After a thousand miles of two-lane highway, mostly through unpopulated regions, the traffic flow on Interstate 40 at San Rafael is like an explosion. Vehicles hurl past with no pretension of adhering to the rule of law, truckers being the most egregious. In the complete absence of enforcement, unmitigated anarchy rules. We’re swept up in the maelstrom, more prisoner than freeman, and when Chod obstinately sets the cruise control it quickly becomes obvious that we’re a terrible hindrance to the free movement of commerce. Sociopathic truckers inch forward until their polished chrome grills are inches from our rear bumper, or when passing glare like some B-grade Western baddie. Coupled with all the inattentive boneheads with cell phones pasted to their ears and the usual percentage of lunatics, it’s a shock to the system.
As we descend into the Rio Grande Valley, the Manzanos rising to the east, the Sandias to the northeast and Albuquerque an unseen but felt presence below those rounded blue mountains, I’m again reminded of my parents. I miss them terribly. On the truck thermometer the temperature hits 70 degrees, and not for the first time today we’re glad we didn’t head north. The valley is a vibrant ribbon tinged with yellow and amber and bright with fractured sunlight.
If anything the irritability of truckers increases when we take a two-lane shortcut southeastward toward I-25. Chod seems oblivious of the rising tension but Jim is visibly disturbed. As if in order to get his mind off the ill-mannered, rude, loutish—and potentially lethal—antics of lowbred, narcissistic drivers, he turns to me and asks, “Not counting your parents, who most influenced you between the ages of zero and eighteen?”
Nobody immediately comes to mind, but I pursue the idea. I was fairly insulated from the world back then, interested more in lizards and the outdoors than friends, though I had a few close ones. Or maybe not so close. Teachers bored me, as did school. Church was social, religious, mandatory, but nobody was a mentor or guide. Who then?
All I can come up with is Mr. Brown. He was a friend of my parents and a member of the church, and sometimes I would housesit for him. On his own accord he took a gangly red-headed kid and revealed to him the night sky, and for the first time the heavens had a semblance of order, and a beauty both heartrending and divine. There was Betelgeuse glowing red as a torch, Sirius like a distant beacon, the glittering belt of Orion and the pockmarked surface of the moon. I never knew his first name. He’s dead now, gone for many years.
Hesitant, unsure of Jim’s intentions, I confide how Mr. Brown literally opened a new universe for me. And in the saying emotions honed by proximity to a place once called home catch me unawares, and my words, sundered, fall into a wistful silence. An insistent wish to thank him suddenly strikes me. But how does one speak the language of the dead? I do not know. As the truck melds with southbound traffic, drawing me closer to yet another place of the heart, the best I can do is cast out my thoughts, silently, like a prayer or an affirmation, a song of one man’s selfless endowment, a priceless gift that has carried me breathless for all these long eventful years. Thank you, Mr. Brown. I have not forgotten.
And so we come to the place where my adult life started: Socorro, New Mexico. It’s a sensory overload. The town’s changed since I was here in ’72. All things do, I guess. Across the street from our motel is the McDonald’s where my parents and I had coffee before heading into Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. A few blocks away stands the old hotel where I spent those first lonesome nights separated from everything I knew and loved. The airport’s still there, and businesses have grown to surround it. How have I changed?
We dump our luggage, food and camping gear at the hotel, keeping only our cameras and binoculars. While the others wait in the truck I make a quick phone call to my parents, ostensibly to ask for the location of a primo Mexican restaurant. In reality I just want to hear their voices. And maybe, in the back of my mind, I wonder if they’d drive the 90 miles to see me, that we could meet again after a separation of over three years. But there’s no answer, and I set the phone in the cradle and try to fight the rising sense of loneliness.
I take the wheel now, the way familiar and certain. As if to deny us its light, the sun falls rapidly now. On the highway I open it up, but once past the small town of San Antonio the speed limit drops to 25. I can barely restrain myself. By the time we arrive at Bosque the eastern sky is purpling, flecked with hundreds of thousands of geese and ducks winging in to roost. The serrated hills westward mere blackened lumps like the spine of some great sleeping beast.
We’ve done this before, we’re a well-oiled machine now, spilling from the truck to surround the watering hole behind the visitor’s center, calling out the names of birds with a feral passion—white-winged dove, lesser goldfinch, white-crowned sparrow—as if that alone were the only language necessary, and then we’re back in the truck heading to the main pool. Behind us the sun touches the rim of the distant hills and wallows in flame. And in that magic space between day and night the sandhill cranes come on their long graceful wings, gliding above shallow waters gone peach and saffron, their reverberating calls like some primitive music redounding time until the low marshes transform into antediluvian swamps of yesteryear’s inland sea, and us mute witnesses, interlopers from a newer age, incapable of anything more than speechless wonder.
(Continued next week)