By the time I reach Gila Bend, the radio waves from Phoenix have almost completely faded into fuzzy static. I feel giddy anticipation as the speed limit drops abruptly from 75 to 35 miles per hour. I’m one hour from Phoenix, four from San Diego.
Cruising through the main thoroughfare of Arizona State Route 85, I pass a handful of gas stations and grungy motels evoking visions of chainsaw massacres. I slow past the nicest place on the three mile strip—the Best Western Space Age Lodge—to get a better look at the 1960s-era flying saucer perched precariously above its coffee shop. The town is home to less than 1,800 people and an inexplicable shrimp farm.
Whether or not I’m short on gas, I always pull into the Love’s truck stop on the outskirts of town, just before the junction with Interstate 8. I get out of my car, stretch and walk into the convenience store to look for a cashier—a plus-sized Native American woman with a jet-black ponytail and permanent scowl whose name I’ve never learned.
I don’t remember the first time I saw her or even when I began noticing that she always seemed to be working whenever I stopped there. But over the years it had become my little ritual on my many trips between San Diego and Phoenix to make a silent bet with myself that I’d see her, no matter what time of day I passed through.
Her gloomy expression was always oddly comforting in its steadfastness. It was like a sign post, telling me I only had 300 miles to go before I hit ocean.
Halfway through fifth grade my parents informed my younger brother and me that we’d be trading endless summers of sandy bathing suits and salty sea air for saguaros and triple-digit heat. A few months later we moved from San Diego to Scottsdale, Arizona.
On the first day in my new school, someone asked me whether I had a boyfriend. I was a 10-year-old tomboy who up until then had never known boys as anything more than friends. I knew immediately that my parents had made a huge mistake moving me to this image-obsessed wasteland. I vowed to hate it forever in that particularly charming vain of prepubescent girls.
I desperately missed our old front yard community, where the neighborhood kids would play together, their bare feet cushioned by the green lawns that blended one house with the next. The front yards in Scottsdale were filled with rocks and everyone stayed inside in the air conditioning. I anxiously awaited summer vacations when the desert heat became unbearable and my family would pile into our gold minivan to make the trek back to San Diego. When we made the turn onto Route 85 toward Gila Bend, I swore I could see the Pacific Ocean on the horizon.
As the years passed, my loathing of Phoenix began to wane. I managed to make friends and joined the tennis team. I survived AP calculus but never quite mastered physics. I got caught up in my lack of blonde hair and skinny thighs. And I started to want a boyfriend.
When I graduated high school, I moved back to the coast and enrolled at the University of San Diego. The campus was filled with lithe beautiful blondes and expensive cars. I loved being back by the beach but the magical place I remembered from my childhood no longer existed. I was losing my grip on the loyalty I felt for a place I had left before losing all my baby teeth.
By then I was driving myself back and forth between San Diego and Phoenix to visit my family. When I approached Gila Bend from the West, I no longer dreaded what lay beyond it. I missed my parents and a bedroom I didn’t have to share with other girls. I missed the scent of orange blossoms that hung heavy in the air each spring or the dirty smell of wet asphalt that all desert dwellers associate with summer monsoons.
Now I’m back to being a full-time Phoenician—though I still consider myself a California girl at heart. It is a constant tug-of-war between the two—and my car has the miles to prove it. Gila Bend is the comfortable purgatory between the posts. One way out of town, the cool sea breeze beckons. The other way, the parched sun warms me. Under the fluorescent lights of the Love’s truck stop, I feel most at home in the anticipation of which way I’ll turn.
The truck stop cashier probably saw hundreds of people like me every day—people not only in transit, but in transition, pausing before continuing on to their other selves. She hasn’t been behind the counter the last few times I’ve stopped in Gila Bend. But I continue to stop each time, trying to spot her through the brightly lit rows of Slim Jims and Slurpee machines.
I wonder if she knew how reassuring she was, or if she ever recognized me. I wonder what has become of my non-friend, the last face I’d always see before home.
Lauren Loftus is a graduate student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.