The aging Ford shudders its way down US 95 just south of Rome, Oregon with a rust-colored optimism I do not share. Woven seat covers, a riot of cobalt and umber, etches their pattern deeper into my thighs with every mile. Towering pillars of rock rise from the sparse brush lining the deserted road, their tips illuminated by the sun in a candlelight vigil to mark our passing. We’ve been on the road long enough to burn through a tank of gas and ten dollars at the drive-thru. Sitting shotgun, Gams is silent as the grave. I long to speak with her after all this time, to live her adventures, to feel her laugh bubble through my ears. I want to feel her arms wrap around me, to listen to all the ways Granddad had annoyed her that morning, and how she’d left the cheese wrapper on his sandwich as revenge.
The Gams perched atop the blue and umber seat cover, a passive witness to the landscape rushing by at 80 miles an hour, could not give me any of the things I wanted. We’d lost her along this stretch of road, and I’d yet to figure out if each mile brought me closer to her, or further away.
The call had come on Monday, a voice we didn’t know telling us that there wasn’t anything else they could do for Gams. That the family needed to come and take care of her. A message from Gams, penned before her admittance into the hospital, had me on a flight to Portland on Wednesday. I hooked the fifth wheel to the Ford, settled Gams in the passenger seat, and we set out for home by the time the sun began its ascent on Thursday.
A nomad since we’d lost Granddad, Gams has driven this truck and trailer on every inch of pavement she could find. Said she wouldn’t stay in the home they’d built together, preferring to see the land they’d ignored while they were raising their family.
“He’s stuck in this house,” said Gams. “The two of us always wanted to see what was out there, so that’s what I’m gonna do. Don’t you worry none, either. He’ll be with me, same as before, watching out for me.”
And that, as they say, was that. She sold the house they raised six children in, bought a fifth wheel, and headed into the unknown. Postcards, their faces painted in the wonders of North America, dribbled into our mailboxes, the notes short: “I’m doing fine. Heading to see some mountains next,” was inked behind a panorama of the short grass prairies of Kansas, a bold sage grouse painted in the foreground. “Feeling good, going to the ocean to swim a little,” accompanied a view of the austere faces of Mt. Rushmore. We tracked her travels by these messages, tracing her route along a large map taped to the wall in my father’s office. Push pins with tiny numbers marked the origin of each postcard, a living connect-the-dots with lines worn thin from my tracing fingers.
Gams worked her way back to us when she could, the roar of her diesel truck preceding her by a few miles. By the time her trailer backed into our driveway, aunts and uncles had arrived, arms ladened with casseroles and kids. The family filled our backyard with laughter and memories, Gams presiding over it all with a baby in her lap and a Tab Cola sweating in her hand. I’d be by her side as night fell, an audience of one, eager for the next installment of The Epic Adventures of Gams.
The road has begun to curve around rolling hills, rising gradually as we near the Nevada state line. A sign announces our arrival at the summit of Blue Mountain Pass, 5293 feet. Gravel crunches as I pull the Ford into a gas station. I leave Gams while I go in and buy my first postcard, a lonely mountain dressed in a desolate road.
“Gams, let’s go breathe a bit,” I say as I cut the ignition. I help her out, she weighs next to nothing now, and grab a quilt from the back seat to wrap around us. I sit with her next to me, the occasional rumble of an engine cutting into the silence. My fingers trace the designs on the quilt, tracing its story. My story.
“Gams, tell me about my quilt,” I said.
“Well now, I can’t say as there’s rhyme or reason behind it. I’d been looking at new patterns when your momma and daddy came to tell me that you were on your way.” Each time she told this story, she’d pause here, remembering the day she became a grandmother. “The book fell when I jumped up, and it wasn’t until they left that I bent to pick it up again. Right on the open page, clear as day, was a quilt covered with mice. I figured since you weren’t no bigger than a mouse at that point, that’s the pattern I’d use.” She chuckled at the memory, the smile resting comfortably on her face. “Wouldn’t you know that you sounded just like a mouse when you were born, too. That’s how you got your name, you were our little mouse from the moment we knew you were coming.”
Infused into each stitch of the quilt, the memory wraps around me with the strength of Gams’ hugs. My fingers play with a mischievous mouse intent on stealing cheese from his neighbor, a smile tugging at my lips.
“Come on, Gams,” I lift her back into the truck, “time to get on the road again.”
The downward slope of the summit brings us into Nevada, a weather-beaten sign marking the transition. The scenery, unaware of the change, makes no attempt to differentiate between Oregon and Nevada. The same scrub and lifeless dirt surround us, albeit less scrub and more dirt the further south we travel. Mile after mile passes by our windows, a faint outline of mountains distorting the horizon on the right, flat lands stretching to the left. At Winnemucca, we pull into Walmart for the night, delaying the moment of decision. The quickest way home would be to stay on 95, head through Vegas and into Arizona. Moms and cousins and uncles will be there to welcome me home with sympathetic words and tight hugs. The drive will be hot, straight, and unerringly boring. Or I could turn right. See Yosemite, the sequoias, and Joshua Tree. I don’t bother to consult Gams, already knowing her preference for adventure. My hesitation is centered just outside El Centro, the one place we’ve avoided since 1975.
Next morning, Gams resting under the quilt, I idle the truck at the junction to I80. She didn’t care which way we went, although the thought of her out amongst the sequoias is a memory I am not willing to forego. Merging onto 80 West, we follow the twists and turns of the Humboldt until lunch time. Gams had the fifth wheel stocked, so I make us bologna and cheese sandwiches on white bread, thick layers of mustard and mayo oozing from the edges. The centerpiece of the meal is the jar of pickled green beans I find in the pantry. A scrap of paper taped to the top reads “For Mouse.” I pull a few of the beans out of their vinegary brine, lick my fingers clean, and set up lunch at the edge of Lassens Meadows. The sun reflects off the calm surface, fishermen wave as they drift by, the hawks less friendly as they fly overhead. Gams sits on the quilt, in the light breeze coming down off Star Peak.
