The Arizona Desert: It is where my parents lit after a 12-year stint in Saudi Arabia. I guess they were seeking a climate like the one they had left in the Middle East. Welcome to the American Southwest. The delicious irony being that my dad’s birthplace is Toronto, Ontario; and my mom’s is Edmonton, Alberta. Neither of those cities are known for tumbleweeds and dust storms. But, this trailer in the desert between Hell and Texas, with Persian rugs lining the floor and walls and coyotes chasing roadrunners through the back yard, is home. Even after a portion of my mother’s ashes were spread around the base of a huge saguaro not far from the single-wide (the rest of her went to Paris, France), Dad stayed on. He likes the heat, the privacy, the desert.
Dad needed a new car, and I’m the car guy in the family; so a visit to Cheapassplanetix.com scored me a one-way ticket to Tucson for roughly the price of a couple tanning sessions in the Northwest. My job was to get Dad on as many car lots as possible in the few days I had before my ride home took me away. By the end of my visit I still hadn’t persuaded my father into the driver seat of a new vehicle; but I claimed a small victory that I’d convinced him a 20 year-old minivan with a leaking head gasket and psychotic brakes was not the primo ride for cruising I-10 during a 120-degree desert day.
My ride home home was my old friend Monty, who also owns a square of land in this part of the country and was driving back to Oregon about the same time I was to return. So, I was limited to only one dehumanizing interaction with the TSA.
Monty and I, both both car guys, have found little use for new cars. We adopt various machines discarded by those with more money than tinkering time/ability. The car he drove up to my dad’s place gave me pause in my trust of our collective ability to fix almost anything. Since my dad is prone to anxiety; I decided to not reflect my apprehension about its roadworthiness, lest Dad fret about it, too. So, I crammed my bag into the backseat, promised to call when (not if) we made it home, then slithered into the passenger seat.
As we pulled away, both Monty and I waving to my dad on his deck, I asked, “What year is this classic car we’re in, Monty?”
And that was the end of that conversation. I was left with my own wits to determine this was a late ‘nineties Ford product, sporting the peeling clear coat that was always part of the maroon paint scheme of that vintage. It was small. Granted, neither Monty or I have seen the lower side of 240 pounds each for a long time, and his pitbull Spice got the majority of the backseat. My knees were cozy with the glove box below the panel where the airbag was supposed to be. The panel was secured with six screws that were more suited for an iron plate on the side of a battleship to cover the hole left by a torpedo attack, than the plastic of a car dashboard. It was one of the many refinements adding to the aura of automotive excellence that inspired confidence. Fortunately, it was only 1500 miles ‘til home... Much of which through unpopulated desert... Then mountains....
After clearing Tucson, we bounded off I-10 a little after Eloy to the Phoenix bypass. While we allowed Spice a romp in the pet area, I processed the driver’s seat into something I could fold my gangly proportions into. Upon starting the car, I noticed not one, but two check engine lights glaring at me from the dash.
“They’ve been on since I got it.”
Once again, that conversation about the state of the car ended. Monty was as steadfast as a pyramid that I was not going to dis his ride. We have traveled together for years and have amassed more than a few stories where things could have gone very badly. But we were always saved by Monty’s intrinsic intelligence and/or my good luck. From that we have what some consider an unreasonable trust of each other’s abilities and judgment. It also affords us the capacity to communicate to the other with just a look that says, “Shut up and hang on.” Such was the look Monty gave me every time I tried to talk about the car.
When I started my shift driving, I saw the genius that is Monty. This car looked ghetto, but it ran perfectly. The transmission shifted properly; and the motor pulled like a mule, with no smoke. At 75 mph the car tracked perfectly down the infinite highways of the Southwest. Looks be damned, the car ran well. Yes, various conveniences were not to the motor company’s standards, but there are lots of reasons warning lights glow that are not foretelling the imminent destruction of the drivetrain. So went the mantra I repeated to myself.
Shoulder to shoulder, with Spice pulling up the rear, we crossed the Mojave Desert. Sweet wounded Jesus, what a boring drive. No, really. The NSA should shut down their torture centers and just cart the prisoners across this feature-free expanse. The prisoners will cave inside an hour. Add to this, Monty’s car had a defective radio, also secured with oversized screws. The defect being it would only tune in Mexican polka music, the lowest form of country-western twang, and religious stations. We both had forgotten our patch cords to pipe the music on our phones into the car. Thus, the soundtrack to our trek was either Spice’s panting or the musical tale of a Spanish Jesus drunk on a Saturday night. Even with the sunroof and the passenger window open (the driver’s door window was unimpressed by our attempts to open it), I could hear Spice’s nervous protestations emitted millimeters from my ear.
It is at these times when I can be at my most difficult. I had spent several days working with an aging parent’s various anxieties and my last good nerve was being assaulted by a canine belt sander from the back seat. This is when having a traveling partner who doesn’t feel the need to fill the air with conversation is appreciated. We went to our own mental spaces as we pressed past the semis and minivans on this westbound concrete slab through countryside so drab, I was ready to listen to the religious station, so help me God. The desert highway rumbled predictably underneath us, and neither of us said anything to apologise for later. Our private meditations were broken by remembrances of when we passed this way before on motorcycles a few years prior. On that trip, it was 112 degrees. So, it was an opportunity to be grateful for being in a car in 70 degree weather with lots of water this time. Though we did look on lustfully at every motorcycle that passed us, riding into the Western sunset.
