Avoiding The Potholes: RV Journeys In A Changing America
The names of the characters in this book have been changed to protect their privacy.
The Way People Meet
Fox and I met in 1999 by a flukish accident. I was single, and I hated it. I started visiting online singles websites. We all know (or we should know) that the internet dating world is a mad farcical gallery, a circus sideshow of fantasy and bad judgment. We do it anyway. It’s like eating fudge. After the first piece it’s disgusting but there’s no way to stop until it’s either all gone or you go into diabetic coma.
The entire process was nothing short of an addiction. It ate up hours of my day, every day. I looked at photos, exchanged emails, spoke on the phone. Once or twice a month I went on a coffee date, to check out the “chemistry”. I met teachers, lawyers, nurses, psychologists, single moms, doctors. Without exception, they were insane. They no doubt found me insane. I think we would be better off if we stopped pretending to be sane and just wore our madness like outer garments, as plainly as t-shirts. Perhaps someone should invent a temporary tattoo device to put personality profiles on our foreheads. They could be called “Realitygrams”. We could have honest and descriptive self-assessments. “ I am a narcissist with food addictions and a taste for cruel verbal “leakage” with women. I dwell excessively on my childhood abuse. I blame my mother for everything wrong with my life.”
That way everything is out on the table. The above-described man could look for a woman with a forehead saying, “I am a compulsive nurturer. I’m submissive but full of repressed rage. I cycle between anorexia and bulimia. I’m attracted to men just like my father, who could verbally cut a woman to shreds and seem as if this was doing her a great favor.”
Think of all the time and trouble to be saved! I’ve had some AWFUL dates. One night I went out with a psychiatrist who offered herself in marriage after about twenty minutes of light conversation.
“Do you want to marry me?” she asked, in all seriousness. “I need to know right now. Otherwise I’ll make other plans. I’m a catch, trust me. You’ll never regret hooking up with me. I’ll make your life glorious, I’m a fantastic woman, sexually, intellectually. I cook gourmet food. I know volumes of poetry by heart. I can fence, I play chess….”
“Why,” I asked, “are you so eager to marry me?”
“It takes genius to recognize genius,” she said. “You’re a brilliant man. I’ve read your poetry and your fiction. Your work will be read and loved centuries from now. I want to be part of that.”
There was a little red light bulb going off in my so-called judgment, beep beep beep beep. It was saying in that classic Star Trek Computer Voice, “Warning warning, attractive objects may be less attractive than they appear!” Yet there was part of me that was tempted. She was very good looking, with a glossy black helmet of shoulder-length hair. She was a socialite psychiatrist who lived in a five thousand square foot house on Twin Peaks. I thought about being supported in luxury while I played music, wrote novels. I was getting tired of poverty, the struggle to survive, the incessant tension of squeaking by on a pittance. I was actually thinking about it! I was insane to even consider it! Of course, go back a couple pages, where I make the blanket generalization that we’re all crazy. Yes, I thought about it. I knew I wouldn’t marry her! I just couldn’t fight my way through the temptation. For fifteen minutes I could not bring myself to say a clear “No.”
My hesitation made her furious.
She grew strident. Her transformation from charming to vicious was instantaneous.
“Asshole!” she rasped. “Do you have any idea what you’re passing up?” She grabbed her sweater at the waist and pulled it to her neck. Her eyes burned into mine. She showed me a perfect pair of medium sized breasts with taut little nipples.
“I…What?..You.” My mouth was full of the stones of reality. I didn’t know what to say. This woman was disappearing into psychosis. What wonderful irony!
“Take me back to my car, you fucking pussy,” she finally ordered. “I need a man who knows what he wants. You had your chance, you fat kyke.”
This is internet dating, I reminded myself. Don’t be surprised by ANYTHING, no matter how bizarre. Our world is like a locked psych-ward after the doors have been thrown open.
I drove out of Golden Gate Park and delivered my demented shrink to her Mercedes on Haight Street.
It was a period in which I frequently lost my bearings. On one occasion, lured by a beautiful photograph, I accepted a dinner invitation to a woman’s home. I would be meeting her son and a few close friends. It seemed innocent enough. It seemed Safe.
