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Searching for Lost Memories on the Pan-American Highway
By Teresa Bruce
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- Trade Paperback $16.99 $22.49 CAD
- ebook $10.99 $13.99 CAD
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 13, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
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Bruce is immensely talented in bringing scenery of Central and South America to life — countries from Mexico and Guatemala to Bolivia and Argentina are detailed with her innate attention to detail and sense of storytelling. The Drive details a really incredible journey through these beautiful, at times corrupt and war-torn countries, across roads that are as likely to be barricaded by guerrillas or washed out by floods as they are to be passable.
The Drive is travel writing at its best, combining moments of deep heartbreak with unimaginable joy over a panoply of unforgettable settings.
We are marooned in the center of a country in the center of a continent. It would be better to be lost, comforted by the possibility of search and rescue. But my husband and I have driven here on purpose, searching for the remains of my childhood home. Somewhere between the mountainous Bolivian outposts of Mizque and Aiquile, the dirt track we are following narrows to the width of a hospital gurney and then doubles back on itself in a hairpin turn. Manageable, actually, if it weren't for the fact that it does so directly under a waterfall. This particularly contorted switchback is pinched under a flood-swollen river gushing to a gorge below.
Gary stops our one-ton truck and vintage camper just shy of a pummeling cascade. Another ten feet forward and neither one of us will be able to get out of the vehicle. On the driver's side—the inside corner of the hairpin left turn—a sheer cliff plunges three hundred feet. There is no guardrail or shoulder; the road is perfectly aligned to the terrifying drop-off. On my side is a low overhang, water-carved out of a mountain face and so claustrophobically close that opening the truck's door will impale it into solid rock.
The roof of the camper might squeeze under the overhanging ledge, but if the back wheels slip we will be swept over the edge in an instant. The road is too narrow and unstable to turn around, so if we chicken out we will have to negotiate hours of mud ditches and washboard road in reverse.
We are days off course already, on a dubious detour forced by washed-out bridges along the Pan-American Highway. There is no guidebook or app we can consult to tell us what to do, and the road is dissolving before our eyes. I visualize a wave of mud with our beautifully restored 1968 Avion camper riding its crest like a surfboard. Not even two years into our married life together, Gary and I would be swallowed whole, our quest to find the camper I grew up in submerged in grief and second-guessing.
It is told-you-so infuriating, the kind of unfair that gushes out in hot tears when it would feel much better to punch something. We quit amazing jobs and sold a house on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, to take this trip, leaving a trail of friends and family questioning our sanity. Men fired guns over our heads in Mexico and Nicaragua. We depleted most of our budget to ship the camper around the kidnapping narco-traffickers of Colombia. My intestines are pickled in Cipro, and Gary carries dengue fever in his blood. There are ashes from an aborted llama fetus scattered on the camper bed.
All for nothing. The road is impassable. After seven months of driving we will have to console ourselves with platitudes. You can never go home again anyway. It's the effort that counts. Better to have tried and failed than never dared a leap of faith.
Gary squeezes my hand. We are standing behind our dented, road-bruised camper in helpless silence when the sky splits. It pours with enough force to obliterate the road on either side of the hairpin waterfall. The weight of our decision lifts; we both realize that turning back now would be as dangerous as going forward. We run back to the truck, lock the hubs into four-wheel drive, and climb in.
Steam obscures the windshield so we inch forward in first gear, driving almost blind. I am too scared to talk but we can't hear each other anyway. The sound of the downpour becomes deafening when the waterfall hits—first the truck's hood and then the camper's aluminum roof. I have the absurd sensation of driving through a car wash on a roller-coaster.
"Can I come any closer on your side?" Gary shouts as he begins to take the inside curve. I roll down my window, which is under the protection of the rock ledge overhang, and yank the side-view mirror toward me to give us another few inches of clearance. We can't afford to get wedged in so we will have to bump our way through by feel. My heart tastes cold and metallic lodged in the back of my throat.
The back end starts to fishtail to the left, like someone is tugging at the corner of a carpet underneath us. Gary steers the front wheels into the deepest ruts for traction. My side of the camper begins to scrape the cliff wall. Solid rock is gouging into its thin aluminum skin, peeling back reflector lights and rivet strips like tortured fingernails.
"Are the back tires holding?" I yell.
"I can't tell. Open your door in case we have to jump."
It takes a second to sink in. If the road gives way, our only hope of survival is both of us clambering out the passenger side before the camper plummets into the ravine.
