7 July 2006
The distance of home
There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s-breadth; well, let’s say a few yards anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up. —Italo Calvino, Cosmicomics
I realized I was out of water somewhere near Bonneville. I pulled over at what turned out to be the scenic rest stop right in the middle of the salt flats. I grabbed an empty water bottle and walked toward the restrooms.
When I pulled the handle on the drinking fountain, the slow bubble up from the spigot was blisteringly hot. The vending machine was no better; it only took singles and all I had was a five and a stack of gas receipts. I squinted and walked out onto the flats to take some pictures, then headed back to the car. I was getting thirsty. This was the desert after all.
I eyed the cooler on the passenger seat. Inside was a pitcher of water for the cat. The vet back home had told us to take some water from our tap with us on the trip. It was supposed to calm her down, remind her of home. I apologized to the cat and poured some into the empty bottle. It was still a little cold. I closed my eyes and pretended it tasted like home, but it didn’t. It was just water.
Yes, the Moon was so strong that she pulled you up; you realized this the moment you passed from one to the other: you had to swing up abruptly, with a kind of somersault, grabbing the scales, throwing your legs over your head, until your feet were on the Moon’s surface.
I had started out the day before with no real destination. I just needed to build up enough momentum to escape the gravity of home. Today it was the same story. The idea was simple: start early and drive until I collapsed somewhere in Nevada.
By the time I pulled out of the rest stop and headed out of the flats and into Nevada the momentum started to take over. The highway was dead straight for miles, like an endless runway or the barrel of a rifle. The sun was hot flint and the desert was gunpowder. I pushed the cruise control up five, ten, fifteen miles faster. I learned that there’s one good way to cross the desert: fast.
By the time I crossed into Nevada (greeted by a border checkpoint on the right, and a string of sad-looking casinos on the left) I was unstoppable. I was chasing the sun across the godforsaken desert to the ocean and I’d be damned if I was going to stop in Nevada. I counted the miles, and the hours. Five hundred miles to Reno and 200 more to San Francisco. I watched the sun sink toward the mountains. How fast could I drive? How long could I stay awake?
I made good time to Reno, and I thought I was home free. I stopped at the last gas station in Nevada for fuel and caffeine to finish the trip. The guy in front of me made conversation with the girl at the counter about the shots fired at the roadside bar across the highway while he bought cigarettes and a shooter of Jack Daniel’s. There was no turning back now.
Seen from the Earth, you looked as if you were hanging there with your head down, but for you, it was the normal position, and the only odd thing was that when you raised your eyes you saw the sea above you, glistening, with the boat and the others upside down, hanging like a bunch of grapes on the vine.
I made it to Tahoe before everything started to come apart. After the straight, smooth blacktop of Nevada, the windy, steep, underfunded California mountain highway was like a rickety carnival rollercoaster of death. The speed limit was only 65, but I was lucky if I could top 60 without fear of flying off a cliff or rattling off my axles.
That’s when the cat started to lose it too. She paced around the car, jumped onto the dashboard, and just wailed. I had visions of her jumping for the pedals and sending us both swerving to our fiery deaths. She couldn’t take any more, and neither could I. After sixteen and a half hours of driving, I finally collapsed. I veered off at the first rest stop I saw and passed out in the backseat.
He hovered a moment between Moon and Earth, upside down, then laboriously moving his arms, like someone swimming against a current, he headed with unusual slowness toward our planet.
The next morning at dawn, as I drove down out of the mountains and into the Sacramento valley, it felt a lot like falling. I had crossed some plane the night before; the momentum had shifted. When I left, I was driving out and away. Now I was falling in, hurtling towards a new place, with its own gravity—not home this time (not yet) but an ocean.