Driving. It makes you sit with things you haven’t sat with in a while:
Age. Yourself. Yourself at your age and all the ages you’ve seen in others but haven’t felt even though you know you will one day and some numbers might not necessarily feel as good as now. Hunger. If hunger continues to increase. For different things—others, aloneness, faith, hope, love, and snacks.
My parents are driving me to the boat that will take me to Alaska. We stop at Manzanita, Oregon, a little town with a little hotel where two drunk women open my bottle of wine on the balcony and scream at me about Sitka. What are my favorite things to do there? the one with tight orange curls asks.
“Fish for salmon,” I say. “Hike Harbor Mountain.” These things are true. I realize how simple some answers can be when the right questions are asked.
“Real salmon?” the one from New York says. Her teeth are turning the color of prunes like mine do. The sun has just dissolved into the navy blue sea and behind us a salmon-colored line stretches between sharp rocks and the silhouettes of beach-combing birds. The ocean’s roar is quiet and continuous. I want to do something with it. Drink it, maybe.
I go downstairs to get my bag, and in the shrubbery between the beach and the road, a tall coyote fixes me with dark eyes. I thought they’d be yellow and he would run. He just stands there. I want to stare at him forever and see what he’ll do, but then my dad starts clicking at him like he’s a dog, and he bounces out towards the waves.
In the morning, the tracks are everywhere: pencil-thin circles of them, then straight lines, squiggles, and separated sunken ones like the animals had a little dance party in the sand.
On the way here, I read Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. I can’t decide if I want oceans or mountains or just horses in a low field of long grass that turns to flowers in the spring. Some have shrunk and some have grown, but some of my dreams haven’t changed since I was a little girl. Petterson says: “The movement first and then the comprehension.” This is a good lesson, and I think it’s about approaching the things of dreams.
My dad likes to read every sign we pass. Salt water taffy. Shiatsu. The Human Bean. A Gypsy’s Whimsy. My mom likes to make comparisons: Portland’s tight streets are like New Orleans, Astoria’s hills dump you into intersections like Galena’s, the long log of driftwood we pass on the beach looks like the one her father brought home one day, out of nowhere, and covered with a squiggly piece of glass. It became a coffee table. It became trash when the kids kept breaking it and my grandma said, “no more.”
I can tell when my mom is thinking about her parents. I wonder if memories are the movement or the comprehension part of the Petterson equation or a little of both. Maybe we all have different ways of processing beauty and breaking it down so it makes more sense.
On 101, we pass crematories and creameries, a tree farm with thousands of trunks planted on a perfect and dizzying diagonal, halls of shade, and rows of auburn light.
I can tell that my dad wants to take pictures of everything. This is how he comprehends movement. Later, he will move the movements again, shifting the f-stop and aperture on the computer. He likes long shadows, the contrasts between sky and land. He yanks the car to the other side of the road and leaves the door open as he approaches the lip of the Pacific, crunching down on his knees and aiming the camera almost clear of the shore, up to where the clouds have been stretching thin all morning. On one spindly bridge, while he’s driving, he holds the camera up near the rearview mirror and videotapes our car just barely staying on the right side of the dividing line. My mom shakes her head and looks out the window at the white birds rising and falling in the wake.
I drive and read and see, backseat drive and write. Bright yellow bushes explode from the green. Two horses burst into movement and their tails follow. The ocean stays steady, moving, then moving back into itself.
I love how much we trust this type of travel. Engineers must have known the best road, though long, is the one the sea already chose.