The last leg of our journey should have been easy. After two long days of solo driving, the trip from Walla Walla to Olympia—five hours on a good day—was a route I’d traveled at least a dozen times before. The distance was finite, reasonable—there would be no pushing on another hundred miles while the baby screamed. I wasn’t searching for the next hotel, I was aiming straight for home. It was waiting for us. It would be there.
And so we spent a lazy morning with our Walla Walla friends: eating breakfast, lingering over coffee, playing on the playground. I told myself that the late start would serve us all, that my children would be compliant passengers after their car-free morning. Maybe—I dared to think it—we would make it all the way there without stopping.
I loaded the kids in their seats and the dogs in their spots for our final departure at one, just as the sun was reaching its highest point in the sky. It was September, and the morning had been cool enough, and so I hadn’t thought about my broken air conditioning, or how it feels to drive through shade-less Walla Walla. And before we’d even past the city limits, just as the baby had fallen asleep, I noted orange cones down the middle of the road, and an endless backup of cars. Our black Honda, crawling along on the asphalt, became an oven. Thirty minutes later, when the traffic finally cleared, we had traveled less than five miles.
The four-year-old whined that he was “sweaty”.
The baby, who should have slept a full three hours, woke up and added his voice to the chorus of cranky.
The dogs panted, and shifted, and acted generally good-natured because that is what dogs are good for.
I drove for an hour and then stopped for Slurpees. Sugar cheered both of my children. I assumed that the worst was behind us.
We were about halfway there when I started winding up the mountain road, and passed a sign that said Caution: Loose Gravel. I’d seen these signs before on bigger highways and wondered why they even bothered with the warning. The roads were always fine, it seemed to me, just an extra chip of gravel here and there. My bigger problem was the sun, which was no longer hot, but was blindingly bright when it cut through the shade of the mountain. I wore sunglasses and pulled down the visor, but the brightness still shocked me at every turn.
And then I hit the gravel. The brightness filled with thin white dust and now I really could not see. I slowed the car to twenty miles an hour. I could see about five feet in front of me, but not beyond. It was like driving in a blizzard. A sunny September blizzard. My four-year-old complained that he was bored, and that he wanted a snack. “I can’t see right now!” I told him, my voice tight with fear. “No, I said I want a snack!” he protested. I kept telling myself to just keep driving, to stay slow, to keep looking those five feet ahead. I kept telling myself we were safe even though it seemed we were in danger. The baby cried weakly and then quit, like he didn’t want to commit.
The dust blizzard continued for longer than I ever would have imagined. Occasionally, I’d drive through some shade and see just a little bit better and think: this isn’t so bad, and then the sun would blast out my vision once more. I kept thinking: how much of this road did they pave, as I rounded another mountain turn. Two miles? Five miles? Twenty? In the end, it felt like twenty though it can’t have been much more than five.
It was nearly ten at night when we finally arrived in Olympia. Both of my kids were awake. After the dust blizzard and a stop for dinner, the baby had cried for nearly an hour, slept for twenty minutes, and then woke up to resume his screaming. Now, as the car pulled to a stop, he took a staggered breath and quieted.
As I parked the car, my phone rang. It was an old friend. “You home yet?” she asked. “You need anything?”
“I could use a beer,” I told her.
Within ten minutes she delivered. She brought another friend and together they passed around the baby and chatted up the four-year-old as I wandered from room to room with my open beer. In a daze, I laid out suitcases, fed dogs, put sheets on the bed, engaged in the chores of home. Because that’s where I was.
There was something empty about it. The place seemed to echo. We’d abandoned it all summer after all. But still, it was comforting.
Home is the place with the scratches in the floors, the smell you recognize, where even an unmade bed, an empty refrigerator bring ease. Home is the place where your friends come to deliver you a beer just because you need one.