I jumped. “Geez Paulie, give me a heart attack.”
“You fell asleep on the floor. I was just trying to put something under your head so you wouldn’t wake up with slobbered up checkerboard face.”
Feeling bad for snapping I told him, “Thanks Monkey Man but I better get up.” Sitting up and trying to stretch out the horrible after effects of sleeping on cold, hard bathroom tiles I asked, “How’s everyone else doing? Awake?”
“And hungry,” he said apologetically.
I sighed as my vision finally decided to kick in and saw a bunch of little eyes staring at me from the other end of the bathroom where Tiff and Paulie must have tried to keep them quiet. All I wanted to do was sleep but I was the oldest and needed to be the grown up even if I wasn’t one. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll heat up some water and we’ll have oatmeal, the flavored kind this time.” Excited whispers told me that the others had heard me and that was the start of our
second day at the Van Buren, Arkansas rest stop.
I let the kids play in the welcome center area again and they almost didn’t know what to do with themselves having so much room to run around in. I repeated the rules and then went out into the parking lot to go over the vehicles that were there and to continue thinking on how we had gotten to where we were.
It took me a week to get brave enough to decide we couldn’t stay at the medical facility anymore. No one was going to come for us and gangs were roaming and I could tell they were egging each other on to search through the rubble to see if there was anything worth stealing. The only destination I had in mind was our old duplex. I started gathering supplies.
There was surprisingly little food in the facility. I don’t know if that is what caused the adult wing riot or not but it meant that it was a good thing I had made the decision when I did. I carefully packed a garbage bag of stuff for each kid but was out of luck when it came to shoes. That included for Paulie and I. He’d outgrown his shoes and mine had been taken during an examination and never given back. All we had were these paper thin no-slip socks and they didn’t hold up worth spit.
I had no idea how we were going to walk anywhere in those conditions and then got lucky when I was able to back a car out of the rubble of the security garage that still had a nearly full tank of gas. It was one of those stupid hybrid cars that mostly ran on electric but could run on gas and was real quiet … and small. Getting everyone packed in was an adventure. Learning that the stupid little thing moved at a fast crawl most of the time when it was over-weighted was even worse.
Not a whole lot to tell between there and the duplex once we got going. It took me a while to figure out where we were and which way to go. It was scary. We got chased a couple of times the first day so we moved at night using back roads when I could figure them out. The least fun was when the car pooped out two miles from our destination and we had to walk the rest of the way with all of us winding up with messed up feet to one extent or another but luckily nothing major.
The duplex was a mess but mainly in the kitchen. The bedrooms hadn’t been messed with too much as there wasn’t a whole lot in them to begin with; we’d left almost everything we had of any kind of value back in Bear Springs. Not surprisingly Paulie had outgrown most of his clothes including his shoes but Bobby got some use out of them. My feet were small – a woman’s 5 ½ - and Tiff could use a pair of my sandals. The rest of them just continued to use socks for the next couple of days.
I knew after one look through the houses in the neighborhood that we couldn’t stay there. I got a clock radio up and running with some batteries I scavenged from other devices and realized we couldn’t even stay in the city after I heard a few of the broadcasts. There was hardly any food, next to no water, and what they were calling “warlords” pretty much ran the few secure places that were left.
Then I hit on the almost impossible goal of taking us all back to Bear Springs. I didn’t consider that we wouldn’t be welcome; after all, the house was Mom’s by right and Paulie and I through her. But getting there … how to do it was the question. So I decided first to hold up with Uncle James. I figured he was an adult and had contacts and would know what to do. He was a good man and would want to help.
I combed through the surrounding houses in the old neighborhood the same way I was combing through the cars in the rest area parking lot. I took things we needed and left most of it untouched. I found some shoes for everyone, first for Paulie and then even for Mimi and Corey. Everyone got clothes though they didn’t always fit the best; the kids didn’t mind, they just wanted out of the hospital scrubs or gowns we had all been wearing for way too long.
With a better look I found some food but it took some creativity to make it palatable. Almost every house had masa or cornmeal. I found a few cans of things here and there. It fed us but just barely and a few times I had to close my eyes and use someone’s half jar of peanut butter or opened package of crackers even though I had no idea if they had stuck their fingers in it. It was better than starving I kept telling myself.
A few times I had to go further afield to find things as the food got used up and on one of those adventures I ran across Arturo’s and that’s where I found the Clunker. I don’t know what it started out as but someone had been transforming it into a stock car. It was sitting out back of the shop up on blocks but came to life when I eventually found the key that belonged to it. I also eventually found the tires for it stacked in the last place I looked … the bathroom of all places. This took several days, not only to find it but to get it down off the blocks and then to put the tires back on it so that they wouldn’t fall off. Siphoning gas from the bottom of the tanks of a bunch of abandoned or broken down vehicles also took time. But eventually I was able to drive it to the duplex.
The Clunker has a really big trunk. All the carpet and sound proofing has been ripped out but I laid a couple of blankets down in it and it kept the worst of the rattling from driving me crazy. A good thing too as I never dreamed we’d still be needing it to get anyplace. I took two days to pack it down, spent another day looking for car seats for Mimi and Corey, and then another day after that wimbling around because I got scared and unsure that I was doing the right thing. A fire that raged through the city finally drove me out onto the road towards Orofino or I might still be sitting there too frightened to take that next big step.
Twelve hundred miles … one thousand two hundred … that’s how far it was from Phoenix to Orofino. If I had known exactly how many miles I doubt I would have done it; but maybe I would have, we didn’t have a whole lot of options.
Back then there were a lot of people on the road. Everyone was tramping from one place to the next. Rumors were flying … there was sickness here, people were starving to death there, all the water was gone in some other place and gangs were killing everyone at the least provocation. I listened to the rumors yet I didn’t. I was so focused on our destination that I was almost angry when something penetrated my preoccupation and hope. When people started talking about the winter and what it would bring, now that penetrated and gave me a lot to worry about.
I knew Idaho got cold, I didn’t know how cold though. I figured Uncle James had it all figured out and just kept pushing on. The only thing I had was my belief that Uncle James would “save” us.
The government and some charities were handing out free meals here and there but mostly all we had was what I had scavenged and packed in the Clunker or what I could scavenge along the road. We left the safety of the vehicle only when we absolutely had to; the kids and I learned to pee in a bucket while no one looked and to empty it out a window. I ran over a guy who was going to break our windshield with a crowbar because we wouldn’t stop. I don’t know if I killed him; I’m not sure I care.Two weeks it took us to travel to our destination and when we got there I thought the world had ended.