Smoke filled the air as we drove south across the Oregon border. California wildfires had been burning for months now. The land smelled like campfire circles abandoned for the winter, then stirred back to life at spring’s first barbeque.
We were restless. My brother and I had set out from Seattle in our Budget rental truck two days earlier, towing my blue hatchback behind us. We hoped to arrive in Oakland that night, but it was already late morning and we had hundreds of miles ahead of us.
The drive was a monotony of asphalt broken up by blue rest stop signs. We pulled up every hour or so to stretch our legs, see if the cat needed to pee and switch places before setting off again. I was driving at the recommended 55 mph when Jeff broke the silence.
“All trucks, it says.” He pointed at a road sign. “We need to pull over.”
I turned the steering wheel, drove onto the ramp for the agricultural checkpoint and pulled into line. Signs proclaimed the ban on all fruit and plants foreign to the state. A long-haired woman in a park ranger hat walked up to our window. Shit, what about my houseplants? I smiled a social baring of teeth as I rolled down the window.
“Hi. How are you doing?” the attendant asked. “Do you have any food in the car?”
“Just these,” I said, holding up my half eaten bag of Sour Patch Kids.
“Those are fine,” the woman laughed. “What do you have in the truck?”
“I’m moving to Oakland. It’s all furniture and stuff.” I hesitated. “There are some houseplants in the car we’re towing.”
She walked back to the Yaris and, cupping her hands over her eyes, peered in the windows. I watched her in my mirror. My mind flew back to the clivia which my mother had given me when I moved back to Washington after college.
I had carried that plant to three different apartments over the past four years, watering it and carefully picking off dried leaves. In all that time the clivia had never bloomed—at least not until I had taken it back to my mom’s house earlier in the summer. Mom had agreed to plant-sit while I travelled around the country and looked for a job and an apartment. When I flew home to load the truck, there it was, orange trumpets proudly raised. I remembered the yellow dusting of pollen left behind on my hands and shirt when I loaded the plant into the car two days earlier.
I squeezed my eyes shut. Please let it be okay. I couldn’t think of a single threat my houseplants could make to the thriving agricultural industry of the central valley. It has to be alright. But I’ve never been one to bet on the reasonableness of bureaucracy either.
I looked over at Jeff gazing serenely out of the passenger window. The reflection of his glasses in the passenger-side window stared back at me. In a few days he would fly back to Seattle and the only living connection to my family would be that plant. The others I could happily leave behind to wither and die. But I wanted that clivia.
I glanced back in the mirror and saw the woman circling back around my car. I clenched the steering wheel, bracing myself for bad news. The attendant walked up alongside the truck. I inhaled and held my breath. What would she say? What would I say if she took my clivia? It probably wouldn’t be pretty. The attendant tapped on the window and waved me past.
“You’re good to go. Have a safe trip.”
I exhaled, put the truck in gear and drove off into the haze. I fixed my eyes on the road ahead. In my mind I could see the checkpoint growing smaller and smaller behind me as the truck rolled towards this new chapter of my life.