Goddamn California

More expensive, more crowded—and more beautiful.

It’s the little things, at first. How, when it came time to buy the fluid for the transfer case, Grainger politely said the brand I preferred couldn’t be shipped to California. Or, once I’d found a substitute, drained all the old blood into a bucket, then carefully poured it back into the empty containers, the local parts store told me they couldn’t take all the fluid for recycling at once. I’d have to come back tomorrow with the rest, and oh, we can’t accept the empty containers, either.

And that’s the noise that infuriates me. Because I’m not the asshole dumping this shit ​down a storm drain​​​down a storm drain. I’m trying to do right. Play by the rules and make certain my daughter has a green Earth to call home when she’s grown. And some goon’s making it harder than it needs to be. Some goon who’s abiding by some corporate policy, some corporate policy influenced by legislation with its heart in the right place and its head up its ass.

Or, trying to find parking in San Francisco, where the sign on the lot says $25 per day. It’s close to outrageous, but where else can we leave the rig? And when it’s pissing rain, and we’re fighting to get Kiddo into her coat and boots, the attendant takes one look at our license plate and says, no, you’re oversized. You’ll need to pay $45. Did I say $45? I meant $65. And it takes all the sleep-deprived restraint I can muster not to drive straight through the bastard’s little glass booth on my way out. Greetings from Tennessee, jackass.

Or, how everything’s so goddamned expensive. From fuel to food to a place to be for the night, the state’s bleeding us dry. We’re so close to the end of this thing. To needing to find and fund the necessaries that go with a planted life. The beds and mattresses, the wardrobes and kitchen tables. The tidy world of things we abandoned when we left Knoxville. I feel every dime that passes from our palms. Every time I see diesel for more than we’ve paid all trip. Or propane. Or milk.

Beth Bowman

I’m ready to say to hell with the place and gun for Nevada. Arizona, maybe. But Beth reminds me we’re due in Los Angeles. That we have a camera waiting for us there, fresh from a factory repair after Kiddo drug it off a bench and bounced it off a sidewalk back in Washington. And there’s more I want to see. Joshua Tree and Death Valley. San Diego, where my grandfather spent his Navy years keeping Corsairs flying. Where my oldest uncle was born.

So we turn inland, away from the coast and the cities, on towards the dusty, churning gut of the state. Out highway 25, past Hollister where a few straggling wineries give way to something that feels a little more honest. There, the road’s tangled up in hills and farms, constricting around ancient blue oaks with their tortured trunks and small, water-savvy leaves, the branches heavy with long and pointed acorns. The fruit of autumn.

When we leave the highway and turn further towards the sticks, we startle a California condor off its perch, its wide and massive wings opening over the dark barbed wire where it sat, pumping hard in two beautiful strokes and soaring low over the empty field to our east. We find a scrap of a BLM area with two campgrounds, both clean, empty, and entirely free. I pull into a site, and shut off the truck, the big Cummins rattling itself to sleep. The silence that follows is a breath. A gift. There’s nothing around us but the lion-hide hills, their sides glowing gold in the late-afternoon sun.

It’s the first time since Utah that I’ve felt so still. Not looking on to where we’re headed next, my mind not panting with the world of worries I’ve stirred up for myself.

Beth Bowman

We settle in. Take our time with our days. Easy mornings of breakfast and coffee, dishes and writing, Kiddo trundling around with her mother outside, gathering acorns like prizes and conquering the short rises near the truck. The gorgeous dry grass sways at her chest and the light sets her red hair ablaze, roaring at the blue sky above. They’re the first good days in a month, maybe.

The nights are cold, and Beth and I sit outside after our girl goes to sleep, watching the stars wake up. And oh, how they wake. I’m done living places where I can’t see the Milky Way. Done being somewhere I can’t be smalled by the great and glowing universe out our window, our galaxy whispering the old truth, dusty as the fields around us, that we are small, and smallness is good.

How many shooting stars had I seen before we set off on this trip? One? Two? Now we see them every night, low, burning things, orange on the Oregon coast or white sparks high in this California sky. We sit in the dark until our eyes grow accustomed to the dimness, separating ourselves from the shadows around us, and watch. Beth asks what I wish for. What could I? A beautiful and healthy daughter? Happy and brighter than any of the burning bodies above us? A loving wife with a full heart? One that tolerates the flash of my temper and my constant, pouring dissatisfaction? A life fuller than this?

The mornings are spectacular. Kiddo’s awake before the sun, and what we see when our old star makes its way over the hills to the east is so beautiful it hurts. Every stalk of long, white grass glows and drips with morning light, the valley below us shrouded in low fog.

Goddamn, California.

[EDITOR’s NOTE: This post concludes Zach’s yearlong assignment reporting from the road for The Drive, and sharing the Bowman family’s incredible odyssey through America.]