2000 Miles From Home
By Terri Phillips
We left Los Angeles on an airless August morning. There was a record heat wave that summer and it felt like my brain had been replaced with a wet sea sponge. My old Subaru was packed up with suitcases, boxes of Lego, Nerf guns, pieces of sculpture, extra coolant, gallons of water, a paper parasol, and maps charting our path along highway 10 headed East. I considered stopping at a pet store as soon as we got out of town to buy a couple of parakeets and a birdcage. If the car broke down, that might encourage someone to stop and help us.
I awkwardly said goodbye to my husband; our divorce had not yet been finalized. My son Tennessee – unaware of the distance between Memphis and Los Angeles – hugged his dad as if they would be seeing each other again in a few days. For him it had always been a four hour plane ride away.
I hid my eyes behind dark glasses and started the car. I wanted to make it to Tucson by nightfall and there was no time for long last looks. We drove out of the Hollywood Hills and closed the door to that chapter of our lives.
Tennessee had made me a small brown horse out of Crayola Model Magic. Its body was too heavy for its legs and they had collapsed underneath it so it looked like a legless horse. We put this on the dashboard along with a dried starfish for guidance and good luck.
I have no memory of crossing the California state line into Arizona. A little denial is good fuel. We passed the solar windmills along a backdrop of purple mountains and sailed through the Coachella Valley. We made it to the Congress Hotel in Tucson by sunset. The gangster John Dillinger had holed there in the 1930’s before a fire drove him out and he was arrested. They found suitcases full of money in his hotel room. Tennessee and I had lots of suitcases but unfortunately ours weren’t full of money.
I had named my son Tennessee after the playwright, never imagining that we would ever return to live in the state of Tennessee. He was born in Santa Monica as close to the ocean as I could get. I had read that Tennessee was a Cherokee name that meant “brave warrior” or “wild river.” Either one was fine with me and it was a nice name to say over and over.
We checked in and had dinner in the hotel restaurant. Then we went to search for Dillinger’s ghost. We found a door to the empty club next door and took turns standing on the stage pretending there was an audience in front of us. They cheered wildly.
Back in our room there was no TV or telephone and for my son this was like camping.
The next morning I put on the same knee-length white cotton dress I was wearing when we left LA. I’m superstitious and it seemed important to keep wearing it for the remainder of the trip. I wouldn’t have worn a white dress if I had thought about it earlier. It was too late now.
As we passed the New Mexico state line I glanced down at the temperature gauge on the dashboard. 115 degrees. I looked over at my fair-skinned son and wondered which one of us would perish first if the car broke down. I regretted not getting the parakeets and the birdcage. We saw a sign for a souvenir shop and I decided to stop for ice-water and maybe a dreamcatcher or a snakeskin to wrap around my neck.
As I was pulling into the parking lot, Tennessee was still complaining about all the things I would not let him do. The list was long: I would not let him stick his arms out of the window, I would not let him drink Coca Cola, I would not let him play football, I would not let him eat all of his Halloween candy in one night, I would not let him drive.
I stopped the car fast on the gravel and the tires slid to find themselves. I got out and walked around to his side of the car. “Ok, you can drive,” I said, trying to act nonchalant. He looked at me in disbelief. “Come on, trade seats.” We traded places and he took the wheel. “Which one is the gas and which one is the brake?” he asked. I helped him scoot his seat forward and he gingerly put his foot on the gas pedal. There were no other cars in the parking lot but I was aware he could drive us straight into the front window of the souvenir shop or headlong into the giant photo-op teepee structure. Hours of video games had equipped him with strong hand–eye coordination and he did a fine job steering the car in a wide circle before bringing us to an honorable stop. “Nice job” I said and quickly put my sunglasses back on. I tried to conceal the crazy joy I felt but it was one of my proudest moments as a parent. We bought beef jerky and ice-water and a dreamcatcher with blue feathers.
I took photographs of the Native American dolls and Tennessee took a picture of me in front of the large teepee outside. By nightfall we were in El Paso.
