Driving to Shangri-La
by Ann Tashi Slater

During the seven years we lived in New Jersey, my parents packed us four children into our yellow microbus every summer and set off for California, in the same way my Tibetan grandparents used to go on pilgrimage to holy Bodh Gaya in India. I loved our cross-country trips because it seemed we were a normal, happy family, all worries and troubles left behind. And it was a great adventure: unlike most people we knew, my parents didn’t leave at the crack of dawn, but roared onto the highway in the middle of the night. My father usually drove, elbow out the window and shirt flapping in the wind. When people in microbuses approached, they honked, and if my father was in the mood, he honked back. I liked to ride shotgun, only the two of us awake, hurtling past trucks and, when we hit the desert, the glowing eyes of nocturnal creatures. In my travel diary, I sketched the tunnel cutting through the Allegheny Mountains, the rolling hills of Kansas, the rise of the Rockies after Loveland, Colorado. We had griddle cakes at diners, frosty root beer and Papa Burgers at A&Ws, Curly Top cones and cherry sundaes at Dairy Queens. Traveling west at sunset, I watched bands of red and orange stretch across the horizon, the sun a fiery, lingering orb as we passed towering saguaro cactuses, shot-up Stop signs, one-pump gas stations. We slept in a Grand Canyon parking lot, moon-silvered bats gliding and dipping over the car. We stayed at motels with Day-Glo neon signs—Star Lite, Wigwam, El Rancho—and my sisters and brother and I played Marco Polo in the over-chlorinated pools, the skin on our fingers and toes puckering into raisiny wrinkles. We collected relics: gleaming tiger eye petrified wood at Yellowstone Park, sinew-and-feather dreamcatchers at a Navajo Nation shop, pale green sagebrush I pressed in my diary. I kept a sharp lookout for the jackalopes I saw on gift store postcards, not knowing there was no such animal. One morning at dawn, we came upon a bull moose in a misty grove. The huge creature gazed at us, motionless, its antlers fanning out like bony wings. We visited the Black Hills and the Badlands; floated in the Great Salt Lake and waded with my mother in the cold river at the Montana dude ranch where she waitressed one summer after coming to America from India. My father, an inveterate birdwatcher, pulled over to look for three-toed woodpeckers, pygmy owls, merlin falcons. We perched on fences next to meadows, hoping to spot the brilliant plumage of male red-winged blackbirds; expert at birdcalls, my father lured them with the female’s chit-chit-chit-cheeep song. At night, he pointed out the constellations: the Sea Goat, the Flying Horse, the star-scattered Milky Way spiraling into the unfathomable darkness. We continued west until we reached the great Pacific beating ceaselessly at California’s rocky coast. With redwood trees so big you could drive through a passageway cut in the trunk, sinuous brown hills that resembled the flanks of reclining beasts, fog swirling over the rugged beaches, California was a revelation. Like pilgrims who journey to remote Mount Kailash in western Tibet, we were traveling through wild, open landscapes that held the promise of a different way of seeing.

Those years in New Jersey, my parents often talked about moving to California because they’d fallen in love with it while doing their medical internships in San Francisco. They’d gotten married at City Hall, dashing down one sunny June morning and tying the knot with two strangers as witnesses. I hoped their California dreaming was only one of these days talk. I didn’t want to leave my friends and, worse, everybody knew California was the Earthquake State. Why would my parents take us to a place where we were going to be pulverized in the next Big One? I turned to invention, sketching a design for an umbrella with a fan inside: when the ground started shaking, you opened the umbrella to activate the fan and were whisked into the air.

California was my parents’ Shangri-La, and maybe this is what they were trying to return to. Sometimes I’ve thought they failed in finding their paradise: when we finally did move to California, they divorced. But like all true pilgrimages, the trip wasn’t only about arrival. It was about the dreaming itself.

