Precious Cargo

For Robert

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August 1, 2018

Precious Cargo

Years ago I had a friend who was involved with and later married her college professor. That they were romantically linked caused something of a minor scandal at the time, although it was her husband who in fact officiated at my own wedding through the graces of the Universal Life Ministry (I believe) granting him a license. We lost track of each other in that way that people do, but one of her stories stuck with me and even came back on this trip.

Early in their dating life this couple liked to have adventures, and as they were Steinbeckian by nature, this involved trips to see flora and fauna and a fair amount of drinking. The way I remember the story was that they were out tooling around on some back road, looking for something, and they were imbibing wine as they drove, when all of a sudden he pulled off the road. “What am I doing?” he asked. She didn’t know what he meant, and then he explained: “I can’t drive like this with you here—you are precious cargo,” and after that he reformed his ways (at least when operating a motor vehicle), and as far as I know they are still driving around and looking for new biological and geological discoveries while discussing literature, philosophy, and art.

This story stuck with me partly because I wanted a man who felt that way about me, that I was precious cargo, and partly because I loved the romance of their early adventures, and even the adventures when I knew them. I once traveled to the Sea of Cortez with the woman, and when she first saw her husband after a few weeks absence, they immediately ran off together. They simply couldn’t stand to make chit chat when they could be together, and one assumes, be intimate.

Before I met Robert, it is fair to say I dated a few men, but none of them seemed to really be all that interested in me, or at least, none of them ever saw me as any kind of precious cargo. OK, there were a few that took maybe too much interest, so much so that I learned about restraining orders, but it was very much a feast or famine kind of thing. When we started dating, Robert was 19 and I was 29, and our relationship caused a little scandal all on its own, but I never imagined we would stay together all these years. Instead, I thought I might teach him a bit about women, and then in the way of relationships, we would lose each other. Still, we felt connected from the time we started officially dating, and the relationship kept growing. Sure, Robert had a curfew and used to ride his skateboard home at night, but even his parents got used to me after they got to know me.

When I first brought Robert to Ashland to meet my Northern family, I wasn’t sure what they would think. “Who is this kid?” was what I imagined, and I think they did start there, at first. Then there was the memorable dinner when Robert banged his fist on the table and proclaimed “George W. Bush is a cocksucker,” which was not the sort of thing people generally said at the table there, and I noticed everyone moving away from us on that old Group W bench, but over the week we spent there, a week when we never saw the bus, I might add, for it was in storage by then, Paula and Dad and Bree warmed up to Robert.

Later Paula would tell me both that she didn’t care how old Robert was as long as he treated me well, and that she could see how much he loved me. When I introduced Robert to one of my oldest and best friends, he had a similar response. “The other men you’ve been with didn’t appreciate you as you should be appreciated,” he said, and he told Robert privately to hang on to me, that I was special.

In my own mind, these words are talismans of a sort, proof that no matter how unlovable I feel, I have made at least one good decision in my life, and that was marrying Robert. Of course, I didn’t marry him the first time he proposed in a Taco Bell on our third date, nor the year after that, but after six years, I realized that we were part of each other’s families, and that the acceptance I felt with Robert was never going to be replaced by an older man or a younger one. We had grown into each other, I think now, and if I worry that we are co dependent, I also try to remember that being interrelated like this, having a symbiotic relationship that benefits both parties, is what most people are looking for. I might be the little fish that cleans his teeth, but I never worry that Robert will swallow me whole—after all, he needs his teeth cleaned.

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However, this trip tested our relationship. Let me say plainly that I was very annoying and hard to deal with, especially during the “Larry Diaries” portion of the trip. I was by turns demanding and then needy, irrational and snappish, pushing and pulling at poor Robert, and that’s not to mention the family drama. I felt unhinged by my desire to will the trip into existence and my connected desire to relax and enjoy the journey that seemed like it would never start. As you might guess, this is not a new state for me, and Robert handled it with his customary grace. Bree even commented that even though I was being difficult, she could still see him looking at me with love, just as he had all those years ago, and that if anything is a testament to the power of our marriage.

But there was one challenge we faced that I didn’t write about at the time, although we discussed it, and that is what we came to term “Precious Cargo” in that shorthand that couples adopt. We were at Russian Gulch, sitting by the fire, a truly monumental blaze, and I was processing the trip so far in my head. The day we made it to the Gulch was the same day we had the Garberville experience, a day that started inauspiciously. We were leaving the redwoods, still up in Northern California, and we were battling the cars that wanted to go faster, looking for turnouts. The highway was climbing and dropping, winding, and we were rolling, but as we followed some now nameless river, we came to a high bridge. Robert was going fast, as fast as we could go, because the people behind him were in a hurry, and we pulled out onto the shoulder, not an official turn out, for a moment it seemed we were going to roll right off into the abyss. I was scared, as scared as I ever was on the trip, but we made our way back onto the highway, and then it happened again—we were trying to turn out, but the road was too short or we were too fast, and suddenly it seemed we would hit the guardrail. Once we did stop, just short of the rail, I got out of the car. I could see a ranger’s station just beyond the turn out, and in that frantic moment, all I thought of was marching in there and telling the rangers, who I assumed would be avuncular folks in the manner of rangers everywhere: “You have to help me! I’m driving with a crazy man.”

