We’d always talked about taking a road trip, you and I. But it seemed that one thing after another conspired to get in the way. I had commitments, you had business trips, there were holidays, family birthdays, walls to be painted, projects to be completed, and piles of work to be done.
So when our house of tarot cards came tumbling down despite the best of predictions, I decided to take fate into my own hands and hit Route 66, all by my lonesome.
A friend on a traveling nursing assignment in Kingman, Ariz., offered the perfect excuse.
“Come’on and visit,” she said. “It’s hotter than hell here, but the accommodations are clean and free, and the drive will do you good. What you really need right now is a little fresh air between your ears.”
I wouldn’t describe myself as super-spontaneous, and usually that impulse control acts in my favor, but I could feel that I was mired in the mud, spinning my wheels.
I tried to imagine where a solo road trip would fit into Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ stages of grief.
Would it be denial to take off, pretending that the chapter of my life with you hadn’t just snapped shut on my hand?
Or was it finally a sign of acceptance – a welcoming of the uncertainties of the open road and the endless white line stretched out in front of me?
I ran through all of this in my head, and finally decided I was spending way too much of my time and energy thinking about a woman who was gone (that would be you again) and places I had never been.
I knew I could fix one of these in a broken heartbeat.
I spent some time that evening assembling some music for the trip. Every good road trip has to have a soundtrack, right?
Then I got up early the next morning, watered the plants, checked the balance in my bank account, and threw some stuff into a REI duffle bag. On the way out of town I stopped in at the local garage and had the oil changed in my car. You know that every time I take the Mustang in there, the guy at the counter offers to buy her from me. This visit was no different.
“Oh, I couldn’t do that to you,” I said, shaking my head sadly. “It just wouldn’t be fair to either of us. She’s red and flashy, but completely unable to make a commitment. She’d break your heart. I’m just one in a long line of women who have driven her. Eventually everyone gives up in frustration. I’ve had her take turns that weren’t on my route, and come to a complete stop when I least expected it. She requires constant attention. Hell, I have to come in here each time I plan to drive her more than a hundred miles. She’s the most self-absorbed woman I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.”
And as always, he smiled like the lovesick teenager he is. “Well, when she’s ready . . . I mean when you’re ready, you know where to find me,” he said, handing me my keys.
There are a lot of memories in this car. I brought Ripley home in this car when he was a puppy. I’ve moved at least three times in this car. You can pack an awful lot of stuff into a convertible when the top’s down.
And of course, there are memories of you in this car. You drove her as much as I did, and I’m sure there’s nothing in the interior I can touch that you haven’t touched too, especially in the backseat. I’m sure you remember the time we drove to the coast to watch the sunset. We were kissing long and deep like a Hollywood movie, when somehow we ended up back there. Ostensibly we were just huddled together trying to keep warm, but one thing led to another, and pretty soon my shirt was off and you had somehow lost a shoe with your foot dangling over the side. As I remember, you kicked it away at the very moment of your climax, your eyes, focused on mine in the dimming light, suddenly widening as you realize it had gone flying. You were panting and laughing at the same time.
We were still laughing about it the next day, about how you drove home with just one shoe. But it really bugged you, so you drove back out to the coast that afternoon, searching until you found it. A whole afternoon spent on a Converse sneaker. You were always a little over-concerned with your shoes.
I was hoping that this long drive with my top down would blow the scent of you right out of my backseat.
I double checked my map with its big squiggly capital “L” that I’d drawn… first a drive down the coast on Coast Highway One, then a big left turn in Santa Monica, right onto old ’66 herself.
I pulled out onto the road, fired up the stereo and started heading south on 101.
Chris Webster’s “Candy Bars and Freedom” poured out of my speakers:
Get in the car, don’t look back.
Get in the fast lane, get on the inside track
When you’ve gone a hundred miles, have yourself a candy bar.
I never thought you’d get this far.
This for real. You won’t be back.
This is the last time, (s)he’ll hurt you like that.
When you’ve gone two hundred miles, stop for something cool.
You’re feeling more like a woman and less like a fool…
The wind blew through my hair, carrying a hint of the fog that hunkered down over the western hills. I reached for my sunglasses and tipped my face up toward the sun. There was a cold Te Java in a cooler on the floorboards, and a handful of those fruit and nut bars we both like in the glove box. I’d knew I’d be in Santa Barbara by nightfall.
