Painted Desert

Painted Desert

Monday, September 08, 2008

The way home, part 3

This is it, the end of the trip!

We woke up in the fly-beset Oasis State Park in New Mexico and got in the car and drove. We drove through Hereford, TX, the beef capital of the world. Katie dozed in the passenger seat, opening her eyes whenever the car slowed down and putting on her glasses to take a look at whatever small town we'd just entered. We turned north at Oklahoma City and headed toward Wichita, and through it, and then to El Dorado, KS, where we stopped and ate at a cajun restaurant. Katie had the alligator.

We made our way to El Dorado State Park, by a big lake in the grassy hills of southeastern Kansas. This is a large state park. It has 1,100 campsites. By our reckoning, possibly 1,060 of them were unoccupied, and we picked out a very nice spot near the lake and the bathrooms.

Once the tents were set up, we went for a nice bike ride. The sun was setting on the lake and the drowned skeletal trees. And a goose.

The weather was perfect, it was quiet, the landscape was beautiful, and there was no smell or flies. It was the best state park ever. We returned to our campsite as darkness fell, and set up the stove to make more terrible s'mores, sharing our last beer with George:

The sky was clear and we went into our tents and said good night to each other through the mesh, and pledged to wake up at five AM to begin the longest leg of our trip on the following day.

I woke up sometime in the dark to hear Katie going to the car. I looked at my watch. It said 4:00. I figured she'd woken up early, and so I rolled over and went back to sleep. In fact, I'd forgotten to set my watch to Central time, and made Katie wait for me as I got ready.

The bathroom was open to the sky. This had seemed cool when I first entered it, but I felt rather badly about drowning the five thousand bugs that had made their way into the sink. There was a carpet of mayflies beneath the light, all clinging to the yellow cinder block and facing the luminescence like penitents. Occasionally one would fall off the wall to its doom in the sink. It was a weird purgatory for insects.

The sun had come up a bit before we pulled out and I waited for the sky to lighten further so I could see more of the beautiful hills with cylindrical bales of hay yellow against the green. But it got no lighter. We passed through Cassoday, KS, the Prairie Chicken Capital of the world, and then onto the highway, and still it looked like it was five o'clock in the morning. Then the rain started. So hard we could see only a few feet in front of the car. By the time we outran the storm, I thought for sure the bikes would be clean, but looking through the rear-view mirror I saw there was still plenty of red mud clinging to mine. Tough stuff.

We drove through the rest of Kansas, and Missouri, and the terminally boring Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and by nightfall were heading north to Toledo, where Katie's undergraduate friends were having a yearly get-together she mustn't miss. Sometime around midnight we pulled up beside a house in the Toledo suburbs. We had been on the road for some eighteen hours.

And there was no sleep--not for a few hours, anyway. There were acquaintances to be made and re-made. Hours later I conked out in my sleeping bag on a plush white carpet and didn't wake up when everyone else came in.

We stayed in Toledo for a couple days, and ate at Tony Packo's, which I am told one of the characters in M*A*S*H mentions frequently in the series. And then we drove to Rochester, NY, where Katie's father lives, and we stayed there a very long time.

Katie needed rest, and there was some half-conscious effort to delay the start of the school season, which would mean more work for her than for me. We watched TV and DVDs and ate good food and petted the cats. It was a bit of a time warp. I lost track of the days. One day, tired of the television, I wandered into Rochester and found the National Museum of Play, which was filled with children dragging their parents along by the hand. I asked the lady at the counter whether there were anything here for a single adult to enjoy, and bought a ticket for admission and for the butterfly garden. It was alarming having so many in the air there, flickering black shapes crossing my vision again and again. Everywhere on the plants, though you had to look to see them. And I watched all the children having fun, and got asked a few questions by random children, as if I worked there. I told young boys about sea stars, which I know about.

There were three cats in Rochester.


PJ on my bed

And Ringo, who was the friendliest. Ringo, the Bone Prince. He was skinny and ailing from lymphoma or some other such ailment, and a greenish flux dribbled continuously from his nose. But he liked people. He would inch up to you, blinking, dribbling, wanting dearly to sit on your lap and be petted. It took me a while to see the cat and not the illness.

I let Katie decide when to leave Rochester, and eventually she gave in to the inevitable, and we left Rochester. We visited her grandmother in Albany and then drove into Massachusetts and then Connecticut, no longer in strange territory. We stopped at the Book Barn in Niantic and looked at all the old books, and had Indian food in New London, and then drove to West Kingston where I helped her unload her things from her car in the summer night. I expected it to feel like forever we'd been gone, but instead it felt like two days, a weekend, a little trip to Arizona. It felt like we'd left only a couple days ago. Everything was the same here.

When I was in Arizona I never thought about home or school. I just did my job and ate and slept. And so somehow there was a disconnect, like it was all a dream, it wasn't really part of this life. It was a story someone told.

I said goodbye to Katie and got in my car and drove back down Route 138 and went to change the station on the radio, and thought for a moment I should be considerate of Katie, and then realized I was alone.