It’s nearing 3 o’clock in the morning and I’ve just taken over driving our 2007 Subaru after stopping for gas in some mid-Illinois town in which I don’t know the name. My eyes are slowly adjusting back to the dark highway after squinting underneath the fluorescent gas station lights – greenish spots float in the edges of my sight. King Ranch has adjusted the passenger seat to accommodate his height a bit better and Little Foot is sound asleep in his car seat.
We’ve been on the road for 7 hours making the drive back to our ranch in Texas from spending two weeks with King Ranch’s family in Michigan for Christmas and New Year’s. It’s a difficult goodbye when leaving his parent’s house because we know that we can’t just randomly have a weekend get together with them – scheduled time takes planning and money. We all smile and act like it’s okay, but really, I believe we all feel sad that we don’t live closer to each other.
I accelerate onto the highway in which there are absolutely no other vehicles while flipping on the car’s high beams. King Ranch taps a few times on his phone screen to resume our spot in Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. We’ve been listening to this book on both the 20 hour drive up here and now so far, for 7 hours back. We’re at the point in the story where Bilquis is running frantically away from the Technical Boy. I start to imagine the scene before my eyes – long, toned legs atop slowly shredding feet scrambling along the asphalt – knowing that somewhere behind her is a speeding stretch limo.
Suddenly there are headlights – real ones – that speed up behind our Subaru. They swerve around us. Out of habit, I slam on the brakes although the speeding car is way out of reach by now. This jolts King Ranch awake from what I imagine is light sleep.
“You okay?” he half-way shouts, sitting up.
“Yeah,” I say. “I’m fine.”
He pats my leg and leans back again. I hear our dog, Thing One, sigh and adjust in the seat behind mine – his collar falling with a tiny tinkle. I turn off the high-beams.
I won’t give spoilers, but in a few minutes time, we learn what happens to Bilquis and it really does upset me. I just keep imagining it – it – her final destination. I turn the high-beams back on just as we’re passing a massive carcass of some sort off the the right – a wolf? Dog? I pass too quickly to get a good look, but it is brown and white and has pointy ears.
Driving at night always makes me morbid, especially when I’m not driving through a city but instead, a mix of woods and fields and sometimes hills. I don’t know why, but I often wonder how many dead bodies must be hidden in those vast acreages of land that seems mostly undeveloped.
We continue to travel for another hour or so before I shake King Ranch’s left thigh. He snaps awake.
“I’m getting tired,” I say.
“Do you want me to drive?” he asks, sitting up straight and rubbing his eyes.
“You’ve hardly slept either,” I say, gripping the steering wheel with both hands.
“I think I’d be alright,” he says.
“We should stop somewhere. Little Foot will be awake soon, anyway.”
King Ranch pulls the lever on the side of his seat which thrusts the back of it straight up. He rubs his eyes again and taps his phone a few times. The bright screen illuminates his unshaven face. He’s so tired – dark, brown circles hanging heavily beneath his eyes. I’m sure mine look similar only my eye bags always have a purplish tint.
“Where are we?” he asks.
“Somewhere in Illinois,” I say.
“I think we’d do better just to push through,” he says, turning off his phone and dropping it into the cup holder between us. “I really just want to get home.”
“Well,” I say, “I don’t think I can drive for too much longer and I don’t want to leave this all on you.” I sit up a little taller too. The yoga pants I’ve been wearing keep riding down in the back and it’s driving me absolutely bonkers.
“I think I’d be -” he suddenly stops. “Cairo?” he asks.
“Huh?” I say.
“Cairo, Illinois?” (I should note that he’s saying ‘Kay-roh’, not ‘Kai-roh.’)
“Yeah, I’ve been seeing signs for it. Why?”
“Because that’s where Shadow stays with Jackal and Ibis!”
I smile. “Yeah, I guess it is – I hadn’t made the connection.” Damn my inattention to detail.
“The river delta,” he says. “It’d be cool to stay there.”
He pulls up his phone again, clicks away, and says he’s found a hotel. After calling them and learning they have one room available, we re-route our navigation system to lead us to the Quality Inn that is both pet-friendly and offers complimentary breakfast. It will be 38 minutes until we arrive.
I’m thrilled. I want nothing more than to get out of this car, pull my freaking pants all the way up – or actually, just take them all the way off – and sprawl out somewhere in which my eyes need to not focus on a thing. Plus I really want to take out my contacts that are suctioned against my eye balls and put my glasses on instead.
King Ranch taps a few times on his phone screen and suddenly ‘American Gods’ is back in chapter 7 where Shadow meets Sam.