It’s sweet like candy bars and freedom.
It’s so good to feel good again.
The next morning was a little surreal. I awoke in Santa Barbara to the sound of gulls and what the poet Mary Oliver would call the “pale pink morning light”. It took me a moment to remember where I was, how I had gotten there, and where I was headed.
Yesterday’s drive down the coast was already fading into a haze of wind and music. I hugged my knees into my chest and thought about the day in front of me, as I stretched my back.
The little coffee maker on the counter did a fine job of heating up water for tea. And then, breathing in the jasmine-scented steam that rose off my mug, I pulled back the drapes and looked out into the morning.
I know you would probably think it silly that I spent such a chunk of change for a room I’d only be in until the 11 a.m. checkout time, but let me tell you — when I pulled open the sliding door and stepped on to the patio, and then onto the soft, night-cooled sand beyond it — I realized that my impulsive lodging decision the night before had been worth every cent.
The sun rising over the hills behind me reflected off the water. I found myself leaning against the rough trunk of an honest-to-goddess palm tree, mesmerized by the waves. I know we spent lots of time at the ocean up north, you and I. But let me tell you, the water in Santa Barbara looked so blue and soft compared to our pounding coastline, that it was hard to believe I was only seven hours from home.
I took a sip of my hot tea and sighed. It was early and I thought I was alone on the beach until I noticed a group of construction workers waving from the roof of a nearby hotel. I looked around me to see what they were so interested in, and then realized that I was wearing only a thin and shrunken Mills College t-shirt and a skin-colored thong. I had been so entranced by the perfection of the morning that I hadn’t realized I’d wandered outside barely dressed, even by beach standards. I flushed, realizing that from where they stood, staring, I probably looked completely bare-assed. So I raised my middle finger to the group, provoking laughter, and headed back into my room to the sound of their applause.
Later, appropriately dressed, I found breakfast in the form of an egg and cheese burrito, and with my second cup of tea — genmaicha this time — I wandered down the beach. As I threw the remnants of my breakfast to the gulls, watching them pile on each other, wings flapping, as they fought for the scrap, I though about how you always called them “beach rats”. Remember the time we set our picnic basket down on Baker Beach and went for a walk, only to return and discovered the gulls had raided it and were having a party at our expense? The look on your face was worth the price of the Cowgirl Creamery cheese we lost.
I was bummed to say goodbye to Santa Barbara as I pulled Mustang Sally onto the road and headed south. I made myself a promise that’d I’d make a point of visiting again soon. I would have liked to stay another day or two, but just 75 miles south of here, I’d make a left turn onto Route 66 and head toward Kingman.
At the first stoplight in town, I dug around in my music case, looking for something that would match the mellow vibe of this last section of coastline. I came up with Lucinda William’s new cd “West”. Somehow Lucinda has a way of meeting my moods and I knew she’d understand this trip and my need to tell this whole story to you. So, I flipped to “I’m Learning How To Live,” and turned up the volume and began to sing along:
I’m learning how to live – without you – in my life.
I’m learning how to live – without you– in my life.
I’ll take the best of what you had to give.
I’ll make the most of what you left me with.
I’m learning how to live.
They say the best is still yet to come,
but the taste of you is still on my tongue.
I can’t forget and I won’t even try
to erase your image and the way you made me cry.
I’m learning how to live.
As I tooled on down the coast, I switched to the CD I’d made especially for my launch onto Route 66.
David Frizelle and Shelly West poured out of my speakers:
Oh, the Santa Monica freeway
sometimes makes a country girl blue.
You’re the reason God made Oklahoma,
and I’m still missing you.
I know how you hate country music. I think that’s part of its appeal.
But by the time I actually drove into Santa Monica, Shery Crow was singing to me and I was bopping along behind the wheel:
All I wanna do is have some fun
I got a feeling I’m not the only one
All I wanna do is have some fun
I got a feeling I’m not the only one
All I wanna do is have some fun
Until the sun comes up over Santa Monica Boulevard.
I maneuvered Sally into a parking place and got out to stretch my legs. The air smelled sweet and salty, like cotton candy and ocean air, or like those butter toffee pistachios you love.
I found a tea shop and took my cup of organic monkey-picked oolong outside to a cafe table. I’m not sure if the monkeys were organic, or if the tea was, but how much can it all matter after monkeys have run their little simian fingers through your tea leaves?
