Thursday, August 17, 2006

A Chicano viaje: San Anto to Denver, 2006

(final installment)

"Don't worry about the thunder; it never turns into anything," my family had assured me, "we're in a drought." Soon enough, flashes of lightning turned into a thunderstorm dumping a torrent of rain on us marooned out in the tool shed. In the next 45 min. my dog Manchas got over his fear of 4th of July firecrackers; it was replaced by a deathly fear of storms. Plus, Manchas had been homesick for two days, and I'd stopped drinking beer yesterday. That's how I knew it was time to head home.

Loaded up with gas, ice and Gatorade, after San Angelo I take a more westerly route past the mesas with the wind turbines and this time only see them in the distance. I regret that 'cause me and the other hunter-gatherer wanted to find a way to get up close to them. Next time.

It seems hotter than on our way down, though I think that's an illusion since I at least should be more acclimated after almost a week of San Anto's heat. Of course, I had a cold beer in my hand most of my time there to cool me off, but still--.

Everywhere in central, and on up into the panhandle of Texas, church signs stand roadside, indicating this part of the country helped give the world the Iraq war so more of the world could hate us even more. As if we needed that.

One of the old style Jesus-radio stations is on and for some stupid reason I don't turn the dial. A caller explains to the DJ how she's worried about her friend's soul 'cause he doesn't believe in Jesus and has all these terminal illnesses. I can't write down his exact words 'cause I'm driving, but basically the DJ explains the way religion works is that as long as the caller believes, that will be enough to save her friend. I'm not believing the shit she's swallowing. The DJ's giving away Get-Out-of-Hell-Free cards. In this Texas, just make sure you've got at least one ultra-religious friend, and your soul and cancers will be taken care of.

It reminds me of the title of Lalo Delgado's poem, Stupid America. It's one thing to belong to a church, it's a whole 'nother thing to believe DJs like this and elect Presidents like George Dubbya. But I know they've been doing things like that in this part of the country for over 150 years. Some Americans are so pinche ignorant. The Texas tourist slogan brags, "It's like a whole other country." Planet, more like.

Somewhere after Big Spring I pass a road sign with the Greek letter lambda on it. I instantly recognize it, being educated and not from this part of the country, but I can't understand its meaning. Is it some local county lore, a secret society of Jesus-believers and Bush-electors? It gives me the creeps, I start sweating even more and take it up to 65. Maybe the heat's getting to me.

As we near Lubbock there's another sign: "Lubbock police now hiring." I didn't see a sign on my down, though it may have been there. And I don't understand it. In a town of over 200,000 there aren't enough people to fill the vacancies? Buddy Holly's birthplace ain't good enough to attract out-of-state wannabe sheriffs? Why? And does the town think that sign's gonna attract me or that qualified applicants regularly travel this route?

I see yellow ribbons attached to fences and remember I saw them earlier. I assumed they were for soldiers in Iraq, but that color's also for suicides. I find out later at least one Iraqi veteran from here committed suicide and that here in Farmland, suicide's "a growing response to the pressures of mounting debt, shrinking markets, and diminishing futures." Maybe Lubbock police can't take the stress of dealing with all that, who knows?

I pull into a motley gas station for fuel and drinks. A small American flag hangs neglectfully on the side, so faded and tattered that only a light blue background and white stars and the once-red stripes remain; the white stripes are gone, rotted away, like the country no longer stands for peace but can't totally bleach away the blood being shed in Iraq, on both sides.

By sunset I've found the perfect place to camp, at least according to the map: Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge. I have visions of Manchas throwing himself in the water after he's chased and been chased by buffalo; and thousands of birds and maybe more of the butterflies that drowned San Anto with their bodies. I imagine me and the dog waking up in a wondrous semi-wilderness meant just for hunter/gatherer types.

The map indicates the Refuge is on a bypass that goes to Amarillo, but it doesn't show the fifty miles of county road to get there. Lucky us, it's not regular road. Yes, there's fence all through these grasslands. What's different is the grass isn't cut; it's the tallest prairie grass I've ever been in. We stop to watch it sway in the cooling wind under the headlights. It feels not like thousands of plants, but rather like a single, gigantic creature, biding its dormancy, content to wait for us to move on. Only one car passes us that night.

The map also doesn't tell us it's almost impossible to see signs directing you to the Refuge. I see the first turn only because I have the brights on and just barely make out a right-turn arrow. The second turn-sign is even more off the road, and I'm lucky to notice it.

The road winds down into a fifty-foot canyon. It's lush here, not like above; several mule deer cross our path or romp over the ineffective fences. Maybe a large owl swoops past, but I'm not certain. I want to stop here where it's quiet, totally dark, sunk below the anti-hunter/gather society above, but it's so dark, it's almost another place, not Texas.

At last--the Refuge info booth, displaying a map, brochures, and a sign indicating the gate won't open until 8am. There's a streetlamp a quarter mile away, not close enough to outshine the thousand stars above us.

Manchas and I sit on the truck gate. The wind's wonderful, the solitude might have made Abbey weep, even though Amarillo's only about thirty miles away; may as well be a thousand, its lights are so dim. After I fail to spot even one falling meteor and Manchas has failed to discover even what one sound he's heard means, we climb into the cab to sleep 'cause the back's too full of rock and agave.

