watched movies and prepared the camper for a cold night. Despite all our time in the Rocky Mountains and on the bleeding edge of Canada, it was as cold as we’ve been in the truck, down into the lower 20s. We doubled Kiddo’s fleece pajamas, wrapped her in her sleep sack, and set the thermostat at 68 degrees. The camper kept us warm all night, the propane heater humming to the street lights above.

We drained the water from the main tank and the hot water heater a month ago to keep things from freezing and bursting while we were de-camped. It’s strange being back in the rig without a functional tap. Makes it feel less like home, somehow. Another piece of finality.

The next day is a hard one, a push for Pensacola. Eight hours, by the time it’s said and done, but it feels good to be moving. Feels good to see our world through the truck’s windshield again, the big straight six sweeping its pistons along in spite of its age and the endless miles that have passed beneath it. Kiddo’s fussy in the back, squirming and angry at being in her seat for so long after weeks of running wild. It’d bend me up, usually, but for the first time since we left, I know how finite these days on the road are for us. How quickly they’ll be over, no longer some vague future maybe, but a part of our past. Something we’ll see in shades.

I reach to the back seat and put a hand on her chubby knee, running my thumb up and down her shin until she calms down and her eyes get heavy. Until she sleeps. I try to take in the simplicity of it. The ease of going. The beauty of here to there.

States fall quick. Texas first, then Louisiana, and we’re east before we know it, the land green despite the cold winter afternoon and its long shadows. It’s a thing I’ve been dreading. The thought of being so far from the open, earnest beauty of the west tears at me, makes me angry in spite of myself, but there’s a wide part of me that whispers “home.” It’s in the language of the land. The easy swell of the hills. The swollen rivers and grassy fields. There’s a rightness to it. A softness I need.

We have a month left. Less, maybe. And our days of discovering are over. We’re back to following our footsteps, walking from whence we came. Seeing the people who saw us off all those days ago. Mississippi falls, and so does Alabama, and we tumble, at last, into Florida. Pull up and park in another driveway. Let Kiddo run crazy, squealing at a friend’s massive and loving Airedale. We were here in April, a world ago, when our daughter had just learned to take her first trembling steps. There’s a bitter strangeness to seeing her now, so much taller than she was then, a heartbeat ago. More independent. And a perfect symmetry, too, as our friend hugs us each in turn.

“You guys look good for having just got off the road,” she says.

All I can do is smile.