How did we get here, from … here?
We were on a father-and-son cross-America trek to celebrate a milestone birthday for R-Three. It was designed to be a full family adventure, but an eleventh-hour circumstance tethered my wife to the workplace, leaving R-Three and me to strike out by ourselves on the bought-and-paid-for journey. Even the backup plan, to later in the week swoop in and collect her at the airport in Rapid City, S.D., on our approach to Mount Rushmore, would later be scuttled.
We flew from Toronto to Los Angeles and began our epic driving adventure with a fully-clothed ceremonial dip in the Pacific Ocean at Venice Beach (the closing rite to be a replication in the Atlantic Ocean eight days later, at Chesapeake Bay). We air dried our clothes while checking out vendors’ wares on the boardwalk and during the compulsory crawl through Beverly Hills. Then came the customary photo op beneath the famed Hollywood sign, followed by a sanctimonious snubbing of L.A. smog and glam for the “real California” we were certain lay just to the north and east.
The hotel we had booked in Santa Clarita proved to be to our liking. We made friends with the two blue-attired gentlemen behind the desk on check-in. Not only were they happy to point us to a nearby In and Out Burger location (one of the items on our bucket list while in California) as a dining option, but were memorably chatty and spontaneously good-humoured to boot. We made sure to give them a report on our impressions of the burger joint upon our return, and after a little more good-natured banter we said goodnight and headed up to the room.
We awakened in the morning in time to avail of the complimentary continental breakfast that waited downstairs. To my surprise, the same two guys were manning the front desk! My head did a reflexive swivel to confirm what I had glimpsed out of the corner of one eye as I entered the lobby. Dressed exactly as they were the evening before, they had clearly pulled an all-nighter but were looking no worse for wear. This I found rather jarring and to a degree worth denying to my irritated brain (not unlike the slight mental turmoil one might experience upon discovering the existence of more pieces than remaining spaces in a nearly complete jigsaw puzzle).
I grappled with the anomaly as I poured coffees and found a place to sit in the breakfast nook. I hissed both the observation and my analysis of its poor fit to R-Three upon his return from outside, where he had gone for a morning burn. He had sauntered by the gentlemen on the way out and in, and even exchanged pleasantries with them, but hadn’t put the pieces together.
His eyes widened now.
“I thought so!” he exclaimed. “That’s what it is! They’re still here!”
On our way out, I sauntered over to the desk and struck up a conversation, with a breezy “Fancy meeting you here — still!” as the opener.
Their explanation as to why they had pulled an all-nighter didn’t make a lot of sense, really. Nor did the all-nighter itself, for that matter, jibe with their bright-eyed-and-bushy-tailed appearance at 8:48 a.m. But beyond peculiar there was nothing that should have made the tale particularly memorable. Nor was there anything that stood out to us about Santa Clarita itself as we prepared to head out into the Mojave desert — that is, if you discount the open and functioning full-service/self-serve gas station where we refueled being devoid of attendants, customers or any other signs of life!
Santa Clarita and its also curiously empty streets in our rearview mirror, nothing else struck us as particularly unusual on the morning that gleamed before us under a brilliant sun and impossibly blue sky. Nothing meaning everything, of course, seeing we had never been here before. Everything, from the landscape, the colours and the spirit of things, was new, unusual and downright fascinating.
Don’t ask why we yanked the SUV off the road at the beckoning of a homemade sign advertising U-pick cherries. We just did, that’s all, and with an urgency that belied the levels of both interest and expertise regarding cherries-from-the-tree, we urbanites could possibly own.
There was no way to justify either the outrageous price or the removal of a full gallon of the pitted fruit we carted out of the orchard, but the experience held an array of fascinations. It was a strangely peaceful respite from the busy lives we had been leading, and from the frantic chaos of international travel too, and in no small way, it existed in harmony with the surreal sub-desert sand-and-shrub-clad terrain we had driven through on our way here. And with the eerie silence in places, we pulled off for Kodak moments too.
