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Len Necefer, as told to Frederick Reimers | Longreads | August 2020 | 3,211 words (12 minutes)
It’s early March, the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic in the United States, and I-25 in downtown Albuquerque is nearly deserted at 9 a.m. on a Wednesday. It feels like a risky time for a road trip. After filling morgues in Italy, the virus is propagating across the globe and countries everywhere are closing their borders. No one seems sure exactly who transmits the disease or even how it is spread. Every day feels like living on a knife ridge. A light rain is falling and the signs hanging above the highway that normally display traffic times instead read: Stay Home, Save Lives.
I’m trying to save a life by dashing across five states. Driving eastward from Tucson, where I’m an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, I’m bound for Lawrence, Kansas, where my 72-year-old dad lives. He’d retired from teaching at Haskell Indian Nations University there four years ago, and has been living alone since. “I’ll be fine here,” he says, but when I ask him who can do his grocery shopping or who would take care of him if he were to fall ill, he can’t think of anyone. All his friends there have moved away or passed away. I can’t bear the thought of him riding out a pandemic alone if cities and states are locked down, and don’t really trust my older parent to take precautions against the virus. I’m going to get him.
I throw in some N95 masks and nitrile gloves I have from tinkering with the van engine, clean sheets for the van’s bed, and food to cook on the camp stove. I don’t want us eating in restaurants, and figure we can share the bed instead of risking a hotel. I notify my students that class, already moved online, is canceled for the week, and drive out of Tucson just before dark on a Tuesday.
* * *
The next morning as I’m driving through Albuquerque, I call my mom, who lives there with my stepdad Dan. I tell her that I am on my way to Kansas to bring dad back. “Was he open to the idea, or did you have to convince him?” she asks. My mom, who is Navajo, knows that like a lot of white guys of his age, Dad has trouble accepting help. He agreed to shelter with me for a couple months, I tell her, though I’m planning on him staying much longer. She invites us to stay with them on our way back through, and it’s good to think that at least right now, I’m within a few miles of her. This road trip has already gotten a little weird.
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The night before, I’d driven until I was tired, past one a.m. I pulled off the highway to camp at a spot I knew in the open desert in western New Mexico — just a clearing in the saltbrush and sage flats off the side of a dirt road, earth packed down by the tires of successive car campers. I’d been surprised to see the broad white side of RV after RV appear in my headlights at each potential turnout. I had to drive a few extra miles to find a vacant spot. Other campers always make me uneasy when I’m pulling in late at night, and I really couldn’t understand what all these people were doing out here in the middle of the pandemic.
Then in the morning, I’d been awakened by texts from friends in Salt Lake City, where there’d been a 5.7 magnitude earthquake. No one had been hurt, but the shaking had knocked the trumpet out of the golden hands of the Angel Moroni perched atop the highest spire of the principal Mormon temple; my friends noted wryly that the Latter-day Saints were counting on Moroni and his trumpet to herald the second coming.
Finally, two hours past Albuquerque, I pull off the highway to cook lunch at a place called Cuervo, New Mexico, that turns out to be a ghost town. Standing beside the van, waiting for the water to boil, I scan the crumbling husks of houses and a fenced-off stone church. Thinking of The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s haunting novel about a father and son traveling together through abandoned towns after an unnamed apocalypse, I laugh to avoid thinking of this rest stop as an omen.
That afternoon, driving Highway 54 through the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma, more cars began appearing. I’m surprised to see a bowling alley and then a restaurant with full parking lots. Somewhere in western Kansas, I pass a group of high school kids playing full-squad basketball. At a gas station, people look at me strangely as I operate the pump wearing my mask and gloves, and it is obvious the residents and I are listening to different news sources.
* * *
In Kansas, I pass signs pointing to Haskell County, which I recognize from a podcast I’ve been listening to about the 1918 flu pandemic. The Spanish Flu is believed to have originated in Haskell County where it jumped from pigs to humans before hitching a ride to Europe with some local kids who joined the army to fight in World War I, where it mutated into the deadly strain that eventually killed 50 million people worldwide. It’s ironic: that so much vitriol is already being directed at China and towards Asian Americans, when the biggest pandemic in modern history began just miles from here, in America’s heartland.
The 1918 pandemic also hit my people hard, taking as much as 24 percent percent of the Navajo population. It was a population just a little more than a generation removed from an even larger trauma — the Long Walk of the Navajo. In 1864, the U.S. Cavalry forced the Navajo from their homeland in North Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern Utah, and marched them 300 miles to Fort Sumner, New Mexico, in the winter, with only what they could carry. Hundreds died from starvation, hypothermia, or execution when they couldn’t keep up. By the time they left Sumner four years later, more than 2,000 had died. We are taught not to talk about Hwéeldi — “the place of suffering.” Normally when I drive to Kansas, I detour far around it, but in this case, it lay along the fastest route; I’d passed signs for it in the morning. Late that night, I pull into a campsite at Pratt Sandhills, a vestige of remaining tall grass prairie spread atop ancient sand dunes. The dirt road is a pair of parallel puddles from a recent storm and the van loses traction here and there. When I finally turn off the ignition, it’s a day I feel glad to let go of.
