Sometimes the meaning of a journey is unknown to the traveller.
October 10, 2013
1:11 PM, Mountain TIme. Another roadside picnic area, this time just shy of Sitting Bull Falls. Tourist season is over for the year, and the recreation area is closed for refurbishment, which means this is as close as I’m going to get. At first, the little orange sign announcing this unexpected fact got under my skin: I seem to have a knack for showing up at just such inopportune moments. However, I allowed my curiosity to get the better of me (it’s always the way to go, trust me) and took off down the road anyway, just to see what I might see. As it turns out, my timing was quite opportune.
Silence–a precious commodity in this 21st-century world we live in. You know the question, right: “Can you hear me now?” I always want to yell at the television when I hear this: “Yes, dammit! Now please go away and leave me alone!”
I have been sitting at this picnic table for almost an hour and a half, and have neither seen nor heard a single sign of human life, save the beating of my tell-tale heart. (Sorry, Eddie…) I have not experienced silence like this, I think, in my life. Complete and utter solitude. I’ve come close, wandering the dunes of Lindisfarne in the northeast of England, but even then, I could see the homes and shops of Holy Island in the distance. Other than the table I’m sitting at, and the shelter overhead, there isn’t another man-made structure in sight; I’m seven miles from the entrance to this road, off of yet another back road, so there aren’t even any traffic noises to disturb my reverie. It’s just me, the breeze, and the beauty of a desert mountain-scape.
That pesky little park closure turned out to be the best setback ever, the purest, most genuine moment of my day. As I always say, when one door closes, break a window…
* * * * *
The Carlsbad Inn sits on Canal Street. It’s not a bad little place for the price, which is going to be slightly elevated due to the fairly impressive hole in the ground a few miles down the road. Not a bad little place at all. Except for the AC unit. Carlsbad’s in the Chihuahan Desert, making the days very warm and the nights pretty cold, and thermostats ridiculously hard to regulate. The room was nice and close when I first entered, so I switched on the air. Which proceeded to turn itself off and on at ten minute intervals throughout the night. Like a bike chain slipping, accompanied by a shotgun blast. With a jolt. A jolt so pronounced that it shook the whole room, each minor earthquake threatening to dislodge me from the bed and deposit me on the floor. I woke up. A lot. What is more, since I was in the desert, the temperature outside dropped like a rock as soon as the sun went down, so I woke up this morning with Jack Frost nipping at my pretty-much-everything, not to mention what may very well over the next few days turn into a beauty of a head cold. We shall see…
They say that the first step toward recovery is admitting you have a problem. I am a coffee addict. No, that’s not my problem. I didn’t have any. That was my problem. Having admitted as much, I decided to hit the bricks and see if I could track some down. A Chevron sign in the distance, peeking over the roof of the motel next door, seemed a promising target, so I headed off to find it.
Canal Street is a busy place at 7:30 on a Thursday morning: people off to work, kids off to school. The pedestrian proceeds at his own risk, dodging schoolbuses and tardy employees at every street corner.
Sign-reading is a favorite pastime of mine. You never know what pearls of wisdom you’ll discover. Like my favorite of all time, outside a fast food joint in Marietta, Oklahoma: “It’s time to eat y’all!” Demonstrating the importance of punctuation. Canal Street did not disappoint. A couple of doors down to the south, a Chinese buffet heaps upon its fare the highest praise it can muster: “Costs less than a trip to China.” The Best Western, two blocks north: “Welcome Lt. Governor John A. Sanchez, DJ tonight.” One wonders if they’ve told the LT exactly what’s expected of him. And the No Whiner Diner, outside the Stagecoach Inn, warns the ladies to watch their hair, because “it’s fly fan season again.”
