"Salt Flats" by Paul Luckhart
We headed west that summer, father and us three boys plus our life crammed into the Astro Van. Mother stayed back to
work and grow veggies in the garden, and she would occasionally hear from us but not really. We lived off Pop Tarts, lulling our enormous hunger in the presence of big and empty landscapes. We slept in carparks and campgrounds, often chased from our leaky canvas tent when the rains fell, when we woke to our possessions floating around us. Occasionally, father would splurge and get us a youth hostel or a motel. We’d watch American cartoons or late-night talk shows and go out to a restaurant where the waiter or whoever would say something about our licence plate or about our accents and ask about Ontario as if it were some fabled place and tell us we were a long way from home.
In Nebraska, we stopped to see the home town of Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift. I didn’t know who they were, but my eldest brother Daniel explained that they were the best actors to ever live; that they had started out their lives here in this small country city that smelt of a cattle barn. He said there had to be something in the water to spur such talent. Putting his hands together in the shape of a cup, he gathered the Missouri River and drank deeply from it when father wasn’t looking. Tim and I did the same, leaning from the edge and bringing the river to our mouths. We spent the next day sick in bed at a Cheyenne motel while father went out to buy beef broth at the Safeway.
By the time we crossed into Utah, my father’s left thigh was burnt from the sun pressing in on the driver’s side window. He draped a beach towel over his lap for some respite. The towel doubled as a serviette for the crumbs falling from the Pop Tarts. He loved serviettes. We would always see him taking more than he needed from restaurants, stuffing them into his cargo shorts and unravelling them later like a wad of cash in the movies, handing them out as we ate our dinner. “You never know when you might need one,” he’d say, or “Saving them for a rainy day.” He would even tear a single napkin in two, keeping the other half for later. They mostly collected in his pockets and luggage, forgotten and turned to pieces by the wash. Sometimes, when we stopped to eat, father would shake the crumbs free from the beach towel, drape it around his neck, and head off to shave his face under the fuzzy lights of a Burger King bathroom. He would come back out with pieces of brown or white restaurant serviettes stuck to the bleeding cuts.
The salt flats soon opened up around us, interrupted only by the black interstate moving ahead and behind us. It was a single blaring white light that hurt to look at. We pressed our faces to the passenger windows and squinted to try and see past the shimmery bit. We couldn’t. Our heads left greasy smudges against the glass from our unwashed heads. Dragging our fingers through the smear, we’d draw pictures for each other, sometimes smiley faces, other times penises, or spell out curse words then rub them out.
The van was very dirty. With every town we passed after Omaha we looked out for a car wash. We wanted a spectacle, so it had to be an automatic car wash. “I just don’t get it,” father said, after pulling out of a gas station in Rock Springs. “This is supposed to be the greatest country on earth. Where are all the car washes?”
On Antelope Island, outside of Salt Lake City, father had forgotten to pack enough water. We drank the melted ice from the cooler. It tasted slightly of thawed processed hot dogs — a tinny, synthetic flavour. We didn’t fuss about it and instead filled our bottles with what we could and set out to follow the buffalo herd while father stayed behind and rubbed ointment into his burn. Daniel said that some interstates crossing the Midwest were built on old buffalo migration routes. He said that we had pretty much been following them, unknowingly, since we left the Great Lakes. The island was a peninsula part of the year, but when the lake was high the buffalo were stranded, feeding and drinking on whatever they could.
“Much like us,” Daniel said, shaking the bottle of hotdog-water.
Tim squatted to inspect the traces of the herd, pressing his hand down to the devastated grasses, feeling for their heat. “Reckon about a day ahead of us,” he said in a coarse voice, imitating a weathered tracker from a Western. He plucked a strand of grass from the earth, stuck it between his teeth, and stared out at the dark mountains. Clouds moved quickly overhead.
Dressed in Daniel’s hand-me-down sweater, I pushed up the slack sleeves, put my hands to the grass, and felt the dry, baked field for the memories it might have had. Sometimes it would take years to debunk the feigned knowledge my brothers imparted on me, to rid myself of those clothes.
“I think they’re just over that hill,” Daniel said, imitating Tim’s drawl.
We started for the top. I stayed behind them as I so often did, shielding myself from whatever was ahead. On the slope, craters of earth had been kicked up by the weight and movement of the buffalo. As we ascended further, we could look out over the Salt Lake that surrounded us to the opposite shore and to the mountains beyond that. The sun was nearing the ridges and its warmth would soon be lost. The parched earth had no means to retain the heat pressed upon it. It was cold, hard, and brown. The distance and direction of our campsite was clear. We could see the Astro Van and the small squiggle of our father leaning over the picnic table, boiling hotdogs and macaroni over the propane stove. Although we were hungry, we could not turn back. We were determined to find those bovine beasts of myth and magic. Their traces had been abundant for days, their scarred trails in the earth and their odour; their herds always beyond our sights in the labyrinthine wilderness of America. Our attachment to the brawny outlines of superheroes and beasts found in early morning cartoons set us on our compulsion to find the things; to find an earthly resemblance to the strength of gods.
“Are buffalo endangered?” I asked.
“I think so,” Daniel said. “Probably.”
“Just think of everything as endangered,” Tim said, spitting the grass from his teeth. “Especially us. Life is more interesting that way.”
Our heights at this time corresponded to the succession of our births. With the desert sun setting behind us, we marched tallest to smallest over the edge of a grassless hill. We often tried to avoid this arrangement, in photographs most of all. We guessed it revealed a neatness or regimen in ourselves that we wished to dispel in favour of a more disordered, feral depiction. It’s too much like The Brady Bunch or the Von Trapp family, we would say, when they descend the stairs or bid adieu.
“It’s too authoritarian,” Daniel would say. I would nod.
It did not take long before we noticed our mistake, and quickly shuffled our positions.
“Phew,” we said with a collective sigh. Avoiding this was a kind of game we played. I walked between them now, feeling content in their company, certain that they would shield me in an increasingly dim world.
We crouched as we came to the peak, silent and hopeful, careful not to send a noise into the valley below. But as we crossed over the crest to look out on to the parched basin, we found no buffalo or life of any kind, just tumbleweeds and plumes of dust rising from the mud cracks as though the earth itself was looking for a better place to roam.
“Damn,” Tim said, slapping his knee. “Should have known. Reckon they’re yonder.” He was pointing ahead of us toward nothing in particular. A pitch of black had come over everything now. It rendered both land and lake a single darkness. All that could be distinguished were the upper peaks and ridges of the basalt mountains pressed against a final shade of blue.
— Paul Luckhart is a Toronto / tkaronto born writer and photographer. His work has been published in various places, both online and in print. He left Canada in 2015 and has lived in Australia ever since. He currently lives with friends and chickens in Hobart / nipaluna, Tasmania / lutruwita.