Photos by Robert Reichert - Click for gallery



Fall 03


Old Dog




When you live obsessed with roads, the way in is always elusive. A troupe moves, circuitous, without destination. Motion key to place. The most frightening part of freeway travel is entering the stream of cars. The movement overwhelming, distance impossible to gauge. Kneeling in the rest stop, the map uncreased, unwieldy. Knowing that moments from now, the sluggish car will force its way back in between the faster vehicles and make its pace. And pace is gain, and earning.

Before he went out the door I remember not much. Just fuzz or static, something like the noise between stations, or Montana when we drove for days and found nothing on the radio, maybe the faint, impossible noise drifting up from Arizona. Diné, my mother said, tensed and ready. She kept Piki bread from Hopi ovens in the freezer, thinner than paper and explosive at the touch. The Navajo sent language up from reservations where we’d passed in flannel shirts. I saw a dead dog at the roadside, ignored by a cluster of Indian kids, flies and maggots in its eyes. Everyone in my family goes blind, eventually; grandparents filmy gaze on holidays, cataracts to counteract what they don’t want to look back on. The Indian kids stared back.

I think we were marked by something greater than where we came from. Maybe it was farther back than my parents could remember. They unfolded things to show us where we’d traveled, the van a mosaic of places left behind – barreling, sometimes, but more often wrecked and smoking on a roadside where we’d hitch our way to strip-mall towns in semis, inevitably driven by a man who’d fondle my sisters’ knees.

We were always breaking down. The intersection ought to have been called a landing place, but was less than that – a marker somewhere in West Oakland where the Irish great-grandparents tangled up in what was then a ghetto and is now a ghetto, ghetto on ghetto, a marker somewhere in Whiskeytown where the Dutch great-grandfather thrust a shotgun in his mouth, the ranch now underwater, a marker in Aptos where the great-grandfather milked a cow and let it kick an eye out, never even ducked.

We had been tough, and cities made us not as tough, though the women in the album are as broad as redwoods and might have been able to wrestle down genetics had the need for five square meals daily not defeated them. Their arms round like histories. And we all had things to differentiate us; I never attempted to stop growing until I outstood my parents, even knotted up on father’s lap in photos my legs outstretched the frame. We were wrecked and we were stopping, inappropriately; everything around us matched the wreckage in the engine. Only subtle markers showed us where we’d been.


Kaya Oakes is a native of Oakland, California. Her poems have appeared in Volt, Spinning Jenny, Conduit, 6ix, Rooms, and numerous other journals. They can also be found online at She teaches writing at UC Berkeley and is the literature and creative writing editor for Kitchen Sink magazine, Her manuscript, "A Series of Near Escapes," is currently homeless, but she is not.