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.

Chapter 4 / Continued

Continued (June 13-22) 

13

Performance horses need high heels, the ferrier tells me. “The ones that need to break n’ go n’ get in the ground. That’s barrel racers, calf ropers, you know.” My Lander acquaintances keep their horses on a ranch outside town. Her paint threw a shoe, so we’re up here in the cool sunshine watching the man make a good job of it.

“This angle should match the shoulder angle,” he says as he uses a brass tool to measure the slant of the hoof as it meets the ground, then draws a line with his hand down and forward across the shoulder of the horse. He trims and files the hoof then removes translucent, squeezable material from the underside. “That’s the frog,” he says. “Damage that and the horse is in trouble.”

“Why?” I ask.

“When the horse steps, it pushes the frog up and the pressure pumps blood out of the leg. If a horse stands in a stall too long it can get thrush. The frog shrivels up and it loses circulation.”

“Then what?” I ask.

“Well, you soak the foot in Chlorox, caulk the shriveled area with silicone to make an artificial frog and put a pad on the bottom to protect it. It’ll come back fine.”

“Ho son,” the ferrier says as he starts on the other horse, which balks at having it’s hind leg pulled up at what looks to be an undignified, if not uncomfortable angle.

I decide, for some reason, to get a mule someday. “Mules, the pickup trucks of critters.”

“Say what?” he says.

14

A crowd of people  mill around long rows of picnic tables under the cottonwood trees at a park in Lander. A silent auction for twenty-five pounds of buffalo meat has been announced. Other than that, there are hot dogs, Cokes, root beer, cold cans of Bud and ice cream to eat. Costumes worn by some of the mountain men participants are pretty half-baked, too.

The silent auction is followed by an out-loud auction which commences with an offering of stones painted to look like owls. I wander away. One of the mountain men, whose teepee is in camp set aside across the stream, works for the town newspaper. He’s amiable, talkative about anything of interest to him and bald as an eagle under his fox pelt cap. He made his deerskin shirt and leggings himself and his feet are tucked into beaded moccasins. He smokes an “all natural mix” in his antler pipe, which smells nice. Tobacco is considered unnatural, he tells me.

A section of cottonwood tree has been set up so that the face, which has been painted with target circles, is about three feet off the ground. Men, boys and a couple of women throw hatchets at a three by five card held in place by thumb tacks. As the game of tomahawks or just ‘hawks’ proceeds, it’s easy to forget the lawn chairs, the aluminum table covered by a cheap blanket, the mix of costumes and street wear and the lack of skilled contestants, because everyone is having great fun. Three members of a fractional Indian family hurl insults in English, Spanish and Shoshoni at the throwers, hitting their marks because they know them well. One man, who has a harelip, wears a Tom Mix hat, a beaded vest and pretty, blue-beaded moccasins, finds the concentration to ignore their jibes. He throws insults back at the trio in a high, whining voice then splits the card in three places, three times. He looks pleased that he’s won.

Two men dressed as cowboys display the clean angular features that belonged to men of the Old West, at least in illustrations. The younger is blessed with smooth, perpetually blushed cheeks, the elder with leather worn skin deeply creased at the corners of his eyes; his mustache is like a palomino’s mane. They stand with arms crossed and look along their straight noses at the fractional Indians who, since the hawk game has ceased, act out, step by cult joke, the Rocky Horror Picture Show.

“The only part of my white heritage I acknowledge is the Scotch and Irish,” the young man says. His face is wide and flat with a pointed nose and chin, like a badger’s, with amber eyes like the black dog’s. Two Japanese swords stuck through his belt, a tobacco bag, powder horn, and ball bag hang from it, make it difficult for him to sit in a chair.

“The Celts? Why not the Welsh?” I ask.

“Oh, they’re farther away,” he says vaguely.

“OK,” I say. “Why the Scots?”

“It’s the kilt then,” he says with a burr.

“So, who was the Indian in the family?” I ask.

“Me  mother’s one-eighth you know,” he claims, now speaking as an Irishman. “That makes me one-sixteenth.” When he sees the look on my face he insists, “Indianin’ is a way of life – and I live it.” He chomps on his cheeseburger, dips it in the ketchup and mustard that cover his french fries, and chomps again.

“And your father?

“The bastard’s in South Dakota,” he says sounding now like any kid. “A short guy, you know the kind. He pushed me to go out for sports in high school when I didn’t want to. Wrestling, track, football,” he pauses, “basketball.” He’s short like his father, but his chest is wide and his shoulders slope like a wrestler’s. His thick arms end in thick hands. I’d say he’s eighteen or twenty, but at first I thought he was older because he has a gut and tries hard to please people.

“Is it just swords?” I ask. “Or do you like other weapons?”

“I love airplanes and guns and knives and tanks, WW II stuff, but swords the best.”

“I see. Indian stuff.”

He frowns. “Stop it.”

20

Monumental blocks of sandstone that rest in the bed of the Wind River are seemingly supported by the fragile water. On the opposite bank, embedded in the shale debris which lies at the bottom of a steep skirt of grass, far below the thick beds from where it has fallen, is a single boulder as big as the proverbial motorhome.

The dogs and I descend to a section where a sandbar divides the river’s flow into two glassy sheets. The banks are tangled with bushes and grasses which have gone to seed and with tiny bluebells that grow between rocks. The black dog wades into the slowly moving green water then paddles upstream as he is drawn out into faster, deeper currents. He climbs out, returns downstream and repeats the exercise three times before looking for another alcove to test. I’m supposed to meet my Lander acquaintances at a horse sale above Cody, so I call the dogs and we reluctantly climb to the truck.

The highway, courtesy of the canyon, cuts through successive rock sections named Amsden, Tensleep, Phosphoria and Dinwoody by geologists. Like famous people one has only read about, I meet the Who’s Who of Wyoming stratigraphy. Then the Wind River itself, for no good reason, becomes the Bighorn where it emerges from the canyon into the beautiful red rock of the Chugwater formation.

A highway worker drags a device along the shoulder which rips up sagebrush by the roots to expose the tan earth and its scents. A string of anvil-headed clouds forms on the northeast horizon and massive, violet mountains with a dressing of snow peek over the hills ahead. A hawk glides to the Gipsy music that plays on my tape deck. The spicy-sweet perfume of pervasive yellow flowers sweeps through the truck cab, replaced briefly by the smell of gas wells. The town of Metseetse comes and goes and the highway follows a fertile valley between Tensleep mesas. A solitary grave hugs a fence along a field where horses wade yellow-blush fields of grass and sage.

The horse sale is most likely over by the time I reach Cody at 4 p.m. so I turn west toward Yellowstone instead. On both sides of the valley where I camp, and on to the west, the mountains have flat tops. Snow, which clings to ledges and less-steep slopes, reveals the layered structure of the Absaroka volcanics that form them. A storm rumbles to the north and black clouds expand toward us over the feedlot-brown cliffs, the sky becoming so dark that the mountain face disappears. Thunder echos down the valley. The black dog raises his ears, stares at the sky and is distracted by a fly.

For two hours I disappear to the other world, to the place where the heart sleeps. I return to the sounds of the trailer breathing and laughter, which I attribute at first to the old dog who wanders somewhere nearby. I wake, roll over and doze. The black dog presses my shoulders with his back and we breathe as one.

Outside, the blustery blue world I left is quiet and the sun is golden hot. Two girls wash their hair at a water pump near the concrete outhouses then rinse their arms and legs in the gush of cold water. One stands straight as a statue, her arm raised and curved behind her head, and shaves an armpit. I put on make-up in the rearview mirror and go to town.

