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No Country for Young Men
Searching for masculinity and maternity in the American Southwest
“[T]he strangeness and wonder of existence are emphasized here, in the desert, by the comparative sparsity of the flora and fauna: life not crowded upon life as in other places but scattered abroad in spareness and simplicity, with a generous gift of space for each herb and bush and tree, each stem of grass, so that the living organism stands out bold and brave and vivid against the lifeless sand and barren rock. The extreme clarity of the desert light is equaled by the extreme individuation of desert life forms. Love flowers best in openness and freedom.” — Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Interstate 10 is barren once I squeeze out of Los Angeles County. An hour in, I stop to get gas and lunch, two tasks neglected at the start in favor of putting the city traffic behind me right away. I eat a cheeseburger from In-N-Out and suddenly feel wildly anxious about the trip. Morongo Casino bears down on me from behind the gas station. I go in for a beer and decide to play some blackjack, a psychic gamble to predict the outcome of this haphazard journey. I play seven hands and come out $3 ahead. I slide my chips beneath the brass bar to the cashier. She looks like my mother.
I haven’t seen her in eight years. The time feels flimsy; time gone so long that it’s lost weight and substance, like contrails fading in the afternoon sky. We’ve talked on the phone maybe fewer than five times in that stretch. More so, 17 years separate now and a time when she was an everyday part of my life. Nearly an adult. Almost a man.
This is all about to change.
I have planned a road trip to Oro Valley, Arizona — where she now lives — from Los Angeles, California. If I don’t stop, it should take me only 7.5 hours. But I plan on stopping, taking my time to think, to absorb, to remember, to steel myself for reunion.
And why this firm detachment from one’s progenitor? As most estrangements go, it was a confluence of difficulty and distance, irrational hurt, careless and emotional counterattacks.
The short version, or what I thought I knew: When I was in middle school, my mother cheated on my father multiple times. She was mentally unstable and dedicated to anything but mothering, and so my parents split.
As a military brat, this occurred while my family was stationed in Colorado. After a hard-fought custody battle, my dad was stationed elsewhere, my sister and I in tow, my disgraced, discombobulated mother left lonely and wild in the shadow of Garden of the Gods.
I grew without her. And in our equal hurt, we barbed each other over the years until we, or at least I was completely numb to the relationship, feeling healthy that I had finally snapped its rotting branch of disappointment from my trunk. The narrative spun for me that I was whisked away by my capable father from a mother who no longer wanted me, who didn’t want to clock in for the job. It felt true, and may have been, but not completely. For years, I put her absence squarely on her shoulders, and from that placement grew more resentment and anger.
But in the spirit of self-improvement and discovery, I’ve been trying to release my white-knuckled grip from my grudges, from my pain. Which, of course, is no simple task, as hate and hurt can become such a standard state that they grow into wombs of immense comfort, wombs we don’t want to leave.
I begin my journey the Tuesday before Mother’s Day, but this is almost a coincidence. I’ve been meaning to see her for about a year now, feeling the growing guilt of our tectonic plates shifting away from each other, slowly and permanently. One night, alone and stoned, I watched Kubo and the Two Strings at the Americana. The beautiful film had a relatable mother-son relationship that rattled me. I portended her immediate, random death. A bus. Aneurysm. The thought of staying estranged through her death panicked me to my bones. I had to see her.
Despite this newfound urgency, I hemmed, hawed, lined up my many excuses at the foot of my bed. Then I got dumped, went on a few benders, and inevitably thought of my mother, as all abandoned boys do when their hellfire romantic relationships fall to ash.
I’ll be gone three days at most, so packing is easy: jeans, a few T-shirts, Dodgers jacket, collar in case, two cameras, a notebook, weed, Dexedrine for driving, Xanax for the panics.
I also bring a shoebox full of photos I’ve taken over the past months, something tangible for her to flip through and see what my social, and physical, scenery has been like lately.
Her name is Erin, by the way.
And what else do I know about her? She grew up in Redondo Beach, and then the baked, backwoods desert of the Inland Empire. I can’t remember if she went to school with someone from Cypress Hill, or dated him, or both. She met my father in high school, on a double date with “Aunt” Karen. She had beautiful strawberry red hair and freckles cosmically doled out by the California sun. When I still knew her, she sold the following: Jafra, Mary Kay, Longaberger, maybe Tupperware. She went to beauty school, worked at a tanning salon, then a modeling agency. Her father died of lung cancer. I read my first poem at his funeral. When my parents divorced, she got a dog, named him Toby after her favorite character from The West Wing, and would stay up all hours of the night playing Age of Empires or some type of RPG in the dark of her room, face blue from the computer screen. She dated a slew of awful men, moved to a one-bedroom apartment in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Denver, got pregnant.