I brace my left arm against the dashboard and crack open the truck door. It is so heavy I can barely hold it off the latch while I peer under my armpit at the road below. Gary drives and I watch for signs that the tires are slipping. Mud spins up and into my eyes. I let go of the dashboard to wipe my face, and when my weight shifts the momentum of the swinging-open door starts to take me with it.
An image washes over me: a three-year-old boy startled by backward-slipping, mud-slick tires. He is struggling with a heavy truck door, trying to get out. His panic melds with mine; his racing heartbeat overtakes my own. His face is turned but I would know him anywhere. He is my little brother.
The greatest adventure of my life began with the greatest tragedy of my parents'. I was only six years old, so my memories of that devastating catalyst are less of the actual events and more of smells and sounds. I was on my first sleepover in our hometown of Banks, Oregon—thirty miles west of Portland—when my father knocked on my friend's front door and told me I had to leave. Right now.
My father never cried, but that particular day tears were streaming down his bearded face. He was shaking and he smelled sour, like sweat and throw-up swirled together. He didn't stop shaking and never said a word on the long drive home. We drove through the four-way stop sign without stopping, over the bumpy railroad tracks without looking left and right, past my babysitter's farm without blowing kisses, and past our two horses in the meadow with no noise from my father but shuddering gasps and wet snorts. He sounded like he was choking. He didn't honk the horn at Simba, our dog, who chased us all the way up the rutted, muddy driveway through the woods. He just held my hand so tight I thought it would break.
He took me to our single-wide trailer. It was as still as a coffin. My maternal grandmother, Nellie Mae, was there, my Aunt Ronell and Uncle Tim, the neighbors, and my baby sister, Jenny—but not my little brother, John John. I didn't notice his absence at first; I thought something had happened to my mother. She was lying facedown on her bed, one arm hanging off the side like the dislocated shoulder of a broken Barbie doll. I was told not to bother her. It was hot and the trailer smelled of salmon casserole and venison nobody was eating. Somebody had lined up pictures of my brother on the counter where we normally colored and cut out paper dolls.
John John had a head-bobbling belly laugh triggered by the words "say cheese." In the photographs I sit next to him, trying to smile pretty, but my little brother looks like he sees something silly behind the camera—pants falling down, a pie flying through the air, Tweety about to trick Sylvester.
Except at Christmas. As a baby on Santa's knee he appears about to vomit. In the next Christmas picture he is lurching for my mother. In the third one his chin is quivering and the veins on Santa's hands are bulging with the strain of holding him. He looks a lot braver in the other pictures lined up on our coloring counter. Like the one where he's helping Daddy cut down a Christmas tree in the woods while my mother and I wait in the front seat of the car in case we have to beep the horn to warn them somebody is coming. Or the one where he's sitting quietly, right beside his daddy, waiting for a deer to tiptoe into a sunny spot. By the time he is three he is almost as tall as his daddy's hunting rifle.
I was about to ask why pictures of me weren't lined up on the counter too when my father finally told me John John was "gone."
"It's okay, Daddy, he probably ran away. He's copying me. Again," I said, tugging on my father's jeans. He lurched toward the toilet and I had to run to keep up. I sat Indian-legged on the yellow linoleum floor bunching up tissue paper for my father to wipe his mouth. He heaved and I prattled through it, as only a six-year-old girl who doesn't want to say how scared she is can prattle.
"Maybe he went to see South Africa Granny and Grandpa. They live really far away, remember?"
South Africa was where we mailed finger-painted hearts and I-love-you notes in envelopes that took lots of licking to stick on all the stamps. My mother told us it was hot there, so grannies and grandpas have really big refrigerators and lots of magnets.
"Let's go find John John now, Daddy; he might want some hot chocolate already."
Hot chocolate had worked when I ran away a few months earlier. I was mad because my little brother wasn't doing what I told him. He sat in his lions-and-tigers high chair letting oatmeal dribble down his chin like it didn't matter that he didn't wear a bib anymore. He wasn't getting in trouble; my mother was taking his picture like it was cute. Not listening to me at all. So I stood on my chair, leaned over, and bit him as hard as I could, right through his ear.
"That's it, Little Miss, you're getting your mouth washed out with soap," my mother said. She yanked me from my chair and marched me to the sink horizontally—like a battering ram. I wouldn't say sorry even after two twirls of the Palmolive bar between my teeth. That's when I decided to run away, all the way up to the fence that kept our horses from eating the neighbor's grass. Which is where I changed my mind. There had been hot chocolate waiting for me when I got back that night. Little marshmallows on top when I said I was sorry—even though I wasn't really.
