Naima the Nomad: A Travelogue
by Sasha Hom
My husband and I spend a lot of time apart. Some consider us lucky because we pay less then $700/month for a three-bedroom in the East Bay with a grocery store up the street from us that sells organics and a café with fair trade espresso. But here, in the Bay Area, we are busy. So busy. My husband is doing the 40-hours-a-week thing—the rehearsals three nights a week, performances/art openings/more rehearsals on the weekends thing. I am doing the stay-at-home-with-the-baby-going-crazy thing—obsessing over the cleanliness of the stove, whether or not I have a wheat allergy, and just whose fault is it that this house is so dirty? For sanity, I run out with fuzzy teeth and empty pockets to the nearest Barnes & Noble, seeking out other mothers in the children's book section. But most of them won't talk to me.
We want to be nomads. This is our plan: We want to drive across the country asking teenagers working at fast food joints for their used grease to power our vehicle. We will wash cloth diapers in a cooler of soapy water strapped onto the back with an old shoe thrown in as an agitator; drive up and down the coast looking for long rolling waves, dolphins, and clean water indexes; stop at every national park in the U.S. of A.; and perfect our system of lightweight backpacking: no tent, no sleeping bag, no stove, one frameless, beltless backpack. No matter that we have a ten-month-almost-walking daughter. We'll just bring five yards of fabric to tie her on to us.
We believe that being a family doesn't have to require a lot of time apart isolated into our separate sections of a very large chain bookstore. That in order to pursue our art, live according to our principles and concepts, and still have the time to kiss in the backseat of our car doesn't have to require a gallon of coffee a day or babysitters. It is our hope that if we can live outside of the rat race, we won't have to spend so much time sitting in traffic missing each other. So we dream of the open road.
We're not sure where this dream has come from? A soccer field in a rich valley of Vermont where my husband stood as a college student staring past the mountains? From an attic room in Berkeley, where I laid in high school listening to the trains go in and out of West Oakland? Or maybe one cannot claim dreams, even the ones that sneak up on us in the night. Who's to say that they don't just settle on us like old age, like children, like the tainted water from the birth tub after I scooped up my diving daughter and laid her on my chest.
Was it William Carlos Williams who wrote, "No ideas but in things"? We're practicing at giving it all away, putting it down on the sidewalk: the box of unread books, the stovetop espresso machine, the blender, the newly purchased rug, the armless desk chair that my husband helps hoist into an elderly woman's car rented for the occasion.
How does one gauge their needs against their fears? We used to have a washing machine. We still have a lot of crap in my mother's garage and our '89 Honda Civic wagon that makes driving to the corner store for a roll of toilet paper possible. But no Winnebago. No Wind Sprinter or Mallard or Conqueror or other type of recreational vehicle like the ones that pass us in droves on our way to Oregon where there is no sales tax. We will look for an RV there while visiting family. I try to imagine the amount of fuel that is being burned on Highway Five alone. How many swimming pools or lakes or reservoirs full? Oregon is lovely. They pump your gas for you. The mountains are covered in green. My husband's sister and brother-in-law are "house"-sitting a goat farm.
When we arrive we are surrounded by baby goats, bug-eyed and demanding, bleating for food. Naima bleats back. I befriend a Highland Cow named Ronin. There are chickens, and we eat fresh eggs every morning with goat's milk yogurt. We put goat's milk in our coffee, in Naima's bottle, and eat goat's milk cheese with basil. We even eat Percy, the mama goat who passed away last winter, in the form of sausage.
I've always dreamed of having chickens. Somehow the chicken has always represented the idyllic country lifestyle, despite the fact that my uncle has chickens in his backyard in Oakland, and at the Chinese banquets my little cousin won't eat the chicken feet because she says, "I know what they step in."
We take a trip one day to Junction City to an RV lot run by a shiny bald man. He has chest hair and van conversions with 20 gallons of wastewater capacity, flat screen televisions, microwaves, and toilets. He has an old Winnebago with lots of cupboards painted blue and 60 gallons of wastewater capacity. We wonder how we will pay for this dream. We could take out a loan, but even if we asked for $5,000, that's more than a third of our combined income per year. Perhaps we'll get married.
