Chapter 2 / Cheyenne Interlude

Cheyenne Interlude (March 17- April 30)

March 17 

My true self waits in the truck with the dogs, in a parking lot in fog-locked Wyoming. My soul stays with them to brood as my body vanishes into a gray building. Hours pass. I emerge from a door kept by an electronic gatekeeper and return to the truck to become whole again.

31

The window in my temporary office provides a floor to ceiling panorama of the company parking lot. Gray clouds move slowly, as if ready with snow, and the whine of the wind preceeds them. Arizona was warm and bustling with green life, wildflowers, and mystery three weeks ago. As I lazily crept northwards the land became brown, bald, obvious and normal. It’s normal to be cold, to work hard, to accept a Protestant life.

How long will it be before something out there turns green? When did I first wonder, When will spring come? On the calendar spring is located precisely, but spring is a spatial reckoning and  the results, though inevitable, can be slow to arrive.

April 3

“On these widespread plains blown clean by the wind and rains large herds of buffalo roamed and gained in number. Then the warriors of Indian tribes hunted them for food and skins. Later white men came to trap beaver in the prairie channels and the mountain glens. Then thousands of adventurers were lured to the peaks and canyons by the discovery of gold. They plowed fields, built cities and founded a commonwealth. This highway travels straight south to Denver and beyond, past ranches and then irrigated farms rich in grain and sugar beets. Eastward lie hundreds of miles of prairie now dotted with prosperous towns, westward rises the rampart of the Rocky Mountains crested with summits like Longs Peak, James Peak, Mount Evans and Pikes Peak, old in story.”

 

So goes the legend carved into a brown and white sign erected by the Colorado Highway Department a few miles below the state line. Like a bunch of other Wyomingites, I’ve ventured south to purchase lottery tickets. We wait inside a low-roofed building made of river rock. There is a cage at one end of the counter as if the place had been a post office, but it’s a bar and all-purpose rest stop now. Two men, to whom the impeccably restored Harley Davidson motorcycles outside must belong, sip beers. My aleatory future in hand, I continue down the Greeley Highway.

The town of Eaton makes the summative declaration, Beef, Beets, Beans on its welcome sign. I stop along a side street at a junk shop and step into a rat’s nest of household debris. The addition of each new object must cause a shockwave that lifts the dirt and redistributes it so that the new item is indistinguishable from those which have accumulated through the ages. The result is plastic ice cube trays that look millennia old. Nothing interests me, but an old man sitting in front of a black and white TV that periodically looses its vertical hold, gets up and greets me with a shaky ‘Hello’ and I would feel badly if I just walked out.

“You don’t dust often,” I tease him.

“Too busy,” he shakes his head good humouredly. “C’mere. C’mere.” He cups his hand and waves me toward the back room.

I have worked my way to the front of the store: I can feel the warm wind pulling the dampness out of the dark building. Cottonwoods bounce about along the street and fling shadows every which way.

“C’mere,” he says. I follow.

“They’re for my wife. For her birthday.” He opens a jewelry box lined in red velvet. “I made ‘em myself. Think she’ll like ‘em?”

I stare, trying to make out what they are. Two sawed-off antler tips and two metal sea shells stare back.

“They’re earrings, see?” He raises one and it dangles, all six inches of it, like a perverse fishing lure.

“Is she a large woman?” is all I can think to say.

In the early evening, when the spring sunlight can barely be felt, the bald size of the land dazzles. I walk a furrow that sprouts miraculous green wheat and I realize that I could follow it along the undulating surface for miles. Far behind me the road is reduced to another brown element in the giant striped graphic of fallow and new-growth fields that dwarfs the immense metal towers that carry high power lines. I feel like a giant myself, my senses deceived by the scale. Only the dogs look correct as they run across the field, their feet kicking up threads of dust that show as white puffs above the dirt.

 

13

The maintenance man, who is barely taller than the vacuum cleaner, is vacuuming my office. He must clean during the day because the owner of the company doesn’t trust anyone in the building after hours. I’m strangling a mouse, trying to learn a graphics program. Mr. Maintenance doesn’t usually talk to me, but today he shuts off the vacuum cleaner and asks what it is I do here.

“I design this stuff.” I wave a brochure at him that pushes the company’s products.

“Oh.” He sounds disappointed.

While waiting for a program to download from the mainframe (what a dumb system) I peruse the list of towns on a Wyoming road map. “Did you know that 115 of the 264 towns listed here have fewer than 50 people in them?”

This is of enough interest for the maintenance man to say, “No shit?”

“Look at all these towns with no people at all.” I spread out the map and he looks at it over my shoulder.

“I’ll be,” he says.

“Do you think they’re ghost towns?” I ask him.

“Must be.” He unplugs the vacuum cleaner and takes it to the next office. I return to the map and count the towns with fewer than 500 residents.

15 

I move into a working class motel with the dogs and a bag of food. The dogs are nervous at first because it’s been six weeks since we’ve lived indoors, but they soon stretch to their utmost lengths on the sculptured carpet and snooze.

The bathroom window looks out on a quiet neighborhood of frame houses, except that a white panel truck, with a rack of ladders on the roof, is taking up most of the view. Beyond it, to the right, a man retrieves a barking dog from his front yard.

17

 

Even though it’s Good Friday I found a garage open, so I left the new truck, a red Dodge Dakota with a bigger engine than the Chevy, to be joined in holy electricity with the trailer.

At 3 p.m. I rang up the garage. “I’m just getting started,” the voice said so I read the Atlantic Monthly and the weekly Washington Post, just for the novelty, and wrote two letters. The dogs danced around on empty stomachs and I had to tell them that their food was in the back of the truck over at the gas station. I gave them each a slice of bread, which they understood better.

At 5 p.m. the man said, “Gimme ‘nother half-hour.”

“I have to walk,” I said, “so I’ll start now.”

“What?” he said, as if to say, What do I care how you get here, lady?

The man’s head is underneath the truck when I walk up. The hood is propped open, so I peer inside. It occurs to me that I didn’t look at the motor before I bought the truck. And if I had?

The usual type of guys hang around. “Why’d you buy a small truck to pull that trailer?” a two-hundred-pounder asks me.

“It isn’t small; it’s just the right size.”

“Is this one of them new-size Dodges?” asks another man as he walks its shiny red length.

“Yes, a Dakota.”

“Well, you know, Dodge does make a good truck. Still, it’s small.”

A man labeled Bob joins me to stare at the motor. “Is this the coil?” I ask, pointing to the pump for the windshield washers.

“No, it’s the pump for the windshield washers.” He walks away, disgusted.

Greasy Bob’s unlabeled son works here, too. He seems unsure of himself around the other men, but becomes talkative when I go into the office to pay up and we’re alone. His small green eyes are points of exposure within his hard frame and I suffer the fleeting impression that he’s a nice kid with no place to put his heart in this pile of tools and used parts.

18

Elevation 8640 STRONG WINDS POSSIBLE: information courtesy of the Wyoming Highway Department. I’m driving to Laramie because it’s Saturday morning and I own a new truck. The brief and bouncy storm that bestowed rain on Cheyenne last night dropped snow in the hills twenty miles to the west. The wind picks up the crystals and makes a new squall from them. Fresh rain bangs the windshield.

We (musn’t forget the dogs) cross the looping trace of the Laramie River south of Bosler, a concretion of trailers and outbuildings through which we come and go in the time it takes me to pull the cap off my pen. The wind screams along the truck’s surface and roadside reflectors send back dizzying bits of the sun. Ahead, the storm is smoke black, as if hell’s fires burn beyond the horizon. Clouds run down the sky like water color gone mad. At Rock River, population 415, swirling tails of snow drag along the ground like curtains, and I wonder where everyone is hiding. Big snowflakes look like locusts against the darkness.

We’ve turned south to Colorado, with hope for better weather. The road climbs high to view the blue-black forests which cover the front range of the Rockies. The country here has some large, restless beasts beneath it; rumps and elbows of rosy granite pop out of turf jump-started by irrigation. Brown and black cattle eat their way to death on the lush flanks of the =7, Willow Creek and Pitchfork ranches.

The highway passes into metamorphic section southeast of Virginia Dale, then enters a valley  cut along the contact of the red sediments to the east with the core of the Rockies to the west. If I could pick a place to live….  Outside Fort Collins the world gets crowded. Two small cars collide in an intersection and bile green rescue trucks swarm around a pile of broken glass. I detour to the village of Bellevue, knowing that it will break my heart. I backed out of buying a pretty piece of property here some years back. I glance at the white red-trimmed house and barn, at sheep grazing across the road, at greening trees and a red-banded cuesta that cuts the clear blue sky. Oh hell. You can’t carry an acre of dirt around with you. I had the chance to be the person who lives here and I chose not to be.

19

Easter, and the wind has been pounding Cheyenne since way early. My truck sits in the parking lot all alone beneath a sea of swollen clouds that chug easterly. The sun breaks through somewhere beyond the roof’s edge and the sharp shadow of the protruding rafters appears and disappears like a signal. At noon I’m still in my pajamas, drinking coffee and watching vintage Bible movies on the motel television.

“Blood gets more blood as dog begets dog.” Ben-Hur’s dizzy girlfriend chastises him when he develops a lust for revenge rather than for her. She’s the type of Hollywood female that made me understand, as a kid, that men prefer women equipped with the looks, but hardly the brains, of a poodle.

Last night I sat on a barstool and watched the “flux and flow of humanity” as my friend here in Cheyenne says too frequently. The club itself was unfancy, just a big room with an elbow-shaped bar, a few pool tables, and a dance floor. A bowling alley and a laundromat, which can be accessed without going outdoors, are thoughtful additions in Cheyenne’s climate. About midnight I picked up my jacket and purse and set out for the door. A short man, his round face hidden beneath a bushy mustache and a black hat, tugged at my arm as I passed. He had pleasant eyes.

“Where’re you goin’?” he asked.

“I’m goin’ home,” I said.

“Why so early?” he asked.

“I’ll tell you why – I sat at this bar for two hours and not one person talked to me,” I tried to sound a bit huffy, but friendly.

The man pulled on my arm again and said, “Well… hey, I’m Friendly, and hey, you, So-and-So, get over here. She thinks we’re unfriendly.” And to me, “What’s yer name? See that guy over there, he’s a wild horse racer.” The wild horse racer stepped over to us and sort of introduced himself. He half-smiled then stepped away.

“See that bunch over there at that table?” Friendly shouted. “They all rodeo, except the big guy.” The big guy was a black man whose long, wild hair erupted from beneath a cowboy hat.  “He’s a lawyer,” Friendly continued. “The bald guy, he’s a pick up man. Come here,” he said as he tugged me toward the table like I was a five- year-old.

The man who plucks cowboys off their rides and the arena floor, stood up and stuck out his hand to request that I dance with him. He pulled me against his hard, protruding belly before he spoke, but he slurred the words and I couldn’t understand him. I thought he might be drunk, but he didn’t wobble as he pushed me backwards taking tiny, rocking steps that I tried to match.

I guessed at his question: “I’m from Arizona, I’ve been here a month, and I don’t know how long I’ll stay.” He seemed happy with that. His only other voiced communication was to say, when he squeezed my arm, “Oh. I’m sorry,” as if he’d taken a liberty. Friendly told me later that the man had been kicked into a coma by a horse and was left with brain damage.

I never did dance with Friendly, but I danced with one of his friends, a thin man with big, dark eyes like a Greek portrait on a late Egyptian mummy case. He laughed softly and contemptuously as we circled the dance floor.

“Lookit’ that guy.” With a slight nod of his hat he indicated a man who leaned on a post at the edge of the dance floor. “Air Force. They buy Wranglers and a hat and walk in here. Stinkin’ wannabes.” I learned later that this ‘cowboy’ works as a beautician.

“Roman soldiers, like a scourge of locusts, laid waste the East,” the narrator intones. Christ. Rome bashing again. I turn off the TV.

22

Big spring rain clouds churned all day along the western horizon and then moved east to give Cheyenne a quick shower. The air smelled wet and warm as I stuffed the badge that secures my release for the night into my purse and walked across the damp asphalt to the truck. I let the dogs run a bit and watched the trucks and cars moving on the interstate, reduced to dark shadows by the intervening mile of rain.

