Nikaela´s words after driving 9000km this Spring with her family. Cause we all love road trips, family and those good times.
The boys pretended the car was a submarine and gasped at the octopi and whales out the windows. We played along and gasped too, but we were really gasping at the cut red rock and the way the land lay. We played twenty questions. The rules were clear and the animals exact. You did not win when you guessed Jellyfish, but the species (box, fried egg, moon, lion’s mane). We ate sardines from tins and oranges and bread from San Francisco that we cut on the roof of the car. It tasted like candy — the crust crunchy, chewy and then melty. We ate granola bars and crackers. In the desert I poached fish in cream and we ate it over fried potatoes and bacon in the dark after the sun had set fast. There were no bugs.
Once, driving through the mountains Ives said: “I can’t stop my eyes from looking.” He asked questions: what made the earth orange in parts (“Is it fire?”) and what was the difference between a desert jerboa and a kangaroo rat (“Which one is it?” hopping under our feet while we cooked in the gathering dark near Joshua Tree?) and which trees were coniferous (“Is there winter here?”) and what did we mean that this town was dead (“Do towns breathe?”) and how do ants build hills and which ocean is the biggest and why does the moon “like us best” (we can’t seem to outdrive it)?
And oh! the land and how it lay, soft in parts, like fat, swelled and dimpled. I thought I could see it yawning – the rise and fall not just of hills but of breath. The word “lay” felt appropriate; isn’t that just what land would do next to the ocean, wild and numinous, what you would do, if you were the land? Lie down? Surrender to that which you cannot change or control?
It lay rough in other parts – sharp and frightening and the road that carved through it was tense. One day we drove through a blizzard in the mountains and Thom’s hands were white on the steering wheel. The road was icy and it was hard to see. The boys were oblivious to our unease and delighted by the tunnels through the mountains and how the snow on the windows made snake shapes. Their feeling of safety, I realized, was no different than safety itself – they were warm, they were with their family, no harm would come to them.
Our small moving car-home, out of which spilled pillows and water bottles and books and hats and garbage every time we opened a door and in which we sang and held hands and ate and slept and argued and prayed and talked, grew closer to the road the longer we drove. Driving became easy, and our moods and thoughts with it. I felt like I could start to anticipate the curves and passes, as if the land was responding to us. The sun hot on one side of the car, and then hot on the other; the view open to the ocean, and then closed; the change in the trees driving north; a dark thunderstorm and then calm. The world opening and closing for us – the sky revealed and then concealed by colossal trees – the mountains looming monsters and then distant enough to cover with your hand. And this relationship with the landscape mirrored the relationships inside the car: we grew more accustomed to each other’s changes in mood, allowing each other in and ignoring one another. A morning of guarded emotion followed by an afternoon of simple openness. Each known fully to the other and inscrutable by turns.
Rarely farther than apart than the distance between their car seats and sleeping in the same bed each night, the boys were constantly charting out the boundaries of play – What is a game? What hurts? What is born of boredom? What born of a desire for connection? What is affection? What is aggression? They fought about what they could see out their individual windows (“Gilbert gets the train, but I get the moon”), and whose turn it was with which book. It was a pleasure to watch them, on the beaches and in the rearview mirror, their two very different selves, growing together and apart.
What did our car smell like? Dianne Ackerman writes about the broken relationship between words and smell. We can say what things smell like, but not name them actually. Ironically, smells are our best chance at keeping our memories. They most accurately and completely connect our fluid present selves to the past experiences of our lives. What will I smell that will some day throw me back into that car? Or onto that cold beach with dead grasses that glowed? Or onto that roadside in the mountains where the ice was thin as paper over puddles of water? I might guess (a sweaty pillow case, a day old apple core, salt, moss, snow) but I can’t know. I instead wait for that passing moment in the future in which I stumble on a smell and I am given the gift of a whole memory from those three weeks: concrete and sturdy as a highway road sign: We were there.
Thank you Nikaela