“You have a history,” she said, “that you are responsible to.”
“What do you mean by responsible to?”
“You’re responsible to it. You’re answerable. You’re required to try to make sense of it. You owe it your complete attention.”
Don DeLillo – Underworld
Sometimes you don’t know you’re running until you look back and realise something’s chasing you. It might not catch you on a long hike. It might not catch you—quite—on an intercontinental flight. But it might very well catch you on a Greyhound bus from Austin to Houston.
Towards the end of the three hour journey the road was growing lanes and the flags on poles in front of car dealerships were bigger than ever, than anywhere. As if it were possible to doubt what country you were in, here, of all places, where the present, vast and empty in the temporal dimension, occludes all context. In the beginning there was the I-10 and it was seen to be good—vaulting the surface streets on the approach to downtown. Cars and trucks in adjacent lanes edging ahead and falling back on the waves of traffic. Each one containing a person, coming from somewhere and with somewhere to go. A beginning, and an end. A story.
To have a story is what it means to be American. It is the land of apocrypha, history’s eternal preludes. Because so many of the stories that we consume are American the template for our own stories is American too and, leaving, it felt like mine had come home to roost or to rest amongst the novels and films, amongst the quotidian things people tell each other about who they are.
Paris, Texas opens with the lead character alone, insignificant and lost in the desert, vast and empty in the spatial dimension. I used to think it was a story that started at the end, the story of how he came to be there. I was reminded of it because the view filling the windows of the bus matched the scene where he drives to Houston, his going-on-eight-year-old son in the passenger seat. I thought about why they’d been written onto this same road, where they were going, in the cinematic light of the evening, 1984. I realised that the story of the film is just much as about the son, going to Houston to search for his mother.
This summer it will be twenty years since she—mine—died. 1994. I’ll turn twenty eight in July.
The tired travelling cliché is that it’s about finding yourself. I’ve never believed that, but a part of my self—an eight year old boy, searching—had found me. The end of this trip was the beginning of accepting that—him—and that there is something that I won’t find, not anywhere and not in anyone.
The person it has made me I did not previously, fully, apprehend. That made things more difficult than they needed to be in America and before. I’d leaned on Sarah harder than was fair and I felt guilty for it. She dropped me at the bus terminal in Austin with the promise that I had a friend for life. To say such a thing, having seen me at my worst, meant a great deal.
I disembarked the bus into a newness that I wouldn’t be privileged of again soon. And I realised that the greatest freedom is to be wholly present, in the story you’re reading or the one that you’re writing, in the river you’re swimming in or the city you’re wandering around, as you wait for a flight, on a spring afternoon, 2014.
The location in Paris, Texas where the son first sees his mother
Big Bend National Park is a vast area of desert on the American side of the Mexican border—demarcated by the Rio Grande river—and named for the turn that the river takes through it. I’d first found out about it because one of my favourite films, Paris, Texas, was shot there. While still in Texas it’s an eight hour drive from Austin and so we set off early one Thursday morning, the trunk full of standard issue leisure camping equipment and the back seats well-furnished with snacks and red wine. The landscape along the way was featureless, but not featureless enough to be remarkable. After changing heading from west to south for the final miles the mountains folded the desert, enveloped us and we pulled into the campground with time to set up and watch the sun go down on the first day of our adventure.
I was still in New Zealand mountain climbing mode so the next day we hiked up the highest peak in the park. I fully underestimated how difficult—ever so difficult—Sarah would find it. She did better than I think she realised, completing the round trip in the suggested 7 hours but “hating every minute” of them. I felt proud of her in a way she couldn’t understand and an unfamiliar responsibility for someone other than myself. More than anything I wanted to find things that she would enjoy doing—at some level out of neediness, to be also the person that she wanted—but more because the good times were doubly so for having shared them.
In the evenings the sun, still wintering, would set early and we’d sit out against the cold for as long as we could until the stars were showing full against the blackness above and we retired to the tent. I don’t remember now what we talked about on those nights but they were the closest I’d felt to anyone in a long time. The mornings, consequently, remained a struggle for me, much as I tried for Sarah’s sake not to let it show. There was a solace in the passing of the days though, full as they became with beauty, in their own way as wild and majestic as the best days in New Zealand.
