by Tess B. Schumacher
I could describe it as a place where dreams go to die, but I'm not sure dreams ever make it there at all.
Just a dusty patch of forgotten American soil where time coils in on itself and life moves at a different tempo. A place where the dive bars outnumber the restaurants two-to-one, the need for a warm shot of whiskey more pressing than a good meal. Tumbleweeds and stone-faced cattle, pick-up trucks and sagging front porches weighed down by the sitting and waiting for something better to come along that just never does.
Blink an eye as you head West on Interstate 80, following the sun toward brighter things, and you’ll miss it. Just as I surely would have done had Fate not thrown a wrench in my lofty plans and set my left rear tire sinking faster than the setting sun.
One minute I was flying down the road, music blasting, imagining an exciting future ahead of me in California; the next I’m pulling over and staring in dismay at the warning sign on my dashboard. I turn to my mother sitting in the passenger seat, and we share a look of quiet despair.
This isn't the first time we've been down this road, and it isn't the first time we've hit a snag along the way.
The truth is, my family has been heading West my entire life.
My parents, both musicians, were always torn between the pursuit of big dreams in California and the inevitable pull of a quieter way of life in Ohio, where the crickets sing us lullabies, the fireflies dance, and the smell of honeysuckle hangs thick and sweet in the summer night air.
“Let’s go to LA and start a band!” They’d say, only half-joking, when the pendulum swung and the peaceful life became a little too serene. Then they’d pack up whatever rusty old vehicle was sitting in the driveway at the time and just like that, we’d be off again.
One particularly oppressive winter, our old van came to a tired stop on the side of the interstate (not too far from where my mother and I sit now) as the world outside became enveloped in a mammoth blizzard. I couldn’t have been more than three, my little mind just beginning to form memories, but I can distinctly see my father venturing out into the storm to look at the engine. When he came back he said to me,
“Tess, I'm very sorry…but I need to take Boogie's head."
Boogie was not just my doll. She was my best friend, my constant companion, my biggest comfort in a crazy world where my family would jump in a van and move across the country on a whim.
There was no way I was going to let my Dad take off her head.
I clutched Boogie to my chest and burst into the desperate cry of a child about to lose everything when just in time, my mother reached into her bag and produced an orange of similar dimensions. My visibly relieved father grabbed it and headed back out into the storm to work his magic. A few minutes later, the van started up and we were on our way again.
I still have no idea what role that orange played in getting things moving again, but I’ll always be grateful for my father for getting us out of that blizzard and for my mother for sparing Boogie.
It’s far from winter now, and the sparse Wyoming land is not covered in a blinding bitter snow but rather the dust of heavy drought and the glaze of a mid-summer sun.
I’m no longer a child, clutching my beloved doll while my parents save the day.
This time I’m leaving behind the last memories I had with my dad, who died of cancer two years ago. I’m walking away from a safe and good life that I worked hard to build, one that left me tossing and turning in bed each night, yearning for something more. I’m heading out into the unknown with nothing but a few beloved books, some clothes, and the grief of goodbye nestled in my chest right next to a tentative hope for something better sitting just over that next horizon.
Word travels fast in small towns, and within a few minutes of sitting by the side of the road we are joined by the sheriff, three good samaritans, and the only mechanic for miles around. With five men helping us get a spare tire on, we’re ready to go in no time...but a quick examination of my tire and the mechanic shakes his head sadly, informing me that “it’s a goner” and “good luck finding a replacement around these parts.”
Evening approaches and this little town where Fate has placed us is rapidly closing up shop, so my mother and I have no choice but to put our plans on hold and call it an early night.
As we pull up to the town’s only motel, I spot a group of men gathered outside the bar across the street, sporting identical plaid shirts, faded beards, and thumbs hooked in weathered leather belt loops.
I marvel at their simple confidence, their unspoken acceptance of where they belong in this big world.
Their silent gazes pierce my back as I get out of the car, a newcomer in their midst, and I place my jacket protectively over my bare shoulders.
The motel’s entrance is a gloomy contrast to the wide open sky outside, the hall studded with flickering fluorescent lights that seem on the brink of giving up. The motel manager leads us down the musty hallway and, at the door to our room, hands me a can of air freshener, smiling apologetically. I try to muster a “thank you”, but instead just stare at the Glade’s Hawaiian Breeze I hold in my palm. My mind conjures up things that might require an air freshener, dark things to match the motel’s dark interior. Dead bodies, bad sex, drug overdoses and destitution.
