It’s getting dark when the road curves into Moab. My twenty-two year old daughter is with me on my cross-continent divorce odyssey. Six weeks ago, her dad told me our thirty-year marriage was over and my life feels as stark as the landscape that surrounds us. I’ve made a reservation at a swank place called the Red Rock Inn, but it’s somewhere in a canyon and the road is a thread of asphalt in the dark. The setting sun has turned the cliffs the color of blood, and the blackness is waiting to drop like a curtain. “Maybe we should turn around,” I tell Colette. “Get a motel in downtown Moab. Find this place in the morning.” I’m afraid of plunging into the water I hear coursing below us. Afraid of missing a curve and drilling us into a mountain. Afraid of living a life I can’t even begin to imagine.
“Go a little farther,” Colette says. There are mile markers on the side of the road and she’s reading them. The directions say something about mile forty-three. When we spot the gate we’re past it. “Turn around here,” she says, but the thought makes my stomach plummet. It’s dark and the shoulders look crumbly. “Let me drive,” she says, but there’s nowhere to pull over and I imagine a pick-up truck barreling around a curve. The tangle of metal and our screams. My hands are soldered to the steering wheel. “Just turn the fuck around,” Colette says.
“I can’t do it.” I say.
“Right there,” she shouts, pointing to a spot on the opposite shoulder. Craning my neck to see around the next curve, I hold my breath and nose the car onto the patch of gravel. Tears spill from my eyes as I jerk the car into reverse and point us back toward the inn.
The Red Rock Inn is a cowboy’s dream and the moon is rising over the cliffs. We eat dinner in the dining room. High timbered ceilings and chandeliers fashioned out of antlers. Medallions of elk that taste like manna. Red wine like nectar. Sated, we stumble across the gravel parking lot to our room under a tent of stars.
In the morning, we drive into Arches National Park. Salt is the reason for the towers and bridges that formed here. An ancient sea eradicated by time, its aftermath reshaped by pressure and the elements. What remains is spectacular, and we drive and stop, drive and stop, getting out of the car to snap pictures until we realize that there’ll be just one amazing vista after another. Around every curve is another intake of breath. At some point, I think, I’ll turn a corner and my own salty tears will produce a new life of awe and beauty.
Later we visit a dusty rock shop on the main drag in Moab. An old guy who looks like he’s pretty close to being a fossil himself perches behind a crowded display case as Colette and I roam the aisles. I feel like a fossil, too. Fifty-four years old and now my husband has taken up with a woman more than twenty years younger.
The following day, I drive us out of Moab on a two-lane road under a wet grey sky. Signs warn us of big horn sheep, deer and eagles on the roadway. We drive all the way through Monument Valley in the rain. Skylines of ruined cities waver in the mist and turn out to be only rock. When we come upon what appear to be the pillars of a destroyed ancient kingdom, Colette delivers a line from Shelley’s famous poem, Ozymandias, “Nothing beside remains,” she says. I know what she’s thinking. The two of us have always loved this piece of verse. For years, a copy of it hung on our refrigerator. I wanted a daily reminder of the impermanence of worldly goods and earthly accomplishments. It had scared me to think of the pride I’d felt when I first saw my husband’s name on the front of a building in downtown Los Angeles. “Look, there’s our name,” Colette said one winter night when she was seven or eight and we’d taken a cab downtown to meet him. Where were the warning signs, I wondered, to keep a person from becoming a casualty of that?
The rain continues all day. “Watch for Horses,” the signs say. “Watch for Wild Animals.” But I’m not as tense about the driving as I might be. Then I figure out why. There are no big trucks. There’s nowhere for a truck to deliver its goods. There are no goods. No Wal-Mart, K-Mart, or Target. No superstores, no strip-malls, mini-malls, no malls at all. Occasionally, we drive by a trading post—plywood shelters at the side of the road, sagging and empty in the weather. Ghost towns of commerce. The tiny houses we drive past look like they’re made of cardboard. Renditions constructed by a careless child for a school project, then tossed into this infinite landscape. Nothing at all like the solid brick and stucco house in Los Angeles where my husband and I raised our daughters. But that house seems flimsy now too—a pile of emotional rubble rising up like dust. The scent of my husband’s girlfriend’s perfume still in the air.
Back in L.A. I’m trying to buy a house of my own. The message on my cell-phone says my real estate agent, Jenny, wants to talk to me. The sellers are impatient and cranky enough to call off the deal. We’ve missed the deadline for the next step of our transaction. When I try to call her back there’s no reception. What I wanted to tell her was that I couldn’t sign off on the contingencies. There’s no Kinko’s, no Fed Ex, no UPS. “Tomorrow,” I tell her when the call finally goes out, “I’ll be at the Grand Canyon Hotel.” There I’ll have the Internet and can read the documents she’s sent me; sign and fax and make everybody happy.
