A train whistle woke me up. I’d been taking a quick nap on a four-inch foam mattress my wife sometimes uses on the road, but here it had been placed on the floor of an unfurnished condominium bedroom we were leasing after selling Red Cedar. Most of the moving boxes, which occupied the small dining area and the hallway, would never be unpacked. I had a general sense the train was off to the right, beyond the ranch supply store, out toward the plains a little, but it made more sense across the interstate, where north, up by the Buckeye Road, tracks ran parallel to traffic a good part of the way to Wyoming, with a spur out to the Rawhide power plant. Echo. Maybe the sound had bounced off the huddled sides of the apartment complex.
I rose quickly, needing to get down to the garage to pick up the Jeep. But I’d woken up singing as well. Vintage Johnny Cash.
I hear the train a comin’
It’s rolling round the bend
And I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when
I’m stuck in Folsom Prison, and time keeps draggin’ on
But that train keeps a rollin’ on down to San Antone
I wasn’t in Folsom Prison, though: I was in Wellington, Colorado. My Uncle Grunt, who said he’d spent time in both places, preferred the first one. “We got free food in Folsom,” he said sourly, as we passed the 24-Hour Fitness, heading for the garage. “And you didn’t have to buy a gym membership to work out.”
“You never were in prison,” I said later at the counter in the garage. “What were you in for?”
“Robbin’ the mail train.”
“What? In 1890?”
“Smart ass,” Uncle Grunt replied. “You wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in San Quentin.”
“Folsom. You wouldn’t have lasted five minutes.”
“I wouldn’t have been there to begin with,” I said. “I have all the mail I need.”
Gilsdorf Garage was founded in 1950. They still have their county sales permit up on the wall from 1959, the year I was born. After taking the Jeep Liberty to the new service center on Harmony, and feeling a bit like a hooked sheep in an abattoir, waiting for the conveyor to come around, I started bringing it in to Gilsdorf, where Scott, who answered the phone, also scheduled the appointment, discussed the problem, and over time, knew my name and my car. They texted me pictures of the power steering fluid levels and the drive belts, and I imagined they shared them later at the bar, as though slipping snapshots of their daughters out of their wallets: “She’s graduated now. Dean’s list. Three years in a row. Pulling a little to the left, but running like a charm.”
I didn’t actually need the Jeep right away. My wife and I had just bought a 2020 Chevy Silverado truck. A 1500 double cab with a 2.7L inline-four turbocharged engine. The next day we ordered a 26-foot travel trailer with a queen-size bed, theater seating, and a four-season heating package to get us through the bitter cold of the San Luis Valley, somewhere on a parcel of land with a mountain view. We were going to hit the road, maybe camp on BLM land, stop if it suited us, roll on if it didn’t, on down to Santa Fe by way of Hooper, Alamosa, Garcia, Del Norte. I was offered $2,000 for the Liberty as a trade-in, half its Blue Book value, so I decided to keep it for now. In the last four months I’d driven it almost daily between Cheyenne and Fort Collins, in crosswinds of 60mph, and it had never complained, hauling our stuff to storage or to the townhouse in Wyoming, where we’d moved two of the cats. It was worth a lot more than even its retail value, so I was getting it tuned, washed, and detailed. Giving it some love back. And maybe when the time came, passing it on.
The second time my family crossed the U.S. it was in an old-model Mercedes, a car held together by rust and kitchen string, altogether at odds with the grandness of the name. We flew from Belgium; it followed us by ship, swung over the sides onto the dock in a cargo net. At least, that’s the picture I hold: I could be conflating it with a Spanish ferry on the Costa Brava. The family was together then, the five of us, and we stopped into a coffee shop, just off the plane at JFK. I ordered a hot chocolate. “Honey,” said the waitress (they still had waitresses and stewardesses in those years, until they were all exchanged at equal value for servers and flight attendants)…”Honey,” she said in a mellifluous New York accent, “we don’t have hot chocolate in August.” It was while we were drinking substitutes for hot chocolate that my father suddenly realized he had left his 8mm movie camera under the seat on the plane. He went back, but the cleaners had already gone through, and we’re sure one of them had mistaken it for a candy wrapper and had taken it home to dispose of it properly.
Dad grieved briefly. He had been documenting our travels for years, and on the footage that remained on yellow plastic spools, between minute upon minute of seagulls flying, there were short clips of my brothers and me walking unsteadily toward the camera, my mother setting out the Coleman stove on faded picnic tables. A long pan of another seagull, this one Swiss or German. Julian fishing. And then, just before he reeled one in, a graceful seagull caught the photographer’s eye and he followed it to the distant horizon until it vanished from sight. There was no sound, or else my brother’s excited cries would have been recorded, in the background. Once the grieving period was over, my dad went out and bought a Super 8 camera. With it, he was able to slow seagulls down, so they became even more balletic and could consume more film.
I carry a camera with me almost everywhere I go. I’ve dropped a few, but never yet left one on a plane, and that may be because, when I disembark, break camp, grab my coat at the end of a dinner party, drop off a rental car or moving van, I methodically check bags, pat pockets, look under benches. And I blame my father for my obsessive compulsions. Hiking companions are halfway down the trail; I am deliberately folding the tent.
I moved seven times before my sixteenth birthday. Not houses only, but countries, states, provinces. Folks we encountered on the road used to ask if my dad was in the military, but he wasn’t. He was a schoolteacher; my mother was a nurse. They were just too big for 1950s England, as though they had eaten the magical cake, marked beautifully with currants, and filled the hall with their heads. We once visited a relative in Cornwall who asked if I didn’t miss having a home. Everywhere we are is my home, I said, and my mother swelled. It was one of her favorite stories.
You come to want something, though: stillness, a house for generations, a long fence, a place to come back to again and again for the holidays, the drive up to it easily recalled, even, you think, when you’re old as coastal redwood. And for a time, you have something similar, a down payment on permanence. But what you were before your sixteenth birthday is deep. Images of your mother dabbing your father’s forehead with a cool towel as he drove the Opel station wagon through Death Valley; hillsides gray-green with agave, the mission bells. You can’t always quiet yourself into something you never were.
Even Uncle Grunt. I imagine him before he met Aunt Svetlana, wanting to put a finger on the spinning top, wanting to go straight. And then a friend says, out of the blue one day, why don’t we rob the mail train?
Have you ever been to Holbrook? There’s a Dairy Queen there, on the edge of the Painted Desert. You wonder where the customers come from, because stretching in every direction is the vast emptiness of the badlands, where the landscape is both abandoned and infinitely possible: trees that became rocks, imprisoned by fire, freed by water and wind. On the dark side of those Arizona sunsets, evening breezes remember ancient grasslands. You take a deep breath of it, and when it hits your lungs, your heart rises out of your chest like a wild swan.