“This is when he’s travelling to Kay-roh,” King Ranch says.
We re-hear Shadow and Sam’s conversation in the diner as the signs leading to Cairo tell us we’re closer. Shadow correctly guesses that Sam ‘casts bronzes’ and I’m really not sure what that means. I assume it means she makes things out of bronze and I think that’s pretty cool. I wonder if I could do something like that and make it successful.
Both King Ranch and I are trying to figure out our lives as 2016 is getting going. I’ve worked in a big-time corporate setting where I got literally hundreds of emails a day. I’ve tended bar where I became quite talented in making both vodka and gin martinis. I’ve taught yoga full time – for a while, 26 classes per week.
I enjoy teaching yoga. I enjoy tending bar. However, now that I’m a mom in a new place, the needed schedule for those careers just isn’t ideal. And if I’m being honest, I’ll be damned if I ever coop myself up into a dimly lit cubicle where I type away at a machine in which my significance is pushing paper somewhere in the middle of please and thanks.
I’m truly hopeful for this year. I’m hopeful that King Ranch and I find our footing. The cruelty of life stands no chance against a New Year’s wish. We’re only hours into what we’re still calling ‘our year.’ I’m truly hopeful.
“Take the next exit,” the GPS commands.
I steer off the highway onto an exit with a lonesome, orange street light. Turn left. Turn right. Turn right and our destination is on the left.
The lights of the overhang that I pull under must be bright enough to wake Little Foot because suddenly he’s making a sort of cry, sort of sneezing sound. King Ranch steps out of the car and heads toward the front door as I shift into park.
“It’s okay, honey,” I say to Little Foot while reaching my hand back to touch his curly hair.
He grunts and sneezes a few more times and Thing One sits up with an awkward stretch. I fling my head side to side and crack my neck.
King Ranch slowly jogs back to the Subaru and sinks down into the passenger seat.
“Apparently it’s flooded around here so the manager didn’t show up,” he says.
“Can we not stay?” I ask.
“No, we can. But they gave us a discount.”
“I dunno,” he shrugs and looks out the window. He points in the direction that I should drive. “I wonder if Neil Gaiman stayed here when he was writing his book?”
“You think so?” I ask, backing into a parking spot. Thing One stands up and shakes.
“It’s the only hotel that popped up on Google maps,” he says. “I bet he did stay here! We should look for clues.”
I love this about King Ranch. He gets so tickled by close encounters of his idols. For example, a month before I found out that I was pregnant, King Ranch and I went to a ‘Jeff Bridges and the Abiders’ concert at a small venue in Houston. Jeff Bridges, along with Bill Murray and Kevin Spacey, is King Ranch’s favorite actor. He quotes ‘The Big Lebowski’ almost religiously.
After the concert, King Ranch stood in line with his big, fancy camera out waiting to meet Jeff. He was appalled by all the drunk fans who crowded Jeff and clearly made him uncomfortable. But as the saying goes, nice guys finish last – by the time Jeff reached King Ranch, he was ready to call it a night. King Ranch managed to get a picture with him, but was sorely disappointed that all the pushy fans got more of his time.
We get out of the car and it is unbelievably cold. The icy breeze blasts us as we scramble up the outside stairs. I’m holding Little Foot bundled in a blanket and King Ranch is holding onto Thing One’s retractable leash. Thing One pees on every single post.
Inside, the halls reek of stale cigarette smoke. We find our room and King Ranch fumbles with the key before opening the door.
I place Little Foot down and he takes off running for the a/c unit. King Ranch hits the bathroom and I flop down, face-first, onto the King Sized bed. Little Foot’s foot steps click-clack over towards the side of the bed, so I roll up to see him smiling from ear to ear.
“Dut!” he says, raising his hands.
I flip over and make a silly face at him while glancing at the clock on the bed-side table: 4:54am.
King Ranch washes his hands and throws himself on the bed next to me.
“I seriously bet this is where Neil Gaiman stayed,” he says with a grin.
I smile and pick Little Foot up to plop him on the bed in between us. He’s chatting and drooling uncontrollably. Thing One rolls into a ball on the small, teal sofa next to the bed with a big sigh.
At some point, we all fall asleep because suddenly, Little Foot’s chatter wakes me up. I roll over to look at the clock. 6:33am.
“Ugggghhhh,” King Ranch groans. “Noooo”
“It’s 6:30,” I say. “Little Foot, go back to sleeeeep.”
“Dut!” he says and taps my nose with his fist. “Dut-un.”
I reach for Little Foot who begins to giggle. I know that he won’t go back to sleep now. He’s ready for this day.
