We just passed through Death Valley (insert 23rd Psalm joke here) and we’re about 100 miles from the edge of the world, also known as Los Angeles.
As my mind wandered while scanning the dunes and scrub brush, I started thinking back to the stories about my dad when he left home. As soon as he was old enough, he headed west with his mind full of images of the California orange groves. Coming from a small town outside of St. Louis, California might as well have been a world away, but he was resolved to get there, despite no plans for when he got there.
The whole point was just to get there. That, and to get away from his life in the Midwest. California still represented an escape from the mundane, a mecca of second chances, an eden of new beginnings…
You get the idea.
He made it as far as Dallas before he ran out of money. And I mean that literally. He used his last couple of dollars to rent a room at the local YMCA (back when they actually housed young men like their name suggests) and set out the next day for an opportunity to reline his pockets. He landed various odd jobs, settling in finally with a job as a grocery bagger at a local Safeway. It was only temporary, of course, since he still yearned to reach further west.
But plans change. Circumstances call for revised agendas. The job as a bagger eventually gave way to a gig at a local bank, where he met a young woman. They fell in love, got married before their twentieth birthdays and determined to make a life together. Where didn’t matter as much as that doing it as a family. The room at the Y became an apartment in downtown Dallas; the bank job, a stint as a suit salesman, and then as an insurance man.
Next came their only child (a son, of course), plans for the future, fantasies of a house of their own and maybe a dog. The short-term job grew into a career as the orange groves faded into the background. Maybe they would visit someday. Take the kid to Disneyland or to the beach.
I wonder sometimes what my dad would think of my trip out west, taking my family to the edge of the world to start a new phase in our lives together. It’s risky at forty years old to leave behind a steady job for part-time work and some vague possibilities of other work as a writer. I can see the resistance in the eyes of others when they ask where we’re going to live, if we’ve sold our home in Colorado, or what I’ll be doing “for a living,” only to be met with a shrug and some sketchbook plans of what might – or might not – happen next.
Better you than me, their eyes say. There’s an occasional glimmer of envy, for the idea at least. Not so much for the reality of what it means to uproot and head for relative uncertainty. This, after all, is why my dad is still in Dallas, more than forty years after he abandoned his plans for the California coastline.
Maybe he reads my stuff and knowns what I’m up to; maybe not. We haven’t spoken in several years. Back when he did still talk to me, he warned me about the dangers of following my idealism, encouraging me to knuckle down and find a career that would provide the life that those who would come to depend on me would expect. Never mind if the work filled a space in my heart or soul; that’s not what careers are for.
There was a time when I believed what he told me. I considered, at one brief moment, taking over his insurance agency, despite the deep depression that hung over me whenever I thought about it. It’s what men do. It’s responsible, adult, mature. Stuff the feelings and do the right thing.
But plans change. Thank God.