I've seen this before, of course, driving the San Diego Freeway late at night: the Wilmington oil refineries belching smoke, strung in white lights, magical, eerie. It looks like Oz. It reminds me I am still a long way from home.
I press my foot to the gas pedal. There is no traffic now. The radio thumps.
Then I think of those who will come behind me, riding this stretch for the first time. I just met them at LAX. They are refugees, with all their belongings in a plastic sack.
These possessions don't weigh very much. They are the trappings of officialdom mostly, an X-ray showing that their holders are free of TB, a card showing how their English rates, a letter and photographs, smatterings of this and that.
Some refugees had baggage to claim: cardboard boxes tied with twine.
All of these people, born in Vietnam, were wide-eyed, nervous, very, very tired. They wore thongs on their feet. They could have been touching down on Mars.
What will they think of these lights at Wilmington, the smoke, the smooth black freeways that whisk them by? Is this magic or is it a Dantesque vision of hell?
I doubt that they will forget it either way. Today marks a milestone reached. It really is the first day of the rest of their lives. The refugees are too innocent of this country to know of its cliches.
Others around me are also starting anew, not as dramatically, but with moments etched in their memories, or perhaps just in mine. These are milestones of the more prosaic kind.
My husband just turned 40 years old. He worried and he fretted and he made all sorts of jokes of which he was the butt. He said he never figured that he would be so old.
Two friends gave him electric nose hair trimmers as gifts. There was a mood ring, too, and several loud ties. Finally my husband just relaxed and went with it, as best as he knows how. We have the photographs on file.
Our daughter enters kindergarten in the fall. She can't wait to take this milestone head on. I imagine her running into the classroom yelling, "Charge!" She doesn't stop for long.
Her younger sister is making a mark, too. She is taking her first steps, giggling and laughing amid the falls. She does chin ups on chairs; she bumps along.
I am watching all this, taking it in and twirling it around in my mind. The milestones belong to others. And that is fine.
My life's on cruise control, for now. It feels good to be along for the ride. Sooner or later, I know a surprise will shake things up. It always does.
Back at LAX, Xay Praseuth Kheuang, from the International Organization for Migration, was waiting for the latest group of refugees with a roster in his hand. There were 42 people on his list that night.
Xay, originally from Laos, has been greeting new arrivals in Los Angeles for more than 10 years. By now it's routine. He knows the routes, the flight numbers, the stopovers for this group and that.
Cung Nguyen, who emigrated from Vietnam four years back, asked Xay did he remember him by any chance. Cung works for United States Catholic Charities now.
Impossible, Xay said. Far too many people for remembering a single one.
Yet Cung says he will never forget Xay Praseuth Kheuang, not for as long as he lives. His was the first face that greeted him in this new land. It meant a lot.
It reminds me that milestones can be wrapped in any guise. It may be someone's face, a look, something that triggers an emotion, or jump-starts a decision waiting in the wings.
A friend came to visit the other day. He was out here on business, a business that he didn't know anything about not long ago. This business has changed my friend's life, for the good. Now he's out of journalism and into natural gas fuel. His card has the word director after his name.
And he's moved to Texas, because he loves it there. He says it's warm on all sorts of levels, and my friend hates the cold. He has, as they say, taken charge. Just listening to him, I lost track of all the milestones that he'd racked up.
In the process, I think he has found himself.
Maybe it's that time of year. It seems that summer is prime time for major change. People marry, they graduate, they move to a new town where the kids will start fresh at a new school.
And summer's the time to record big-time events on film. That way we can look back and remember the times that we often forget to just live.
About the only thing I remember from my high school graduation was that my father had climbed up on the school's roof, movie camera in hand. He was the only one up there, and let's just say that he stood out. My fellow graduates were gleefully pointing fingers in the air.
But the film did not come out--predictably back then--so my parents have no keepsake of that momentous day.
Except that I can still see my father standing on that roof.
There are milestones of all kinds. The best are those that can make you smile.