My small town felt isolated from the world when I was growing up. Sometimes I’d camp out at the visitor’s center by the highway and watch the travelers: leather-clad bikers on their way to a Harley rally, rumpled families piling out of minivans, elderly RV owners. They were all going someplace, and I envied their freedom.
As soon as I could start traveling, I did. I celebrated New Year’s Eve in Paris. I slurped noodles at the fish market in Tokyo. I circled the pyramids at Giza on a camel. I slept among elephants and hippos in Tanzania. I floated past dead bodies wrapped like packages in the Ganges River. I climbed barefoot up a mountain to a Buddhist temple in Burma. I joined anti-government demonstrations in Buenos Aires. I ducked behind a policeman during a near-riot in Jerusalem. I wandered the medina in Marrakech. I hoisted a giant beer stein at Oktoberfest in Munich. I cried at the Killing Fields in Cambodia.
All of it was fascinating, but none of it made me feel any less lonely. Often I simply couldn’t get over how cold I was or how badly I had to pee.
For the past three years I’ve lived in a place where I can watch deer graze and hear coyotes howl their eerie harmonies. I like this sense of isolation on our increasingly crowded planet: the unfurling of plum blossoms, the greening of hillsides, the scent of eucalyptus trees. I feel lucky to be nowhere.
El Cerrito, California
For our tenth wedding anniversary my wife and I decided to learn to scuba dive. We got our training and certification in the Monterey Bay area of California, and we returned there frequently to dive off the beaches.
There was a small cove with a large kelp bed that we enjoyed exploring. We saw plenty of wildlife: sun stars, crabs, abalone, and the occasional bright orange Garibaldi or fierce-looking wolffish, all illuminated by the weak rays of sun streaming down through the forest of kelp.
One clear Saturday morning, as we pulled ourselves along the bottom, we were followed closely by a young spotted harbor seal. If either of us picked up a starfish or turned over a rock, the seal was there in seconds, inspecting the disturbance for anything edible.
We wound our way between kelp stalks until we had used up half our air. Our routine at that point in the dive was to surface, get our bearings, and then head back in the direction of the beach. But that day, despite the clear weather when we’d arrived, we surfaced to find ourselves in thick fog: pure whiteout conditions.
The water was calm, and there was no sound except our own nervous whispers. We listened but couldn’t hear the waves breaking on the shore. I usually wore a compass on my wrist but had left it behind. The fog was so thick that we couldn’t even tell where the sun was. If we picked the wrong direction in which to swim, we could easily have headed farther out to sea.
At that moment the harbor seal who had been tailing us popped up from below. He whuffed to clear his nostrils and bobbed there with us, like a marine Labrador retriever. Then he sank below the surface and popped up again several feet away. We swam toward him. When we got to within a few feet, the seal dived under again, surfacing another ten feet away. We followed. This went on for many minutes until, finally, he didn’t resurface. We floated there, wondering what to do next. Then we both heard the low-pitched hum of a motorcycle cruising along the road at the top of the cliffs. We kicked wildly toward the sound and within a few minutes could make out the faint line of the shore.
Carl W. Albritton
Safety Harbor, Florida
My father had been in the South Vietnamese army, and after the North defeated the South, our family was branded “nguy,” which meant we were second-class citizens. My parents initially made two failed attempts to escape from communist Vietnam. Then, almost two years after the fall of Saigon, they decided to try again. “Freedom or death,” my father said.
We moved to a small village at the tip of the Saigon Delta and pretended to be fishermen. My eighteen-year-old brother learned to operate a boat and studied the tides and the comings and goings of the military-patrol vessel. Around the same time every Sunday, he discovered, the officers on the gunboat got drunk and ran the craft aground, where it remained stuck until the tide rose hours later.
One Sunday thirty-six people, including all of my immediate family and relatives, set out on the ocean to escape the oppressive conditions. There was throwing up, hunger, and fear — and lots of water, with no land in sight. Our second night on the open sea, a storm came up with waves so big they looked like two-story buildings. The boat sputtered toward the shore of Malaysia only to get stuck on a sandbar. The waves continued, and our little fishing boat began to fall apart from the relentless beating. We managed to help one another to the beach, where we stood and watched as the craft sank, taking all our possessions with it.
