It is the madrugada of our despedida, the hour before dawn on the last day we will spend in Monterrey.  I can smell the desert night that was and the desert day that will be.  This day has been months in coming, postponed, canceled, rescheduled.  It is almost September and summer still fills the darkness with the memory of light and heat.  It is almost September and we have yet to leave Mexico.  It is almost September and we were supposed to be in Guatemala at the beginning of August but the pandemic has put the whole world in a waiting pattern.  We can hardly complain.

The long drive home begins today and the first task is to walk the dog and stretch my own legs.  Burton strains at his leash, pulling me up and over the modernist bridge arching over Avenida Vasconcelos.  I have walked these trails hundreds of times over the last two and a half years.  Now they are closed, barricaded, off-limits.  Burton does what he is supposed to do, then turns towards home.  I wanted a Xoloitzquintle, the true Mexican hairless dog, and a female like all my dogs in the past.  Somehow we acquired a purebred Springer Spaniel pup.  Now he is full grown, 60 pounds and almost embarrassingly handsome.  He has the step and manner of his lineage, but even as a tiny puppy a spotted nose and other small flaws ended his show dog career.  We like to think that gave him a better life than his perfect litter mates.  He is our Mexican Springer Spaniel named for an English explorer and he knows things are changing.  For the last week he has been sitting on top of our feet or placing his body between us and the door, clearly saying, Do not forget the dog.  Remember to pack the dog. I am part of your pack.



I stop at the top of the bridge and look down the wide avenue that has been an unremarkable, everyday part of my life.  It is the street that leads to my favorite supermarket, my martial arts classes, to church, to a friend’s house.  I remember the first time I crossed this bridge when I didn’t know where it led.  I look into the tree shaded park where every Saturday I explored a small flea market, talked with the merchants, and hunted for treasures.  Monterrey has been good to us.  I think of leaving Mumbai three years earlier in a driving rain, so sick and exhausted that I barely cared if the plane crashed so long as it would end our time in India.

The sky begins to lighten and the day will break hot, cloudless, and bright.  I will miss Monterrey but it is time to leave.  Our house is empty, the walls stained by two young boys, cookouts with friends, a dog growing from a puppy.  There are holes in them where things used to hang and the space echoes with nothing to muffle sound.  Our black Honda CRV is full, bags and belongings fitted into an intricate puzzle leaving just enough space for four humans, one canine, and a little visibility.

Back home, my wife is drinking coffee and hands me a cup.  The boys are in the shower and there are all of those last minute things to finish.  But at last we are ready.  There is nothing more to do here.  I lock the doors to the light-filled house for the last time, never to return.  Our neighbors come into the street to see us off and I hand them the keys.  I drive the familiar route to our office and my wife drops off our ID cards.  While she is inside I see a friend from work I haven’t seen since the pandemic began.   He has shaved his beard and I hardly recognize him.

“I thought you were gone.  Aren’t you supposed to be in Guatemala?”

“Times change, brother.  We’re leaving right now.”

“Good to see you,” he says over his shoulder.



It is 1000, two hours later than I wanted to leave, but still well within safe travel hours.  Our high speed dash will follow a well-paved toll road due north to the border through some of the most dangerous and contested land in North America.  The border city of Nuevo Laredo is a war zone and the non-toll road a few miles to the west is the regular site of pitched battles between armored columns of cartel gunmen and Mexican military and police.  Driving the toll road during daylight is statistically low risk but nothing is certain.  Every time you step out the door you don’t know if or when you’ll return.

I always have a set of trips formulating in my head and journals.  There is this ideal (false in my opinion) that the best trips are unplanned, spontaneous bop prosody behind the wheel, free of care or destination.  It is true that I have had some incredible trips that sprang, full-formed like an unplanned beatnik Athena from the head of daddy Zeus, but lack of planning usually means a trip will simply never happen.  Go back and read On the Road.  Kerouac was a planner.