After Big Bend we stopped in a place called Terlingua for a short while. It was a former mining town which had been abandoned and was just now being recolonised as a “ghost town”. We both loved it and should have taken the local advice to stick around for our last night of the trip. Instead we went to Marfa which was the sole disappointment out of everywhere we’d visited. I likened it to Texas curated by New York Times readers, preternaturally desperate for culture and unwilling to eat anywhere without an hour-long waiting list.
Going to Big Bend fulfilled the promise I’d made Sarah to take her there and the promise that it had made me from the background of a few movie scenes. More than anything it had confirmed to me—however and as whoever I had ended up there—how great these wild places can be and that they are never so far from any situation.
These natural hot springs on the banks of the Rio Grande were developed in the 1930s and left to crumble in the intervening decades. The ruins made for the ideal spot to jump in the river, being careful not to simultaneously jump the border and end up in Mexico illegally.
Against the wind
A little something against the wind
I found myself seeking shelter against the wind
I got into Sarah’s car out the front of the airport, well into the night. I’d left Pete’s around lunchtime but with the time difference a day and a half and three flights had been spun from the afternoon. She had a new car and a new place now. The last time I’d seen her had been a bright morning in June 2011 when she dropped me off at the RV park where I was staying; we’d met in a 6th Street bar a few nights before. I was almost her age now, if she’d have stayed the age I remembered her.
I’d transferred at LAX. Out in the Californian non-weather I wondered where I could have been going. Carried on the breeze was that uniquely American suggestion of a life just waiting to begin, somewhere out beyond the parking garage and the air traffic control tower. All, it whispered, that was necessary was to take the first step off the kerb, as if into a new pair of shoes, sized for the person you were to become, durable enough to last however far you had to run.
Inside the terminal, delayed at immigration or endlessly lapping a juxtaposition of escalators—up, around, down, around, repeat—was whoever I had been. Shuttle buses idled in their designated spots awaiting hotel guests with their luggage sized perfectly to fit in the overhead compartment. I turned, passed through the revolving doors and collected my unattended self for my final flight.
I had pared down my plans for America to two stages: One was visiting a place I’d never been, a place so inaccessible that I would likely never get to it again. The other was a return to a place—Sarah’s Austin—where I’d felt that American possibility before, where I’d been only who I was for that short time and nothing else—somewhere which had guilty appeal when I was struggling with myself in New Zealand.
* * *
We stopped at a gas station on the way to her apartment complex. She explained what it meant to choose one six pack of beer over another; I had to question whether I was at a Busch-drinking point in my life. The guy behind the register checked her ID as we paid.
I was no longer contending with who I could be in America but who she—who the person I’d be spending the next twelve days with—was.
In passing through you take people as presented and don’t stay long enough to be proved otherwise. Something fragile is constructed around them and that’s what you keep. It’s built from memories and maybe it’s reinforced with the odd message or photo but there’s a life inside that’s separate and it’s there while you are not. Everyone I’ve met on my travels has pleasantly surprised me when I’ve had the chance to visit them a second time. What emerges is impossibly fuller than that in which it’s been kept. This was no less true of Sarah. She was the first thing about America that made sense.
It was becoming a fraught situation and that was before she revealed that her circumstances had recently changed. It was not before we’d made things more complicated than needed.
I dealt with it horribly, as is always the way. Something happens inside my head and that’s where I retreat, lying in bed, curtains drawn, quiet and dark. Apparently my sighing could be incessant. She was working most days and I was incapable of finding anything to interest me in Austin. Marooned in this situation it was hard to find perspective; from her perspective it was hard to separate me from the anxiety to which I was no equal.
It wasn’t entirely unbearable. It would brighten when she got home from work. We’d go out for dinner where they’d always serve more food than was sensible to eat or we’d watch a film because network TV was universally terrible and there was comfort in the fulfillment of these most basic American stereotypes. I met some of her friends, her mum took me on a supermarket trip to get charcoal and again I was riding in a car down a strange highway with someone who wanted to help me just because I was there, who wanted to know about me just because I was from somewhere else. Sarah had this life with all these people who wanted to be around her and despite the situation so did I. We spent five nights like this then loaded up the car and slept once more before setting out west…