“But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.—It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.—It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.—It’s a blasted heath.—It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.—It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain.”
“‘Landlord,’ said I, ‘tell him to stash his tomahawk there, or pipe, or whatever you call it; tell him to stop smoking, in short, and I will turn in with him. But I don’t fancy having a man smoking in bed with me. It’s dangerous. Besides, I ain’t insured.’”
Sunday morning my family went on a hike above Aspen, Colorado, with Howie, a local guide who told us that the hanging valley we were standing in had been formed by a glacier that slid off the side of another glacier, that a human skull found in a local cave had been dated back 8,000 years, that aspen stands are one organism, connected through their root system and genetically identical, and that the bird we saw was a goshawk, which hunts its prey among the trees—something that is, I imagine, difficult to do. Then we tried to get on a plane and fly home to San Francisco, but the flights out of Aspen were canceled and the flights out of Denver were full, and so we decided, by looking briefly at a map, that we would rent a car and drive to Las Vegas, where we could catch a morning flight. Six hundred and thirty-six miles, plus an additional mile-and-a-half loop I drove when I started out in the right direction, thought it was the wrong direction, turned around, then turned around again. No one complained. We were all thrilled by our audacity, and eating the candy bars I’d taken from the free section of the hotel minibar right before we checked out.
At some point the sun set, and everyone grew tired, and we turned off the music so that people could sleep, and people cried from how tired they were, and other people shook the ice in their cups repeatedly in order to eat the ice, because we were out of other water sources, and I became enraged by this, and we turned the music back on, and people fell asleep briefly, before they were woken because the adults had turned to a satellite station that played political speeches, and we stopped at a rest stop and for some reason David didn’t want to use the rest stop right where you got off the highway, he wanted to use another one farther away, and we had a little fight about that, and we got more water and switched drivers so that I was driving again, and everyone including my husband fell asleep—but before that, and after that, the ride was everything I wanted it to be. I drove us through the Roaring Fork Valley in the Rocky Mountains to I-70 and then down out of the mountains along the Colorado River as the sun set and great alien mesas rose up on either side of us, the road curving to follow the river, which, low from the year’s drought, revealed gravel spills and high grasses along gentle banks. Speed limit 75, but it was so easy to go faster than that. In Parachute I was clocked at 88 in a 75 zone and, for no good reason, let off without a citation. Just look out, said the officer, because this is the time of day when elk try to cross the highway. He gave us his card. For the next 45 miles the boys watched for elk.
We got dinner at Burger King just as the sun set. David drove 350 miles through Utah in the dark.
Now I was driving again, this time through the northwest corner of Arizona. It was after midnight, although I didn’t know the exact time. I was the only person awake, and I knew I had to concentrate very hard on what I was doing to do it at all. I had been singing along with the radio but even that was too much, too extraneous, I had to marshal every scrap of consciousness to remain focused on keeping the car on the road; I couldn’t let my mind wander, or imagine that any of this was a dream. The radio played on. The speed limit dropped to 55 and signs warned me of high winds, strong curves, and falling rocks. The only other vehicles running were big trucks, and if I wanted to pass one I had to get inside it and press the gas down more than I wanted to and then wait longer than I wanted to to get back into the right lane again. At one point I fought the urge to pull over to the side and let it—by “it” I meant the curving descent—pass me by.
Then this was over, too. The road into Nevada was flat and straight, and we passed into a section of the highway where the state was “trying out” a new speed limit: 80. David woke up and we watched, together, as Las Vegas went from being a glow on the horizon to being a sea of lights below us. I’d never been to Las Vegas before. We took the highway down through the middle of it all. When we pulled up to the hotel we were relieved to find out that Las Vegas was on Pacific time, and it was only 1:51 am. We had four and a half hours before we had to get ourselves to the airport.
There were people around, of course. They were all drunk. For the children, forced to march the huge marble hallways and the carpeted casino, each carrying a backpack, to our room, this last part of the trip was frightening. At the elevator bank we let four guys in cargo shorts carrying orange beer bongs take the first elevator. The next elevator disgorged a woman in a bathrobe with her hair teased and mussed, her eye makeup smudged, and her entire face, really, undone. She couldn’t look at us. When we all lay down in the beds, the boys fell asleep, quickly, and I must have done the same, but I was woken several times in the short, short night by the sound of one of them crying in his sleep.