* * *
I make Lawrence the next afternoon, embracing my dad, Edward, on the walkway to the small house where I’d spent much of my youth. He has the easygoing demeanor of a good teacher: attentive, warm, a mischievous sense of humor. He grew up in Detroit in the ’60s then joined the Peace Corps, teaching English and math in Liberia. Once home, he meandered through a series of jobs in the Bureau of Indian Education, and eventually got a gig teaching math at Haskell, where he met my mom.
“Have you thought about what you’ll bring to Tucson?” I ask.
“I’m all packed,” he says, and it’s a relief. I’d been worried we’d waste a few days wrangling over his belongings. But when we pull out of Lawrence in the morning, we’re in two vehicles, not just my van. He says it is because he doesn’t want to leave his car parked on the street while he is gone, but I’m sure he just isn’t ready to give up that independence. I’m frustrated because I know it will slow us down and leave us more exposed. It means more breaks — I assume he’s no longer capable of driving more than six hours at a shot — and more gas stops, since his Volkswagen GTI has less than half the range of my van.
At the first, just past Wichita, I say, “Let me gas up both cars, so we only have to use up one set of gloves.” He says “Okay,” but when I turn around after getting the second pump started, I see the back of him disappearing into the store.
We’d talked about staying out of buildings — paying at the pump, going to the bathroom behind a tree. Just a few hours in, and he’s already broken that. I stew angrily at the pumps waiting for him to return, trying to keep panic at bay. If I get upset, I think, he’s not going to hear anything I say.
“Dad, I thought we talked about this,” I say when he returns. “We have to make these decisions together. You have to take this seriously.”
“Fine,” he says. “Let’s talk about it. I can stay out of gas station restrooms, but I’m going to need to get a hotel tonight. My back is already stiff.”
I can’t budge him. “Okay,” I say, “but we’ll have to scrub it all down with Clorox wipes — every surface. Let’s try for the Kansas border,” I say. “The town of Liberal should have hotels. We’re exposed in Trump country, but at least we can take comfort in the name,” I joke.
A few hours later, I still feel we the need to lighten the mood, so during a stretch break beside the highway, I show Dad a few quarantine videos people are posting on Instagram — the sock puppet appearing to eat traffic on the street below, and people “rock climbing” across their apartments with ropes and harnesses. “We should make one,” I say. “How about ghostriding the whip?” I explain the concept of the meme, grooving to music alongside, or atop, a moving vehicle without anyone in the driver’s seat. I show him a few examples, and Dad is game. I crank up some music on the van stereo — the Snotty Nose Rez Kids — put the emergency brake on halfway, and put it in gear. Dad does the rest, strutting alongside the open door of the slowly moving van with his sunglasses on and his cap turned backwards under the bright blue Kansas sky, always happiest staying loose.
I post the video on Instagram with the caption, “My dad has ascended to the throne of Quaranking.”
Except that he hasn’t. He won’t give up on the hotel idea. In Liberal, I manage to convince him to drink a can of cold-brew coffee from the van fridge and drive a little longer. Two hours later, at sunset, we gas up in Dalhart, Texas, and I propose we shoot for Tucumcari, New Mexico, an hour and a half further — and in a state where the governor has put some precautions in place. Ironically, when we get there, those precautions keep us from finding my dad a bed. Hotels are only allowed fifty percent occupancy, and there are no vacancies. At the fourth and last hotel we try, Dad holds the door open for a woman also entering the lobby and she gets the last room.
He is dejected and exhausted. Driving for 12 hours has taken its toll. We cook a pot of ramen in the parking lot, huddled inside the van against the windy night.
“What if we just sleep here in the van?” I ask.
“I need my own bed,” he says.
“I’ll sleep on the floor,” I say.
“I’m going to have to get up to pee in the night a few times,” he says, now irritated, “and I don’t want to disturb you.”
“It won’t,” I say, but he’s not having it.
We decide to try to push through the last 175 miles to Mom’s house, but after 100 of those, I can see Dad’s headlights dropping further back.
“How ya doing?” I ask over the phone.
“I probably need to stop,” he says, and we pull over at a rest area, just an hour from Albuquerque, to sleep till morning. There are a dozen others there doing the same, towels tucked into their windows for privacy. Dad sleeps in his car. I can’t talk him out of it.
* * *
We spend two nights recovering at my mom and stepdad’s house in Albuquerque, knowing Tucson is just a day’s drive away. They are all friends and Dad has stayed with them before; any tension is on my end. Over dinner, I’m surprised at how much Dan and Dad minimize the pandemic, and how they assume things will get quickly back to normal.
“Guys,” I say, “it’s gonna be at least 18 months before there’s a vaccine, and because of your age, you’re both in a high-risk demographic.” I never expected to be parenting my folks so soon. “In fact,” I say, “if something does happen, I’m probably going to be the one who makes all the arrangements. I should probably have copies of your wills.”
“Let’s not get carried away,” says Dan.
It comes to a head the next day. I’d watched Dan come home from the grocery store, toss his mask on the key rack, and settle in without washing his hands.
