I woke up sometime in the late morning, hit the on button on my vintage turquoise Sunbeam coffeemaker (yes, it made the #miniworthy cut! I mean, c'mon!), and caught sight of myself in the mirror on my way back to bed.
Holy shit. As my dad used to say when my sister and I were sick, "You look like you got rode hard and put away wet." And Sweet Jesus, I did. Puffiness overwhelmed my normally bright eyes and the overwhelming sense was of haggardness. Old. Washed up. Seen better days. Let herself go.
My cut-up t-shirt with a picture of Jesus and the words "I never said that." looked decidedly less jaunty suddenly. My belly poked out from underneath.
There were mirrors in the hotel! Good God! My house hadn't had any mirrors. And here was the evidence of 9 months of drinking a bottle of wine every night, not training Muay Thai (or anything) for at least that long, and a rough bout with fucking menopause. Fucking menopause, man! Goddamn, my mom was right. It was happening, and its effects, along with all my other accumulated delinquencies and vices, were much worse than I thought.
Getting back in bed with my tea, I realized anew that my low back was pretty seriously upset with me. In fact, it felt like I had actually lifted a car off my child. Or been hit by a truck. Oh, geez. This was a first. I was used to the pain from not having any cartilage in my right hip, but this was something new. I felt unsure of myself, tentative. Years of martial arts practice and teaching yoga had fine-tuned my body into a machine that I knew intimately and trusted implicitly. I had also mostly ignored its increasing aches and pains.
But there was no way I could ignore this.
Finishing my tea, I got back up and started moving around. The pain to the left of my sacrum got worse, and I found myself squatting to pick things up, rather than my usual fluid, easy, bending over. I got in the shower, enjoying the heat and washing off the grit and dust from all the heavy work and the desert the day before.
When I came out, I looked around my hotel room and had a flashback of my last hour of moving. My things lay scattered about in bags, and empty beer bottles stood by the trash can along with the empty Domino’s box. I had a panicky feeling it wouldn’t all fit back in the Mini. I briefly considered spending another $116 to stay and rest at this Motel 6 on the north end of Santa Maria, which isn’t generally known as a garden spot. Traveler’s alert.
As I packed my things up again, putting them in their respective bags, the resolve I’d summoned the day before to leave my home returned again. This time the urge was to leave California that day. I looked at my paper map of the American Southwest (how refreshing!) and saw that the town of Needles was right on the California border. I had no idea how far it was, and didn’t look it up. I thought I’d drive a couple hours and see how I felt.
Somehow I had a persistent idea in my head that I could only drive two or three hours before I’d be exhausted and have to stop. I don’t know where that idea came from, but it turned out not to be true at all. After having a late breakfast at the Buckhorn in Cuyama on Route 166, I got under way eastward in earnest and watched contentedly as the Mini carried me through the wide expanses and vast river washes of this stunning valley. I saw evidence of massive flooding—twisted trees, broken fences, tossed-around boulders, and road damage—although everything around me was dry as a bone. The temperature started going up. It was so nice not to be working or moving anything.
I passed through Maricopa, Arvin, Tehachapi, and then stopped to reconnoiter at a lonely gas station before entering the Mojave Desert. I was anxious about the heat, now 102, and how the Mini was going to do. Two months ago, he suddenly overheated at home in Atascadero—like, the whole red emergency light on the dashboard and everything. I had to get a tow in San Luis Obispo, where I found out the water pump had failed. Almost $800 later, I had a new water pump and everything seemed fine, but this was the Mojave, one of the hottest places on Earth.
I remembered my friend Chuck, who does a fair amount of road racing at Buttonwillow in his Mustang, telling me he always races with the air conditioning on because it keeps the engine cooler. So I turned on the AC, held my breath, and got on the road again. Hours later, Mini was still fine and I was pleasantly chilly. The temperature outside was 104.
At some point as I watched the beautifully stark desert landscape rolling past, I realized I was hyperventilating badly. I was dizzy and confused, and remembered hitting the curb as I’d left my parking place that morning, dropping the Mini with a jolt on the right rear tire. I noticed my stomach was hard as a rock and that I was taking tiny, shallow sips of breath at the very tops of my lungs. I let my belly soften and took a deep breath down into my hips, feeling the rush of oxygen. It felt like a starving person being given food. Delicious! I came back into my body.
At the last moment before leaving the house, I’d discovered a stash of CDs I made for my early Human Being Training classes at CalPoly, back in 2013 before I knew about Spotify. I threw one on Mini’s player and started singing along to long-forgotten songs. My breathing got more comfortable and even. I came to an area of blasted black rocks piled into heaps, long lines of stacked shipping containers stationary and seemingly abandoned along endless miles of railroad tracks, and inexplicably green, prickly bushes flowering with pink, tendrily flowers.
Hours later, off in the distance, a massive raft of clouds arose in the east. The sun was beginning to set as the rocks and hills around me took on a reddish tone with horizontal striations. An occasional pine clung to them, roots half in the dirt, half hanging into the hot air.
Passing through Needles, my original destination for the day, I still felt alright, having driven for six and a half hours. “Apparently I’m some kind of power driver,” I thought, feeling grateful for a day of rest after the hard labor of emptying my house. I stopped for gas, took a stretch, and decided to keep going for another hour to Kingman, Arizona, just past the California border.
Soon the small town appeared in the distance and the road began to ascend steeply up a cleanly carved mountain pass. The clouds I’d been heading toward were right over the desert town, and I passed into areas of virga lit by the sun. Veils of rain shifted and shimmered with the wind, falling from dark clouds and drying before they could reach the parched ground. A sign for Motel 6 speared into the dusk on a giant metal stalk. Not in the mood to be inventive, I headed for it and stopped to pick up a cold six-pack of some desert-themed beer at the nearby gas station.
As I got out of the Mini, a tiny dust devil formed around me, enclosing me for a moment in a twist of dust, leaves, bits of plastic, and a Ziploc bag. It spit me out at the door of the store as lightening flashed behind me. I felt a few drops of rain. People around me ran for the store, the whites of their eyes showing like wild horses being chased, women’s long hair flying upward.
Checking into the hotel, I was given a handicap-accessible room on the ground floor, one of the last spots available for the night. The others were upstairs, and, thinking of my sore back, I thought I’d avoid carrying things up. I turned on the grim, overhead fluorescent light inside and sighed. The energy of “handicapped” hit me like an oil-slicked, grey wave. The cavernous bathroom stood yawning open to reveal a stained tile floor and a seat in the dripping shower. All this for only $64, though!
And here I was, having driven 442 miles over about eight and a half hours. I had left California behind, its tremendous desert rocks fading away in my rear view mirror as I climbed up toward Arizona. I felt grateful to it, to all the kind people I’d left there, and to my strength in moving away. I’d spent 30 years of my life there, met my husband, and raised my child.
Settling in, I finished the other half of the Subway sandwich I’d gotten earlier in the day, cringing. It was delicious in the way the pizza last night had been—addictive, sickening, leaving you wanting more. The beers I downed with it made me feel even more disgusted with myself. Remembering my disappointing experience with TV watching in Santa Maria, I got on the hotel wifi and tuned into my current favorite show on Amazon, “Giant,” with Billy Ray Thorton. He’s so great. It’s a smart series.
I finally shut the show off and turned off the fluorescent light, still buzzing from the road and the beer. I resolved to stop drinking on the road (maybe forever, again) and to find some healthy food in Sedona, just 172 miles away, the next day. The same force that had propelled me out of California like a rocket was making new demands now.