We departed Post Ciudad Juárez this past Thursday and crossed the U.S.-Mexico border for the last time into El Paso, Texas, officially ending my third Foreign Service tour.
We’d spent almost five hours that last morning straightening up our house and loading both our cars. The items we were bringing we’d decided to hold back from our shipments packed out earlier in the week – either because we needed to keep a closer eye on them, or because we needed them sooner than they’d arrive in our 450 pounds of UAB (unaccompanied air baggage) or our several thousand pounds of household effects (HHE). We were expecting our UAB in Virginia within a couple of weeks, but our HHE would require a diplomatic customs exportation clearance from Mexican officials, which evidently could take at least two months due to COVID-19.
So we had a couple of suitcases of clothes each, medications and supplements, jewelry, toiletries, car repair items and tools, camp chairs and sleeping bags, our laptops, my vintage purse collection wrapped in their dust bags and placed gingerly in clothes hampers (including a few trunks and pieces of fragile luggage), several totes of open groceries and liquid/aerosol/flammable cleaning supplies that couldn’t be packed out and shipped, kitchen appliances we use daily, an assortment of utensils and bedding for moving into our house before UAB comes, a tote or two of things for our cat, and the like.
Before hitting the road almost 450 miles to our first planned overnight in Abilene, we took a moment to harness up the cat, do yet another thorough sweep upstairs and downstairs for anything left behind, and say goodbye to the house we’d lived in for the past 18 months. V put the panicked cat in a carrier and tried to soothe him that we weren’t going to the vet, where he had just been fixed and microchipped two weeks earlier – his only experience with a car ride, the carrier, or any people besides us.
As V focused on getting him loaded safely into the 4Runner, I left our house keys, garage remotes, alarm fobs, and neighborhood passes on the kitchen counter, said a quiet thank you, took one last look around, and hesitated for a moment pulling the door closed as I backed out. I didn’t feel nostalgic, exactly. There was nothing tangible of ours remaining inside, everything unwound by thousands of small actions finally reduced down to the current situation. It was more bittersweet, for everything we had tried to build that had come to nothing, spending so much effort and love and money to make this inhospitable, poorly constructed house with crumbling floors, that never felt clean feel like home, where I had experienced personal triumph and yet so much misery.
And now with no keys, once I pulled the door shut there would be no going back. The latch clunked, and we were on the outside. There was a finality to it that reminded me of when I pulled the front door closed to our house in Canberra, except then it felt like getting kicked in the chest as our airport taxi was pulling up and here I vaguely thought what a pain it would be to get back in if we had forgotten something inside. I heard V cajoling the cat and felt a passing sadness, almost, for the house, rejected, like this tour, that wanted to be more but couldn’t through no fault of its own.
A long drive awaited. “Ah,” our principal officer (originally from Virginia) had smiled the prior evening when I mentioned we would start our drive to Virginia the following day. “You’ll do the 10 to 20 to 30 to 40 to 81 to 66,” he rattled off. I thought for a moment, nodding. “I suppose so. Not the long circuit through eight states we did last time. Straight to Arkansas!”
Crossing the border was easy with hardly any traffic to speak of. I don’t think we even hit more than a red light or two in Juárez on the way. I munched intently through my first snack during the short 15-minute trip to the bridge, breakfast having been many hours before. I drove avoiding a fender-bender like never before. The effortlessness with which we were now proceeding after days on end of complete exhaustion and disorder unnerved me slightly; knowing it was the last time I would see all this for a long time, if ever, added to the surrealness. Reaching in the center console instinctively for my work phone and then remembering I’d turned it in was a tic that would keep repeating in the following days. You only have your own phone now, and you’re using it as a GPS, I reminded myself.
The consulate had made a notification to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) a few days beforehand as a courtesy, due to the atypical amount of items in an officer’s vehicle when PCSing. I’d printed out a copy of the acknowledgment and showed it to the officer when I rolled up. I flagged that my spouse was behind me with a live animal, and we rolled through with no issues.
