My teenage kid is driving, and six feet tall. His feet are bigger than mine. On the way to school we come down a frozen dirt road, him behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat when a rear tire blows. It flops like a seal and he pulls over.
The road is a lonely straightaway that leads down from the high country and across mesa tops dotted with a few old ranch houses. Cows watch us from half-snowy fields. No cars come by as the tall young man leans on the wrench undoing lug nuts and I position the jack. It’s cold out, ground hard. He’s in a puffy jacket crouched at the back end of the car. I keep fixing him in the frame of my memory, watching him with the old tire in his arms, pulling it off its posts. I don’t know if this is his ritual or mine.
Fifteen minutes later, back on the road, he’s late for school because of the flat, telling me he’d be marked tardy even if I called it in. But if he showed up for second hour, he wouldn’t be marked, attendance record clean for the day. I tell him that doesn’t make sense. He agrees and says school is mostly about navigating random bureaucratic rules, learning time management and systems processing. I sigh audibly. He knows I’m not fond of school.
Working the bureaucracy is like changing a tire. Get it done with. I don’t say this out loud; father talks are the worst. I do say that I appreciate him finding a loophole. With the extra time before second hour, I have him turn onto another road, a rutted chassis-bouncer, which takes us into adobe hills and badlands at the foot of the mountains.
Lenses of half-melted and refrozen snow lay across the hills. Walking out ahead of each other, we pass through abandoned badger mounds and clay-sided gullies. We find old coyote dens with no tracks, entrances webbed, dirt clods hanging like pendulums. In this high desert, you can spot deer a mile off. A few lift their heads, muleys with big ears taking us in.
Burrowed into the dirt is an animal hole with a halo of frost, the moisture of a little mammal breathing, crystal dust on the ground. We stand around it, looking into this small hole and its nimbus, easy to imagine a wheat-furred ground squirrel curled into a ball, the faint beat of its heart. This is why we came out here. I knew there’d be something breathing underground.
I don’t know how good a parent I am. Maybe I should scoot my kid to the library, having him pour through his first hour text book. My aversion to the machine might not be helping a growing life, urging him to find ways around the seemingly inevitable. For me, an amble in the desert is better than an hour at school. For me. Where do you draw the line?
I prefer flat tires on dirt roads and strolls toward nothing in particular where you find exactly what you were looking for. I poke around for minor rites of passage all day, succinct encounters, a raven clipping the sun, hoar frost on a stem of dry grass. School will teach him to pass notes and ace tests. Not being in school will teach him to follow the flow of his body, finding one intricate wonder after the next. That is something, too, you’d want in life.
Photo by the author.