I just crossed the border into New Mexico. I’m only three hours from Colorado Springs, where I’ll visit my father’s resting place.
And I am lost. Not poetically, but worse. Literally. My GPS quit working a few minutes ago. I’m running blind.
Still, after two days of driving across the eerily flat Texas dirt, it’s nice to finally see some eerily flat New Mexico dirt for a change.
My wife is asleep in the passenger seat. We are traveling with two dogs: my late bloodhound, Ellie Mae,—God rest her soul—her ashes are in a cedar box, riding on my dashboard.
And my other dog, Thelma Lou—a twelve-week-old bloodhound whose bladder is the size of a zipper pea.
Thel sits in my lap while I drive, staring out my windshield. We are wandering across the Middle of Nowhere. This two-lane highway is bumpy, and jagged. In front of me: prairie. Behind me: prairie. There are no cars for miles.
But I’m enjoying the drive. So is the puppy. And I’m remembering things.
Mostly, I’m remembering the dog in the box. She was the sort who rode shotgun. Always shotgun. Even when my wife was in the car, Ellie would sit between us. If you rolled down the window, she’d poke her head out. Her long ears would flap in the wind.
Ellie was my friend. She was born in Georgia, raised in the Panhandle of Florida. She loved all things that hounds love: pine trees, children, long walks on the beach, raw sewage, Lawrence Welk.
I think Ellie would’ve liked the West.
Thelma Lou certainly likes it. She is taking in the view like it’s the first time she’s ever seen earth.
She wears a look I can’t explain—like she’s thinking very, very hard. And all of a sudden, my vehicle smells like four-day old cabbage. Gurgling sounds come from Thel’s hindparts. She’s thinking all right.
She’s about to think all over the upholstery.
So, I pull over. I open the door. Thelma leaps into the grass and makes a stunning contribution to the state of New Mexico. Then, she runs toward the edge of the earth. God, does that dog love to play.
I am sitting on a dry rotted railroad tie, watching her.
Funny, I’ve driven a long way just to visit my father’s grave tomorrow, and I’m looking forward to seeing him. But he won’t even recognize me.
After all, I’ve grown a lot. I do things I never did when I was younger.
I wake up earlier than I used to, I watch the Weather Channel, sometimes I even fall asleep during football games. I entered adulthood without him.
A kid goes his whole life wanting a nod and a wink from his father. When it doesn’t get it, it changes him.
Thelma Lou interrupts me. She doesn’t want me to think. She wants me to play.
She jumps on me. So, I jog through the grass like the Little-Engine-That-Underwent-In-Patient-Back-Surgery. I’m a slow runner, but she’s just happy to have me moving. I get down on all fours. We roll in the dry dirt.
This is not the way a grown man should behave. It’s not how my father would’ve behaved. But this is me.
When she’s tired, she collapses in my arms. I pet her. I talk to her the way I used to talk to the dog in the cedar box. I tell her about my father, about my childhood, about growing up without much of either. I tell her about how alive I feel today. How happy I am.
She listens and blinks her eyes. She doesn’t care about the words I’m saying. She’s just here, with me. And this makes me smile.
Because even though I am wandering the New Mexico wilderness—a region I’ve never visited—even though I’m five hundred miles from a single car, a telephone pole, a person, or a cow, I sort of realize something.
I’m not lost.
Go empty your bladder one more time, Thelma Lou.