“A father is the male parent of the child; its progenitor. They share DNA with the child, but he may or may not share responsibility in the child’s growth and development. Dad is a term of affection and familiarity. Dad is someone who actively participates in the child’s growth and development.”
When I was still a toddler, my dad, Johnny, drove me on a road trip from San Francisco to Eclectic, Alabama to visit my grandmother for the summer. It was the summer I got chicken pox out of the way and played with Muffin’s first set of puppies. Dad said that I was so upset when it came time for him to leave that he had to stay through the night just to console me. I don’t remember that part. What I do remember is waking up the next morning to find he had already gone.
“It’s the only way he could get hisself outta here,” Nanny laughs. “You wouldn’t let him go otherwise. You loved you some Johnny Jefferson. It broke his heart so bad to leave you.”
As a teenager and later as a twenty-something, Dad liked to tell me about the stretch we drove through Death Valley, which I never remembered. He said I pointed through the window from my car seat at anthills I saw in the distance. After he stopped the car and unbuckled me, he paced alongside my hurried steps as I ran into the desert looking for the red mounds, but there was nothing there but sand, thistles, and heat.
“That’s when you learned what a mirage was,” he’d smile. He’d say how beautiful it was with his eyebrows raised, hoping to spark my memory, but it never would.
After Dad left me with Nanny, he did the 2,500-mile journey back to San Francisco alone.
The 12th of this month marked two years since Dad died from cancer. In January of this year, after learning that my biological father James passed away from the same disease, I decided to do that road trip. From a crowded hostel in Hue, Vietnam, I listened while my aunt read a list of items from my father’s final will over Skype. I overlooked the Perfume River, named for its once fragrant floral banks before it was bombed during the war, and thought about the dog tags my father saved for me tucked into the pages of his King James Bible.
Less than four months later I would be driving from Orlando, FL through the Deep South back to Sacramento, CA, alone. I chose to start in Orlando because it’s near where my brothers live and one of them had just had a baby. I chose to end in Sacramento because it’s where Dad’s ashes are and I was already in South Korea by the time my family found a home for them.
I did the road trip in two weeks. I drove my nieces and nephews to the beach and played with them in the water off Florida’s coast. I held my youngest nephew while the surf washed over my feet and saw James in his sleepy eyes. I left the three seashells I carried with me from Vietnam at my father’s grave in Blakely, Georgia. It was my way of letting him know I had been to the place where he risked his life. Then I took dirt from the yard of his childhood home and put it into a paper cup for safekeeping.
I nuzzled the snout of Uncle Lester’s Appaloosa, Jasper, and listened to the beehive in Auntie Gwen’s backyard. I went to church on Sunday and a funeral on Monday. I collected rainwater into a mason jar from beneath an eve on Nanny’s front porch and watched the sun set over Lake Pontchartrain later that same day. The rain followed me west for four days from the Georgia/Alabama state line all the way to Austin, TX.
New Orleans baptized me in her rainfall. The air was always thick and the rain never ended. The GPS on my phone warned of a twister that never came. Through the loud drops pattering on the Mississippi and the dock at the French Quarter, Steamboat Natchez blasted a circus version of “Singin’ in the Rain” over the loud speaker. I ate alligator meat and saw camps and hogs in the swamp. Snakes twisted in cypress branches above the swamp water. Raccoons swam from one log to the next between curtains of Spanish moss.
Buskers’ music played on, wailing through that rain until I was drunk in love with the vibe. I waded through ankle-deep puddles to every drug store I could find only to find that every umbrella in the quarter had been bought, but never did I wish to leave.
I hated Texas because she was after New Orleans and took forever to cross. After Austin there was a valley of wind turbines that stretched forever in every direction. I tried to capture how out of place and futuristic the scene was with my camera. Just wind turbines and a clear sky for miles and miles and miles. That’s where I felt lonely the most. But the oil fields were the worst. There would be nothing but straight lanes and flat desert for an hour or more and then a small oil field would pop up on the horizon out of nowhere. Where New Orleans had me drenched, Texas dried me out, literally. I started pulling over for eye drop breaks every 100 miles.
When I crested a hill on Route 66 that overlooked the desert in New Mexico, I finally understood how land could be endless and beautiful just like the ocean. I biked the southern ridge of the Grand Canyon and stood on the Nevada-Arizona state line at Hoover Dam. I followed a stranger to his remote land in what had once been a sundown town so he could show me his big cat sanctuary. And then I drove through the entrance to Death Valley.
I really cried at first, thinking about Dad driving that same road through Death Valley next to my empty car seat. I thought about him being overcome by her beauty and the profound solitude that must have followed. It was that feeling that came over me when I reached the lip of the first mountain and looked down into Death Valley’s vastness. Looking down into Death Valley was like seeing the sea floor at its deepest place. I was a fish swimming the edge of the Mariana Trench. Somewhere along the way I gathered a handful of desert sand and added it to the dirt from my father’s house.
When I finally made it to the Veteran’s Cemetery in Sacramento, I placed a stone I carried with me from Death Valley on top of Dad’s headstone so that he would know I had been and that I could finally remember.
I had taken some earth from my father’s house to help me remember where I began and where this trip began. I didn’t know him as well as I wanted to before he died. We exchanged very little during our brief relationship but he is the reason why I am here. One day I will take that soil and place it in the ground around my home out of respect for him, and in deference to the wisdom of my ancestors. Something I learned along the way.
My dad, Johnny Jefferson, is the reason why I am me. My dad demonstrated I was worthy of love by raising me. In that way he gave me everything, so the only thing I took was the time I needed to say goodbye.
At the start of the road trip I had no idea what my life would look like afterwards. Just months before I thought I’d be spending another year in East Asia, teaching English to college kids in Dalian, China. That uncertainty forced me to keep present and keep driving.