The first time I ever heard my mother swear was in the ferry parking lot at Port Angeles, Washington. I was eleven years old, my sister D was nine and our baby sister T was almost two. We’d missed the ferry we wanted to take and the only way guaranteed to get on the early morning ferry to Victoria was to spend the night in our Ford Aerostar in the ferry landing parking lot. Aerostars had seats that folded down to make a van-sized bed and our family of five hunkered down. Mom was stressed; we’d been on the road for days and had some Huerta-typical brushes with death. Dad passed out immediately. D and I giggled as we always did before bed. Baby T, as always was a restless little night owl. As we were drifting off to sleep, Baby T must have wriggled herself too close to our exhausted, road-weary mom because out of nowhere our sweet, Jehovah’s Witness mama channeled the voice of Satan and growled to our baby sister:
“Get your fucking feet off my fucking face.”
D and I looked at each other with absolute shock, our faces orange in the lights in the ferry parking lot. D reached out and held my hand, her eyes wide in terror. I prayed to Jehovah. I literally thought the world was ending, the promised apocalypse had arrived. Mom wouldn’t even let me sing Supersonic by JJ Fad because it said the word hell. But she’d said fuck, twice, to a baby.
Two weeks ago I was at the same ferry landing in Port Angeles, Washington, waiting for the car ferry to Victoria. I cracked up as I told my partner H about that night and that particular road trip in general. Baby T had almost died on a few occasions. Once she almost fell over a cliff. Another time she almost drowned in the swimming pool at the Red Lion hotel. It was 26 years after that “mom-said-fuck” road trip. As H and I drove from San Diego to Port Angeles, memories of that wild journey tumbled back. How D and I had been obsessed with the Shirley Temple film The Little Princess and took turns pretending to be Sara Crewe, the princess turned slave, and Becky, her cockney-speaking friend. Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox and Trees of Mystery in the redwoods. Clam chowder, I fucking loved clam chowder.
H and I are all about road trips. We met and fell in love when I was on a road trip to New Mexico. A little over a year later, I drove my trusty truck up to Vancouver, where we loaded up all his shit and road tripped down to San Diego. We’ve road tripped in Baja. Through Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. We road tripped up two weeks ago to spend the holidays with his family, in a cabin on Vancouver Island. On the ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria we saw a pod of orca. I’d never seen orca in the wild before and my heart rang out with joy. Travel miracles abound.
Road rules are real. The driver chooses the music/audiobook/podcast. Passenger is navigator. Switch off driving equally. Fast food is king. Cheap hotels are fascinating; all we require is a bed to collapse on before the next early morning. Conversations with strangers are obligatory.
We found a fish and chips place on Vancouver Island, recommended by the locals. A wharf. Snub nosed fishing boats painted in primary colors. Gulls gliding in the icy wind. Choppy waves that could have been painted by Bob Ross. I wanted fish and chips, I wanted grease and beer and to peer into the local flavor. Bearded, salty dog looking men sat at the bar. We joined them. Eyebrows raised. These were zero bullshit folk. They took one look at us, one immediately said in a wind hoarse voice:
“You’re not from around here.”
My dad says one of his first memories is of a tractor. He thinks he was about two. The tiny village where he lived in Mexico was a farming/fishing village. He was born by a river. The spirit of the river claimed him as his own, but that’s another story. His village had no road. It was jungle. He was playing in the dirt outside him home when he heard a monster. The sound came closer. A tractor rumbled into view, slicing through the jungle, tossing plants aside, gouging the earth up. A road was being built through the center of the village. The jungle didn’t grow back. Trucks passed through and buses. One day, when my dad was six years old, his mother got on a bus heading north. He was eleven before he saw her again.
When I was a kid, I honestly didn’t notice we were always the only brown family at roadside attraction, campsites and National Parks. Our little family was a fun-riot, arguing, telling jokes, laughing, singing. I learned every Beatles lyric on our road trips. I remember listening along to the radio on a trip to Utah, asking my parents where Beirut was, and what was a hostage. I remember my parents cracking each other up. My mom peeing into a cup on a long stretch of desolate highway. Dad shouting back “Look at that rock!” every ten minutes and pointing to something he found beautiful. I remember loving rest areas, fascinated by something I couldn’t name at these spots for peeing, stretching. I couldn’t figure out why they felt so sad. But I never noticed we were almost always the only brown folk. I remember my dad strumming his guitar at a campfire, singing his beloved Ranchera songs and a family of Germans joined us. The German father kept exclaiming I LOVE Mexicans!