After brushing our teeth, putting our pants back on, and having a quick continental breakfast in the front lobby, we pile back in the car – me driving again.
“Let’s go this way,” King Ranch says, pointing at a map pulled up on his phone. With his index finger, he traces a green path that goes right between the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. “It’ll bring us right to Cairo. Maybe we’ll see Jackal and Ibis!”
I smile, “sure.”
We pull out of the parking lot and indeed the area is flooded. Off to the right, brown water has crept up around several pine trees that I don’t believe are supposed to be under water. There are all kinds of plastic specs floating in lines. The road winds and we approach a short tunnel that unevenly spaced above it says, “CAIRO.” I remember Gaiman’s quote – “…he drove under a bridge and found himself in a small port town.”
“Okay, this is pretty cool,” I say.
King Ranch is sitting up straight and smiling.
We pass by ‘Historic Cairo’ and the government buildings that look like cookies. We pass a two-story brick building with dozens of different colored headstones in the parking lot.
“I bet that’s where Jackal and Ibis would live,” King Ranch says and scrambles to snap a photo with his phone.
What we don’t pass is a whole lot of activity. This town seems mostly abandoned. Disheveled buildings are barely held together and most windows are in some way, broken. It’s sad. Interestingly sad.
We find ourselves pulling up outside of the ‘Fort Defiance State Park’ which sits right at the meeting of these two massive rivers. As told by the Quality Inn attendant, indeed this area is flooded as well. More and more trees are sitting in flowing, brown water that don’t look as if they’re supposed to be submerged.
Two impressive bridges lead out of the park on either side – one crossing the Ohio and one crossing the Mississippi. They’re phenomenal, intricate bridges that I imagine were built around the same time as the Golden Gate bridge – but really, I have no idea. Architecture is not something in which I have any sort of familiarity.
The one that leads over the Ohio river is blocked off with dirt and road signs saying, ‘Road Closed’ so we drive over the other. It is quite grand. I’ve never seen a river so massive – so powerful. It looked more like a lake. Glitter bounced off the surface everywhere – a million diamonds.
As we exited the bridge, we passed a sign welcoming us to Missouri. Our GPS tells us we’re only 9 and a half hours away from home.
We continue to listen to ‘American Gods’ only we’re back in chapter 8 so we can hear Shadow’s story from Cairo. It’s pretty darn close to what I had originally imagined.
It’s now 9:30 at night, and we’re on the final road before out county road. My high-beams are on again and Little Foot is impatiently chattering. King Ranch and I have what I believe is a bit of cabin fever and are talking to each other in silly accents – mostly a combination of pretty poor British and Scottish accents. We’re also cursing like sailors because we know that very soon, Little Foot will be repeating us and so we want to get it all out of our system now. We’re saying all the really bad curse words very slowly and heavily articulated on the wrong syllables. Plus, cursing in a British accent is way more fun.
We pull up outside of the house and King Ranch hops out to pull open our rusty gate. Thing One is standing on the back seat whimpering because he smells home. Little Foot is in an all-on scream now.
I pull into the circular driveway and smile as I shift the car into its final park. Home.
King Ranch closes the gate with a squeal as I pull Little Foot from his car seat. Thing One darts across the yard to pee on absolutely everything.
It’s dark and cold out and I look up to see more stars than ever before. It smells like someone must have been barbecuing earlier – smoky and spicy.
Swinging our arms in front of us to clear potential spider webs, we walk out towards the pasture to see Bunny and Tee who are sauntering up to the fence.
“My GOD,” King Ranch says, “They’re HUGE!”
I laugh out loud. “Oh my God,” I say.
Bunny and Tee are enormous. They’re almost as wide as they are tall. Two massive potatoes with sticks as legs.
“Have they just stood in one spot for two weeks eating hay?” King Ranch says.
I reach over the fence with my free hand and pat Bunny’s head, “I guess so.”
I open the gate to the pasture and both donkeys shuffle into the backyard – their girth unbelievably impressive. Tee, as suspected, goes straight for Little Foot. Little Foot croaks like a dolphin.
Bunny leans all her weight into me as I pet every inch of her face. We nuzzle for some time. I’ve missed the donkeys so much. I’ve missed home so much.
I always expect things to be different when I come home from a trip, no matter the length. So far, it looks like the only thing that has changed are the donkey’s measurements. It’s adorable. A bit concerning, but mostly adorable.
Bunny lays her head on top of mine and I begin to well up. What a lovely greeting.
“Welcome home,” King Ranch says, softly smiling at me.
A tear streams down my face. “Welcome home,” I say.