Highway 41

Wednesday, I drove from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park to meet my family for Thanksgiving.  Another day, another rental car.  These journeys–while interesting–have begun to feel a bit tedious.

I just drove from the Bay Area to Yosemite, you know–back in August, back at the start of this project I’ve been working on, back before I knew the people I’ve been working with, back when I climbed Half Dome, in a profound and almost religious experience.  For that trip, we drove from the San Jose area; from 101 to CA-156; through Los Banos.  The Bathrooms.

This time, I took a different route.  From 80, to 580 to 205 to 120 to 49 to 41.  On and on and on.

I’ve seen so much of California in these last months.  I’ve seen the places where the Californians get their water–the deltas from which the central-state breadbasket and the suburban Los Angelenos brazenly steal their life-force; traced the aqueducts and viaducts quite by accident.  I’ve visited the bays and seasides; driven the jagged Northern California coast; walked the sands of the Southern California shore.  Tasted the wines and touched the land and reflected on the wonder of its bounty.

I’ve driven the state from side to side; flown up and down.  Talked to the people; stayed in the major cities.  It still seems like such a strange place to me.  Driving on Highway 41 yesterday, I saw billboards that struck me as being so foreign, so out of place as to be unrecognizable as native to wherever I was from.  Wherever that is.  You know I feel like a native of nowhere.

I’ve come back to family Thanksgiving for the first time in five years; this time, by car; this time, alone.  I can’t decide whether that felt strange or not, because I spent so much time alone as a married woman that spending time alone as a single woman feels no different than it did in my marriage.  Perhaps it felt stranger to be coming back to Thanksgiving in the first place.

After a first, uneventful day with the family, I had to drive back down the mountain to meet my brother and to return my rental car.  I was going to return the car in Fresno and he was going to pick me up on his way to Yosemite.  A win-win.

“Do you want company on the drive?” my father asked.

“No, I kind of like to drive alone,” I said.  I wasn’t sure whether I was telling the truth or not, but my father likes to talk about work; talk shop; talk about projects and life and philosophize about things.  I was worn out; sick of talking about the topics of the moment–work and my marriage.  I wanted to talk about things that didn’t matter, for once.  I wanted to play the satellite radio and drive too fast on the winding road.  I wanted to set my brain on cruise control, and not worry about a thing.

“Really?  Let me come with you,” he insisted.

“No,” I said, “You’ll just talk at me the whole time.”

He walked away, hurt.  But was true.

“Are you sure you don’t want company?” my mother chirped from behind a bloody mary.

“Yes,” I sighed, exasperated, “I’m sure.”

“You really should let your father come with you,” she said, “We never get to see you and…”

“Don’t start.”

“Well, I can be quiet on the ride!” she insisted.

“Doubtful,” I muttered under my breath.  I paused.  “Look,” I said, “I just want to meet my brother and spend some time with him.”

That seemed to satisfy everyone.

I made the drive slowly, for reasons I don’t quite understand.  Maybe it was because my boss kept calling.  Maybe it was because I was savoring the last of the satellite radio (I don’t have it in my own car and I’ve come to really enjoy it).  Regardless, I met my brother on time at the Fresno Yosemite International Airport (“They fly to Mexico and Canada,” my cousin assured me, “I just checked because I couldn’t believe that there was an international airport in Fresno”) where we turned in my rental car and headed back up the hill in his Honda.

Matthew, my brother, has come through the fire and lived to tell the tale.  From addict to felon to top student, he has this sense of humor that can gently mock himself, but still honors the thing that he has overcome.  I never thought I would have a relationship with him.  Two years ago, as I was SMSing my name and contact information to his phone in the event that someone found his body, I didn’t think that he would survive his addiction; his predilections; the company he was keeping.

But now, I can cherish the first time he told me he loved me; the first time he stood up for me; the first time he told me about the thoughts he had about his future.  The moment I saw him believing he had a future.

So recovering addict-probationer-honors student brother and pending-divorcee sister set out back up the mountain to rejoin the family holiday.  To rejoin the 40-years married couples, and the young, happily married parents; or the long-ish married couples working through their stuff and figuring it out.

Matthew popped in a CD he had made.  Just my taste: the Ramones; Queen; Red Hot Chili Peppers; 10,000 Maniacs.

“So,” I said, “You, uh, want to go to the Chukchansi casino?”

“Are you serious?” he laughed.  He lit a cigarette and rolled down the windows.  (Why does everyone who has been to rehab take up smoking?  Do they give you a book about the 12 steps and hand you a carton of cigarettes?)

“Yeah,” I laughed, “I’ve never been.  I’ve spent so much time in Las Vegas this year, I’m kind of curious.”

“You know Indian casinos are super depressing.  Dad calls it the Polish Indian casino.  Chuck Chanski.  It’s not funny at all, but you know Dad.  He thinks it’s hilarious.”

We pulled up to the casino–brother and sister, out of place.  Tall and rugged; short and preppy.  We walked in to find the over-70 mountain set hanging over their walkers and sliding money into slots; shouting at each other amidst the cacophony of a faux studio audience shouting “Wheel OF fortune!” as it emanated from the speakers atop the slot machines.

We groaned in unison.  But our faces were flushed with the excitement of a casino run; of spending time together; of doing something so strange and unexpected.

“So, slots?” I asked.  There were no game tables.  One room of poker.  We sat at Wheel of Fortune machines and slipped dollar bills inside.

My brother kept winning.  I kept losing.  I was on a losing streak, from my last trip to Vegas.

We finished out the $5 we each put in, and then headed out; back on the road; back up the hill.  Back past the familiar, the expected, the comfortably usual.

I’m okay, you know.  I’ve made this visit with the family for the holiday, and I am thankful for this moment; thankful for these things and this strange moment of certain uncertainty.  I am sitting in these days of pondering my status as a newly single woman; as a lawyer, a daughter, a sister.  I am accepting the things I am and am not; contemplating the things I want to be; meeting myself on the highway.  And I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities all around–even if my future is about as wonderfully, unexpectedly strange as a pit stop at an Indian casino and about as certain as playing slots.

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