The scene, with a backdrop of beach, looked like a movie set. Skinny blond girls walked impossibly tiny dogs, and a guy in a Speedo, on roller skates, actually slalomed by, curving around the edge of my table. If I had stretched my arm out at the wrong moment, I could have castrated him. I sipped my tea and took it all in, enjoying the sun on my face.
When my cup was empty – my third for the day – I walked along the storefronts. I found a veggie burrito for lunch – my second of the day – and, when I was done, tossed the butt-end of it to the same gulls that had fought over my breakfast. I’m sure they followed me down from Santa Barbara, singing along with my stereo.
Finally, back in the car, I pulled out my stapled sheaf of maps, printed off the Historic 66 website, and blew a kiss to the ocean as I turned inland.
I skipped the CD player forward to “Mustang Sally” and we headed out of town.
All you have to do is ride around Sally.
Ride Sally, ride.
Some day I’d like to drive the full length of Route 66, but for now I’d have to settle for this express trip to Kingman.
Traveling music and traveling clothes. I’d put together a special driving outfit today – my favorite jeans, a white undershirt, and a faded denim shirt I’ve had since the late 80s. The shirt sort of transcends fashion and the chambray color, echoing the day’s sky, complemented my eyes, or so I like to think. My black Tony Lama boots always give me firm footing on the gas pedal, and a certain attitude I just can’t get from other footwear.
Somewhere between Santa Monica and Barstow, the CD player switched over to that CD you’d made me. Damn, I’d forgotten it was in there. There was a time when I’d listened to it obsessively, especially the last four or five songs, until I’d worn a smooth place on the disc. But this time, when Gladys Knight broke into “Midnight Train to Georgia,” I hit the eject button and sailed it out of the car into the dry California desert.
Barstow was everything I’d expected. I think that about says it all.
On the east edge of town, I stopped to get some gas, and was delighted to find the gas station sold Mexican Cokes, the kind made with real sugar instead of high-fructose corn sludge. If you’ve never had a Coca-Cola that was made in Mexico, grab one the next time you can. I guarantee you it’ll taste like your childhood.
It was getting seriously hot in the early afternoon sun. I ran a sunscreen stick across my cheeks and nose and took off my denim shirt and threw it on the front seat.
In honor of the Coke, Girlyman provided the soundtrack to this leg of the trip, as I cued up “Postcards from Mexico”:
When you slammed through my life
like a screen door in a hurricane wind
all I could think was how to find you again.
Remember the first time we heard them play at that funky little studio out in the middle of an apple orchard in Sebastopol?
Baby, you’re great on the highway.
Baby, you’re great on the highway.
You know how to make an escape.
(This desperation to pack up and move on and see)
(You’re cold hearted. You’re lonesome and shady.)
You leave us crying over postcards from Mexico
Baby, you’re never far enough away.
You leave us crying over postcards from Mexico
Baby, you’re never far enough away.
In Amboy, I stopped at Roy’s for a milkshake. I was still pretty sugared up from my Mexican Coke, but I just couldn’t pass up this 1950′s icon.
The hum of the air conditioning merged with the 1950s soundtrack playing in the background.
I slid my glass around in the wet spot the condensation had made on the formica tabletop and fought the urge to blow the paper cover off my straw into the middle of the room.
A glass case behind the register displayed the house speciality: An “I got my kicks at Roy’s” t-shirt with the Route 66 logo. I’ve never been much of one for silly t-shirts, but I knew how much you’d love this one, so I bought size large, in orange, and threw it in the trunk.
By the time Sally and I rolled onto the highway, I was buzzing on a sugar high and I barely noticed Needles as we passed on through.
Listen, you know how I am. Sugar in me is like scotch in hairy old men. Enough of it and I think I’m the funniest thing on the planet and am willing to try anything once, even alone.
So I guess this is where my travelogue begins to get a little more interesting. You were wondering where this is going, right?
Well, somewhere in the Mohave desert between Needles and Kingman, I got the bright idea to take off my shirt.
It was a pretty lonely stretch of road, it was still hot and sunny, and I was in a convertible. I hadn’t pulled this stunt since college, but “what better time?” I thought to myself. First I slid my bra straps out from under my tank top and then I slipped my arms out, one at a time. I twisted the fastener around to the front, unhooked it with my right hand and hung my bra on my rear view mirror, amusing the hell out of myself.