The Malaysian authorities detained us, then put our group and several hundred other refugees on a boat to Australia. But the dilapidated craft wouldn’t make it to Australia. We floated for a hundred days with nowhere to dock, drifting around Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Finally the United Nations struck a deal with the Malaysian government: we would live in Malaysia under UN care. We were taken to a remote jungle island off the coast, where we cut down trees to build homes. We lived there for about six months before the U.S. offered us refugee status.
My family arrived at Stapleton Airport in Denver, Colorado, without winter coats and not knowing a word of English. We managed to settle into our new lives, going to school day and night to learn our host country’s language. The only TV programs we could understand were The Electric Company and cartoons.
Though I’ve found freedom and have achieved my dreams of getting a good education, a job, and a house, I sometimes feel as though I am still struggling to belong. I am neither welcome in Vietnam nor fully accepted here as an American. In some ways I am still on that boat.
San Jose, California
On Christmas morning, when most people were unwrapping presents, my mother, my brother, and I drove the “Dark Star” to the middle of nowhere. The year was 1980, and I was fourteen. My brother Bob, twenty-one, had pulled the back seat out of his tomato-colored ’65 VW Beetle — the Dark Star — and loaded it with all the supplies the three of us would need to survive in the California desert for a week or more. I was crammed in the back with the gear, sandwiched among sleeping bags and water jugs and dehydrated food and rucksacks.
As we drove south through the Central Valley, Mom rattled off facts about the desert and told my brother to watch out for speeding cars. (Relative to our snail’s pace, every car was speeding.) Sometime around dusk we turned off the highway and onto a rutted, unpaved road across the badlands. Our rusty Beetle tumbled over bumps and bounced in and out of ditches, pitching me around like a rag doll in back. Mom hollered at my brother that I didn’t have a seat belt. I reminded her that I didn’t have a seat.
Dark descended as we arrived at our destination: the eastern side of Anza-Borrego, California’s largest desert state park. After the noise of the car engine for ten hours, the desert silence was eerie. Mom pointed out Venus and Jupiter; Bob pointed out where we should set up our tents; I pointed out which TV show I was missing at that very moment.
“Hand over your timepiece,” my brother said to me. “You won’t be needing it out here.”
Reluctantly I gave him my Mickey Mouse watch. “But I want it back on New Year’s Eve,” I said.
He chuckled. We soon lost track of what time, or even what day, it was. (At one point I scrawled angrily in my diary: “For all I know, it’s already 1981!”)
I discovered a hidden puddle not far from our campsite, and when we weren’t out on some hiking expedition, I went there to sit with my thoughts. I liked to imagine that I had landed on another planet. When I grew bored or hungry, I’d make my way back to “Earth” to see what was happening. Usually my mom was doing a crossword puzzle, and Bob was “God knows where,” she said.
Shortly after sundown each evening we zipped ourselves up in our bags. Since this was hours before my usual bedtime, I lay awake forever. Mom said we were “restoring our natural rhythm” and assured me that the dark circles under my eyes had completely vanished.
The next morning at the crack of dawn, I emerged from my down chrysalis and headed straight for the car. I hadn’t looked in a mirror since we’d left home, and I wanted to see if the crescent shadows beneath my eyes really were gone. I barely recognized the face staring back at me in the dusty rearview mirror: my once-wavy brown hair was caked flat against my head, my lips were chapped, and my face was the color of the desert floor. My eyes were luminously clear, but the purplish skin under them remained: Mom had lied.
I kicked a rock and went to boil water for my morning cup of cocoa. Mom and Bob were still sleeping. I poured two packets of cocoa powder into my tin mug and added water. Cradling the steaming hot chocolate in my cold hands, I thought about the world to which we would soon be returning. In a few weeks Ronald Reagan would become our new president. John Lennon was dead. I thought about his song “Imagine,” and my eyes filled with tears.
My brother came out of his tent and saw me crying. “Hey, cheer up,” he said. “I think it’s January 1.”
“Happy New Year,” I muttered, tasting the salt on my lips.
“Guess what? After breakfast we’ll pack up and hit the road. We might even make it back in time for you to watch Dallas.”
I polished off the last of my cocoa. The sun had come up and was now shining on my desert-colored skin.
