Yuma to Cheyenne (Feb 29-March 12)
My truck and trailer are parked on the outskirts of Yuma, Arizona, where downtown lights illuminate but a small patch of the black sky. A variety of mobile abodes are camped along the road that leads to the race track. There will be a swap meet in the parking lot tomorrow, but tonight, Yumans are driving out to watch the dogs run.
A dog that someone has left in a motor home yips and howls because it’s lonely. Just the same, I wish it would stop. My old dog dozes in the cool sand alongside the truck. The black dog is poised alertly on the familiar tailgate. The light from television sets glows in the windows of several of the fancy rigs around me, and I can smell someone’s supper cooking. I can only imagine indoor johns and hot showers.
There is barely room to sit at my table, where a spare tire, two chairs, and a suitcase are my dinner companions. The oven and fridge don’t function, so I stuffed them with dishes, tools, hardware, and candles. Lighting the latter would save the batteries in the fluorescent lantern by which I write, so I search for matches behind the truck seat, in the glove box, and in my bag of fishing gear, but find none. I do find my sunglasses and a book on Roman religion that belongs to the university.
Modern travelers have made a wind-devoured sand flat east of Yuma into a camping ground, not unlike roving Americans of the 19th Century, who stopped their wagons next to water holes or pulled into scarce groves. A wind-up dog, favored by trailerites because they’re portable like folding chairs, yaps outside an enormous trailer; beyond it an aging brown van with a camper conversion roof is tucked in for the night. Its windows are closed by blinds and no light shows through the cracks.
Traffic rumbles along Interstate 8 a mile away. A circlet of pink sodium lights hovers above an interchange like the running lights of a UFO. The interior of my tiny home is barely visible in the deep blue light; the curtains move in and out with gusts of night air. The dogs are utterly quiet. I switch on the lantern in order to stay awake for awhile. I dread waking in the middle of the night unable to sleep.
Nothing is familiar at Yuma Cemetery save the long cedar needles that lie scattered across the sand and the queer excitement of coming upon special graves. Two recent burials have been paved over with concrete; their freshly painted crosses are too bright among the older, dust-laden, wind-stripped monuments. A year has gone by since I first walked here, but unlike last spring, the loose soil is bound by tufts of short grass stimulated by this winter’s exceptional rains. The old comfort returns, and a kind of happiness. I feel close to these places, as if each is filled with friends. Not the people buried here, whom I could never know, but the monuments themselves.
Buttermilk biscuits the size of softballs, hot coffee, a plate of ham and eggs, and a plate glass window between me and the weather just about make up for the rain that is pounding cars and trucks in the cafe parking lot. Twenty or so senior citizens, who likely had hot showers this morning, occupy the better part of the one-room restaurant. The seniors join hands as one of the men recites a blessing. A flash bulb flashes and I have been included in a commemorative photo of the group before they set out for their respective towns for the summer.
The screw jack on the trailer tongue hung up on something when we drove through a flooded intersection this morning and the impact thrust the shaft so far forward that the tailgate on the truck couldn’t be lowered.
“About thirty-five to seventy bucks,” said a man at the repair shop: his face was scarred so that his left eye appeared to droop as he looked to me for an answer.
“Just straighten it,” I said. “I can’t afford to spend any more than that.”
He and a helper removed the screw jack, banged the base of it flat, flattened the trailer tongue with a ten pound sledge hammer, and then put it all back together.
“What you need is a step-down utility bar that’s flipped over like you have yours, but ten inches tall. See here?” He pointed to the part of the hitch that holds the ball. The jack, fixed for now, would soon hang up on something else, so I agreed to the change.
The new utility bar elevated the trailer tongue to a dizzy height, but the rear of the truck still teased the ground. What’s more, the electrical line barely stretched from the trailer to the truck.
I hadn’t driven one block before I heard the electrical plug dragging on the road.
“The electrical line’s too short,” I said, surprising the man in his office. He grabbed a packet of small screwdrivers and hurried to where I’d stopped the truck and trailer in the dirt. He began to tear the plug apart.
