We left the Sonoran Desert and headed north on I-17. Three hours and an almost 5,800-foot increase in elevation later, we were in Flagstaff. The 68-degree air sure felt better than the desert heat.
Our plan had been to spend a couple of days in Sedona, spend a couple days in Flagstaff, then go to the Grand Canyon during one fo the weekends when National Park visits were free. I hadn’t seen the Grand Canyon since I was a teenager, and The Man had never visited the natural wonder, so we were both excited.
We ended up bypassing Sedona, itching to get to Flagstaff, but things didn’t turn out quite the way we’d hoped.
When The Man had been in Flagstaff a few months before, he’d stumbled upon the Whole Foods dumpster. He’s been telling me about all the delicious “made fresh daily” food that had been thrown out because the day was over. Sushi–sandwiches–wraps–I’d been salivating over tales of those delicacies since we met.
We’d been at McDonald’s using the free WiFi, and it was dark when we set out for Whole Foods. Several roads came together in a weird way (thanks for that, city planners!), and I missed a turn. We ended up in some dark residential area, and The Man said, Let me drive! so we switched places. But I didn’t know how to use the GPS function on Google Maps, and we ended up switching places again. It was as close as we’d come to having a fight.
For me, it was like so many other nights when I’d gotten me and my ex lost in the dark and my ex yelled at and berated me. Of course, The Man was neither yelling at nor berating me. He was exasperated but not taking it out on me, but tell that to my brain. My brain had gone to a dark place where memory and current reality are all intertwined, and it’s difficult to remember then is not now.
A combination of what The Man remembered from his previous time in Flagstaff and the Google Maps GPS lady guided us into the Whole Foods parking lot. I pulled the van into a space and killed the engine. Here we were!
We looked over at the dumpster, clearly in view on the left side of the store. We were disappointed–nay, dismayed– to find the dumpster was now barricaded behind locked gates. WTF? We knew good food–delicious food!–was going to waste back there.
We walked over to the dumpster area anyway. The Man sized it up. He could step there and jump over the wall…but my heart wasn’t really in it, and I don’t think his was either. By the time we made it back to the van, he was asking if I really wanted to do this.
Maybe we should wait until the store closes, I said.
Maybe we should wait until all the employees go home, he said.
The store wouldn’t be empty for another couple of hours, and frankly, I was just tired. Then The Man muttered, I don’t really want to go to jail over this tonight, and the endeavor was called off as far as I was concerned. When people start worrying about going to jail, all fun’s gone out of an activity for me.
We decided to go to Taco Bell.
From there we used the GPS lady to try to find Forest Service land right outside of town where we could stay for free. We got close, but the GPS was a little off and sent us down a private driveway. We ended up pulling off on the side of the highway and switching places again. The Man found the spot, which was little like a campground (no toilets–flush or otherwise, no trashcans, no nothing) and more like wide spots on the side of short, narrow paved areas near a trailhead. The Man parked the van, and we went to bed. I slept poorly, waking up multiple times in the night feeling frustrated and useless, wondering if anything about my life was a good idea.
The next morning was a brighter day. The Man and I were tentative with each other, careful, but no one was issuing ultimatums or asking to call off the romance.
The spot where we’d parked was beautiful. We were surrounded by tall, tall evergreen trees, the first I’d seen since I left California six months before. Those trees helped me breathe a little easier.
We went back to McDonald’s to use the internet again to try to figure out our next moves. Nothing was clicking. Nothing seemed right. At some point, we admitted to each other that we both really wanted was to go back to New Mexico.
You realize the Grand Canyon is only 75 miles away? I asked The Man.
The Grand Canyon will always be there, he said. Let’s go home.
We decided to go downtown first, check out the library lawn where traveling kids and others proper society sorts tend to view as riffraff congregate. No one interesting was hanging out there, so we started walking through the “cool” part of town where college kids go at night to drink in bars. We came upon Heritage Square, where some folks were drumming and a man and a woman were sitting out with the kind of cases traveling kids use to carry their handmade jewelry and shiny rocks. Sure enough, when we got up close, we saw each of them making beautiful, intricate pendants from wire and stones. The four of us started talking about shiny rocks and Quartzsite and drugs and traveling and selling handmade jewelry. Either The Man or I mentioned we were soon heading to Northern New Mexico. Within five minutes, the traveling man asked if they could go with us.
