Desert Light

Samantha Schoech

The plane is delayed. We sit on the tarmac, freezing, and I wonder briefly, before losing myself in my latest true crime podcast, whether this is not some sort of omen. If everything had gone according to plan, we’d be in warm, bright Sedona, Arizona by now. Instead we are on the tarmac in San Francisco and my mother is telling me again how she has never forgiven Hilary Clinton for what she allowed to happen in Honduras. Also, there’s a hysterical baby shrieking alarmingly across the aisle. Because, of course there is.

I’m taking my mom to see the Grand Canyon for her 75th birthday. She’s never been, and this trip is her consolation prize for me canceling the one we’d planned to India. I had initially agreed excitedly to accompany my mom on her bucket-list trip to the subcontinent. But soon after making a deposit, visions of crowded markets, ancient temples, and explosive color were replaced with visions of inescapable heat, crippling jet lag, and explosive diarrhea. I also remembered with sudden clarity that my mom and I don’t get along so well. So, we’re going to Arizona instead.

We arrive in Phoenix at rush hour and make our way north in the gelatinous traffic. My mother rides in the back seat, crouched below the front seats in awkward L-shape because she is phobic of driving, and roads, and other cars. Every time I tap the brake, which is a lot, she gasps as if I have just hurdled us both off a cliff.

The traffic thins and we start to climb. The saguaros are giving way to pine trees and she is chatting from the footwell in the back about all the traveling she used to do in southern Arizona in the 70s.

“That was back when Stan was dealing coke with Michael,” she says. This is news to me but not particularly shocking. My parents and step-dad could check off a lot of the 1970s counter-culture boxes: hippies, drugs, communes, moccasins. “Well, not dealing, dealing, but delivering coke from California to Arizona for other dealers.”

She shifts her weight and grunts. “Too bad we’re going to miss all the good light.”

I want my mother, a painter, to see this part of the world and be knocked-out by its beauty. It is my belief that the light of the red rock desert is one of the best things you can ever lay eyes on. But, she’s right. We’ve missed an entire day. We finally arrive in Sedona after sunset. We’ve been traveling ten hours just to get here and now that we’re here, we eat dinner in the hotel restaurant and go to bed early. The blue light from the pool glows behind the blackout shades all night.

When we wake up, the sky is gray and flat. “Oh, those red rocks are so beautiful. They must be really nice when the sun is out,” my mom says as we head to our tiny rented Ford Fiesta and out into the day. I know I am not responsible for the less-than-optimal-light, but she’s managing to make me feel guilty about it. It’s possible I might be just a smidge over-sensitive when it comes to my mom. She once managed to make me feel guilty about having a lot of friends.

After breakfast burritos we decide to hike to Cathedral Rock. But first, we must fuss and dither. In addition to being phobic about cars, my mother has a deep aversion to carrying stuff. She calls it lugging and it is the reason she won’t read hardback books or fill her water bottle to the top; she can’t bear to lug them. She hems and haws for a long time about whether to lug her tiny traveler’s watercolor set on the hike. I’d estimate its weight at about 6 ounces. When we get to the trailhead parking lot, she leaves her wallet in the car, tucked under the seat. The change inside is more than she can bear. In the end, my mom brings the watercolors and her hiking poles in her flaccid, empty backpack. I bring everything else: hats, sunscreen, water, the camera, extra layers, and snacks.

It’s very slow going. My mom is a spry seventy-five who does yoga and likes to take walks, but she also has arthritis in her knee and ADD. This means that the logomaniacal trail narration about her knee and the various medications she’s been prescribed for her knee, is interrupted often by requests that I take photos of the beautiful vistas so she can paint them later. We are clocking in at around a mile an hour. Irritation flares in me, as it often does, and I have to keep reminding myself that this trip is for her. We go at her pace, have the conversations she wants to have, stop every twenty feet to photograph the vistas she wants to photograph.

