Day 1: I've made this 1000-mile trip many times since 1970, to see my mom. Back then I'd throw in a case a beer and other energizers, drive straight thru and make it in 16 hrs. Can't do beer these days 'cause I'd fall asleep before three bottles and Pueblo, Colo. Besides, this time I'm taking my dog Manchas who loves beer, and it's difficult sharing with a two-year old, 75-pound Australian Cattle Dog while you're driving.
We escaped 103 in Denver, and me and the dog are on an adventure. We're neo-hunter/gatherer loaded down with ice, nuts, juice, cheese, packets of meat and fruit, a canteen of water and dog food packets; we're Barry Lopez roughing it, all alone; we're Ed Abbey's Pilgrim and his canine heading cross country; we're free spirits on the open road. Aztlán awaits.
Some things have changed in the past three decades and some remain ditto. I try to keep my speed to 60-65 to save gas and 'cause my truck's a 4-cylinder. During the whole trip I will pass only three cars. All the SUVs passing us are doing 75+ as if to quickly get to their destinations and end their gas-guzzling ASAP. Or maybe they don't believe it will stay $3 a gallon (and go higher), like they also believe George Dubbya will make it all right; this doesn't portend well for the next election.
I see few true vacationers, out-of-state plates; thirty years ago the rest stops had station wagons letting out their kids to run around for a while. Today over half the vehicles are idling 18(+)-wheelers belching diesel, and there's almost no real families, kids.
Colorado chollo, nopal and prairie grasses pass by; I can't watch them for long 'cause you don't sightsee from a moving vehicle. You just swoop along, a blur in their vision, a stinky truck raising hot wind as it's about to burn $200 of nonrenewable fuel, leaving soot waste on the cactus needles. It's hot, definitely over 100.
In southern Colo., near Walsenburg, is a road sign: "Walsenburg Correctional Facility: Don't stop for hitchhikers." I wonder if the sign's because of frequent escapes or if it bodes ill for how "corrected" released inmates become. An old couple is getting out of a shiny LTD--are they escapees pretending to be out of gas? I hit the pedal.
At the next underpass there's a guy hitchhiking, and I wonder whether he knows about the sign or will ever get picked up. Was he just paroled or a real con-on-the-run? He looks like my writer-friend Ed Bryant, and I'm almost tempted to go around and check, but it can't be Ed, unless, he's doing research for some horror story about an escapee who does get picked up. I take it up to 65 and decide to ask him when I return, just in case.
By deciding to take the dog, I knew I risked him infusing the truck with his smells, but I figured the trip would be good for him, he'd learn stuff, he'd change into a better dog. Right before Raton, NM, the dog sounds like he's gotta take one, so I pull off at the Sugarite Canyon State Park exit. We don't expect to find much there, turns out they've got real restrooms, trim grass growing in front of the info station, forests on the mountain sides, tiny laughing hummingbirds and even a shower where I can take the dog for his first real bath ever.
There's a grandpa, father, son trio using the shower, and they probably won't appreciate me taking the stink off the dog. No, they haven't seen many other campers. I talk with Gramps about the outrageous price of gas, but he says it wasn't too bad last time he hit Denver. (This doesn't bode well for the next election.) He tells me about nearby trails, and Manchas and I head off for a real taste of hunter/gatherer, clean-clean air.
Instead of gathering, the dog leaves a dump for me to wipe, but at least we're alone, up a mountain, relishing the trees and wind. After hours in the truck, it's eerie. I remember my hunter skills and check for my knife: I left it under the seat where highway patrolmen can't see it. I've only got a penknife that's good for cleaning fingernails.
I get the dog to notice a threesome of hawks soaring, and we watch them circling, maybe eyeing both of us or maybe just the dog. I wonder what I'd do if they dove for him, besides stick them with a penknife. So much for the feeling of freedom.
Later, heading back to the station, we stop to dump our wastes in the trash bin. I can't figure out how to open it until I notice the sign: "Be Bear Aware" (so the critters don't get used to eating Man's trash). I don't think Bear's gonna eat dog shit or my empty bottle, but I get a hyper feeling like maybe Bear's watching and decide we've had enough wilderness for now. We pull out onto the road, head for the Texas Panhandle.