I finally reached the Chevron station, which was strewn with fake cobwebs and laminated Jack-o-Lanterns in honor of approaching Halloween. As I stood at the counter waiting to pay for my cup of slightly watered-down lifeblood, I noticed a box of Peeps (if you don’t know what these are, you have my sympathies…and probably a lower cholesterol count than me) shaped like ghosts. It occurred to me that it’s possible to find these things in almost any shape these days. They ain’t just baby chickens anymore. And then the lightbulb really went off: custom-made Peeps, little family portraits in sugary marshmallow fluff. What greater gift could one give? “Here you go, Grandma–eat yourself for Christmas!” “Happy anniversary, dear–at least it’s not another power tool…”
* * * * *
On my way out of Carlsbad, I made a stop at the Living Desert State Park. Don’t let the name fool you; it’s really something of a glorified zoo. Although “glorified” may not be the right word. Or “wildlife,” for that matter. What they’ve got, to my mind, barely qualifies as “life.” I’ve had the great privilege of seeing some of these creatures–elk, black bear, bison–in the actual wild, in their natural habitats, and after that sort of experience, the caged versions only leave a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t even bring myself to approach the bison enclosure. The phrase itself–“bison enclosure”–feels oxymoronic somehow. There are few more majestic sights than a herd of buffalo roaming free across the prairie (or staring down a Winnebago in a national park; that was an interesting half hour); conversely, there are few more depressing sights than that same herd trapped behind chain-link, forced to walk the same circular path, day in and day out, around a tiny, dusty corral…
I did, however, capture a couple of little guys who deserve a place in this post:
Before long, I’m overtaken by a family of four–mom, dad, and two teenage daughters–who took the idea of “outdoor voices” a tad too literally. These blabbermouths epitomize my dislike of people in nature. Why is it that we are incapable of quiet? Why is our interaction with the natural world around us so rarely reverent and so often downright raucous? Is it that we feel the need to prove the right of ownership? Is it that being reminded of our own insignificance vis-à-vis our ecosystem scares us a little bit? Do we realize in these situations just how unnecessary we as a species really are to the functioning of this planet? Up ahead, at the bear pit, the mother bellows, “I sure wish we could see him!” That’s odd. I wonder why he’s hiding…
The Living Desert’s less than impressive attempts with fauna were more than made up for by its spectacular array of flora. There is something about desert plant-life that speaks to the wonders of evolution: a more bizarre assortment of organisms would be difficult for the most prolific of artists to imagine, poking their spiny extremities hither and yon, self-designed pictures of perfection. Some seem simply to have erupted from the sandy soil with no particular thought beyond survival, and aesthetics be damned. And it is precisely this disregard for symmetry that makes them such beautiful specimens of natural selection. So, you’ll forgive me if I take a moment to indulge in what I like to call “Cactus-Fest 2013.”
Later, as I entered the gift shop in search of the mandatory refrigerator magnet, I asked the woman behind the counter how her day was going. She looked at me for a moment, and responded, “Are you sure you want to know?” Hmmm. “Well,” I replied, “I asked.” As it turned out, her mother had just undergone knee surgery in Lubbock, Texas, and was at that point waiting to be discharged and sent home, a long, cramped trip for someone whose leg had just been cut open. Sometimes, that one little question–“How are you today?”–sincerely asked, is all it takes to create a sense of camaraderie, of fellow feeling, between two people. And it is too rarely sincerely asked. By the time I left the shop ten minutes later, I knew where she was from (Alaska) and why she came to New Mexico (her parents retired); she knew where I was from and why I’m on this little trip of mine. It was a short-lived connection, but a real one. This is the goal, my friends: coming together, however momentarily, as real people. Stranger danger, indeed!
* * * * *
About ten miles outside of Carlsbad, I veered off the highway to the west and struck off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway (otherwise known as NM-137). “Veered,” indeed–the intersection snuck up on me, and my left turn maneuver would have made the Andrettis themselves green with envy. Mind you, I did not know I was striking off down the Guadalupe Back Country Byway; I didn’t know there was such a thing until I was ten miles into it. Here’s what really happened (and I offer you here a window into my approach to life): when I got up this morning, I opened my atlas–the paper kind, you know, the Google-free kind–and picked a random line on the map, one that looked good and promising, which in my case means good and nowhere. And that, my friends, is what led both to the byway and to the moment of true solitude I described above. Try it sometime; you’ll be glad you did.
The GBCB is a beautiful stretch of glorious two-lane highway, some thirty miles of it. The only thing that detracts from the experience is the fact that, not unlike US-67 yesterday, it’s lined with pumpjacks and processing plants. I even passed a sign warning of the potential for poisonous gases “when flashing.” Abandon all breath, ye who enter here. Ah, nature…
At one point, a tarantula (a big one, big enough that I could make it out from inside a car moving at 55 miles an hour) ran across the road in front of me, and I swerved to miss it. And thought to myself, “Wouldn’t that make an entertaining bumper sticker…”
* * * * *
6:30 PM, Cloudcroft, NM. I left my picnic table paradise only five hours ago, but they have been an interesting five hours. I headed north to Artesia to catch US-82 west to Alamogordo. Like yesterday, I had a vague notion of spending the night in Alamogordo, and like yesterday, it was not to be.
As I sat at the intersection of 285 and 82, waiting for the light to turn, a sixteen-wheeler hauling a monster generator (a big generator, that is to say, not a machine that generates monsters) discovered, a little too late, that his cargo was too tall for the stoplight. Sounds of twisting metal against stubborn payload filled the air as the hapless driver fought to salvage the situation, to no avail. He was well and truly snagged. But he could not back up, so he gritted his teeth and struggled forward, dragging the mangled utility pole with him as he went. At last, he broke free, leaving the city of Artesia a little out of pocket and the poor traffic signal hanging lifeless and limp, dangling from a few slowly swinging wires, the rope to its gallows. Alas! he was too young to die.
