When the first signs of my chemo rash appear in Hot Springs, Arkansas, I pick up a companion for the rest of my road trip; her name is Fear, and she is a master story-teller. She spins tales of doctors and nurses, hypodermic needles and IV’s, isolation rooms and ICU’s, stories as bleak as the landscape I traverse on my way to the next hot springs bath house in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. Fear makes me promise that if I get graft vs. host disease from the bone marrow transplant, I will go to Portland where one of my brothers lives, and get the Kevorkian treatment.
Fear gabs while I drive through Northern Texas, a land of vast stretches of red dirt whipped through the air by relentless wind. I travel for hours without passing another vehicle or seeing evidence of human life, just occasional herds of cattle. Once I come upon a trio of cowboys, bandanas tied around their faces, fighting the wind-flung dust to fix a fence in the middle of nowhere. The poor cows have no such protection from that airborne dirt. I imagine it cakes in their ears, eyes, and nostrils, and my heart hurts for them. That anyone manages to scratch out a living in this inhospitable place is amazing to me. I am way to soft to live in North Texas.
The color palette shifts across central New Mexico from shades of red and rust to muted greens, grays, and browns, but the wind remains the same, and the long stretches between abandoned towns. Every time I have the opportunity to get gas I grab it because the next functioning pump might be 300 miles away. I also learn to use the restroom at every opportunity. New Mexico may have rest stops on its interstates, but none exist on U.S. 380, and unlike Illinois, where I can use a cornfield in an emergency, New Mexico waysides consist of prickly plants a few inches tall that provide no cover and might leave me with a souvenir in the derriere. And while I often go hours without seeing another vehicle, I have no doubt that the minute I pull down my pants next to a cactus, a truck full of fence-fixing cowboys will crest the nearest hill, and in a rush to finish, I will lose my balance and get a bottom full of prickly pear pancakes.
Two long days of driving after leaving Hot Springs, I pull into Truth or Consequences. It is only late afternoon, but the town looks nearly deserted. On line, it looked like a quaint, thriving community of stucco houses painted bright colors, kitschy shops, and trendy cafes selling lattes and fresh-baked pastries. In person, it looks like any other slowly suffocating small community where the young people with ambition leave, the young people without dreams smoke meth, and the old people wonder what happened to their beloved hometown. I get out of the car, and grit my teeth while stretching through the pain in my hips and thighs. For the past few days I have been slightly stooped like an 80-year-old woman because pain washes from my waist all the way down through my feet when I walk, something else Fear likes to talk about. As I approach the office of the Pelican Spa, I look around at the cute little cottages and look forward to flopping on a bed and sleeping for ten hours. The clerk hands me a key and gives me directions to my room. As it turns out, I do not get one of the quaint cottages. I am to be housed on the second floor of a two-story building a block away.
Back in the car, I follow the woman’s directions to a two-story structure painted bright pink. When I pull to the back where the stairs are, only one other person is around, a young man who is clearly tweaking, walking down the sidewalk across the street. He is talking loudly to himself and gesticulating wildly. I wait until he is out of sight to get out of the car, grab my suitcase, and climb the stairs to my room. I don’t recall ever being this tired before in my life. Once inside, I turn on the air conditioner and get a jet stream of mold blown directly into my face. Yuck! Too tired to complain about it to the clerk, I turn to the bathroom. On the shower floor a two-inch bug, beetle or roach I do not know, lies dead on its back, all six legs reaching up. I squat over the toilet to pee, lie down on top of the covers, pray for no bed bugs, and drop into a dreamless sleep.
A few hours into my nap, my stomach wakes me demanding to be fed. The town is small, so I figure I can just drive around a bit and find someplace to grab a sandwich. I am wrong. The only place open is the brand new super-sized Wal-Mart on the edge of town. Resenting “progress” but too hungry to dine on principles, I enter the monstrosity, grab a container of Sabra Supremely Spicy Humus, a box of crackers, an apple, and a giant chocolate chip cookie. I eat the cookie on the drive back to the Pelican. As I open the door, the moldy air rushes to greet me and my stomach flips, but I forge ahead. There is no one on duty at the office in the evening, and I am too tired to move anyway. After quieting my stomach with a few bites of food, I fall back asleep. An hour later, something wakes me. I’m not sure what it is. Just as I begin to drift off again, the yapping of a chihuahua type dog wakes me, and it sounds like it’s coming from the room below me. The cursing that goes through my head should not be recorded in print. That goddamn dog yaps all night long, and I long for Seinfeld’s Newman to dognap the little fucker and ditch it somewhere miles away.
When the sun rises, I drag myself out of bed, sick to my stomach from breathing mold all night, sleep-deprived from a yapping chihuahua, and grossed out by the dead bug in the shower. Stomping down the stairs hoping to disturb the sleep of the dog and its person, I vow to get my money back and get the hell away from the Pelican Spa. I throw my suitcase in the car, peel out of my parking space throwing a little gravel at the building, and speed down the block to the Pelican Spa office. My aunt, Renee, is supposed to meet me at the Spa this afternoon and spend the night in Truth or Consequences with me. I tell the clerk about the mold, the roach, and the dog, and she gives me attitude! So I tell her not to take my word for it but go check the room out for herself. To her credit, she does and her attitude changes. She offers to upgrade our rooms to the cute little cottages, Renee’s upgrade free and mine at no charge at all, and I accept. It’s the path of least resistance, and I am tired of fighting, tired of fighting cancer, doctors and nurses, my husband, and most of all the rash.
Between the time I left Hot Springs and arrived in Truth or Consequences, the chemo rash reappeared on my hands. Grasping the steering wheel, my bright red fingers burned when the sun shone on them through the windshield. Renee arrives, and I cry as I tell her about the rash relapse. We settle into our cottage rooms, and then I call Holly at Washington University Physicians to tell her about the latest development. She instructs me to quit taking the Sprycel immediately, but beyond that, she had no idea what I should do because Dr. Cashen is out of town and won’t return until the following week. I make her promise that she will call me Tuesday when Cashen returns and tell me what the plan is. Thinking that a bone marrow transplant is imminent, I am hysterical while talking with Holly. She has no words of comfort for me. I hang up and feel overwhelming gratitude for Renee’s company. She is one of my favorite people in the world, and the 24 hours I am with her, Fear will be muted, and I will enjoy the moments as they come.
Renee and I find our accommodations are better than my pink palace room but still far from ideal. Decorated with vintage furnishings, the cottages are cute but have not been well-maintained. As I try to close a curtain, the bracket that holds the rod falls out of the wall and the rod hits me in the head. In her bathroom, Renee slips on a rug that has no pad on the slick tile floor and whacks her head on a cement shower base suffering a mild concussion. Though we manage to laugh a lot despite our head injuries, we are glad to escape Truth or Consequences alive on a Saturday morning. Renee heads north back home to Santa Fe, and I drive west towards Arizona to take a gander at the Grand Canyon. If the majesty of one of Mother Nature’s greatest works of art can’t distract me from Fear’s chatter, then nothing can.