I pulled over to wait for V and send a WhatsApp to my former American Citizens Services team that I had made it out of Post. In my rearview mirror I saw the red 4Runner proceed away from the booth and weave its way through the concrete barriers towards me. V pulled alongside me and we did a little cheer through our windows, then ascended the 375 border highway onramp. Within a couple miles, we had made our way to the I-10 split. I-10 W veered off towards El Paso, a desert city almost falling off west Texas’s outer edge into New Mexico; I-10 E would lead us in the opposite direction across the Chihuahuan Desert, into central Texas, and beyond to Arkansas, Tennessee, and eventually, home to Virginia.
How many times had I burned the asphalt up that split and turned west as we lived our lives in the borderland? As I worked, regained my health after a massive weight loss and spinal fusion, went shopping, waited for the end of a pandemic that never came, attended doctors’ appointments, searched for solace? I gave a not-mocking salute west in the direction of El Paso as I led us east. Thank you, El Paso, for being my nepenthe and my refuge. I wish it could have been more, and better. As we reversed course away from this assignment, I cranked the volume and let classic rock tunes from the 60s and 70s blast, the same Sirius XM Classic Vinyl channel that often kept me company evenings alone in the office. I thought I might cry, or feel the lightness and relief associated with the last day of school, but really, I just drove. My brain automated my eyes’ rotation between the road, the horizon, my mirrors, the radio, the speedometer, and the rest of the dashboard gauges. Rinse, repeat.
Thursday in the late afternoon I-10 branched off into I-20, and we rocketed through the arresting starkness of the desert as we passed a vaguely familiar lineup of Texas towns: Pecos. Odessa. Midland. Big Spring. Colorado City. Sweetwater. And finally, after dark, Abilene. We checked into our hotel and were amazed our cat had never had an accident in his carrier; he’d refused a potty break and food at the midpoint of the drive.
It took an hour or more to unload the cars. We slept well after taking a little time to map out how far we would go the next day and where we could stay with a cat. We rose early Friday morning to reload everything and were annoyed and surprised when we got underway an hour later than expected, despite being pedal to the metal the whole time.
The second day the terrain turned greener as we crossed eastern Texas, passing Fort Worth, Dallas, and Texarkana. The weather was dry and the traffic was light, allowing us to put up around 510 miles and join I-30 E before rolling into Little Rock, Arkansas for the evening.
I felt fortunate that before leaving Juárez, we had cooked the last few pounds of chicken, pork, and ground beef from our freezer. We held them out with a small cooler and dry ice, giving me something Autoimmune Protocol-friendly to eat on the road as V was free to find what he liked along the way. I also had a paper bag filled with cassava root chips, veggie/meat bars, dried apricot and coconut, fresh fruit, and plantain chips to tide me over on the road and at our hotels in the evening and avoid hunts for organic grocery stores. Traveling and not being able to have eggs, dairy, gluten, any grains, nuts, nightshade vegetables like tomatoes or peppers, any beans or rice, soy, legumes, seeds, anything cooked in sunflower or other processed oils, or any chemical additives or sweeteners is a massive pain in the ass! But two and a half months of work is too much to risk screwing up.
It was my first-ever time in Arkansas – at least as far as I remember, as an adult – and it was unfortunate we didn’t get to really see anything much of the surrounds. It was another night of arriving to our hotel an hour or so after dark, spending almost two hours getting the cat settled and unloading four carts of things from the cars and arranging them in the room so we wouldn’t trip over them, eating briefly, unwinding, making our reservation online at the next destination, and then falling asleep so we could get up early and do it all over again.
The most memorable things that happened in Arkansas were our cat meowing in the closed bathroom from 3am to 6am for the second night in a row and the odometer on my 12-year old Volkswagen finally hitting 70,000 miles. In retrospect, also, although we didn’t yet know it, it was also the end of our good-weather luck.
Next stop: Knoxville, Tennessee.