He promised me a walk along the beach, which in my mind means a leisurely stroll. But this is a hike. I know, because I am sweating. And this isolated, rocky stretch of coastline isn’t the sort of beach I had in mind.
Jack is ahead of me on the trail. I can see the muscles in his legs working, and I notice that he’s wearing expensive hiking boots: a sign that, if we continue to date, there will be more excursions like this in my future. He did not mention his love of hiking on his Match.com profile, which I feel makes him a fraud. I should sue.
“Could you walk any slower?” he asks. He has to raise his voice, because I am so far behind him on the trail.
“You go ahead,” I shout back. “I’ll catch up.”
Though I’m not close enough to see, I’m certain he’s rolling his eyes. His last girlfriend loved to hike. I know this because Jack has mentioned it three times already. If I could get cellphone reception out here, I’d call her and offer to let her take my place.
As soon as Jack turns a corner and is out of sight, I stop walking and sit down. It’s not so much that I’m tired; I just don’t see the point of continuing to climb a steep hill. The place where I’ve stopped is beautiful and overlooks the ocean. With the right person, I suppose it could be romantic. But Jack is not the right person. I knew this after the third date. And now here I am on date thirteen.
I go back to the beach and look for shells, which is fun for about three minutes. Maybe I’m just not the outdoors type. Then I hear my name and look up. Jack is a tiny figure waving to me from the top of the hill. When he starts down, I feel an urge to turn and break into a run. So I do.
What is wrong with me? I think. I am being impulsive and will have to explain myself later. But I don’t stop.
I turn my head and see Jack jogging down the hill. He’s shouting my name, and I can hear anger in his voice. Stop, I tell myself. But I keep running.
He’s gaining on me. I should stop and pretend that I didn’t hear him calling me and that I was running because, well, I like to run. Instead I duck behind some large rocks and hide.
That’s how he finds me, huddled behind a rock, trying to look nonchalant. I am pleased that he is out of breath.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asks.
It’s a fair question, I suppose. What am I doing?
I lived for nearly two years in a village in central Mongolia as a Peace Corps volunteer. The only way to get there was by Russian-made jeep, a journey that took anywhere from ten to twenty-six hours (depending on conditions) along crumbling roads or, more often, two parallel tire ruts.
A few months into my stay I made plans to travel to the nearby provincial center to celebrate my birthday with some other Peace Corps volunteers. My neighbor found me a ride with someone who was traveling in my direction. The distance we had to cover was forty kilometers — about an hour’s drive. After five kilometers, however, the driver suddenly announced we were out of gas and veered off the road toward a nomadic herder’s hut.
It was a stunningly beautiful locale, surrounded by trees, a river, and mountains. The old woman who lived there welcomed me into her home, gave me tea and something to eat, and patiently tried to speak with me; my Mongolian was rudimentary at best. The driver went out on foot to find gas and assured me he would get me to my destination that day. But when the late-afternoon sun began to cast long shadows across the valley, I was still playing Mongolian dominoes with the old woman.
As I slowly accepted that I would spend the night in this place, my mind spun fearful fantasies about everything that could go wrong out here in the middle of nowhere. There was no telephone, no electricity, no visible connection to the rest of the world. What if I got sick or injured? How long would it take for the Peace Corps to realize I was missing?
That night the old woman’s husband, who’d been out tending their animals all day, returned, and we ate by candlelight. The husband slept near the stove and got up regularly throughout the night to add wood to the fire. I think he did this for my benefit.
The next morning the driver flagged down another jeep, and I made it to my destination. But I’ve often reflected on the irony of feeling such panic in one of the most peaceful locales I’ve ever visited.
St. Paul, Minnesota
After graduating from college in 1979, I decided to move across the country to Eugene, Oregon, where a close friend of mine lived. With a few hundred dollars in my pocket and all my possessions in the back seat of my yellow Volkswagen, I set out from Pittsburgh.
In Wyoming I picked up a hitchhiker named Marty, who said he’d been hitching back and forth from coast to coast for a decade. After a few hours I felt tired and asked Marty to take the wheel. He hadn’t had a driver’s license in years, he said, but I watched how he handled the road for a few minutes and, satisfied, closed my eyes and dozed, the sound of the engine like a mother’s heartbeat.