A few times during our 4-mile hike, she notices my impatience and accuses me of being mad at her because she is old. But I’m not mad at her for being old. I am mad at her because the only time she includes me in her running monologue is to ask pointed rhetorical questions. “Are you in some sort of big hurry? Is this all about getting a workout in for you?” At one point she accuses me of being an exercise junkie, which even she knows is laughable. My main athletic pursuit is tossing and turning with insomnia.

By the end of our hike, my mother is very proud of her four miles and I am so tense I have my first ever hemorrhoid situation. Not even pregnant with twins did I suffer this affliction. That night I am in terrible butt pain all through our hot stone massages and steak dinner.

On our second and final morning in Sedona we are eating platters of huevos rancheros and eggs with chorizo when the story of the pipe bombs sent to prominent Democrats and news organizations breaks silently on the TVs above the counter. It’s two weeks before a historic midterm election and the world is falling apart. My mom rants against Fox News and I am overcome with a flood of love that lasts until she starts warning me not to rush her on this morning’s walk. “I have arthritis in my knee,” she tells me, as if maybe I’ve been ignoring her for the past ten years.

I know I am not coming off well. Here is the problem with writing about this trip, with trying to write about my mother at all: I always fail. I lose the nuance in favor of humor or I end up sounding like a brat. My love for my mother is fiercely protective, the I-can-criticize-but-you-better-not variety, but it is also a form of forced filial allegiance, filled with guilt, irritation and resentment. I tried once in my high school Critical Thinking class to express my relationship with my mother using body language (God, I loved that class). I used another girl in the class as a stand-in for my mom and had us embrace while simultaneously pushing one another away—a sort of schizophrenic wrestling match. It’s still as good a description as any for our fraught single-mother-only-child dynamic. Sometimes the pulling together prevails, sometimes the pushing apart does. On this trip I am trying very hard for the pulling together. But, except for those wonderful moments when I make her laugh, I am mostly failing. Our irritation with each other is like something alive under our skin, ready to break through at every moment.

We’ve decided to visit the vortex at Bell Rock before we head north to the Grand Canyon to see if we can feel the balancing energy it supposedly radiates. I hope it will cure some of the thrumming anxiety I’m feeling. Maybe it will also cure whatever it is between my mother and me – that sad friction I have been trying to figure out since I was twelve.

At Bell Rock I am once again awed by the beauty and light and space of this desert and decide that maybe this is what the new agers are talking about. The balancing energy is really just that beautiful change in perspective you get when you feel your smallness against the eternal. Perhaps some of Sedona’s famed spirituality is rubbing off on me; I feel truly at peace. My mother huffs up behind me and rolls her eyes. She doesn’t feel anything.

We arrive at the rim of Grand Canyon around sunset that day and my mom goes gratifyingly nuts over the light. As we walk along the rim with the hundreds of French tourists, we share an easy companionship. There is nothing to argue about here. It is perfection and my mother acts as if I have planned the golden light just for her. I momentarily forget about her backseat cringing, her critical questions, and the many Google Map navigation arguments we had on the way here. All I want is for my mom to be pleased. And she is. It’s my first real triumph of the trip.

We stay outside the park at a Holiday Inn Express in Tusayan, which is about as fancy as my mother gets. When she hears it’s my mom’s birthday, the breakfast room attendant, perhaps the friendliest, most energetic woman I’ve ever encountered, sticks a birthday candle in a little nut muffin and my mom is thrilled. I take a picture of the two of them, wishing I could be that nice to my mom. I have planned and paid for this trip, including the hot stone massages, and the Sedona resort with three pools, and the birthday dinner at the El Tovar dining room. And yet, none of it feels as generous as that birthday muffin. None of it fills my mother with such easy joy.

Because of the aforementioned arthritis, we don’t hike into the canyon, but we spend a lot of time walking the rim. We go on a historical walk with a ranger, we look at the art exhibit at the Lookout Studio, and we visit every single gift shop, some of them twice. It’s fun. We both like this stuff. There is a small part of me itching to get down inside the canyon, but if I’m honest, I am just as happy poking around in gift shops and taking in the views. I don’t like to admit it, but I am an essentially lazy person, a quality I resent in my mom.