The hotel lobby looks like a fancy saloon from a TV western. There are two restaurants on site and we’ve bought a package deal that includes meals and the old-fashioned locomotive to the canyon.
The disappointment creeps over us slowly. The Disneyland-long line and the unfriendly spiel at check-in. The wilted overcooked dinner. The Internet connection that doesn’t seem to be working. “There is no internet,” the desk clerk in her standard issue vest and bolo tie tells me when I go downstairs to inquire.
“Motel 6 and Econo Lodge have internet,” I say, pleading my case as I ask about their hotel business center.
“We have no business center,” she says.
“I need to close a real-estate deal,” I tell her. “Is there anywhere I can pick up a signal?” She writes down a network name and a password and tells me to drive to the RV park down the road.
It’s dark already and the hotel complex is massive. The parking lot alone stretches out for blocks. I don’t want to get into the car and drive—afraid I’ll become disoriented—never find the RV park and lose the entrance to my wing of the hotel. So I walk around the building with my laptop open, my eye on its wireless icon like a thirsty rancher with a dowsing rod. There’s got to be a signal out here somewhere.
Eventually, I give up and put on my coat and get into the car. I’ve already told my husband I don’t want the house where we’ve raised our daughters. There are too many memories and now he’s planning on starting his new family there. New babies will sleep in our daughters’ rooms and their birthday cakes will grace the dining room where we sang Happy Birthday to one another. I find the RV Park and camp under a streetlight with my laptop wedged behind the steering wheel. I answer Jenny’s questions, and download the pages of gibberish it takes to close a real estate deal in California.
My husband and I stopped at the Grand Canyon when we moved out to California in 1975. I remember driving into the parking lot, looking into the chasm, and then walking away. Now I can’t imagine why we didn’t hike to the bottom, stay for a while and let the wonder sink into us. This is Colette’s first trip to the Grand Canyon, so after we get off the train, we sit on a bench and stare over the edge for a while. We have only a few hours before we must catch the train back to our hotel, but we buy bottles of water and walk down the Bright Angel Trail for thirty-five minutes. We’ve been told how to compute the time. Twice as much time to come back up as it takes to go down which turns out to be a modest assessment of the effort this hike requires. I can only take ten paces on the way up before I must stop and rest. I’ve missed an opportunity here, I think, gasping for air. I should have done this when I was younger.
We browse in one of the shops before it’s time to get back on the train. There’s beautiful Native American pottery, rugs, and Zuni fetishes. The snake means rebirth, the horse: healing, the beaver: family. I need all of these things now–just six weeks after my thirty-year marriage has fallen apart. But I can’t decide. I buy nothing.
Back on the Interstate outside of Williams, we find a Fed-Ex. I print out the forms Jenny sent me, sign them and fax them back. We find a Starbucks and a Target. I feel dusty and tattered; want to shed my skin so I buy a clean white t-shirt and a leather jacket. My L.A life seems poised a few calendar squares away, waiting to meet me. Last stop: Vegas.
It’s dark so much earlier now than it was three weeks ago when we started out in Nova Scotia. Every evening as the sky loses its light I feel my anxiety rising like the moon. I think of what it’ll be like to live alone. How I’ve always been afraid of the dark. Afraid in the bedroom I shared with my sister. Afraid with my parents just down the hall or down the stairs.
The road exists in a realm beyond darkness. It winds through nothing until it reaches the parking lot at Hoover Dam. I park the car and we get out into the hot western night and the glare of lights only serves to accentuate the darkness, narrow your pupils and render you blind when you leave there. “I have a bottle of rum in the trunk,” Colette says. “I’m going to drive. You should drink some.” I tell her no thanks, afraid if I drink, I’ll feel worse. We get back in the car and snake downward. I see angels sculpted out of stone, floodlit and spectral, soaring out of the blackness. Come to carry me home, I think, clutching the door handle. “Slow down,” I say as the road slinks lower and the earth below it drops lower still.
“I can get that rum out of the trunk,” Colette says.
“There’s nowhere to pull over,” I tell her.
“You’ll feel better if you drink it. Drink the damn rum, Mother.”
“No thanks,” I say and we drive on in the blackness. No white lines on the edges. Black road blurring into blackness.
Hours later, our journey almost over, we crest a hill and Las Vegas appears below us like a carnival surrounded by landing strips in an ocean of lighthouses on the Fourth of July. We laugh the way those dying of thirst might laugh at the sight of water. We laugh and keep laughing, and drive into the light.
About The Author:
Denise Emanuel Clemen began writing at age 49. She’s worked as an art model, an au pair in Paris, an assembly-line worker in a toy factory and an actress. Publications include the Georgetown Review, and two WriteGirl anthologies. She’s been honored by American Pen Women, and has recently received fellowships to The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Vermont Studio Center. She is currently working on two memoirs and a novel. Denise is represented by the Amy Rennert Agency