Everyone says they’re empty. Everyone says – vast and flat. Everyone – mesmerizing. Nabokov probably said somewhere – indomitable. But no one had ever told us about the highway storms once you reach the tablelands. You see them from miles away. You fear them, and still you drive straight into them with the dumb tenacity of mosquitoes. Forward, until you reach them and dissolve into them. Highway storms erase the illusory division between the landscape and you, the spectator; they thrust your observant eyes into what you observe. Even inside the hermetic space of the car, the wind blows right into your mind, through stunned eye sockets, clouds your judgment. The rain that falls down looks like it falls up. Thunder blasts so hard it reverberates inside your chest like a sudden uncontrollable anxiety. Lightning strikes so close you don’t know if it comes from outside or from inside you, a sudden flash illuminating the world or the nervous mess in your brain, cell circuits igniting in incandescent ephemeral interactions.
We pass the storm, but the rain continues as we drive across the northernmost tip of Texas, heading west toward New Mexico. We play a game now. The game is about names, about knowing the exact names of things in the desertlands we are driving toward. My husband has given the children a catalog of plant species, and they have to memorize names of things, things like saguaro, difficult names like creosote, jojoba, mesquite tree, easier names like organ pipe cactus and teddy bear cholla, names of things that can be eaten, prickly pears, nopales, and then names of animals that eat those things, spadefoot toad, sidewinder snake, desert tortoise, coyote, javelina, pack rat.
In the backseat, the boy reads them all aloud, saguaro, creosote, one by one, jojoba, mesquite, and his sister repeats them after him, teddy bear cholla, sometimes giggling when she finds that her tongue, nopales, cannot wrap itself around a word, spadefoot, sidewinder, and sometimes roaring out her frustration. When we stop for coffees and milks, in a diner by the side of the road, their father tests them. He points to the picture of a species, covering the name underneath the image, and the children have to call out the right name, taking turns. The boy has learned almost all the species by heart. Not the girl. No matter what object my husband points at, she invariably, and without hesitation, shouts:
And the rest of us, sometimes grinning, sometimes losing patience, answer:
Back in the car, she places the tip of her index finger on the window, pointing to nowhere and everywhere, and says:
She says the word like she’s discovered a new star or planet. But there are no saguaros here, not yet, because this is not the real desert yet, my husband explains. She’s not convinced and continues to count saguaros in the wet empty plains, but softly now, to herself, her sticky index finger dotting the foggy window with prints, and slowly mapping, indeed, the constellation of all her saguaros.
Later that day, in a gas station near Amarillo, Texas, we overhear a conversation between the cashier and a customer. As she rings him up, she tells him that the next day, hundreds of ‘alien kids’ will be put on private planes, funded by a patriotic millionaire, and they’ll be deported, back to Honduras or Mexico or somewhere in ‘South America’. The planes, full of ‘alien kids’, will leave from an airport not far from the famous UFO museum in Roswell, New Mexico. I’m not sure if when she says the words ‘alien kids’ and ‘UFO museum’, she’s stressing the irony of it or is completely unaware of it.
With a quick internet search, back in the car, we confirm the rumor. Or if not confirm, I at least find two articles that support it. I turn toward my husband, tell him we need to go to that airport. We have to drive there and be there when the deportation takes place.
We won’t make it on time, he says.
But we will. We are only a few hours away from the first town on the New Mexico–Texas border, a town called Tucumcari, where we can stop to sleep. We can wake up before dawn the next day and drive the two hundred miles or so south to that airport near Roswell.
How will we find the exact airport? he asks.
We just will.
And then what?
Then we’ll see, I say, mimicking a type of answer my husband often gives.
Then we’ll visit the UFO museum! says the boy from the backseat. Yes, I say, then the UFO museum.
My back is sweaty against the cracked black leather of the passenger’s seat, my body stiff from sitting in the same position for so long. In the back of the car, the children play. The boy says they’re both thirsty, lost and walking in the endless desert, says they’re both so thirsty and so hungry it feels like hunger is ripping them apart, eating them from the inside, says that hardship and hopelessness are now overtaking them. I wonder where his mind plucks those words from. From Lord of the Flies, I suppose. In any case, I want to tell him this reenactment game is silly and frivolous because – because what do they know about lost children, about hardship or hopelessness or getting lost in deserts?
Whenever the boy starts pretending, in the backseat, that he and his sister have left us, run away, and that they’re also lost children now, traveling alone through a desert, without adults, I want to stop him short. I want to tell them to stop playing this game. Tell them that their game is irresponsible and even dangerous. But I find no strong arguments, no solid reasons to build a dike around their imagination. Maybe any understanding, especially historical understanding, requires some kind of reenactment of the past, in its small, outward-branching, and often terrifying possibilities. He continues, and I let him continue. He tells his sister that they’re walking under the blazing sun, and she picks up his image, says:
We’re walking in the desert and it’s like we’re walking on the sun and not under it.
And soon we will die of thirst and hunger, he says.
Yes, she replies, and the beasts will eat us up unless we get to Echo Canyon soon!
Image © Moominsean