“Gams,” I said, “how do you make the green beans taste so good?”
“The most important part is growing your own beans.” Gams nodded in self-agreement. “And don’t go picking those beans until you’re ready to can ‘em.”
“You ever going to show me how to make them?”
Gams paused, weighing if I was worthy of such a closely held secret. “Course I’ll show you. Grab that bucket by the door and I’ll show you which beans need to be picked.”
We filled that gallon bucket to overflowing, the promise of their tart crispness overriding Gams’ warning that we’d need to trim each green bean we picked. We detoured to the herb garden to collect fresh dill, another of Gams’ absolute musts for good pickled green beans. Perched on a stool in the kitchen, I watched as Gams snapped the ends off each bean and placed them in the well-used glass jars lined like sentinels along the cracked surface of the counter.
“Some folks’ll tell you to cook the beans first, and I say to each his own,” the look of distaste on Gams’ face belied her acceptance of this method. “But that’s not how we do it in this family. Raw beans straight from the garden, that’s the way.”
The last bean crunches between my teeth in confirmation of Gams’ edict. I watch her, still sitting on the quilt, being blown about by the wind. She’s less than she was when we left, and I worry that she’ll be gone before we get home. Sighing, I reach out a hand for Gams, “let’s hit it, Gams.”
We stop again in Reno. Another night spent in the Walmart parking lot and a new postcard of the neon arch, frozen in a time long past. Gams didn’t come with me to gamble that evening.
“Money’s tight,” she’d say. “Only a fool’d gamble away what you’ve already got so little of.”
I want the walk more than the purchased thrill, only the pull of the crowd bringing me into the casino. Within minutes, the mechanized bells and constant chatter force me back onto the street and to the fifth wheel. A companionable silence settles over Gams and I, both of us lost to thought. This drive, my first adventure, was meant to be a final goodbye to the near-mythical figure folded into my five-foot-nothing Gams, but these moments on the road are invaluable to me, and I know I haven’t given her enough credit. She must have seen the same wanderlust growing inside me that she and Granddad held within themselves. Driving with her, even in her condition, is another memory for me to treasure. Another story for me to tell my future children. Another piece of her for me to carry.
We ramble south along 395, veering quickly at the promise of a ghost town, only a few miles off our route. A few very rough miles, over road not maintained since the town possessed life. Gams had assured me that her trailer could go anywhere the truck went, if just a little slower, and she was right. We pull into the town just before dusk, wooden buildings glowing in the dimming light. I clutch Gams in my hand, careful to not let her go until we arrive at the front of the abandoned church. I sit on the steps as I release my hand, feeling the town’s phantom pulse of life extinguished. Wet streaks stain my face, a release of emotion extending past simple sadness. The life is gone from this town, same as it would be from Gams, but it still stood. Immortalized by memory, it lived on past death. That is what she is doing for me. Creating the memories that would keep her alive.
“Thanks, Gams,” I say to her in the darkening silence of the churchyard.
The postcards pile up in the cab of the Ford, kept close to help the memories solidify. Gams doesn’t offer help to plan our route, happy to go wherever the wind takes her. I drive us to Yosemite, to the imposing sequoias, and into the desert. El Centro haunts us, a shadow looming over our homecoming. We will reach it by tomorrow.
“Hey Ma! Watch this!”
The freckled face of the young man, inches away from manhood, shone bright with excitement as he sat astride the dirt bike. The engine roared to life and the bike flew over the dune’s edge, disappearing from our sight. Moments, minutes, or perhaps eons later, my uncle’s body comes back into view, unmoving on the stretcher held by a team of paramedics. My small, trembling hand is in the vice-like grip of Gams, not understanding the phrases being said above me. Acute subdural hematoma, cervical fracture, deceased.
Gams sits quietly on the edge of the dunes. The wind picks up, agitated as the emotions swirling inside my own mind. I leave her there for hours, maintaining a vigil until the air itself finds peace.
The battered Ford rolls into Yuma, Arizona with a sigh. I aim the truck towards the old Lutheran graveyard, to the side of a small hill, to the headstone etched with the names of Granddad and Gams. As I stand at the marker, holding Gams in my arms. I pull the letter from my pocket, the creases soft from constant refolding. I read Gams’ words a final time, and let Gams out to breathe one last time.
The doctors say I don’t got long before I’m with your Granddad again, and I’m not too upset by the thought of that. I know you don’t want to hear it, and that you’ll be sad, but I need you to know that I’ll be happy to be with my heart again. So don’t you go worrying about me.
I’ve got one last thing to ask of you. When I go, I want you to pick up my fifth wheel and take me on one last adventure. I’ve left instructions to be cremated, and I want you to spread my ashes all along the road home. You see something interesting out the window, stop and let me out to breathe a little and I’ll do the rest. Leave enough of me to be put with Granddad, a pinch should do.
The truck and trailer are yours to do with as you want. Keep it, sell it, leave it – makes no difference. But, if you’ll take a piece of advice from an old lady, sell the trailer, keep the truck. It’s a good truck, if not a bit cranky at times, and it’ll take you anywhere you want to go. You can be free in it, and the trailer will just slow you down. Pick your own postcards to send home until you find where your roots grow best. Then plant green beans. The rest will follow.