“And all the same feelings swell up in me on this train. Same wonders. Same heart-breaking hunger for the land out the window.” — Sam Shephard, Motel Chronicles
Halfway through my cross-country move to Colorado from New York, we found out that my uncle had unexpectedly died. My mom caught the next flight out of Kansas City to make arrangements for the family, leaving me alone with my dad for the first time in over a decade. Things had never quite been the same in our relationship since he cheated on my mom nine years prior. Along with her, I lost trust in him, too.
We were about a thousand miles into the drive when she left us alone, trucking through the state that housed all of my childhood memories in its southwest pocket. After graduation, I spent almost two years out of school wanting to be like Travis from Wim Wenders’ 1984 film, Paris, Texas. I wanted to ascend into new, wide open landscapes as a complete stranger. Passing through Paris, Texas itself reminded me of the numerous road trips we used to go on due to my dad’s fear of flying.
It was comforting to finally be surrounded by the flat land I grew up in, the kind of infinite expanse that seems to meet and converse with the sky. Right before the move, I found myself listening to Dylan’s “Meet Me In The Morning” just to sing “Honey, we could be in Kansas / By time the snow begins to thaw.” I pronounce Kansas with the slightest twang that only comes out with certain words, my friends point it out as my “Kansas accent.”
I once read that the director John Ford would eliminate lines out of a scene very last minute if he felt it was too “wordy.” As we drove through the wide empty landscape that I grew up in, it felt as though Ford had suddenly decided to strip the scene of dialogue. The car was filled with a screaming silence. Most of our family road trips growing up were through the southwest, down to Mexico to visit family, and those trips are what I believe subconsciously formed my affinity for road films; as an adult I am still in love with westerns, Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard, driving with the windows down, being alone, country music (because it’s all you could find on the radio), the sight of mountains in the horizon, and the dream of one day living in Colorado. Coincidentally, things that all appeal to the loner cowboy.
“I’m sorry, queen,” my dad finally said, breaking the silence as he reached his arm over my shoulder and shook me roughly a couple of times. Stiffening, I nudged myself closer to the door. Growing up, my mom always pointed out that I expressed emotions in a similar way to him, as in, he doesn’t express them. Repression, something every desert cowboy knows very well about. My mom on the other hand feels, even before she thinks — whether it’s a joke or a door slam. Her emotionality has always led to irrational behavior, like the night the smell of smoke woke me up in the middle of the night; she’d fired up the fireplace and burned some of my dad’s business paperwork out of spite over his infidelities.
My relationship with my dad seemed to reflect the relationship he had with his own father. I hardly spent any time with my grandpa,but his tall, strong, and silent presence stays ingrained in my memory.. On our road trips down to Mexico, we would stop in El Paso to visit a cowboy store that I can’t remember the name of, but I can clearly recall the strong smell of new denim, fresh suede, and crisp leather. My dad would buy his father a new cowboy hat, belt buckle, and maybe a couple shirts —gifts have always been my dad’s go-to form of showing affection. Whether it’s with his own father or me, his daughter.
My fondest memory of my grandpa was when he taught me how to milk a cow – it was a glimpse into a daily task that brought him a lot of joy. These types of tiny moments are also what my dad has loved to share with me; he would take me to rodeos, we would bike on the dirt roads behind our house, and he would take me on errands with him where we would turn up the country music station (the only music you could find on the radio) and I would shift the gears of the car as he pushed down the shift pedal. My mom would tease us that we were being so “American” because we started to love country music, which felt like a bit of a subtle insult coming from a woman who was never shy of her Mexican heritage.
I am personally familiar with solitude, growing up as an only child with a father who is a loner himself, who can go days driving without needing to be around someone else. Sam Shepard believed that all good writing comes from aloneness, but he believed you had to be on “some of those big open highways” with one hand on the wheel and writing with the other. Nothing made me more nervous than seeing my dad confidently multitask behind the wheel. I’ve even seen him eat an avocado while driving.
My dad sliced through the silence once again, “Want to drive? I’m ti-red,” dragging out the last word for playful effect. “No.” I said without offering any explanation. The reality: I was terrified to drive a truck loaded with furniture on a windy, single-lane highway after hardly driving for over five years. We sank back into a silence that I wished could’ve been filled by Ry Cooder’s desolate steel guitar. My dad dug around and pulled out a container of almonds. “Can I have some?” My voice grew gentler. Suddenly, I felt like I’d been transported back, that I had just finished helping him shift into last gear.
He handed me the container, which felt like a white flag waving in the air. “You know, I’m really happy that you decided to move to Colorado.” Once again, he put his arm around me and shook me around. I never realized he was happy about my decision, he’d never persuaded or dissuaded me to live anywhere in particular.
“Yeah, I really want to be closer to mountains and have more space.”
“I love mountains too.” He responded.
I felt a pang and guilt from not wanting to relate to him.
“Did you know your mom almost went into labor when we drove to Aspen a few months before your mom was due?”
I nodded. I always joked that I was meant to live in Colorado because I wanted to look at the mountains before I was even born. Lydia Davis wrote in Essays One that if you give a child a certain experience they can’t repeat, you create something inside them they’ll want to return to for the rest of life. For example, a girl surrounded by vast empty spaces, who only got to see the mountains in passing while on the road.
Something had broken. The farther we drove, the more we conversed. I exhaled deeply as I caught a glimpse of the mountains. They looked tiny in the far distance. For the rest of the trip, we never talked about how we felt, and still try to avoid it to this day. But sharing space and simple conversation seems to be our own way of showing how much we care for one another.