The houseboat company that my step-father worked for in the Ozarks had another location in Arizona. And they were booming. He kept getting sent out there, and soon enough, we were told we were moving again. Lake Havasu City was to be our new home. Located in the Mohave Desert along the Colorado River, it was a mecca in the sand. And a booming Spring Break spot. Hence the busy houseboat rental business.
Once again, the black pickup truck was loaded up with our worldly possessions but this time we were driving west and south. Through Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and then Arizona.
The desert was interesting and new. We had never been on a family vacation so we weren’t use to traveling – only moving…! We pulled into a small motel that was painted blue and white and had balconies for hallways. I had never seen anything like it. It was Spring Break and gloriously hot! So we hit the beach every day, spending hours hanging out, playing in the sand and eating at the chip stands. It was very ‘fish-out-of-water’ for us and the people watching was incredible. The lake was full of boats and the beaches were packed.
This move felt different. Our step-father had a good, steady job and his income must have been pretty high compared to what we were use to. Our lives felt less financially strained. We were eating out more which was a noticeable difference. And we even had a microwave!
Kate’s high school started back sooner after the break than our school did. And as per usual, Mom always made a big deal over our ‘first days’ at a new school, not that any of us really cared at this point. Kate was going into grade 11 in high school and she literally had a foot out the door already. She was so ready to graduate and be gone.
There weren’t any school buses in town, so we all piled into the truck to go pick her up after her first day. Kate came out of the main doors and headed over to us. Students were everywhere and I had never seen so many denim mini-skirts! This was going to be so cool, I thought. I was liking the warm weather!
In a tone that felt a little ‘I-told-you-so’ with a dash of ‘I-can’t-believe-this-is-my-life-right-now’, Kate told Mom that they needed more paperwork for her enrolment. She had been called to the front office at the end of the day and they wanted Mom to come and speak to them.
Silence settled over all of us as our eyes looked towards Mom to see what her next move was. She looked past us for a moment and then looked away. “Get in the truck”, she said. And we all left the parking lot. Quickly.
And that folks, was Kate’s shortest ‘new school’ experience ever. One day!
You see, Arizona is a border state, so they are well versed on Immigration and legal documents. I guess this wasn’t something Mom had expected, or just wanted to deny until it was fully in her view.
Either way, we were screwed.
Within a week, after a few ideas were mulled over and attempts for quick fixes were exhausted, Kate and I were saying goodbye at a Greyhound bus station in town. To maximize our belongings now being shipped back to Missouri with us, we were given a trunk. It was also a lot easier to ship on the bus. We were being sent back to live with friends of our Stepfather’s. They had three young kids so we could be helpful to them while they let us stay there to finish off our grade 7 and grade 11 - at the same school we just left… having told them we were moving west…. Hmmmmm.
Mom would ‘home school’ my younger sister for the last remaining months of the school year. In the meantime, they would work on making us legal, which meant we should be able to go to school in Arizona. And we could all be together again.
I had just turned thirteen and Kate was sixteen; together we were about to embark on a ninety-six hour bus ride from Lake Havasu City, Arizona to Springfield, Missouri. Thats almost 1500 miles, which is almost 2500 kilometres. The bus had started to make its way west in L.A and its last stop was New York City. Some people were on for the entire route. A few friendly people took us under their wing but we still had our guards up - just in case. Mom had given us some money for food, which we stretched as much as we could. We ate from bus stops, drank pop from vending machines and bided our time as we looked out the window as each state passed us by. We went from sand and cacti, to grasslands and farmland, with a bit of city here and there. The longer the trip lasted, the colder it became again. We didn’t change our clothes for days but tried to brush our teeth very quickly every morning at the first pit stop. My biggest fear was having the bus pull away without me, so I always anxiously and hurriedly brushed my teeth, trying to rush out the door as fast as possible.
In New Mexico there was a pick-up late in the evening one night. Two guys in their twenties stumbled onto the bus. The only two seats available happened to be in front of us, way at the back. One of them eyed us in a way that made the hair stand up on my arms. The guy in front of me put his hat over his face and settled in to try and sleep. The guy on the right was getting ready to make his move on us. Specifically, me.
He tried to strike up a conversation and Kate answered his questions minimally to keep the peace, but she was not happy with this at all. Kate told him my name was 'Lisa', and right away, we could hear him musing “Liiiisssaaaaa……. Liiiiiiiiiiiisssssssssaaaaaaa”, as he placed his face between the seats to get as close to us as possible.
Everyone was sleeping soundly and the bus driver was far up at the front.
“Please stop”, Kate asked. His tone had become aggressive and I was starting to feel very uncomfortable. The next time he moved his head away from us, Kate placed her foot just below the open space between the seats, but not high enough so he could see it. When he leaned back towards us, bellowing my fake name, WHACK. Before he could understand what was happening, Kate kicked him in the head, and his head flung to the other side of the head rest and bounced off a little.
We looked at each other, holding our breath as I silently looked down the dark aisle towards the driver and counted the number of seconds it would take for me to make a run for it.
But Buddy had clearly got the message now. Don’t fuck with us. He left us alone for the rest of his time on the bus. Once again, Kate was my superhero sister, my constant protector, no matter what. How was this our life? Where were the adults?
"I'm only thirteen", I wanted to scream.
Forty-eight hours or so later, exhausted, dirty and hungry, we were dumped into a snow-covered bus station in Springfield. Still in shorts and a T-shirt, we slept in the cold bus terminal until the morning, huddled together, trying to sleep as we imagined what our next few months were going to look like. We knew all about the un-known but this felt different. I snuggled in even closer to Kate, draping my body over hers as much as possible. “We can do this”, I thought. “As long as we’re together, we can get through anything.”