We soon hit a "Safety Corridor" where 45 mph is the limit and fines are doubled. There's supposed to be construction going on, but we never see any workers even though it's early afternoon. I wonder if this is some Deadman's Alley with a head-on-crash, high kill-rate or if it's just an income-producer for the local county. (It's so damn hot all the way to central Texas we never see any construction going on, no matter the signs.) I keep it to 52 mph.
I forgot to bring any CDs, so I resort to the Baby Boomers narcotic of oldies stations. Problem is, after leaving New Mexico, the choices become nil. Seems lots of stations have been replaced by "Christian Radio." These aren't like the old Jesus-talk show stations that lectured you on sin and salvation, although some of those still operate. CR stations play elevator music set to quasi-Biblical lyrics. Manchas will eventually get a severe dosage of these until I discover how to recognize them. (I worry when we get back he'll get in trouble for proselytizing to the neighborhood dogs and cats.) Besides the obvious religious lyrics, you can identify CR if you hear: "Call 1-800--" so they can sell you CDs of their unholy music. I don't write down any of the numbers.
Like everywhere, there's Abbey-hated fences out here, keeping people and stuff out or in. Most of America's got a fixation with fences, although Europe doesn't use them; they just put up signs and people respect them out of common decency. Not us. Besides out here in the Stix, we help the Israeli's build 'em to cut up the Holy Land, we put 'em up on the Mexican border to spite our labor needs, and set them up everywhere George Dubbya goes these days, he's so liked. We just can't seem to put up enough fences to let the universe know we've been here and "owned" a bit of it.
Like everywhere, this land the dog and I cross has a memory, like back when it was the primordial Great Inland Sea, but that's buried deep now, nor is the land as engorged with oil as before. The Panhandle never lost the flat starkness of being sea bottom. It remembers that, aches from missing the water; it aches HEAT. Americans once made it worse with the 30s Dust Bowl, supposedly thru bad farming; this time it'll be from bad planeting. The land remembers that too and maybe helps us return sooner with this heat. Which reminds me: it's hot, too hot even for crotch-scratching construction workers.
One problem traveling to San Antonio is that once you get into Texas, only a third of your trip is over, the place is so expansive. Without CDs it seems wider, especially if it's hot. I can't change the radio station fast enough to avoid: "As long as there's stars over Texas." Out here, right before Dalhart this is the only radio station. That's how far from civilization we are.
In Amarillo I finally pull into a 24-hour McDooDoo's with lots of lights, to get the truck bed ready for me and the stinking dog to sleep in later in some park where there'll be only stars. When I try to restart it, it won't. It's almost midnight, this town dies much earlier each day, and I no longer know anybody here. We're fokked.
The two aisles of McDooDoo's take-out are chock full of kids in hot cars--black kids, Chicano, mexicano; the Anglo kids must be at Sonic. A pimped up two-door Nissan speeds in, hits the brakes and spins like Fast & Furious, stopping perfectly in line behind the last car. Since the manager won't answer my pounding and screams to open the door to let me use the phone, I have to ask one of these kids to call me a tow truck, but which one? The Chicanos that could be gangbangers, the blacks who could have escaped from Walsenburg or the Mexicans who might be drug lords? What the hell, I go for the Fast & Furious kid.
After hearing my plea, the young slick driver says he'll bring back a friend who knows cars. I glance at the other three black kids wondering if they're gonna tow me into Amarillo's alleys and what could possibly happen to my dog.
But F&F returns soon only with an old white guy who fixes my bad battery connection and says, "Just pay me what you can afford." I give the dude forty and feel bad I don't make it fifty. "What about your chauffeur; how much for him?" I joke. "Nothing. He's my boss."
Turns out the kid owns a car pimping shop and is in fact his boss, not a drug lord or gangbanger. His last words to me are: "And here's my cell number in case you don't get too far tonight." I shake their hands and thank the land that this only cost me forty dollars. These Texans don't make me reasses my opinion of the place; they just make me wonder how decent people can remain here.