Heading west, a strange feeling overtook me, filling me with a sense of dislocation, of timelessness, of total emptiness. In the distance, the shadowy outline of the Sacramento Mountains loomed, ghost-like, through a gathering mist, a token of impending rain. A heavy crosswind buffeted the car as I drove, catching up and casting prairie grass plumes across the asphalt, covering it in a silken carpet of forest green. The whole of nature, bent double before the rising wind, seemed to be running for its life, whipping violently this way and that, desperately seeking shelter against the coming storm.
The ethereal scene unfolding around me put me in a pensive mood, and I lost myself in thought as I advanced. Suddenly, the unexpected happened: a great feeling of homesickness washed over me in waves, the mirror image of the morning’s solitude. I realized I was lonely. And I very nearly turned the car around to head for home. In fact, I had to force myself to drive on. In that moment, a paradigm shifted; I learned something about myself that sent me reeling, a revelation that landed like a thunderbolt and blew my self-image to smithereens.
I missed my wife. Don’t get me wrong; I always miss my wife when I’m away from home. But this was different: I didn’t just miss her, I felt her absence like a shortness of breath. I missed my home, not because of the comfy bed or the easy access to food and entertainment, but simply because it was home. You might think it odd that this surprised me so much, but it did. See, my whole life I have been an inveterate loner. I have prided myself on my independence since I was in high school. I had friends, but I only needed Me. When everyone else congregated, I was the guy off by himself somewhere, thinking, reading, reflecting. And there I was on that New Mexico highway, alone in a way I don’t think I’ve ever been before.
The walkabout just got real, folks. I’m beginning to see through the pretensions of my life to the reality underneath. In the back of my mind, I’ve always embraced the romance of disappearing, of fading away into the hills and never being seen again, an unsolved mystery for the ages. A day and a half into this thing, and I realize this particular fantasy has lost its appeal. I’m not meant to be alone. Behind me, my other half waits, and that’s not just a metaphor anymore. Out there, somewhere, you beckon, friends, family, the promise of connection the fruition of which is no one’s responsibility but my own. Life is calling; I cannot but answer.
But I can’t turn back. Like the trucker back in Artesia, I’ve snagged on life but cannot stop. The only way out is forward, even if that means dragging all my signposts down with me. So, amidst sounds of twisting mettle, I drive on. I’ve met myself. Now for that long talk…
* * * * *
Fifty miles shy of Alamogordo, and still no rain. I am at a dead stop: one-lane road ahead, and we await the arrival of the lead vehicle guiding oncoming traffic along ten miles of unpaved mountain highway. My windows are down again, allowing the crisp fall air to flow in gusts through the inside of the car. On any other day, I’d be climbing the walls about now; I am not a patient man, and I have places to be. But that’s the beauty of this journey–I have no place to be but right where I am. In any case, it could be worse; I could be the guy standing for hours on a mountainside holding a stop sign up to people who aren’t generally thrilled to see him. So I shut off the engine and sit, enjoying the scenery and embracing the moment.
Finally the lead car arrived and we took off after it, moving at around fifteen miles an hour (do the math–ten miles at fifteen miles an hour). We snaked our gravel-laden way through mountain passes encompassed by steep ravines, a 21st-century wagon train blazing a trail through semi-civilization. What probably should have been an onerous bit of work felt more like an adventure of pioneer proportions. A coon-skin cap, and I could have channeled Daniel Boone.
After some forty-five minutes of sinuous progress, we cleared the road work and I realized just how hungry I was. So, a quick stop at a cute little roadside cafe in a one-horse town called Mayhill, for the requisite green chile cheeseburger (I think it’s against the law to visit New Mexico without eating one of these). I realized two things after my meal: 1) It was getting on toward evening, and I was still a good forty miles outside Alamogordo, and 2) that rain I’d been anticipating for the past three hours was just ahead. Downpour driving is not my thing, especially on a mountain road I’m not familiar with, in the dark.
So, when I wove my way into Cloudcroft (how cool is that name, by the way?) and saw this place, I tossed my former plans out the window, slammed on the brakes, and ordered up a room.
As I write these words, it’s 33 degrees outside and a steady drizzle is falling. I’ve wandered into winterland. The crazed October heat of Central Texas seems a world away, and forgotten. And now, to sleep once more…
* * * * *
Final thought for the day:
I live for the bend in the road, under the assumption that the greatest of treasures lies just around the corner, and if I turn back too soon, I’ll miss it. I must press on; I must see what comes next; I cannot stop, because life is motion, and the meaning of life is always out there, somewhere, ahead. He who stops short, he who assumes he has found what he is looking for and need not continue, will never truly understand, never truly know himself. Never truly live.
I am a seeker. Finding is beside the point…