My dad called at the usual time, but a day early. Our talk drifted from the weather (rainy on both ends), to the state of the nation, to business mismanagement, via my description of the dick fights going on where I work. We never disagree that the world can be a stupid place, but he thinks it got that way because not enough people are Republicans, but think you can’t have a dick fight without dicks. 

23

Four of us new or temporary employees attend Chemical Hazards Training. We hear advice such as, “Keep your eyes open when washing them out,” and statements of pride such as, “We keep material safety data on totally harmless products.” 

26

The road to Chalk Bluffs goes nowhere near anything that could be taken for a bluff, for many miles. I follow a gravel township road east until it turns north. When it turns east again I stop the truck to let the dogs run while I view the blond rustling grassland, which with the sky, is all there is. Empty Winchester and Colt shells have been run over where they lie in the road. A sign nailed to a gatepost has been the recipient of, if not these, a hundred other bullets. Why not? There’s nothing else to shoot at.

Miles later, just before the town of Carpenter, the road drops over what I presume to be Chalk Bluffs and though the vertical displacement can’t be more than one hundred feet, it’s a major feature considering the planar topography it interrupts. There are no commercial enterprises in town other than a cubbyhole store and a workshop with several above-ground storage tanks in the yard. The ground is oil-soaked and a row of old, gut-exposed gas pumps is lined up along the street. Across the way is a graveyard of sorts: a Texaco tanker and a tow truck are interred there, and around them, their names still visible on the dark, wind-scoured metal, lie the patriarchs of prairie agriculture: Case, McCormick, Deere.

It’s fourteen miles up and back to a truck stop on the interstate to get gas, then we pass through Carpenter again on the way south to cross the unmarked border with Colorado. I turn east through the village of Hereford and kick up a dust cloud while crossing what must be a Pleistocene river valley, carved when glaciers melted; the tiny creek at the bottom can’t be its creator. Atop the far side, cascading into two gullies that cut the bluff, is an unofficial dump. Whole cars, miles of wire, dirty heaps of busted appliances, bottles, and oil cans induce me to stop and take a look. I pull a misshapen green bottle out of the ground by its base and knock the dirt off; dig out a homemade cupboard door, some lead roof trim, a galvanized box and a rusted bread sign. As I ferry loot to the truck I spot a 1938 Wyoming license plate in good shape, but when I reach for it, a rattlesnake startles me. Its coils are just visible behind a piece of gray wood: should the snake strike at me, it could not miss, I think. Using a scrap of corrugated metal as a shield, I grab the license plate then step to where I can see the snake better. Its rattles buzz like a big cicada and its heart-shaped head moves sideways to give me a tongue lashing. The sound stops when I walk away.

28

I discover a new unit of time: the Moron. The second hand on my watch is stuck in an interesting cycle. It moves clockwise through one discrete arc, then back again. I observe the phenomenon, fascinated. My slice of sky today is a flawless sheet of bird’s egg blue air that ascends above the parking lot, then ends abruptly at the bottom of the Venetian blind. My soul stares back at me through the window and asks how we came to be here. I answer with another question. Where did the boxy-butt road-toad sedans that fill the parking lot come from?

29

My dad called, he said, to save me a toll charge, but I think he was afraid I’d forget his seventy-fifth birthday. The old dog has been described as a mastodon or a deer with short legs by my friend in Cheyenne, but in truth, he’s a dead ringer for my father, a phenomenon noted by more than one person who has witnessed their portraits cheek to jowl. I’ve traveled with both, and although my dad is more fun to talk to, the dog doesn’t smoke cigars. 

30 

It might be hard for some people to believe, but I like living at the motel. Many trucks are packed into my end of the annex tonight, parked cheek to cheek and butt to butt, and this is another thing some people will not believe; they’re sexy. Mine is out there with the rest of them, parked real close to a big red GMC with matching toolboxes that run the length of the bed. It’s new, as are two pale blue company trucks that glow under the moon. The rest of the trucks are big old beat up things and just being near them makes me happy.

Chapter 3 / Denver Detour

Denver Detour (June 1- 6)

June 1

Murky portraits of dead Europeans add the only sour notes to a charming chorus of necessaries and accessories that invite the buyer to imagine his or her living space reborn in another century. An Empire chaise appointed with the caress of silk; an English desk fortified with dark bronze; a French armoire lavished with the sheen of gold leaf. Any would do the job. Price tags are strung on green ribbons as if they too, are merely decorative.

I disappear behind a Spanish table with iron stretchers, ca. 1700, into a linen-covered Louis XIII armchair. I hide here when I come to town, an interloper in time and class, my blue-jeaned butt cradled by saffron silk, my boots at rest on silver gilt or timeworn walnut.

My friend, who is the custodian of all this, is a busy man. I have been to his house a few times, but not for many years. There is no point to it because it looks just like the store. Some men collect guns or mistresses, but for him it’s a Dutch marquetry cabinet swarming with modest, flat-chested maidens and voluptuous flowers, ca. 1730. I wait for him so that we can go to dinner. I have waited two hours so I stroll the alcoves for the umpteenth time and pledge that I will someday own a chair covered in black moire satin and a pair of lampshades to match. Sequestered with other folky things is a gingerbread mansion designed to confine a squirrel, whose terror was converted to bourgeois amusement as it raced to spin a windmill on the roof. That’s it.

“Dammit. Let’s eat,” I yell to Mr. Stuck-in-Time. He picks up his coat and keys and I catch the dark and shimmering image of my face in a Baroque Italian mirror. Twin cheeky-faced putti on the frame mock my reflection.

3

Days spent with the eccentric couple float by like episodes on a culinary Masterpiece Theatre:  we savor smoked turkey fettuccine, Italian sausage and polenta, tender calamari rings, fresh strawberry shortcake, grilled steaks, cream cheese eggs and chocolate pecan pie.

“If I had plenty of money I’d collect pickup trucks,” I tell my hostess while we snack on hot cornmeal muffins, jalapeno jelly and coffee.

“Oh no,” she protests as if I’m kidding.

“I’d line them up along the road in front of my place like farmers do their machinery.” I can see it all in my head and the trucks mostly look like the ones parked around the motel in Cheyenne. “I’d have to buy a place first,” I realize out loud. “And I’d keep a special truck just to commute from the house to the road, so I could pick out the one I wanted to drive that day.” I’m filled with happiness just imagining it.

“I can’t even stand it when one of those things parks in front of my house,” she says.

I know. It’s a measure of her affection for me that she tolerates my truck and trailer down the street in front of a neighbor’s place. She’s so out of touch, but I keep mum and fantasize about my collection of character-ridden transport. Besides, you can’t talk seriously about these things with a person who won’t modernize the bathroom because she thinks showers are ugly.

Earlier I stopped at my old house and had a laugh. After three years the new owner has given up fighting the weeds. The ailanthus suckers are still being fertilized by drunks and the vine that consumes all is still at it. I don’t feel anything for a life that I remember imperfectly with my mind and with my heart, not at all.

5

Even the wheelchair folks are mostly white at this annual Denver event billed as a people’s fair. I avoided attending when I lived here, but today I feel compelled to sail the aisles like Odysseus strapped to the mast. “The past was better,” whisper stained glass windows. “Your life is empty – buy a kid,” scold the creative adoption people. “Save your guilty white ass,” admonish pseudo-Indian coyote, elk, and cougar T-shirts, your choice, twelve bucks each.

An irate man hands out Bibles in front of Your Friendly Heretics, Neighborhood Atheists, Freethinkers, Agnostics and Skeptics as an antidote to such silly slogans as, “The only difference between Witchcraft and Christianity is who you blame your fun on.” I scribble behind a man and woman who sit quietly on folding chairs and monitor the atheists. The woman turns to frown at me several times then stands up, retrieves a pamphlet from the heretics and thrusts it at me.

“Here,” she snaps. “You don’t have to write it all down.”

Three Adult Survivors of Extreme Abuse look lost and humiliated, sandwiched between furry animal puppets and pencils and pens made from sticks. I feel equally sorry for Rocky Mountain Skeptics for a Rational Alternative to Pseudoscience, two lonely guys who stand beneath a yellow canopy. Maybe they should say “high” to the tie-dyed humans at The Hemp Initiative, or visit Mensa, where one can take a humiliating brain test in public. A guy walking by trips over the first hurdle when he asks his wife, “What the hell is Mensa?”

Shining Light Peace Ankle Bells jingle in the hand of an elderly man who cools himself with a Congresswoman Pat Schroeder fan. Uh-oh. A Hare Krishna devotee fingers leaflets next to a very, very strange diorama; little clay figures of a hideously unhappy human being are born, grow up and die in a fish tank.

I wonder… What has prompted so many people give up the practice of rational thinking, as if sentiment is a substitute for moral definition, as if the incorrect inferences of superstition will ever help us understand anything? The universe is ever-silent, so I answer myself: You cannot run from where you have never been.

Next: Prairie Dog Rescue.

Rescue me. I escape to the music venue where a Rockabilly band plays to the people, most of whom stand or sit on the concrete steps of a classically-styled amphitheater. Assorted youths, a mom cum baby, a biker in a fool’s hat, a semi-naked male in a flaming orange/camouflage hunting vest and a woman on roller skates give their bodies over to various rythyms, none of which is being played by the musicians.  A stoic minority of black and Chicano teenagers uniformly dressed in Charlie Brown shorts, Rocky Marciano dancing shoes, team T-shirts and caps looks on.

 

6

My destination is a there-but-for-one-paycheck-go-I cafe where any soul with seventy-five cents can sip coffee for as long as he or she likes. I go to be reminded that the poverty line is just behind my butt and because a friend who volunteered to water my hosts’ plants while they were away broke the spare key in their front door lock, and they’re not home now. The notion of procuring a replacement key has drifted into their married minds, but so far action eludes them.

The café owners have added twenty-five cent pay TVs at a few of the tables, otherwise, the place is about the same as when I started eating here in 1974. A woman, fiftyish and motherly, is having a glass of rose for breakfast in a booth along the front wall. She props her head up with a fist and dozes. She wakes and looks straight at me, or is it at something imaginary that has her attention?

“We stopped given’ out free papers,” the waiter yells at an old man in chinos and a zippered jacket who digs through a stack of leftovers.

“If I don’t find the right one I’m cooked,” he says, ignoring the waiter.

Three black men enter through the big front door and greet the cook and cashier. They sit down to have breakfast with a white man with whom they apparently work. It’s good to hear people laugh together. Even if within their hearts is buried malice that might be inflamed to fury, perhaps the start is simply in being civil, maybe it is, after all, not something natural for humans to get along, but something we learn. Well, it might be true. I scoop beans and chili into a tortilla and ask for more coffee.

I sit in the backseat of my hosts’ crumbling Toyota as we drive up one of the canyons west of Denver into a storm. The driver is prone to sudden, illegal left turns and I’m hoping we don’t have an accident. The woman holds their wind-up Schnauzer in her lap. It whines, pants and screeches until she feeds it from our lunch basket. To think, from the wolf, man made this.

“It’s not arguing, it’s how we communicate,” they tell me when I decline to join the bickering about where to stop for a picnic. I watch the milkshake creek slide by and the hard metamorphic rocks that ring when struck with a hammer. Taffy pulls of sand and mud are nearly intact in some places but have been twisted into intricate webs of light and dark minerals elsewhere. They appear dull today under the clouds, but the schists shine like fish skin on sunny days.

“We should have gone to that other canyon,” she starts in again. “The one we went to last time. This isn’t the same one darling, is it? Darling?” Her husband fidgets like an irritated pigeon and I withdraw much as I did when my parents practiced the same loving intimacies on each other’s nerves. While they survey sections of the creek bank (each spot so far has been rejected on the grounds, chiefly, that the other suggested it), I distract myself with looking at rocks. Marriage: a subtopic of the immense question, Why can’t people live sanely?

I hang my legs out of the car door to feel the tender warmth of the frail afternoon sun; they lunch on the wet, willow-choked bank of the creek. The result of their marital head-butting is that she picked an undesirable spot out of spite. White clouds lurk behind a peak that retains sizable snow patches in the dips that lead to its scree covered summit. The aspen and stream willows are newly leafed; the leaves are small and bitter green and supple beneath the wind. My toes are purple, but the air feels like a gentle river and I’m content, for now, to be cold. The sun loses to the clouds and thunder threatens.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 4: Snowies-Lander-Cody (June 8 -10)

8

The truck is on cruise control as we sail through crotch-high wheat and ankle-high corn west of Laramie. I’m waiting for the rubber band to snap, to send me peacefully into this fat, beautiful world. A hawk that is as perfect as an Egyptian sculpture waits on a fence post.

