The day was too cloudy and threatening for a good ride, but Dad whistled as he walked through the house, gathering his things.
“Dad, let’s take the map.”
“No, we don’t need it.”
“Please, Dad, I don’t know the roads west of the mountains very well.”
“But I do.”
Once, he would have been right. For years, he’d had an uncanny sense of direction and almost faultless memory of place. He and I had taken many of these rides together and he had always driven. He liked to keep our destination secret until the grand moment when he rounded the last corner to reveal a flaming canyon or rushing curtain of water hidden to anyone not as clever or adventurous as he. He’d revealed these breathless natural beauties with a pride akin to their creator’s.
Now, however, I drove these trips because Dad got nervous in traffic or nodded off in the long, straight desert. Lately, he had begun to get lost and all his secret ways tangled themselves somewhere in his memory. That day, he took the map out of my hand.
“I told you, I know the way.”
I had to decide whether to risk getting lost or to diminish him. I left the map on the table and walked out the door.
Thunder rolled behind the clouds as we climbed Mount Rose, the road wandering through familiar territory.
“Take the first left after the summit.”
Yes, I remembered that. It wound down into long flats ribboned through with clear streams, then climbed sharply in acute switchbacks to twelve thousand feet. Dad and I stopped at an overlook.
Horizons rested lower there. We stood on a stone island in a sea of distant western clouds flashing silent signals that competed with an eastern yellow sun shining between white puffs against clear blue. Slowly, the western storm crawled over blue patches one by one until only a gold glow remained. The thunder sounded closer, but its flashes disconnected, promising only more noise.
We headed down the western side of the mountain. On the descent, he abruptly pulled the shift lever down into second gear, still in control. When we got to the dusty flat at the bottom, he said abruptly, “Turn right here.”
I pulled over. “What do you have in mind, Dad?”
“Just turn. I want to show you something.”
When he’d said that years before, it always promised adventure and stunning surprise. Now, with miles of desert in three directions, I could not be sure. The gray clouds lit up again. I turned right.
Brown miles unrolled under us, dry unbroken dirt.
“How much farther, Dad?”
He scanned the horizon, expectant and smiling like he had a gift hidden in his pocket. “Just drive.”
Forty miles later, his smile fading, we came to a Y in the road.
“Which way, Dad?”
“Pull over. Let me think.” Then, after a few minutes, “Go right.”
I would have chosen left, closer to what I thought was home.
Twenty miles more, then thirty. His eyes narrowed and his hands strayed randomly in his lap. He looked out hard, then down, and shook his head twice, quickly. He stared for a moment out front again, then his shoulders sank slowly. He looked at me, shook slowly this time, and bowed his head. His eyes, with nothing else to do now, closed, and he began to snore.
As I drove, more of the purposeless, directionless thunder flashed and faded, but my queer dread had nothing to do either with the weather or being lost in the desert. I reached over and stroked the old man’s white hair. Who was this strange sleeper and where had he left my dad? No map would direct this trip. I slowed and took the next left.
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