One touch of nature makes the whole world kin. William Shakespeare
My brother, Jim, had been living in El Paso for 25 years. At 63, he is four years younger than me. He shared a bathroom with a roommate in an old apartment building downtown and seemed to be doing ok. I used to visit him every other year or so and I noticed his health slowly declining. He had serious diabetes and problems with production from his thyroid. His roommate, who had been a great help, left a few months previously and Jim’s health had rapidly declined.
He was staying in a nursing home on the east side of El Paso. I was still quite unfamiliar with driving a 5-ton, 24-foot house on wheels. That morning, when I set out to visit Jim, it began to rain. A summer storm in Texas. The GPS pointed over the mountain to El Paso. I started that way and ran into a major hill. I had already learned to watch the temperature gauge in situations like that and the needle crossed the mid-line and headed toward the red. It was enough to scare me off and I u-turned back down the slope. I would learn.
Entering into downtown El Paso during rush hour, five lanes are squeezed into two. There was construction everywhere, with old lanes suddenly ending and new ones, made of traffic cones, popping up where you least expect them. I had not paid any attention to the windshield wipers, where the rubber had essentially wasted away and the metal holders were squeeking their way across the glass, leaving arcs on the windshield that like looked like eyebrows … as if anyone could see through the downpour.
Soon water began to drip down the front of the driver’s side. I pictured waves slapping around in the coach behind me. I was powering through a disaster zone with no clear idea where I was going, trying to follow the GPS on my phone, which was sliding around the dashboard.
Eventually I navigated my way across town and parked outside the nursing home. I dared not to look for leaks, knowing they were only going to get worse while the RV sat in the street. I couldn’t avoid seeing the water forming blobs under the cab roof and the ceiling over the bathroom.
For the next couple of days, I visited with Jim and ran some errands for him. Over the years, we had written to each on a regular basis … I actually put his letters into a book … but I was not aware of the extent of the decline in his health. He was resigned to essentially being bed-ridden and blind. He said that he “takes a lot of trips in his head”. I told him that his sisters and I would start sending him books on tape.
His army disability was paying the bills and Jim, if not comfortable, had accepted his fate. He was going to need 24-hour care for the rest of his life. When I asked him what he wanted (thinking about getting stuff at the store), he answered “… to be cremated next Tuesday”. He was a little depressed.
On the last day of August, driving back across the scrub of the New Mexico desert in one 12-hour stretch, I was able to reflect on the situation. The RV and I were developing a relationship. We became one. I decided to call her Alice. I shifted her gears more subtly with my foot on the gas pedal and I talked to her while we took on a hill. I had a clearer sense of edging slightly to the side of the lane to give others more room. I settled into 65 miles per hour and steered ever so slightly into the wind. I could feel the huge semi-trucks coming as they roared up beside me, pushing the air out of the way across my bow. I ignored the water spots for now. One thing at a tme.
In the back of my mind, I felt like my brother could have made more of an effort when he saw this deterioration coming. Of course, I had no idea of the forces that he faced. It occurred to me that he was acting in a self-destructive way and I wondered how much of that I had struggled with in my own life. I had been through enough challenging situations to know clearly that there is a point, somewhere along the line, where you just want to give up. My English public school education might have helped there. The teachers (masters) were all very smart men, many of them were rugby coaches. They had no time for one who did not want to try. My hours and hours of wrestling with Latin were as tough as any rugby practices. Giving up was just not an option. One did not resign to fate.
At least I was reassured that Jim was being taken care of and I put him in my prayers.
By the time I was approaching the coast of California again, Alice and I had an understanding. I would respect her gears and she would grind up any hill without overheating. I was feeling a little more comfortable. Those of us who have been around for a while know that’s when the shit usually hits the fan. Our relationship was about to be cemented in a typical Southern California way.
The ladies at the desk in Indio had scared me off taking highway 74, west across the mountains from Palm Springs. “Very, very winding roads”. So I took the freeway toward Oceanside. Along the way, back in traffic after cruising the desert for days, I was on edge. I had already learned to watch the traffic getting on the freeway as early as possible, in order to adjust speeds. We weren’t nimble, Alice and I. It would take a while to move a 24-foot RV out of the way if I made a mistake.
I was on the inside lane, coming down Interstate 15, watching a truck merge onto the highway in front of me. He looked a bit shaky, but none of us were going fast. I slowed to let him in.