He wakes me at 3:30 in the morning by plopping all 75 lbs. of himself on my lap, concentrating his attention in such a way that I think a mule deer or serial killer must have climbed on the hood. I wait for his decision about which it is as he stares intensely westward. I try to shift his weight off, but he won't budge.

It's a storm, another electrical one, and it's too late to drive anywhere, what with this super-frightened Lard-Butt-Dog on me, plus the storm's so huge, we can't outrun it, anyway.

The first flash of lightning covers half the sky and clouds and as its rumble dies out, every fox, coyote, and feral canine on the Refuge lets out one great howl, almost in harmony. Just one each. Not those lingering, stretched out howls, just a one-word howl. I don't know what the word is, but it doesn't matter; it's fokkin' great! Makes me shudder and twangs at the vestigial hunter in me.

I don't even mind the next 30 min. of rain pelting the roof, of hugging to comfort a squirming dog or his sitting on me, depending on how you look at it. The storm passes, and I fall asleep.

We get up at 7:30, and I'm the one who's tired. A couple of Park Rangers pass us on their way to work, looking and wondering what we're up to. We smile.

The informational booth explains: "The buffalo have vanished. The lake has dried." (Turns out the country that spends $4.5 billion a month to turn Iraq into Death Valley couldn't afford to fix the Buffalo Lake dam, no doubt bankrupting plenty of farmers.) So, two-fifths of the Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge's name sounds like false advertising, intended to lure map-reading hunter-gatherers. Fortunately, I know there is at least wildlife, from last night.

The already hot sun rises higher, and we're on an overlook from which I can see the winding canyon road that brought us here. There's marshy land to the south, no doubt filled with birds that haven't reached their final destination, just like us.

I decide that without buffalo for Manchas to chase or maybe enough water for him to dunk, we'd best move on. A quarter of a mile later we pass a dozen buffalo penned in an acre of fence. I don't have the heart to point them out to Manchas, nor to disturb their sad incarceration.

Before noon we've only got memories of the cooled Refugee, are sweating like George Dubbya and need a break, so we pull off on some exit with a state park 2 miles off. A small faded camper's parked alongside the entrance booth, and a hawk or buzzard circles overhead. I wonder if he's waiting for the emaciated, old, uniformed woman who comes to the truck.

"I'm just looking for a spot for my dog to run around for a bit; we're headed to Denver. We weren't going to camp or anything."

She points. "You can let him run around there, and I won't charge you."

It's a vacant lot with plenty of anthills (are they everywhere?). I break down and pay her the $2 fee. "You got a river here where the dog can get himself wet?"

She points. "There is a river over there," emphasizing as if I might be blind. "Follow the road along the trees. If you let the dog loose, watch out for rattlers."

I head off, but no matter where I drive, I can't find a spot close to the river. We give up, park, and trek across landscape harsher than any Western you ever saw. There's prickly pear--big, little, dried, dead, barely green, wide, broken and spread--everywhere. The nopal growing in my front yard looks healthier.

Manchas wants to run loose to chase a scrawny coyote running through the scrawnier bush, but he's staying leashed 'cause I don’t relish pulling cactus needles from his paws nor sucking rattler venom from his rump, either.

I'm betting the water will be hot when we reach it, but better than nothing. That's about what we find: I've seen Denver chuckholes with more water in 'em than what's within these banks. This "river" is not moving 'cause there's not enough of it to work up the energy to seek its own level, much less a lower one. I can't let Manchas go in 'cause I'm sure he'll catch something malignant just from the stagnancy.

We make it back through the nopal maze to the truck to eat supper after our hearty swim. I saved the potted meat for an emergency, but the scenery seems a perfect match for such a meal. We kill off the cheddar and crackers, along with Manchas gorging on his primo packaged food, mixed with some dry. I can't manage more than half my can. The rest I leave for the coyote, hoping it won't do him as much harm as it probably does me.

On our way out we see more birds circling--probably hawks--and an anorexic, elongated jackrabbit dashes across the road. Where does he get the strength in this heat? I'm amazed the water from the "river" can keep so much alive. I feel like stopping to ask the woman for my money back, but I don't.

As we head toward New Mexico, we pass three monstrous trucks heading the opposite way, hauling three huge drainage pipes, 12, maybe 15 ft. in diameter. I know where they're not going, but where out here can they be used? They seem like a delusional optimist's last, hopeless gesture.

I see another road sign, almost like the lambda sign, and realize it was no secret society; it just indicates the shape of the road we're approaching. Must have been the heat.

Road construction is now in full swing wherever the fines-doubled signs are out, like they do work on Wednesdays, even if not on Mondays, like when we came down. It makes for a longer exit from Texas. Five vintage corvettes pass us, nostalgia on wheels, shining and only doing 50. Seems like years since we've been gone. I let out a sigh, maybe of relief, as we cross the border.

It's not as hot when we drive through Pueblo, Colo. and Colorado Springs, but it feels hotter because of the hour and downtown highway construction similar to Denver trying to make room for too many cars of too many people, only on a smaller scale. This future's not bright here either.

As we cross the last rise before I-25 descends into Castle Rock and Denver, a small thunderstorm engulfs the late afternoon traffic. This time the dog doesn't get upset 'cause he's almost home, and the gatherer's managed to bring me, the hunter, back safely.

© Rudy Ch. Garcia 2006

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