Surreal also was the uncanny fascination we ourselves held for a wide-eyed six- or seven-year-old boy, who was there in the company of his impatient mother. With large brown orbs staring out in silence from a blank but inquisitive face, he tracked our every movement, from tree to tree and row to row. He seemed compelled to follow us, and our movements soon turned to antics, as his innocent curiosity cued a primal instinct in me to showboat. (That is likely what drove me to pick so many cherries, with no regard at all for the size of harvest accumulating in the white plastic pail I had been handed upon entrance.)
I found myself drawn into the silent evaluation on the kid’s face — somewhere deep, to a different place: existing here but reliving an equally innocent event that had been notched in my memory, from many years prior to this and thousands of miles from here.
Then, I had been caught up in a boyhood fascination with a way-cool dump truck driver who was working on the roads near my hometown: grasping the doorframe of his truck and pivoting expertly on one hand each time he needed to manually release the dump, then all but bowing to his audience of enthralled kids as he fluidly swung back into the driver’s seat. Over and over he did this until hero status was achieved. Here, the hero was me: coaxing virtual clusters of cherries to eagerly forfeit residency on the trees for the privilege of dancing across my expert palm on the way to snuggling with others at the bottom of the pail. He gauged each masterful clutch, artful flow and ensuing stream of tumbling fruit.
“You’re doing that kid!” R-Three scolded, between shutter ka-lops and thuds as he photographed our enterprise for posterity. “You’re showing off!”
“Naw,” I replied. “Just giving him a show.”
There was a sense of smug self-satisfaction, just the same, in being the anonymous face of sheer aplomb that kid would perhaps forevermore associate with cherry picking expertise. And also a kind of mischievous delight in causing his mother, who never once looked fully in our direction or even responded to my merrily chirped hello, a degree of exasperation when the kid wouldn’t tell her why he wasn’t keeping up with her nomadic traipse from tree to tree.
The cherry-picking event evaporated rapidly from our conscious once we were back on the road. Edwards Air Force Base awaited. On our bucket list was a photo shoot on the salt flats where the 1980s-era space shuttles made their landings.
We ended up having to accomplish this the back way — pulling off onto an unmarked road north of the base and driving off-road to the crest of a hill across the desert sand — because we were curtly denied entry at the front gate. So unwelcome were we that we were compelled to surrender passports, driver’s licence and wallets, and work declarations too, along with an albeit simplistic explanation for wishing to make such an audacious “incursion”; the gruff and well-armed guard and the at-the-ready escorts under his command were impressed by nothing seen or heard; they confiscated our IDs until we could get the SUV turned around and pointed on a trajectory back into the desert from whence we’d materialized. Oddly, our possession of the rental SUV neither piqued curiosity nor caused affront.
We stopped at McDonald’s in Rosamond, not far from Edwards, before heading north toward Mojave. Like Jell-O, there’s always room for McDonald’s and, since we’re Canadian, the sausage-and-egg biscuit — not to be confused with McMuffin — sounds a clarion call whenever the sun rises while we’re on U.S. soil. But our brief stop in Rosamond would scarcely bear mentioning here had it not been for a jolt of eeriness that greeted us at the McDonald’s door.
At the open door, we sidestepped to make way for a man who was exiting. He scarcely noticed us at first, but then he allowed his eyes to glance briefly across our faces. Then he started when his eyes became entangled with R-Three’s. The two of them did a simultaneous double take — one that was palpable. They seemed to get caught up in a moment of unresolved recognition as if frozen in time by the intensity of a knowing that registered on some level but which neither could reconcile. The pause lasted long enough to register everywhere, then the two were suddenly released from its grip. The man continued on his trajectory to the outside, where he promptly vanished from our view, while R-Three proceeded to the counter to place our order.
It was one of those prickly moments that cause you to take notice, for reasons you can’t quite put a finger on. While we waited for our order fulfillment, I stated the obvious.
“Dude,” R-Three pronounced. And it took a moment, one that filled itself up with hours of data one could have sifted through before he added the only conclusion capable of releasing us from that oddest of moments: “Impossible.”
We joked about it over handsome biscuits and coffee in styrofoam cups (which, oddly, neither of us later could recall actually having consumed). Perhaps the gruff military types who had spectacularly turned us away from Edwards had sent henchmen after us to make sure we really did go away, I quipped. That remark was good for a chuckle, but then we moved on, not thinking about the incident much more until after Mojave.