Go with the flow. So much easier said than done.
I awoke this morning covered in sand; I’m writing this from the waiting room of a car dealership in Palm Springs, Calif.; and I can’t help but reflect on everything I wanted this road trip to be, versus the way things actually are.
In the time leading up to now, my girlfriend and I planned every detail for our weeklong trip to Joshua Tree National Park. All was perfect when we left Carbondale Saturday morning. Then the check-engine light flicked on near Grand Junction.
Heavy rain pounded the windshield. What to do?
The thing with Volkswagens is that not just any mechanic can work on them, or even look at them. You have to go to a certified person, and the nearest place to help you might be very far away. Our options were limited — turn around or press on. We pressed on at a slower speed.
The rain passed by the time we crossed into Utah. It seemed our plans were back on track with one large asterisk. The new plan was to find a mechanic in California. Otherwise we were making great time, and I was looking forward to getting a motel room near Las Vegas for one last bed and shower before camping for a week.
We sped into the Virgin River Gorge as the sun set. I stuck my hands through the sunroof, feeling great. An Eagles song played on the radio — “I want to sleep with you in the desert, with a million stars all around...” I sang along, glancing at Mandi in the driver seat. But I was still attached to the idea of a comfy room.
“I’m sorry, everything between here and Vegas is booked for the weekend,” the concierge told us in Mesquite, Nev.
We pulled off the interstate three more times in Vegas and were told the same thing. I asked the manager of a burger joint where we could find Wi-Fi. He directed us to a parking lot.
Parked under a streetlamp, we searched the Web for answers to our problems. We needed directions through the Mojave National Preserve in addition to VW dealership information. We got directions but nothing else.
I got out to check the oil again. We could only guess what the check-engine light meant. The owner manual simply says to take the car to a dealer. I’ve heard Volkswagens are among the most over-designed cars, so why wouldn’t VW excel at designed obsolescence as well, I thought, popping the hood. That’s when I noticed the two shady guys watching from an idling SUV.
They were parked at an angle, facing us from a short distance. I thought of our car with out-of-state plates, loaded to the gills, and us sitting there with our laptops. The guys might have just been waiting for a friend, but I didn’t trust them.
They lingered for 10 minutes. I watched them and they rolled off when I wasn’t looking. Vegas. The longer I was there, the more I yearned to be rid of it, though that meant not knowing where else to sleep.
After a 20-minute excursion to find a gas station that sold diesel, Mandi and I were getting short with each other. Stress set in and snapped out. All we knew is that we had to keep going farther down the road, however long that was, before we found someplace we wanted to be. But we didn’t want to keep going, either.
Into the night we went, past a five-lane car accident and sprawling, blinking casino lights stamping my brain. I welcomed the darkness when it came.
We turned off on a lonely stretch of pavement that led into the Mojave Preserve. I eased off the gas, straining my eyes for a pullout to sleep. I was about to give up on our luck when we found a spot.
We threw down a tarp and cozied up, head to head.
“That’s Cassiopeia,” Mandi said. “And do you see that second star from the end of the Big Dipper — it’s actually two.”
Sure enough, when I looked close, I could see it, but only in a place like that.
The night spread over us like a bubble of awe. Only hours before I tried desperately to avoid that outcome — speeding into the unknown — and now I am forever grateful I had.
The trip still is far from perfect. We’ve lost several half days trying to fix the car; my allergies are killing spirit; a windstorm filled our tent with sand; and all I want is to enjoy a national park I’ve never seen. And we’re still bustling around a city. I feel like I drove a thousand miles just to deal with a daily grind.
Yet here I am, finding peace as I realize the only place I want to be is in a headspace where petty problems don’t hold water. That’s the “Flow,” which it seems I found just in time to meet this column deadline.
Cheers y’all. Thanks for reading. Catch you down the road. For now, the adventure continues to unfold.
— “Open Space” appears on the second and fourth Friday of every month. Derek Franz lives in Carbondale and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.