I turn on the light in the room and immediately regret the decision. Everything is brown. The carpet, the refrigerator, the walls. The stain in the sink. The cockroach scurrying across the shaded floor, offended by the sudden invasion of privacy. Even the curtains, placed unevenly across the only window and obscuring a sad view of the parking lot, are a dark shade of mahogany best reserved for nice furniture and expensive whiskey.
“It’s not that bad” my mother says, plopping down atop a brown bedspread.
I stare at her in surprise but then realize I’m too tired to respond.
It’s been a long day. But it’s also been a long week, a long month, a long year. Each day different than the next as I grapple for my hold on a world that’s been turned upside down.
I feel like an uprooted tree, a bird trying to fly in a haphazard wind.
The weariness catches up with me, too, and still fully clothed, I get under the covers and instantly fall into a deep sleep.
I wake the next morning to a dusty stream of sunshine on my face, and I find my mother sitting where I’d left her the night before, a styrofoam cup of coffee in her hand and a look of horror on her face.
“What was I thinking!? This place is awful!”
In the daylight the horrors of the night before are amplified. There’s a stain on my bed that I hadn’t previously noticed, and clear evidence of mold creeping in along the corners of the ceiling. A used Kleenex sits discarded on the floor.
“Let’s get the hell out of here” I say, jumping out of bed.
Under the hot morning sun this town is nothing but chipped paint, faded signs, and forgotten aspirations. I run my finger along my car’s normally sleek black surface, tracing a smiley face in the layer of grime that has settled overnight.
Stay in one place long enough and you’re bound to get covered in a little dust.
It’s a 266 mile drive to Salt Lake City, the nearest hope of finding a tire replacement. It's Sunday though, and everything is closed. We soon learn that Monday is a holiday in Utah, so we’ll have to wait until Tuesday to get the tire ordered. But I have to be at work in California on Tuesday, so I’ll need to book a last minute flight and leave my mother in Utah to figure things out. But she misplaced her driver’s license somewhere in Kansas, so technically she really shouldn't be driving...
And so we continue in silence, contemplating the growing complexity of our situation. As we hit the winding route through the mountain that indicates our descent into the city, the sunlight reflects off our dirty, bug-stained windshield and makes it difficult to see the road. I glance at the speedometer and reprimand myself for crossing the line over 50 mph, my anxiety over life in general spilling over into an unreasonable fear that the spare tire will fail us. I put on my hazard lights as others race past us on their healthy tires. Mac trucks barrel down on us like predators, flashing their brights and laying on their horns as if taking personal offense to our predicament. Only when we finally reach our exit do I realize I’ve been gripping the steering wheel so hard that my hands are numb.
We pause at a traffic light, and when I glance in the backseat I notice my dad’s Panama hat, crumpled and crushed by the tire rim I’d hastily thrown in the backseat the night before. The sight of it hits me like a wrecking ball, and suddenly all of the emotion I’ve been holding so tightly inside these past few months comes pouring out. I begin to cry, not simple tears but a racking sob emanating from deep within.
The light turns green and as I wipe away my tears, the woman behind us lays on her horn and throws up her middle finger.
It is at that precise moment when I lose my mind.
I begin shouting streams of incoherent obscenities at this woman who knows nothing. I throw both my hands up in that universal gesture of disrespect, desperately wanting to reciprocate some of this emotion that she's passed on to me.
And then I catapult myself out of the car window.
I would have landed on the pavement in a bloody heap if my mom hadn’t grabbed me by the seat of my pants and brought me back to reality just in time. The woman in her minivan passes us, smiling righteously, and goes on about her day.
We sit in stunned silence for a moment, and then my mom just turns to me and says “I’ll drive.”
“Oh my God, where did you get those bruises?” My mom gestures toward the back of my arms. I look in the mirror and gasp. It looks like someone grabbed me by my arms and shook me violently. We are currently lounging in a hotel room in California, finally having made it across the country in one piece (well, a few pieces, but they are slowly coming back together again.). I made it work on time, and my mother managed to get my car here without a driver's license.
“Those must be from when I jumped out the car window” I reply solemnly.
And then my mom begins to laugh.
Not just a little chuckle, but a full belly howl, doubled over in abandonment. I look at her in surprise, and then it hits me, too. No just the absurdity of the situation, the thought of me jumping out of a car window to attack some lady, but also the absolute insanity of all the choices leading up to that moment. My entire life has been nothing but a series of wild experiments that tug on my heartstrings, catapult me into the unknown, and perpetually wash away the dust from my gypsy soul.
I laugh until tears pour down my cheeks, until my abdomen cramps in protest, until I'm gasping for air between the giggles.
And I realize in that moment that I wouldn't have it any other way.