We pulled our suitcases in to the air-conditioned room and flopped down on the matching double beds. I took the elevator to the pool on the fourth floor, slipped off my loafers, sat down on the edge and dipped my feet in the water. The lights of downtown El Paso flickered through the first drops of rain. I laid down on the warm concrete. The sky turned blue black and large claps of thunder lit up the city. I closed my eyes. Does your chance of getting hit by lightning increase if some part of your body is immersed in a pool of water?
A man in a burnt orange uniform came out and told me they were closing the pool area and I needed to go inside. “A big storm’s coming,” he announced.
We tried to get some sleep but the strong wind and rain rattled the hotel windows and flooded the streets. The next morning I put on my white dress.
From El Paso we took a detour south along a two lane blacktop covered by an enormous Texas sky filled with cotton candy clouds. We promised Stephan we’d get to Marfa before nighttime. He told me to look out for deer leaping into the road and I imagined a large muscular body crashing through our windshield and glass flying everywhere in slow motion.
Tennessee and I took turns selecting CDs. We could agree on The White Stripes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Daft Punk, but then we had to alternate between Iron Maiden, The Jungle Book Soundtrack, Arctic Monkeys and Al Green. Jack White’s voice singing “we will rest upon the ground and look at all the bugs we found” carried us into the square and we pulled into a space in front of Hotel Paisano.
Stephan met us by the fountain in his cowboy hat and aviator glasses, a perfect leading man. We ordered lemonade (mine with gin) and sat by the fountain before following his truck down the gravel road to his place. It was a nice reward after a long day of driving. We stayed for a couple of days, rode bikes to collect the eggs from a neighbor’s chickens, and cooked steaks and corn on the grill. We wore cowboy hats to shield us from the sun and fed grass to the horse across the fence.
We wandered through the old army barracks and looked at Dan Flavin and Donald Judd sculptures and John Wesley paintings. With clementines in the pocket of my dress and a hand drawn map, we set off north on a small road towards Balmorhea Springs and Pecos. We stopped in Fort Davis and bought apples and almonds and continued on through the mountains. There was no phone reception and I felt as if I was in the presence of God.
I got us lost somewhere in West Texas, which was as bleak as I’d been led to expect. I’ll leave out the part when I pulled over on the side of the road and started to cry. Tennessee put his hands gently on the back of my head, stroked my hair and told me everything was going to be ok and that he could drive if I was too tired. Soon we were back on the road again with a tank full of gas and two cold bottles of coke.
Just west of Dallas the trees began to change into the tall dignified oaks I remember from my childhood. We stopped for steaks in Fort Worth and a good night’s sleep at the Stockyards Hotel. In the morning we wandered over to the Stockyards arena where the rodeos were held and livestock was auctioned off to the highest bidders. We sat in silence as if we were in a big empty church. I was moving slowly in the thick humid heat and looked in some shops that sold tooled leather belts and fringed western shirts. But I’d put my money on the white dress. We continued East along highway 30 towards Little Rock. We could make it to Memphis from here in two days if I made good time.
I waited patiently in the car while the officer wrote up my speeding ticket in Texarkana. He was a humorless redhead and I suspected my California license plate didn’t help my cause. He knew we wouldn’t be passing through these parts again anytime soon, and I vowed never to listen to the Rolling Stones again while driving through Texas.
Soon the air began to smell like cut grass and marshmallows and we crossed the Arkansas state line.
Just outside Hot Springs, we spotted a rock shop on the side of the freeway and pulled over. I bough two large chunks of colored glass, rejects from the Fenton glass company in West Virginia. We bought a $10 watermelon and a pack of purple hull peas for my Dad. We checked into the crumbling Arlington hotel on the main drag in Hot Springs. It felt like there were more ghosts there than people. I went for a swim in the hotel pool, surrounded by tall pines. We ordered room service and fell asleep watching The Maltese Falcon.
In the morning I put on the white cotton dress again for the eighth day. We took our time driving the last 200 miles to Memphis. We talked about the possibility of snow in the wintertime, 7th grade, catfish vs. barbecue, and the blues being the roots of rock and roll. With the August sun in the late afternoon sky, we slid into home base and pulled into my parents’ driveway. Elvis was singing “Don’t Be Cruel”. In a few minutes my son would be showered with hugs and kisses, and I could pour myself a shot of my Dad’s scotch and get out of that cotton dress and throw it into the washing machine.