21

It’s Father’s Day and my dad is far away. I’m in downtown Cody and as hungry as a hog, so I enter the Irma, formerly Buffalo Bill’s hotel. The sign outside is Art Deco but the dining room is wide and warm and Edwardian. On a richly carved, cherry wood back bar doing service as a food counter, a serene buffalo head stares from the apex of a double scroll. Big, gilt-framed paintings hang high above creaky booths, eclipsing chicory blue wallpaper dizzy with pink flowers.

I’m so hungry that even if there was someone with me I couldn’t talk to them. As it is, the dark room and tiny nightlight in my booth tempt me to doze. Through the front windows I can see a sliver of the buildings across the street, one of which is constructed from the beautiful Chugwater sandstone.

A German tourist translates the menu for two companions.

“Are you folks ready?” the waitress asks. A bit of discussion in German ensues and the man with English skills orders, “The corn beef and sauerkraut sandwiches.”

“No, no, turkey,” the other man says and madam waves that she is undecided. She’ll have to decide without me. I’m gone.

“When did you start running?” He was handsome with his black hat pulled low on his forehead, his Spanish nose bent a little and curls that edged his face. Startled, I answered that I’d been traveling since March. I noticed that his blue shirt was gathered into jeans that fit like a younger man’s and that his black vest stretched over well-set shoulders.

“Hah!” he mocked as he slid an arm around my shoulders. “You gonna stand there and look good, or help us?” I watched his gunslinging partner loaded saddles, bits, bridles, spurs and cowboy miscellany into a thoroughly creased, white pickup carrying New Mexico plates.

“Stand here,” I said.

He removed his hat and rubbed his hair, which was not dense black, but dusty, and perhaps thinning. He handed me a silver spider. “Keep this,” he said. I pinned it on a pocket flap.

“He’s a con man,” someone said. A man with a round woeful face, patchy pink cheeks, and pretty gray eyes, responsible for the show and sale of Western relics that had just ended, seemed to think I’d never met the type before. He was being nice, so I said something benign and smiled. He too wore a black hat but was shorter and bowlegged. I decided that he was more interesting from the back than the front as I watched him walk away.

The insistent beauty of Wyoming waits as my mind looks at other things, at questions that  cannot be answered by the rush of the river, by Venus high in the western sky, or the midsummer twilight. I think about all the country between me and Arizona tonight, about my friends who are mostly secure, well-fed and preoccupied. And about myself, safely, if temporarily, outside it all. My memories are constellations of light, tastes in the dark, smells of dog and plant both wet and dry, clouds of experience in no order, discontinuous. Tears stick to my face. I wipe one away and another comes. I let go of what I can’t sustain, let memory empty itself to make room for the new. The black dog barks sharply. I try to follow his senses with my own, but see nothing. High above us, the Big Dipper floats with handle high, ready to pour starlight on us as we sleep.

22

Crows breakfast on last night’s road kill. I stop at a simple cafe where a mix of tourists and working people read newspapers, feed kids and begin the week.

“How many minutes in an hour?” a dad asks his boy, who kicks his leg back and forth, rubs under his chin with his hand and shifts his eyes to look at a wall clock.

“Fifteen,” he concludes. “Can I have a watch?”

“Maybe for Christmas,” his mom says.

“I want to tell time now,” he insists.

“You’ll get it soon enough,” his dad says softly. “C’mon now, your waffles are here.”

“Can I do the syrup myself?” the boy asks.

“I’ll do it.”

“Are you writing a song or the Gettysburg Address?” a man who wears a champagne color toupe, hush puppies and a shirt with his name on it, asks me.

“It’s a secret,” I tell him. He goes back to reading a Montana newspaper.

A boy who dines with his mom and three other kids finishes his plate and excuses himself to go outside. He comes back and says, “There’s a dog out there.”

“My dog,” I announce. Six kids follow me out and watch as I open the tailgate and shoo the black dog in. Why can’t I remember to close the topper windows?

North of Cody, through an oil field and beyond a refinery, is a trailer home. Four rough pine guest cabins, with green shingle roofs that overhang to form porches, line a ridge behind it. A sheep wagon, a rusty horse trailer, a jeep and a pickup truck have strayed across the hillside and stuck there. There’s a horse and a mule in the corral and a fat brown and white dog on the front porch, where a cowboy singer plays requests for guests who sit in white plastic porch chairs that are screwed down to the deck.

“Too many people was fallin’ off,” someone says as I try to pull up a chair.

“You could build a rail,” I say.

“This here song is about an artist with no canvas who used a cow’s back,” the giant-hatted singer, who also wrote the song, says.

Being ignorant of ranch work I have to say, “I don’t get it.”

“A thief used a runnun’ ‘arn to draw a brand on a cow,” someone says.

“What’s a runnun’ arn?” I want to know.

“Mostly they used a hot cinch ring,” (a circular piece of metal from a saddle that allows one to set the correct snugness around the horse’s chest) a gray-blond man in a tall hat who sits next to me says. “Thieves liked it because they could slip it in a boot.”

“Yip-e-ti-yi-yay, ti-yi-yippy-yippy-yay,” busts from the singer. His wife, who sits in a turquoise naugahyde chair under the trailer’s porchlight, exhibits a rigid posture and a vacant stare like she’s had one too many – songs that is.

“What’s a dogie, anyway?” I ask when he finishes. A cascade of information pours from the men, which I’m inclined to chew on, but not swallow.

“Well, it’s a motherless calf that got a pot belly and the Spanish called it something that sounded like dogie,” the singer says.

“And ya know the ten gallon hat?” another volunteers. “A ‘gallone’ was a band of gold braid on a Mexican’s hat so ten ‘gallones’ was a fancy hat. Someone just told me that here the other day.”

Their talk removes to a gang of new acquaintances who invited themselves to stay for the weekend, one of whom had the personality of a “soil sample,” and whose wife had a face “like a bouquet of elbows.”

“Hey, didja hear how Custer sold his Crow scouts on goin’ with him?” The grey-blond man waves his hand toward the horizon and answers himself, “When we wipe out this village all these horses will be yers.” Everybody thinks this is pretty funny and the group, enlarged by arrivees from town, starts on Montana jokes such as, the three R’s: Readin’, Writin’ and the Road to Wyoming. When sheep, icon of the lonesome (Montana) cowboy appear, I slip off for a much-appreciated shower and return to the deck a grateful traveler.

The lights of Cody look like they emanate from a toy town. Enormous clouds, like those in romantic paintings from an earlier time, pile pink and dreamy above us. In the dim light the people take on the personality of their voices, their shapes are like quiet figures in paintings.

“It’s kinda fun,” he says, when all but three of us have gone to bed, “being an unwed father at forty-seven.” The voices have changed, the laughter has stopped. The darkness in hearts is revealed under the hats, the boots, the talk of trades and money, the jokes.

“My boy committed suicide. He was only seventeen. Now this baby boy comes along. She doesn’t want me to have anything to do with him. ‘My biological clock was ticking and I wanted a kid’ she said. I went over there anyway after she brought him home from the hospital and when I saw him I decided that I’m gonna be his dad no matter what she says. I didn’t do so good the first time.”

A million stars blaze over our heads, scattered to distances we cannot imagine. We journey even greater distances in our minds, as if suspended fin time. 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 10 Villanueva

Villanueva

August 23

The road to the village of Villanueva is rough and narrow and twists through hamlets composed of adobe houses and related out buildings. Scattered lights show in windows and a few people are about, standing by the road or walking along it. Red mud fills low spots and puddles glisten.

A soft wind shakes the trees as we bounce across over-sized and too numerous speed bumps at the entrance to the campground. It takes three circuits of my chosen spot, but I get the electrical post and the trailer close enough to kiss. I can hear a river running feet away and a canyon slope rises dimly behind it. This promises to be a bit of Paradise.

The dogs receive their dinner by flashlight because clouds bar the moon and stars. They finish quickly, then dance by the door to be let inside. The old dog stayed out at the cabin the last two days. The pack of dogs had excavated a tunnel under the house and I found him there, asleep. He got stuck as he tried to crawl out, but I tugged and coaxed him through. I”ll never know what adventures he had: he’s not inclined to tell.

