The Essential Nowhere

Lisa K. Harris

12:10 PM, Thursday, June 25, 2020
Northbound on Arizona Hwy. 89
Arizona COVID-19 cases: 60,030

Past Flagstaff and Sunset Crater, while I wiggle cramped toes and pinyons grow scragglier with each mile, my teenager, Ava, asks, “Will they ever shut up?”

I glance in the rearview mirror, to the truck’s backseat, filled with double-stacked cat carriers. Fluffy gray Gracie glares with disdain. Sometimes cuddly, sometimes growly, tortoiseshell Minerva hisses. “You’d think they’d have grown hoarse by now.”

The five cats’ bellyaching began as I backed out of our Tucson driveway. They wailed as temperatures somersaulted the century mark. They bellowed as we raced through Phoenix, no regular coffee stop, Phoenix a COVID hotspot. They howled at their loss of freedom, complained of tight quarters and disrupted schedules.

Now, nearing Utah, Ava’s feed plays Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and they fall quiet. Ava and I exchange looks. Lola, a russet terrier/Chihuahua mix, previously zoned-out across Ava’s lap, raises her head. Maybe it is Cash’s baritone-bass. Maybe cooler temperatures. Maybe they’d grown tired of hearing themselves. Noelle, curled in the cattery’s footwell, stirs. Born blind and deaf, the twelve-year-old Australian shepherd probably parses a shift in anxiety pheromones.

Since March’s stay-at-home orders, wondering if we could get from our Tucson home to our cottage on Whidbey Island, near Seattle, wrenched me awake more often than the precariousness of my job.

Normally, Whidbey was a ten-hour shot door to door, an easy flight to escape Arizona’s blistering heat.

Normally, I hired a pet sitter.

Normal ceased when Ava’s school district cancelled her art history class trip to New York museums, citing CDC guidelines of essential travel only. Normal slid sideways when a doctor friend texted Buy sanitizer NOW!! Then Safeway’s avocado bin emptied and the chip aisle vanished. “No guac? OMG!” Ava said as she Zoomed into junior year classes from the kitchen table. Then off-kilter normal turned to weird when her dad texted Stay away.

Ava sat on the couch and pulled at the ears of Elise, a gray tabby, snugged against her thigh. “Elise, do you know what this means? We’re going to Whidbey sooner.” In a sing-song voice, pretending Elise talked, Ava said, “Take me! Take me!”

Ava glanced at me. “We’ll take them since we’re driving. No flying until there’s a vaccine, not after what that school doctor said.”

“Drive?” Whidbey was sixteen hundred miles away. “Take them?”

“What if the pet sitter ghosts us? What if the neighbor spikes a fever? Elise can’t text, ‘Nobody’s fed me.’ Of course we’re taking them.”

Utah COVID-19 cases: 16,991

 In Kanab, I’m the only masked gas jockey at the sixteen-pump station. A Suburban pulling a speedboat disgorges sunburned boaters. A van, its roof cargo bulging, burps outdoorsy types. On the curb, they share PowerBars and Hydro Flasks. The boaters traipse into the 7-Eleven, return with chips and sodas, no hand wipes in sight.

“Change in plans,” Ava says as I slather sanitizer on my debit card. “I checked Utah’s COVID data dashboard. No eating here.”  

We skirt Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument’s rock formations. Mormon ranches with split rail fences, irrigation wheels, white clapboard houses, American-made trucks. Mount Carmel Junction. Orderville. Glendale. No pit-stop bushes, so we hold our bladders as I navigate gravel roads for miles. Pickup drivers wave. I’m one of them, a hard-working woman in a tank top, sunglasses, ponytail, a dog on her lap. I swing onto a mining road, pull over.

“Just pee next to the truck. No one will see you,” I say.

“You know I hate this.”

Waiting my turn, the sun hits the Paunsaugunt Plateau’s red ridge. I plop kitten Bittie on top of the Ford’s hood and snap photos against majestic sun-splashed cliffs.

Kitten Bittie on top of the Ford’s hood

Circleville, Population 483

We spot the Friki-Tiki, a converted 1960s periwinkle Frolic Travel Trailer strung with twinkle-lights. Inside, two girls rock to the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations.”
“Teenagers!” Ava slides low in her seat. “Snag the white crop top from my duffle.”

In ripped jeans and age-appropriate shirt, Ava saunters to the Frolic to order a snow cone. I wait, wait more, wonder where the Frolic frolicked. Maybe Florida’s panhandle. On childhood trips through the South, we stopped at Civil War markers and Dairy Queens. If Mom had herded us, Dad and I would never have tasted those chocolate-dipped cones outside Baton Rouge. I had felt bold chatting with the counter girl, watching her dunk the loaded cone in liquid chocolate. She possessed magic for the ice cream not to melt.