Higher up in the Snowies, the wind has made dog-tail trees of the pines, iris cluster in the green grass and there’s a healthy spring rock crop. Below the west side of the peaks I have a campground all to myself, through which a stream cold enough to freeze anybody’s anything flows through the long grass. A fallen log blocks the stream’s path and causes it to cascade into the meadow; willows, which will later stand on dry ground, shake from the rush of water. Aspen, their new leaves the size of dimes, live with the big pines.

I collect deadfall that is wet from a just-passed storm and get a good fire started by using peanut butter. I have nothing to cook, so I eat PBJ on a bagel. Still hungry, I search the trailer and turn up a can of soup. The fire has burned to billowing fragments and I put the pan in the coals. It rains. I run to clear the table; while my back is turned the fire flames then subsides, leaving the soup fortified with ashes and the pan sticky with resin just like the tin cans we used for tramp cookouts as kids.

At 9 p.m. the sky is quite light even with a heavy cloud cover. I have four candles, two dogs, and a stack of blankets to keep me warm. The old dog is posted about ten feet from the trailer where he listens carefully and raises his nose to catch what’s in the air. Occasionally he gets up and does a little perimeter walk or lopes down to the stream for a drink. I wear sweat pants, a T-shirt and a jacket and I’m tucked into bed. Still, whatever sticks out gets cold. The black dog raises his head when I pet him, but his eyes roll shut and he quickly buries his nose in the crook of my knee.

 

9

Eye blue iris erupts from the meadows and lightning cracks the sky. Three black crows crouch on every other fence post. It looks as if the Snowy Range Ambassadors sign by the side of the road refers to them. I wasted the sunny morning sleeping and now the cloud cover has reduced the land to a flat, indifferent scene. I suffer from cramps: a quick visit to the museum in Saratoga will let me fill the dogs’ water bottle and use the restroom.

A little lady in a red vest and trousers corners me. “It’s my job to guide visitors,” she says as she steers me into the archaeology room, a mini version of museums all over the west: atlatls, speer points, pot shards, beads. Any other afternoon I’d love to chat but I’m almost sick to my stomach from the pain. The museum is small and we make it back to the entryway in minutes, but she stops near a stairway that leads to the basement.

“Come on,” she says, “there’s more.”

Oh God, no. My interior parts hurt without respite. The basement is damp, fortunately, because the old woman is anxious to end our visit there. “My arthritis doesn’t like it here,” she says as she massages her knuckles.

I scoot up the stairs, but can’t escape. “You must sign our guestbook,” says another volunteer. She points to the damn thing then asks, “Where’re you from?”

“Just make it Phoenix.” She sticks my stand-in, a red pin, into a map on which the state of Arizona is curiously empty except for me.

My plan was to cross Interstate 80 north of Saratoga and go on to Medicine Bow, but I feel so awful that I turn west to Rawlins instead. A hot shower and a cooked meal may not make a cure, but I’ll feel better, and I can visit the town of Sinclair tomorrow.

At the RV park I have a section to myself, reserved for little trailers like mine. Big rigs, like flights arriving at an airport, taxi over the gravel to numbered spaces to the east. After a long prelude of thunder, lightning, and scattered showers, a full storm commences. I realize that I have never cranked open the front awning on the trailer, but do so now. Dirt, decayed leaves, tree seeds and spider webs that accumulated over the seventeen years the trailer sat unused in my father’s yard, are revealed to the western skies. Inside, I open the curtains and a nice light fills the trailer, but nothing is visible through the filthy windows. I clean the glass: ultrasuede hills south of the interstate make a lovely backdrop for a mini golf course and laundry barn.

The post-storm sun seems brighter than it has all day. Silvery light falls across my table and the curtains are sucked in and out by the wind. I cook two pork chops for dinner, not because I need two, but because that’s the smallest number that comes in a package. I’m left with an iron skillet, a plate, a cup, a knife and fork and last night’s soup pan to wash. This is why I dined on peanut butter and jelly down south. But here, where it’s cold and hot and wet by turns, the carnivore has returned.

Rawlins, 1890

 

10

The RV park is empty except for two motor homes that are staying over and three stragglers like myself. The sun is hot and high, the horizon treeless.

“Say, you’ve got Wyoming plates. What’s the road like to Casper?” It’s a little man in a powder blue shirt, double knit pants and a yellow golf hat.

“I don’t know,” I say. “I’m going up that way, but east first, through Medicine Bow and the Shirley Basin.”

“Why?” he asks.

“Don’t like the interstates. Too many trucks.”

“There’s more room to get out of the way on the interstate,” he says.

“The backroads are prettier,” I answer.

“Oh, I got a brother-in-law like you,” he says and writes me off with a wave of his hand.

“Say, what if you break down?” Who is this guy, a spy for my Dad?

“Wait?”

“That’s fine for you. All you have to do is do this,” and he mimes a girl pulling up her skirt to flash her leg. He pats the hood of my truck. “Just thought you might know.” He walks to a motor home so big that if he did break down he could start his own town.

 

“Where are the refinery tours?” I ask a round man in greasy coveralls who wears a silver hard hat ribbed like an acorn squash. He and his partner are the only people I can find at the Sinclair refinery complex.

“Tours?” He looks up at a man who stands by a red tank.

“Aren’t any. Not for years,” the man above says.

A young woman is removing loose paint from the steps of the town hall with a wire brush when I walk up. She offers to show me to the town museum. “This is it,” she says and lets me into a room across the hall from the dark and empty police department.

“Boys to Logan, Utah, to train as mechanics.” Sixteen men dressed in ill-fitting suits, ankle boots, crumpled neckties and a variety of hats sat in rows on a bank of steps to have their photo taken. One held a dog in his lap and another a lamb. On another day, nine more “boys” presented smiles to eternity. They were hatless, had ribbons pinned to their suits and were bound for Camp Lee, Virginia. The faces of the last twelve men to leave the area for the trenches in Europe betrayed strain and their eyes were alight with sadness. One man’s hair was pressed flat along the sides. His face, from the bridge of his nose down was burnt by the sun, his forehead white: a cowboy.

 

Photos of the Parco Hotel, showplace of downtown Sinclair, show it as it was in the twenties, with a lobby that invited the traveler with cool shelter, broad Mexican tiles and Mission Style leather couches beside a big fireplace. Posters on the walls advertised Saturday night dances. Balconies outside the convent-like rooms must have dripped with flowers and icicles. A glance out the museum windows reveals a For Sale sign on the locked door today.

A drugstore-type display case contains an array of objects presented in the American way, that is, without distinction as to category or hierarchy: spurs, dentures, a cowbell, ration books, a 1944 letter home from a soldier, clamp-on ice skates, a copy of the Constitution and By-Laws of the International Association of Oil Field, Gas Well and Refinery Workers of America 1934, a straight razor, a slide rule, cigarette cases, a razor blade sharpener, a croup lamp for people and animals, a roller skate with wooden wheels, a sheep-branding iron, a .30-30 bullet mold, several pipe cutters and wrenches, a set of pocket billiard balls, a Sinclair Pennant brand glass from a gas pump, a Colt .45 Peacemaker replica, a .22 Winchester, and a Parco Motor Trails highway map, the cover of which  illustrates Columbus claiming the sands of Salvador for the queen, who couldn’t be there.

Coincidental to this morning’s conversation at the RV park, I overhear a man whose car is stranded thirty miles away as he talks on the pay phone at The Virginian Hotel in Medicine Bow. A rock poked a hole in the oil filter and the oil leaked out.

“I’m lucky,” he tells a person on the other end who expects him in Denver tonight. “The mechanic here was going to Rawlins today, anyway. He’ll bring an oil filter back with him. Yeah, all I have to do is hitchhike back out there with it and five quarts of oil. Sure, and fix it.”

I smile at the man: “Too bad about your car.”

“It’s fine, it’s gonna be fine. The mechanic will bring the filter and I’ll be on my way,” he insists.

Gary Cooper: The Virginian, 1929. A gazillion movies and TV shows have been made from Owen Wister’s novel, but they mostly stink.

 

Across the street in the railroad station, the town museum houses the weapons that won the West; enamel pans, wood stoves, egg beaters, butter churns, typewriters, telegraph keys. And one that didn’t. Photographs of a 400-foot-tall wind turbine south of town, which cost four million dollars to build, won’t tell you that the beast broke down and that an engineer who worked on the project bought it for twenty thousand dollars. But the volunteer at the museum will. “That’s four million tax dollars,” she says, pointing at my notebook. “Write that down.”

In the back room I find a jewel in the junk, a galvanized tin object that looks like a mail box with a drawer in the bottom. “It’s a lamb heater invented by Judson Gibbs over in Rock River about 1915,” the volunteer says. She opens a drawer where charcoal was burned then points out the box’s double-walled construction “so the charcoal gas don’t kill the little thing.” A “scare-away” for coyotes that the same man designed looks like a three-foot tall rocket packed solid with sulphur. Firecrackers were inserted wick end first through holes in the cylinder, which ignited in rounds as the sulphur burned. The devices were used locally until the 1940s.

“The noise didn’t bother the sheep. And probably not the coyotes either. But it must have been entertaining all the same,” the volunteer comments.

I point to a log gnawed to a point by a beaver, which hangs by a twisted willow handle. “Oh. That’s a beaver basket,” she says. “People made them and sold them along the highway during the depression.”

“Basket? There’s no hole in it. It’s just a log with a handle,” I say. She examines the object like she’s never seen it before. “You’re right. I don’t see a hole. But they called them baskets and sold them, just the same.”

A framed 1926 Cheyenne Frontier Days program cover features  photographs of  the top cowboys from 1897 to 1925. In addition, the owner of the program penciled in: 1926 Mike Stewart, Casa Grande, Arizona; 1927  Earl Thode, South Dakota; 1928  Sharky Irwin, Cheyenne.

Contrary to the tradition that real cowboys didn’t dress like movie cowboys, many were dressed like movie cowboys. Exceptions were Elton Perry, of LaGrange, Wyoming, who in 1902 wore a thick-braided, conical sombrero and Hugh Clark, with a blunt nose and a straight-across mouth, could be one of today’s young cowboys. The 1901 champ, Otto Plaga from Sybille, Wyoming, and the horse he rode in on, faced away from the camera.

 

Great blown-out thunderheads rise over the badlands to the north of Medicine Bow. Floods of grape purple spikes and yellow flowers line the road. Thirty-three miles out and an hour to sundown, about a quarter of a mile down the dirt road which heads to the North Platte river, is the car that waits for an oil filter.

Cheyenne – Denver Interlude

Denver Interlude

September 27

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.

28

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. 

October 2

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.

6

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.

8

“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.”

15

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.”

19

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.

20

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.

21

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.

23

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…

27

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.

30 

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?

November 3

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.

Chapter 12 / The Long Way to Arizona

The Long Way to Arizona

17

Yellow grass, yellow dirt, gray outcrops of rotted shale; it’s a long drive into Walsenberg because I had no coffee this morning. The cafe where I usually eat seems cheerier than it did in March. Denver Broncos posters relieve the uniform green decor and a salad wagon with a paper turkey affixed to the top breaks up the long room. Country music plays on the radio and a new man cooks in back.

I ask the owner, who is also the waitress, how the gambling referendum went in the recent election. “Northern Colorado shot us down, gave speculators all the time they need to buy this town, cheap.”

“And are they – buying?” I ask pushing away white silk Easter lilies to make room for breakfast.

“Are you kidding? Local owners know gambling won’t come for years now and they can’t afford to wait like the rich SOBs. And so many are old. It’s terrible how they’re selling out for whatever they can get.” She serves me the usual terrific breakfast burrito which I devour while the men at the counter talk pheasant hunting; the owner gripes to the new man.

“I’ve run this place eighteen years and been a waitress twenty-six. But these bitches I got workin’ for me… It’s slow? They sit and smoke. You think they could take the time to clean or restock?”

“It’s a welfare town,” the man says. “They don’t have to work.”

“Oh yeah? It gets slow in the restaurant I’m gonna lock up and go home.”

