Thursday, November 2, 2017

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

“What’s up with all the sirens?”

Hannah sits up and looks out the open door of our motel room in Barstow, California.

We’ve heard sirens every few minutes since we checked into the neon-signed, park-right-outside-your-room, the-key-is-an-actual-key motel on old Route 66. The door is open because the air conditioner blew a cloud that smelled like parmesan cheese up my daughter’s nose. She made me turn it off and open the door to get some air flowing through the stuffy, simple room.

We are on Hannah’s Big Adventure. A long time ago, I promised my kids that when they each turned sixteen I would take them on the road trip of their choice, just the two of us. Hannah is eighteen and a little overdue, but I eventually make good on most of my promises, and making good on this one has been well worth the wait.

In the past few days, Hannah and I have made our way through the Mojave Desert, down into Joshua Tree, out to the Salton Sea, and over the Rim of the World Byway in San Bernardino Forest. We’ve waved at train engineers, browsed outdoor desert art galleries, hiked over rocks and trails, and held our breath as the sun set the ground on fire every evening. We’ve played bongos under a Joshua tree (okay, that was just me), communed with Chinese lions in the desert, and wondered who might have lived and died in the abandoned places we’ve explored. We've braved high winds dusted with egg farts to climb a painted mountain, driven slowly through a dead, drugged out, and desolate seaside town, slept in sketchy motels, and sung along to a road trip medley worthy of movie montage magic.

For me, the highlight of our adventure thus far has been visiting the dinosaurs at Cabazon. Hannah and I share a love for PeeWee Herman, and the dinos were featured in his own Big Adventure back when I was a teenager. I have wanted to see them ever since, and could not have wished for a better companion when I finally did. As we approached the massive T-Rex, my heart skipped rope inside my chest. A few moments later, I felt the onset of warm tears clearing the desert sand from my eyes when Hannah asked me to take a photo of her hugging its leg.

Hannah isn’t often willing to stand on that side of the lens, which is ironic because she carries with her more cameras than a Japanese tour bus. Most of them are film cameras she has acquired from flea markets, garage sales, and online classifieds. And then there’s the Polaroid. It weighs more than a newborn wrapped in a wet towel and it looks like a Soviet satellite that fell to Earth, but Hannah loves it. She only pulls it out to capture the most breathtaking vistas, the oddest of places, and people whose memory will matter to her. It means a lot to be framed within the thin white border of a Hannah Polaroid. This trip has boasted quite a few of those framings, and that brings more than a small amount of happiness to my heart.

More sirens sound out in Barstow. Hannah begins to Google.

“Dad, where the hell have you brought us? Do you know how high the murder rate is in this town?” She asks, knowing full well that I don’t.

“Is it high?” I ask, distracted by road trip television.

“Only four percent of American cities are more dangerous than Barstow, California!” Hannah reads aloud.

More sirens outside.

“We are going to die.” Hannah declares.

I chuckle in reply.

“Shut and lock the damn door, now!” My daughter orders.

I climb off my bed and walk over to the door, and then watch as a late model Audi pulls up to the room next to ours. Four of the whitest people I have ever seen (and I live in Utah) clamber out, laughing and chatting away, unaware that they will all surely be dead by morning.

I close the door and turn back to find Hannah pointing at the bathroom door.

“Did you lock the bathroom window?”

I cross to the bathroom and slide the tiny window shut. The “lock” is a piece of pvc pipe cut to fit the window trough and keep the window from sliding open. I show it to Hannah, who is not amused.

“Why are we even in this dump of a motel in downtown Murder City, California?” she wonders aloud.

“Relax, this is all part of the road trip experience. Caleb and I stayed in some pretty sketchy places on his trip. It’s part of the thrill, part of the adventure. You’ll have something to tell people,” I assure her.

“How can I tell anyone when I’m dead?” she counters, but there is the hint of a smile in her voice.

“Just go to sleep, then you won’t see it coming,” I joke.

We sit in bed eating snacks and watching terrible television. Hannah drifts off to sleep some time later, and only then do I settle into my pillow to follow suit. I leave the TV on; it fills the room with dancing blues and whites, and provides background noise to mask the occasional siren.

A tiny meowing wakes me the next morning. I lay in bed for a while, wondering if I imagined the sound. Soon I am checking email and thinking about the adventures in Vegas we have planned for the day.

Hannah stirs.

“You’re alive!” I exclaim with glee.

Another tiny meow sounds outside our door. Hannah bolts from her bed. The murderous dangers of Barstow are forgotten as she rips the door open and blinks in the bright morning light.

Three hours, a little milk, and a can of cat food purchased at the local grocery store later, and we still haven’t managed to catch the scrawny little source of the meowing. Not for lack of trying, of course; Hannah has managed to coax it out from under car after car, and we’ve chased it through the rusting tools and car parts scattered about the motel property, almost getting a caring hand on the kitten more than once. She’s a slippery little baby and very shy, however, and she escapes us with a taunting meow every time. We are dirty, sweaty, and late, but we are determined.

