I’ve forgotten what made me decide a week ago to leave for Denver tomorrow but the thought embedded itself like a splinter and I feel no inclination to remove it. I eat a last breakfast at the Chlorox Cafe, which at 11 AM is occupied by those not at church.
Lava beds describe Wagon Mound like a black mane defines the neck of a buckskin horse. The highway cuts the cool, dark rock to expose scorched earth which was fried to a rusty rose beneath the molten flows. From a distance the mesa slopes are a monotonous ochre tan but up close the flanks are flush with flat-leaved russet grass, icy green things, shrubs encrusted with red berries and willows that wave apricot spears. The plains are spread with grass so white that cattle below the buttes appear to graze on a beach. Parched thistles stand by the road; their twisted heads survey the horizon like lobster eyes.
Under a void of hot blue sky at a campground southeast of the city I delay, until 3 p.m., driving into the dense, nervous manscape of Denver.
“Your hard drive heats up and sticks,” the computer technician tells me. “I had to jar it loose by hand. You won’t be able to do that because you can’t get to it.”
“It gets stuck? Mechanically stuck?”
“Yeah. Try banging on the table,” he recommends. “Or get a new hard drive.”
That the computer is getting a transplant relieves me. That my senses deaden in the compacted cultural trash of the year 1992 depresses me. Time spent in a city is time spent being injured.
The stylist and the wardrobe woman lean together and giggle as we wait for paint to dry on the floor of the set. An evil clown, minus his yellow wig, sits at a long table and looks bored. Twenty dour accountant clones pull their silver and black ties askew and temporarily revert to normalcy.
The copywriter and art director responsible for the TV commercial being filmed today were once my co-conspirators in the quest to have clients underwrite our fantasies. Not that we didn’t try to do a good job for them, but the compensation for enduring in a horrific business was the actualization of ideas that “couldn’t fly.”
The wardrobe woman adjusts a laurel wreath on the brow of a rotund Caesar and the accountant clones form up and practice their scowls. We wait for light readings to be checked and for adjustments to be made to the boom from which the overhead camera hangs. The smell of lunch warming in hot trays makes everyone fidget.
“You are un-responsible,” Mr Stuck-in-Time pronounced.
“Un-responsible? You can’t even say it can you? It’s F-R-E-E.”
A reminder of winters to come, a road closure gate stands open for the moment on an entrance ramp to I-25 north. A field which could be the gathering place of lost basketballs grows pumpkins instead. Work Hard, Stay Hard, Play Hard: Wyoming poetry is published across the tailgate of a very new, black dually pick up.
“Try our own style of Spanish Specialties,” says the menu at the Diamond Horseshoe cafe in Cheyenne, and I do, a petite burrito covered with a Campbelloid sauce, but good.
A man hails another customer who waits to pay his check. “When did you get back?” And a ‘just the facts m’am’ exchange follows.
“About a month now.”
“You moved to Phoenix, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, five years ago. You can’t imagine what a cesspool it is.” (Wanna bet?) “You’re in danger just driving down the street – we had to get out.”
“I’ve heard people say they didn’t like it there but I didn’t know it’s so bad.”
“It’s bad. I mean, I know I’ll die someday but I’ll die here at home.”
I call my friend from Cheyenne, who languishes a few more days in Kansas City, from a pay phone inside a laundromat where the simplicity outdoors is sharpened by a plate glass window and frame.
“I can’t understand it. You really like Cheyenne,” he says after I make him guess where I’m calling from.
“I feel calm here,” I say. “A city of fifty thousand people with no traffic is a miracle. I can park the trailer anywhere and let the dogs run. It’s wonderful. How’s packing coming?”
“I’m cramming everything into storage except for the TV, my clothes and the computer.”
I finish business in Denver and call Mr. Stuck-in-Time once more to see if he’s free for dinner. “No,” says his secretary. I go to a pizza place run by Greeks and order the two-slice special. One slice is topped with spinach. Good: a vegetable. I sit at a table where I can watch the last presidential ‘debate,’ on TV, the politics of Washington seemingly remote in this working class restaurant; I’m sure grateful the candidates speak careful Dick and Jane sentences for us.
The pizza man himself, between inserting and extricating pies from the oven, walks over to listen. “Politicians,” he says summarily, “lie.” An older patron, his belly cut in two by gray slacks, is amused by the performance on the tube, but shares no comments. Although I like Mr Perot’s quirky figure I’m afraid the time has passed for men of his type. He is, like all prophets, merely a poetic device that serves to remind us that folly is inevitable.
A man who uses the pay phone at the trailer park motions to me that he is finished and holds the receiver until I take it. The aroma of pungent cologne lingers around my good-byes to Denver friends.