“Don’t,” I pleaded.
“I’m gonna lengthen the line,” he said.
“Just put it back the way it was,” I insisted. He yelled for his helper: the two men buzzed around like a tape of their earlier actions run in reverse, except that they inserted the old utility bar upside-down.
“You’ve got it in upside-down,” I said.
The man ‘Oh helled,’ undid what he’d done, then redid it. The lights on the truck and trailer shined briefly then went out. He stuck his head under the truck dash and yelled to his helper for a 20 amp fuse.
I left with a partial refund plus hunger amplified by aggravation, so I stopped at a diner that friends in Phoenix had recommended.
A six-top of ample Cocopah Indians were starting on generous bowls of stew when the waitress brought my salad. One of the Indians asked for more corn bread.
“It’s gonna be all gone,” the waitress said as she banged a plate of cornbread on their table.
“Ain’t that what it’s for, ta eat?” one of the Indians shot back at her.
My serving of stew slopped over the rim of a big bowl and I dropped chunks of corn bread into the tomato-sweet juice. It was the kind of restaurant where you could drop your spoon on the floor and pick it up and use it and no one would notice, so I asked the waitress for a second helping. She looked like she was about to say something smart, but instead brought another bowl of stew and purred, “I’ll fill that thermos of coffee for you too, Hon.”
It was that wonderful time between dusk and dark when I greeted the dogs, got into the truck and flipped on the lights. A fuse blew and the overhead and courtesy lights came on. I sped out to my camping spot before night could drop, staked out the dogs, and yanked the trailer door shut behind me. Four thick candles helped to take the chill off the damp air.
I woke up at 11 PM: looked at my watch upside-down and thought it read 5 AM. I pushed the window curtain back and watched for dawn’s light for two hours, thinking that today, there would be no dawn. I drank some lukewarm coffee by candlelight then slept through to a beautiful crisp morning. An old silver Dodge, which was parked here when I pulled in the night before last, is back this morning. A man lives in it. I’ve seen his shadow behind the tinted windows.
All the garages I checked in Yuma were busy or didn’t do electrical repairs, so I shot a few more rolls of film at the cemetery and then drove east toward Gila Bend, where I noticed that the truck’s radio antenna was missing. After a shower begged from a truck stop manager in Fortuna, I found that the zipper on my best pair of jeans was busted. But here we are, camped on the hard, black-skinned gravel of an alluvial fan that sheds its debris into the valley of the Gila River. Mountain ridges to the north are velvety blue under shady clouds, but it’s sunny where I sit.
A few minutes ago I found a box of fuses that I’d forgotten about in a catchall behind the truck seat. I replaced the blown fuse, turned on the ignition, headlights and turn signals. Nothing happened. But when I connected the electrical line from the trailer to the truck, the fuse blew. Had to be the electrical plug: several strands of the central wire were in contact with the housing, so I carefully re-attached all the leads. Voila-fixed. This minor success reminded me of my physics professor, who paced the lecture hall like it was the deck of a heaving ship, from which vantage point of relative motion he had surveyed the problems of mechanics for twenty years.
He was struck dumb when I raised my hand during class and asked, “Excuse me, before you go any further, what is a flywheel?” He evidently hadn’t had many female students.
“Itsa – itsa goddam flywheel, for Chris’ sakes,” he said.
Smudgy pink hills lose their form as the sun slips away. The sound of my own breathing seems an unwarranted interruption of the profound silence. Even the clouds are motionless, anchored for the night at the edges of the valley. The old dog lies below the trailer doorstep on a rug spread on the desert pavement, but the black dog is tied to the tailgate by habit. For him, the truck is a den built by Chevy. The trailer is ablaze with wavering candlelight that sharply abuts the cold blue sky, which fades suddenly to black.