An hour later I woke to the feeling of the car slowing down. We sputtered to a stop, and I traded places with Marty and tried to start the car, but it wouldn’t even turn over. I got out and looked at the engine, which might as well have been the warp drive of the starship Enterprise for all I knew about auto mechanics. I tried to start it again. Nothing.
Marty suggested we hitch to the next town and get a tow truck. I stood at the roadside and stuck out my thumb. Marty patted my shoulder. “Wait until the car comes first, bro,” he said. “You’ll get tired standing like that.”
Looking up at the noonday sun, I regretted my insistence on taking the back roads because the scenery was better and there wasn’t any traffic. We sat in the shade of my car, smoking, sharing the canteen, and waiting for the sound of an approaching vehicle. Marty talked casually about his travels, but I was worried sick. If the repair bills were too high, I might not have enough money to reach Oregon. What had I gotten myself into?
Marty elbowed me and pointed. “Look,” he said, “we aren’t even moving, and you’re still missing the scenery.” I followed his finger and saw wind-sculpted rock and wildflowers that stretched for miles beneath the cloudless sky. A cool breeze danced across our sweaty faces. I could smell the flowers and the desert dust on the wind, and for a moment I was glad to be there.
St. Petersburg, Florida
My husband and I were riding his motorcycle up Corona Pass toward the highest point in Colorado. A former motocross racer, he drove wildly along the rock-studded dirt path, ignoring my nervous requests to slow down.
“I’ll drive the way I want to,” he shouted back over his shoulder. He raced along the trail, tires spitting up sand, hitting bumps at forty miles per hour. I wanted to close my eyes but was afraid of falling off the bike if I did, so I watched, horrified, as he sped up and leaned the motorcycle almost on its side around turns.
“Let’s stop and take a break,” I said. “I’m afraid.”
“You always have to ruin everything!” he yelled. When I started crying, he hit the brakes. “You’re not going to ruin this whole day for me!”
He told me to get off, and the next thing I knew he’d driven away and left me standing there. Self-centered ass, I thought. I sat down on a boulder to cry.
An hour passed, and still my husband hadn’t returned. I sat there in the woods, listening to every sound. I had no food, no water, and no jacket. Worried he wasn’t coming back, I got up from the boulder to look around, and that’s when I saw a huge black bear about fifty feet away.
I didn’t know whether to run or stand still. I felt sure I was going to die, and I hated my husband with a white-hot intensity. The bear was poking around in the trees, looking hungry and unfriendly. I inched in the opposite direction but froze when the animal suddenly turned, and we made eye contact.
“Nice bear,” I said softly. “Friendly bear.” My throat was so constricted I couldn’t swallow. “Pretty bear.”
The bear approached the boulder where I’d been sitting and looked at me as if confused. I continued to back away. The bear followed. I’m going to die, I thought, and I’m only twenty-two. Being married to a madman, I’d feared that I would meet my demise in some violent manner, but I’d never imagined I’d be eaten by a bear.
The bear roared and lumbered in my direction, and I peed my pants. Then I heard an engine. My husband appeared, saw the bear, and brought the bike to an abrupt halt. “Don’t move,” he said to me. He edged the motorcycle toward me, I jumped on the back, and we raced off. For once I was happy we were speeding.
“I will never forgive you for this!” I screamed.
My husband, now my ex, never apologized for leaving me on the mountain that day. He said it was my fault for complaining about his driving.
While visiting Israel in 1996 I decided to take a solo trip to the Sinai Peninsula, an area captured by Israel in 1967 and returned to Egypt in 1982. As soon as I’d crossed the border, two Israeli women approached me and asked if I wanted to share a cab. I hopped in.
The cabdriver, a middle-aged Egyptian man whose face was etched by sun and hardship, veered wildly down the road, shouting at other drivers and honking his horn. The Israeli women asked him to slow down. He dismissed their concern with a wave of his hand and simply turned up the music on his dusty cassette player. Further requests to mind the road seemed only to irk him.
The Israeli women got out at the town of Nuweiba, slamming the door to register their displeasure. The cabdriver yelled out his window at them and then sped off for Dahab, my destination. After a few minutes he informed me that we had to make a stop, but he wouldn’t say for what. We pulled off the main thoroughfare onto a series of winding, unmarked roads, finally coming to a halt in front of a low concrete building about five miles from the main road. Saying nothing, the driver got out and went inside.
