Crossing the Mojave

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Melissa A. Bartell


It’s 10:30 AM, and we’re just arriving in Needles, California. We’ve only been driving for ninety minutes, but it already feels like time for a break. Behind us are Barstow, Bakersfield, and farther north, San Jose—our home for the last six years.

Looking through the dusty windshield of our green Subaru Forester, I see heat ripples over the road. I wonder if the dogs can see them, or if it’s a skill limited only to humans. I wonder if everyone sees faint pixellation in everything they look at, as if perceiving the individual particles that coalesce to form an object, or if it’s something only I can do, a useless talent, like tongue curling or ear wiggling.

On the speakers, Natalie Cole is urging us to “get your kicks on route sixty six.” I chose that CD early this morning, realizing that I-40—our path across the desert—loosely followed the historical highway. As the car slows, I realize that my windshield-gazing had been an hour ago, and that the CD had been playing continuously, while I had been asleep. I must’ve dozed off while counting cars on one of the impossibly long trains that passed us, heading West in opposition to our Eastward journey.

My husband, Fuzzy, notices that my eyes are open, and I’m sitting upright, instead of leaning against the window. “Good, you’re awake,” he says. “You were napping.”

I wipe dried saliva from the corners of my mouth and reach for my water bottle, kept pleasantly cool by the blasting air conditioner. I remember other car rides, in other cars, with other people—brief rides to and from the beach in my grandfather’s old Dodge with the grooved seats that seemed to attract sand the way human sweat attracts mosquitoes. “Sorry,” I tell him, when my mouth is wet enough for words. “There’s nothing to look at and you weren’t singing or talking.”

“If you had a driver’s license you could drive, and you wouldn’t be as bored,” my husband says.

I glare at him from behind my Maui Jim sunglasses, purchased two years before in celebration of my LASIK surgery. “If I was driving, we’d be dead,” I say. “Why can’t you understand that I don’t see the way everyone else does? I can’t track moving objects, they overwhelm me.”

He sighs and turns away. “I want to top off the tank,” he says.

I peer through the steering wheel to the gas gauge, which is barely lower than F. “Here?” I ask. “In Needles?” I glance at the prices on the sign at the Union 76 station and point out, “This has got to be the most expensive gas in the known universe.” At nearly three bucks a gallon, this is no exaggeration.

“We’re going to be in the desert until we’re almost at Flagstaff,” he tells me, in that too-calm tone that means he’s locking down his own fear. “I don’t want another thing like yesterday.”

I nod. There’s no need to fight about something so trivial, and it’s not as if we don’t have the money. Last night had scared me. We had stopped for dinner at a Sonic in Bakersfield, each of us had observed that we needed gas. Somehow, in the confusion of finding the right highway to head toward Barstow, which was our targeted stop for the night, we missed the business loop, and wound up in the mountains with the fuel supply rapidly dwindling. When the needle on the gas gauge touched the top corner of the E, we pulled off at the first sign of civilization, only to find that the gas station advertised on the road sign had long since become derelict. We drove a bit further, before coming to a ranger station, where we were told that they usually had an emergency supply of gas on-hand, but had given away the last quarter-gallon to another traveller twenty minutes before. “But don’t worry too much,” they said. “Tehachapi’s only eight miles, and it’s all downhill from here. Just make sure you take the second exit.”

What followed was a panicked coast down the mountain, where Fuzzy took the first exit, forcing us to loop through town (which, it turned out, was also mostly downhill). We finally arrived at a gas station just as the car was beginning to suck air, and I yelled at him about it for the first twenty miles after that, not so much because I blamed him, but because I had been afraid of being stranded in the mountains, in the dark.

There are too many cars in line for gas, so we opt for an ice cream break, although neither of us buys ice cream at the Dairy Queen we go into. Instead, we have hot dogs and limeade, and watch an older couple with an equally geriatric chihuahua sitting on the bench while their grandchildren eat ice cream bars on the sidewalk. They are little girls, and are dressed in shorts and bathing suits. I find this incongruous; we’re in the middle of the Mojave Desert, after all, with no beaches nearby. Or… plenty of beach, actually, but no water at the end of it. I mention this to my husband, and he just shrugs. He never notices these things.