Breakfast costs me…seven dollars? Chitta. She doesn’t have to be mad at everybody.

At the hamlet of Farisita a little graveyard sits on the south side of the road, on a gentle slope that drops to a stream. The graves lie perpendicular to the fall line which produces the sensation that the headstones will cartwheel downhill. Above the cemetery the Sangre de Christo mountains, named by men who were dead drunk, defy description. Clean, carved, majestic, cold, vast, it makes no difference how many adjectives I might use. They are second only to the Tetons and that’s a close call. Too bad hardly anybody sees them.

19

Snowflakes become stars which turn to streaks when the USS Red Truck hits warp speed. Actually, I can’t judge my speed because the road has vanished and I could swear I’m driving backwards. To take my mind off the disorienting snow storm I call up the pleasing picture of Texas Teddy R’s new friend, who was, when I arrived at the Texans’ new saddle shop in Westcliffe, Colorado, hunched over the wood stove in a canvas coat and brown hat. Mischief, I thought. He looked up with bashful gray eyes and I was swept with the feeling that I already knew him. I almost asked, What are you doing here? but I was afraid that if I said anything I’d start spinning in circles of happiness like the black dog.

Mischief drew a deep breath, tugged on the brim of his hat, then looked down and back again. His lips parted, he tugged at his hat again and said, “I’ll be back.”

The Gunslinger dropped by (it seems he followed the Texans up here); four additional Texas transplants trooped in and the shop people from next door came over with a girl from the cafe. Mrs. Texas Teddy R arrived with the baby and her cousin, a seventeen year old boy who has moved in with them, and finally, Mischief returned.

When at last I pulled my eyes from his I heard a sound like Velcro ripping. My insides bounced up and down and I understood why dogs bark. I caught myself following him around the tiny room so I headed the other way only to find him following me. Our attention was suddenly demanded by the ungodly screeching of Mrs. Texas Teddy R.

“Ahh wont all these people outta here NAOW!”

“Huh?” was our collective response, though she addressed Texas Teddy R himself.

“These people ain’t gonna buy nuthin’. They are takin’ up space and drinkin’ our coffee.” We visitors froze, momentarily incapable of incorporating her meanness into our genial afternoon. “And you, mister! I want your butt in the back room makin’ saddles.”

Poor Texas Teddy R, caught with his pants down and in front of so many witnesses. The Texans remind me of the Romans: unwilling in thought they are reduced to rhetoric and marching. My prediliction to analysis, or ‘five-siding’ as Texas Teddy R calls it, drives them to despair.

I can still see Mrs. Texas Teddy R’s mouth screwed into the shape of the state of Florida as I tried to discuss options they might follow to afford a new truck, including waiting awhile.

“But Ahh wont it naow and that’s NAOW,” she screamed.

It appears that the truck has hit warp speed again as snow flakes the size of dinner plate dahlias spin in the headlights. I check the speedometer – 15 mph. Good Lord. I speed up and count on a drop in altitude to clear the view.

24

Denver, which is an hour away on the average day, is snowed in, and I’m stuck at the only RV park in Colorado Springs that stays open in the winter. I stumbled on it last night in the thick of the storm and now the trailer is buried in eight inches of snow.

A guest on a local radio talk show claims that Christians should take their children out of public schools. Secular education is by definition bad, he says. He himself publishes “easy to read, easily digestible books with a Christian viewpoint. Existing books (the kind in libraries) are too difficult to read, so I write easy question and answer books,” he says. Perhaps I should give up writing, I think. But never reading. After all, it’s an activity that can be prosecuted almost anywhere, including inside a frozen Spam can at an RV camp, and the ancient Romans are an inexhaustible subject. Take diet: they had a good variety of vegetables like cabbage, lentils, beans, lettuce, radishes and turnips, gourds, pumpkins, melons and asparagus; plus grains, fruits and abundant seafood, naturally. Still, a meal Pliny the Younger prepared for a dinner party is plain odd: each guest was served a lettuce, three snails, two eggs, barley water, sweet wine with snow and… how did one prepare and eat a paunch filled with tuna water? Translators ought to explain these things.

The little electric heater barely keeps pace with the 14* temperature and 35 mile per hour wind outside, but I’m content to lie in bed like a sick-of-winter invalid. The black dog, who impersonates a compact bundle of sweetness for the moment, warms my toes. The old dog dozes sitting up, hoping to snatch a snack should I launch one his way. He sinks to the floor in front of the heater, hoists himself up again and pleads with his eyes. I motion for him to join us on the bed. He crawls halfway up and totters, too weak to push himself farther, so I hoist him onto the bed like a man onto a life raft. The two dogs arrange themselves butt to shoulder at my feet, tuck noses under tails and fidget until they are lost in time. 25

I’ll give thanks this year with friends who have built the kind of family that might soon be extinct. Mom, dad, three kids, two dogs and a cat buzz about a three story Victorian house hemmed in by fifty-foot fir trees. Dad has braved the blizzard and a fear of heights to trim the roof and the long, curving porch with strings of fat Christmas lights. I park the truck and trailer on a side street and wade through a foot of snow to the back door which opens onto an explosion of noise, and I’m washed by a wave of greetings and laughter.

Upstairs, in a room at the end of a wide hallway, I find my bed buried beneath a white lace comforter. The radiator hisses warmly and family pictures cover the walls. A real house, a real home. How novel.

26

“How do you like living here?” the youngest boy asked me after turkey dinner.

“It’s swell,” I said. “How do you like it here?”

The boy paused a second, and then giggled. “It’s great. You know, if you stay here and sleep in your trailer you don’t have to pay rent. But if you have a room of your own you’ll have to pay my dad.”

December 1

Susie, the Cristo of Westcliffe, Colorado, wraps each picture that hangs in her cafe with Christmas paper and a bow. “Do the Seagram’s sign,” she tells a waitress. I eat then leave town having said good-bye after Texas Teddy R grabbed his two dogs by their collars, lifted them in the air and smashed their skulls together just because they wouldn’t get out of the truck. I couldn’t speak but turned my eyes away as he dragged the whimpering pair through the snow to the barn, kicking at my old dog and calling him “Old Bastard” because he nipped at the male.

You are the leader of the pack, I thought. He’s just following your lead.

One again we follow the aching frozen beauty of the Sangre de Cristo range. Antelope with bellies of snow and backs of earth dissolve into snow-patched fields. A red fox crosses the timeless winter road, slips beneath a fence, covers his rear with a glance, and lopes off.

The truck at last bores south on I-25. I don’t look back but accede to a wonderful numb and empty state induced by speed and successive horizons.

A freight train curls down the Colorado side of Raton Pass and on the New Mexico side dark volcanic islands ride a ghostly horizon. A few spots show white, but the plains for the most part have been blown free of snow. At the 1991 Award Winning Rest Area south of Raton, the sunshine is warm and so is the wind, as it blows flying saucer clouds across a pearly sky.

Wind-packed snowdrifts near Springer glisten like mica and many fat hawks work the shadowed afternoon fields. It was a long ago me I sought in Denver, an error as foolish as a hawk hunting its own shadow. I drop the quest behind me like a troublesome hitchhiker.

Western jacket made from vinyl.

It looks as if some careless civilization has used the Rio Grande valley as a trash dump: Albuquerque, next fourteen exits. Plenty of time to wonder how any place can be this ugly.

The course of the Rio Grande is delineated by a bruise of dark, bare trees which feed from the stream. The roadway slices ancient watercourses, now filled with sand, which were cut into thin basalt flows that rolled red hot from their source to bake the soil and ignite everything in their path. I wish I had a dollar for every man I’ve seen pissing at the side of the road. The odometer clicks 20,000 miles and beyond.

A narrow passage Near San Acacia, that cuts through a butte split by the Rio Grande, was a favorite site for Apache ambushes. It’s a quiet place of dormant fields now but the route was formerly so dangerous that the Spanish chose the waterless path along an abandoned course of the river which lies to the east, the Jornado del Muerto, death by dehydration being preferred to capture by the Apaches, who dined on half-cooked steaks of flesh stripped from their victims as they burned to death.

Near Albuquerque the crust has spread thirty miles in thirty million years, but farther south near Alamogordo, the rift complex is sixty miles wide. A massive bajada, which is an apron of debris, buries the mountains along the west side; huge, flat-bottomed chutes lead to the river through miles of boulders, cobbles and gravel. Intertwined threads of fine sand trace where water has flowed along the bottom. The road drops into and crosses one of these chutes, which has vanished in its own shadow, Nogal Canyon, a place the devil might tread to drink from the Rio Grande.

The temperature is 58* when I stop for the night at Elephant Butte State Park. Starlight and a thin sweep of clouds shade a half moon. I remove my jacket and wander, enveloped in the wet tang of creosote and sand.

4

The gates to the state park at Leasburg Dam are locked at dusk and I slip through with minutes to spare and search the loops for an electric spot. Campers anticipate Christmas. A string of lights rings a shelter and another outlines a tree in an RV window. It’s a cheery cul-de-sac, but full. I remove to a row of empty sites laid out on a flat that reeks of creosote. To the west, dry grasses and rabbit brush spread toward indistinct, gullied hills. The dogs eat their dinner in the drizzle while inside the trailer I repair the usual disorder.

A car stops outside and a figure passes the window. I open the door onto an elderly gentleman clad in a blue cap and jacket who smiles through a mouthful of missing teeth. Rain splashes his cheery face. “Welcome,” he shouts. “I’m your campground host.” He retails park services including the combination to the lock on the gate, in case I need groceries or “a night on the town.”

“Thanks,” I tell him, “for coming out in the rain.”

I stretch out on the bed, bolstered by pillows, and write to my dad, telling him how I’ve escaped winter. I finally called him after the eccentric couple said he’d called them looking for me. There were no hard feelings on either side, although I haven’t yet spoken with my brother. Our family is like a car that drove off the assembly line on four flat tires. No one noticed and we just kept driving. Periodically I point out that the tires are flat, but I’m outnumbered so I have to get out and walk. Actually, I’ve been walking a long time.

5

We nick the corner of Las Cruces and catch I-10 west. The sky is reflected in two wide, wet tracks which cut through a heavy snowfall that stopped travel last night. From radio reports it looks like we’ll be enjoying two hundred sixty-seven miles to Tucson, on ice, trapped between kamikaze trucks. I count a caravan of forty-one of the beasts heading east and pass three accidents in thirty miles.

From the overpass into Deming a line of trucks is visible to the horizon, maybe all eighty-six miles to Arizona. A truck stop looks like the place to be, its parking lot consumed by carefully parked rows of rigs and a jumble of autos. Inside, the restaurant air is numbing and patrons wait like concrete statuary for the solitary waitress who is as fluid as the oil in the crankcases of the vehicles outside.

Down the main drag, I stop alongside a motel with a cafe at the front. Two old guys smoke cigarettes and drink coffee at a table by the window and a group of eight people, who look related, dine beneath a dozen plastic garment bags which are hung on the wall like paintings. Within the bags are sweatshirts decorated with a craft product formerly marketed as toothpaste, which has empowered millions of American women to spread stupid southwestern motifs across the broad backs and ample bellies of the land. I sigh.

“Chicken fried steak,” I tell the waitress, then help myself to the salad bar.

A woman from the eight-top says hello as she fills a plate with macaroni, Jell-O and a cherry tomato. I tell her about the truck stop since the sum of my experience in her town is my stop there, and we go to our seperate tables.

“She couldn’t get waited on at the truck stop,” the woman announces to her companions.

“It’s been repo’d again,” one of the men says.

“They still got the same lousy food, I bet. She’s lucky they didn’t serve her,” another chips in.

“She said it was real cold inside,” the first woman says.

“They must not have paid the heat again,” someone concludes. My brief status as a topic thankfully ends and they focus on the weather. Hmm. The coffee tastes like it was made with aquarium water, the gravy could stick an elephant to the ceiling, the peas are canned and I’d trade my steak knife for a chain saw.

I hurry to buy a few provisions and another ten bucks floats to the check-out counter; the road to Rock Hound State Park aims south to Mexico, runs east through pretty ranchettes, angles southeast across the water-filled dips of an apron and ends where the mountains become a volcanic wall. The campground, which is tucked in at a break in slope, appears to be empty, but the scale is deceptive and as I drive closer I see a motorhome and two trailers, mere Tonka toys against the northern reach of Las Floridas.