What was going on? Here I was, a Jew, alone in an Arab country with a man who, after a lifetime of pressure, just might have reached his breaking point. Nobody even knew where I was. I was at this cabdriver’s mercy.
After ten minutes the cabdriver emerged from the building carrying a sloppily rolled-up newspaper. Did it conceal a knife? A gun? He got into the car and placed the parcel on the seat next to him. I heard the rustle of paper and caught a slight grimace on his face. Then he swung around and offered me half a loaf of warm bread.
Newport Beach, California
I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, but my husband and I moved to Virginia in the 1970s. At first living in rural Franklin County was a beautiful change of pace from my old apartment. Instead of a fire station across the street, with its sirens blaring at all hours of the night, I had sunsets over Smith Mountain Lake and morning bird songs.
But our finances soon changed for the worse, and we moved several times, in a steady downward slide, until we landed in the worst housing yet: an old country home — heavy on the old, light on the charm — at the bottom of a dead-end lane. The small creek that ran through the property did not so much hum a tune as trickle its displeasure. The only heat was one wood stove, and we were unaware just how inadequate this would be come winter.
By fall I was pregnant, and my husband decided he wanted a divorce. On a cold, rainy December night, he moved out for good.
That winter was brutally cold and snowy. I was working at Booker T. Washington National Monument, a half-hour drive from the “Hovel,” as I called my house. My husband was kind enough to come over once a week — or sometimes every other week — to chop firewood and bring it inside. The rest of the time I had to fend for myself.
When the water pump froze, my husband informed me by phone that, to unfreeze it, I had to crawl under the barbed-wire fence, climb into the gully, open the pump house, and turn the handle up. I should let it “prime” and then turn it back down before returning to my cold house. Sometimes this worked; sometimes it didn’t. As my belly grew, it became more difficult to squeeze beneath the wire. Instead I would bring two empty milk jugs to work with me and fill them with water.
Once, I went grocery shopping for myself and my three cats, and when I returned to the Hovel, the driveway was pure ice. I knew if I drove down it, I would never get the car back up in the morning, so I parked on the street and attempted to walk down with my groceries in hand. I couldn’t. I had to sit on the ground, push my groceries ahead of me, and slide down on my rear.
After starting a fire in the stove (never as easy as it sounds) and eating a cold cheese sandwich, I climbed into bed at 7 P.M., alone, cold, confused, and scared. I succumbed to the tears I had been holding in since my husband had left.
My cats surrounded me on the bed to comfort me — one on my stomach, one on my arm, and one on top of my head. And then I felt something: the first movements of my baby, like a fluttering butterfly inside my belly.
With my cats surrounding me with love and my baby moving within me, I realized I wasn’t so lost after all.
My thirty-something sister and I are about to step out the front doors of Toronto East General Hospital. I have no recollection of what is beyond them. It is as if the world outside the hospital has been erased from my memory. How did I get here? I dimly remember the inside of a taxi, fumbling for bills and coins. Everything was difficult. I felt lost.
My sister tells me to wait by the door while she goes to get her car. I do not remember her car. What color is it? I am holding a vase of pink roses that someone — I don’t know who — sent to me. As my sister’s familiar face disappears down the street, I pray that she will come back soon.
I clutch the straps of my purse and balance the vase. What has happened to me? I remember the hospital staff taking me for a CT scan, an MRI, and other tests. For a week I worried about finding my way back to my room. I couldn’t figure out how to raise the lunch table to the height of the bed, but the nurse adjusted it with ease.
“It’s only a matter of time before things begin to feel normal again,” the doctor said.
“How long?” I asked.
“Things are difficult for six months after a stroke, but full recovery takes much longer.”
I did not know how long that was. Six made no sense.
Now I am standing in the waning light of a cold January day, waiting for my sister to come in a car I do not remember. A man passing by on the street nods to me. I nod back. Do I know him? All week I have wanted to go home, and now I don’t even know where home is.
