I was a scrappy kid growing up — the youngest of three, the only girl, always ready to out-crazy, out-punch and out-run my two older brothers. At five, I had mastered the side karate kick with precision and speed. To this day I still use it when they come at me, claiming to be playful. They’re older and fatter now so it’s a lot easier, and I’ve kept up with my yoga, keeping my kicks high and mighty. That’s the first rule of sibling rivalry: Never let down your guard.
Likewise, this is the first rule of the desert. Behind our childhood home there were acres of mountain wilderness, which we explored and roamed daily. We came across more snakes and scorpions and desert creatures than we could count, saving our finds for dinner conversation and nothing more.
Quick rules: coral snakes — red and yellow kills a fellow, red and black is a friend to Jack; rattlesnakes – freeze, then make a large arc around them; tarantulas are slow and gentle; don’t pick up rocks unless you’re prepare for the quick scurry of scorpions and centipedes; ignore coyotes, bobcats, and javelinas, but if they come at you in a pack, grab a large stick and scream like a banshee. [Ironically, the most terrifying incident was running into a swarm of migrating bees. Let’s just say it wasn’t my finest hour of cool. Luckily I heard them before they saw me and I made the fastest getaway of my life.]
But more and more, the desert was getting crowded with development. Frank Lloyd Wright imitation houses were all the rage. Homes with more angles than a geometry final exam started popping up. Isosceles triangles and rhombuses filled our desert space until my folks declared it was time to pack up and move further into the mountains. It was a big move at the time and like most kids, we resisted. I had already built the finest palo verde tree house with a “No Brothers Allowed” sign hammered into its green trunk and I didn’t feel it was an easy transplant. But kids have no say in their parents affairs. It was the early 80’s after all.
So, my mom, dad, brothers and I climbed into our wood-paneled station wagon, the kind with the rear-facing back seat, and headed further north to view a spot of land, ready to embark on a new chapter of desert dwelling. My father had always dreamed of building a house. As we drove, shedding civilization, burrowing further into the land, and my brothers had less drivers they could provoke into road rage by giving them the bird, we began to realize, Dad was really going for it. This was no joke. We drove off blacktop and headed to a vast amount of land littered with cacti and brush, with a white flag of surrender plunged in the middle of a lone valley.
“Here it is!” he declared with triumph, like he was homesteading, but with all the expenses of being a landowner.
“It’s nice,” we all said, staring at the range of mountains, a wash at the foothills, and a large expanse of desert where we would build a corral and stables. No neighbors. No civilization. Just lots and lots of thorny space.
“Ah, you hear that?” Dad said.
We shook our heads.
“Silence. It’s the sound of silence.”
Then my brother hit me and I screamed, just to show him there was no such thing when you have children, followed by a round of, “Will you stop touching me!”
My mother had brought a blanket and food because nothing spells picnic quite like thick cacti, creosote, brittlebush and anthills the size of mini Everest. She paced, scanning a good spot, coming up empty, while Dad carried on.
“And the kitchen will be here. Your bedroom will be here. And way, way on the other side will be your brothers.”
I perked up at that. Way, way? Other side? Yes!
This lasted all of twenty minutes. Then came the photos. There’s a picture of me in my dolphin, two-toned shorts, holding a wildflower, grinning in a sea of desert. Mom gave up on setting out a blanket and we ate our sun-soaked sandwiches on the flattest rocks we could find, swatting away gnats and stomping off the ants.
Hearing the promise of horses, my brothers became excited about the move. Also, being male teenagers, they were already less suited for society. It was obvious they would either become convicts or cowboys. Unfortunately for me, they chose the latter, using me as a runaway calf, roping my feet until I mastered resentment and how to take a face plant. (Note: You want to stay loose, so you can roll away fast.)
There was a lot of Dad pointing and smiling, mapping out his dream, while my brothers and I collected scorpions and centipedes in the cups Mom brought. Soon we had an entire army of bugs. We built a rink for them to maul each other in, while Mom, still holding the blanket, nodded alongside Dad, disguising her reservations about the whole move.
After a couple hours, we packed up, ready to return home and plan the timeframe of what would follow. I diligently let my scorpions and centipedes go and climbed back into the station wagon with my brothers, who were again in the rear-facing back. We weren’t even a mile away when the shrieks of horror had my dad pulling the car over.
“What? What? What?” he yelled.
“The cups of scorpions and centipedes got knocked over!”
All the car doors flew open and everyone screeched, running away from the station wagon, including Mom and Dad. Two lone empty cups were turned over in the back and all the bugs scurried in between the cracks of the plastic seats, burrowing into the crevices, clenching their lobster-like claws and moving their tiny legs.
“How many were in there?” my father demanded.
“I dunno,” my brother said. “Twenty?”
Then they fought over who spilled the cups.
“Why were you bringing them back?” my mother yelled. “You were supposed to let them go!”
Then a round of finger pointing ensued.
Here we were: five people, ten feet away from a station wagon with all the doors open, in the middle of the desert, yelling, pointing, freaking out. Too bad a satellite image couldn’t have captured it.
After a half an hour of standing there, we decided we would all sit in front, as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. We drove back into civilization with five people in the driver and front passenger seats laughing and kicking like a pack of wild coyotes. I kid you not. And suddenly, us moving away from civilization made sense. We may have tethered our dreams to my father’s, and it didn’t take long before civilization found us again, but my father was right about the desert. You can hear your own voice — and that’s where all dreams start.