Driving to Shangri-La
by Ann Tashi Slater

During the seven years we lived in New Jersey, my parents packed us four children into our yellow microbus every summer and set off for California, in the same way my Tibetan grandparents used to go on pilgrimage to holy Bodh Gaya in India. I loved our cross-country trips because it seemed we were a normal, happy family, all worries and troubles left behind. And it was a great adventure: unlike most people we knew, my parents didn’t leave at the crack of dawn, but roared onto the highway in the middle of the night. My father usually drove, elbow out the window and shirt flapping in the wind. When people in microbuses approached, they honked, and if my father was in the mood, he honked back. I liked to ride shotgun, only the two of us awake, hurtling past trucks and, when we hit the desert, the glowing eyes of nocturnal creatures. In my travel diary, I sketched the tunnel cutting through the Allegheny Mountains, the rolling hills of Kansas, the rise of the Rockies after Loveland, Colorado. We had griddle cakes at diners, frosty root beer and Papa Burgers at A&Ws, Curly Top cones and cherry sundaes at Dairy Queens. Traveling west at sunset, I watched bands of red and orange stretch across the horizon, the sun a fiery, lingering orb as we passed towering saguaro cactuses, shot-up Stop signs, one-pump gas stations. We slept in a Grand Canyon parking lot, moon-silvered bats gliding and dipping over the car. We stayed at motels with Day-Glo neon signs—Star Lite, Wigwam, El Rancho—and my sisters and brother and I played Marco Polo in the over-chlorinated pools, the skin on our fingers and toes puckering into raisiny wrinkles. We collected relics: gleaming tiger eye petrified wood at Yellowstone Park, sinew-and-feather dreamcatchers at a Navajo Nation shop, pale green sagebrush I pressed in my diary. I kept a sharp lookout for the jackalopes I saw on gift store postcards, not knowing there was no such animal. One morning at dawn, we came upon a bull moose in a misty grove. The huge creature gazed at us, motionless, its antlers fanning out like bony wings. We visited the Black Hills and the Badlands; floated in the Great Salt Lake and waded with my mother in the cold river at the Montana dude ranch where she waitressed one summer after coming to America from India. My father, an inveterate birdwatcher, pulled over to look for three-toed woodpeckers, pygmy owls, merlin falcons. We perched on fences next to meadows, hoping to spot the brilliant plumage of male red-winged blackbirds; expert at birdcalls, my father lured them with the female’s chit-chit-chit-cheeep song. At night, he pointed out the constellations: the Sea Goat, the Flying Horse, the star-scattered Milky Way spiraling into the unfathomable darkness. We continued west until we reached the great Pacific beating ceaselessly at California’s rocky coast. With redwood trees so big you could drive through a passageway cut in the trunk, sinuous brown hills that resembled the flanks of reclining beasts, fog swirling over the rugged beaches, California was a revelation. Like pilgrims who journey to remote Mount Kailash in western Tibet, we were traveling through wild, open landscapes that held the promise of a different way of seeing.

Those years in New Jersey, my parents often talked about moving to California because they’d fallen in love with it while doing their medical internships in San Francisco. They’d gotten married at City Hall, dashing down one sunny June morning and tying the knot with two strangers as witnesses. I hoped their California dreaming was only one of these days talk. I didn’t want to leave my friends and, worse, everybody knew California was the Earthquake State. Why would my parents take us to a place where we were going to be pulverized in the next Big One? I turned to invention, sketching a design for an umbrella with a fan inside: when the ground started shaking, you opened the umbrella to activate the fan and were whisked into the air.

California was my parents’ Shangri-La, and maybe this is what they were trying to return to. Sometimes I’ve thought they failed in finding their paradise: when we finally did move to California, they divorced. But like all true pilgrimages, the trip wasn’t only about arrival. It was about the dreaming itself.

Ann Tashi Slater’s work has been published by The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Granta en español, among many others, and is forthcoming in AGNI and Tin House. Her writing appears in Women in Clothes (Penguin) and American Dragons (HarperCollins), and she blogs for the HuffPost. Her translation of a novella by Reinaldo Arenas was published in Old Rosa (Grove). She’s working on a novel based on the Tibetan side of her family, and a memoir about a modern-day pilgrimage to India. A longtime resident of Tokyo, she teaches at a Japanese university. Visit her at www.anntashislater.com.