I have endless notes for trips, complete with itineraries, research, reading lists, expenses, gear, contacts.  Not knowing a trip will ever happen doesn’t stop the planning.  Trips that never happen have a life of their own, complete with memories, gear, and expenses.  Trips that never happen leave us different than we were before.  If you plan to go somewhere and read about its history, religion, climate and geography, research and allocate funds to buy equipment, and begin making time in place of something else, then that place has changed you even if you never get on a plane.

The pandemic stymied a trip to Tibet as well as a job in Kenya but it somehow made this drive from Mexico to Ohio possible.  When we arrived in Monterrey, our employer didn’t allow us to drive this stretch of highway.  When the rules changed, we talked about making a trip to Laredo but it never seemed worth the time and risk.  We talked about how fun it would be to drive home, but it seemed that time and security and other practical concerns would make those plans untenable.  Then the pandemic made air travel impractical and unsafe.  Now we would be leaving by car after all, but our dream of an extended ramble home was changed to the most direct route, drive through food, and dreading gas station bathrooms even more than usual.  It was time to go.

I knew what song I wanted the trip to begin with and CCR’s Suzie Q, vibrated through the car.  We negotiated traffic lane to lane through the congested heart of old Monterrey until the city gave way to desert and we dodged semi-trucks carrying products, licit and otherwise, north.  Finally the highway opened up and I changed the stereo to Dwight Yoakum, Honkey Tonk Man, and accelerated to 90.  There is no reason to linger on that road.



Time lengthens on unfamiliar roads.  One hour seems like three, two like five.  There is a gas station halfway through the three hour drive but we left with a full tank.  No one needs to see a lone family traveling through the Tamaulipas desert, no matter the early hour.  If we talked during that drive I don’t remember it.  My wife changed the stereo to Loretta Lynn and suddenly the signs for Nuevo Laredo appeared.  We entered the city, went through a few intersections, and then stopped at the tail end of a line a thousand feet from what’s left of the Rio Grande (from our perspective in Mexico, the Rio Bravo del Norte).  Laredo and the United State were just over there, just out of reach.

We waited, inched forward, tried not to think.  People threaded their way through the idling cars selling drinks, sunshades, cheap toys.  A man bent under a heavy crucifix, sweating in the sun, looking for someone buy the cross and relieve him of his burden.  Before crossing the border we had to return a special import tag for our car.  In normal times there is a clearly labeled office right on the bridge but it was closed.  These are not normal times.  Returning the tag wasn’t optional and we get vague directions back into Nuevo Laredo to some office under some bridge but we can’t turn around.  We begin to worry we’ll have to go into the U.S. then return to one of Mexico’s most dangerous cities.  Halfway across the International Bridge we explain the situation to U.S. Border Patrol Agents.  They move some orange cones and get us turned around, heading back the way we don’t want to go.  I ask the man if he knows where the office is.

“Hell no, sir,” he replies, “I never go over there.”



But it turns out that the directions weren’t so vague or luck is with us, and we find the bridge and the office under it.  A Mexican customs agent takes the tag, puts it into proper bureaucratic context, and wishes us safe travels.  The whole process takes five minutes but we get back in line more than a mile farther back than where we started.  The heat glitters and trembles, fighting through the windows.  The man is still carrying his cross through an exhaust choked Calvary.  The ground shakes with the combined vibration of thousands of idling cars.  It takes more than five hours before we’re finally at the border.  The agent looks over our passports and asks a few perfunctory questions.  She casts a bored eye into the car and we are released into the wilds of our own country or, anyway, the part called Texas.

Perhaps it is my own BS, my internal stand up philosopher coming up with theories to give some meaning to it all, but I feel our peripatetic yet regulated life causes us to perceive time differently.  My simplified version is that Western philosophy and science tend to view time and history as a linear progression.  There is a beginning and an end and along the way stuff happens.  The Eastern view is that time is cyclical, that the end is a beginning is an end and that we all take many turns through the cycle.  Or something like that.  My guru was out to lunch when I got to the top of the last mountain.  But working and living abroad I see time as more of a circular affair and life back “home” as more linear.  The process of our lives makes me aware of each change, each season, each revolution.  The logistics of assignments and training, deployment and leave, all repeat themselves over and over, nailed as we are to the great wheel of bureaucratic dharma.