Cloud bottoms are maybe a hundred feet overhead and I steer toward the inviting Olympian tufts. Suddenly, the truck tires spin futilely on the icy track. Why don’t I pay attention to where I’m going? A man stuffed into a down jacket, knit cap and a beard appears next to the truck.

“Back on down the hill,” he says. “I’ll guide you.”

Shall I warn him that backing up causes the two halves of my brain to quit talking to each other? “OK.” I smile and take my foot off the brake.

In seconds he’s pounding on my window. “You’re gonna hit a pile of rocks over here.”

“OK.” I smile and nod as if I can do anything about it, gun the engine and grind millions of tire molecules to oblivion.

He pounds on the window again. “You can’t go forward.”

I smile, nod and throw the transmission into reverse, look straight up the hill and hit the gas. I check the rear view mirror. Perfect. The trailer sits between a shelter and the rest rooms, poised to change direction. I wave to the man then follow the road to a level pull-thru.

“Hey, hey!” A man in a flame orange flannel shirt, army jacket and white jeans yells at me in a Boston accent as I plug in the trailer’s electric cord. “Don’t go down to the gate. Register here.” He stands in the doorway of a yellow building and points to the ground at his feet.

The windows of the park office overlook the valley, north to Deming. The man, and a helper with a cauliflower nose and state park patches on his cap and jacket, stands around as I fill out a payment envelope, insert four dollars and hand it over.

“Put it in there.” The Easterner points to a yellow, bomb-proof cylinder mounted on a bomb-proof stand. “And keep the white and yellow copies for yourself.”

“I don’t need them,” I say, having decided pieces of paper that I’m supposed to keep never do anything but fill boxes. He takes the envelope from me and tears the receipts off anyway before I can drop it in the canister. We are now free to talk weather, which we do for fifteen minutes.

The dogs have not eaten much of the food I set out for them, a brand of chow they evidently despise. I give them a pep talk about dogs being on the plate in several cultures then throw snowballs their way. The black dog catches several in his teeth, paws the snow for the ones he misses then gets that look. He takes off, manic to the tips of his racing toes. Like a cartoon dog unfrozen from the comics page, his back feet come forward in a hairpin turn each time he reaches for a touch down.

Clouds inhale moisture, grow denser and close us in. The profile of a volcanic stock just to the west disappears and a giant Spanish Bayonet fans perfectly, ice-edged in the gloom. Cold air sinks like poison gas through every crack in the trailer as I hurry to fluff the down comforter and crawl beneath it. The lights go out and the heater goes silent. The elegant yucca is my sole companion in the fog as I reset the circuit breaker. Five days into ten months on the road and I still don’t want to live anywhere. I prefer to come and go, live the secret life of a snake or a jasper boulder that tumbles in an arroyo.

6

Three white-haired folks who sit behind the entry desk at a museum in Deming are embarassed to be caught with their mouths full of treats. In the main room partiers consume cookies and punch to the sounds of a cranky piano,

“I’ll find my way around. No need to get up,” I shout.

A woman in a lime green pants suit swallows hard, wipes her mouth and asks, “Do you need a guide dear, or can you just wander?”

I’ve come to visit the world’s most wonderful cowboy boots and I slip down the hall to the glass case where they are kept.

At 8:30 p.m. I revive from a state of unconsciousness like having been hit by a mallet. Fog clasps the trailer and the single light at the park entrance makes ice droplets in the air into pretty, visible things. I turn down the radio, light a candle and open a Pepsi. How easy it is to sleep, to join the earth in suspended animation. Books I could read poke out of the covers like icebergs but my head hits the pillow with a thunk. The little heater whistles like a cricket and the dogs are soundless, overcome with the drug of fog.

An hour later I return, hot and happy like a poached egg. I eat peanuts, drink Pepsi and think. The prospect of sunny days in Arizona can’t override a feeling of dread. In my mind, happy hours spent in the pretty cemeteries comingle with three years of bewildering stupidity at, of all places, the university. Ironically, the resulting anger propelled me into the best months of my life. I’ve dropped a lifetime of institutional refuse along the way, left it to be sucked up by the wind and annihilated. Nature takes it all and makes something pretty of it. Fog or dust devils or a plain wind. Still, I drift toward Arizona like a doomed satellite captured by a planet.

7

“The left tire on the trailer is losing air,” I tell a kid at the auto shop who looks remarkably like Kirk Douglas. He bounces on the balls of his feet, grins sideways in a dimwit way and assures me he’ll fix it right up.

The waitress at a nearby restaurant (black jeans, a red ruffled blouse and lacquered, inverted bangs) brings me lunch. I never had a sweet burrito before. It’s cloying, especially the sea of gooey jack cheese that scoots around the plate when I put a fork to it.

“All fixed.” White teeth flash like the kid has a diabolical secret he can barely keep to himself.

We drive across streets named Diamond, Platinum, Gold, Tin and Copper to arrive at an RV repair shop where I hop around in the cold while a mechanic works on the propane heater, which I’ve never used but will need soon. The usual nonsensical conversations with the guys who hang around such places, take place. An old boy who has probably worn the same crumpled cowboy hat and coveralls for thirty years speaks up when he sees my Wyoming plates.

“I seen ol’ Earthquake, have you?”

“Ol’ who?”

“The horse on your license plate.”

“He has a name?” I’ll be.

“Sure, he was a famous bronc. I seen him on display in Okie City at the Cowboy Hall of Fame.” I picture a life size, red metal cutout of a horse, just like the one on the license plate, accompanied by a label that says, Ol’ Earthquake. OK to Touch.

As I hop up and down to distract my cold feet, I promptly forget the name of the horse. A tall kid dressed in jeans and a thin extra-extra large T-shirt, leaps over the trailer tongue and exclaims, “Oh what a beautiful puppy, what a sweetheart. Can I pet him?” The black dog’s head sticks out of the window like a trophy.

“It’s equal opportunity pets around here,” I say as the old dog forces his head through the hole. A two-headed dog soaks up the attention like sand does the rain.

“Where are the men who work here?” the boy demands of me. “I need a hose,” and he dances around the truck into the burrito stand which fronts the building. Something eye-high and red moves near my shoulder. It’s a Santa Claus hat. A K-Mart badge is pinned to it. It says, Moses. The broad smiling lips, flat wide nose, long black hair and thick, muscular body of a Toltec god is under it. The god wears a gray suit, white shirt and black tie. His face is sweet and menacing at once as he asks stupid questions like, “What year is your truck?” and “What kind of gas mileage does it get?” then slips in, as if to be smooth, “Are you married?”

I laugh from habit. “I’m sorry,” I say. “I’m laughing because everyone asks me that. No, that’s not right. Men ask.”

“You’re attractive,” he says. “I don’t understand an attractive woman alone.”

“That’s why I’m laughing,” I laugh. “A man says to himself, ‘There’s a woman going to waste.’ It never occurs to him that a woman has a life beyond the limits he can imagine for her.”

He eyes me sideways like I might be dangerous then says, “You’re a teacher aren’t you?”

8

A mass of cold wet air moves up the valley on twisting winds like the silver tongue of a snake that is about to devour Deming. It’s 9:30 AM and as dark as Hades as I drive into town in search of an RV park.

US Marines, outnumbered by reporters, squint in the glare of TV lights as they make divots for themselves on a beach in Somalia. They look vulnerable and violated like mother turtles who have come ashore to dig nests and lay eggs only to find a crowd of nosy naturalists intent on filming their private lives.

A man who was here earlier, in the so-called clubhouse, took a break, leaving his portable computer, a pile of papers and two textbooks behind. He retired recently from the Air Force and took the only job he could find, as an English teacher at the middle school in Deming.

“Teachers here work two or three years then move on to bigger cities,” he said indicating a like intent on his part. He lives at the RV park because his family has yet to move down from Clovis, New Mexico.

“If I had stayed in Illinois I would be finished with student teaching and certified,” I told him.

“That close? Why didn’t you finish?” he asked. “There’s an opening right now for a science teacher at the high school.”

Why? “Allah has laid out the earth for you like a vast carpet so that you will travel its endless roads,” is one sentiment in the Koran that I can endorse. Back at the trailer, Earnest Tubbs waltzes across Texas.

9

An old man sticks his head out of the driver’s side window of a pale school bus which is parked next to me. Downy hair fluffs from his scalp and opaque china blue eyes bulge on either side of a hooked nose. His head bobbles shakily, like a baby bird’s, as he hangs onto the window glass for support. His lips move, I hear “Cheyenne” over the wind and, “lived there once.” Seems everyone has. I stand in the damp, cold air and balance a dishpan of soapy water against my stomach while the nestling fixes on a point above my head and speaks like a prophet.

“I had a trailer like yours. Blew all over the highway. I had seven Jeeps, five of them new. Wore them all out. Got this bus. It’s good.” He looks at me. “I said, ‘You live in Cheyenne?’”

“Only in the summer sometimes.”

“I live west of Fort Collins in the summer.” He grins. “I’m an Indian.”

“You have blue eyes.” My teeth chatter as I eye the restroom, which is where I was headed.

“I’m an Indian,” he repeats.

“I see.”

“From back east,” he says.

“Alright,” I say.

“It helps. See the tires?” He points a long shaky finger at the left front tire of the old bus. “I was at Canyon de Chelley and I needed new tires. Some Navajo boys took me up to the school and gave me six new tires for twenty dollars. And I gave ‘em another eighty bucks to put them on the bus.”

Sun-shredded curtains hide the inner bus from view but I doubt I should want to see it. I think of my own father, try to place him in the window, deaf, rambling and mysterious like this old birdman, but I can’t imagine him without his mind, a mind that desires to dominate everything around it. It’s his nature, like a tiger, like the tiger that surprised me at the Denver Zoo by pacing silently up to the glass wall beside me. Something like telepathy told me its jaws were inches from my head. I turned to see it glide by, frustrated that I was not available for lunch. Its immense, buttery shoulder muscles worked under the luxurious coat, its teeth showed just enough to intimidate. The white whiskers invited stroking, and the amber eyes disappeared in a bored blink. Such is my father. I’m glad that he’s in his own decent home with my brother to take care of him.

10

A retired black couple lives in the trailer across the lane from me, former New Yorkers who in the tradition of east-west misunderstanding like to make fun of the locals and their ways. His big peeve is bilinguilism.

“Who do these people think they are?” George asked the universe yesterday. “We got thirty languages in New York. You can’t go ‘round teaching kids in different languages.”

“That’s right,” Dorothy added. “Everyone’s got to learn English if this is gonna work.”

Today, George and I stand in the gravel lane between our trailers and build the ultimate trailer. Lightweight but rugged, solar and self-contained, it’s the space-shuttle of mobile abodes. He wears a Russian fur hat with the ear flaps in the ‘up’ position, a ribbed khaki sweater, tan slacks and walking shoes and he carries a sport coat over his arm. Dorothy, equally formal for these parts, strides up and chides us good-naturedly.

“Honestly, you two are two of a kind. Talkers. George! We got to go.” Her gripe, as she expressed it, is that certain families in New Mexico “Have things tied up. The cops, the mayor, the judge and the drug dealers all have the same last name. You can’t get nothin’ done.” This seems to me an odd complaint to come from a New Yorker. She’s also upset that no one in Las Vegas, Nevada, would cash her personal check. Christ. McDonalds wouldn’t take a fifty dollar bill from me this morning unless I gave them my drivers license and social security card to copy. Fat chance.

11

I leave Deming driving west on I-10 and promptly pass a semi trailer that has been opened like an orange juice can by a train. Cabbages cascade along the rail embankment and a worker tosses one up and down. Due to the strength of the wind I have a rigor mortis grip on the steering wheel as we cross the continental divide at an elevation of 4585 feet, although how surveyors picked the correct spot on these flats, I don’t know. At the border I can hear the dogs fighting in the back of the truck, which is peculiar.

Arizona opens with fabulous, wild islands of blue rock masses which drown in their own debris and smaller buttes which rise like the horns of Moses. Bits of cotton stick to everything and three-wheeled contraptions that look like cotton candy machines bounce mightily along access roads to the fields. Bare pecan trees might be squandered paint brushes planted in rows.