They both had gentle, peaceful energy. Neither of them had said a single sketchy thing. I quickly decided I wouldn’t mind having them in my van. The Man and I glanced at each other and silently communicated yes.
Sure, y’all can come with us, one or the other of us said.
We sat there a while more, talked rocks more, listened to more drumming, decided to leave in fifteen minutes, at three o’clock.
The kids had been crisscrossing the Southwest on foot, hitchhiking, driving when they’d had a vehicle. They’d had a car, but they’d traded it. They’d had a van, but the engine had seized. I cried when that happened, the fellow admitted to me.
We’d all been in Quartzsite at the same time, but neither The Man nor I had run into them. They’d made it to Truth or Consequences, and we may have overlapped there too. They’d been riding with a couple of heavy drinkers and had gone to Sedona with them, but the day before they’d decided they were done with the drunken antics and had hitched to Flagstaff. They were enjoying Flagstaff but were excited to go to Northern New Mexico where they had never been.
It was closer to four o’clock by the time we put gas in the tank and headed east on I-40. I drove and drove and drove while The Man and the passengers (mostly the guy) talked. He was 26 (a lot younger than I’d thought) and had gorwn up in foster care. He’d only met his father once.
His best story was how he was kicked out of the Army for “failure to adapt!” Failure to adapt! Sounds like the story of most of my life!
The view when we passed from Arizona into New Mexico was so beautiful in the early evening light. I should have stopped and taken photos, but at the time I was hellbent on getting us home.
It wasn’t quite dark when we got to Gallup. I navigated the strange exit and got us to the Wal-Mart where The Man and I were getting hummus and crackers for dinner, and he was looking for a knife to replace the one he’d lost to the Sonoran Desert. We grabbed the food, and he found a knife he wanted locked in a case in the sporting goods department, but we had to wait an eternity for the one employee in the area to unlock the case and accept our payment. We had a great time waiting in line, dancing to the 80s music playing over the PA system and laughing together. It was as if the struggles of the night before had never happened.
When we finally got out of Wal-Mart, night had fallen. The traveling kids had gotten some dinner at Carl’s Jr. I drank deeply of the iced tea in my bottle, then got us back on the road.
I drove and drove and drove, then had to stop at a casino outside of Albuquerque for a restroom break. I still thought I’d get us north of Santa Fe that night.
I made it through Albuquerque, but the long, dark stretch of Interstate 25 between that town and Santa Fe really took its toll on me. I was tired. I started thinking it would probably be ok for me to close my eyes and rest for just a little while.
I pulled into the casino between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Couldn’t we sleep here for a few hours?
Well, there wasn’t room in the van for all of us to sleep, and while the traveling kids were accustomed to rolling out their sleeping bags and spending the night in the bushes, casinos were not very good places for that. We get kicked out of casino property, the traveling woman said.
I knew there was a rest area just before we got to Sant Fe. Surely the kids could find some bushes to sleep in there. The problem would be keeping my eyes open.
I powered on, forced myself to stay awake. Just a little further. Just a little further, I told myself.
Finally, there it was–the rest area–our home for the night. We’d made it.
The kids grabbed their packs and tumbled out to find their spot. I brushed my teeth under the harsh parking lot light. Then The Man and I climbed into bed, snuggled, slept.
The Man and I are early risers, so we were up before the kids. They were still dead asleep when I walked over to let them know we were ready to leave. We were on the road again shortly. It was much easier to drive in the daylight.
I drove those kids right out to the Bridge, told them how things worked out there. They said they’d go back to sell their pendants of stoned wrapped in wire.
Back in town, we parted in the supermarket parking lot. I was sad to see them go, but one thing I’ve learned is that a traveling kid can’t be held onto.