I’ve given my mom a valium for the long drive from Grand Canyon back to Phoenix so she can ride in the front seat without gasping, and until we need Google Maps again in Flagstaff, it’s a peaceful and beautiful trip through the high desert scrub.

I understand much earlier than my mom that we are going to miss our flight home. It’s simple math. But my mom still wants to stop for lunch in Flagstaff. All week I have been the time-keeper and my mother has accused me of rushing, so I say nothing. We are both on edge.

The blow-up happens somewhere in the outskirts of Flagstaff, among the newer housing developments. My mom won’t let me look at the phone to see the directions because I am driving, but she also does not know how to operate the phone or decipher the directions, so she makes the world’s worst navigator. I make wrong turns. She screeches at me. I go silent and tense, seething as I do so much of the time around her.

“You don’t have to be so angry all the time,” she says from her Valium-enhanced calm.

I clap my hands together once as if I am trying to snap something awake. “Why can’t you ever take responsibility for our terrible relationship?” I yell. Although I think I say, “fucking responsibility.”

“I just don’t understand why you get so mad,” she says again in her benzo-laced voice.

“Because of you!” I shout. “Because you are so difficult. And I am not the only one who thinks so.” This is the truth, but I feel mean saying it. My mother has been hurt in recent years by the continued retreat of her oldest friends. And yet, I can’t help it. I am furious. Because of her obtuseness, her lack of self-awareness, and because I hear myself sounding like a moody teenager and I am forty-eight years old.

We are silent and distant through our lunch at the adorable Flagstaff café that was so difficult for us to find. We are mostly silent and distant for the rest of the drive to Phoenix. It is not until we are on the shuttle from the rental car return to the airport that my mother says, “We are going to miss this fucking plane.” In her flare of anger, I see that she is as anxious to be done with this trip as I am.

We get to the airport and change our tickets for the next flight out. We have a three-hour wait. I call Pete and my mother walks up behind me to listen until I ask her if I can have some privacy. On the phone I cry a little. I really did want my mom to love this trip, and here we are, barely talking. I can see my mom on a bench talking to my step-dad, he of the long-ago coke dealing. I imagine her saying all sorts of mean things about me.

By the time we sit down for dinner at Chelsea’s Kitchen in the Sky Harbor airport an hour later, we’re pretty much back to normal. This is what we do, what we’ve been doing since I was twelve-years old. We fight, and then we settle down and go on as if none of it never happened. We don’t hash it out. We don’t apologize. We just move on and forget about it, until the next flare up. It’s our unspoken peace agreement in which nothing ever changes, and nothing ever gets solved. Our relationship is a wobble board of hurt, resentment, anger, and love. Perhaps I am lucky that this is the most painful thing in my life. It could be so much worse.

Back at SFO we are picked up by our respective husbands. We hug goodbye, my mother thanks me for the wonderful trip, and I am quietly suspicious. Is she voluntarily forgetting how difficult and fraught so much of it was? Is she just being polite? Or did she actually have a completely different experience than I did? Was it really wonderful for her?

A week after we return, I am sitting at dinner with my family. My twins are twelve and have just spent the night at their grandmother’s.

My daughter says, “Grandma said she loved the trip.” I burst into tears. My children rush to comfort me.

“She really did love it,” my son says, patting my back. They already know it wasn’t the easiest four days.

I sniffle and get a hold of myself. I don’t know where those tears came from, but I suspect the answer lies somewhere in that vast desert between us. Interspersed with all the wormy guilt, and recrimination, and irritation, I remind myself that there is also fun and laughter and love. And maybe that’s all I can hope for and all anyone can hope for. Or maybe we can do better, which is my real wish. Mainly because the India trip is back on.

 BIO: Samantha Schoech’s fiction and essays have appeared in many places including The Sun, Seventeen, The Gettysburg Review, Glimmer Train, Travel & Leisure, the New York Times, Ozy and, in Sunset, where she was a senior editor. She is the co-editor of a couple of humor anthologies, one of them—The Bigger the Better, The Tighter the Sweater—became a San Francisco Chronicle bestseller.

Photo by Sarah Leamy 

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