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Where there's smoke
The road trip is off to an ominous start
My long-anticipated road trip has begun! And, in true 2020 fashion, nothing has gone according to plan.
In a whirlwind nine days I landed in Las Vegas, drove to Los Angeles, then back to Vegas, and finally back to LA. I saw some friends and family, unpacked my boxes shipped from New York, and painstakingly repacked one suitcase with three months’ worth of clothes. (Packing just four pairs of shoes was the hardest part. My leopard print-boots and magenta platforms are now hibernating in my mother’s closet.) I kissed Minerva goodbye 100 times. And I drove to my cousin Adam’s house in Chino, California at 7am on Wednesday morning to pick up the car.
Adam’s Honda Civic is named Letty, after our late grandmother Leticia. Letty was a steadfast friend for him on his own monthslong USA road trip a couple of years ago. Now, Adam’s entrusting me to her care—“She will protect you,” he told me.
My uncle, a devout Catholic, blessed both me and Letty with holy water and gave me an image of Mother Mary to keep in the car. “Talk to her every morning,” he said. Mom had gifted me a new journal and a pen filled with rose quartz crystals. My godmother Nancy gave me an emergency bottle of wine to keep in the trunk, plus a bottle opener, “a road essential.” My dad wrote me a “just in case” check. Sam mailed me a soft T-shirt to sleep in from the band Lucius, who we saw perform five times together in NYC. My friend Stephanie surprised me with a car power adapter that I will use every day. I was sent off with so much care.
I drove off toward an ominous sky. The dark smoke from a fire just over the foothills marked the first hour; after that the smoke thinned, but remained, until I reached Sacramento eight hours later. I arrived by 3:45pm at Nancy’s house, which she had graciously offered up to me as a stopping point even though she wouldn’t be there. Her husband, Chris, and I caught up for hours about plants, careers and the state of the world over some wine and tamales before I fell into bed. Pictures of Nancy’s children and she and my mother embracing covered the walls, comforting me.
I awoke early to check on the state of the fires and was on the road by 7:30am. The plan was to stay a night in Newberg, Oregon at the home of a longtime friend, but sadly when I texted her she told me her home was now in an evacuation zone. (She’s since let me know she and her home are okay.) Since I was 750 miles away from my first destination of Seattle, I decided to try to make it through Oregon, past the biggest fires, and keep driving till the smoke cleared up.
That never happened.
On the road I saw:
-A lot of cows, horses and some sheep. (I was reminded of this perfect tweet.)
-Silly statues, like a waving Minion, that seem to be put there simply for the enjoyment of thousands of passing drivers to see every day.
-Several “Farmers for Trump” signs, often accompanied by Christian signs beckoning me to Jesus. I wonder why it is I never see liberal causes advertised in this homegrown way.
-People injured or in trouble. A motorcyclist was lying on a stretcher on a median, his tan bike laid out on the grass next to him. Several people were perilously stopped along the side of the highway connecting jumper cables, changing tires. A burned-out semi laid abandoned on the side of the road. Colorful crosses memorialized those who’d crashed and died on the same roads I traveled now. These served as important reminders of my mortality, to help me stay alert.
-Throughout Oregon signs along the freeways read “No parking, tow zone,” which made me laugh.
-The charred remains of old fires. A large swath of Shasta Forest in Northern California (the only area I stopped in where hardly anyone wore masks) had been burned away some time ago; fresh grass grew beneath the blackened trees, still standing tall, like Jack Skellington. At one point I could see where a helicopter had dumped red flame retardant over the freeway and onto the roof of the roadside Best Western.
-A well-stocked fruit stand where I was the only customer. After a sad Subway sandwich lunch from a gas station I wandered over and purchased peaches, gummy bears, and dried habas (beans!) smothered in lemon and chili.
-A neon-orange sun, the color of a faraway Star Wars planet, obscured by smoke. While my eyes itched and I smelled the odor of burning wood, I snuck glances to my left to see it.
By 7:30pm I’d made it to St. Helens, Washington. Near exhaustion and with no end to the smoke in sight, I pulled over at the closest Best Western. No vacancy. The Motel 6 was also full, plus three other nearby hotels. I’d figured it would be easy to find a Covid-era place to stay, but I hadn’t counted on tens of thousands of fire evacuees to also need housing at the same time I did. I sat in my car and decided to use the app Hotel Tonight to book something so I didn’t have to blindly drive from hotel to hotel. The nearest vacancy was at a hotel in Kelso, forty minutes away. I sighed and booked it, knowing I could make the drive with the destination in mind.
After 12 hours of driving and depleted of energy, my mind started going to some dark places on this drive, the last push of my day. But I caught myself in a negative thought spiral and decided to correct it. I talked to myself: “You’ve done a great job today, and you’re almost there. So many people are thinking of you and rooting for you. Soon you’ll be able to rest, and this is just the beginning of an exciting, beautiful time in your life.” It really, really helped.
Finally, I safely parked at the hotel. I dragged my body inside to check in, only to be told that Hotel Tonight had mistakenly sold me the room, and there were no vacancies. I was crestfallen. Now it was 8:30pm, I was truly exhausted, and the later it got the less likely I would be to find a room. I was facing a worst case-scenario of having to drive 126 miles to Seattle (an unsafe option for someone known for falling asleep in cars like a milk-drunk baby), or sleeping in my car (also not safe).
I zombie-shuffled over to the Super 8 behind the hotel. I took a deep breath and asked the receptionist if there was an open room; she said no. I gripped the counter with both hands and hung my head. “I’m having a rough one,” I told her. Something in my desperation stirred her—she made a phone call, muttered something about “Well he’s not here yet so I guess he’s not coming…” and gave me a room. Huzzah! I thanked her profusely, went up to my simple room, ate a Taco Time burrito while watching Bravo, and passed out.
I awoke once more to what looked like thick fog, but was actually poisonous smoke. I sipped on coffee and rewatched Crazy Stupid Love in bed. I wrote the lifesaver receptionist, Jessica, a thank you-note. When I hopped back in the car at 10:15am to head to Seattle, I was refreshed and hopeful. I was on my way to a city I love to see people I adore. I’d be able to rest for a week, do some more trip planning, and hopefully escape the fires.
Two-plus hours later I arrived in Seattle, cloaked in smoke. Twenty-two hours of driving through three states had offered no reprieve from the wide-reaching creep of chaos and global warming.
I’ve loved my time here in Seattle so far, even if it’s all been spent inside. I’m staying in my friend Jens’ seaside cottage in the Ballard community. It is idyllic. I spent the weekend enjoying the company of Jens’ wife, Adrienne, and their giant dog Koa, who live next door. I’ve eaten homecooked meals of quiche and wings and gnocchi and beef and broccoli accompanied by gin and whiskey cocktails; we talked for hours and played Taboo and said good morning to each other from our decks. It feels like sitcom living. I picked apples and grapes from Jens’ yard and ate them with pleasure. I slept deeply as freight trains passed by on the nearby bridge and cherished stillness.
Last night it briefly rained—I welcomed its soothing sound as I laid in bed, imagining the droplets as absorbent energy, washing away the fires and soaking up the smoke, making everyone safe. Today, I hesitantly opened up my windows. There it was—a faint vision of blue sky permeating through the smoke, some slow-moving clouds.
By 11am, the smoke enshrouded the earth once more.
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