“Dan,” I say, “if you really care about my mom’s health, you have to take this seriously.” He assures me that he is, but I can tell I’ve pissed him off. Later, I have an aside with mom.
“I’m pretty frustrated with Dan,” she says, “and I can imagine you are frustrated with your father, too.” I tell her I really did need their last directives and will documents. “I’ll get that for you today,” she says, “and we can talk it through.”
It’s not surprising that my mom’s approach to the pandemic has been markedly different from my father and stepfather’s. Both of the men are white baby boomers, members of a generation who’d had the freedom to live exactly how they wanted. Their attitude towards the pandemic is, “It’ll work out,” because for them, things always have.
My mother was born in Red Valley, on the reservation near Shiprock, New Mexico. She grew up trailing her family’s sheep herd to high camp each spring and back again in the fall. It was the same journey that my great-grandparents made twice a year, and the same one that my cousins and I tagged along on as kids, walking alongside the herding dogs, and running into roadside stores to buy candy with cash my grandfather or uncle would slip us.
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Mom’s family have always been planners. It comes from migrating with the sheep, and from the cultural trauma of the Long Walk. In the summer of 1864, life was as it had been in Navajo country for hundreds of years. Then, in September, Kit Carson burned the crops, and in January an entire people were being force-marched across New Mexico. “You know, when society collapses, we need to be prepared,” I’d hear my grandfather say.
I’ve inherited that affinity for being prepared. I took my education all the way to a Ph.D., fulfilling the idea that it’s better to be overqualified for a job. I take pains to cultivate my relationships, knowing it leads to more social resilience. Before I drove to Kansas, realizing I hadn’t met all my neighbors yet and that such connections might be critical in the coming months, I knocked on every door to introduce myself and left notes at the doors no one opened. Even my van, fully outfitted for camping adventures, is subconsciously a backup home.
Which is why it is frustrating, and even a little scary, to watch my father resist my guidance. I’m sure it’s how a parent feels watching their teenage children make brash choices in a bid to establish their independence. I realize that all I can do is continue to offer support, and to remain patient myself. Which isn’t all that hard when you love someone, I realize that night as the four of us sit around the kitchen table sipping on whiskey and enjoying each other’s company.
* * *
On the last day we get on the road early, and with just a seven-hour drive to Tucson, I feel relaxed. When we stop for lunch, I can’t find the utensils to spread the peanut butter — Dad had stashed them somewhere after our parking lot dinner nadir — so I use a 19 millimeter wrench. If I were Cormac McCarthy this is the kind of thing I’d put in my post-apocalypse book, I think.
I’m excited to get home. “Maybe you should look at this quarantine as a trial run for moving to Tucson full-time,” I’d suggested to Dad the night before, glad that he seemed open to the idea. It should be a pretty easy sell — few places compare to southern Arizona in March, with mild temps and the Sonoran desert in bloom. Then fittingly, just around Wilcox, I see that the entire desert is carpeted with yellow and orange fiveneedle pricklyleaf. Clumps of the daisy-like flowers have erupted from the desert in a superbloom, spreading for miles across the basin southwards towards the blue ramparts of the Chiricahua and Dragoon ranges, storied strongholds of the Apache people who were some of the last Native Americans to resist white settlement. I pull off the highway, and Dad pulls in behind me. “Let’s take a little walk,” I say.
“Let’s keep going,” he says. “We’re only an hour away.”
I realized he isn’t seeing the flowers. “Dad, take off your sunglasses and look out there,” I say.
He lifts them up, looks around, and just says, “Oh.”
We walk out among the flowers on a faint gravel road, taking in the blooms and the tiers of mountains reaching southward clear to the Mexico border. We wander, just breathing and releasing the tension of driving. “How long do they last?” Dad asks.
“Only a week,” I say. “We’re lucky to be here.”
* * *
The next months are bittersweet. Dad loves Tucson’s ample cycling opportunities and is a good houseguest. Wary of culinary skills atrophied by two decades of bachelorhood, I do most of the cooking, though he does help pack the van for my next road trip. By May, Covid-19 has torn through my Navajo Nation homeland, inflicting the highest per-capita infection rate in the United States thanks to underfunded health resources and food deserts that have increased health risk factors. A Natives Outdoors fundraiser provides masks and hand sanitizers to communities on the reservation, which a friend and I make two separate trips to deliver.
By the time we return from the second, Dad has decided to move to Tucson for good. We’ve found a place for him to rent and a moving company to pack up his house in Kansas. I’m pleased of course, but also sad that our time living together again will soon be over. We’ve bonded over these strange quarantine times, but there’s also a real feeling of accomplishment to having successfully adapted our lives to each other. Multigenerational living is becoming rare — it challenges the supremacy of freedom and convenience, but in that we also lose something, additional layers and complexity to our most foundational relationships.
* * *
Len Necefer is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona. His writing and photography have been featured in the Alpinist, Outside, Beside magazine, and more.
Frederick Reimers is based in Jackson, Wyoming, and contributes to Outside, Bloomberg, Men’s Journal, Ski, Powder, and Adventure Journal magazines. Follow him at @writereimers.