I rang the doorbell of a presentable ranch house in the North Bay. The door opened with an ominous squeak of the hinges. If I had been living in a cartoon, there would have been a sudden scream of tuneless brass from the orchestra. The apparition that confronted me would have caused my hair to stand on end, my eyes to pop out on stalks and a second ghostly figure of myself would be seen separating from my body and running away in terror.
She wore a hair net. She cradled a bottle of bourbon in her armpit. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her lips and sent swirls of smoke up into watery eyes. The makeup that was daubed on her face looked as if applied by a chimpanzee. She leered at me and smiled the ways horses laugh, with the lips flapping like huge wet paddles, showing me her oversized square yellow teeth. The photo that induced me to come to this house was of a fresh-faced blue-eyed beauty with the looks of a magazine model. If I squinted and applied considerable imagination, I could recognize the model, the svelte beauty. I had been hoist on the petard of my own shallowness!
Rather than bailing out at the first opportunity, I politely persevered. I didn’t have the heart to reject the woman outright. I have been on internet dates that lasted ten seconds. I strode into the coffee shop, recognized my date by her description. I sat down. My date stood up as if she was on the other end of a seesaw.
“Nope, not my type,” she said. She pivoted and walked away. That’s all. It happened to me twice! Had the date lasted ten seconds? It depends when the clock started. When I walked in the door? Or when I sat down?
These ladies were black belts in internet dating. They took me down, bam! I’m not like that. I would never do that.
There were a dozen or so people about the house. Something illicit was going on in a rear bedroom, where the door opened periodically to swallow people. When they emerged there was a glitter about their eyes, a skewed smile, a naughty wink. When I was invited, I declined. I hadn’t come to this place to get loaded on the buzz of the day.
I protected myself by spending time with the son of my hostess. He was eleven and had a set of drums. I made my living as a drummer for a few years. I showed him how to play some rudiments and easy swing rides on the cymbal. He wanted to play blasting heavy metal music and wasn’t very impressed. He demonstrated his playing by thrashing at the drums with fanatic uncoordinated rage. I took my turn again and started doing Gene Krupa licks, and this was more to his liking. He could relate to the primitive, to the boomboombity boom.
He had a sad resigned look on his face. His dad was nowhere, his mom was a decaying alcoholic, his home a location for drug parties. He was not having an easy childhood. He had a Marine Corps haircut, the kind that looks like an oval piece of office carpeting glued to the top of his head. He had pimples, a few missing teeth. I could see the thug he would be in four or five years.
I digress. The story of how I met Fox goes like this: Fox kept her laptop at her best friend’s house. In the course of my online meet ‘n’ greets, I had corresponded briefly with this best friend, and my name had gone into her Buddies List. There was a small problem, because it wasn’t her computer and it wasn’t her Buddies List.
Fox was a deeply reserved woman in the midst of an unspeakably abusive marriage.
The computer was with her best friend because Fox’s husband spied on everything she did. He scanned her computer, listened to her phone calls, brazenly read her mail. Her best friend’s place was the only refuge she knew. She had to embezzle her own money to buy a second laptop. It stayed at the best friend’s house; it was her only private expression.
The next time she signed on to AOL, she saw my name on her Buddies List. “Who is this?” she asked her friend. “Have you been using my computer?”
“I’m sorry,” was the reply. “I couldn’t resist. I hate sharing a computer with Tom.” That was her son. “He’s always playing video games, I never get online.” She looked at my name on the Buddies List.
“That’s just some guy I’ve been chatting with.”
Fox was really angry. She sent me an email and requested that her screen name be removed from my computer’s Buddies List, and she would remove mine from hers. I don’t really remember, truth be told, how the first email morphed into several more emails. Soon we were regular correspondents. Then we started talking on the phone. Then we arranged to meet.
It was impossible to anticipate how profoundly we would alter one another’s lives.
I was looking out over the mesa and talking aloud to myself. A hot wind was blowing bits of sand and dust into my eyes. Squinting, I wiped my eyes with my sleeves and protected my face by watching the sunset under the palms of my hands.
Suddenly I remembered a time some thirty years ago when my father had spoken those same words to me. Dad seldom spoke harshly. I had good reason to remember the moment.