As a teenager I often ran away. Every few months I’d pack my duffel bag and walk out the door as if I’d never return. My destination was always the same: I rode the city bus to Denver’s Stapleton Airport, which felt simultaneously at the center of everything and in the middle of nowhere. This was before the days of heightened airport security, and I was free to wander from gate to gate, sit in the hard plastic seats, and observe the tearful goodbyes and joyful reunions. I imagined it was me being hugged so tightly, or going on a grand adventure, or returning with a tanned face and bright smile, showering friends with souvenirs and stories.
I’d sit at the airport for hours, amid the sounds of crying babies and the smells of pizza and burnt coffee. Sometimes I’d stay deep into the night. I’d stay until my heart stopped jumping, until the knots in my stomach unwound. I’d stay until the memories of violence finally ebbed. Then I’d pick up my duffel bag, climb back on the bus, and go home.
As wilderness-therapy instructors, my boyfriend and I led groups of teenagers through the high desert of Oregon, a three-hour drive from the nearest town. It was my first job out of college, a chance to help some kids, maybe even change a few lives. With only a bachelor’s degree in health and a backpacking trip through the Himalayas on my résumé, I rose to the position of head instructor after just three months.
The desert held little but dry dirt and juniper trees. There was no water and only sparse wildlife. Rations were trucked in once a week, along with a staff changeover: we worked one week on, one week off, but the “students,” ages eleven to seventeen, stayed out there until they’d completed the rigorous program. This usually took two to three months, with the record going to a kid who stayed for 237 days.
Each day we made the teens hike six miles from one campsite to another, carrying thirty-pound packs. They cooked over fires they’d started by rubbing sticks together, and their utensils consisted of a blue metal mug and a spoon they’d carved from a sage branch. We taught them to clean their mugs with a fistful of dirt and a teaspoon of water, using their kerchiefs to wipe the final smudges off. Collecting one cup of cold water in the same mug, they would wash their filthy feet and calloused hands. It was demeaning, but that was the point, right? These were spoiled kids who’d stolen, skipped school, smoked pot, and disrespected their parents. Of course, most of my friends and I had done the same things at that age.
The kids hated it. They’d been forced to leave behind friends, cellphones, music, and cool clothes to traverse a desert in army-issue wool pants and brand-new K-Mart boots. The girls had to deal with their periods in a latrine dug behind a few trees. Their “tent” was a blue tarp held up by twine, and each morning they had to pile all their belongings on it, bundle it up, and strap it to their backs — this while I carried my REI backpack full of energy bars and organic coffee. My fellow instructors helped me temper my guilt, reminding me that we were teaching these kids to tap into their inner resources, giving them confidence. And maybe this was true. I’ll never know. I don’t know what became of any of those kids — except for one.
I wasn’t there, but the story I heard is that one day a particular kid was being “noncompliant,” and the instructors did what our eight hours of “restraint training” had taught us to do. But this boy had a shunt in his spine from a car accident years before. He stopped breathing. The nearest hospital was two hundred miles away. The instructors kept him alive using CPR, but he died in the rescue helicopter. When my shift started the next day, my first task was to reassure the rest of the students.
A month later my boyfriend and I quit and bought plane tickets to Costa Rica. We slept on the beach and surfed and smoked pot. For a while we contemplated the part we’d played in those kids’ lives. Then we pretty much wrote it off and didn’t look back.
As a parent now I think about my time in the desert and the ease with which I took responsibility for the lives of other people’s children. I wonder at the desperation of their parents, who sent their sons and daughters into the wilderness with someone they’d never met. And I wonder, if I met any of my former students today, would they accept my apologies?
In the summer of 1971 my brother Mike and I decided to hitchhike from California to Minnesota. He had recently graduated from high school; I had just finished my second year of college. We hadn’t visited Minnesota, our home state, since we’d left it in 1965.
Our first ride out of Berkeley was in a Volkswagen bus with a guy who was going all the way to Ohio. We were set! All we had to do was get off in Iowa and go north a bit. But the VW broke down outside of Reno, Nevada, so we left the driver with his problem and stuck out our thumbs.
Our next ride was in a large pickup on its way to Massachusetts. We soon stopped for another hitchhiker who said he was a biker. He’d been in an accident on the Oakland freeway while trying to evade the police, and he’d woken up in a hospital. When no one was looking, he’d pulled out all the tubes and escaped. He wasn’t sure exactly what his injuries were, but his ribs hurt pretty badly.
