What a strange, and alluring, and transporting, and wonderful feeling is in the word: road!
Gogol, Dead Souls
It always seems so desolate, driving along highway 5 in central California. Signs of life abound—houses with no neighbors, orchards, billboards for fruits and nuts, others reading “Stop the Congress Created Dust Bowl.” Tractors pulled up alongside the highway, abandoned mid-task by their faceless drivers. This was the first time I can remember actually seeing the men who till the fields that feed the state, wearing overalls, working their land, chimneys smoking in those lonely houses. People are everywhere. Even a sign left by some passer-through that reads, “Tom McCleod slept here,” begging the question, Who is Tom McCleod?
The snow at the top of the Tejon Pass reminded me of another such journey in winter, when, cresting the Grapevine in the dark of night, it started snowing, cars slowed, nearly stopped, with concern or wonder. It’s a dull road but not without its moments.
Helen and I left town before the dark, before we intended. The light reached us not before we were out of the county, but before we were out of the state. The sun took forever to rise. In the half-light of dawn and distance, things appeared different—a gnarled tree on a far hill looked like an elephant-shaped tree. When we passed it we found that it was in fact an elephant, rearing its trunk, advertising a nursery. The colonies of power lines hanging overhead formed a shape that looked like a draw-bridge. Eventually the full light of day was upon us, the shortest days filled with so much road.
Roadside dinosaurs saluted us as we tore through their prehistoric land.
We entered Arizona, which brought with it that red earth, like Mars, and Saguaro cacti. We kept our eyes peeled for the ones that look like they’re boxing. We passed through Phoenix, stopped in Tucson. Happened upon a bar and grill that’s been around since the ‘30s. A sign on the door read “No Firearms.” It felt like a dangerous town.
We found our way to New Mexico, but saw little as the darkness covered us once again. We fell asleep in a roadside motel to the whistle of trains, and awoke before the sun, and saw nothing of Las Cruces.
We passed through the Borderlands, an ominous name for an ominous place, where we heard tell of the mass graves of Juárez and saw that city’s lights and industry from across the border.
We entered Texas for my first time. We passed through a Border Patrol checkpoint and asked if we were crossing into Mexico. The agent inspected a glass jar of granola, because you can’t be too sure. We rolled on. We changed time zones twice but just when and where we couldn’t say. We didn’t notice it, but the sky was getting lighter imperceptibly faster as we rushed east through the winter dawn. We read sign after sign for want of something do to—strange signs, portentous: Hazardous Cargo, White Sands Missile Range, Horizon City, state prisons, no hitchhiking.
We left the interstate and pounded the two-lane blacktop into nowhere, amazed at the places people plant themselves. We passed through Valentine, Texas, devastated by an earthquake in 1931, still the most powerful in Texas history.
We saw longhorns and big road kill, signs for “CHURCH.” Billboards with ads, others with advice: “We need to talk. – God”.
We got there and turned back and were somehow excited by the same journey in reverse.
We waited through two hundred miles and 247 billboards for Dragoon, Arizona, where we paid one dollar cash to walk through three covered barns filled with dubious artifacts, as roadfarers have for nearly one hundred years.
Was it New Mexico or Arizona? We saw two hitchhikers on the highway with huge grins and a sign that just read “WEST.”
Hwy 10, December 2010