I have a brother. Or a half-brother. A brother I’ve seen maybe three, four times before this trip, all before he could read. His name is Conner. Now he’s 13. She split with the father but followed him to Arizona so they wouldn’t be divided. I don’t know what that’s like.
Regardless, that’s why I’m driving to Oro Valley, a tiny suburb about 10 miles north of Tucson in the Sonoran Desert.
I drive fast down the gray ribbon of highway, or as fast as safety and legality allow. I’m going 85, and assholes are still whipping by me—when there are assholes around—but for the most part, the road is quiet and I’m passing semis. Of course, I’m riddled with anxiety. With each mile accomplished, I’m one step closer to facing her. But as I snake through the gale-heavy San Gorgonio Pass, entering the Coachella Valley, dusty and dotted with wind turbines (it’s a wind farm, after all), I begin to calm.
You see, we are desert people, my family. Although we moved many times, a large chunk of my rearing took place in the hissing Mojave, what they call the High Desert, from Death Valley on down, planted like creosote bushes across the arid Southern California.
It is a romantic and romanticized place, in recent years popularized by Coachella-bound transplants, a new wave of mystic culture, millennials in search of sound bathing and crystal healing. Which, to be fair, is an aspect I don’t much mind, though you won’t likely catch me on the Polo Fields of Indio. But the desert I remember is a different one, formed by long stretches of slow time, childhood time, where five minutes is an hour, almost tangible, stretched like calcite taffy across a blindingly white, hot concrete schoolyard. There were scorpions in the pantry, sand everywhere, and we drank Cactus Coolers and grinned with red teeth, shirtless in the dry heat. The cracked floor of the lake beds, long lakeless, spread in coded patterns. I thought it meant something. A coyote ate our cat. A bat tangled itself in my mother’s mane, heavy with hairspray. Once, a tortoise in a fenced habitat flipped onto its back, doomed, and we, our bellies full of El Pollo Loco, figured out a way to right the gorgeous reptile.
We liked doing desert things, or maybe we had only desert things to do. We packed lunches and went to the badlands of Rainbow Basin, where I wept in secret, its jagged, knuckled beauty carving some new language into me. We drove to the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, where, in White Sands National Monument, I saw a beautiful running beetle and was mesmerized. We plunged into Carlsbad Caverns, and I saw, or did not see, true darkness.
So it’s fitting that she’s come back to the desert. The drive feels like home. The highway, it suits me. I cross the state line into Arizona. Near the Palo Verde nuclear power plant, I head south on Route 85 to bypass Phoenix, link up with Highway 8, head east to meet the 10 again, and begin my descent into Oro Valley. Picacho Peak roars towering on the horizon, scratching at the clouds against a sea of sunset purples, swirling lavender, plum, periwinkle. This is as far west as the Civil War made it; there was a Confederate victory in this pass, but they are dead, and I am not. Idiots.
I pull into her apartment complex with sweat-damp hands on the steering wheel. She and Conner stand by the gate. She is already crying.
I exit my vehicle, and she steps toward me, timidly at first, then a rush, and her arms are around me, and I’m saying, “It’s okay, Mom, it’s okay.” She looks how I remember yet appropriately aged, her hair dyed a deep plum now after years of alteration. Conner has glasses like I did at his age, meeps a “hi,” looks how a 13-year-old should—unfashionable and awkward.
The beginning of the reunion is…anticlimactic. As most of life is, the true dust of living. I am here. It has happened. She asks if I’m hungry, and I eat a glass of whiskey. I’m a bit shaky. She can’t stop smiling.
The apartment is simple, nice, with many candles that have never been lit, wooden cutouts that read “smile” or “love.” There are few unique decorations, save for her bedroom, which I enter to use the bathroom after the long final leg of the drive and immediately see a wall of photos: her father, smiling in the ’70s, she and her sisters in front of an old Mustang, my own sister (the spitting image of Erin), a handful of Conner, and then me, age 27, an image printed from a magazine article in which I was featured. I close the door to urinate and immediately, violently cry. Full choke and shake.
We sit around the table, looking at the photographs I’ve brought with me while I ask Conner about his life. I try to remember 13, but it’s hazy, painful, and I turn my thoughts back to the present. I ask him the typical bullshit: how’s school, et cetera. He has a vibrant vocabulary for his age. He speaks in a metered, patient way, carefully choosing his words. He tells me his classmates are pretentious, and I’m glad he knows this word and knows to be wary of those who possess the quality.