Our own dogs are restless. They are tired of being in the car, confused by their surroundings. I take them to a patch of half-dead grass behind the buildings, so they can relieve themselves. We all wince as they prance on the hot pavement: the dogs because they are spoiled, and unaccustomed to having to cross burning pavement to get to the grass, and me on their behalf—I can feel how hot the pavement is through my shoes. To them, it must feel even hotter. I feel like a bad dog-owner for subjecting them to this.

When Fuzzy returns from his visit to the restroom, and it’s my turn, I find that there are three polyester-clad old women in line ahead of me while the fourth member of their group, apparently called Ida, is inside the one-seat women’s room. They take turns calling out to her, to make sure she hasn’t dropped dead of heatstroke or something, and I realize that there isn’t time to wait. I glance at the men’s room, its door standing open, but I can’t bring myself to go in, and a line about men and bathrooms, from the comedian Rita Rudner, echoes through my brain: “If they hit anything, they think they’ve done a good job.”

I buy another hot dog, and drop the bun in the trash as I return to the car. The meat is divided between our dogs, and they bounce and wriggle and generally act as if I’ve given them gold. I guess in doggie terms, I have. We offer them water, and another trip to the grass, and then we drive to the other side of the freeway, where the gas station is now nearly empty. While Fuzzy fills the tank, I go in search of their restroom, expecting something foul, but an old man with greasy fingers and no teeth directs me to the back of the convenience store part of the gas station, and I gather my courage.

Instead of the expected dingy, grey, cubicle, I find a near-oasis: shiny green tiles on the floor, fresh flowers on the counter, and the soft scent of potpourri that actually manages not to be obnoxious. I linger in the stall, and the woman in the other stall begins the sort of inane conversation that happens in such situations. “This is pretty impressive for a gas station bathroom, don’t you think?”

We wind up exchanging stories, encapsulating our lives. “We’re on the way home to Florida,” she says, and without seeing her, I know she has the leathery tan skin of a woman who spends too much time in the sun, and blonde hair from a bottle. I tell her that we’ve sold our house in California and are moving to Texas, “Because my husband was relocated.” This isn’t entirely true, but it’s not really a lie, either, and I’ve almost made myself believe it.

She is done before me, and I hear her fussing with the soap dispenser, the water, the paper towels. “Have a safe trip, hon,” she calls to me in her reedy, twangy voice. “And remember, never ignore a clean bathroom.” This line will become my mantra for the rest of our trip.

“Have your man stop in front of the store before you leave, would ya?” the toothless mechanic calls to me, from his lawn chair just inside the air conditioned zone at the station’s front door. I stop, startled, and he laughs, then explains. “One of your tires looks low, and I don’t want ya going on the road ’til I look at it.” I nod and thank him, and relay his message to my husband. The tire turns out to be fine, but having it looked at does much to ease both of our minds, and we feel as if this leg of our journey has been somehow blessed. We pull out of the driveway with lighter hearts and continue down the road, noting that the digital thermometer on the service station’s signpost reads 112.

At 3:30 PM we are in Flagstaff. I can’t see heat ripples anymore when I look out the window, but I’m not certain if it’s because the temperature is cooler here, or if I’ve become so inured to them that they cease to attract my attention. We made a couple of stops at rest areas before pulling into this McDonald’s on the east side of town, once to let the dogs water trees, and once for a pit stop of our own.

Fuzzy has gone the entire trip guzzling root beer and orange soda, but I am being good and sticking to water as much as possible, partly because it’s cheaper but mostly because it isn’t quite so vile when it is no longer throat-numbingly cold. I open my mouth to urge him to drink water, but he has a closed expression, so instead I mutter something about how the word “Mojave” changed to “Mohave” when we crossed the state line. He has no response.