Now my father was heaving, and my mother's arm was dangling off her bed, and somehow it was all my little brother's fault. I kept saying, "John John will say he's sorry too." But nobody was listening to me. He probably wouldn't get his mouth washed out; everybody would think it was cute.
Just like everybody thought it was cute when he played his favorite game: truck driver. It went like this: John John would wait at the end of our driveway for Daddy to come home from a long day driving the town dump truck. He would climb into Daddy's lap and steer all the way home. His feet would pedal through the space around Daddy's shins like this was what made the engine go. Anything he could reach to tug became a make-believe air horn: Daddy's beard, the rearview mirror, the gear stick.
Only this time he hadn't waited for Daddy at the end of the driveway. My mother was home alone, watching my baby sister inside the trailer, and I was at my very first sleepover. My father's pickup truck was parked in our yard. John John must have climbed in, pretending to steer it like all the times he sat on Daddy's lap. Somehow his little swinging feet kicked and released the emergency brake. The truck started to roll backward down our steeply sloping driveway. He managed to open the driver's-side door, but the force of it flung his tiny body under the left front tire.
My mother found him, too late.
My parents are trading the United States for Latin America, right before my wedding. Which they don't know about yet, so I'm trying not to take it personally. After all, it's not the first time they've packed up their passports and headed south. My father is a big believer in burn-down do-overs, and my mother never questions him. That's always been my job. And I've forgotten to give him notice.
At most I had thought introducing my fiancé might be awkward. We are already living together in Washington, DC—a continent away from my father's reality. Until now Gary has just been a figure in photos I occasionally mail home, someone who has suddenly turned "my" plans into "ours." To make things easier, we have decided to divulge our wedding plans on my father's turf: a ramshackle house in Oregon surrounded by a smattering of nonoperative vehicles up on blocks.
I've never noticed how fragile the whole compound looks, like a heart I'm about to break. My father will be happy for me, I tell myself. True, his oldest daughter is marrying a man he hasn't even met. But I'll distract him with enthusiasm, make him laugh before he cries. "So Dad, whatcha thinking dowry-wise, to make up for your favorite daughter? I do come with a lot of useful skills after all these years of surviving on my own."
I'm waiting for the comeback, the "What skills? Mastery of the microwave?"
But Gary isn't even through the first cup of my mom's watery coffee, microwaved from the crusty pot of Folgers she brewed that morning, when my father trumps our big announcement.
"Well I hope you're planning on eloping, because your mother and I will be long gone," he says, pouring his own cup of coffee down the kitchen sink drain. The sound trickles away and leaves a heavy silence. "The rain's stopped. Come on, I'll show you."
I check my mother's face for a reaction but she's watching my father, following his lead. There are no misty eyes, hugs, or even congratulations. Neither of my parents asks a single question. Where or when we'll tie the knot doesn't matter since they won't be there anyway. It feels as if I've announced I'm making meatloaf for dinner and my father has a few things left to put away in the garage before he's ready to eat.
Gary and I follow him outside, mouthing the words "what the hell?" to each other at the exact same time. Shocked? Hell, my father isn't even curious. I squeeze Gary's hand as we pick our way through an obstacle course of engine parts and sawhorses draped with extension cords. The unfamiliar frame of a motor home stretches along the length of the muddy driveway, a dinosaur's carcass in the process of de-extinction. Dad's latest escape vehicle, I surmise.
"We're selling this shit hole," my father declares. My cringing eye roll doesn't faze him. "Never should have come back to the States from South Africa in the first place. As soon as I finish the new rig, the Bruces are moving to Nicaragua."
I've told Gary about the first time my father built a camper. It was in 1973, when I had just turned seven. It reminded me of Frankenstein's creation. My father welded tractor-trailer-size side-view mirrors onto the camper that looked like giant, rectangular ears. The Jeep's square engine was the jutting chin. My parents' bed cabin thrust out over the cab like a high, bulging forehead. Together, the truck and camper were transformed into a 14,400-pound monster I called home.
"It was my first try. It was so damn heavy I had to swap out the Jeep's axle with one from something bigger," my father tries to explain to Gary. "Then the wheel bolt patterns didn't match, so I welded a plate to fit over the old studs."
His plan had been more linear than logical. In the consuming grief of the months after John's death, my father picked up a pencil and plotted the farthest spot away from Oregon possible to drive: the end of the Pan-American Highway. We only made it as far as Bolivia, but now, apparently, he is planning to charge the same windmill again. And not even my wedding will stop him.