That night we stopped for gas at the Utah border. A man approached us who said a slot machine inside the truck-stop cafe was broken, and he knew how to work it so that he won almost every time. The owners of the cafe had banned him from the place but hadn’t figured out the machine was on the fritz. He told the biker how to work it, and they agreed to split the winnings. After about an hour in the cafe, the biker came out with a pile of money, gave half to the man, and kept the rest for food and gas.
We crossed the border into Utah, where we saw only salt flats and a few scrubby plants. After a couple of miles there was a green exit sign that read, Nowhere. We looked up the offramp and saw nothing at all except desert. We laughed and shouted over and over, “We’re in the middle of nowhere!”
Growing up I spent most of my time in the Australian bush. My mother and father were both experts on the flora and fauna of those arid regions, and we often went on camping trips in the far northwest, where you could drive for days without seeing anyone. The landscape was flat, featureless red sand called “pindan.” No power lines. No paved roads. No houses. Just the occasional deadly snake.
One summer my cousins came camping with us. The children all rode in the back of two trucks, one driven by the mums and the other by the dads. We all wanted to ride with the mums because between them on the vinyl seat was a cooler of fizzy sodas. Between the dads was a cooler of beer.
Near Nerren Nerren Station there was a big water tank by the side of the road, and we would always stop there and fill our gerry cans. Temperatures routinely ran above 120 in summer, and a supply of water could make the difference between a pleasant trip and fatal dehydration.
We kids all got down from the trucks and walked over to the shade of the water tank to pee. Then I wandered off and lay down under a clump of spinifex. My parents each assumed that I had gotten into the other truck, and, as I watched in horror, they drove off without me.
It was 110 degrees. The nearest town was more than a hundred miles away. I was seven.
The family story is that a man in a cement truck picked me up and brought me into town, where my dad was boozing with the locals and my mum was going mad at the police station. I don’t remember that at all.
What I do remember is riding back from the trip in the front of the truck with my mother and her asking me if I would testify against my father in a custody trial. She wanted to know if I would tell the court about the abuse I had witnessed in our house. I didn’t want to testify. Despite my terrible fear of my father, I still loved him. Even though I had reason to despise him, I still wanted him in my life. I wanted him to change, to become a good man and a reliable father.
I had thought that being left at the water tank was the ultimate abandonment, but it didn’t come close to how lost I felt in the front seat of that truck.
I am the oldest of four siblings, and our childhood home was like a cross between a seminary and boot camp. Our single father, a religious fanatic, was convinced the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, and he brought us up to be prepared to flee into the wilderness at any moment to escape God’s wrath against civilization, which would resemble the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When I was fifteen, Daddy announced that the Day of Judgment had finally arrived, and we hastily loaded our gear into our Chevy Impala and set out from the Texas panhandle in search of the wilderness to which our Heavenly Father would guide us. We drove all night into the New Mexico desert until, nearly out of gas, we reached the banks of the Rio Grande. In the predawn glow we abandoned our car, loaded our packs on our backs, and set out on foot.
The Rio Grande was only ankle deep at that spot, and we waded across into a pecan orchard. Realizing it was private property, we ran frantically through the rows of trees and up and down the sides of deep irrigation ditches. Finally, afraid of being spotted by the pecan pickers, we decided to hide out in one of those ditches until nightfall. While we waited we lightened our overloaded packs by discarding items we would no longer be needing in our new lives, such as birth certificates.
When Daddy had determined the coast was clear, we traversed the rest of the orchard and emerged into the vast chaparral desert, which stretched all the way to California. We began to hike into the desert, but the strain of our first days in the wilderness soon forced us to pitch camp.
The desert night was cold, and my brother and I awoke at about two in the morning to hear my little sister and youngest brother in the other tent asking Daddy if we could turn back. Unexpectedly our father relented and told my brother and me to pack up our tent: we were returning to the car. Even though a part of me feared that, like Lot’s wife, I’d turn into a pillar of salt, I obeyed.
Beneath the light of the moon, my family trooped back across that stretch of desert and through the pecan orchard to the banks of the Rio Grande. But we were not at the same shallow bend where we had previously crossed. We were forced to ford the icy river in chest-deep water.