It was one of those glass-carrying trucks … with large sheets of glass fastened either side of a big triangular frame on the back. I couldn’t see around him. As soon as he merged into the lane, he slammed on his brakes. I’m not sure if he hit the car in front of him, but it was dramatic. Glass exploded in tiny pieces everywhere, like a snowstorm. Showers of shining light, bursting into the air. I literally stood on Alice’s brakes as hard as I could. I had to hold her steady. Swerving was out of the question. Traffic whizzed by in the other lanes. I thought we might hit the glass truck, but the brakes on the old girl worked very well. I couldn’t see below the hood, but I had learned that the drivers seat is quite far forward … beside, rather than behind … the engine. So I turned the front wheels to the right and I seemed to have a bit of room. Fortunately, I remembered to look in the little (wide angle) side mirror and saw a couple of cars already swerving around. I waited, then followed them and left the shattered scene behind. I felt for the guy. Could have been there with him. I thought it was going to be a right mess for a moment or two. Well done, old girl. We were now one.
In the midst of all this, I had completely forgotten that it was Labor Day Weekend. When I reached the sea, I found myself winding between used car lots in Oceanside, looking for a place to stay. The only space I found was $90 a night. Planning ahead, maintenance, expenses … there was just so much to think about all the time.
Ants invaded the RV in Oceanside. Apparently, they work the luxury spots. I learned that Comet, though undignified, works well. After two days, I escaped the high prices to Caspers Wilderness state park, east of Irvine, California. It was there I took my first break. There was power, but no wi-fi or cell signal. I hiked around and had a chance to let things settle. I even took some pictures.
My attempts to sleep that night were punctuated by the thump of what I came to be sure were explosions. Far enough away not to worry, but close enough to mean something. Reminded me of the dynamite explosions we kids used to watch when they putting in the huge storm drains in Darwin. The mostly East-European immigrant workers would lay a huge sheet of thick, corrugated iron over the hole they drilled in the dirt street and loaded with dynamite. When they blew it, the iron would lift a couple of feet into the air, while bits of rock flew everywhere, including through the masonite walls of the nearby houses.
Day and night, the semi-desert serenity of Southern California was rocked by the training efforts of the Marines at Camp Pendleton, just to the south. There’s only one way to practice blowing stuff up.
A diesel tractor, pulling a huge semi-trailer that (I supposed from its elaborate front door) had been converted, pulled up to the spaces at Caspers Wilderness. The driver expertly backed it into the space next to mine and, leaving it running, took off with a blonde friend in a new Range Rover. He returned, after about 20 minutes, and seeing me sitting at a table outside, approached. Danny explained that his problem was that the 30 amp power into his Big Rig might not be enough, so that his batteries would drain over night. He was going to move, so he didn’t want to have to restart the truck. He parked a couple of spaces over, presumably at a 50 amp connection. I was starting to get a sense of how committed some folks are to this lifestyle. The fact that so many people at these parks were doing fine, in fact, seemed happy, was reassuring.
I was about to dive into the city again. Long Beach this time. There was an RV park near the Queen Mary that I wanted to check out. My cousin was coming out from England and embarking from there on a cruise to Mexico in a couple of days and my 50th high school reunion was being held at a nearby restaurant in a couple of weeks.
‘Taking a break’ was to become a theme. There is almost a sound to being out in Nature. A vibration you can feel when you slow down. A connection beyond words. As if, when I took the time, stopped and looked around, a space inside me filled back up. One couldn’t do it all the time – falling into one’s surroundings and forgetting. But every now and then is good for the soul.
During these pauses in the swing of the pendulum, I could see that there is no reaching back into the past. I am learning that, if you want something you think you missed, you are going to have to return the way you came. You have to pick up every stitch. Shortcuts pull the fabric apart in subtle ways.
If you left a thread dangling … brushed off … probably blew away … ‘you hardly know it’s there’. You will see that thread again, and it will be stuck to something by then. Recreating the past is not possible. That is not the nature of change. The real future comes unannounced.
The swinging of the pendulum, the rising and setting of the sun, the procession of the tides and the breath that flows in and out of the body … they all need that pause that marks the limits of their presence, or they wouldn’t be anywhere at all. Things aren’t things, they are rhythms. Some very slow and some very fast … perceptions off the spectrum for most of us. Finding a path in Nature reminds me of who I am. The one who’s looking.