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Arizona tripping

          My dad decided last minute that the Grand Canyon would be a good place to celebrate my mom’s birthday, so he took a week off from work, rented a car, and the three of us set off for Arizona on the first family trip we’ve taken together in a decade.
          We spent the first few days driving on the road, reading and talking and eating healthy snacks, like roasted seaweed and cherries. We looked out of windows and took note of the changes in the landscape and compared things to other places we’d been. We pointed out interesting things to each another, like fields of giant wind turbines or groves of fat oddly-shaped cacti. Lunch and dinner were quick unfussy affairs taken near highway exits close to highway onramps, each one of our American diner-booth meals feeling like an unceremonious celebration of the distance we’d traveled and the miles left to go. We drove hours through desert on a slim road that distended before us like a long black string rolled out indefinitely, a sliver of black afloat the dry empty red land that seemed to stretch beyond and on in all directions of us for as far as the eye could see. Endless, is how everything in the desert feels. 
          About ten years ago, I was on a cruise ship to Alaska and I got up in the middle of the night one night because I couldn’t sleep. We were somewhere on the Pacific and I wanted to see what that was like, so I walked through the sleeping boat and out onto the ship’s main deck. It was like I’d stepped out into some void. There was no moon, no stars, no lights at all, near or far, no glimmers of anything, no faint hints of shapes in the distance, no signs of anything resembling anything. There was nothing. The blackness was so complete, so absolute in its impenetrability that it was oppressive. It felt physical, like someone had taken a thick heavy blanket and draped it over the world. I walked carefully over to the edge of the deck, and though I knew I was safe, it took a few seconds for me to truly feel like I had a solid grip on the rails of the ship. I looked out and down and up, but there was still nothing, nothing at all, except the sound of churning water beneath and that darkness, which swallowed everything into itself, including me. It was terrifying and magnificent, that vast isolation.
          Driving through the Mojave with my parents in our rental car was not quite so alien or frightening but still – the immensity and emptiness of the space, the scope of it all, the colors – it was transporting. Things feel different in the desert, at least in terms of their appearances as viewed from car windows. Clouds appear denser and arrange themselves into more spectacular formations; they hang, heavily, like enormous opaque objects, holding different shades of white and grey depending on how the sun hits their irregular contours, casting great shadows over the open plains below and forming large patchworks of light and dark onto a landscape that manages to feel empty even when it was not, and flat even when there are mountains. Colors burn brighter and shine more vividly, maybe because there are so few distractions to draw away the eye: the sun-scorched blues and reds and yellows of passing boxcar trains – the gold and purples, peach and lavender hues of the mountains. The land is speckled and flecked and dappled all over with color and the peculiar life that can stand such conditions of merciless sun and exposure. I woke up early the second morning when the sky was still pink and the heat was already settling into the air and I walked out onto the single-laned highway in the middle of nowhere that lay a few yards away from our hotel and stood at the center of the road that was as empty and quiet as the red desert surrounding us and something in me wanted to take off right down the middle of it into that great emptiness and keep going.
          We finally made it to a little town fifteen minutes away from the Grand Canyon on the night of my mom’s birthday. We were ill-equipped for the occasion – we arrived only as the sun set, and we’d seen only a few open shops along the way, and one tiny grocery store, and we had neither noodles, nor cake, or candles at hand. It’s been a family tradition for as long as I can remember to eat some kind of Chinese noodle dish whenever one of us had a birthday, and even when I am somewhere else on my birthday, my dad will call me at some point to inform me that he and my mom have eaten some birthday noodles, and that I should remember to eat some too. I asked them once why noodles were important and my dad said that they represented long life, and then I said if they represented life, why were we eating up our lives? Then I probably smirked and made an obnoxious face. I always did it anyway though, but purely for my parents because it didn’t mean anything to me, until that night in Arizona, when I thought that maybe we wouldn’t be able to find a Chinese restaurant to buy some birthday noodles for my mom. Suddenly it felt important that we do this thing that we’d done for so many years, even if it didn’t really make sense in the first place. But I hadn’t seen a single Chinese-looking place since we’d left Barstow, California, and my dad was saying something about his phone showing one Chinese restaurant in another town about 50 miles away, when we saw a small restaurant by the side of highway 64 that had the words “Asian Food” written on a big sign out front. The décor inside was a mishmash of Vietnamese and Thai and Chinese and Native-American, which was apt, as the menu offered all those different cuisines except Native-American. We ordered take-out curry chicken and stir-fried beef noodles, then we stopped at the little grocery shop that sold single slices of frozen Hershey’s cake that came in bright blue little cardboard boxes. We bought a box, and we also bought a pint of coffee ice cream.
          So we celebrated my mom’s 58th year on this earth that night in our hotel in Tusayan, Arizona with our boxes of Americanized take-out Chinese food, a pre-packaged slice of cake, and coffee ice cream. We realized after we unpacked our food that we’d forgotten to buy paper plates so we ate our noodles off the plastic lids of our take-out containers instead, which made us laugh. I stole pieces of beef from my dad’s plate whenever he jumped up to cheer for the Warriors on TV and later, I stuck a small pink candle into the slice of cake still sitting in its flimsy cardboard container and my dad and I sang “Happy Birthday” loudly as my mom smiled at both of us, her face all lit up from the glow of the candlelight. We each took one bite of the cake, then threw the rest away, and shared the pint of coffee ice cream. That, we finished.

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3 thoughts on “Arizona tripping

  1. I love this story! Beautifully written as usual, Helen.

    When you talked about the darkness in the middle of the night on the cruise ship, it reminded me of a similar feeling when I was in Caines, Australia walking along the board walk at night. Walking there was so strange because on my right was the nightlife and street lights of the small beach town. On my left was the sounds of the ocean and waves. But you couldn’t see anything except complete and utter blackness. It felt like one of those video games where the the playable part ends and there is nothing beyond it, except emptiness. It was terrifying to imagine that reality stopped at the edge, yet fascinating to see into the void.

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