24 

I can see the wide rushing river, muddy from last night’s storm, as it flows across a pavement of cobbles and boulders, see the damp sandy bank as it crushes beneath my step, see the quiet cottonwoods, soft pines and cedar trees, and gray clouds which traverse the narrow sky. What I feel is my aching body. I lie down again after putting fresh sheets on the bed, stare at a map and ponder where to go next, but the future means nothing at the moment. I get up, gather my shower things and fresh clothes but lie down again, unable to face the walk to the restrooms.

“I will not die dirty,” I chant in order to work up strength. A hand-lettered note is taped to the Women/Ladies/Damas sign on the restroom door. “Please Help Conserve Energy, when you go shut the lights & close the doors. Thank-you Your Park Tech Ramon.” I do what I must.

I force myself to eat vegetable soup then lie very still so as not to cause an eruption. A hard wind has carried the clouds away and the door of the trailer swings within the limits of the bungee cord which secures it. Miraculously, I doze for two hours, yet feel weak and light-headed when I awake. I lie down again and wait. My stomach rumbles.

26 

The river at my door is the Pecos. Though clear and shallow today, its water runs deep, red and roily after a storm; its soft banks are like sugar and cinnamon mixed. Sand is dropped on the road when the river floods and road scrapers must clean it away. Much remains. I observe these things and try to enjoy them but my vision is like a TV set that has lost control.

I managed to drive to Villanueva today, a collection of adobe buildings built on a low promontory around which the river bends. The postal clerk didn’t want to take a travelers check toward purchase of a money order, so I waited as he checked regulation books even though a card on the counter explained that travelers checks are good as long as fifty percent of the value is used to buy postal services and items. The exertion of driving had caused me to break into a cold sweat and I regaled him with symptoms while he pawed through big blue binders. In the end he sold me the money order.

“If you want this to go out today you’ll have to go to the post office about ten miles north of here,” he told me. “Our mail goes out on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and you missed today’s already.”

The tightly curving road was marked No Passing most of the way and I followed cars and trucks at ten, fifteen and twenty-five miles per hour through the narrow, sinuous valley. A sign on a gate said, Chiles + Vegetables For Sale. I saw one field of corn and a tiny winery. The oldest buildings, which in form are like two Monopoly houses built end to end, are shut so tightly that it is impossible to guage if they are inhabited. The immense timber doors on an intriguing, maroon stone barn stood open on total darkness, begging me to peer inside, but it didn’t seem a neighborhood in which the wise are nosy. A massive white church is about all there is to San Miguel, where I dropped my letter, settled, as I recall, by Indians kicked out of their tribes for turning Catholic.

On the way back I stopped at a square adobe house, its trim brushed with mint green paint. ‘Grocery’ was painted on a tiny board that hung from an eave. Inside, two people as old as the wood cases, which held very little, blinked at me.

“Do you sell ice cream?” I asked. I wanted fresh meat, but asked for ice cream because they likely had that. The woman grinned and pointed to a forty-year-old refrigerator from which I retrieved a cup of vanilla, chocolate and strawberry swirl and a flat wooden scooper from a box that contained sherbet push-ups, too. No meat.

“Do you sell fresh meat? Hamburger, pork chops maybe?”

“Oh no, no,” she said. Her glasses glinted up at me and she looked a bit frightened: she crept closer to her husband who coughed and said, “Oh, no, no,” as if he’d hidden the meat and was afraid I’d force him to show me where.

What the devil? All I’d found at the store in Villanueva, besides crackers and such, was hot dogs and cheese. “Where is meat sold?” I asked.

“Otre store,” they said, while making emphatic motions down the road, but there was no otre store.

Camping in a canyon means that the world is infinitely black two-thirds of the way up the sky. Lightning flashes beyond the canyon wall to the northeast like someone has left a huge TV set on. By the time I let the dogs run then scoop them into the trailer, the storm has arrived and clouds hide all but the southern stars.

27

“One hundred and seventy-five people?” Oh please no.

“Oh yes? Maybe more? That many of our family showed up last year?” A shriveled woman in a yellow T-shirt and black polyester stretch pants speaks to me, her voice rising on the last word of every phrase as if all her thoughts are in question.

Her husband and three grandchildren roll a gas-fired grill into to my shelter and place lawn chairs to either side. “You don’t have to be alone any more?” she effuses. “It’s fun? Everybody brings their radios, even stereos? And food? It’s a party the whole time?” She opens her arms toward me, the kids smile and grandpa scurries to secure every campsite in the vicinity.

Loudmouthed drunks, blaring stereos and screaming kids fill my imagination. “I’m sure you have a lovely family,” I lie. “But I think I’ll move on.”

“You don’t have to?” she says. “You won’t be in our way?”

My ill stomach bounces up and down as those of my ancestors’ may have when accosted by presumptious diminutive Romans who wanted to party in a sacred grove. Instead of braining this tweeky grandma with an axe I secure the trailer for the bumpy trip to the highway and round up the dogs. Who says humans haven’t progressed?

“We didn’t mean to run you off?” she calls.

28

North of Las Vegas, I find refuge at the state park. The afternoon slips away with the heat and my task is done. The stove ‘hole’ is now a ‘bin’ with the addition of a door and hinged top. The refrigerator compartment is lined with plywood, has a door and two new shelves. Best of all, a new refrigerator is in place, and it cools a six-pack of Diet Coke.

31

I test the roadworthiness of my stomach by ingesting a carne adovado burrito at the Chlorox Cafe in Las Vegas. Roast pork and beentsy red chilis have been rolled up in a Hudson Bay blanket tortilla and buried in gooey cheese. It’s red hot and wow! Halfway through I pause. If I can digest this, I’m cured.

Friends I haven’t seen for years live in Taos and on my way I drive up the Mora Valley toward a pleasant section of the Sangre de Cristos, mountains built partly from brown and black mudstones which account for much loose material in the roadcuts. An open range cattle sign shows an anatomically complete and correct steer in silhouette on a yellow diamond, yet humans on similar highway signs are represented as golf ball-headed, quadruple amputees.

As the valley narrows the road rises between limestone outcrops peppered by uniform, bottle-brush pine trees, the kind that look better reduced to model railroad scale. In the stream creases, willows have turned the color that results from mixing lime and orange Jell-O together. My mother made a habit of doing this, why I don’t know, but it gave me a color reference like no other.

At my friends’ house I find that a fourth child has arrived, a slight girl with opaque black eyes who already commands her world with words. The contentment of life proceeding apace suffuses the household and reassured, I say goodnight. Lightning pops over northern New Mexico and rain overtakes us on the outskirts of Mora where a car swerves off and on the road in a crazy weave through town. While slowing to avoid the drunk, I spy men lighted against a much-painted green wall, inside a barroom bare of comfort beyond a pool table and beer signs.

September 4

Although it’s between breakfast and the lunch hour, the two room Chlorox Cafe is busy. I sit on the side made smaller by the kitchen and bakery and watch the cooks, two toros in dirty white, express their indignation with the waitresses, whose insolence, I suspect, has grown from ordering husbands and children around. They congregate at the pass-through like bad girls who torment priests, but the augurs are bent on the protection of their steamy rituals and abuse the laughing and gesturing women with short bursts of temper, stern postures and dismissal.

One of the waitresses recognizes me, which makes me feel at home. “How are the papas fixed?” I ask her.

“Oh, the papitas – homemade fried potatoes with meat and chili all over them.”

Several postal workers hug a table in the corner, drink coffee and smoke. They look a bit ratty and slightly nefarious. The woman in the next booth, who looks like a female impersonator (not in this town) has teeth which are widely spaced and slightly protruding. I worked for a time with a woman whose tiny, gapped teeth made me uncomfortable because I felt like I was talking to a prehistoric fish.

