I got onto the hood of our car and stared up at the milky stars. Eric’s yellow school bus was parked right behind us. Desert shrubs looked eerie in the moonlight. Olaf grabbed a blanket and walked off into the desert while I found myself dreaming about the past and the walking stick in the trunk and the mysterious man we had stumbled upon in the middle of the Ohio woods many days before.
Then I listened for snakes. I remembered what my parents had told me about the time they broke down in their old Volkswagen Beetle in the desert in the 1960s. My mother saw dozens of rattlesnakes when she took my sister for a pee by some shrubs. The way I remember my pop telling the story, there were snakes in the road, snakes winding past shrubs, snakes tangled, slithering, everywhere. It was like one of those classic old desert-set 1950s horror movies.
That story had given me an irrational fear of the desert. I figured the snakes would come and get me even if I were locked in a car. Now I lay back on the warm hood, smiling nervously, because I knew I couldn’t do what Olaf was doing. He wasn’t afraid. He’d come from Norway on an adventure to drive his son, Eric, from South Dakota to Arizona in a big yellow school bus. Eric was an air ambulance pilot. He flew medicine onto Indian reservations.
It had been a long trip across some of America: the green Midwest—Ohio, Indiana, Illinois; and into the South—Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas; and then into the Southwest—New Mexico and Arizona. We were dirty and alive. I looked forward to Eric’s shower. We had slept in the car for seven days now, save the one night in Eric’s bus. And we had grown oddly used to it. We had become ragged Americans, odd travelers staring into the burnt open face of our land. It was still a sonnenreise. I thought, in zigzag fashion, about the things we had seen and about all the places full of bushy trees and green grass and tall red brick buildings, and the many cluttered downtowns. How the St. Louis Arch had seemed stuck to the earth like a giant magnet near the Mississippi River’s edge. I thought about Jordan running up to the steely arch, hugging it and wanting to take the elevator to the top; and about wandering along the Missouri streets and staring at a decrepit fountain spewing blue-dyed water; about driving our dirty car through Indianapolis, where we had felt small and our car had looked tiny against the monstrous skyscrapers, the churches and malls; and then tearing through the countrysides and Oklahoma—passing countless cicada-filled trees, buzzing in the darkness. How our headlights had failed at a gas station and three UPS workers fumbled with wires under the hood before finding the right ones to twist together. And then on to Oklahoma City and thinking about all the people madly connected to the bombing; and then back to Missouri and the bathroom off the freeway with a sign inside reading “No Niggers Allowed” in handwriting that matched a sign by the front counter where a quiet white man stood and took our money; and near Amarillo where we spent the night parked at a motel and my girlfriend and I did it because we felt lonely and tired and had nothing else to do while Jordan slept; and in Texas where we ate at a little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, mountains of pancakes with syrup, and stared out the windows into the green countryside, rain clouds rumbling; and in New Mexico and all that happened in Santa Rosa: the Blue Hole oasis, Olaf cooking hot dogs at Park Lake, our car dying as the rain fell against the scorched earth.
Back in the desert, I was shaken awake. Eric’s face hung above mine looking bluer than ever. It’s the starlight, I thought. His normally strong face looked frail in the faint glow and his eyes were cold like two black holes in the heavens. I got up. Already Eric had moved away and disappeared into his bus. And Olaf, back from the desert and amazingly alive, was waiting for me to rejoin the caravan.
I climbed into the car, where my girlfriend lay, asleep. I started the motor, and it shook her awake. “You okay?” she asked, her voice cracking. I said yes and pulled out to follow the demon red lights of the bus.
After a while, the fatigue set in and the white lines blurred together and didn’t seem so broken, but were instead almost snake-like, as if an albino serpent had uncoiled itself across the vast desert expanse. Its head was just around the next turn. Then those Ohio woods again rushed back into my mind. I saw myself with Jordan and my girlfriend as we went searching for Buttermilk Falls. I saw us rounding a corner and finding the man there. He was leaning on a log, carving a head into a staff. He looked like a killer, the way he sat there silently with his knife. He handed over the carved stick and mumbled a few words. Jordan held onto it like a shaman child. His face was filled with what appeared to be instant wisdom.
(Jordan Belardes at left holds the old man walking stick. Circa 1996)
Back in the desert again. Five in the morning. The road. The lines. The mountains just outside of Flagstaff. Huge green meadows, some rung with high wooden fences. Pine trees and valley peaks rising on either side, cradling our entry.
Eric was at the wheel of the bus, exhausted. He swerved out onto the shoulder as the first dim haze of day broke along the horizon. Dirt flew up in a cloud as he wheeled back onto the highway and nearly sideswiped a pick-up truck in passing. I felt lucky to be behind him. I hit the brakes and flashed my lights, hoping Eric would see me. Finally, after many minutes of tired swerving, he managed to steady himself, bringing the bus back between the broken serpent lines and finding an equilibrium.
“Oh good,” my girlfriend said, “he’s awake now.”
As awake as the sun that was lifting its head above the bright Arizona morning.