During the drive south toward New Mexico, I think about the things I don’t know; the names of creeks, where roads lead, what type of rock is exposed in a road cut. It’s one of those curious days when I feel sad and it’s just fine.
Outside Raton, I have Sugarite Canyon to myself, except for a car from Texas and a sky full of stars caught like plankton in a net of their own light. The old dog breathes solemnly like an elderly uncle and three candles make a fair light by which to read Plutarch, who mentions the presence of mules in ancient Rome just before I fade away. Imagine speaking Latin to a mule.
Order and intimacy lie in disguise in the wild undergrowth beneath twelve black oak trees whose branches are like the casts of riverbeds held against the sky. Fir trees intrude here and there to soften the grayness with blue needles. Birds called in the night, emitting unnatural wails, precise note for note, and clear. This morning, funny little birds peep and trill and a lone insect projects his fanbelt call. As if I had known to do so all along, I embrace the master oak which is shaped like a trident, then walk through two thousand years of conjecture to the trailer. The sun’s warmth is restrained by thin clouds, a wind finds me and I’m cold.
A Santa Fe freight train pulled by five engines rolls into downtown Raton. The first two engines are red, yellow and silver, the next three green and yellow. I ask a man in blue overalls, a member of the crew which is preparing to board, why the engines are painted different colors even though they are all marked Santa Fe. One of those exchanges takes place.
“The green ones are the old Burlington Northern colors. These here red ones are the new Santa Fe engines.”
“There’s no difference in the engines, then?”
“Well, the red ones are new.”
Men walk out of the station office, find their bags and climb the stairs into the blunt-nosed, rumbling engines. The diesels wind up, a whistle blows and a real bell clangs. Cars shudder and the earth vibrates. The engines clear the station then stop while cars are cut. The remaking of the train goes on as I examine debris in a junk store across the street where I discover the beaming face of Albert Einstein beneath an Indian war bonnet, in a photograph taken during a Santa Fe train tour. Clad otherwise in a dark suit, he cradled a Catlinite pipe in one arm and held the hand of a small Indian girl with the other. Two Navajo men who posed with him look less than thrilled.
I pick up the self-described, too-small woman at a grocery store in Las Vegas as she requests. We drive forty-one miles north to Wagon Mound: she has a four room adobe house for rent.
“Why do the gas lines run across the top of the floor like this?” I ask, kicking a pipe which runs toe-high across a doorway, through the bedroom and out into the hall to a water heater.
“Hot water,” she grins. The pipes do not, however, continue the six feet to a heater parked in a front room.
“Does this work?” I ask, indicating the brown box. She hrugs and grins then lays a hand on a half-painted fungus-like thing which projects from the wall. “Good for closet,” she says.
I open the bathroom door and quickly close it. Ah, New Mexico, where caulk is a substitute for plywood, drywall, insulation, tile, trim, flooring…
We walk, the dogs and I, up a coarse, sandy river bed traveled recently by a truck, past a deep, soft hole where it became stuck, over cobbles and boulders of metamorphic fragments, along the shade of a cut bank eight feet high; a wall of sand, gravel and mud of tawny hue, glittering with pink feldspar, black quartzite, speckled gneiss and sequin-bright micas in layers and lenses that read like pages from a river text. Anxiety drains from my muscles and I breath more slowly as my boot heels sink here in sand, slip there between rocks, meet crusty sandbars firmly. I am endlessly fascinated by the ordering of fragments, by masses which fell from rushing water, long gone. The play of materials is in my mind but equally sensual. Pebbles crowd my pockets and I carry a chunk of fine grained, gray granite in the shape of a truncated pyramid. Sometimes I collect rocks and dump them hundreds of miles away in geologically inappropriate locations. Why this pleases me, I don’t know. It seems some minor act of conceptual mayhem, a bit of interference in the ways of nature.
I collect coarse-barked and splintery deadfall and make a big pile in the truck. I want a fire tonight. We haven’t had one since the Snowies.
Winter comes to the state park. Employees drain water pipes, padlock washrooms and carry away poet-a-johns in the scoop of a ‘dozer. The yellow grass was fired today causing the fields to be charred in great blotches. A rough wind carries the smell of scorched grass to the hills. Shall I break camp like nomads worldwide and follow the season, in this case to Arizona, a place to which I swore I would never return?
The first snow falls on Election Day. A Hispanic candidate defends himself in a radio interview against charges that he doesn’t speak Spanish. “It’s not my fault,” he maintains. “I was taken to Los Alamos to live among Anglos by my parents.”
“Vamos todo a votar,” last minute ads exhort. He loses.