Four old codgers whose chins graze their table, discuss Arthur-itis while they smoke cigarettes and drink coffee. “On TV they say to take one aspirin every day,” one declares. “You know what my doctor says? Huh? Huh? One every other day.”

“Have you heard about Zacatecas, down in Mexico?” another asks him. “A farmer has a well there and the water has cured all kinds of people, and you know what? He gives the water away: never charges for it.”

Two old ranchers enter the restaurant slowly, creeping along like they might know a thing or two about Arthur-itis. They look like talking chicken necks as they whisper conspiratorially, eye to eye under the brims of their gray hats.

Uh. My jeans are too tight. Reluctantly, I push away the platter of potatoes and chili and finish my coffee. I wrapped the computer in a blanket last night and shoved it under the table so that the hum wouldn’t keep me awake. Sometimes it fails to boot up and I’m afraid to shut it off. I should get to work but decide instead on a long, delaying drive through the non-Cartesian kingdom of New Mexico, where the purchase of levels, plumb bobs, and enough materials to complete a construction job has been banned for centuries.

I arrive late for the Bean Day Rodeo in Wagon Mound but in time to see a black and white bull try to climb out of the chute before the gate can be opened. The metal fence for a quarter of the way around the arena jerks and a crowd of youngsters who cling to it grab a little tighter. It’s no wonder the ancients worshipped the bull; it’s a terror and a wonder, snot and all.

The announcer, who rides a horse in the arena, chatters over a cordless mike while rodeo hands stuff the monster back into the chute. A black cowboy from El Paso, Texas, rides the bull without mussing his new white hat and receives a high score. He jumps down gracefully and trots past painted plywood signs that advertise rodeo patrons, ranches such as Dreyer, Mora, Daniels, Ocamora, Ty Jones Cattle Company, Ojo Feliz, and Rafter T.

The sun elicits rich, crisp colors despite the fine red haze which hangs in the air and as I look about I wonder if we don’t if we inhabit a magazine layout. Figures in bright shirts and white hats hang over the rails, lost in the expanse of plains to the east. Pick up trucks and cars churn up soft earth for wind whorls to carry away.

“Andalay,” someone yells as a cowboy, courtesy of his horse, shoots after a steer, but his loop never leaves his hand.

“The only thing this cowboy is going to take away from Wagon Mound is your applause. Let’s here it,” intones the announcer. A surge of wind carries away the weary formula with the dust.

11

“Why don’t you come with us?” a man wearing corduroy shorts, a polo shirt and athletic shoes asks, so I climb into a mini-van with him and his wife, a strawberry blond who models a denim dress decorated with glass studs. Their brand new trailer, outfitted with a generator, electric jack and automatic leveler, is parked uphill from my aluminum can.

The woman is apologetic when I ask where they live, whispering across the head rest to me in the back seat, “We’ve been traveling since January and don’t live anywhere.” Hmm. They’re well-off, homeless, and too young to be retired.

“We managed a hotel in Denver,” she says as we schuss down the mountain toward Santa Fe, just like stars in a Chevy commercial, then adds, “out by the airport,” when I tell her that I once lived in Denver myself.

“We’d had it with working seven days a week plus night duty,” the man inserts.

“We resigned our positions and bought the trailer the same day,” she says brightly. “The dealer wanted $10,500.00 but since it was winter we got it for $6,000.00 – cash.”

“We decided to spend the spring season skiing so we headed for Vail but the engine in the van blew on the way. That was another $3,400.00,” he tosses off. “But we did ski until April.”

Dollar signs bobble about in my head, such sums not having entered there in a very long time. The man drops us in thick traffic on the edge of Santa Fe, on the grounds of the city recreation center where we become obstacles around which a stream of locals and tourists encumbered with blankets, coolers and supposed gloom, divides. She mentions that previous to hotel work she was a building manager and I mention former careers in advertising and oil and gas exploration, past lives which provide a link of sorts to strangers now that I have slipped away. The difference is, they’ll go back.

He finds us at length and we march along with the tide of celebrants drawn to Zozobra, a fifty-foot puppet burned each year at this time as a sacrifice to gloom, courtesy of local Kiwanians who turn the gate receipts into scholarships. Will Shuster, a Santa Fe artist, conjured up the big puppet in the 1920s as an objectification of collective anxiety, a burrito of light psychic cares which when consumed might at least make for fun.

We girls settle on a blanket on the playing field while the man wanders to take snapshots. She reveals, again whispering, that he has undergone seven heart bypasses kind of like the interstate system around Fort Worth/Dallas.

“That’s really why we quit and decided to travel,” she admits.

“He looks so fit,” I must say. And he does, slender with a neat, gray beard. I’d guess that she and I are about the same age and that he is in his early 50s.

“Now he is, after he lost ninety pounds. I watch what he eats and he exercises every day. To tell you the truth I’m kind of scared. I lost my first husband, too.”

The man rejoins us and I stare at the redeemed one and his frightened wife. The sun slides away and still Zozobra waits. His white gown lifts in the wind, his oversized, finger-pointing hand drifts at the end of an articulated arm, his big ears and pink grin mock us. Someone in the enormous crowd begins the chant, “Burn him, burn him,” but nothing happens for a long time. When the sky is at last dark we are further frustrated by the arrival of persons in Spanish costume, hordes of bodies covered by white sheets, and a troop of dancers in spangled red and blue stretch suits who descend the stone ledges before Zozobra. The puppet waves its arms and points comically at the crowd then gains a groaning voice, like a rusted ship rocking at anchor, rubbing its hollow, disintegrating hull on a taught chain. I join the growing chant of “Burn him, burn him,” and the silly, wonderful fun.

At last, fountains of fire erupt below Zozobra, spinning wheels fling flaming brands and rockets go fsst, fsst! into the night to explode in showers of winking color. Bam, bam, bam! Zozobra roars and his pointing finger sweeps the watchers, then, with a whoosh! his head explodes, his pink lips part, and his floating gown is consumed to the last square inch. Fireworks in abundance continue to streak the night until the field of screaming bodies is obscured by smoke.

The three of us make our way off the field, feeling the letdown that comes when something that doesn’t happen often enough, does..

A young girl who walks next to me with several friends asks, “Are you tourists?”

“Yes,” I tell her.

“What do you think? I mean, really. Is it cool?”

“It’s cool,” I concur.

Chapter 11 / The House of Ambiguity

The House of Ambiguity (November 4-15)

4

I trace faults in limestone beds which were raised like the lid of a box when the Sangre de Cristo mountains bumped up with the rest of the Rockies about six million years after the last dinosaur closed its eyes. Inside the box is time, the mystery dimension, which, though it runs forward only, folds back on itself in the human mind.

What we cannot have we sometimes grow to despise, yet the abundance of the natural world can coax us from a state of want, and provide, without thought or motive, what we need. The wind chill sinks to 12*, snow clasps the ground and I continue talking to the stones.

6

There’s no one to show my deserted, wind-rattled, adobe house to so I prop open the two front doors, which face south, and the one in the kitchen. Dust, already inside, and more drifting in from outside, skitters across the wide board floors loosely covered by fragments of cracked blue linoleum. I remove boxes from the truck and stack them in a corner of the middle room, which holds the only source of heat, a coal stove shaped like a Christmas ornament.

As I come and go I force myself to look around the four rooms and catalogue the difficulties. Roller coaster ceilings have been coaxed to stay put with layers of paper, little bits of wood and a cloth seat cover which bulges with mud that is making its bid to return to earth. Paint will hide the soot and crayon marks on the walls and fill cracks, temporarily. Red dirt, which clings to everything, can be scrubbed away. It will return. Wind batters at the boarded-over windows but the walls are thick and snug. The six outside doors however, are much warped and bleed daylight around the frames. The place will be truly sunny when I remove the odd pieces of wood and metal that shield the windows but three missing panes of glass will have to be replaced first.