I had been granted use of the family Chrysler on a Friday night, for three hours. When I arrived home, fifty six hours later, I probably gave the impression that my eyes were spinning in different directions. I had checked in by phone once in all that time, and I said something like, “Everything’s okay dad, the dust motes are really colorful and pretty soon the sun will know my name. I’ll see you later.”
The car was fine, but I was stumbling over imaginary boulders that were actually little pieces of gravel. I hadn’t quite come down yet.
My father, normally a calm man, was disappointed, frightened and furious. He asked me what I had been doing for the last two and a half days. Rather than be honest, I shrugged and used a sulky whine that is the male adolescent’s indication of utter witlessness.
“Uhhh, I don’t know,” I said, fidgeting and not meeting his eyes. “Guess I just lost track of time.”
Ordinarily, when in trouble, I could improvise convincing deceptions. I was exhausted, I couldn’think! I knew this was pretty weak, but I had no idea how to confess to my dad that psychotropic drugs were involved. I didn’t know how to explain why my friend and I had just finished burying a bust of Beethoven in his mother’s rose garden. We had spent a prolonged LSD weekend in his parents’ big empty house. All through the night, whenever we gazed at the composer’s frowning lips and fiery eyes we felt scolded, accused. The bust of Beethoven looked completely and convincingly alive. He scowled down upon us like a disapproving parent.
“What’s wrong with you, Ludwig?” I implored, several times. “Will you cut it out? You look really pissed off.”
He replied in German, which was just as well. Finally, we dug a hole, took the bust off the mantelpiece and put Beethoven under two feet of fertilizer. After that, we felt much better.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know,” dad riposted. “You KNOW… you just can’t tell me without making yourself look like a fool.” He was pretty right about that. It was the mid sixties and my dad knew what was happening. Without having to be told in explicit detail, just by inspecting me closely, he surmised what I had been doing and said, simply, “How could you be so stupid?”
The words hurt. I wanted my father’s respect. I knew he was right.
I was sixteen then, fifty two years old now, and I was as disappointed with myself as my father had been all those years ago.
Again, I answered weakly.
“I just didn’t know,” I replied to this dad-voice of memory, “I didn’t think it through, I thought it would be easy. I thought we could do this, one- two- three.”
The “thing” that I thought we could do, one- two- three, was go camping in Utah in the middle of July. The temperature was well over a hundred, there wasn’t a spot of shade, we were isolated and in trouble.
Okay, I was stupid. I had led myself, and my wife, down a certain famous creek without a method of propulsion. (There is, by the way, a real place called Shit Creek. It’s in Ireland.)
We were absolutely the worst campers in the world. We were camping at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong equipment. We were dog sick. Our heads were aching, our joints felt like someone had poured hot glue into every ligament.
Aside from the suffocating heat, we were at nine thousand feet and were suffering a dose of altitude sickness that we were too naive to recognize as such.
We had arrived late the previous afternoon. With considerable struggle, we set up the tent in the middle of the desert near Moab, Utah. We ate while we watched the sun set over the buttes and the vast sandy wastes. Then we reveled in the beautiful star-lit night. We had done it, we had arrived!
By ten the next morning we were completely miserable.
We had driven from the west coast, pushing hard across Nevada, traversing Utah’s Great Basin. We traveled on a mix of coffee and adrenaline, eating hideous truck stop food. Our car’s air conditioner insulated us from the desert reality outside. We had no clue what awaited us.
Then it hit us like a hammer. Heat, exhaustion, altitude, bad food, long hours of driving. It was a deadly combination.
At that moment we felt helpless. Outside the tent, there was choking dust, a torrid wind, and smoke from Colorado forest fires. Add to these miseries the existence of ten billion tiny white gnats, enough to get into every crack and orifice. We had arrived during some kind of hatching phenomenon. The bugs were frenzied with pheromones, they gathered in great opaque clouds, which drifted towards our tent until we were lost in a storm of little white insects.
The next day they would abruptly disappear.