The stark, gravel compound of a park in Willcox is fronted by a pink brick building and a sign that advertises Luxury RV Lifestyle. Especially bad southwest art from Asia clutters an office which suffers from an overdose of blue color. The rest of the place is klutzy, cold and out of scale, like the egos of drunken men.

12

A service station is just visible in a secluded area of blond grass and creosote just below the highway. I exit, fill up the truck and inside, wait to pay. A man who stinks of half-digested beer pulls a sticky wallet from his front jeans pocket, teases out his drivers license and thrusts it at the cashier. An egg-size scab mars his cheek, or is it a thick spot in the scum which cloaks his skin and mats his hair?

“Here, here,” he says. “I’m gettin’ two dollars gas. Then I gotta go home.”

“Just give me two dollars,” she says. “I don’t want your license.”

He steps, weaves, “Don’t got two dollars. I got shot in the leg last night. See?” He points to his right thigh, to nothing. “Take my license.”

“I gotta have cash,” she says. He tries to hand her the license again but she refuses to acknowledge him so he exits weaving to a dung brown compact, drives across the lot, gets out and crawls through a barbed wire fence to where a truck driver has stopped his rig.

North of Tucson, between soft and brutal members of the vegetable kingdom and the harsh gray sky, lie successive horizons of black mountain ranges that are surely a diorama of the underworld. The terraces of the Ray mine descend before them, the rock streaked and stained in every shade of heat from thick blood to fire yellow. I am, as always, awed by the fantastic, primeval geometry of Arizona.

We land in the town of Superior where a Make Peace Not War sign dominates the side of McPherson’s Hotel Magma. The black gates of the cemetery, where I used to wander happily, are looped with chains. White figures glow under tall cedars and I turn away with the feeling that I was always an alien here.

The sunlit foreground of tan hills displays a plentitude of eccentric saguaros, but to the north, black spires of Wagnerian, jaw-dropping scale are raked with deep blue shafts of rain. The highway crosses a last pile of rocks and drops into the desert. From here, the pointed, poky mountains become what children squeeze from clay.

Memories drag me into the past and I search for the present horizon in vain, but find only murmerings of pain. Leave this place, they say.

13

It ends much as it began. The trailer is lit by four candles though I bought new batteries for the lantern. The Superstition Mountains make their own darkness at my back. The sky above Phoenix and her satellite towns bleeds salmon red. As I sip the remains of my coffee someone’s wind-up dog yaps without pause and a generator rum-rums far away. I’m almost calm here in the countryside, under the stars, amongst the desert brush and Palo Verde trees, away from the tightly packed city.

An odd thing occurred. I went to the storage complex where my worldly goods are confined, to do what? I opened the doors, gasped and shut them again. The towering tangle of stuff took me by surprise, like a manifestation of problems I had deserted, and which had been lying in wait. Upset, I went to a shopping mall to think.

“Hey Bo.” I saw dark curls, a crooked nose, a pressed white shirt and a pale face.

“Where’s your ring?” I asked. The Spaniard showed me a square gold thing with a cluster of diamonds on it like a cheapster from the 50s might have worn, but he wore it on the correct finger. “Is (I almost said the Hell Bitch) uh, you wife here?”

“Sure. We flew in last night. You’ve never met her?”

“Just by hearsay,” I said. “You’ve got talkative friends.” Something moved in his amber eyes and we spoke afterwards without looking at each other.

“Hey – I’m not drinking any more.” He puffed up his chest and stroked his stomach. “Thirty days now. Look, I’m eating too much.” True, he’d grown a tiny paunch but his jeans still fit.

“And your wife?”

“A gorgeous blond,” he prefaced.

We approached a short woman with tall fancy boots pulled over her jeans, who stood with her back to us. Her hair was unnaturally light, straight and shoulder length. I hoped the hair would match her face but it didn’t. A dark crescent followed her upper lip and her features were ordinary and expressionless. I can’t remember the color of her eyes. She was not a bit friendly.

By contrast, the pretend Mrs. Rio, as Rio’s father described her, was “like a horse that’s never been rode rough; gentle. I don’t know why Rio don’t keep this one.” Me neither.

“I have a terrible headache and I’m tired,” I said.

Rio rubbed his head and looked in the direction the Hell Bitch had gone. “Yeah, I’m tired too. Hey, look us up in Santa Fe.”

“What’s the new number?” I asked, assuming he’d moved to her ranch. I had no intention of calling.

“Check with Fuzzy. He’s living at the cabin now.”

“Use the old phone number?”

“No, I had it disconnected. Those two were callin’ all over. Fuzzy knows where to find me.” He looked miserable, like a Spaniard who has repented at the last minute and made it into heaven.

“Funny running into you here,” I said.

15

I drive northeast from Deming to Hatch through a big valley of blond grass, blue shadows and ranches. Home has been wherever I stopped for the night during the last nine and a half months, but the feeling of moment to moment contentment has escaped me like a bird that flew from my chest.

“Come back,” I plead, but the sky is empty and silent. The dogs bark at cattle as usual. My eyes burn and my neck aches. The stick shift rattles like a time bomb. I’ve forgotten the form of home, feel its loss, then know that this is what I set out to do, had to do. Home hurt. Suddenly, it’s just another day on the wide Rio Grande and I cheerfully drive mile after mile into the wind. My eyes see clouds, but no rain.

May-June Masonic Lodger

Masonic Lodger

May

West of Clovis, New Mexico, varicose veins of tar crisscross the old highway and sand drifts over the asphalt, sticking in areas like traps on a golf course. Objects seen on the horizon could be something, or nothing. Gray grass tries its roots in the pink dirt and scattered shit-rock buttes add to the monotony. At Fort Sumner, Billy the Kid Aerie keeps the tired legend breathing.

“We’re all hell-bent for a dead end. A true westerner knows it and goes head first.” (Accept uncertainty, have peace of mind.) The man is stoic, but gradually the pain in his leg rises to his face.

“My foot got near tore off when I was a kid,” he says. “I’d get on anything that’d buck or jump.” Formerly a construction worker in Montana, he now sells trashy turquoise jewelry at flea markets.

“I got kicked in the head real bad by a horse this last year. Had two brain surgeries so far, but I still got a ways to go. That’s the end of it.”

There really is a Masonic Lodge

The day is devoted to carrying my Texas auction junk up the stairs to the two rooms I have rented on the second floor of the Masonic Lodge in downtown Las Vegas. Lito, an old deaf (and therefore cranky) reformed alcoholic, who like me, lives in a travel trailer at the state park, helps me with a pair of wooden beds carved in the 1950’s by a Navajo man, in exchange for canceling a debt. The heavy frames don’t come apart and won’t fit into the elevator. Lito and I wrestle my twin mistakes up the stairs, where the irresistible residue of cigar smoke, dust, and resin, and of mysterious goings-on in the fraternal darkness for a hundred years, hits me like a odiferous fossil. It’s time to acquaint myself with the ladies room down a dark hall at the back of the building. White stars on blue bars bracket red letters that spell WOMEN, a colorful sign leftover from WWII, when the USO occupied this floor.

Lito waits on the street by the truck. He sums things up when I ask whether or not he thinks anyone will come upstairs to my shop. “Offer free beer and they will come,” he says.

My first week as a tenant of the Masonic Lodge is over. From the expansive second floor windows I have visual access to the interiors of Monte Carlos, Mercury sedans, and other old white geezer vehicles, which evidently are a cross-cultural hit. Money not spent on mufflers is spent on titanic speakers that erode the peace, the sandstone facade of the building, and the hope that I will adjust to town life. Pancho’s Cafe sits at the catty-corner of the intersection. I’ve never eaten there, the Chlorox Cafe having stolen my stomach long ago. Directly across the street an insurance office occupies a converted gas station, which ought to be torn down.

I putter away, framing pictures I found in an old scrapbook at Bobby’s junk store downstairs, which is hog heaven for a scrounger, which I am. A parade of Saturday afternoon cruisers annoys, and yet, the view from my windows is remarkable; the far horizon is snipped away by buildings that have grown sorry with neglect. East toward the railroad tracks, the cupola of the once sterling and famous Castaneda Hotel, jewel in Fred Harvey’s crown, pokes above the trees.

 

Tonight I make camp as I did in the early days, eschewing electricity as a luxury. Three yellow candles wash my trailer home and natural blue light sifts through the windows. A fine and brief thunderstorm has released the scent of surrounding pines. Cold air pulls me deep under the covers, but in spite of lingering snow patches, it is possible to inhale the first bliss of summer. Man is nature with a will. (And a vengeance.)

June

Several warnings arrive via post from my former bank; urgent red demands that I pay several thousand dollars in loans within forty-eight hours. I lean against my truck, which is parked in the tall pine forest above Santa Fe. Birds twitter; the dog crunches his dinner. At this moment I understand why reservation Indians dumped government flour onto the ground, but kept the cloth sacks to use. There’s a shameless waste of effort in formal life that cannot be comprehended until one is booted out.

The night is deepened by one-hundred foot pines that roar and hush on a scale of wind that bends them from their roots like weighted toys. As vision recedes sound succeeds. A hidden stream subsumes night with ease. My hair is stiff and sticky from a long day beneath my hat. My jeans exhale a cloud of dust when I strip them off. Fatigue trades places with sweet melancholy. The flea market will play tomorrow to a new crowd, without me. I’m worn to a core that doesn’t care about money, but which begs to go home. Can I come home now? The thought occurs along with a half-forgotten feeling, but home is dishes drying on the hood of the truck, coffee heating on the propane stove, and the neighborhood of great pines that sway through remarkable arcs. It’s the natural world that I love; not ardently or fixedly, but as a matter of fact, just as I love my truck, my dog and the trailer.

Actually, my domain overlaps Comancheria; Las Vegas was headquarters not so long ago for an infamous trade territory that has not yet lost it’s flavor.

Officially I reside in Las Vegas, however infrequent my stays. My tire tracks crease the dusty earth, my face has grown familiar to a few. Comings and goings are traditional in a town that has witnessed the treks of trappers, traders, soldiers, Apache, Comanche, cattle drivers, outlaws, and sheepherders. There is a place to go when I arrive, the front door painted with sign of the Masons. For one-hundred years the wide stairs felt the weight of the town’s ruling males whose static portraits line the hallway that carries me to my wall of windows, through which I regard a poor, unimaginative, and lonely street.

The exterior body of stone, the interior beribboned and extravagant woodwork, are as fine today as the day the materials were delivered. The space suits me: light, light and more light, high above the street, the ceilings tall enough for a cloud of thought to kiss, but my rooms remain empty except for an unshakeable tail of boxes that follow me everywhere. There’s nothing more useless than a saddle without a horse, and the Old Maid sprawls on the floor. A few townspeople have ventured up the stairs, making comments such as, “We’ve always wanted to see inside this building, but the Masons keep it locked. “ Many hurry away after becoming delirious over the blond oak woodwork.

I have yet to be here on a night when the Masons meet, but one of them appeared the other day with his wife and asked, “What is this place going to be?”

“A shop?” I ventured, knowing that I’ll be a citizen of the same sort that long ago drifted in and out of town.

Bats cross the fragile dusk. Overhead, jet engines scream. Crickets rasp incessantly. Frogs will join them later. A yellow bird lands on a dried thistle, which stoops under its weight. Much of the grass was missed by the mower and blond seed wands point like windsocks at an airport. Juvenile cottonwoods flash shiny leaves. I sit on the tailgate, luckily alone in a field at the state park outside Las Vegas, except for the black dog, who lies behind me in the truck. We have slunk into place at the tail end of a passing storm, behind a trailing hand of clouds that flexes as if drawn in chalk by an unsure hand. Mosquitos are scarce, the lake mirrors the sky, and magpies travel in a group of four, complaining, from tree to tree. What I craved was a simple formula for living that would preserve time at the core. I eat my third Snickers bar of the day. Why, I don’t know.

 

The black dog and I share an evening of flawless conditions. High above us the crescent moon slices a dust-free blue sky. I repainted the inside of the trailer today. Cleaned the empty fridge compartment and enthroned the freshly-scrubbed ice chest there, since the fridge is now at the Lodge. I like to keep the trailer tidy, so that it’s easy to find things. Old, cranky Lito mentioned that some people here at the park want to sell their trailer, which is bigger than mine. “You should take a look,” he said.

