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Driving to Shangri-La


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...