It was probably a hundred twenty inside the tent. Occasionally, I would stick my head outside, and find it even worse. The sun made me so dizzy I couldn’t stand up. I prayed for a cool breeze, something to change this sense of stifling malady. I didn’t have the strength to be outside, nor did I have the strength to endure being inside. Fox and I dragged our sleeping mats to the tent’s door and lay there, half in, half out, turning ourselves every now and then to alternate head and feet.
“I think I’m going to die”, Fox said.
She was the color of an old bed sheet. She was serious.
“Do you want me to do something? Find an emergency room?”
Fox thinks she’s going to die four or five times a year. I knew she would refuse. She has a serious phobia of doctors. She would rather die than be in the presence of doctors. She thinks that if she lets a doctor examine her, he’ll discover a terminal illness and tell her she’s going to die. So she’s afraid of doctors. I know this logic is like a mobius strip, it leads endlessly nowhere, but that’s Fox.
“Look at you,” she said, “You couldn’t drive, you can’t even stand up.”
“If I have to,” I offered, “I’ll drive. I don’t know if there’s an E.R. within a hundred fifty miles, but…..”
“No no no, don’t go to the trouble. Maybe I won’t die.”
She got to her knees suddenly, lurched out of the tent in time to empty her stomach.
I pressed my palms to my forehead, hopelessly trying to rub out the headache that sat like an anvil atop my skull.
At the time, I blamed part of our dilemma on age, as if camping were limited to young people. I was FEELING old, I was in shock from the transition that was taking place in my body. The end of my youth had come hard. I seemed to have gone from young to ancient without stopping off at middle age.
I was fifty two, Fox was forty eight and it was July in the desert. We were dumb rookies, not hardened adventurers. I hadn’t been in a tent since Boy Scout camp. If an eleven year old had come along, he would have rolled his eyes and sneered at me.
Why were we killing ourselves with this poorly planned trip?
Fox had compelling reasons for wanting to see the area of The Four Corners. A few months previously, she had learned that she was half Apache. This came completely out of the blue.
Give this a moment to sink in.
She had believed her entire life that she was the child of Swedish parents. Then, on a trip back to the old Iowa homestead, in a conversation with eighty year old Aunt Inge, she was shown her birth certificate and a few other documents. It was revealed that she was the illegitimate child of her father and an Apache woman named Morning Star.
When the shock wore off, it explained so much to Fox. It made sense of the way she looked. She had black hair whose strands were thick as cables. Her cheekbones gave her a proud, angular look. She was slow to anger, but when her ire was roused she became a turbine of formidable rage. She held grudges for years. She could be ruthlessly unforgiving towards those who perpetrated injustice.
She felt guilty about these feelings, about what she perceived as her lack of charity. She had been raised in a Christian home, but she felt something wild and vengeful in her heart. Growing up on a farm amid other farms, she saw a lot of animals being mistreated. These situations acted as a trigger to her rage. She could charge into a situation with fury, chastising a farmer for whipping a horse or prodding a cow. There she was, a little black-haired girl, standing between a farmer and his livestock. Needless to say, she was considered odd.
She had a spooky ability to speak with animals. She was called an “ear”, what is now called a “whisperer” or, in some circles, a “Pet Psychic.” She had a penchant for bones, stones, leather and feathers. She wandered the plains alone, hunting for arrowheads, sage, abandoned birds’ nests. She gathered her findings into little packages, over which she made “magic”.
The discovery of her true lineage explained her feeling of not belonging to the family. It explained her sense of being plunked down in the wrong birth zone, as if the stork had gotten her baskets mixed up. She understood, at last, why she had spent her life wondering why she was not like her sister, mother, cousins, all these fair and freckled people who said “Yah, shooor.”
Fox’s father was a serious and respected man, not a philanderer. He had fallen in love. The child of this love was taken to the family, no more was said until after mom and pop and most of the family were gone. Aunt Inge held the story forty eight years, waiting for the right time. Fox was Apache from the Chiricahua Band. She was a descendent of those warriors who were chased by a frustrated U.S. Army up and down the canyons of the remote Southwest.
My own personal engine for making the trip is my enthusiasm for astronomy. I am crazy for the night sky, and for everything to do with night photography: lenses, binoculars, telescopes, all kinds of gear. I was thwarted by city lights, all the wanton wasted lights lit up for no reason at all. That meant getting away, going to high desert, remote camps, away from the constant soaking of the sky by useless electricity.