I keep seeing signs for the Grand Canyon, which I have not seen since a school field trip when I was a child living in Colorado, but my husband reminds me that the dogs cannot eat until we stop for the night, and that as much as I seem to want to pretend this is just a road trip, it is not a true vacation. Instead, it’s a one-way trek halfway across the United States, to an apartment we have never seen that will be filled with furniture we do not own. I don’t tell him that I have to keep pretending we’re just exploring so I don’t get overwhelmed at the journey we’re making—not the physical trip, though that is grueling enough—but the uprooting of our lives.

Intellectually we both understand that this decision is the right one, that we were caught in a never-ending loop of bills and emergencies, that my company was failing, and that the cost of living in the Bay Area was increasing. Our ultimate destination, Dallas, Texas, isn’t the first choice for either of us, but it is the best we could agree on, and sometimes that has to be enough. Nevertheless, the knowledge that there is nothing familiar waiting for us at the end of the road is more than a little daunting.

I pull myself out of my thoughts and feed French fries to the dogs while my husband stretches his legs a bit. Our larger dog, who seems a brute at twenty-two pounds when compared to our other dog, who weighs a mere eight, has noticed birds outside, and is desperate for a chance to chase them. Even the fries don’t capture her attention, so I scratch her ears and apologize in soft cooing tones. A few minutes later, we are back on the road.

The landscape around Flagstaff is not true desert, but more lush, like low foothills. There are stretches of land that appear to be forests on either side of the Interstate, and I notice signs warning about deer, but eventually the desert terrain replaces the mountains again, and the dull brown monotony of the landscape lulls me into sleep.

When I wake, three hours have elapsed and the dogs are restless. The sun is setting and twilight, deeply purple, is settling around us. We’ve just reached Gallup, New Mexico, and Fuzzy has switched the CD to some Christian rock band that I’ve never heard of, with lyrics that seem smarmy and insincere (though I think that of most Christian rock, so it’s nothing personal to this band).

I tell my husband that we’ve driven far enough for one day, and that while this may not be the meandering vacation I want to pretend we’re on, it’s not a race either. He is yawning, and I am road-weary, and we’ve already crossed the Mojave today—we don’t need to cross New Mexico as well. Reluctantly, he agrees, reminding me once more that if he were making this trek alone, he would drive straight through, then sleep for three days to recover.

We find a motel that allows dogs, and is offering free wireless Internet access. After we bring our things to the room, I feed the dogs and send Fuzzy in search of food. “I don’t care what you bring back,” I tell him. “As long as it’s hot, and doesn’t come in a wrapper.” I can’t stomach another meal of fast food eaten in the front seat of the car, while the dogs bark and scratch at the backs of the seats, begging for scraps.

Twenty minutes later, I look up from my laptop to find Fuzzy standing at the motel room door with two Styrofoam boxes, cold water, and a rose. I help him set out the food—cheese enchiladas. “I’ve always wanted to eat cheese enchiladas in New Mexico,” I tell him.

“I know,” he says. He hands me the rose, and tells me he loves me, and he knows I’m scared, but everything will be all right.

We eat quickly, and then we go to bed, not bothering to watch television, or check e-mail, or anything. In the cool darkness of the motel room, with the hum of the air conditioner and the contented breathing of our dogs serving as background music, we make love. Afterward, as he holds me close and strokes my hair, I listen to his heartbeat.

Today, we crossed the Mojave Desert, and left California. Tomorrow, we will cross New Mexico and enter Texas. Tonight, I lie in the dark, and watch the staticky pixels of light and dark dancing on the back of my eyelids, until I fall asleep.
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Melissa A. Bartell is a voracious reader. She likes strong coffee, red wine, dark chocolate, and thunderstorms. She collects hats, and spends far too much money on frou-frou stationery. She lives in Grand Prairie, TX with her husband and two dogs. Her blog, “Scritture” can be found at www.missmeliss.com. E-mail: melissa[at]missmeliss.com.