Finally, I glanced around to make sure I was truly alone on the road and then I slipped my undershirt over my head. My heart was racing and I was laughing my ass off, all by myself in the car.
I have to admit, the air blowing through my hair and over my breasts felt awfully good after a hot day in the car. When I caught a glimpse of myself in the rear view mirror, laughing, happy, and topless in my Ray-bans, I decided I needed a picture to preserve this moment.
(And I’ll confess now, I was toying with the idea of sending it to you as a little reminder of what you’re missing.)
I dug around in the glove box and came up with my cell phone. I turned it on and waited for the photo viewfinder. And then, driving topless along Route 66 at 60 miles an hour, I proceeded to try and take my own picture. I heard my phone make the shutter noise, but out in the sunlight, I couldn’t tell what sort of pictures I was taking, so I tried a couple of different angles, smiling at the camera, looking serious, glasses on, glasses on top of my head, and one of just my tits, for good measure.
Admittedly, I wasn’t paying much attention to the road, so the lights and siren behind me took completely by surprise. I tossed the cell phone on the seat and scrambled around for my denim shirt as I pulled to the shoulder.
The Arizona Highway Patrol officer slowly approached the car, giving me just enough time to slip the shirt, backwards over my bare chest.
“Everything all right, ma’am?”
The voice was deep, but female. I turned to look up at the officer, squinting into the sun.
“It looked like you were having a little trouble back there.”
“I’m sorry. I let myself get distracted. I should have been paying more attention to the road.”
The officer was broad-shouldered with a dark, tanned face. Her long hair was slicked back into a braid.
I thought I saw her fighting down a smile.
“You going somewhere?” she asked.
“Kingman,” I said. “Just until Friday or Saturday.”
“Can I see your license?’
I fumbled around looking for it in my wallet and then handed it to her.
“I didn’t know you were behind me,” I said.
“Did you see that “Welcome to Arizona” billboard back there?
“You were behind it? How very ‘Smokey and the Bandit’ of you.”
I admit, I was being a sugared-up smartass, but I was flirting a little too.
“Your shirt’s on backwards,” she said.
She was grinning outright now, white teeth flashing in the sun. I was pretty sure the heavy steel loops in her earlobes and her tragus piercings weren’t department regulation, and I couldn’t help but notice that she filled out her uniform awfully well.
“You know your tags expired at the end of last month?”
“Oh, man. I totally forgot to take care of that before I left home. That was just a couple of days ago.”
“I’m going to write you a fix-it ticket for the tags. It won’t cost you anything as long as you remember to take care of it,” she said. “I’ll be right back. Why don’t you get yourself dressed while I’m back at the car?”
I blushed red at that. I hadn’t fooled her for a moment.
“You saw that, huh?”
“I’ve got a scope on the radar gun. You put on quite a show.”
Her boots crunched in the gravel as she walked away. As I reached for my bra, I realized my nipples were as hard as the pebbles under her feet.
Now fully dressed, I heard her approach again.
She handed me the ticket pad. I signed, and she tore it off. As she reached out to hand me the ticket, I saw the tiny triangle tattoo on the inside of her wrist.
She pulled out another small piece of white paper, folded in half.
“I know this is unorthodox, but if any of those pictures turn out, this is my cell phone number.”
“Sure thing, officer,” I said.
“And, maybe on the flip side of your trip, I’ll see you at The Desert Rose,” she said. “Sometimes I’m around there on Saturday nights.”
“Where’s the Desert Rose?” I asked.
“Oh, if you’re supposed to be there, you’ll find it,” she said. “The best women always do.”
She pulled out around me and onto the highway, without so much as a wave, or a look back.
And, I pulled back onto Route 66 and headed toward Kingman.
Kingman was fine.
Actually, it was exactly as I expected.
By the time I pulled up in front of Angelina’s place, the sun had dropped below the horizon and I was squinting at my printed sheet of directions in the dark. I sat there for a moment, double-checking the address, before I realized it was still 85 degrees out. My skin was hot and sticky, and my favorite traveling shirt was a rumpled mess. With some effort, I peeled myself off the seat of the car and began to climb out into the airless night.
Everything was so quiet and still, I was wondering if I had the right place, when the porch light suddenly came on and the front door flew open. Angie stood in the light spilling out onto the front walkway. In each hand she held a tall, frosty glass with a slice of lime hanging off the rim.