Funny. I couldn’t imagine parting with this one. I see it as an installation in a museum someday, like an Apollo capsule. “She lived in this?” schoolchildren shout in alarm.

A circle of light falls on my notebook from a flashlight perched on my shoulder, like a parakeet: it occurs to me that God is a mother tiger that carries her baby in her mouth, a baby that she could easily crush, but she restrains her giant jaws and carries the little one safely. This is the power of God, and the love of God, that is, if I actually believed in God.

I’m determined not to stir an ounce of flesh beyond what I must to secure a space at the flea market, so at 2:30 p.m. I enroll in the fourth row of waiting vehicles. It’s not a destitute lot that sells here. On the contrary, new Jeep Cherokees and the like are aligned in the hot wind along with beat up cars and patched campers. Santa Fe is an expensive town, and even middle class folk must add to their income by selling on weekends.

Ethnic garb of all sorts is worn by all sorts of ethnics: bright stripes on Guatemalans, peaked hats on West Africans, name brand marked-downs on Californians. Texans constitute a kind of summer occupational force, which is understandable to anyone who has visited that state during summer. A regular contingent from Colorado drifts down. Generally it’s a quiet crowd, as the party-seeking Texans find to their dismay, but we veterans have been matured by experience. Heat, wind, and a long wait, make the conservation of energy a wise strategy.

Once inside, I claim a space on the sand by tying a rope between the two metal posts that mark each territory, then drop a folding table on the ground for added stakes. Now, all I must do is show up before 8 a.m. tomorrow, and endure.

 

It was a slow Friday; few buyers mingled with the cheerful sightseers. I held my own, scraping up sales as if by chance or magic, but more likely it’s my reasonable prices. People come, they give me money. Not much, but enough. Still I fret. Winter will come, and then what? I had planned to save like a dutiful squirrel, but I’m only getting by.

Other benefits accrue. A man asked whether I liked old photographs; he led me to the trunk of his car, where boxes of excellent images baked in the heat. He was anxious to be rid of the lot, reason unknown, but not for money, since he pressed a pile of them on me for twenty dollars. I spent the next hot, neck-reddening hour sorting my hoard. What riches came my way! Young men dressed for WWI and young women for the battle of the sexes. A family of five, each standing rigid like fence posts on the frontier, both anchoring and distorting each other a century ago. Old time wrestlers wearing woolen trunks that fit like diapers; men forcibly men, oblivious to uses of the brain. The stack also contained pictures of locals, those few who could afford a photograph of a confirmation or a wedding. One child bride strangled a bunch of white flowers, as if she must return her borrowed shoes and bit of lace before her new husband demanded supper. Strange twisted faces united a family with no necks: one supple move might have shattered the lot and most disturbing? A preacher flanked by eight Aryan youth gripping Bibles like rifles.

Cortez in a cowboy hat: a compact, muscular, and dignified man speaks a tight-jawed version of English through teeth so perfect that they look fake. He chats with the man who runs the booth next to mine and I know that he hasn’t stopped there to buy anything, because he watches me skillfully, without looking. He leaves, pretending to pass by my booth, but pauses, asking to try on a pair of boots I’m selling, despite the fact that they are the wrong size for him. We size each other up as two healthy animals will; sniff and wag our tails, talk gold, the benefits of free trade with Mexico, and crime rates on either side of the border. Adios! What fool claims we don’t run on instinct? I would follow this man anywhere, preferably on the back of a horse. And I don’t ride.

A man who comes up to Santa Fe nearly every weekend, from a town down state on the Rio Grande, stops by. We discover that each of us knows an unlikable couple who live in his town, which furthers conversation. As for him, he said that his wife left him with two boys to raise and that the youngest just left for the army.

“Now I can do what I want,” he says. “I’m originally from Sweetwater, but I’ll never go back to Texas. Too many Baptists – and Texans are aggressive people.”

I return to my perch on the tailgate and swill warm water. Shoppers trudge past. Embedded in this new world, my old friends, and old life, slip off the face of the earth.

 

Blue moonlight sweeps the great outdoors and candles burn yellow inside the trailer, which for some reason, lists to its left. Crickets, screaming frogs, and crickets. A soft wind comes up and I review my day, suddenly aware that I repeat details just in case I’m asked to write a report some day. A vague sense of extension into a hereafter is all the Christianity left in me, the religion I was born into reduced to a book report on my life. Inside my gypsy wagon the song goes on, telling of an existence so sweet that it dies as it is born.

A nap after lunch lasted the entire afternoon. I awoke from heavy-dreamy sleep to a new world; took a shower, stocked up on snacks at the grocery store, and arrived at the Lodge by 6:30 p.m. It’s impossible not to spy on tonight’s cruisers, even as I punch thoughts into the computer. I’m getting to know a few, especially a long black sedan with jacks that simulate intercourse being conducted in the rear seat. Girls travel in threes, squashed together on front seats like overdressed pumpkins. Beer bottles grow from too many male crotches. A cool breeze fluffs the papers on my desk and I speed up my plonking, mindful that the gates at the state park are locked at 8:30 p.m., thanks to local vandals.

It’s 9:30. p.m. Pork chops and new sweet corn cook on the camp stove. The moon is nearly full and the black dog lies in the doorway, sculpted by its light. Last night coyotes barked sharply in my dreams and I asked them to come closer, just to hear what they had to say. Care is soon forgotten: I live an ‘as is, where is existence’ my energy directed toward providing for myself and nothing more. Words cease: my thoughts are carried out over the waters of the lake and beyond, to headlights that descend the Taos road, north along the interstate to Denver, perhaps to lie amid the clutter there. The dog fusses, wanting a better dinner than dry food, but I ignore him. I ignore everything but the wind and the now: sensation.

A boy appears each night, a spider clothed in black and red: a quick walker. He avoids my trailer by veering to the north, toward the lake, or south along the road, using the opposite path to return. Tonight he slips between me and the shrinking lake. Is he sad, or does he simply love the potent dusk as much as I?

July 4th / The “Goddam Fiesta”

July 4th The “Goddam Fiesta”

I sit in a cloud of my own vapors and struggle with a printer that switches fonts in mid-page. Eddie Q. appears with a younger man in tow. Eddie works odd jobs for the Masons. He has come by to conduct me into a storeroom, where an unused set of shelves resides in the fraternal dark.

“I think I’ll look for something smaller,” I tell him. He’s disappointed that I don’t want the slapdash furniture because he’s a man who likes to please. We get to talking, today’s topic his family’s ancestral ranch near Starvation Peak. I don’t mention the adobe house that I rented out that way for a brief time last fall.

“Oh, out where Indians trapped some Mexican settlers,” is all I say.

“Yes. A wagon load or two coming or going from somewhere,” he clarifies. “They went up there on the mesa thinking they could shoot down on the Apaches. But the Indians went and got the rest of themselves and surrounded the mesa. There was no water or nothing up there so they all died.”

“You know, if they had come down, probably the Indians would have let them all go,” his younger friend theorizes.

“Hah! Better to starve than be caught by Apaches,” Eddie Q tells him. “They killed the men and traded the women for slaves. You know!“ and he makes the appropriate rude gesture. “That’s how my grandfather got my grandmother. He bought her for seventy-five cents. And she was Apache herself.”

His friend frowns.

“Pero, Bro – I tell you: she was Apache. Big! Bigger than me (Eddie is 5’3” and built like a bird) with hair that dragged on the floor when she walked. And good with a knife! One day she was cutting meat for supper and told me to go get the wood for the stove. But I didn’t want to, so I told her, ‘No.’ She told me again and I still said, ‘No.’ I was standing behind her against the door. She turned quick and the knife stuck in the board not a hair from my ear. ‘Next time your ear comes off,’ she said, and I ran. Pero, Bro – I tell you I only saw her mad one other time. My grandfather, he came home drunk, so she knocked him on the ears and spun him around three, four times. But, you know, she was eighty-six and we had to take her to a nursing home. Her hair still touched the ground and was black as a cat. In the night someone cut all her hair to sell. Aiee. We could have killed that person.”

“Did you always live on the ranch?”

“Oh yes, as a kid. Later, when we moved to town, our neighbors burnt the ranch houses down and cut all the trees in the orchard with a chainsaw. They thought they would buy the place for nothing, then. They came over and said to my father, ‘Your ranch is not worth much, but we’ll buy it.’ But even before they killed the trees they stole the apples to sell: our apples had a crooked stem, all of them. I saw one of those people at the market with our apples, so I picked one up and showed him the crooked stem. ‘Thief’ I called him for everyone to hear.”

“Always keep a bad man on your side.”

“But I wasn’t always so good myself,” he rationalizes. “When I was ten I got a new .22 and went right away and shot eighteen of the neighbor’s goats for being in our alfalfa. My father had to pay for all of them. But this is strange – a boy from our family went to Clayton and met a girl he wanted to marry, and her too. When we showed up for the wedding, guess who was there? Them! What could we do? Now sometimes we have to talk to them, but not much.”

“Kinda like Romeo and Juliet,” muses his friend.

“Yes, you bet,” says Eddie, “except no one got killed, yet.”

Today seems as good a day as any to try out Pancho’s Cafe, so I cross the intersection – carefully. On Friday afternoon, more than the odd driver will be negotiating with a can of beer held under the dash. Pancho’s offers hazards of its own. Abundant flies reinforce Bobby’s admonishment that “No human being oughtta eat there.” Seated in a booth, I swat flies, as do other customers, except for a bald man whose pate provides a safe landing site, like the deck of an aircraft carrier.

An inventory of the decor will have to do. Assorted styles of salt, pepper, and ketchup trinities are present on the red plastic tablecloths. The wallpaper features radar-dish-ear deer in a fantastic western landscape shared with supersonic pheasants. Heavy brown coffee cups and translucent plastic water glasses are stacked in towers on top of the lunch counter.

“Beef enchiladas,” I tell the waitress, then go back to watching flies. An even dozen form a halo above the head of the woman in the next booth, who flips a napkin ineffectively at them.

I have enough cash to pay for dinner. Just enough. I’ve had one sale in four days; a one-dollar sale. An elderly couple and a woman who must be their daughter, fight over the flies. The man is deaf and his wife complains, “I get so tired of not being heard.”

Meat ground so fine that its origin cannot be known, lurks inside tough corn tortillas. The woman who is unheard, comments, “The beans don’t have much flavor.” I sample the boiled blah brown things: agreed. The green chile contains no pork. My appetite is never discouraged by adverse conditions.

Bobby has closed his junk shop for the day to wait on our corner. He tells me that there was an attempted bank robbery last night. “Some ol’ boy threw a rock through a window. The alarm went off and the cops came and got him. Geez. How dumb can a summa bitch be?”

We are alerted by sirens to the approach of the Independence Day parade. A bile yellow panel truck arrives, painted with what I can only describe as Kachina Vikings; a gang of axe-toting male fantasy figures who rampage across the pricky landscape of New Mexico.

“Good way to start a 4th of July parade,” I mutter to Bobby.

“Fourth of July? This ain’t the 4th of July,” Bobby says. “Just you wait.”

A clot of cop cars, their sirens engaged, enlivens the p-raid. Six beefy officers negotiate the corner with left index fingers stuck in left ears. The crowd of parents and screeching kids returns the gesture in self-defense. An officer standing a few feet away shouts that new federal regulations require sirens to be placed on the front of patrol cars rather than on the top, for safety. Into the sound vacuum created by the retreating police cars rolls a red Dodge pick up truck. A model of the Virgen de Nuestra Dolores sways in back.

“That’s what the parade’s for,” Bobby gestures. “The goddamn fiesta.”

Indeed, the Fiesta Queen arrives, seated atop a barge prettied up with Oz size paper flowers and billowing skirts. Who are the men who wear extravagant purple capes and Chris Colombo hats? No one seems to know. The Anciano Grand Marshall waves from a champagne ‘62 Olds. Men whose bellies dare shirt buttons and pants seams to give way, who cruelly test the strength of their poor horses’ backs, represent the Sheriff’s Department. They have got to be political appointees. Arching over a red, white, and green rendition of the Virgen in the back window of a shark white Chevy, is the slogan, “Fe Unidad & Amor.”

“What happened to George Washington and the Minutemen?” I ask Bobby.

“Geez,” is all he says.

