At the gateway to Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is the famous Owl Bar and Café, and it is here that my codgernautical companions, in a fit of uncommon mercy, allow me to stop. Though a clear majority of our odd democratic party had settled on eating at K-Bob’s Steakhouse in Socorro, they take pity on me for my inability to find a Lottaburger. And, possibly, crave a cessation of sniveling.
By now I’m practically delirious. I babble my order of two green chile cheeseburgers to the waitress and then recoil at Chod’s unregenerate refusal to follow suit. Visiting Bosque without eating an Owl chile burger is downright immoral if not potentially illegal, and I furiously demand an accounting. He dismisses me with a bored look. “Because I don’t have to,” he says.
I don’t have to. Here’s his chance to try something new, something unique to southern New Mexico, to sample the very pinnacle of green chile burgers—the benchmark, for God’s sake—and all he can do is act like a spoiled child. I’m so disgusted my eyes are crossed. His parents should have beaten him more.
Jim orders a regular burger and asks for chile on the side.
Now, eating a green chile hamburger is not a meal so much as a religious experience, and nowhere on the face of the planet is it perfected as at the Owl Café. Years ago Outside magazine ran an article that listed ten restaurants that were so sublime as to warrant detours of up to 200 miles. High on the list was the Owl. Impressive as that sounds, my partners are unfazed. Their intransigence utterly dumbfounds me, and as I sourly nurse a beer I glance around at the other people and wonder if they would have been better companions.
When our orders come Jim slides the chile across the table with a wink. I add it to my burger until it oozes from the bun like green manna and remark that it’s a pity I didn’t bring my camera. Such a photo would have warmed many a cold Kansas night. With a zeal hitherto unseen, like a ravenous beast or deprived chilehead, I set upon the burger with claw and fang. At the first savorous mouthful the walls roll away and the heavens open, Gabriel’s trumpet peals, an angelic choir belts out the hallelujah chorus and divine light fills the room. It’s that good.
Chod refuses to look my way. With a sneer I hiss, “Sissy.”
After that I’m a little busy.
Night. We cruise the main drag for a liquor store with none to be found. Nor is beer sold in convenience stores. Socorro puts me in a drinking mood but my thirst goes unslaked.
At the hotel we turn on the TV and watch the weather forecast. Our usual routine, only now we’re wondering if our southward flight were wisdom or folly. Wise, it was, and then some. The smiling faces regale us with tales of blizzards and road closures, of belligerent winter cruel and savage. And here’s a new equation—a major storm to the east has us sandwiched between that roaring down from the north.
Out come the maps. Going south has added a day to the itinerary, mainly due to the extra mileage. Today we drove over 350 miles, and tomorrow should be about the same. And for the first time our direction takes us homeward. While none of us are yet willing to mention it, our trip is slowly drawing to a close. Now we’re at the mercy of an unpredictable stormfront.
I call Lori to tell her where we are. She’s surprised and wants to know if we visited my parents in Albuquerque. No, but I called them and left a message. I don’t tell her how much I miss them now. That it’s a bonedeep ache that throbs and throbs. That the very nearness compounds the pain. “Two more days,” I tell her. “Maybe three, depending on the weather.”
Hanging up is like some inward severance of sinew and muscle. I drag my wounds to the lobby where I scribble notes until weariness draws a veil over the pages.
How long ago did I wake in this town to an unfamiliar dawn? The twin beds, the rusty radiator, the bathroom tiles cracked and missing, the claw-foot tub mangy with worn enamel, the window staring out at the empty fountain whose waters had long since turned to dust, only a memory, like the memories choking me in my time of despair. The Colt unholstered on the nightstand. Uniform draped on the other bed. A pair of scuffed boots, a small suitcase, a book, notebook, pen. The earthly possessions of a vagabond or gypsy trapped in a limbo between what was and what was to be. And in that gray dawn my choices were so few, pared down to a grim minimum that I could not help but recognize. To stop or go. Behind me a manhunt, before me the lonely anonymity of a stranger, and always, always, the reiterant castigations and forlorn wishes that tasted like ash. The pistol, finally, heavy in my hand as I slid it into the holster, secured the snap, and went out into the new day.
Shadows stretch long in the early sun. We load the truck—a familiar routine now, our plastic containers against the tool box, the food box canted across the fifth-wheel hitch, bungee cords laced through all, ice box wedged by the wheel well, our personal belongings tossed in the cab. At a gas station we fill up and grab snacks for the day. Top off our coffee cups. Jim starts the truck and asks for directions. “Texas,” I say.
Across the Jornada del Muerto, the journey of the dead, and after that the malpais.
(Continued next week)