But if I'm sulking, just a little, Gary seems intrigued. He inspects the dashboard console speakers, sticks his head inside freshly finished cabinets that smell like sawdust. His own father built two family homes in Wisconsin, and I can tell that Gary is impressed with my father's ingenuity.
"So you built the original one from scratch," Gary says, more acknowledgment than question. My father nods, as if building the rolling home of my childhood was no big deal. "I wonder if it's still out there somewhere?"
"In the Bolivian outback? Not bloody likely," my father snorts. "Sold it to a rancher who probably chopped it up for firewood eons ago."
My mother tags along, seizing each pause in my father's rants with strings of linked-together words too rushed to interrupt.
She runs out of breath by the time she remembers why we're standing there. "Of course you can come too, Gary. Since it looks like you're going to be part of the family."
That Gary doesn't whip out his cell phone and call a cab back to the Portland airport right this second seems pinch-myself lucky. But not as lucky as later, after he and my father have had a few beers out in the garage. Gary stands behind me at the kitchen sink, pulls my hands out of sudsy dishwater, dries them off with a towel, and places a loose diamond in my open palm.
"You've got your dad all wrong," he tells me. "He doesn't show it, but he's really happy about the wedding. Otherwise he'd never let this go for such a bargain."
I turn the stone over in my hand: one carat, maybe more. It seems heavy and vaguely familiar, like I've seen it in another setting. Literally.
"A bargain? Wait a minute. Are you telling me this wasn't a gift?" I ask.
"Practically the same thing," Gary replies, holding the diamond up to the light. "He's got a generous streak, your old man. I could never have afforded anything nearly this perfect. Straight from the heart of Africa."
Which is when I remember where I've seen it before. On my mother's right ring finger when she smuggled it out of South Africa. It was the only way we could get our money out of the country, Dad had explained at the time. Foreigners couldn't leave with cash.
"Okay, so he's ingenious, too," Gary says. "That's one hell of a chance he took."
"Not as much of a chance as the diamond seller took when he gave them to my father with only 10 percent down," I say. The diamond my father has so graciously discounted for his future son-in-law was never paid off in the first place.
My father offers to let us sleep in the unfinished motor home, but he hasn't installed a propane heater yet so we opt for the bedroom where I spent the last two years of high school. I warn Gary about its Pepto-Bismol-pink walls and gymnastics ribbons still thumbtacked in a rainbow arch over the bed. He plunks our suitcases down, and I smile at the bowl of fresh-picked blackberries my mother leaves on my white dressing table. It's not the only welcome-home gesture. My father has meticulously taped a clean layer of plastic sheeting over the window that's been cracked since I was fourteen. But what Gary is staring at is a fax machine, still in its cardboard box.
"What's this?" I ask my mother.
"I guess it's your wedding present now," she says. "Daddy and I were going to give this to you for Christmas—you know, so you can fax us all the dates and credit card numbers when scuba divers want to make reservations for Corn Island Dive Resort."
It is at this moment that I realize my mother has no idea what her daughter's life is like. I am a vice president in the creative division of a global public relations firm, a woman who eats more meals on airplanes than at home. My fifteen-year-old dog, Wipeout, spends so much time at the Maryland farm where she goes when I'm away that the two women who run the farm have their own set of keys to my house on Capitol Hill. I have a full-time production manager who coordinates my schedule and makes travel reservations and an administrative assistant who files my expense reports. I haven't touched a fax machine in years.
The first time my parents ran away from Oregon, I was a child with no choice but to tag along and little responsibility along the way. Now I hear my mother's intonation rising at the end of every sentence. She's trying to talk and smile simultaneously, and I realize that she wants me to be the grown-up.
"It's a wonderful fax machine, top of the line," she says. "It'll make it so much easier for you to take care of our bills and bank stuff. Instead of relying on the mail."
Sure, no problem, I feel like saying. Why don't I file your taxes, too? I've got so much free time on my hands.
"Bev, really, you shouldn't have," Gary says, making like the gift is much too thoughtful or generous, but my mother is tone deaf to the joke.
I'm still stunned. I've just introduced my mother to the man I'm marrying. I don't expect her to flutter around me making guest lists, but a fax machine for a wedding present?
"Mom, isn't it supposed to be something borrowed or something blue?"
She looks away, chirping and hopping around the fact that there will be no wedding shower, no motherly words of advice. She is flying south, following my father again. I have always been her accomplice, the one who can talk my father down from the ledges of his leaps into the unknown. The fax machine is my mother's way of saying please be there if I need you. Always be my lifeline.