A pearl-white morning fog hugs the valley floor like a luminous pancake; the bitter scent of creosote hangs in the fresh, wonderfully fresh, air. The sound of a far-off vehicle takes minutes to become a school bus, which hurtles along the road, its yellow top just visible above the mesquite trees. Noise temporarily obliterates what is soft and beautiful in the desert. A garbage truck from Gila Bend, fifteen miles away, grinds up the hill. I may as well succumb to hot coffee, ham and eggs.
I dreamed last night that I was driving north to the university to quit the MFA program I’d begun three years before. A massive storm that waited ahead quickly resolved into four terrible twisters that blew my truck into a ditch. I got out and walked to a nearby concrete storage building where I sat in a corner and waited. The building seemed very solid and there was nothing to do but wait. Two girls who had sought shelter inside yelled that the doors were about to blow off. I told them to let them go.
I looked at the labels on the boxes around me to see if coincidentally, any belonged to me.
A Roman family planted a cedar tree near the house when someone died, in order to warn away the Pontifex Maximus, who must avoid the contamination of death. In Ajo’s tiny cemetery, familiar cedars nod benignly over the rows of graves. A few plots are surfaced with artificial turf, with tiles or colored stones, but most are covered with concrete that has been thickly coated with white paint. Traditional iron and wood crosses have been supplanted by commercial headstones. Prosperity brings formality. It’s a lovely graveyard, but lacks the mystery of Tubac, or the potent intimacy of Casa Grande.
Two young men pace their work to the heavy metal music that plays on their truck stereo. They rake the family plot, return dirt to the mound above a simple grave, clear away holiday decorations and prop up fallen saints. One wears a T-shirt emblazoned Shit Happens. Both wear baseball caps pulled tightly over their foreheads.
“Let’s do half today and quit,” one urges.
“OK by me,” the other answers.
“Ready then?” They throw their tools into the bed of the truck.
“How ‘bout a six-pack at Ray’s?”
“Let’s do it.”
Estruscan mourners staged blood combat over new graves, the munera, or funeral honors that the Romans continued as gladiatorial games. Blood, and its symbolic equal, wine, and in these graveyards, beer, is spilled on sand or earth to settle the restless hungers of the dead. Comanche women slashed their bodies with shards of metal or glass, with knives or fingernails, to keep the wounds flowing for months, to the same end.
This morning I breakfasted under a flying saucer sign at a cafe in Gila Bend; I asked the waitress if she could direct me to the town cemetery.
“Oh sure. My dad’s out there,” she said.
“Some people might think it’s an odd thing to ask about,” I commented for the first time, even though I’d been searching out cemeteries in Arizona for more than a year.
On her next pass she said: “I’ll tell you what’s weird. There’s a woman comes in reglar – talks to herself, that kinda thing. She tells me about some guy she’s got buried ‘bout forty miles from here. Can you believe it? She goes and dances on his grave at night, nekked. I know yer not plannin’ on doin’ anything like that. She was in injured in World War II. That’s why she’s crazy.”
The desire to be near human hub-bub makes me select an RV park that features pull-through sites, for those of us who can’t back up, and equally important, accepts dogs over twenty pounds. After plugging in the electric teapot I step outside to my very own picnic table. Across the way, a group of senior citizens sit on lawn chairs between two very big, fifth-wheel trailers. The hostess is defined by a pink sweatshirt and blue stretch pants; she sports white furry earmuffs against the evening chill. Guests ask if she brought her organ.
“C’mon, play it for us,” they harmonize. Without protest or hesitation, she retrieves a keyboard from the trailer and plays “Always,” followed by ethereal melodies just like one hears at wedding and funeral chapels. Three of the men excuse themselves to wander off into a gulley to play horseshoes.
Tucson’s country station comes in like it’s next door and Vince Gill hits the right sweet notes tonight. It’s the time of evening when even the giant carnivores of the past must have paused in their furor to appreciate the fading light. My beasts doze until a white poodle passes our perimeter in the company of a leather-tan gentleman comfortably clad in bright red sweats and blue slippers. The black dog instantly lunges at the startled pair.