“Welcome to Hell or Arizona – I’m never sure which. I’d give you a hug, babe,” she said. “But I figured on this kind of a night, you’d prefer a margarita.” And with that, she handed me a glass, kissed me on the cheek, and took my bag into the house.
I took a tiny sip and wrinkled up my nose. “Wow. This is strong. You know I don’t really drink.”
“In this weather, it’s purely medicinal,” Ange said. “Trust me – I’m a nurse. We know about these things.”
We passed straight though her house and on to the back patio. “Voila,” she said, sweeping her arm around the tiny enclosure, darn near hitting the fences. “My domain.” She had arranged a couple of lawn chairs around a plastic wading pool that took up most of the patio. A pair of tiki torches lent smoke and flickering light to the homemade ambiance.
“Take off your shoes and make yourself comfortable,” she said. “I’ll turn on the stereo.”
She ducked back into the house while I cautiously dipped my toe into the pool. The water was cold and I quickly realized it was filled with chunks of ice.
“This is awesome,” I said, when she reappeared. “It’s a big margarita for my feet.”
“Four bags of ice, baby,” she said. “Nothing’s too good for my houseguest.”
“Thank you,” I said, wriggling my toes and feeling the chill creep up my legs. “It’s sure helping to suck the heat out of me.”
“If you want to lie down in it, we can get you ready for open-heart surgery,” she said.
“Nothing there to work on. It’s already been ripped out,” I said.
We sat in the torch-light, sipping our drinks, and splashing our feet.
“How was your drive?” Ange asked.
I told her all about it, starting in Santa Barbara and ending up with my topless encounter with the hot lady Highway Patrol officer. Ange laughed until she had to hold her sides.
“You’re making this up.”
“I’ve got the pictures to prove it,” I said, pulling out my cell phone. “Look.” I turned the screen toward her and held out the phone, lit up with a picture of me, sailing down the highway, topless, with the wind in my hair, light glinting off my sunglasses.”
“Now that’s what I call a vacation photo! Let me see that.”
When I reached out to hand her the phone, I dropped it into the wading pool, and we both sat there watching it float around, buoyed by chunks of ice.
My ringtone played – just a few notes – and then the sound faded away into a electronic hum as the phone sank.
“Oh, well,” I said. “At least I won’t be tempted to send those photos to anyone.”
(And that’s the real reason you never got one.)
“Darn shame,” Ange said. “Seems like a real waste to me.”
The night didn’t seem to get any cooler as it wore on. We hung out companionably, occasionally getting up for a bathroom break, or a glass of water, but mostly just hanging out in the dark, paddling our feet around in the pool. She asked me questions about what happened with you and I, and I reconstructed it as best I could. You know, in a breakup, there are always at least two main storylines. There’s the chronological one that details who did what, or said what, to whom. And then there’s the other one where you try and figure out what the other person was thinking, what you were thinking, what made each of you act the way you did, when you did. That’s the one that changes a little bit each time you tell it, as you keep trying to figure it all out. Believe me, the chronological story is the easier one to tell.
Ange was having a field day, putting all her years of therapy to work, asking me how I felt about things now, whether I had learned anything (that I leave teacups all over the house?), and if I thought you and I could ever be friends.
“I don’t know, Ange. I really felt like she was my family, you know? But we may know too much about each other to ever be good buddies. The tension that fueled the relationship and made us good lovers – the intellectual sparring – wasn’t exactly the comfortable stuff of friendship. I pushed her too hard and was more than she wanted to deal with.”
That’ s about it, right?
When we had finally talked ourselves hoarse in the smoke, and worn ourselves out, we put out the tiki torches and headed off to bed.
“I’ll sneak out of here in the morning,” Ange said. “I’m on the day shift tomorrow, but you may not see me until late. If they weren’t short-staffed, I wouldn’t be here.”
Truthfully, I think I slept most of the time I was in Kingman. During the day, I read and napped. I practiced a little yoga in the cool hours of the morning, and took a few walks, but mostly I napped. I lived on avocados, and tomatoes, and handmade tamales from the neighborhood mercado, and gallons of iced tea. At night I slept heavily in the hot, still air.
When it was time to go, Ange carried my bag to the car.
“Thanks for letting me do nothing,” I said.
“You needed the break,” she said. “Sure you have to go already?”
“I need to get home.”