Gary is still shaking his head in disbelief at the clunky machine in front of us.
"So, right about now you're probably wondering what kind of craziness you're getting yourself into," I say, hoping he'll laugh.
He does. "As long as it's only hereditary and not contagious."
Gary and I met on my first agency shoot in DC. He's a cinematographer, watching scenes unfold through a tiny viewfinder while I conduct the interviews and direct the content. He is discovering I have no such power over my parents. They have the capacity to careen off balance and spin assumptions into unfamiliar planes. Their eagerness can be rough, their intensity overwhelming. The words they choose are not diplomatic; their thoughts tumble out uncensored.
I understand this because I know what happened to my parents and why their default setting is to yank the cord from the wall. But I haven't told Gary. So I decide to drive him out to a graveyard a half hour away, without my parents. We stand in the Oregon drizzle looking down at a slab of rose-colored marble.
John McDonald Bruce
His love and laughter live forever
It's a lie, that headstone. My younger sister and I are still afraid to say our dead brother's name out loud. Jenny doesn't ask our father for parenting advice or brag to him about her two boisterous sons. Maybe it's because her youngest boy has John John's eyes, but my father takes no joy in playing with his grandsons. He chooses to keep them at least a continent's length away. He was robbed of a son, and being a grandfather is a consolation prize he resolutely, selfishly rejects.
My mother's scars are not so visible, so close to the surface. If anyone asks, she says she lost a son, not that he died. She greets her grown daughters with baby-love words: "How's my number-one Princess?" and "Does my Sunshine need a hug today?" as though this will resurrect the world we shared before my brother died.
John is an unspoken absence in all our lives, and standing over his grave with Gary at my side I don't know whose childhood is really buried here.
"He was there one day and then just gone. I never got to say good-bye."
I nudge the toe of my shoe against a weed that's attached itself to John John's neglected headstone.
"We don't have to accept the fax machine, you know," Gary says as he draws me near. "You don't have to be the parent."
I love this man but he can't fathom the extent to which the past paralyzes the family he is about to marry into.
"Nobody just says no to my father."
There's another way, he tells me. We sit on damp Oregon soil, backs against the gravestone of my father's son. One hundred miles south of here, Gary's son, Alex, is studying philosophy at the University of Oregon. He is so happily immersed in college life that he barely remembers to call home.
"I needed to make sure Alex was settled," Gary says. "And he is. He's not a kid anymore."
I have no idea where this is leading.
"Your parents were younger than we are when they took off for South America, right?"
I nod. For two nights now we have sat in the dark, in a wood-paneled living room with orange shag carpeting, listening to the purr and click of a slide carousel projector. Gary's head is full of faded color images to match the tall tales my father tells of our journey down the Pan-American Highway in that ridiculously heavy homemade camper. There are no mentions of my missing brother; the slide-show version of the trip drowns grief in glory and erases agony with adventure. There we are, sleeping in the shadow of pyramids in Mexico. Skinny-dipping in volcanic craters in Guatemala. Breaking down and being rescued by a Sandinista newspaper publisher in Nicaragua. Getting thrown in jail in Panama. Surrounded, at gunpoint, in Colombia. Scaling the heights of Machu Picchu. Selling the camper to buy airplane tickets to South Africa, where my father's parents would dust us off and squeeze Jenny and me tight enough to make up for the grandson they would never meet.
"What if we take a trip like that of our own?" he asks. "Your dad has all the old maps and your mom kept a journal. We could try to find the original camper in Bolivia. You could finally say good-bye."
He's telling me that nothing about my crazy family will scare him off. It is both a sweet thought and a ridiculous proposition. We both have careers, successful ones. We are just beginning our lives together. We don't need to escape or run away from anything.
It annoys me that my father thinks I've taken his advice. We are indeed eloping, on a beautiful beach near the Tulum ruins along Mexico's Mayan Riviera. But it's not because I still do everything my father says. It's just that a big wedding isn't rational when none of our family can come. Alex can't take time off midsemester. Gary's parents are too old to fly. Mine are on a container ship headed to Nicaragua.
"Doesn't matter anyway," Gary says. "We can always drop in on them when we drive down the Pan-American Highway."
There it is again, that graveside proposition to retrace a journey thirty years in my past. Driving thousands of miles to search for a homemade camper abandoned in the wilds of Bolivia isn't logical. I'm not the type to quit a six-figure job that sends me to shoots all over the world on business-class flights. And there isn't time to consider the idea anyway. Not with the wedding a week away.
- On Sale
- Jun 13, 2017
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Seal Press