We pulled into Bakersfield, and nothing was where it was supposed to be. We consulted The Oracle: Monty’s cell phone’s GPS. Rather than taking us to a restaurant where we could be fed infinite iced tea and fries, the map deposited us in front of a bail bondsman’s office in a very unappetizing part of town. The belt sander busted through my last nerve, and Monty knew I had better get fed soon; so he pointed the car toward the nearest drive-through. I vetoed that plan, pulled the phone from it’s mount, and worked the touchpad like a man inches from committing a felony. I got a map to come up, but I had to hold the phone upside down and out the car window for the map to make sense. It was my turn to give Monty the “Shut up and hang on,” look and I navigated us to place for dinner where we didn’t have to unwrap our food.
After a real meal and a metric butt-load of coffee, I was ready for anything. Those who know me, know I am a vampire, often at my best after midnight. Monty wrapped himself in a blanket and flung himself asleep against the passenger door. Even Spice took a break from fretting about the sounds the car made and went to sleep. After a brief back-track, we were northbound on I-5. I dug out my bluetooth headphones and cranked up Pandora on my phone, which had the good sense to be blasting Motown for my driving pleasure. My tension level dropped to the point that I remembered that Spice is a good dog, I could admit that the car was running like a top, and I was lucky enough to be traveling with one of the few people in the world who wouldn’t take it on when I’m feeling like shit. I shut off the cruise control and vied for position with the trucks trying to get up the hills, feathering the accelerator to keep the engine from revving high enough to wake dog or man.
When the sun was threatening the Eastern horizon, Monty stirred awake to ask where we were.
“How you holding up?”
“I keep running over those things on the side of the road that make noise.”
“No, the tires make the noise.”
“Oooooookay, I’m gonna drive now....”
The Sun chased away the night to reveal the landscape that I keep as my home. From the passenger’s seat, I was free to gaze appreciatively at the low clouds buttering the tops of green, green hills. Looking as much like a scene from Lord of the Rings as the Oregon countryside, I felt the relief of familiarity. I pine for motorcycling weather; but, I do love breathing tree-filtered air. I paid for my Arizona sunbath before I left for this trip with two sub-zero snow storms. I felt no shame strolling Saguaro National Park in the Sun with my dad after having had to dig my car out of the snow for a couple of weeks. I deserved and loved the sunny weather, but I was glad to be back. Being from the Northwest is an affliction I cannot shake, and it presents as an appreciation for the lushness of scenery purchased by sunless months.
With the final stretch of I-5 vanishing behind us, we both pronounced the trip a success and noted our good luck and good health with appreciation. Monty helped me carry my stuff into the garage as Spice checked her pee-mail at the base of a phone pole. He looked over at his Shovelhead Harley which had been in my garage for the six weeks since he’d been in Arizona. I apologized that it wasn’t purring like a kitten. He kindly reminded me he wouldn’t want to be working on a motorcycle in the garage with as cold as it had been in Oregon. There was, however, no mistaking he’d like to be riding the damned thing as soon as I could get around to it. I watched him and Spice head off toward his apartment in Lebanon. I went in the house and opened my laptop, only to see too many work emails start to pile up in my inbox. I sent out quick messages to those who had said driving all night was a young man’s game and I was not too bright to be trying it--and they needed reassuring they were wrong. I lived, and Monty and I are still the best of friends.
After a couple days of getting back into our Oregon lives, I met Monty for the lowest form of ethnic food: an American Chinese buffet. But, it’s all you can eat, and we can show up in full motorcycle regalia, and no one bats an eye. Monty will be heading back to Arizona in a couple of months and wanted to know if I’d like to ride shotgun. I commented that the Ford did better than expected, but wouldn’t that be pushing it a bit? He gobbled a shrimp from the end of his chopsticks and commented, “Not that Ford.” He has a 50 year-old Econoline van he’s just about done putting back together and figures it’ll be good to go shortly. I shrugged. Of course I’ll go. It might take two of us to push that 170 cubic inch motor over the mountain passes between here and Southern Arizona.
I felt a little hypocritical giving my dad endless shit for not being able to take his van to the store without a tankard of water in the back and a AAA card in the glove box. Yet, here I was seriously considering bombing across Nevada, where the speed limits are lower so as not to embarrass ourselves on the Californian interstate, in a doddering vehicle best described as “quaint.” My dad is no more afraid of being on the side of the highway in 110+ degree weather than I am of changing out a fan belt on the side of the road between Reno and Vegas. There is the small matter of my dad being 80 years-old and me being 50-ish--the point in middle-age when accepting one’s mounting physical limitations ain’t happening.
The rain had come back just a bit when we pushed away from the table to the parking lot where our matching motorcycles hunkered down in a single parking space. Monty had to get ready for work, but I was taking the long way home; so we said our goodbyes then sped off in opposite directions. I ran my bike through its gears, winding across a landscape of flooded fields. In this state I call home, late winter makes for ponds where the roads are supposed to be. But, the lambs were out, and the temp of the air was not so bad as it slipped down the neck-hole of my motorcycle jacket. The gears and my head slowed just a bit as the Oregon air, speckled with rain drops, rushed over me. No matter where I am, a huge piece of me will always be on the back roads and coastal routes of this soggy state. I could live without pulling cactus spines from my boots, which leads to extensive conjugations of the f-word; but I doubt I could go very long without hearing the geese over me and rolling the miles of country roads beneath me.