I’ll need a coarse rake, I note, as I go to the truck for another box. Generations of tenants have used the yard, the whole acre of it, as a trash can. A good day’s work will have its surface clean again. To the east is the home of my landlord’s several cattle, in the yard of an empty blue house. Beyond, maroon mesas are sharply outlined in the winter light. The black dog stays on our side of the fence even though he could easily slip under the three strands of wire. Two fox-eared neighbor dogs do just that and bark at us.

I drag a large wooden trunk into the shed-kitchen over the rocks and broken concrete which serve as the back stoop. Inside, I push it against a wall. Good God the place is dirty, crummy! I’d better buy a couple of gallons of Chlorox. And new linoleum to cover the floor, which I can’t look at. The fridge is old but functions, says the landlord, as does the propane stove. Buy oven cleaner I note. The single bulb, overhead light works, and I see a phone jack. A water faucet drips into a creepy sink engulfed by a cabinet meant for a large, semi-modern kitchen. Fragments of something cover its top. I picture it gone.

Happenstance care has left the house in nearly original form, preserving what character it possesses, but my clean genes are hopping up and down wanting to apply minimum standards of sanitation to the place. Then there’s the bathroom; there is none. Probably for the best, as it would be too gross to use. I’ll use the portable in the trailer and wait for the outhouse to be redug.

Red sand, which shovels away easily, fills the drive, although it looks like there won’t be enough room between the gate posts for the trailer to pass. In a snow storm – impossible. After a rain I may not get up the gullied drive either. I’d better find a parking place down by the road. Buy snow boots, I add to my mental list.

A few more shovelfuls of red sand fly into the wind but as I dig the gate merely sags to the lower level. Hmm. The wind howls and my eyes run with tears. The black dog hovers near the truck. “I guess we’ll be content to leave it stuck open,” I tell him. “Let’s go.” My voice dies at my lips. That’s another thing, the wind. I lock the front door, which has no lock set or knob, just a hasp and miniature padlock, provided by the landlord, of the size one would use on a jewelry box.

Along the hard-packed dirt road that leads to the highway we pass roofless stone rooms with a few habitations tacked onto them like huts built in the Roman forums. What happiness, I think. This is my road, my part of the world.

My friend from Cheyenne has come and gone on his way to his mother’s house in Wyoming, from Kansas City, via Houston, where his brother lives. As we drove to the adobe house I had rented he praised the countryside, but when we arrived he did not think it charming.

“This is how my ancestors lived,” he shouted. “My great grandparents up near Walsenberg. This is my heritage,” he repeated. He seemed unduly upset “There’s no bathroom,” was his final condemnation.

The wind has been merciless today, pounding trees, truck and trailer alike, turning dogs and stray humans into shivering putty. It burrows deep to expose my paralyzing confusion and disappointment. Words have been put together in so many ways to express the states of being human and yet words fail to tell the hollow part. My mouth opens and manages a sigh. Nothing will say the hollow part.

11

Bobby, who owns a store in town, had a fit when I told him where I’d rented a house. He turned pale then at length hissed, “Ya shouldna done it. Thems out there’ll rob ya blind. And you travelin’? Sheeze! You’ll come back and everthin’ ya own’ll be gone.”

“The point in renting a place is so I can leave things there,” I said. “The trailer is getting pretty full.” I don’t let on that in my imagination I’ve bought a mule and written a dozen books while gazing out the front door at passing trains and motionless pink mesas.

“I hate to upset you,” he said more quietly, “but I don’t want to see you walkin’ in here in two, three months cryin’ you bin robbed.” He continued, sotto voce, “There’s an ol’ boy come in here one afternoon, spread a sack of stuff out on the counter he wanted me ta buy. A customer was lookin’ around, saw things that’d jes bin stolen from his house, in fact he was in here lookin’ ta replace. There’s somes around think that’s the way ta make a livin’.”

My thoughts had gone disorderly like wet spaghetti, but I tried to listen as Bobby went on. “I wuz robbed s’many times right here I had ta fill the basement stairwell with dirt and cover it over with concrete. Now they hafta come in the front. I’m tellin’ ya, town’s bad but you’d be safer here.”

Back at the ranchito, my eyes sting at the sight of the thick mud walls, crooked windows and junk-filled yard, which for the writer evoke enthusiasm for potential and remembrance. I stand in a doorway and watch swallows fly across the image of Starvation Peak, not a peak at all, but a butte isolated from the Glorieta Plateau by erosion. I doubt the one-hundred twenty Mexican settlers trapped on top by Indians thought it lovely. What if Bobby exaggerates?

My advisors are robust Hispanic officers who relax on folding chairs or lean against the walls. The lone female officer sits with her feet propped on a desk. Couldn’t someone design uniforms for women that are a bit more flattering? She looks to be sewn into a brown polyester cocoon.

Six deputies confirm Bobby’s warning, with qualifications. “It’s not all that bad,” an officer whose pants are sliding off because he has no butt, says.

“What does ‘not that bad’ mean?” I ask him.

“Well, he means it’s not as bad as Villanueva,” says another, leading the rest in a hearty laugh.

“Is Mr. X home now or in jail?” an officer who must periodically hike up his pants asks the others. They discuss the whereabouts of an evidently well known Villanuevan criminal, but no one is sure of his present status.

“Anyway, we would discourage anyone from moving down there,” says the man who brought up Villanueva. The beautiful, medieval valley of the Pecos, where I recuperated, which is populated by miniature Ancianos, is a hellhole of crime? Morbid curiosity curls holes in my memories.

“A real bad bunch of kids live there. Drugs up and down the street, you name it.”

A big, big deputy with a pistol bulging from his hip, pulls me aside to give me his card. “Why didn’t you ask us first? Call me before you rent something. I’ll tell you if it’s OK.”

“Go meet your neighbors, the female officer calls out. “Take them a gift and ask them to watch the house for you.” A gift? Drugs maybe? Sometimes I think the day cannot come too soon when we return the planet to small-brained creatures who invent nothing, not even theft.

13 

I return to the house of ambiguity where the paint I rolled onto the walls yesterday has dried to a perfect putty white and I use it now to coat woodwork peppered with nail holes and staples. An approaching train is detectable by a sound that is below hearing, a rumble I feel through my feet, a movement of the earth that spreads upward in my body until it becomes audible. I can’t help myself. I step outside to watch, this time an eastbound freight pulled by four diesel engines. It moves fast with the cars empty, toward successive lavender mesas tinted by rusty pinons. The dogs bark at the vanishing train then plop down in the red dirt in the shade of the truck. They ignore the landlord’s three cows and a calf, mere feet away.

I wander the yard and note debris: the blade of a cheap carving knife, the rusted head of an axe, a plastic jug full of dark oil, an oil filter, two ‘fridges, one with the innards of a TV set sitting on it, two sets of usable, antique bed springs in rusty red and gas station green, abundant wire, a bath tub, a child’s toy radio, rusted cans, a tire, marbles, batteries, a shoe, stove racks, lengths of hose, empty oil cans and more. I pick up a couple of rusted can lids, handy patches for holes in the floor.

The soil is wet beneath a pipe which exits the kitchen so I follow it to where it ends, open-mouthed, eight feet from the back door. White water flows from it. I left a couple of brushes in a can in the sink, a dribble of water flushing the paint…this is the drain? Everything runs out into the yard! Why?

Four hundred years of occupation comes to this: Compost Mentis. A reeking outhouse, a dribble of questionable water, oil and waste dumped on the ground, a junkyard with every house, and beer cans, bottles and cars in every arroyo; in short, all the insults of human occupation.

