The next morning we broke camp early, had a quick breakfast, and pulled onto the highway before eight. Daddy glanced up at the overcast sky but said nothing. He drove north until we came to the Oregon-Washington border and then headed northeast through Washington toward Idaho.
Around two in the afternoon, the wind began to blow, gently at first but then hard enough to send sand and debris swirling across the black two-lane pavement. With each mile, the sky grew darker until finally Daddy had to turn on the headlights. By now the wind was blowing so hard that our homemade camping trailer bounced and lurched, causing the back part of the car to sway from side to side.
Sheets of lightning lit up the sky, followed by volleys of rolling thunder that shook the car even more. Each time the lightning flashed, we could see panicked jackrabbits darting back and forth across the highway in front of us. Thump. Thump, thump. I couldn’t keep from counting: one, two, three, four…. I pulled my jacket over my head and covered my ears with both hands, trying to shut out the sound of the rabbits being squashed under our tires. But I could still feel it. Thump. Thump. Eight, nine, ten….
Our headlights blinked off and then back on. Then off again and back on. Rusty was so scared that he crawled down on the floor by our feet and lay there, shaking and whimpering. Eleanor and I huddled under our jackets.
“Damn,” Daddy said. “This is gonna be one helluva storm”
Then it began to rain, just a few fat drops at first, but within minutes the rain came slashing down in sheets, blown nearly horizontal by the wind. The windshield wipers clicked furiously back and forth on their highest speed, but still Daddy could barely see the road. He hunched forward in his seat and slowed to a crawl, gripping the steering wheel tightly with both hands.
“I think we’d better stop in Spokane,” he said to Mommy.
She didn’t say a thing. The dashboard lights revealed the tension in her face: eyes wide and mouth pulled taut over her clenched teeth.
By the time we reached the outskirts of Spokane, visibility was near zero. At the first gas station, Daddy pulled in to fill the tank and ask where we might find something to eat and a room for the night.
“You jes’ made it, fella,” the attendant said as he came out of the office, his yellow rain slicker whipping about his legs. “I’m shuttin’ down and headin’ home. This storm ain’t fit for nobody to be out in.”
“How ’bout food? Anything still open? And we need a room too.”
The attendant held onto his hood with one hand and pointed with the other. “If you go on down thataway to the light and hang a left fer a couple a blocks, Betsy’s Café should be open. An’ if yer lookin’ to spend the night, The Horseshoe auto court a mile or so after that might still have somethin’.”
“Thanks,” Daddy said as he paid for the gas. “You’re a good man.”
Betsy’s was indeed still open, but we were its only customers. Betsy herself brought the menus. “I’m outa meatloaf and turkey,” she said, “but I can make you a hamburger.”
“How ’bout bacon and eggs?” Daddy asked.
“Yeah, I can do that, I reckon.”
After we ate, Daddy found The Horseshoe, pulled up alongside the office, and went in to ask about a double-double. The pink neon “Vacancy” sign in the window blinked off and on, its image reflecting back from our wet windshield and from the many puddles that pocked the crumbling pavement. Below the pink one, a smaller, hand-painted sign said, “No Pets Allowed.”
Daddy came out a moment later with a key and pulled the car down to the far end of the auto court. As soon as he unlocked the door to the room, Mommy scooped Rusty up from the floorboards, wrapped her coat around him, and whisked him inside. Daddy didn’t object.
Our room was drab and grubby. The grime of a thousand hands ringed each doorknob and light switch. Yellowed Venetian blinds at the window hung slightly whopper-jawed, covered in thick dust. Nothing happened when Daddy tried the switch of the cactus-shaped wooden lamp on the nightstand between the beds. Jaunty cowboys on wild-looking broncos bucked their way across stained, faded, threadbare bedspreads. Wrinkling her nose, Mommy used her thumb and forefinger to lift them off and drop them in a heap on the floor in the corner.
“It’s only one night,” Daddy said.
“While I feed Rusty, you girls hop in the shower as quickly as you can,” Mommy said, “because I need one, too.” We hurried and she hurried, but by the time Daddy’s turn came, the water was ice cold.
As soon as everything was quiet in the room, Rusty hopped up between Eleanor and me and worked his way forward until his head rested on my pillow. I wrapped my arms around him and burrowed my face in his fur.
All night long, the rain pounded a steady beat on the asphalt shingles of the roof.