Ava returns, one gigantic snow cone in hand, and a matching smile. “It’s mango.”
Memories of childhood trips are discoveries in nowhere-land, not the long car ride or the Holiday Inn but the double-dipped cone and how the waitress twisted her wrist just so. The Friki-Tiki’s yummy ice would’ve been lost to us if we’d flown to Whidbey.

Noonish, Friday, June 26, 2020
Box Elder County, Utah, COVID-19 cases: 1,425

Paying twenty dollars to pee in a toilet instead of behind a bush seems ridiculous as we join Willard Bay State Park’s entrance queue: trucks pulling boats, stuffed SUVs, Jeeps with paddleboards. We park in the far corner. No one wears masks.

Ava grabs a paper towel. “At last, a real toilet.” She squeezes Lola. “Don’t worry, I won’t touch anything.”
My mom avoided public toilets, wrapped hands in Kleenex, a shield against germy stall doors, spigots, handles. I thought her crazy. But Mom, born just after the 1918 flu epidemic, learned hygiene from those who survived. What lasting effects of the current situation would Ava retain?

I plop Bittie onto the truck’s hood. “Come on, hold still.” But she won’t and all the photos are blurry, Bittie as uncomfortable as I am.

Bittie is as uncomfortable as I am

6:30 PM, Baker City, Oregon
Baker County COVID-19 cases: 1

Our rental is an old house a block from the main drag. “Stay in the truck.” I grab the cleaning supply box. The host had let me know that a last-minute reservation had checked out this morning. Like a special ops agent securing enemy territory, I disinfect counters, switches, toilet, handles. Halfway through, I pause. I’m overreacting. The likelihood that the house is contaminated approaches zero. Still…we’ve come this far germ-free. I open windows, jack a fan to high.

We release the cats into the bathroom and they melt into the floor. Noelle sniffs her way to a chocolate couch and settles onto plush pillows, leaving a trail of white hair. I turn over the sign, “NO PETS ON FURNITURE,” so Ava doesn’t get on my case. At sunrise, I vacuum Noelle’s hair from the couch. She’d touched every cushion, armrest, side panel.

“Let’s get coffee,” I say. “Fancy coffee.”

Ava’s eyes widen. “OMG! What happened to my mother?” She calls Sweet Wife Baking, orders one mocha, one latte, to go. Ten minutes, they say.

Inside, I spot rhubarb lemonade as a daily special. A sucker for anything rhubarb, I order one. “Would you mind waiting in your car?” the waitress asks. “I’ll call. Won’t be long.”

We wait. Ava cracks open The Ghost Map, a book about cholera and epidemiology’s birth, a premonitory Christmas gift, and reads aloud where she left off. I admire the café’s hanging flowers, masked customers’ elbowing greetings, well-groomed dogs. Another charming nowhere place. What else do I miss blowing through towns, through life, checking off activities from my list, always busy? I have no to-do list except to drive. With no list, I’m not behind, and I’m not anxious. Not feeling as if I’m coming up short is new.

My phone rings. Order ready. One mocha, one latte, one rhubarb lemonade, forty-five minutes after I’d ordered the extra drink, forty-five minutes of me and my kid bound for college next year, two dogs and five cats, forty-five minutes of admiring the view and listening, forty-five minutes of being in the present. Of discovering nowhere.

3:30 PM, Whidbey Island
Island County COVID-19 cases: 154

We sail downhill to a picture-postcard lighthouse, squat and white, with an equally photogenic ferry. I park in the holding dock near the wharf’s ice cream stand. People wait; stand six feet apart. Everyone wears a mask. A large pump-bottle of sanitizer sits on the counter.

“Sanity at last,” Ava says. “Chocolate or swirl?”

An hour later we pull into our driveway. I turn the ignition off; open the door. Noelle unfurls. She sticks her snout skyward, parses saltwater and washed-up-on-the-beach kelp smells. Ava clips leash to halter and guides her to the front door. I carry in the cats.

Inside, the house looks just like it did when we left last year, as if I stepped away to run an errand and now returned.

“Where’s Lola?”

“In the truck.”

Lola sits upright in the seat.

“Lola, we’re home. Jump.”

She looks away from me, out the front window, to find more nowhere, the essential part of the journey. 

Lola sits upright in the seat

BIO: Lisa K. Harris is a photographer and Pushcart Prize nominated author who writes about growing-up, outdoor adventure, and coping with speed bumps. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, Roanoke Review, Passages North, Black Fox Literary Review, Highlights for Children, among others. She also co-authored an environmental policy book (Krausman and Harris, Cumulative Effects, CRC Press, 2011). Lisa lives in Tucson with two daughters, five cats, nine desert tortoises, a scruffy terrier, and a blind herding dog named Noelle. She works as an environmental consultant and is in search of an agent for her latest novel. For a complete publication list, see

Photos by: Lisa K. Harris

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