My mother pauses on a photograph, my most recent ex, starts to say, “Is this…”
“We broke up.”
“Oh, honey, I’m sorry.”
We play a game, drink, and talk. Conner is funny, educated. He sheepishly explains “Netflix and chill” to Erin.
Eventually, my mother and I find ourselves having a cigarette on the balcony (Conner chastising her for this just as I once did), and the conversation turns serious. We talk about dating and relationships. A man her age has been texting her the middle-age equivalent of “send nudes,” pestering her even, and she asks if people do this. I say…sometimes. I tell her to text him “drop a pin,” and then have to explain what I mean by that, which is violence. It seems the fuckboy is ageless and everywhere.
She asks about Marian, who was my girlfriend just a desolate two months ago, the last time Erin and I texted. She, with a subtle tremble, asks if my romantic complications are because of her, her romantic failings, her removal. I tell her no, of course not, that’s some Freudian shit I don’t subscribe to.
What I really want to say:
Yes, of course, of course, I am a broken man, a boy, riddled with fractures and fissures that spread rootlike and distant from your maternal absence.
I feel like slug shit for telling her something I don’t mean, but then again, what am I supposed to say? She’s my mother, after all, and I don’t want her to hurt for any reason, not anymore.
Then a miracle happens. My perspective is changed. And let no one ever tell you that this is not a miracle, if maybe a minor one, for the gift of perspective is necessary in compassion, a value evaporating from America like the rainfall in the desert lake beds.
She admits mistake and infidelity, information she knows I’m aware of, but in doing so laments the extreme one-sided guilt placed upon her young back, as my father was equally philandering, if not more.
This, heavy in the dry balcony air, is news to me. It completely alters the narrative of blame during those years.
But then a realization that none of that matters now. And how freeing that feels.
Conner goes to bed, as does Erin. I sit in the living room, in the dark, and begin to cry again. I cannot move, upright and rigid at the dining table, beer in hand, my chest seismic. Hot tears, snot, and horror running down my contorted ugly mug, breathing void, facing a pure terror that regardless of all progression of time, regardless of all intent and fault, there is this wide chasm of something you will never have, a mother when you needed one dearly, and no matter how much of an adult or “A Man” you become, or whichever loves you discover or bloom untamable on your own, there will always be this colossal hole. This grand canyon.
When I wake, Conner and Mom are at school and work, respectively. I have the day to myself and decide I will hike into Catalina State Park. I want that desert beauty in the vein and time to think, to sort out my thoughts, my craggy emotions, unfettered by humanity or technology, of which my dependence is full-grown and pathetic.
But I need to buy more film and eat something before I venture into the granite foothills of Santa Catalina. I am perpetually in awe of the desert’s magnificence, but there is a new desert landscape that came with the sprawl — the suburban desert. Though surrounded by arid splendor, with the scent of yucca and sage thick in my nostrils, the once innumerable sights and smells have been severely truncated and replaced — gasoline, vehicular waste, baked concrete, Subway sandwiches, plastic, plastic, plastic. Every building is a chain or an apartment complex. Speed bumps seem to outnumber the saguaro.
I hate my goddamned car and the barren road, sneering at the fertile desert.
Once I’m in the park, time slows again, back to that youthful crawl. Initially, the quiet is stunning, until I realize it’s not quiet at all, and any number of buzzing insects and cawing birds and scuttling reptiles fill the wide, open air. Lizards glide across the trails, stop long enough to show their dissatisfaction with my presence, flicker into the broom dalea or Mormon tea. The shrubs are a language I wish I spoke. The few I can identify are not enough. My heart screams for complete knowledge, like Oedipa searching for Trystero, to be able to name each and every plant and know them intimately and why.
The hike covers simple trails and takes me approximately two hours. Save for the park ranger at the entrance and a few cars at the trailhead, I see not one other human being for the entire, blissful time. This shouldn’t be as rare as it is. What I do see is shadscale, fringed sage, prickly pear, saguaro upon saguaro, cholla, hundreds of cacti whose specific names I do not know, more lizards, javalina, a kangaroo rat, a few cactus wren. A bird I can’t identify by sight or sound hollers its high-pitched two-beat call into the creek bed where I’m walking, cautious eye to the ground for snakes, and I mimic the call with my whistle, surprising myself with my accuracy. The bird, to my utter astonishment, responds, and we converse like this for a full 15 minutes as he or she winds its way to me, perches upon a cholla, waits long enough for me to take its picture, and ventures on into its ordinary wilderness.
