Thursday, March 31, 2011

Didion's Vortex*

We left Denver and headed West on I-70. The greenish-yellow Ford Maverick sped toward the waiting range. Maps spread across the front bench seat. The windows were rolled down letting in the summer air. The highway threaded through canyons. Though the car rolled ever-upward, the mountains seemed to grow, their whitening peaks promising cool relief from the late June heat. I was the navigator, an easy task as there was only one possibility for us through the range. My aunt drove, fiddling with the radio and singing when no stations would register. I stared out the window looking for wildlife, though I saw mainly ground squirrels and soaring raptors. We were at the beginning of a three-week expedition through the American West.

Driving through Colorado, West on I-70, I followed the maroon Ford Ranger toward the looming Rockies. The engine of the silver rental I was driving strained as we headed up an incline. The clouds, a duller version of the car color broke apart as we red-lined up the incline. The stress of following another car, weaving through traffic, toward an unfamiliar destination caused palm-sweating hyper-awareness of the surroundings. The mountains erupted from the plain. A pathwork of bare red and gray rock, dark green pines and wispy scrub-grass dotted the slopes. Houses became sparser, neighborhoods gave way to clusters of log and glass homes pinholed into those dwindling places where building was possible. We laughed as we ascended deeper into the Rockies; our family Colorado adventure was just beginning.

We followed the maroon Ford Ranger up I-70, toward the mountains. The engine roared as I pushed on the accelerator. The gray clouds broke into blue patches. The rugged front range stood vanguard to its taller, snow-covered siblings. My knuckles were white, my palms sweaty from the anxiety of following my son toward an unfamiliar destination. And overwhelming memory. The chasm opening before me was not canyon nor ravine, the car was not careening into space. But something within my chest was falling, sinking into some dark and painful abyss. I counted swallows of mountain air, ignoring its sparser oxygen, instead, I focused on the action. Inhale. Exhale. The inner black mist dispersed. The turn-signal on my mother's old truck came on. We left the highway. I sighed as we turned toward the beauty of Red Rocks on the last day of our Colorado visit.

*Right after the "incident," (in my family, we call it the crash that took the lives of our mother and aunt the "incident," because, after all, a drunk driver slamming into the back of their car at 130mph isn't an accident) anyway, after the "incident," a professor recommended Joan Didion's A Year of Magical Thinking. In that memoir, she descibes moments of overwhelming memory and grief that hit suddenly, ususally when a smell, or a scene, or a situation stir up a particular memory associated with a lost loved one. A kind of debilitating deja vu.

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