"You can pay $200 a month for ten years," says the RV salesman his gold chains rising up and down as he breathes through his mouth. "That way your luxury items aren't running your life." I turn to my husband and say, "Let's go. The baby is about to fuss."
It feels good to be out of the city. The smog is beginning to clear. This is what we've been missing: fresh air, mountains, trees, animals that we can thank personally for our food, ice-cold rivers without the funny foamy stuff in it like in the ocean after the rains. We jump in it naked and scream and Naima cries whenever I do it, but for once I don't tense up. Even though it's the weekend there's not a person in sight, the parking lot is practically empty, and we don't even have to pay.
As we are walking back to our car, we take a detour through a campsite. There are a couple of RVs parked and a large truck that tows a pop-up camper with two white West Highland Terriers perched on the bed. They yap at us as we walk by. The RVs are surrounded by Astroturf that the owners have just rolled out beneath their awnings, and they sit there in lawn chairs with beer cans and a transistor radio that plays the news inaudibly.
Perhaps it was the dip in the river. We hadn't done that since Big Sur, before Naima was born, when we went backpacking because we didn't have a place to live, and we hiked into the hot springs with all the other folks who carried bottles of wine, chocolate bars, canned goods, and yes, there was another transistor radio. But it wasn't the hot springs that were so awesome. It was before that when we camped further down the river and at night we swore we heard voices—a cacophony of clear voices that sounded like water.
Rivers are magical. They provide moments of clarity and at that moment, clean of dust and exhaust, I decide I don't like RVs. I don't want to be around their noise, their size, and all the things that one can tow in them. I have nothing against people who love their RV. They can tow that dream behind them; that's fine with me. But like I said, the gauging of one's true needs, for us, has been a process of letting go. Letting go of the radios, the aluminum walls, even the Hello Kitty seat cover, the Civic, and those beautiful cloths we got at the flea market that I lay over the fear that informs most of my decisions.
We decide that a diesel van will do. It's a little more scary than the idea of living in a Winnebago because really, there's no precedence for this. There are people who live out of their RVs or their van conversions. But this is not that. This is a 15-passenger van, like the ones you see church groups driving, with the seats taken out and a bed frame built out of two by fours with bamboo poles lain across for air flow so the futon won't mold. Six milk crates stacked three-high and seat belted in with the extra belts become the kitchen cupboard, a cooler for the fridge. We slide beer boxes filled with onesies and socks beneath the bed. Heineken's work well as drawers. We get brackets to build a roof rack for the surfboards, and there's still room for our arthritic pit bull. This is a Ford turbo diesel club wagon XLT (whatever that means) that runs on bio-diesel and that might run on vegetable oil if we decide we want to get a vegi kit for it. Or maybe we'll go from restaurants in Des Moines to Cheyenne to Carson City collecting used grease to make our own fuel. And maybe we'll just have to stay near the woods for shitting in. I mean, who wants to tow 20 gallons of their wastewater around anyways? I prefer shitting in the woods, and we plan to look for woods.
On paper it sounds great. Sometimes, though, I feel the impossibility of it all like the walls of a cardboard box I once sat in as a child. How did I, a retired dog walker, ex-smoker, Berkeley street kid, become a mother? How does one raise a child without babysitters, on the road in a nation that loves Wal-Mart and fossil fuels, and with a president who suggests driving a little less, as if that solves it all? And just how can I make money writing about parenting and fuel processing?
It's at these times that I'm grateful to the mother at the rest stop in Pennsylvania chasing after her two boys. She says they left Arizona two days ago, and they're meeting the moving van in Wisconsin in two more. And the old couple in the diner who shoots disapproving looks at us while Naima stands in her high chair throwing food onto the carpet. They smile at us as we are leaving and warn us to watch out for all the semis while we're on the road. "Take it slow and easy," the old woman says in a husky voice, and I am overcome with gratitude for their words, simply because I am reminded that we are not alone.
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