This trip has been full of coincidence and carbon copy, my desert youth and my mother’s current life so adequately mirrored, in scenery at least. I have long had a plan to name my daughter, should I ever be blessed with one, the same name of this state park. Conner is the same age I was when I last lived with Erin. Has she lived the same life twice? A son leaves, a son enters. Now she embarks on the period she’s never experienced, and I do the same, entering my thirties blind, deaf, dumb, and lost. I wonder what kind of man he will become. And what kind of man am I? I cannot explain the dream I currently exist within until it has ended.
When I am exhausted from the simple inclines, my ears fully annoyed by the insects trying to nest in them, I head back to the apartment. I get a text from my mom asking where I am as I pull into the parking lot. I find her in front of the complex and realize I am still wildly, wildly stoned from the park.
This is rich, I think. We’ve never done this. Me, lit like a lamp, grinning and stupid, trying to play it cool in front of Mom. She can tell something is up but is too far removed from this activity to know just what it is, so I tell her.
“Mom, I’m high.”
A neighbor approaches. He’s going to karaoke with his wife and invites us, but we decline. As we stand there chitchatting, however, Erin mentions for some reason, maybe to brag, that I have written for Cosmopolitan magazine. But when she does, when she tells the man how proud she was, she conjures this one false fact:
“He didn’t care. He was like, ‘Whatever, mom, it’s a chick magazine!’”
I never said this, nor did I say anything even close. In fact, it was one of my highest accomplishments, and I was immensely proud, beaming with joy and hunting for it at the newsstand when it finally published. I was amazed they let a doofus stoner boy like myself in their magazine.
But it dawns on me that this is how she will forever live, with me as a paused adolescent where we left each other, screeching, voice cracking, “Mom, get out of my room!” In the stillness of her memory, I stand on that calcite court, hair infantile soft and sun-blond, the crystalline blink of my L.A. Lights washed out in the bright. I am her boy, her young sweet boy, not a grown man, but a child of innocence sucked still into a slab of timeless quartz. It isn’t in a demeaning way, nor is it emasculating, but in her mind I will always be that prepubescent, sunshiny thing.
And Conner, the ghost runner of my life, continuing on with her.
We order a pizza, and I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to eat any of it. The three of us are utterly exhausted — physically, emotionally. We move to her bed since the television is in her room. It seems, however, that not much has been accomplished. Nothing particularly repaired nor gained.
But look at us here: a small, fragmented family again, but a family nonetheless, lying in bed full, tired, happy — just like it once was. And I’m no romantic when it comes to familial miracle and how fleeting this moment seems even as it seeps into my skin, but for two episodes of syndicated South Park, for one spring night in Oro Valley, six feet tangled at the foot of a bed. Rest.
The next morning, we get up and say goodbye. I have not seen a joy this pure in too long. She cautions me to be safe. I open my mouth to say, “Mom, I’m a gr — ”
“Don’t give me that ‘I’m a grown man’ shit!”
I let her have this one.
They have to leave before I do for their daily obligations. The apartment is still as I pack my things, load my car, grab breakfast at a Cracker Barrel since I haven’t been to a Cracker Barrel in 15 years, and get on the interstate.
Picacho Peak shrinks behind me, twin dust devils dance feral and free at the base of the mountains near the nuclear power plant, and I cross back into California, my home.
I plunge into the Moreno Valley, back into its rolling hills after exiting the harsh desert, simultaneously green and gold, swept with a paintbrush of hay, secretly rubbed by emeralds that have dashed off long ago. I ponder what I’ve just done, if it was important at all, if I made a difference.
My phone vibrates. A text.
“I don’t have words to express how thankful I am that you came out. I keep looking at the pics and getting so choked up. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Alan.”
The roadside is studded with symbols, runes on the off-ramps, codes, some clearer than others. One resolves, occurs like inspiration, like the apparition of a text message suddenly from the ether, some cosmic whisper, rips itself from a mulberry cloud, shreds the heavens and says:
That was the point, you realize? You made her happy, Alan; you examined and explored and were brave in the face of emotional fear, for yourself and for her, you sang a salve into her coral bones, and it matters not if anyone can see this, the winds of time have come to change you, to make good again on the relationships that are important and bloodline, to resynchronize your circadian rhythms, for you are capable of love and forgiveness in many forms, Oh! how mountainous you are, how much of a man you have become!
The highway is bleached and bright, and I have many miles to drive.