In 1961 my father and his brother and sister were playing outside their grandmother’s house, where they had lived since their mother had moved north. A wood-paneled station wagon rolled up slowly then parked. A tall white man got out of the driver’s side. My aunt Silvia, nine years old, took one look at him and started screaming “The vaccination man is here! Hide!” My dad, Uncle Rey and Aunt Silvia took off, screaming and running so they wouldn’t have to get vaccinated. A woman jumped out of the passenger side and started chasing them.
“Hector! Silvia! Rey! It’s me! Your mom!” She had returned, on the same road that had taken her out. She had a new husband, one who didn’t beat her or have dozens of children with other women. He was American. A World War II veteran. George. He showed them where a grenade had blown off his index finger; the soft, boneless stump reviled and fascinated them. Their mother pulled two kids out of the backseat. Their new sister and brother. She told them she had come to take them to their new home, in California. They had a new father, she said, he was going to take care of them. They said goodbye to their heartbroken grandmother. They got in the station wagon, leaving everything they knew behind, and took their first road trip, north north north. As they crossed the border an American song came on the radio and my dad leaned forward, something in the voice spoke to him. He asked through his mother who was singing. George replied it was Johnny Cash and song was Ring of Fire. Right there my dad decided he had to learn English as fast as he could so he could understand what that great voice was singing about.
There are a few great family photographs from that era. George, my step-grandfather, fucking loved road trips and camping, shooting guns. He’d survived WWII and knew life was short and hard and he wanted to jam in as much as he could. Every summer he’d pile the six kids (new baby included) into the station wagon with my grandma and drive them around the country, showing them America. There are pictures of the blended family in Yosemite, in front of Mount Rushmore, in the Grand Canyon. Tall white man, short Mexican wife with a pale baby on her hip, and arranged by size, five dark brown kids frowning into the camera, the youngest boy always had his hand on his crotch in every picture. Grandpa George took them camping every chance he got, showing them how to make fires, hang food from trees out of the reach of bears, how to pitch a tent, how to shoot a rifle. Grandpa George had learned enough Spanish to cuss and tell dirty jokes. My dad learned to love the road.
When my parents got married in Brooklyn in 1975 they decided to move to California, to be near my dad’s family. They bought a van. They loaded it up. They drove slowly across the country, meandering, taking in the sights. It was my mom’s first road trip. Their van was windowless and dark blue emitted smoke. They drove by the White House, slowing down to stare before moving on. A few minutes later the van was surrounded by secret service agents, demanding identification, wanting to know why they had driven their smoking van in front of the White House.
At the wharf in Vancouver Island, I smiled through the familiar stomach acid when the man said You’re not from around here. I offered we were from California and I wanted to taste some local beer and great fish and chips. I avoided the obvious look in his eyes that said Where are you FROM-from? H and I sat at the bar, drinking local beer and talking up the locals about the strange winter weather. We had shown up during the coldest winter in years. We dug into our fish and chips, they were delicious but something in them or something in us, caused us to sicken later: vomiting, joints aching.
Living in this skin requires a dance between protection and vulnerability. I have a wild, loving heart. I am sensitive. My skin is thick in places and raw in others. I pick up emotion from others. I can feel fear and anxiety, distrust. I know how to chameleon, I know how to beckon a conversation toward safety. I’m learning other ways to survive.
During this last trip I kept texting my family. Hey! I’m at the hotel where Baby T almost drowned! Or I’m at the Blue Ox! As memories tumbled through me, I shared them with my family, reminding them I was traveling the same road we had taken together 26 years ago. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses back then. That road trip was the last before a period of emotional chaos, my mom deciding to leave the religion, taking me and my sisters with her. My dad’s outrage and sense of having been betrayed, their eventual separation and their inevitable rejoining. That trip was the last trip where we prayed to Jehovah before hitting the road, the last trip where we looked for Kingdom Halls on Sundays. The next big trips came with confusion. I was trying on identities, wearing Doc Martens and forcing my family to listen to Tori Amos. D lined her lips dark purple and was on her way to becoming a chola until my mom slapped the chola out of her. Baby T was normal, but somehow always managed to injure herself in the strangest ways.
Conversation yesterday. Somewhere in Northern California. Past where the redwoods give way to valleys.
H: (tells some joke based on a bad pun)
Moment of silence.
Me: Do you want to have a baby?
H is silent. I can feel the tension grip his body. This is a conversation we’ve had before. I milk the pause, knowing it’ll pay off. He grips the steering wheel and doesn’t respond.
Me: Because you’re coming hard with the dad jokes.
If we can swing it, next December I want to follow the road South. Put the truck on a ferry at the tip of Baja California. Drive mainland Mexico until we end up on that road my father remembers being built. The road that took his mother away and eventually returned her, only to get on that road himself and leave forever. The road we keep returning to.