Okay, I was a “Light Nazi”. At home I badgered my neighbors, calling it “education”. I was generally insufferable, unscrewing sixty watt bulbs and replacing them with twenty five watt bulbs in every porch on the street. I lectured people on the insidious evils of light pollution.
My neighbors were patient with me. When they saw me walking up and down the street, trying to get a better view of the sky through the trees, one porch light after another would go off, a chain reaction. I lived in a supportive neighborhood, I was lucky. Only Mr. Struan amped up his lights, took to shining a bank of 200 watt floods to illuminate his driveway. Aaaaargh! I tried to reason with him, but the very audacity of my presuming to control HIS lights exacerbated his nut-cake crankiness. It was Un-American. He paid his taxes; if he wanted, he could install a ring of klieg lights around his entire house and run them twenty four/seven!
There’s always a Mr. Struan, in every neighborhood. Of course, there’s also someone like me in every neighborhood.
Our camping journey to the Southwest was something bigger than a vacation. We had each experienced lives full of turmoil and crisis. One legacy of our respective whirlwinds was the fact that both of us suffered some degree of chronic pain. What could we do? Sit around and feel sorry for ourselves, and grow old? On the contrary, we felt a defiant need to go out and enjoy ourselves, to have some adventure.
It was natural for Fox to be drawn to the epic lands of the Four Corners. We wanted to see Arches National Park, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, the great Anasazi ruins. We wanted to see petroglyphs and walk the land of Fox’s ancestors. After the revelation, Fox hungered for all things Native American. She investigated her maternal family, tracked down her REAL cousins, followed strings of geneology back several generations. The idea that her people had walked the continent for ten thousand years was compelling. Fox was walking through a new continent in her psyche.
She gave me a new name. She said it fit my nature, that I deserved to bear this name. I had grown up with a Hebrew name that I never used, except to please my grandparents. I had a list of funny names that I used in my writing. Sometimes I was Yehudah Manne, Starling Filch, Ruben Pondwater or Rory Stankafew.
The name Fox gave me was serious. It was a great responsibility.
She called me White Buffalo. That was a powerful totem for a kid from the suburbs of St. Louis.
How would you feel at almost fifty, if you discovered you were not as described? What would it be like to suddenly acquire a new mother, a new genetic heritage? How would you handle the abrupt and total validation of a lifetime of uneasy feelings and suspicions? Fox was having a major shift of identity.
We obtained one old black and white photo of Morning Star. It’s about two inches square. I scanned it, Photoshopped it, did everything I could to restore it. When we saw Fox’s resemblance to her birth mother, it gave us goose bumps.
Fox’s life changed. She fought her way free of a marriage that had been a nightmare for twenty six years. She had made a vow to herself: when her children reached eighteen, she would file for divorce. She would no longer be subject to the blackmail of having her husband “take the kids back to the old country”, as he charmingly put it. That had always been his ultimate threat, to snatch the kids and vanish back to the middle east, where Fox would be unable to see them. Ever.
There were a lot of forces at play in this re-invention of our lives.
We wanted to keep traveling, but tents were out. We upgraded to a pop-up trailer. It towed behind the Jeep and expanded into a two-bed canopy with fly-screens for windows. It had a sink and propane stove. It was comfortable, with real beds and running water. Unfortunately, assembling the thing required crawling underneath the frame and propping it up with lengths of aluminum poles. Fox wasn’t physically able to help me with this task. I felt like the classic statue of Atlas holding up the world. I was simultaneously pushing, wedging and fitting all the bits and pieces. My head became dimpled like a golf ball from all the falls and collisions. I cranked everything up and down, yanked the beds sideways after they had jumped their tracks. The trailer was towed by way of a ball joint hitch, and only the most precise backward driving could get the ball anywhere within inches of the hitch. There was the ritual of Fox calling out, “A little more, a little more, keeeep coming, whoa! Overshot by two inches. Go forward just a teeentz…a teentz more….no, a teentz back the other way. Whoa!” After fifteen minutes of teentz this and teentz that, I would go find a few neighbors to help me lift the half ton object onto the ball, sliding it the missing teentz.