Let the earth return to its procession through countless unobserved seconds, to rocks alone receiving rain, to the crust flexing, to seas extending and receding, to clays settling and quartz grains rolling toward spherical perfection, to magmas swelling and benign creatures evolving and dying just like we saw in geology text books, I pray. How soothing the picture seems.

In a road cut on the way to Las Vegas, variations in dark maroon and red rock preserve the variation in mud on a moving shoreline: blocky ochre limestone that formed offshore is are e high and dry and faulted for anyone to see. Some of what we humans do is deplorable, and yet I cannot bear the thought that I might not have been a witness to what the universe has made. Feelings tumble through me like a desert stream until a boulder of a thought strikes me.

15

The landlord responded to my plea and hired a man with a truck to haul away trash, not to the dump, but across the railroad tracks where he spread it along the road. He has improved the outhouse and replaced (two-thirds) of the absent window panes. The landlord himself installed a bizarre, cone-shaped fireplace with a coat of arms on it in the bedroom and, as if the thing wasn’t ugly enough, he set it on a piece of hinged metal of unknown former function, then leaned a full sheet of bare sheetrock against the wall behind it, held in place by a 2 x 4 nailed to the floor. He has just completed the work and I am behaving quite strangely, having gotten myself totally confused. Am I happy or not that he has ‘fixed’ things?

“How marvelous, how wonderful,” I exclaim as he escorts me to the outhouse. I feel ludicrous standing over the freshly dug hole like it’s the Baths of Caracalla.

“Come here, look what we’ve done. Remember the refrigerators, the tires? Look.” He is truly pleased, I realize, as we walk to the front of the house and stand in the sun, looking south to where the train tracks lie.

“It must look pretty much as it did when you were a kid,” I say.

“Almost, you bet. Except for the railroad station being gone. That’s where your outhouse came from. The blue house over there is where my parents lived. Pretty soon there was eleven of us, so they built this place. We boys stayed here, like a bunkhouse.”

“That’s why all the doors.”

“Yes. We came and went. You know, we could get on the train right here and go to town, up to Las Vegas, to shop or see movies.” He smiles into his memories and I understand that I have no heart in the place. I rented an idea.

“Thank-you, Mr. A. I’ll be going away for awhile. You’ll hear from me.” He must think this odd, but even if I never come back he’s done right by his house today.

 

Along the road that curls away to the south, past the county dumpster with nothing inside, but much on the ground, is the local post office, which I pass three times before I recognize it by a tattered American flag that hangs limply outside a gray trailer. I stop the truck near an adobe hut: on the side is written in black spray paint, TIRES. There is also aweathered school bus that once hauled seminarians from Montezuma, outside Las Vegas.

A woman with dyed black hair, most of it missing, tends to a few weeds in front of the door. “I rented a house from Mr. A and I need a post office box.”

“Oh,” she says.” Come in.” She shows me two columns of boxes on either side of the counter. “What number will be OK for you?”

“Any number, really.”

“How about sixty?”

“Fine.”

“So you rented Mr A’s house. Little or big?”

“I don’t know,” what you’re asking.

“See, I have to draw which house it is. Is it the blue one?”

“No. Next door.”

“That’s little Mr. A.” She draws a map on the form so that the United States Postal Service can find me.

 

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.

Year 2 / Sleeping with Dogs

Year 2 / Sleeping with Dogs

New Mexico

March

A red Jaguar convertible from Colorado passes my truck on its way to Santa Fe, no doubt. The top is down and two festive Hawaiian print caps poke above the sheepskin headrests. Four miles south of Las Vegas, New Mexico, two riders on thin hairy horses cross a rough field. A red dog runs ahead of them and a white-muzzled equine senior tags along. I don’t enjoy having my feet leave the ground by even a short distance: you can’t pick things off the earth and examine them from a horse’s back.

Back in town I order a special Lenten lunch at the Chlorox Cafe, consisting of a baked salmon patty, mild wild spinach, boiled beans, and a torta de huevo – an egg white beaten frothy then fried like a pancake. I sip my third cup of coffee, bathed in the breath of humanity. The chatter around me is innocuous, and for me, without content. Will I ever learn to love my own kind?

The washing machines at a popular laundromat in Santa Fe have female names paintedon the front panels in script, but the dryers are male: George, Billy, etc. The attendant is an elderly Chicana who does embroidery on the side.

“That shirt you have on needs embroidery,” she comments.

“Why do the machines have names?” I ask.

“So when they need fixed I can tell the maintenance man. That Tilla is a bad machine. Always needs a new belt or something. She wouldn’t take the coins one day so I left him a note, ‘Tilla won’t take the coins.’ Turned out some stupid put nickels in. ‘Scuse me Lady, I gotta mop the floor. I asked the boss what I do when people won’t move. ‘Mop between their legs,’ he told me. So I do.”

I insert quarters in June and Barbara.

April

Spring comes like a baby that is unwilling to be born. “You make the other statues look like putas,” said a man in Spain to the Virgin Mary. I read that the Moors painted Paradise blue; that the word Flamenco refers to the Flemish, because Spaniards were drab and the Flemish were exciting; that Merida comes from Emeritus, a retirement town for Roman veterans; that it was the Romans who brought the ancestors of fighting bulls to Spain.

Two elderly owners survey operations at the Chlorox Café, sister-generals who miss nothing and never interrupt a good assault. The elder commands the cash register from a bunker behind the bakery counter while her second-in-command limps sharply between the tables, her face immobilized by layers of face powder many shades lighter than her skin, as if she is casting her own death mask.

Balding National Guardsmen, whose dress socks and shiny black shoes stick out like sore feet, hold Sunday newspapers between their knees, spread like the wings of avenging angels, as if today’s edition details activities for the end of the world.

Overweight, arthritic, and ornery, and an efficient army in their own right, waitresses in black stretch pants scuttle to clear dishes and deliver hot lunches. Never down on the job, they hang tight and perform. A phone rings, the food bell jingles. A boy cursed with hair as red and springy as copper wire unwound from a motor coil blows a plastic whistle. Three cooks work like demons, delivering hot and gooey omelets and burritos, enchiladas et al. Despite a giant floor fan that sweeps their cage, they sweat profusely, pounding the food bell as the pass-through backs up with plates of burgers, bowls of posole and sides of sopaipillas. Bang! Crash! The yellow glove of the dishwasher sprays steamy water across a tub of heavy china.

A gleaming orb, the eye of the Cyclops, a shimmering disk, the silver plate of heaven, the business end of a cosmic flashlight, a bad ball of basalt (and a small one at that), the meteor-abused pal of a wet and wonderful earth, the sun’s faithful mirror: whatever the moon may be called, I grow restless under its wafer-like perfection as it slides up the sky toward brittle stars that peep from the edges of thin clouds. A full moon turns night into eternity and confounds all nature. What must sleep, does not, lured awake by a sham sun. Brittle, beautiful light, why do you unsettle me?

I fidget, long, desire and turn sideways on my bed, noting the mundane objects around me. Long days of confinement will no longer do. No, winter will no longer do. I wait like a potato in a cold oven, like a seed in a package, like a missile in a silo, like a crucible of bronze, like an ambush, like a parachutist, like a sun worshipper in the arctic night.

A man who sits across the kid-size library table we share grows an incipient spiky mustache; he snuffles over a book of quotations. An anthology of mythology received the same noisy inspection. One entry caused him to ejaculate “Abstinence!”

Donated to the town of Las Vegas by Andrew Carnegie, as were libraries in small towns across the nation, the building is a miniature model of Jefferson’s Monticello. No annoying computer system separates patrons from books, and since the library is petite, the antiquated card catalogue is unnecessary: one can simply scan the shelves.