This is a gross oversimplification, as are most things, but our lives go something like this: just about the time you feel fully settled in, you get a list of possible new assignments.  You research them, talk about them with your family, fantasize about walking strange streets, and game the good and bad in relation to all the others.  You list them in order of preference and wait and wonder and worry if you made the best choices.  Then, at a certain point, the esoteric signals of the invisible Mandarins indicate you have been assigned to one of those places but not to which one.  Something like, Your requests have been looked upon with favor, mortal.  You need not revise your list again.  This is my favorite moment of the process, knowing we will be moving but not if it will be to, say, Ecuador, Armenia, Guatemala, Uzbekistan, Morocco, Japan, Nepal, Zambia, Sweden, or Brazil.  You are in this delicious and frightening state of suspended animation, like a sprinter in the blocks waiting for the gun.  Then they tell you and your soul moves on a little bit, but you are hardly off to the races.  Even if you don’t have to learn a new language you know your next job at least a year before you get there.  If you are learning a new language it could be two or more years and so there you are, still in one place, knowing you are going to another.  There is a reason why we are not supposed to know the future.  It keeps us from living in the present.

Travel renders time and space amorphous and mutable.  Every trip has its farthest point and from there things begin to circle back.  Finally you find yourself in a reverse replay of your arrival, closing doors you once opened, bidding farewell to friends who once were strangers, heading back to the airports and passing the younger ghosts of yourselves heading into town.

You return home like a soldier on leave with stories no one one really wants to hear and ones you can’t tell.  It is good to be home but there is an underlying recognition that you left them.  No one likes to be left and until you returned there was little to mark time but day becoming night and the seasons going from cold to hot and back again.  You are the specter of age, missed opportunities, and adventures never embarked upon.  Everyone is older and grayer but no one noticed until you walked in the room and upset the matrix.



You walk quiet streets and don’t worry about anything.  It is good to be home.  You eat and drink familiar foods and for a moment you are a wizard telling tales of foreign lands and you think that maybe this wandering life is overrated.  But your friends have other lives now.  You left them and they got over you and you remember why you left.  Soon it is almost time to leave.  You have seen everyone you want to and plenty you don’t want to, you’re sick of shopping, sick of not working.  You want to smell that clean dirty smell of jet fuel.  You want to get through the other end with your people, animals, and baggage intact and open a new door with new keys.

Our circle didn’t take us back to the airport like it had in Mumbai but on a wild tangent through a country suffering from a plague and a presidential election.  I always think I know how big Texas is; I have driven through it many times in many directions but it always surprises me.  The chaparral and rolling hills go north from Monterrey in Mexico and onward into the U.S. for hundred mile after hundred mile.  The ground I walk the spaniel on near Dallas is riven with deep cracks and the temperature pushes past 110 degrees.  This is no leisurely American road trip.  We don’t go into quaint diners.  The pools at our motels are closed and green and oily.  There are no roadside attractions.  Not for us.  We eat grim, gas-station feasts of Doritos and Gatorade.

For more than two days it doesn’t feel like we have really left Mexico.  The land doesn’t change until we cross into Arkansas but then, quite suddenly, it does.  The deserts give way to trees and farms and the forgotten smell of grass.  We stop in Little Rock and eat submarine sandwiches on motel beds.  It rains during the night and there is just a touch of Fall in the morning air.  We are a long way from Ohio, even farther from Guatemala, but Mexico is behind us, over, and part of the circle comes to a close.  I keep my eyes on the road.  I talk to my wife, hands on the wheel, and we tell each other tales of Mexico and already they have the sound of myth.