Day 2: On the opposite side of the road there's an old guy and a kid checking out some run-over animal; they're straight out of that Roadkill chapter from Barry Lopez's book. I don't stop to find out how right I am.
There's oil pumps working the fields here and there, desperately trying to squeeze more drops out of a desiccated land with little green produce growing out of it. North of Snyder, Tex. the pumps multiply, but then comes something from a sci-fi novel. Mesas, bluffs, a couple of hundred feet tall cover my horizon from distant left to distant right, some a few miles off. Past the pumps I see maybe 200 magnificent wind turbines up on the mesas; only 2 aren't turning. Tall enough to be majestic, slim, austere, simple, just turning in the wind changing air into energy, while below them the oil pumps work like exhausted old whores. The modern windmills are so out of place they seem like aliens.
Manchas and I can't stand it; we gotta get a picture of this contrast of history-turned-backward-and-right. I pull onto a dirt road leading to the mesas. Right before some train tracks is of course a sign warning trespassers they can't cross BNSF&R land. The dog and I ignore it and plod over huge anthills of huge red ants to get our photo. Another twenty feet and we of course get to one of those American fences, which we're going to ignore; the aliens await. But there's another sign, smaller, set low to the ground: "Exxon; Caution; Toxic fumes." I wonder why it's not a bilingual sign. I wonder what it matters since the last 100 miles has fumed toxically. But I worry what'll happen to the dog if I pass out. After I take pictures from there, we flee the poisoned land.
Periodic roadsigns read: "Don't mess with Texas", an old redneck saying adopted by the redneck state as their anti-litter slogan, but it still reeks so much like Texan machismo.
North of San Angelo there's a ranch called Area 52, but after the Martian Wind Walkers, it would only be a letdown, so we keep going. San Angelo is too Texan; they can even keep a Grandys in business after most other people learned better. Gas here is $2.83, and I can't resist filling up before somebody runs out to change the price or I get arrested for theft. I keep looking over my shoulder but nobody stops me. I go in for supplies.
On the counter I set bottles of smooth-shit Jones soda that has a photo of me sitting in a train car. I don't remember when I posed for it.
"Anything else?" the cashier asks.
"A small bag of ice."
"We don't sell anything smaller than 10 lbs.," as if it might be too much for me.
It smacks of Texan sham bravado, so I answer, "In Colo. we call that a snowball, but I'll take one anyway." That gets me a little of my free-spirit flowing again.
We make it onto US-10 where the limit's 85 mph, but they're all doing 95, I swear. The trucks passing us should have signs reading, "Watch for my dangerous crosswinds," my truck sways and rattles so from theirs.
San Anto(nio) 120 miles!--good thing because we're down to the potted meat, and I'm not sharing with the dog; he got me pissed. I don't think he's learned much except how to smell up the truck, and I know everything smells like him, especially me. Dog has conquered Man.
As we hit San Anto's four o'clock traffic, the thermometer hits Sweat and Drip Like Crazy. Before downtown we become traffic backed up from an accident, crawling at 15 mph. On both sides everybody's got their windows rolled up, tinted-windows-hidden Texans burning our nation's midnight oil to keep themselves cool. All of them, swear.
I almost never turn on the AC (nor the heater in winter--hunter/gatherer, remember?). If it gets too hot, I just check that all the truck windows are open. That usually works. But we're almost at a standstill, sweating hoglike--me worse than the dog 'cause it only comes out his tongue--it's rush hour smog and global warming humidity and both me and the dog are tired of drinking Gatorade. So I turn on the radio that's been off for 200 miles, and "Lucy in the Sky" is playing and me and the dog sing. Only he doesn't sing too well, well, not at all, so he mostly stares. Nobody else does 'cause they can't be bothered by a hunter and a gatherer who don't have AC. We don't care. We're free spirits again, almost half done with our adventure and the heat, bears, Texan bravado, bad battery connections and highway-robbery fuel prices couldn't stop us. Plus, we've reached one of Aztlán's heartlands.
To be heatedly continued…
© Rudy Ch. Garcia 2006