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7 July 2006

The distance of home

When I left home, it took a couple of thousand miles of driving just to get back.

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.


  1. 8 July 2006


    You were telling me about Calvino’s moon and your changing gravity as soon as Western Kansas, and I knew you’d write this story if you gave yourself the time. Well done. It’s been on your mind a while and that always irons out something pretty.

    However, I must say you edited out one notion my romantic self hates to see lost. When I said “but there is nothing in California pulling you from here to there, like the moon.” You replied, “Laura’s already there.”

    But maybe you’re like me. Maybe love and the open-armed sea are intertwined.

  2. 8 July 2006

    Jeff Smith

    I remember a lot of these feelings well. Two years ago we moved from the east coast of Canada (Prince Edward Island) to northern Alberta. Mind you we didn’t have to cross the desert, but the feelings are all too familiar.

    Things will feel like home before you know it.

  3. 8 July 2006

    Wilson Miner

    I forgot I’d already started telling you about it on the drive. I forgot what I said about Laura. I edited out the individual romance (and you for that matter) but it’s true. Home is where the heart is. I never really felt that much pull from the ocean anyway.

  4. 8 July 2006


    Well, you still told the truth. After all, gravity never really feels like it’s pulling us. But it is.

  5. 10 July 2006

    Mike Stickel

    I’ll be in a similar situation in about a month except it will be heading the other direction. Sounds like it was quite a trip for you though. It’s interesting how the difference in climate affects your attitude and outlook.

  6. 10 July 2006


    Almost ten years ago, I made a twenty-some-hour trip nearly straight-through from Albuquerque to Cincinnati, with similar anticipation and not a little fatigue-released weeping and general venting. None of my original plans for the move have come close to fruition; but I’m the better for that.

  7. 12 July 2006


    Wilson, I thought that was beautiful and it reminded my of my homestate. May you and Laura have many great adventures all over the world.

  8. 10 September 2006

    Josh Cronemeyer

    Mmm. Calvino. Le Cosmicomiche are great, you should also check out Il Barrone Rampante (the baron in the trees) and Primal che du dica “Pronto” (numbers in the dark). Not to be missed!