“You’re leaving so late, you’ll be driving in the dark,” she said.
“It’ll be cooler,” I said. “And I won’t be tempted to take pictures.”
We hugged our good-byes and I fired up Mustang Sally and drove off into the evening.
Truth be told, I wanted to leave in the evening, because I was hoping that somewhere out in the desert, I’d find a little excitement in the form of the mysterious Desert Rose.
Before I pulled onto Route 66, I stopped for gas and some snacks for the trip. I loaded up my cooler with bottles of water and cans of iced tea, and bought some ice to make sure everything stayed cold. The woman at the check out counter looked like she was about 60. Her silver hair was cropped close to her head, and in her short-sleeved white uniform shirt, I could see her bicep sported a large tattoo of a pink flower entangled in barbed wire.
She looked me up and down and smiled a little.
“That’ll be $11.22, sweet thing.”
I handed her the money.
“It’s a desert rose,” she said.
“That reminds me, ” I said. “Do you happen to know about a place by that name?”
“Out-of-towner, huh? I saw your California plates and the rainbow sticker. I wondered when you’d ask. The traveling girls always do. The local girls don’t have to.”
“Babe,” she said, leaning in. “The Rose is a legend.”
“You on a runaway road trip?” she asked me.
“Something like that.”
Warming up to me, she said “I’ll give you directions, but you gotta remember this… the Rose is a well-kept secret. It only blooms at night, and you’ve gotta know how to find it. No sign will point you there. You’ve gotta look for a pink rock.”
I nodded. “Pink rock.”
“It doesn’t get lively until at least 10 p.m. and it’ll take you about 45 minutes to get there from here, so plan accordingly. There’s nothing else out there.”
I looked at my watch. It was quarter to seven. “Out where?”
She pulled an old cigarette carton out from under the counter and tore off a chunk of it, then flipping it over, she drew a simple little map on the blank side.
“So when you see the abandoned gas pump, pull over to the shoulder there, or you’ll miss the road all together. It’s dirt, you see, and hard to see in the dark. Go slow so you don’t kick up dust, and after the first bend, you’ll see the lights up ahead.”
“I’ve got a few hours to kill. What should I do until then? “
She reached out and touched the sleeve of my denim shirt.
“Find yourself a sexier shirt and see a movie,” she said.
She pointed me to the mall up the road, where I had found a cineplex and a western-wear shop. I spent a little time trying on cowgirl shirts until I found the perfect white rayon shirt with pearl snaps, baby-blue piping, and embroidered pink roses. I took the bag over to the movies with me.
I know you won’t believe me when I tell you that one of the six theaters was having a special showing of Desert Hearts in memory of Jane Rule. So I happily bought a ticket and a large popcorn and sat down in the air-conditioned darkness. Even in the dim light of the theater, I realized I was surrounded by scores of women, some younger, many older, all of us together watching a movie we’d all seen before. After days of resting and licking my wounds, I suddenly felt, in some primal way, like I was back with my people.
And, you know, just like the first time I saw it, Cay stirred something in me. I swear I felt my libido twitch for the first time since you and I split up.
After the movie ended. I took the bag with the shirt to the restroom and spashed some water on my face and checked my teeth for bits of popcorn. Then I went into a stall to change. While I was in there, I heard a group of women come in, chattering about the film.
“Whoo-ee, did that bring back some memories,” said one.
“When that film came out, I was in my first semester in a Catholic college. A whole group of us trouped down to the art house to see it, mostly because the Sisters had put it on the forbidden list, and it was the first time I had seen two women kiss.”
“And look where you are now,” the first one teased.
“Well, I never did become a nun, but I still like to think I’m doing God’s work.”
I came out of the stall, tucking the shirt into my jeans.
One of the women gave a low whistle.
“Real nice shirt, babe” she said. “I like the rose motif. Will we see you there later?”
“Thank you. I think so,” I said, and turned to leave the restroom.
“Save me a dance, okay?” she called after me.
Back in the car, I followed the cashier’s directions, and headed out Route 66 back into the desert.
I check my watch. She said if I drove 65 mile per hour, for about 35 minutes, I’d be getting close. I know that translates into miles, but I didn’t feel like doing the math.
The darkening desert seemed incredibly vast and for stretches, I felt like I might be the only car on the highway. There were butterflies in my stomach, the kind I get on the way to an adventure.
