We are a pretty functional family until we all get into a car together. The closer we get to Arizona the less civilization crowds the road. The smell of dust floats through even closed air condition ducts and the whistle of the wind funnels through the crevices of the car as we skate along the stick-straight highway southeast…”
by chels knorr
The drive should take eight hours, but it never takes eight hours-not with holiday traffic and weather and border thoroughfares and two of us in the backseat and an upset of bathroom schedules and rest stop stretches. Usually it takes more like 11. I fill a bag of all the books I can carry, some car-safe craft projects, my dinged-up yellow Walkman and my pillow. Every November we drive from our house in Los Angeles to my grandpa’s house in Tucson, Arizona, where we celebrate Thanksgiving. We’ve made this trip for the last 10 years, every year since I was born, and will make it for the next 10 years.
We are all ready to go, waiting on Dad who is probably out checking the sprinklers, or hosing down the driveway. Is now really the best time? He always does this right before we are about to leave for a trip. We scramble up and down the stairs with last minute additions we forgot in our initial packing. Our luggage seems to multiply as we play Tetris with the trunk space.
We have a two-door, stick shift Honda Civic. My younger brother and I argue over whose turn it is to sit behind Mom because Dad has long legs and extra backseat space is a commodity. We cram ourselves into the backseat, putting down the center armrest for the clear division of sides-a divider neither of us can adjust in our favor.
Before we ever reach the freeway everyone is cranky. Dad fears he has forgotten something essential, and on most trips he does-like his toothbrush or shoes or once, underwear. My mom didn’t eat before we left and needs to if she is going to ever be a nice person again. Chase and I are buried in the back, amid our pillows and bags of car entertainment and whatever luggage didn’t fit in the trunk, and we are already asking “Are we there yet?”
We inevitably leave the house just in time to hit downtown LA at rush hour. No one thought this through. We sit on the I-5, a parking lot, rolling forward a few feet on occasion. Dad becomes impatient and Mom, the eternal optimist, tries to distract us from the sirens and horns and Dad, swearing under his breath. She finds an “A” on a callbox sign and tells me it’s my turn to spot a “B.” We get through the alphabet by finding letters on license plates and billboards and the occasional store sign. The alphabet game doesn’t last long-after all, there are only 26 letters. Mom suggests the quiet game, which we know is not fun and don’t want to play. I use my fingers to count and subtract the hours we’ve been in the car from the hours we have left.
After the traffic lets up, everyone keeps a lookout for a Chevron to stop at for gas and a nearby Taco Bell for food. It’s usually at least 20 miles until Dad spots one and we stop. We don’t have to pee yet, but we know this will be one of only a handful of bathroom breaks, so we go anyway.
My dad is averse to stopping for any reason on road trips. I think a lot of dads are like this. It doesn’t matter that he is kind and logical in other scenarios. It doesn’t matter if we are cute or only little kids or if we beg or bribe or cry. It isn’t going to happen, at least until we appeal to Mom’s sympathetic side and she makes him find a rest stop, or at the very least, pull the car over so we can squat on the side of the road.
Road trips are also one of the only times we can have soda. About 15 minutes after we have eaten the last of the sugar-laced ice cubes, Chase and I look at each other. We both have to pee. It always happens like this. Our bladders feel like overstretched balloons; they ache. With only eye contact and head nodding, we have a conversation: You ask him. No, you ask him. I’m not going to ask him. Well, I’m not going to ask him either. This happens every few minutes until one of us, usually me, breaks down to ask dad to stop. We should have asked sooner, because it will still be at least 20 minutes before he’ll find a place convenient enough to pull off, which means it needs to be so efficient he can keep the tires rolling while we run inside.
Mom and Dad bicker the first half the trip about each other’s driving. The second half, everyone is tired. We are a pretty functional family until we all get into a car together. The closer we get to Arizona the less civilization crowds the road. The smell of dust floats through even closed air condition ducts and the whistle of the wind funnels through the crevices of the car as we skate along the stick-straight highway southeast. It is dark enough to see stars, something we don’t often encounter with the lights of Los Angeles. The sky seems infinite, peppered with white, blanketed on endless desert.
I have told Chase to get off my side more times than I can count. I have stacked up pillows to create a definite boundary line, a line the armrest alone sufficed to define at the beginning of the trip. Hße doesn’t care and loves to test me. He pretends to fall asleep and inches across the line, peeking below his eyelids to see what my reaction will be. Soon, his sleep is real.
Although Mom says she is only resting her eyes, it is not long before it is just Dad and me awake. “You OK, Dad?” I ask from the backseat, curled up with a blanket, as if I can help with the driving if he isn’t OK. I am barely 10. “Are we there yet?” All I want is an answer. Any answer, as long as it is not 11 hours. I am antsy and restless and tired. But Dad won’t ever answer the question. Instead, he says, I have to figure it out on my own.
Dad tells me to get out my notebook and a pencil and he recites a formula from the front seat-distance equals rate times time (d=rt). He calls it dirt so I’ll remember.
I work with a flashlight held against the white paper. Dad has to explain the process many times before I can apply the formula on my own. He tells me where to plug in the numbers. He tells me what the letters stand for. He tells me where to multiply or move numbers to the other side of the equation. This is years before I will enroll in algebra class. I have no concept of coefficients or polynomials. To me, algebra is three letters. It is three or four memorized steps. It is one formula.
I keep a lookout for a signpost indicating how many more miles to Tucson and, from over my Dad’s shoulder I grab the speed from the glowing speedometer. After a mess of scratch paper and reciting what I have to my dad, who has done the math in his head and can tell me if I’m right, I can find the answer on my own. I figure it out down to the minute and watch the clock slowly change on the dashboard. Just a few moments later I complete the calculation again just to see if, maybe, it has changed since my last try.
It seems road trips should be fun. They are a break in routine, a chance to go see Grandpa and celebrate a holiday. It could be that we are cooped up in a small space, but I don’t think we’d feel any different if we each had our own three-seat row in a 12-passenger van. There are too many personal agendas in this vehicle. Dad is trying to avoid stops, Mom is trying to mediate all of the disagreements. Chase and I want to be there and until we are we want our own space. These agendas temporarily pry us apart.
I won’t learn until my freshman year of high school that algebra is more complicated than just three letters. I’ll learn there are infinite variables, in fact, sometimes there are more letters than numbers. In the dirt formula, there are more variables than just time. There is x; where x is how the speed varies and what happens when we make a wrong turn, and accounts for the stop lights which are not in our favor, and does not let me round 72 miles-per-hour to 70 to make it easier. It accounts for holiday traffic and weather and border thoroughfares and two kids in the backseat and an upset of bathroom schedules and rest stop stretches and for conflicting personal agendas. Sometimes there are so many variables that there is no answer.
It was satisfying to have an answer to dirt; to know how much longer I had to sit in the car before we would arrive at Grandpa’s. But the answer wasn’t real. It was only something to sate my restlessness, a solution to tide me over. I wouldn’t learn until later that nothing is definite. It is all variable and all as unknown as the infinite expanse of stars.
(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)
Chels Knorr is the associate editor for two monthly health-care publications, an assistant editor for The Los Angeles Review and a graduate student. She has published in Thought Catalog, Westwind, Beyond the Bracelet, 100-Layer Cake, We Said Go Travel and has pieces soon-to-be-published in Verge Magazine and Skirt Magazine.