History writers, even if they compose the facts well, don’t seem to know that the past was inhabited by human beings who smelled like growing things and kicked the dust into small tornadoes. To paraphrase the book I have in hand:

…and then she was stripped naked by the Comanches, who forced her to mount a wild horse that repeatedly bucked her off and then they made her get back on. Once time she got away and hid in some bushes, but had no clothes or hat. Some good guys happened and tried to help, but the Indians came back and chased them away. She was forced to hide again, this time in some rocks…eventually the nice guys came back to rescue her. Guess what? She was six months pregnant and didn’t have a miscarriage! Plucky little gal, huh?

A Comanche warrior 1892 and his namesake, the Boeing-Sikorsky Comanche helicopter. The Comanche were possibly the toughest human beings who have ever existed.

 

I don’t watch vintage Bible movies like I did last Easter, courtesy of a motel in Cheyenne, Wyoming, which is where I lived at the time. The old dog passed on in January; the black dog lies by himself on the cool trailer floor, waiting for me to suggest a walk or a ride in the truck. Today’s task was to reflect on the year that has passed, but other than the fact that I’m still living on the road, what is there to say? I must have changed in some way, but how do we see such things in ourselves?

 

Bales of disposable diapers cross the bridge into Mexico from El Paso, clasped in the arms of men and women who dive into any passing truck. The contents of adjacent shops spill onto the sidewalk, as do men whose calls are augmented by flashing lights, Latin music, and portable microphones. Their efforts create an irresistible suction that pulls shoppers into narrow stalls, myself included, and I surface inside a women’s store presided over by dour, skull-faced Koreans, who stand on platforms like sinister storks, shouting in terse, effective Spanish at the Mexicanas who work the sales floor. The saleswomen are polite, patient, and recommend garments that one would never choose for oneself. I leave with a bright patterned leotard and an equally – no – logarithmically loud Polynesian-psychedelic blouse and skirt, printed with red and yellow and brown and blue flowers that are outlined in red and green and gold and ultra blue and hot pink sequins. It’s an event, not an outfit, and I will never wear it.

I could do with a pair of shoes, but those offered are cheap uncomfortable things, though of intriguing Whores-of-Babylon style. Little girls’ dresses, in unbearably petite sizes, stuff a shop window. I was not a happy toddler when confined in similar confections of ruffled organdy and huge satin bows, but it’s obvious why my mother forced me into them.

 

Fifty miles up the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, water flows over Leasburg dam with a distant rush, day and night. Two days in the sun have stripped my hair summer white again: Rio Grande, Rio Blonde. Small greening fields abut the thread of water where it courses between bare mountains to the west and hills held by creosote to the east. A freight train slides by; its ‘chuffs’ are silenced by the wind. Bats fly across the setting sun and mosquitos whine in the dog’s ears as if some speedier universe is trying to reach him, but their message only makes him irritable. Soothing and familiar country music plays on the radio. The DJ of the hour announces a contest for Secretary Day, “Lonche con su patrone,” the prize. I would live this way forever.

Knee-high boots cover the shins of a cowboy whose pencil-thin legs are broken into thighs and calves as strategically as those of a Greek statue. A bright buckle breaks his lanky torso and iron gray hair fluffs from beneath the halo of his cowboy hat. He claims that a broke down saddle that I own (lying in the dust at the Santa Fe flea market) is the very one that he passed off to a woman in Las Vegas: it’s the Old Maid saddle, and I am now stuck with it. He thinks this is terribly funny and when he laughs, three pebbly teeth are all that remain to disrupt the gap between his lips, reminding me of a horse skull that I own.

The cowboy dips his hat toward a sickly kid weighed down by mirrored sunglasses, who stumbles toward us up the sandy aisle. “That’s the boy there now. The wife stayed home this weekend. We rent a house out there, oh you know, halfway to Santa Rosa. One of us has to stay put or the damn neighbors take everything. Worse, they shoot the horses or dogs, just for the hell of it.”

Later in the day I pass his booth, hoping he will signal that he’s doing well, but instead he mouths “No good,” and moves his hands down and away, his long fingers spread toward the ground. By day’s end, the cowboy flashes a bundle of bills. “I can’t believe what these people will buy,” he says. “I dragged all this junk out of a dump behind the house. I am gonna do just fine.”

I meet a new kind of Westerner too, a smooth talking Moroccan who lives the ‘easy life,’ he says, thanks to his American wife.

“You don’t eat pork, I don’t date married men,” I tell him.

 

The road that runs southeast from Las Vegas, New Mexico, climbs out of a down-warp at the foot of the Rockies, which at this southern extremity, divide like the tongue of a rattlesnake. A hazy sky shares the view ahead with blue plains that sometimes elicit Homeric clichés, but not from me. The truck drifts past windmills and squat ranch buildings connected by a million fence posts. Soon the mountains recede behind us; a mirage shrinks then disappears abruptly when the road plunges over the edge of the Canadian Escarpment, a giant ledge that runs northeast for one hundred miles, from Las Vegas to Clayton.

A carload of tourists monopolizes a roadside shrine, taking pictures of each other in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, so I watch a broken windmill rod lift, then drop, no longer able to pump water. The up-screak, down-screak is an existential sound.

National Weather Service announces that golf-ball hail is moving our way, toward Amarillo, at 40 mph. A tornado has been spotted nearby, so I abandon the trailer to its fate, and speed the truck to an underpass to wait out the storm in the company of two other vehicles. Despite the concrete roadway overhead, rain bites hard and road signs wave like twirling lollipops. Lightning flickers as if someone up there is wiggling a light switch. A pigeon that tries to gain a perch on the concrete support waffles in the air like a piece of litter.

Year Two / July in Las Vegas

July in Las Vegas

 

A scene from dust bowl days greets me in downtown Portales, New Mexico, where the sun is a smear of red light, distorted by dust that hangs high in the air. Lightening fractures below the black clouds and I hurry back to the campground, where the trailer where it is tucked between three ominous topless cottonwoods. My sole companions somehow open and secure an umbrella tent and the warm light of a lantern glows like a heart within.

Inside my trailer, the curtains flutter and fall, flutter and fall, then are sucked flat against the screens by a drop in pressure. The deluge that follows relieves the taught air. I position a dish pan under the skylight, which was shattered by hail in a previous storm. Split, splat.

 

I battle hurricane rains and fatigue to find myself cum trailer in a melee of Saturday night cruisers on Las Vegas’ main street, my street, and I perform a tricky and forceful bypass of a Honda full of chirpettes to park in front of the Masonic Lodge, where I must spend the night, since the gate to the state park is locked. Also, the trailer bed is stuffed with stuff; the entire trailer is stuffed. .

The black dog has somehow worked himself to the front of the truck topper, trapping himself behind two cabinets and a bench. I open the sliding window into the cab and he escapes onto the sidewalk, propelled by the joy of release. A stuffed goose tucked beneath one arm, we march upstairs, happy to be home, but my need for sleep is postponed by the thunk-ruh of stereos; by honks, screeches, feminine shrieks, and masculine curses, although these are few.

From the vantage of my second floor windows, I see sticks of gum being unwrapped, candy bars devoured, and beers surreptitiously guzzled. The event is noisy, but tame, even entertaining, but I wonder at what time I’ll be free to sleep.

Pick up trucks that are lit up, chromed up, and jacked up, compete with dinky low riders, butt-dragging sedans, and the immortal Camaro. Music echoes between empty buildings. Country is as common as Top 40.

“I’d be better off in a pine box,” asserts a black truck, the driver’s face hidden by a black cowboy hat.

At 2 a.m. cruisers still cruise, but reduced to the noisiest element. Three very drunk kids come up the street on foot, one of them slamming the sides of buildings with a pry bar as they pass. Their destination is the stairway to the basement of the building across the street, but they look too drunk to pull off a break-in. I have no phone.

“There’s somebody up there,” a female voice says. The two boys look my way.