“Sorry,” I say, and reel him in like a tubby fish.
“No harm. After three months we guys do feel like this is our own back yard. We’ll be leaving Monday, though.”
“Seattle, then Chicago. We’ll summer in Connecticut this year.”
“Lucky dogs,” I comment.
“Lucky? Hah. I stuck it out in the Navy for twenty years. That’s who’s taking care of me. My friends couldn’t understand why I stayed in. Then I retired at forty.”
“I’d like to be retired,” I say quite honestly.
“Well, I didn’t stay retired. I bought a bar, sold it, bought a ranch in Utah.”
“Utah is home?”
“Home? Hah. I don’t set foot in Utah. I married a Mormon.”
“Really?” I say, as if this is a bizarre confession.
“Did you know that in a divorce, a spouse can’t get her hands on a military pension? Man, was she mad when she found that out!”
“What happened to the ranch?”
“‘You’re outnumbered, son,’ my lawyer told me, so I give it to her and bought myself a motor home. I’m fixed fine; clear $2500.00 a month on my pension, plus full benefits.
“I’d be happy to have a john in my trailer.”
“That’s mine,” he says, pointing to a sleek gray land yacht. “It’s got everything.” He scoops up the little dog and adds, “And no woman is gonna get it, either!”
The soft, lovely desert between Sells and Kitt Peak just about makes up for the tedium that stretches east from Ajo, where the undulating surface is tangled with monotonous creosote and mesquite. After twenty miles the highway department either ran out of DIP signs or just gave up. The trailer lagged and shoved through dozens of washes.
The country around Kitt Peak is magical, in particular along the north side of the mountain where intense marigold-orange poppies have overtaken road ruts and other low spots to provide a vernal remark in the dormant landscape. I stop to eat a sandwich and stare at the dirt, which is crisscrossed by the shadows of rough empty trees. A warm wind sweeps the dark patches back and forth; the dogs slip through a taught, barbed wire fence and I’m stuck with one of those longings that could last forever.
The mood is broken by dozens of white memorial crosses that line the highway. At seventy, I stop counting. What makes this sixty-mile stretch into Tucson so deadly?
Before heading south toward Nogales, I grab a newspaper and browse. An article reveals that the Papago Reservation, which we’ve just crossed, is the domain of drug smugglers, who come in from Mexico on foot, by truck, and by air. The astronomers at Kitt Peak requested a peephole through the blimp-born radar net that stretches from California to Texas, and drug-ferrying pilots use it like a screen door in summer.
An elderly couple works the desk in the sprawling concrete building that serves as the trailer park office.
“How much for a pull-thru for the night?”
“That’ll be $15.40,” the man says.
“I don’t need a hookup,” I hint.
“Don’t matter. And there’s no other overnight parks in Nogales.”
“That’s twice what I’ve been paying,” I protest.
“What about the space behind the laundry?” a disembodied voice asks. “Can you back that thing up?” is aimed at me.
A man in a white straw cowboy hat, who reminds me of Gilbert Roland, appears in the doorway of a dimly lit room to my left.
“Sure, if I get a good straight shot at it,” I boast.
“Give her a space. Make it $10.00 and a nice space too.”
Thus, I am parked directly across from the rest rooms under two leafless trees, wedged between two ancient motor homes; one has South Dakota plates and the other is a creaky white and red Dodge model. Across the lane, really old trailers are backed up to the loading docks of two industrial buildings. These vintage trailers are permanent homes rented out to Nogalans. Several canine inhabitants, set off by a flood of homebound cars and trucks, bark from behind doors and fences. A man who might be forty, or sixty, sings to himself while a motor he engages clanks and knocks; his dishrag dog yaps. It’s a depressing place, especially as my trailer fits right in.
This morning, not far to the north in the settlement of Tubac, an L.L. Bean couple dressed in matching plaid jackets and khaki slacks walked past the cemetery as I was coming out of the gate. Spotting my camera, the man claimed to also be a photographer, and then quickly conveyed his irritation at a recent event: an Anglo who had lived in Tubac less than three years had been buried in the cemetery.
