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Dusti Bowling on Across the Desert

The first story seed for Across the Desert was planted in my mind by a person who flies a paraplane (a motorized parachute) near my house. I’d seen this person flying several times and found myself wondering where they’d come from, where they took off and landed, whether they’d ever crashed (and were they even afraid of crashing?), and how much training they’d needed to fly such a thing. So much of storytelling for me is simply asking a lot of questions and letting my mind wander and follow unusual paths, and the more I thought about this mystery pilot, the more questions popped into my mind. Did they need a license to fly the paraplane? What if a child wanted to fly one alone? Could they?

For me, so many story ideas start with a person doing a thing in a place. This story was no different, and for a while I had this idea: a girl flying a paraplane (which would later become an ultralight trike) in the desert. I could see her—daring, adventurous, and maybe a little reckless (okay, a lot reckless). She was definitely doing it behind her parents’ backs. She was also the complete opposite of me, who is cautious, risk-averse, and absolutely terrified at the thought of flying anything so flimsy around the desert. I once paraglided off a mountain in Vancouver, thinking that might cure my acrophobia, but I’m pretty sure it actually made it worse.

Anyway, that little spark of an idea was all I had for several months until I decided the young pilot should also be filming her adventures as a sort of online livestreamed nature show. This element was inspired by my husband and children, who like to film nature videos of the desert wildlife around our home and post the videos online under the name “The Sonoran Explorers.” I knew this pilot would also be a young desert explorer, and I started seeing so much of my own children in her.

And then one day, nearly a year after the story seed was first planted, I had an epiphany: the story that had been developing in my mind didn’t belong to the pilot. The story belonged to someone else entirely, to a girl watching Addie’s livestreamed show on a computer in a public library over a hundred miles away in the middle of the hot city. I knew this little observer, Jolene, right away. She was so lonely and very much alone in the world. The connection she was building online with this young pilot who called herself “Addie Earhart” was becoming an important part of her life. Addie was unlike anyone she’d ever met, and Jolene wished she could be more like her—brave and confident and free. Jolene was also hiding a big secret, her mom’s opioid addiction, and so watching Addie’s show, The Desert Aviator, was a much needed escape for her from her problems at home.

More questions then came to me, including the big one that would finally give me my plot: What would Jolene do if Addie crashed while she was watching? What if she was the only person watching? What if she had no proof of what she saw? What if she didn’t know Addie’s real name or where she lived? Would anyone listen to this little girl? And how would she continue keeping her secret during all of this?

The reason I knew Jolene right away was because I saw my child self in her the moment she formed in my mind: the loneliness and insecurities; the lack of friendship in my life; the constant longing to be elsewhere, to experience some kind of adventure, but also being terrified at the thought of taking any kind of risk; and the constant anxiety over my parents’ alcoholism and other addictions. I never knew what I would find at home, whether I was at my mom’s or my dad’s, and the constant worry was overwhelming.

I reached for books as an escape from these painful experiences. Books comforted me and showed me a lot of happy, stable families, but I never once saw my own situation mirrored in the stories I loved as a child. That was my biggest reason for writing Across the Desert. Because kids need to know they’re not alone in their circumstances. They need to know there are a lot of people out there who understand what it’s like to watch the people you love gradually destroy themselves and hurt everyone around them day after day. I know what’s it like to feel completely alone in the world with no one to turn to for help because the ones you should be able to turn to are the ones hurting you.

So I hope children get swept away by the adventure. I hope they laugh with the characters. I hope they find themselves anxiously turning the pages, wondering whether Jolene will be able to find Addie, wondering whether Addie will be alive, wondering whether it will all end okay. And I want children to finish the story knowing it will be okay. Maybe not right now. Maybe not even in the immediate future. But one day, they will be okay, even if their parents are never okay. Their lives still hold endless possibilities.