“Oh… yeah,” the one holding the pry bar slurs. I suffer the ridiculous impulse to wave, but they return to the sidewalk, split up, and disappear.

Noises carry like bullets and distant shouts sound very close by. Figures exit a place I had thought to be the senior citizen center, but which must be a club. Someone whistles shrilly and a dog barks far away. Little mice voices reach me from Bobby’s vestibule directly below. A woman’s whisper anticipates a chain of clicks. What the hell is that?

 

Sparks and rumbles. The violence of nature is beautiful until pink terror breaks around us. The black dog jumps, his eyes inflated by each lightning strike.

The truck is parked in a treeless field that adjoins the lake. Twenty feet away the door to the trailer is open and water is cascading inside. For some strange reason I merely watch. What am I doing? The bed is being drenched. I throw open the truck door and feel for a footing, then slop through ankle deep café-au-lait to the trailer and mop up as best I can, set out two dish pans to catch leaks, and return to the truck, as wet as if I’d fallen in the lake.

A slurry of mud and water advances from the road, with the main flood finding an escape route to the lake beneath the trailer. An empty water jug floats away and the dog’s supper dish disappears. The real challenge will be to get unstuck tomorrow.

The sky continues to rip with furious pink lightning and the air roars. I change into dry sweats and watch white lightning sign the sky with a maniac’s handwriting.

“I’ll cry tomorrow, just as soon as my heart can find the time. I’ll cry tomorrow, ‘cause I’m too busy livin’ tonight.” Rollickin’ guitars make me feel good and a pan-fried T-bone steak and flaming hot potato chips warm my belly.

 

Laundry dries on the dog’s tie-out, which stretches from the trailer awning to the mirror on the truck. The radio entertains frogs, crows, crickets and the like. Thanks to the Five Dollar Movers, the last of my auction purchases, two New Mexico style cupboards (assorted boards fetched from the dump and nailed together) have been put to use in the shop, hiding paint cans, wood finishes and tools. A folk art man made from two rusty can lids sold today, plus a few photos, bringing in a few dollars, soon depleted at the grocery, the gas station, and the laundromat. I’ll cry tomorrow, ‘cause I paid my way today.

I munch flaming hot chips – surprised that I have adjusted to this precarious existence, which even a year ago would have terrorized me. In truth, I’m not bad off, just below average in a society that suffocates its members with material burdens. Hungry, I shuffle over to Johnny’s Mexican Food, “Also Some American Food,” the sign says. My rubber shower shoes drag over the uneven streets of Las Vegas, past an auto shop that services vehicles such as Dodge Colts, which in other places, would be awaiting the crusher. The shop’s current transformation is mint chocolate chip sedan, executed by three lean chewy mechanics.

Steering the black dog away from unidentified squashed objects and garbage, we reach Johnny’s. His blue Lincoln is parked in front. A sign attached to a crumpled front fender reads: I don’t fix my car because I drive in Las Vegas, NM.

“I’ll have the Papas con Chile to go,” I tell the girl at the counter. That’s fried potatoes with creamy green chile, beans and rice, cooked to the consistency of oatmeal. The girl heads for the kitchen, leaving me to describe the wall behind the counter. Johnny, a Roy Orbison look-alike, rarely speaks, but places notes everywhere, utilizing the efficiency of the written word to preserve his remote demeanor while letting us know what’s on his mind. The objects tacked to wall are of little consequence; not the slips of paper and used calendars, or snapshots, but together, well, it’s impossible to sum up.

“Congressmen can do it but you can’t. A $20.00 charge will be collected on bad checks,”

 

“Would you want to buy a plow?” A young man whose bright salmon T-shirt glows against his skin, tugs me toward a black truck parked next to the Masonic Lodge. In the back are two garden plows and a machine designed for mule power.

“Gee, they’re nice, but kinda bigger than I can use,” I tell him. “And I’m in a hurry. My trailer is stuck in the mud out at the park and I need to get to Santa Fe. You really should take these down there to sell.”

“I thought I could sell them here and save a trip. I already sold a large one like this one here,” he says, touching a rusted fender.

“I have to get this stuff upstairs,” I say, shifting a box I’m holding. “Then I gotta get my trailer unstuck.”

“I can pull your trailer out.” Nothing would discourage him: he must extricate the trailer if only to prove his truck more capable than mine.

Poor trailer. How dismal it looked, hovering over an abyss of chocolate sludge, the front end encased in chocolate stucco. The young man backed his Chevy into place, but the hitch hovered a foot higher than the subsiding trailer tongue. Out came the jack stands, and we inched the trailer up. Bosco brown liquid flew from the rear of the Chevy as the wheels spun ineffectively.

I held up my hand for him to stop, then jammed a half sheet of plywood behind the worst-off rear wheel. Faswhweeeee! The tires screamed as the truck inched ahead.

“I guess I’ll take the garden plow, the one with green handles,” I told the young man when we returned to the Lodge.

Twenty-five bucks for a garden plow and a tow. “Cheap,” I told the dog as we rolled the thing off the elevator.

Soon a man appeared in the doorway, a Santa’s helper type in a summer haircut and itinerant garb, with a small string-tied satchel hanging from his shoulder. “I wash windows. Fifty cents a pane,” he said. That would be six bucks for my entire wall of glass. An hour later I had to deal with the startlingly clear reality of Las Vegas outside my windows, plus a missing bracelet.

 

After first driving 15 miles south to the post office in Serafina, where I have a box, I arrive at the Lodge, open a Diet Coke, go through my two-stage, two-keyboard boot on the aging computer and write two letters, then struggle to decipher notes that were smeared by rain. Two people enter and leave without a word. A man rushes halfway through the door: “You advertise antiques,” he says. I’m distracted by his eyeglasses. White tape holds the bridge together, nerd style. He wears a nylon windbreaker despite the heat. Long thin hair clings to his neck.

“The sign, it says antiques downstairs.”

“Yes. There’s a store downstairs,” I say. “And one here.”

“I buy toy trains,” he says.

“Don’t have any,” I say.

He whips around to leave and shouts, “It was worth a try.”

Give it up, I tell myself. People dash madly from store to store across the country shouting, “I buy watches,” “I buy swizzle sticks,” “I buy toasters,” always something I don’t have.

“Is this the contents and scope of your shop? Right here?” A man in a red and white T-shirt gestures around the room sarcastically. Another visitor makes fun of my artwork.

I have paid no attention to myself for weeks: barely kept finances afloat, food in my body, and clothes on my limbs; managed to be charming when needed, like a parrot imitating human speech.

 

The blues is sex on a train and alien to New Mexico, I remind myself, when inserting a Buddy Guy tape in the truck’s deck. It’s an act of self-defense. The party people who overflow the camp spot play polkas, exclusivo.

I towed the trailer to this area yesterday to get away from a Chevy bleitzkrieg. Today, I’m outnumbered six vehicles to one, but with the aid of the tape deck, I can hold my own.

“Polka, polka-polka polka!” Polkas become music to caulk by. I climb to the roof of the trailer carrying a sheet metal patch, cordless drill, and caulking gun. I promptly sit in a big rain puddle, drop one of twenty-six screws I need over the edge, and discover that I have purchased, not the wrong caulk exactly, but not the clear silicone I wanted. Too late now. The gooey white substance trails around the hole that used to contain the busted skylight. Vip, vip, vip. Twenty-five screws secure the sheet metal. I slather more goo around the seam with abandon, reminding myself not to be ungenerous, so that I won’t have to do this again.

“Polka, polka-polka polka,” washes over me when I climb down the back of the trailer using the window edge, a convenient bump in the profile, and the top of the spare tire. “Polka, polka-polka polka,” turns to early Buddy Guy.

“Whoaa. I don’t know what to do. I sit and cry and sing the blues. “

“Polka, polka-polka polka,” returns as I retrieve another blues tape from the trailer.