You say there is a horse in your bathroom, and all you can do is stand there naming Beatles songs?” asks my 15-year-old son, Zach.
The sun is beating down, and we’re sitting on the cement back steps of my dad’s rock house, a sprawling structure one mile off Highway 50 and 60 miles west of Austin in central Nevada. Zach reads to me from Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams. Adams, best known for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, dedicated this book to his mother who liked the science-fiction mystery for “the bit about the horse.”
A few minutes earlier when Zach held up the tattered book he found in a box of my dad’s dusty paperbacks and asked if I wanted to hear it, I didn’t hesitate. “Yes, absolutely,” I said, the answer I always want to give when he makes such requests, though too often it’s something I can’t, or don’t, pull off. Like the spring he wanted me to read the entire 118-book Japanese manga series of One Piece or the evening he asked me to watch vampire movies when I had a paper due the next day.
“There was something odd about the horse,” Zach continues reading, “but he couldn’t say what. Well, there was one thing that was clearly odd about it indeed, which was that it was standing in a college bathroom.”
I laugh, and not just because it’s a funny book. Dad’s house has 18-inch thick rock walls, 10-foot high ceilings and seven doors to the outside. Built in 1899 before indoor plumbing, two rooms originally used as bedrooms have been converted into oddly large bathrooms with doors opening to the outside. Dust and wind creep in through the doors. If ever there was a place where you might find a horse in the bathroom, it would be here.
It’s my two teenage boys’ first full week out of school for the summer after a busy few months. When I admit to being overcommitted recently, Zach replies, “It’s always like this, mom.”
He’s right. His dad and I both work full-time. I’m in a part-time MFA program, and his twin brother, Nate, runs track and plays the guitar. Zach is in band and theater. In the spring it seemed most of our conversations were about schedules, rides and food.
A stranger sitting on these back steps would likely see the wire clothesline sagging with clothes, the three broken-down grills and a flatbed truck that is more ornamental than functional. I see an afternoon as expansive as this valley of caramel sand and stubborn sage.
A few days ago we drove the 891 miles from Boulder along Highway 50, dubbed the “Loneliest Road in America” by Life magazine, in weather that produced high winds, rain and a cloud-and-lights show rivaling any movie. Driving instead of flying and seeing through the eyes of a 15-year-old have cleared my head.
On our second morning of the road trip Nate drove the first 200 miles, and Zach took the wheel in Ely, Nev., where my family lived until I was six. Zach has had his learner’s permit for several months, but it was his first time driving above 55 mph and in temperamental weather.
“What’s the longest you’ve driven before today?,” I asked a few hours into his leg of the drive.
“I’ve mainly driven up and down Lowell Boulevard near our house [in a Denver suburb],” he says. Then he smiled, “Today I’ve driven through hail and wind and rain.”
The rain was clearing, and I had been staring out the side window.
“Take a picture, mom,” Zach said.
I started to take a picture of the view
I saw, copper hills and sage under a canopy of clouds building upon themselves in the valley.
“No, of the road.”
I didn’t say, “There’s nothing there.” But, there was nothing there.
“Wait, you missed it,” he said.
“Take it when it’s absolutely straight.”
In that instant I’m a child again loaded into the back of our brown-panel station wagon with my siblings, dressed in pajamas and listening to the 8-track tape of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Dad would drive the 717 miles from Ely to Colorado Springs where both sets of our grandparents lived. We stopped only for meals. For hours I would stare at the stretched-out road and unbroken sky.
“Take another picture,” Zach said a few minutes later.
The road ahead was perfectly straight, disappearing into sand and low hills miles away. There were no cars, no buildings, no signs. I breathed easier than I had all spring.
“That straight road, surrounded by a hundred miles of space, I meditate on that. That’s the place I go when I’m stressed,” I told him.
He nodded and smiled, not knowing, or maybe he did, that he was driving toward an afternoon with nothing better to do than read to his mother the bit about the horse from a dusty paperback.