Just before the border of west Texas the sky darkened and rained hellfire upon us. My dad searched the horizon for funnel clouds. I gripped the steering wheel and wondered if it was a sign to just turn the car around and drive back to Utah.
The past four days we had been winding our way through the West for my move to Austin, Texas. The road trip began in Logan, Utah, where I packed the ‘Ru, flipped the key to my sublet apartment on the table, and left the city I’ve called home for the past three years. I picked up my dad at Salt Lake Airport and we played a game of Tetris trying to squeeze his backpack and sleeping bag into the back of the car. I wouldn’t see out the rear window for another 1,600 miles.
Then we headed south for Bryce Canyon because I promised my mom I would go someday. We arrived just before sunset when dry grass fields turn into gold. The next morning we pulled on our packs and hiked into the stone amphitheater dotted with drooping bristlecone pines. Dad and I snaked to the bottom of the canyon that isn’t really a canyon and then climbed our way back up, talking politics and somewhere along the way finding a middle ground.
The route I mapped took us through the quaint town of Kanab before dipping into northern Arizona and across southwestern Colorado to Mesa Verde National Park.
Afterward we ventured to Santa Fe, a city I always had a bit of a crush on.
By the time we hit Clovis, New Mexico, the mountains of Colorado were 300 miles in the rearview. It hit me that I no longer owned a house key, home was no longer the outskirts of the Rockies, and I really had no place I had to be.
Every town we passed through I noted the elevation change and watched as it descended across the plains. My dad and I passed through dozens of small towns in the American West that are drying up. Familiar signs of Arby’s and Sonic chains greeted us where homegrown bakeries and diners used to be. Signs of life seemed to only exist at gas stations where we filled up only so we could go somewhere else.
For about a hundred miles along highway 84, billboards touted visiting Fort Sumner to see the final resting place of Billy the Kid. He died more than 130 years ago. And not much seems to have really happened there since his burial. We tried poking around the shops on the main strip, many of which played up its past connection to the colorful outlaw. Much of the merchandise in storefront windows was covered with dust. Painted on the door of one closed building was the phrase “pray for rain.” Across the street was another: “Welcome to Billy’s town! He’s still here …”
It was a living ghost town that seemed to have played out its only hand.
“There are houses,” I said. “But what do people do for work?”
“Own gas stations,” dad answered.
We drove by Cannon Air Force Base to the border of Texas and into the heavy rain. Drops bounced off the street and blurred the line separating lanes. Most of the vehicles on the road reduced speed and continued heading into the storm. I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for five years and never really feared earthquakes, but somehow driving across the Texas plains terrified me.
Every low cloud in the distance I imagined was about to give birth to a tornado sure to whisk us into the heavens. For the next four hours the sky alternated between heavy rain, light rain, and no rain. My chest felt tight even though we were no longer at altitude.
On our way to the hotel in Sweetwater we crossed Roscoe Wind Farm. I am almost certain it is bigger than my old county in Utah. For miles in any direction, all we saw were cotton fields and lights on the windmills glowing red at the same time in the night.
The next morning dad and I got back in the car for the final leg of the trip. A few hours in we pulled over because something was in the middle of the road. And it was moving.
What I thought was a rock turned out to be an armadillo. It was the first I ever saw that wasn’t stuffed and for sale in some novelty shop. Dad nudged it with his shoe and it jumped straight in the air as I was told they would when startled. We snapped a few pictures of the armadillo before it popped onto the sidewalk and into the brush below. It was definitely the move of tourists.
Two hours later, with the AC working in overdrive, Dad called out directions as I steered us to the new apartment in Austin. We passed a series of coffee shops, barbecue joints, and bars before turning onto a side street and finding a squat yellow ranch I will call home until D and I find another.