Sign on a small building on the main street of Vaughn, New Mexico: “I buy rocks and things.”
Another, larger, says, “Female vocalist wanted.”
Barren, windswept, desolate, stores shuttered, cafes closed, Vaughn looks dead except for a budding resurgence in new service businesses huddled around the convergence of intersections east of town. Common to those found everywhere in the United States, the very newness and sameness of the brand-name motels and restaurants is a suppurating scab on the town’s sun-rotted corpse.
But for some they must seem a beacon of civility in a wild, uncompromising land, especially for weary travelers arriving late at night or looking for shelter in a storm. And, I suppose, they provide a few jobs. Road weariness is robbing me of objectivity.
The terrain undulates gently with nothing to capture the eye. No cow nor sheep nor dwelling, no tree, no shrub nor any other growing thing taller than the drought-stricken grass, only an endless procession of fenceposts singing in the wind. Inside the truck conversation dulls, as if that terrible voluminal emptiness could not dare be disturbed.
Had we known how lucky we were in those prolonged hours navigating the bleak prairie, how its very desolation, both of terrain and of road, was also a sort of consolation so that time and miles drifted weightlessly away in our slipstream, we might have appreciated it for the reprieve it was. Lulled into a state of benumbed dormancy, only dimly aware of our surroundings, we sailed along in a mesmeric daze of monotony. But it was shattered at Santa Rosa.
Is this indeed the old Mother Road, and can the Joads still be heard on the wind? Fat chance of anything being heard above the incessant roar of diesel engines and the jackhammering of construction as new branded businesses multiply like fungus. Three exits, each connected to the umbilical cord of the highway, sucking in travelers and spitting them out. Jim dimly remembers a Lottaburger here from a previous trip, but we’re unable to find it. Traffic is horrendous. We backtrack on a frontage road looking for a place to eat. A crowded Mexican restaurant looks appealing but I’d promised my partners to let them choose for the remainder of the trip. When Jim turns into a McDonald’s my stomach lurches.
The place is packed. As we wait in line the congestion worsens when two school buses deposit their loads. Dozens of young girls stream in, a voluble horde strangely singular in nature with each individual yakking away on a cell phone. Maybe they’re conversing among themselves. We take our tasteless meal to a remote table and contemplate the chaotic scene. We haven’t been around this much humanity since—when? I can’t remember. It’s frightening. Our nerves are fraying.
Santa Rosa serves as a reminder of why intelligent travelers should at all costs avoid interstates. Other than portions of I-80 near Cheyenne, Wyoming, I’ve never seen so many semis. And every one of them piloted by a psychotic lunatic.
It comes to me that I’m being a trifle harsh with Santa Rosa. It’s an extraction business—no more, no less, such as the Kerr-McKee mines in Grants or the gypsum mine in Blue Rapids—just a different sort of extracting. Money from wallet. And anyway, if we’d located a Blake’s Lottaburger I’d still be singing Santa Rosa’s praises. That level of hypocrisy should shame me but I remain stubbornly intransigent.
Northeast of Santa Rosa we run into road destruction. Orange cone hell. Thinking of home, dust blowing, temperature 54 degrees, sunny, hot in the copilot seat. Old Highway 66 paralleled the interstate, the latter now in ruins. Top speed of 45, which by trucker standards is infinitesimally slow. Jim’s cursing the truckers, they’re cursing back. Chod dozing in the back seat. We’re getting our kicks on—oh, shut up.
A sign says another it’s another 121 miles to Amarillo. It seems like a million miles. Tired and bored, the scenery stark. Between work zones traffic jackrabbits to impressive speeds, with trucks and cars jockeying for lead position. I try not to watch as the speedometer crests 75 and then 80. Chod cocks an eye and tells Jim to watch his speed. Jim’s response is swift. “I’m trying not to get run over by these #@%*# truckers,” he snaps.
“That’s fine,” Chod says calmly, “but keep it below eighty.”
His driving is making me nervous. Why can’t he use the cruise control? Just set it, sit back and relax. Let everybody go around. I can’t imagine any trucker being crazy enough to ram a vehicle from behind. But you never know.
More cones and signs, the highway narrows to a single chute. Jim chafing at the delay. Chod nodding off again, me wanting a bathroom and an empty road out of here.
Any question about my emotional status upon entering my home state is brutally answered when I read a sign at the border. Bolting upright, I let loose a vile imprecation, adding, not without some justification, “I’m going to throw up.”
Jim, nerves afire, looks around wildly. “What!”
I can’t decide which phrase makes me most nauseous, “Drive friendly the Texas way” or “Proud home of George W. Bush.” Anyone familiar with Texas knows the drivers are suicidal maniacs, so this could be an invitation to forget everything you learned in driving school and really cut loose. As for Bush shibboleth, all I should say is that as a former Texan my sentiments run closer to those expressed by the Dixie Chicks than, say, mainstream Republicans. Though that’s certainly changing.
To make matters worse, the map shows a rest area that plainly isn’t here. Discomfort turns into acute suffering at the conjoined gravity of too many fluids and too many miles. The traveler’s travail. Jim’s keeping it at 75. For once, just once, I wish he’d drive the friendly Texas way.
(Continued next week)