That never happened because I calmed down, got back in the car, and then we proceeded all down that terrible highway until we got to Garberville of the steep hill and the emergency brake and all the folks that make Garberville Garberville. But by the time we arrived safely at Russian Gulch, I was rattled. I was scared. We’d had to cross the coastal range four times that day due to roadwork on Highway 1, and all that up and down and twisting turning that I never would have noticed in our Prius, well, it was burned into me in the bus. Every mile felt like an accomplishment.

That night at the fire, I looked at Robert, builder of Big Fire, in the flickering light, and I tried to decide whether or not to tell him how I felt. I knew how hard he had worked and was working to make this trip a reality for me, and I knew why he was doing it: he loves both my father, and me, and now I know he loves the Bus, too. But that night I worried that what I had to say would sound like complaining, nagging, and I wondered if my fears were even rational. I mean, I have a fear of driving on freeways myself (though not a fear when others are driving, just me), and some irrational fears that I know are silly but I can’t stop, so what if this fear was just another of those things? In the end, I told him the Precious Cargo story of our old friends. I told him that I was really scared, and that I needed him to know that. To my surprise, Robert didn’t deflect my comments or suggest that I was crazy. Instead, he agreed, and told me that he was scared, too. This admission was not what I was expecting, and while it might have scared me more, I was thankful for his honesty. Every time he drove the bus, we’d have a little ritual conversation. “I think I’m really getting it,” Robert would say, and I would nod, trying to be supportive. Oddly, we still have these conversations every time we take the bus out, but now he is really getting it, but that night at Russian Gulch, before we had our driving through Marin and Sonoma day, the evidence was a bit unclear.

Still, the fact that Robert was willing to admit his fear meant a lot to me; it meant that he was wiling to be honest with me, and although Robert lies about a great many inconsequential things for no reason I can discern, he never lies about things that really matter. So, that night by the fire he promised me: if I was scared, just let him know, and he would work with me. I just had to tell him how I felt, and he would tell me how he felt, and together, we would make it through. Of all the many, many gifts Robert has given me over the years, this was one of the best.

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And it turned out to be true! Upon leaving Mendocino, we had a terrifying moment on Highway 1 when Robert tried to accelerate while not in gear, which produces a LOUD clanking noise and a shuddering halt for those not in the know, and although we came to a dead stop on the highway, we made it to the shoulder, where we both sat in shock. We were scared, yes, but we were scared together, and once we figured out that the engine hadn’t fallen out, we went on our way, slowly and steadily, and yes, safely.

That day turned out to be the turning point on the trip, when Robert’s repeated admonishments that he really was getting it started to come true. All through the highways we rambled, and when I got scared on the big highway, we switched easily to the country roads I knew so well from my own time in that country. I will never forget rolling through Bodega Bay and down along the Tomales Bay, Robert handling the curves, shifting now effortlessly, nothing to scare me, and the friendliness of the other drivers (they really love a VW bus in Marin county). When I read this to Robert last night, he said, “The learning curve was so steep, but by the time we got to the Bay Area, I felt better.” I felt better, too.

At the time we had the Precious Cargo conversation, I asked Robert whether or not I should write about this, and he told me, “Absolutely.” I loved then and love now that he wasn’t worried about seeming weak, or not being a car guy, and his acceptance of me continues to make me realize I have the perfect husband (aside from the socks in the bed. I get tired of fishing them out. And the shoes everywhere). I also worried about writing about it on the trip, but in the end, I simply didn’t have time, so that was solved, but what concerned me was the worry everyone else might feel, especially my father. Now that we are home, and even though every journey even across town or to the hardware store is filled with a little bit of adventure: will we die at the stoplight on the hill? I know we will be OK. We have already come so far, and as we plan our new trips, we will only need to think carefully about how we go, not if we will go.

When we returned, Robert told the people at work about the trip. “It was the stupidest and most amazing thing I have ever done,” he said. When Robert told the new mechanic, Mauricio, about what we’d done, the man was amazed. He looked at Robert a little strangely, thinking I’m sure, who is this kid? But he was impressed all the same. Others have said it more plainly: Robert has some balls to do that, and even my father opined that he wasn’t sure if he would have done it himself, although of course he did drive the bus across country with a wife and two children, so I know he did it, too, although time and long familiarity with the bus have removed any memory of those initial fears.

But the point here, if there is any point, is of thankfulness, not just for our safe travels, but also for Robert. I know that I am lucky in having him in my life, and I know that on a daily basis, but often in a long relationship, people stop seeing how amazing the other person is. That Robert did this for me, and listened to me, and loved me every mile of the way, even when I was annoying, is a gift I can never repay. Whatever hardships I have endured, I know they are repaid by having Robert in my life, and I love him more than I ever thought possible, for in some way the bus has brought us even closer together. Now, instead of yet another gardening project or home improvement bent, we have the Bus to work on, and I look forward to all the places we will go.

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