Hannah’s love for the poor creature is infectious, and I am unwilling to admit defeat and demand that we get on our way and leave the kitten to work out its own survival. My daughter, a feisty little girl with an iron will and deep dimples, has grown up into a feisty woman with an iron will and a deep love for anything with life pulsing through its frame, no matter how small. Just a couple of days ago, as we drove through the Mojave Desert, she noticed a fly buzzing around inside the car. Rather than let me shoo it away through an open window, Hannah placed a tiny piece of mango on the keyboard of her Macbook and watched over that little fly like a proud mother as it fed for over an hour.

Loving animals isn’t just the flavor of the month for this girl.

When I was a teenager, I fell in love with wolves, and decided that I would save them. I bought a “Save the Wolf” tee shirt from the Sierra Club, and wore it more often than anyone should wear anything other than their own skin. I read everything written on the beautiful, mysterious, and misunderstood animals that were threatened with extinction, and wondered what I could do to help. I meant well, but I was a useless ally; all I managed to accomplish was to paste their images across my bedroom walls and buy a James Taylor album with a picture of a howling wolf on the cover. I did, however, consider the movie “Never Cry Wolf” to be a training video for my life as a northern explorer and wolf advocate, and I hoped that one day I too would run naked through the wilderness with a wolf pack of my own.

When the Exxon Valdez ran aground and dumped millions of gallons of crude oil into the ocean off the coast of Prince William Sound, Alaska, I declared with righteous indignation that Exxon would never again get their hands on one red cent of my hard-earned money. (Not that I had ever spent a red cent on their gas anyway, because Exxon was always the most expensive gas around and I didn’t have that much hard-earned money.) Notwithstanding my financial situation, I took to waving a middle finger out the window of my ’72 Chevy Nova whenever I drove past an Exxon station, a very rebellious act for a dorky teenager that never swore.

One day I happened to be riding with my girlfriend’s family on our way to the beach. As her father pulled the van into the local Exxon to gas up, I threw the side door open and leaped from the moving van, desperate to demonstrate my burning white hatred for wolf-killing corporate greed. I stood on the curb, watching from afar with great gobs of disgust as my girlfriend’s father pumped profits into the coffers of my nemesis.

That was as far as I ever took my love for the wolves; “reason” eventually outpaced my desire to live up north and run naked with my beloved wolves. Someone else managed to save them, however, for which I am grateful.

Hannah has already proven herself faster than me when it comes to racing against reason.

Back in Murder City, USA, while Hannah devises another strategy to catch the kitten, I make my way to the motel office to turn in our room key.

“Allan is very upset with you and your daughter,” the tiny woman at the front desk tells me.


“Our handyman,” she says, turning and pointing out the window at an old man leaning against an old Ford.

Allan’s arms are folded across his chest, and a frown masks his face.

“Why is he upset?” I ask the woman.

“He has been leaving food out for that little kitten. He wants her to be his cat,” she explains.

I thank her, leave the office, and approach Allan.

“I hear you’ve been feeding that kitten,” I say without introduction.

Allan shrugs his reply.

“My daughter Hannah loves animals, and she can’t bear the thought of that poor thing being left to fend for itself. We can't leave this town until she know it will be loved and cared for. If we buy some food and leave it with you, will you see that the kitten is cared for?” I ask, a heavy dose of friendly in my tone.

Allan looks up at me and shrugs again. “Sure, I guess,” he says, perking up a bit.

Thirty minutes later, after an impromptu shopping spree, we return to hand Allan a month’s supply of food, two silver feeding bowls, a box of fish flavored treats, and a soft little cat bed. Allan beams as much as I imagine he probably ever has.

“I’ve got some worming medicine in my room that I bought at the pet store. I want to give it to her as soon as she is big enough and I can get her to trust me enough to hold her,” he offers, a mix of pride and concern in his voice.

“That’s nice, I’m glad she has someone to love her,” I say, meaning it.

Hannah and I are all smiles as we watch Allan place the bed outside the door of his room. He fills one of the bowls with fresh water and the other with a hefty portion of cat treats.

“Did you manage to get close enough to see if she was a girl?” Allan turns and asks Hannah.

“I got close, but I couldn’t tell,” Hannah answers.

“I’ll have to get her spayed if she is,” he replies.

I shake Allan’s hand and thank him for his kindness. He nods and turns away, bashful and embarrassed. I get the feeling that Allan is unaccustomed to praise and attention, and maybe even love. I watch as he turns and picks up a rake. He disappears behind a fence, and a moment later I can hear the rake scratching at the dirt.

Hannah and I climb into the car and pull away from the little motel. My road trip plans for the day are a wash, and I haven't eaten a thing all day, but I don’t care. As we leave Murder City and head north into the desert, my stomach rumbles and my heart skips rope.         

Run Hannah, run.

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