His wife pointed to a fresh mound that was deep in drooping bouquets.
“It must be tough digging a grave in this field,” I said.
Many of the graves are piled high with dark red lava bombs. In fact, the older part of the cemetery is littered with pocky rocks the size of cantaloupes and honeydews.
“Digging a grave is an excuse for an all night party around here,” the man huffed: he jabbed his walking stick into the gravel.
“I’m sure it helps the hard work go faster,” I said, but his mate was intent on continuing the complaint.
“We went over the border to Mexico, to the town of Sasabe, where they buy cut flowers at outrageous expense to put on the graves.”
“Yes,” he added with finality. “The laundry hangs outside and the children have no food.”
While I contemplated the sin of drying laundry outdoors, which I’d never heard of before, I said, “Wouldn’t it be nice to know that you mean that much to your family, even after you’re dead?”
In a strange inversion of roles, as if it was Persephone who searched for Demeter, I returned to the graveyard to pursue an ancient act of sympathetic magic. If my mother is to be found anywhere, it is among the bleeding hands and pierced hearts of the little statues, after-living in perpetual agony with the saints.
Trucks idle in the loading docks behind the fence. A vacuum cleaner hums, and the ice cream man comes around the bend for the third time.
Nogales is higher in elevation than the desert towns so the cemetery is thick with iris, roses, vinca and flowering trees as well as Palo Verde and cedar. Leaves, branches, beer bottles and cartons; faded flowers and weathered wreaths have been gathered in neat piles along the lanes. A welder works on a wrought iron fence that tops a brick wall. A young man finishes whitewashing a pair of grave markers and begins painting vases on each marine blue. His girlfriend lies with her arm behind her head on the next grave up the hill and the two chatter freely. Three old men sit under a tree on kitchen stools, their aged vehicles circled up by the road. Most of the graves lie on a slope; families have built walls around their plots and backfilled them. The result is an informal garden of uneven terraces which I climb like a big, irregular staircase. The scheme that has worked itself out in this way is so right and charming that cities of the living are crass and inelegant in comparison.
We have left spring behind. The trailer rocks in the wind at the Lordsburg, New Mexico rest area. It buffets us, howls complaint, and makes us cold. The dogs sleep silently, unaware of our exile into cold grasslands, the press of trucks on the road, and our good-bye to soft nights and silence.
A string of freight cars rolls by, visible through the windows of a motel restaurant, one of the few businesses still open in sad sorry Lordsburg. It rained overnight, and the ruins of service stations and motels disintegrate by atoms as I eat. I can barely remember how such towns looked in the fifties when they were brand new and pointing to a boundless future.
All of southwestern New Mexico seems to be for sale and the number of notices in this far corner supports the impression. Whether it’s a real estate company’s sign or a faded painted board, I wonder how many years it has waited under summer sun and winter moon for the right stranger to come along. The West is full of towns that live off a thin past, peripatetic retirees, and if they have it, mild weather.
The air in Las Cruces stinks this morning; my view of the Rio Grande valley is through a chain link fence. The trailer park where I’m staying is attached to a two-story concrete motel on the light industry side of town. I make the bed and sweep, then stuff my shower bag with a change of clothes, a towel, and all the paraphernalia necessary to good hygiene. The ladies’ shower room, which is a motel room at the south end of the building, is empty except for dirt brown carpet, an orange Formica sink counter and a wire stool. A sedan is stranded on four flat tires outside the door, which is locked. I trudge back to the trailer, make a cup of too strong coffee and listen to a country station out of El Paso.
An old woman appears in my doorway. “Do you pull this trailer by yourself?” she asks, adjusting a towel wrapped around her head.
“Good Lord,” she chuckles. “After my husband died I tried pulling the trailer we had, but after one trip I traded it for a VW bus. I lived in that for eleven years.”
