The thing to do in my hometown, if it was a weekend and you weren’t old enough to drive, was a movie at the local mall. You might grab a slice of pizza first, but in any case, you needed a ride. Usually, the responsibility for my friends and me fell to Julia’s dad, a quiet guy with a moustache and thick glasses. Over the course of many ten-minute drives, he became privy to all the conspiracy theories and crushes that plague fourteen-year-old girls. It never occurred to us that he could hear from the front seat.
Three years later, if anyone’s dad had suggested driving us to prom, we would have been mortified. There were times and places for our dads and their cars—and far fewer of them, as soon as we learned how to drive ourselves. Then, we could come and go as we pleased. I kept the garage-door opener for my dad’s house in the console of my car, its shape distinctive enough to find by fishing in the pile of loose receipts and CDs.
Now, travel, by car or otherwise, with either parent leaves me nostalgic.This summer, when I flew to Arizona for a week of hiking with my dad, he held my boarding pass as he had when I was ten. When it was time to return from Grand Canyon National Park to the airport in Phoenix, he drove us across the state in a rental car whose cupholders we filled with trail mix. I put my feet up on the dash and napped. Later in the summer, as we took out our boots for a hike, my dad would turn to me and say, that’s Grand Canyon dust.
Because its terrain varies so much in elevation, Arizona is home to at least six biomes. My dad and I drove through desert scrub, where Saguaro cactuses stand like traffic cops. We drove through charparral, long plains studded with low bushes and houses visible miles before we reached them. Higher up, we drove through forests of fir and pine. It was like driving across the world.
I inherit two things from my dad: driving, and insomnia. On my sixteenth birthday, he surprised me by pulling around the car after breakfast and telling me to get in. I was terrified. He made me drive to a nearby parking lot and back. That year, before I was ready to try my mother’s manual-transmission car, teaching me to drive was my dad’s job. We made time for lessons when I was at his place. Our long Sunday drives traced tree-shaded roads in rural western Connecticut, out past the spot on the river where people go tubing.
“Lots of stupid and untalented people make perfectly good drivers,” my dad reassured me, when I despaired of ever learning how to drive. “Anyone can drive.” When I attempted parallel parking, he’d recite Woody Allen: “It’s O.K., I can walk to the curb from here.”
Now, both of us can drive, but neither of us has ever been able to sleep. I stay up too late, and my dad wakes up too early. When I was twelve and my parents separated, my dad wouldn’t give me the basement room at his house, because it is two flights of stairs away from his, and he didn’t want me to be lonely—to have trouble falling asleep.
When I was very young, my dad would wrap me in coats and put me in the car and drive me all over town until the rhythm of wheels on road put me to sleep. The year I was six and afraid of fireworks, he did this on the fourth of July, being careful to avoid the routes closest to the shows’ noise.
In Arizona my dad and I drove all day and night—into Flagstaff, “World’s First International Dark Sky City;” out of Flagstaff, down a stretch of highway adopted by the Flagstaff Optimists’ Club and another by the Baha’i Faith. We drove in the direction of the San Francisco Peaks. Massive, white-capped, the range would be celebrated in any other state, but in Grand Canyon country, it’s given short shrift. We drove into Sedona at sunset, when its red rocks glow like heat lamps. “Crystal Castles Metaphysical Department Store,” said a sign there. Late, we saw signs for a river called Big Bug Creek and a town named Bumble Bee.
In the middle of nowhere, before we got to Phoenix, my dad pulled off the road. “I’m going to close my eyes for just a minute,” he said. “And when I awake, you can remind me to tell you the story of the Death Valley real estate opportunity.” On the road there was time for stories. My dad, being my dad, knows everything about me, but I hadn’t known why he didn’t serve in Vietnam (his December birthday was late in the lottery) or the five American cities he would choose to show a tourist (Seattle made his list). My dad believes that Oreos and oranges are the best snacks for hiking, and that Gatorade is important. My dad’s ex-girlfriend was not a good travel companion, too fussy but—my dad told me—I am good to travel with, because I’m always game.
We were still an hour out of Phoenix when we saw six javelinas, hairy Southwestern pigs, in the light of our headlamps. By this time of night, long stretches of highway were empty—except for the pigs. We waited for them to nose their way across the road and then pulled off for gas. Besides Coke and cigarettes, the convenience store sold antiques, marijuana paraphernalia, and a broad array of magazines. Outside, a sign on the door read, “100’S OF KNIVES.”
Let’s stop and poke around, I suggested. Why not, said my dad, resigned, laughing. It was so late already. Together we peered at the weirdest merchandise. Behind the counter stood a greasy-haired teenage boy and, next to him, something labeled “Fully Functional Umbrella/Sword $36.99.”
We paid for our drinks and got back in the car. We were flying out of Phoenix the next day, very early. We were going to use our hotel room there for four, maybe five, hours of sleep. “If I was your age,” my dad told me, “I would just sleep in the car. Cancel the hotel room.”
“Let’s do it!” I said, but he shook his head and drove on. There is a difference between being twenty and your daughter being twenty. He wasn’t about to let me sleep on the side of the road.
When we got to the hotel in Phoenix the desert night was still warm. It took us a few minutes to find parking—desperate minutes: we couldn’t believe that after such a long drive, there was going to be no parking at the end. Toting duffel bags, we spilled into the florescent lobby, where there were two men dressed business-casual with two women whose short skirts and high heels and makeup were all wrong. I had never seen a prostitute before. We went upstairs to our room, and I spent some time on the balcony, green light drifting up from the hotel pool, as my dad inside tried to sleep. The next morning, we turned in the rental and flew home.
Back home, late in the summer, my dad and I were in the car again, and he remembered the story of the thousand frogs. He had never told me this story before. One night when I was two, he was driving me down an empty road in New Hampshire, after a rainstorm. He was trying to help me fall asleep. The road was wet, slick, and the frogs were out because of the weather. There were thousands of them, my dad told me, hopping all over the road. He must have crushed dozens of frogs as I slept in the passenger seat, the road ribboned beneath us, and he drove me, smoothly, on and on into the night.