Death Valley, 1990

It was hard to perform thirteen-year-old angst in forced confinement. The family was nearing the end of a weeks-long trek from New Hampshire, in the far northeast of the United States, to southern California, with all their belongings distributed between a station wagon driven by Mom, and a pickup truck with an aluminum cab covering the truck bed driven by Dad, towing a U-Haul trailer. The last stretch of the drive had been boring—nothing but the dry, dusty, expansive landscape of the American West. The few incentives offered to wayfarers along the road took the form of miles of billboards that offered up otherworldly curiosities to those willing to venture a detour. But her parents could spare neither the time nor the money to indulge these few and far-between Wild West attractions: Aliens! Buffalo petting zoos! Tepees! Dinosaur fossils! Fed up with her six-year-old sister’s repeating cassette tape of Raffi, an overly-buoyant children’s musician whose song about getting ready for school played on a loop (“I’m gonna drink my orange juice! I’m puttin’ on my walking shoes! I’m headin’ out that ole front door, I’m gonna walk! Walk to school! I’m gonna walk, walk, walk, walk to school…”), she switched over to the bed of the pickup truck at the next gas stop. It was an enclosed sanctuary, outfitted with a mattress packed around the edges with heaps of spare clothing, flashlights, coolers of packed road snacks, and a boom box. She put in her Michael W. Smith cassette—she was only allowed to own and play Christian contemporary music, even though she had a growing affinity for glam rock—and sang along in her capsule unbothered by anybody, as the pickup took to the road with the station wagon pulling out behind it. She was miserable. Everything about this trip was the worst possible scenario. They were moving to the opposite geographic extreme of the country from the small community where she was born and raised. And only days before leaving, she had had her first kiss with her first boyfriend, and it was all she could think about, even as her dad’s truck put sixty miles per hour between her and Beorne, the sun-kissed bad-boy who smelled like Winterfresh gum and cheap cologne. She wore his pink t-shirt, unwashed since he gave it to her at their parting, and imagined that it still bore his scent. As she languished in her pool of misery, speeding away from the rural New England forests toward an unknown teenage destiny in the public school system of gang-ridden southern California, she began to feel listless. 

The truck passed a road sign: Death Valley. That sounded about right. The boom box pulsed the tinny crooning voice of the Christian heartthrob, and she closed her eyes to try to relive every sensory detail of her last private moment with Beorne: dipping her toes into the velvet mineral water of Lake Winnipesaukee, blueberry bushes scratching her shoulders, distant loons issuing their haunting chortle, Beorne drew his face near hers… The reverie was broken by a loud clash. She opened her eyes, disoriented, and the heat waves of high noon distorted the flushed red face of her father, peering into the sweltering truck bed with a look of concern. Death Valley temperatures had soared well above 100 degrees, and she was flagging near unconsciousness in the aluminum-encased refuge. Her father pulled her out, and the station wagon bearing her mom and sisters pulled up alongside them, everyone’s sweaty face pressed with concern. They poured lukewarm water down her throat and back. As she came back to consciousness, the visage of the New England lake, her childhood, and her only known home, evaporated there in the desert, where life seemed unsustainable.