Post parade, I hike across town to the old plaza, to listen to Mariachi music played by blonds, an activity that occupies two minutes, then follow a stream of kids to a carnival set up behind a row of shops. It’s a small affair of six or seven rides and as many games of skill. Predictably, the patrons are local mestizos and the carnies are opportunistic Anglos.

Young men strive to dislodge beer bottles set in a wooden rack, by hurling baseballs, but three Little Leaguers cannot be enticed to pitch, afraid it seems, of disgracing their uniforms. The carny shoves dollars into a bulging apron pocket without a break in his productive harangue. Wham, crash! A Bud bottle explodes but the kid’s second shot fails.

Pretty people fill the aisles: people with olive skin, hazel eyes, and Indian bones; with sallow skin stretched across sharp Semitic noses, bequeathed by Jews who fled to this particular end-of-the-earth in the 16th century, only to be forced to turn Catholic. Some locals retain the Commanche body, thick as a toad’s, natives who got down off their horses only recently and are not comfortable yet with walking or money, theft and trade having met their needs before.

The carnie’s insults gather the chubby, the short, the shy, and the skinny – little men who will be taking the test the rest of their lives. Fathers watch in agony as their sons pitch and miss. You’ll get used to it, their postures say. A gawky, shaved-head kid becomes the one to walk away with the prize of a cheap stuffed bear. Encouraged, a broad mamma stretches her tight red shirt to shatter one beer bottle with a secure flip. Satisfied, she gathers up her toddler and strolls away.

 

Year Two: August – December

The United States of America is an accretion of transplanted cultures that have been paved over by the American dream and by middle class materialism. I think we have come to that stage known to every empire, when its people reorganize along boundaries that supersede manmade order. The romance of unity fades: passion often does in a marriage, and really serious squabbles begin. The Federalization of the government is an effort to fill the cracks, that is, to bind the disparate cultures of the empire together in a straitjacket of legislation. We think that we have escaped the cycle of empires, but like foolish river runners who survive a few rapids, we ignore the sound of Niagara Falls ahead.

What cheery thoughts arise on a sweet-sky morning, in a world held together by the road to Santa Fe.

The black dog snaps at a fly, which he swallows dutifully, like a man who makes love to a long-married wife. I notice that my feet are cold and that I’ve been crying, which sometimes happens when I think, as if my brain cannot work without lubrication.

The dog forces the day: we discover that during the night a raccoon pried the lid off the dog food bin, then washed the kibbles in the water bucket. What a mess.

Trailer chores are finished in time for the second hail storm of the week. Ice balls bang the roof while I detail my precarious finances in a letter to my father. This is an exercise, of course. I will act from impulse, from the need to act, which is why I’m in this fix. I like to think that I’m conservative; a pillar of the community that got knocked out of position, not nomadic by nature, but by circumstance. And why can’t a pillar be mobile?

The saddle that would not go away, unexpectedly went away. I lost some money on it, and so will the man who bought it. He came back later to tell me that his friends were making fun of him. What could I say? When you pass off the Old Maid you just say thanks. The day went well, so I’ll survive another week or two. It’s all the breathing room I can expect.

I bought two cowboy hats from a Denver man. One, khaki in color, was big for me, so I lined the band with newspaper, then added a horse hair chain secured with a gold pin. The other hat fits as is. I now have five hats and see a collection coming.

No fridge (it’s in the shop), no shower, no wall-to-wall, but significantly, I have cowboy hats and boots and a playhouse on wheels. A dog.

The heater bangs away and my tin can grows toasty. The temperature skids into the 30s again. At 8500’ there’s a sharp drop around bedtime. My wrists and forearms ache and I feel vaguely beaten up. Packing and pacing at the flea market takes a toll, as do the heat, sun, wind, and aggressive dust. I was in motion from dawn until I plowed through an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet at dinner.

August

My chosen spot is among older folks who sell what they pick up at garage sales or overstock. There’s a cowboy boot tycoon from Texas, who brings his large family, and a strange man in a silly hat who sells nothing but belts. These are people who have nothing to prove, nothing to explain. They do this to make land payments, to supplement pensions, to secure a little space in a harsh world. Among these folks, I am content.

Sales were slow and I spent much of the day joking with my neighbor, a woman who recently took an oath as a witch. She sells new and used clothing out of a disintegrating Buick and works as a movie extra, most recently as a saloon girl.

A Texan of non-standard issue (spattered like a retro lamp, an Ecuadoran straw shade) makes fish sculptures from Bondo. He joined us to lament the lack of fish sales and the horror of being stranded in Santa Fe without funds. He pissed and moaned about parking his van in dark crevices around town, just to sleep.

Hours later the fish maker returned, a bit drunk. I imagine one beer would do it. He tossed a wad of bills on my table, mostly twenties. His fish-belly-face flushed like a cooked lobster .

“What’s this?” I asked.

“Some gallery owner bought me out. Every damn fish. I’m saved. Ya need money? Take some,” he said, popping another beer. He meant it, and the tipsy man chattered deliriously about a place to stay and having a bath, about being sick of hiding out by the railroad tracks in the company of desperados. “I gotta go call my mom,” he said.

“That guy will blow it all by tomorrow,” the witch observed.

Life at the flea market flows like a dream. There’s no time for popping out into words once consciousness has been abandoned. I am at home on the low hilltop that is divvied into little kingdoms with pairs of metal posts. This is my two-hundred-fifty square feet. Please recognize the boundaries as those of a sovereign trading nation. I select the merchandise, set prices, determine the method of payment and offer deals to whomever I please.

A dealer from Dallas takes the space to my left. He is outfitted all in black, in the style of Paladin, and so far he has remained remote behind black shades, delivering prices simply, his arms crossed in subtle righteousness, a pose of confidence that sends mere lookers away. A woman’s 1940 Nudie rodeo suit, wrapped in a plastic bag, hangs from the nylon canopy he erected against the sun. An embroidered stagecoach races across its blue wool shoulders, scattering rhinestone dust. The resplendent work of wearable art draws an inquiry.

“Two,” he says. And again,”Two,” when the inquirer fails to respond. “Two thousand,” he stresses.

A yellow wool jacket, also by Nudie, the back stitched with a splendid Indian in full war bonnet, with elaborate related gizmos on the front, disappeared earlier at, “One. One. One thousand,” in spite of tiny scattered moth holes.

The remaining vendors along our aisle offer the usual mix of cheap Indian jewelry, still popular after all these years. Vintage textiles tower in heaps like loot retrieved from a clothing massacre. Mexican trivets, dough troughs, and hacked-out saints beckon tourists to buy glued-together pots represented as pre-Columbian. Primitive furniture is extremely popular in New Mexico and the pickings from every arroyo within three hundred miles are laid out in the dust. Little did the Ancianos know that when they dumped plows, signs, carts, furniture, boxes, bins, tools, wheels, anything really, onto the fair land, they were not just making a mess, but banking valuable antiques to be withdrawn by their descendents and sold to despised Anglos, who must create authentic decorator junk piles in their yards. One must fit in.

Hoards trudge the aisles looking, but not buying. Sunscreen dissolves into my eyes. My antique silk umbrella suffered a terminal rip earlier, so I hunch in the slim shadow of the truck. My stomach must be filled with sand: I order drinks two at a time from the kids across the way who do Odd Jobs – 50c, as notes pinned to their shirts say.

The sun blazes, unveiled by clouds, but the sky is mellow-looking and a bit yellow, like fall. I haven’t showered since Friday.

Suddenly, a pair of silver earrings with screw-backs, worn by elderly women, are purchased by a sweet older lady. A silver coin scraped and carved into a medallion of La Virgen, by a prisoner in Mexico, goes to a professor from west Texas. A tin ballot box purchased from a Colorado visitor turns over at a profit and heads back to Colorado.

It was a year ago this weekend that I came to Santa Fe. The Milky Way stars overwhelm my view of the night sky as I sip icy water from a pot left on the camp stove. Even dying men want water to drink, I think. Dark and cold too soon; fall is imminent. I feel like a piece on a checkerboard that has jumped many spaces in one move. The process of surviving has killed any assertion that the earth was made for us. Unlike termites, sharks, and forams, which have all passed their exams, we are one of earth’s untested products. For me, adapting is simple. All I must do is move south for the winter.

September

Weeks pass like traffic on the interstate. The right rear tire on the truck was cut by a rock on my way down the mountain into Santa Fe this morning. The hiss of escaping air prompted me to pull off the road. Cool air touched my fingers, but I judged the tire competent to get me to a gas station five miles ahead, where, the I pumped air into it then judged it competent to take me to the flea market. The tire went flat as I backed into my spot, causing me to hook the right tail light on a post, tearing it from the body of the truck.

There was no way to jack up the truck as full as it was, especially with the handicap of a fiendish toy jack supplied by Chrysler, so I unloaded my goods, yelling prices to the curious as I sat in the dirt. No one offered a hand or seemed to notice my struggle. Let’s see, with the jack are four attachments. How’s this all go? A cowboy friend watched from across the aisle, but pretended not to. He waited until I was ready to lower the truck, then gallantly offered to throw the flat into the truck bed.

October

Nature’s animal prepares for winter by unloading the truck bed and hosing it out. A summer’s worth of silt, gravel, sticks, leaves, nails, coins, beads, and dog food begins a journey to the Gulf of Mexico that will last hundreds of thousands of years. How can a person, who is not a mechanic or craftsperson, have two tool boxes, an ammo box full of tools, plus a plastic bin the size of a Saint Bernard full of equipment? Determined to reduce the load, I start in, but the jacks must stay – tarps too, several lengths of rope – need those. Gas can, oil can, Coleman fuel can, propane cartridges, bungee cords, flares, tent pegs. This is hopeless, and I throw it all back in the truck, content that extension cords are neatly wound, stringy things are tied together and that the fuels are safely stowed.

Behind the seat I find several vise grips, an army blanket, an orange raincoat, a jacket, unread newspapers, library books, campground guides I never use, an Atlas, a fishing reel, a case of cassette tapes, a folding cardboard sun screen for the windshield and several pounds of dog hair mixed with gravel. Mom may have taught us manners, but to Dad we owe the stuff without which the continent would revert to barbarism, the white man’s measure of that state having nothing to do with behavior, but rather with gizmo overkill. My father trained me well – I’ve packed so efficiently that there’s room for more.

Try stuffing the contents of your house, basement, garage, and office into a pick up truck and twelve-foot travel trailer, and live in it.

November

I wrap myself in a blanket and lie down on the shop floor near the new pup, where she dozes in front of the electric heater. There is no one else in the building, so it doesn’t matter if she barks.

Last night she chirped for hours, but I slept anyway, at least until the middle of the night, when I stumbled down the lodge stairs with the New Girl tucked against my shoulder and the black dog tumbling ahead of us. We burst onto the deserted street as if we had been dropped out of the infinite sky. The black dog growls half-heartedly when she stumbles too near and paces distractedly whenever I pick her up, but he has yet to snap when she chews on his toys or drinks from his water bowl.

I miss the trailer right now and its capacity to be towed away from town to some lonely spot, empty not only of people, but of buildings as well. Town is a lonely place, but a grove of trees never is. Neither is a windy prairie nor a red canyon in the night. In places such as these something fills me like a breath that’s not my own; something that can never be found within human arrogance. It is necessary to look outside ourselves for help with the special condition of our kind. Willfulness is the love of making bad choices and free will is never free. What good is it to be capable of “Lording it over” the planet, when by our own ethic and instinct, we know that it is wrong?

 

Two flat bed trucks go by, headed north, loaded with big bushy Christmas trees dusted with plenty of snow. Native trees show darkly against the white flank of the mesa east of town. An icy mist chills town. My windows at the Lodge are like a movie screen on which the same small part of Las Vegas is always showing. Unaccountably, people eat at Pancho’s Café.

December

We have always made much from emotions, those messengers from our animal need, translating the ebb and rise of hormones into thoughtful meetings with death and resurrection. Fear is countered by gifts offered in genuine affection; we wish to persuade the gods that we are worth protecting through the bitter danger of winter.

What value would winter have without the companion passage of heart and mind that is a response to the suspension of life around us? Bare trees, yellow grass, rocks wedged by ice. Fingers that are red and swollen, heat streaming from the very skin tasked with keeping us whole. I hear that death by cold is peaceful, but explosive metabolism waits in the warming earth, in traveling chlorophyll, in thawing mud.