On the far side we abandoned our drenched possessions and, shivering, located our Impala. We stripped out of our soaked clothes and huddled together inside the car to wait for dawn. I have never again been so grateful to see the first rays of morning sun.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon, and I had recently moved to the isolated California town of Bethel Island: “a drinking town with a fishing problem,” the locals called it. Saturdays were a welcome relief from my stressful job as a first-year high-school teacher.
This particular Saturday I was unusually happy. I wasn’t mourning the loss of the friends I had left behind; nor the loss of my lover, who had found a new love in Portland; nor the loss of my children, who had chosen to live with their father rather than move with me to this hick town. And I wasn’t thinking about my dear friend Tommy, who was dying of bone cancer in the mountain hamlet where I’d grown up; Tommy, the World War II veteran whose home had been an oasis of normality and stability for my children and me as, newly divorced, I’d plotted my escape from my hometown.
No, on that Saturday, I was deliriously free as I drove around doing errands with all the windows open. I was going fifty miles an hour down an isolated delta road when I saw a heron standing next to the levee, poised to fly. As the heron lifted, it occurred to me that our paths were going to intersect, so I slowed down. The heron slowed down, too. So I slowed down some more. So did the bird. We continued this dance until I had come to a dead stop in the middle of the road. The heron also stopped, directly in front of my car. It turned its head and looked me straight in the eye, then flew off. I sat there, completely still.
Tommy died that afternoon.
“Where am I?” Mother asked again and again, her voice full of terror. The place in which she found herself had no familiar features or points of reference.
In the earlier stages of Alzheimer’s, she had spent many days reliving her childhood: games in the park with cousins, shopping trips with her mother, planting flowers in her garden. She did not always know the day or time, but she was somewhere that made sense to her. I managed to keep her in my home for three years.
When it became necessary to move her to a care facility, I put a lot of effort into making her comfortable there: a room with a view; furniture, clothes, and keepsakes that were familiar to her. My phone number, pasted on her mirror, sometimes caught her eye, and instinct prompted her to dial it. She was not always sure who I was, but she knew I belonged to her in some way.
As the years went by, however, Mother spent more and more time in a place that none of us knew. At first it frightened her, but then she relaxed, and I generally found her smiling when I visited. The progressive loss seemed more painful for me than for her.
One afternoon, months after I had last heard her speak, she said to me, “I’ll get you straightened out yet!” The nurses at the nearby station looked up, startled.
Memories of her overprotectiveness and her concern about my reputation came flooding back. “Mother,” I said, “do you think it can be done?”
“Yes!” she stated emphatically.
For that brief moment she was somewhere, and that somewhere included me.
“Oh, Diane,” my boyfriend sighed as we pulled up to the trailer in Desert Hot Springs, “I am so sorry.” It was 120 degrees, and eight little white dogs ran out to greet us, barking. This was where I would be living for several months.
There were twenty-two dogs altogether, all show-quality West Highland white terriers. When I’d accepted the job of helping care for them over the summer, I’d thought I would be staying in an elegant house in Palm Springs, but the owner had been forced to move — she owned too many dogs — to a trailer in the middle of this flat brown nothingness.
My boyfriend went back to San Diego, leaving me with the dogs, the owner, the flamboyantly gay man she was in love with, and a wiry Scottish woman who was working there just long enough to get a green card. I’d turned nineteen the day before and had just had sex for the first time. I was reeling in unfamiliar territory.
The daily routine began at five, when the puppies woke up. Eight dogs were pets allowed to roam the house at will, and the rest were show animals, doomed to lie in kennels, getting out only twice a day to pee in the shade of a gnarled tree. My job was to clean the kennels and scoop food for the dogs, keeping track of their special diets and medications. It didn’t take long before I knew by sound which one was scratching to go out or barking to get in.
The owner often traveled to dog shows, leaving me stuck in the trailer for a week at a time. I tried to teach myself to paint but got only as far as making black squiggles on white paper. The only relief from boredom was when my boyfriend came to visit. We had sex and laughed at the dog barking at the condom we’d tossed on the floor. (I knew which dog it was without looking.)
I had the first orgasm of my life that summer. It was as startling as if the moon had been replaced by the sun, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it after my boyfriend had left and I was wiping down kennels and shoveling dog shit. Imagine: something so breathtaking blooming right there in the middle of nowhere, just like that.