“Are you kidding?” Is this to be my fate?
The wind blows and she pulls her robe tighter. “And no toilet.” She laughs and walks toward a pretty new motor home two spaces away. “I’ve moved up,” she shouts.
El Paso 23, San Antonio 592. Arriving at the edge of Texas is like crossing the Isthmus of Panama to find the Pacific Ocean before you. Interstate 10 runs through the center of El Paso like the city’s alimentary canal. The cemetery occupies a forlorn, trash-blown flat beneath a multilevel interchange. The gates are locked and litter and dry weeds are piled against the surrounding wall. No trees survive. A carefully lettered sign at one corner advertises the services of a man who will tend graves, but he can’t be called on to do so often.
Once out of the suburbs Highway 54 becomes the classic lonesome road described in UFO abduction tales and a demonstration of the limit in Calculus; no matter how fast you drive, you never get there. When I finally hit Alamogordo after fits and starts of trailer parks, sparse subdivisions and the debris of urbanization, it’s rush hour. Men in camouflage drive 4x4s urgently along the main highway and disperse up side streets into neat neighborhoods. I’m irritated by traffic, by franchises, by the overkill of advertisements.
In keeping with Alamogordo’s military theme a KOA pamphlet refers to dog excrement as ‘fallout.’ Although it’s early March, the park is full for the night. I’m exiled to the overflow area, actually the driveway along the empty swimming pool. The manager ran a 100-foot extension cord out of the office so that I could hook up. Yesterday, when I tried to pull the trailer through a McDonald’s drive-thru, the exhaust fan cover was torn off leaving a hole, which I now cover with a pillow and a heavy box.
The array of hardware parked in front of the International Space Hall of Fame looks like it was knocked out in someone’s basement. A rocket sled, which tested g-forces on a volunteer in 1948, is positively crude and accelerating. Once inside Nerdvana I press my nose to cases in which actual rocket engines and guidance systems are housed, along with photographs of the men who changed the world for the rest of us. Even the simplest rocket engines are unbelievably complex and the only way my mind can encompass them is as works of art.
The Mercury flight suit, made from a neoprene rubber inner layer and an aluminized nylon outer layer and richly textured with straps and laces and eyelets, with matching booties, is cool. The blocky space shuttle suit is not. Coolest of all is Sputnik: one of three copies made by the original Soviet group hangs just beyond reach, a perfect, stainless, gleaming, twenty-two-inch sphere, its four, swept-back antennae mounted with fixtures that would be at home on a ‘57 Chevy. It’s odd to think that an object which was used to frighten a generation of school children, was utterly beautiful.
I watch the sun go down over a fifteen-hundred-year-old basalt flow known as the Malpais, or Badland. The dogs have been running loose for awhile so I step into the frigid wind and whistle. I half expect them to be lost out there in the valley filled from edge to edge with choppy black basalt, but no, they’ve used their freedom to nose around the trash cans farther up the hill. Other guests have a bonfire going and sparks jump high into the air. Seven miles to the east, the town of Carrizozo is a dark patch on the pale valley floor. Snow-kissed mountains hunker down as if they too, are cold.
I awaken to the call of Nature, the fussing of the dogs, and frail light cast ninety-three million miles my way. Last night was my last on the road. Ahead is the possibility of a temporary job at a company in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where my best friend works; of badly needed money and the accompanying painful intersections with people.
First though, is breakfast at a cafe in Walsenburg, Colorado, where I order a burrito stuffed with eggs, bacon, and crispy hash browns buried under a heap of lettuce, tomatoes and cheese and drowned in pork chile. The woman who owns the place serves the food with a side of complaints.
“This was the worst winter in eighteen years,” she says when I ask her how life in her town is going. “If we don’t get gambling the town will fold. If it does come, I’ll sell out and leave.”
A man seated down the counter, who has been munching bites of toast while reading the paper, speaks: “They bring gambling in and they’ll have to bring workers in. Nobody in this town wants a job.”