I couldn’t help but wonder what you’d think of this turn my trip had taken.
I flipped on the stereo and Kirsten Price’s “Freedom” poured out:
“It’s a ride. It’s a trip.
It ain’t right if it don’t hurt just a bit.
It’s a shot in the dark. Just might mean that it don’t hit its mark.
It’s a lesson that we’ve all got to learn.
It’s a fire that’s just gotta burn…”
I was bouncing in my seat and singing along.
When the night falls and day rolls back around, don’t let it get away.
Cause it’s your time now.
What you gonna make of your freedom?”
I was having such a good time, I almost forgot to check my watch. It had been 36 minutes. I hoped to hell I hadn’t missed the road.
Seeing no one immediately behind me, I moved onto the gravel shoulder and crept down it, peering into the darkness. I saw a rock, painted bright pink, that the woman in the filling station had said to keep an eye open for. And then, I saw a dirt road headed off into the desert night.
“Well,” I thought. “Here goes.”
Slowly, I crept down the dirt road and after about 500 yards, it suddenly turned about 45 degrees to the left and went over a little rise. There in the hollow below me was ramshackle low building with a pink door. Light and music leaked out of the windows, and around the pink door. A sea of cars were parked in the surrounding dirt lot.
I parked Sally and walked toward the door.
I’ve heard about mirages in the desert, but never thought one would look like this. A stage at the far end of the room was occupied by an all-girl country band. The place was packed from edge to edge with dancing women of every shape and size. There were women in dresses, women in jeans, women in uniforms of every shape and color, women in western wear, women in shirts and ties, and women in white undershirts and baggy jeans. Femme women, butch women, and everything on the scale in between. And they were all moving together to the boom-chink, boom-chink, boom-chink of the band’s drummer.
“I thought I’d find you here,” a voice said, close to my ear, and I turned to find myself face to face with my smiling Highway Patrol officer.
“You’re out of uniform,” I said, eyeing the tight black leather vest she wore with tighter jeans.
“Since I didn’t get that photo, I figure you at least owe me a dance.”
“I dropped my phone in a wading pool,” I said.
“Lady, in my line of work I hear all kinds of excuses,” she said. “Come on.”
Taking me by the hand, she pulled me to the dance floor.
The rest of the night passed in a blur. She two-stepped me around the dance floor for a couple of songs, and then handed me off to the gas station attendant who, despite her age, could really swing. I remember dancing with both of the women from the movie theater restroom, a woman in a UPS uniform, and dozens of more women. I danced until I was sweaty and my new shirt clung to my back. I danced until I thought I’d wear holes in the soles of my boots.
I don’t think the band ever took a break. Someone handed me an unopened bottle of water, which I gratefully accepted. But no one asked my name, or what I was doing there, or what my story was. Everyone just kept calling me “babe” and asking me to dance. I didn’t sit one song out.
At the end of the night, the place cleared out quickly.
My cop friend appeared again. “Wait,” she said. “I’ll see you out.”
I waited and we walked out together. She linked her arm in mine protectively.
“Here you are,” she said, stopping at my car.
“I’d forgotten that you’d recognize it,” I said.
“It’s a cherry ride, and how could I forget?”
I blushed a little in the dark.
“Too bad you’ve got California plates. Maybe you’ll wander through these parts again.”
“It could happen,” I said.
She took me by the shoulders and kissed me slowly and gently. I felt parts of me awaken that I could have sworn were on permanent vacation.
“Think about it, okay? You’ve got my cell number.”
“I do,” I said, and kissed her another time, for good measure.
She opened my car door and helped me in.
“Drive carefully, babe.”
And with that, she was gone.
I looked at my watch. It was nearly 3 a.m. The lights were still on in the bar and there were a few cars and trucks scattered around the parking lot. I decided to shut my eyes and have a little rest before hitting the road again.
I woke to morning light streaming in my car window. It was already hot in the car and I was disoriented as I looked around the empty desert surrounding me. A bird circled overhead. At the end of the parking lot I saw an old beat-up building with a pink door. It looked completely abandoned. I swear, an actual tumbleweed rolled by.
Then I remembered what the woman had said: The Desert Rose only blooms at night.
I started my car and headed back to the highway. As I turned onto the asphalt, I noticed that the pink rock was gone.
I turned west and headed for home.
(check out Kirsten Price’s video of “Freedom”)