A while back, driving from LA to Phoenix on the I-10, I got caught in a haboob. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time — the air went dim, then a smeary orange, everything obscured and diving bell quiet. It was like the time many years ago I drove to San Francisco from LA on the I-5 and was swarmed by a fog bank. Fog turns the world a cottony gray-white, though — in a haboob it goes a gritty, sinister auburn. Either way, it’s just a blind putt-putt wander forward, on faith. But the fog felt like adventure, the thrill of advancing into the obscure unknown, while the haboob was terrifying. I felt the stomach-drop and shoulder-clench and teeth-grind of terror. These days I drive a few times a year back and forth from Phoenix (where I live and work) to LA (still the home of my heart), and since the haboob I am now always waiting for that obscurity, always on edge.
I didn’t used to be this way. I’ve driven cross-country five or six times, fearlessly, clenchlessly, no sweat. First time was just after high school with my friend Michelle, to get her to college in Rhode Island from LA; we decided to take turns driving and reading Ulysses aloud to each other on the I-15. We only made it to page 37, somewhere east of St. George in Utah, before giving up on the literary exercise. But the trip was a trip; we sleeping-bagged it in campgrounds, stayed in rickety mountaintop hostels and got naked in hot tubs with questionable strangers, wandered miles off our AAA TripTik down unpaved back roads, lured by hand-scrawled cardboard signs promising sweet fruit. For 25 years I drove all over the country, alone mostly, or with my companionable little dog, getting to or from a one-year teaching post somewhere, a one-semester gig as a visiting writer. I’ve outdriven Oz-like tornados in Kansas, weathered Biblical Tennessee rainstorms. One winter a big rig jackknifed on black ice outside Amarillo, turning the I-40 to a parking lot. I drove two miles in the span of nine hours, running out of food, low on gas, saving the bottled water for my little dog to drink, peeing in her water dish and tossing it out the window. People stopped their engines and roamed the macadam, chatting each other up. Just as it got dark I made it to an off-ramp “town” — gas station, convenience store, diner, a single motel so filthy I slept on top of the bed in my clothes, hoping my little dog would alert me to any Dateline-style dangers. At four a.m. I filled up the tank and got the hell out of there. Still, all of it an adventure, at the time. An escapade, a lark.
How did I not die or get killed all those years? It amazes me now. Was it just luck? Blithe foolishness? Ignorant bravery?
A haboob is a dust storm, “a violent and oppressive wind blowing in summer, especially in Sudan, bringing sand from the dessert.” It’s an Arabic word, for blasting or drifting. Here’s a You Tube video of a haboob (not mine) swallowing up Phoenix:
See? Those ballooning burnt sienna dust clouds are miles wide, 50 feet high. You can’t see or breathe. It’s apocalyptic. And by the time you realize what’s happening, it’s too late. It’s like the lava from Vesuvius swallowing up Pompeii, mummifying everyone mid-brunch or mid-bath or mid-fuck, the whole city cremained in an eye-blink.
If you’re driving in a haboob — I googled this afterward — you’re supposed to pull off the road, stay in the car, turn your lights off. This seems counter-intuitive, but they say if a car sees your lights they will steer toward them, thinking to follow you — as if you know what you are doing, where you are going — and then smash into you. They say that’s how to be safe: just sit there in the blind swirly dark, stay calm and wait it out. Blind faith.
But I have no faith. I only have the terror, whenever I have to make that drive. And it’s not just terror of haboobs, although I spend every second hunched forward, hands hardgripping the steering wheel, searching the horizon for those deathly clouds — I am just as terrified I will blow out a tire, go careening through creosote into a ditch or a saguaro daggered with spines. Or the car will overheat in the 115-degree weather, and explode into flame. My gas gauge will lie to me about how much time I have left, and the car will gasp to a surprise dead stop. And if I do survive these things, and a semi drives up and a burly trucker comes to my rescue, he will prove to be a serial killer and rapist, he will brutalize me and leave my broken body by the side of the road for desert creatures to feed on, my skull parching to bone like an O’Keefe painting.
I’m not a blithely foolish or ignorantly brave kid anymore — I know I can no longer outdrive danger. And luck has a shelf-life; the haboob, the serial killer, the elements, the very air itself is going to catch up with me. Any minute now, I know. And my little dog is gone. In the end it is only me, will only be me, in the gritty dark swirl, the obscure unknown, the surprise dead stop.