Thursday, February 15, 2007

Home is also part of the journey (Part 16)

“This is loserville,” Chod says.

At a truck stop in Texas we confront an America nightmare.

Each pump is tethered to a vehicle like some intravenous feeding tube. More vehicles lie in wait, the faces of their drivers pinched with anxiety and impatience. Doors open and slam, a mass of humanity surges toward the doors to engage a second exiting mass, shouldering past one another with neither apology nor eye contact. They love this place for its amenities, the bathrooms, the snacks, the cold drinks and milkshakes, the fuel to whisk them away as fast as possible, while at the same time despising it, the cheap goods, the sullen clerks, the unkempt facilities, the jostling, rude strangers, the raw cold wind raking dust in their eyes, the colorless sky, the endless miles.

For a very brief moment I take in the scene. “The more I’m around people,” I say, “the more I like Cottonwood Canyon.” And we wade into the fray.

The place is stocked with a staggering array of shoddy trinkets and brand-name knockoffs manufactured in Asian sweatshops, and the truly horrifying thing is that people are actually buying the crap. They pore over it with a scrutiny not out of place in Cartier’s. One college-aged kid holds up a cheap leather wallet to show his friend. “This looks good to me,” he says.

To me it looks like discolored scraps of leather barely held together with fishing line, but what do I know.

I turn away, any hope for the human race diminishing by the minute. These are our next leaders. We’re doomed.


The girl at Days Inn is friendly. Very friendly, and excruciatingly helpful. She has all the answers and all the y’alls, and it sounds good coming from her. That soft Texas drawl is music to my ears.

I grew up with y’alls, mind you.

We rolled into Amarillo too late to visit Palo Duro Canyon, which is Jim’s choice of destinations. The sky has turned ugly, with dark clouds scudding before a stiff north wind. All we want is a place to eat a Texas-sized steak and then to lock ourselves into a room where we can relax. Plus, I have a date with a six-pack.

Our familiar routine kicks in: unlace bungee cords, stack plastic containers beside the truck, haul inside, return for another load. Jim grimaces as the weight of his container puts undue stress on his knees, and as he waits for the pain to subside he stares off at some reference point known only to himself and says, “It’s time to go home.”

It catches me off guard. Jim the shaman, the wise one who sees patterns and rhythms where others see only stones, or passing cars and trucks on the nearby interstate, and now, perhaps, a reader of hearts, for this was ascendant in my thoughts for several days now, though I vowed not to be the first to utter the words. At first I think he’s talking to himself, but I’ve never seen him do so. That leaves me with the certain knowledge that his comment is directed toward me, for Chod has disappeared into the hotel.

What is there for me to say? An agreement only, and no more. For I have suddenly been elevated to a precarious position, confidant to two others whose desires are now at opposite extremes, and none to ask where I stand.

In truth, I could go either way—home or another night camping at Scott City Lake in western Kansas. And I realize then that my ambivalence is my strength, a bargaining chip, that straddling the middle doesn’t make me a tie-breaker so much as a bystander. They will decide among themselves.

This is not a sign of weakness on Jim’s part, but unvarnished honesty. I’m proud of him.

After unpacking I walk over to the Love’s gas station cattycorner to the hotel. It’s the place to buy beer, the gal says. And the closest, which is important because I’m edgy now that we’re in the city. I grab a six-pack of my favorite brew and take it to the front counter. The clerk is young and so clean-cut it’s almost frightening. The fact that we’re deep in Baptist territory does not escape me.

“Are you old enough to purchase the product?” he asks with a shy smile.

“I hope so,” I say.

“The white gives it away,” he says, fluttering his hand toward my beard. He’s kind enough not to mention the wrinkles.

I smile and hand him the money.

“I hope I made your day,” he says. Same syllabication as the hotel clerk. Same politeness, the puppy-dog eagerness to please.

“I’m too tired for that now,” I say, “but I’m sure tomorrow I’ll have a warm fuzzy feeling.”

On the way out I hold the door open for a lady who gives me a sweet, and twangy, thank yew.

All the way back I keep saying “thank yew,” trying to stretch those three little letters into something you can take to the bank. For good measure I add a y’all. The rising gale plucks the words toward the Gulf of Mexico. Much as I hate to say it, Amarillo is a real friendly place.

We drive to the steakhouse, the skies now completely sealed, night falling early. The temperature plummeting. Since this is Texas the serving sizes are enormous, providing much-needed ballast upon our leaving, for by then the wind is a seething, angry monster.

Once again, outside the hotel, Jim pulls me aside to talk of cutting short the trip. “We’ve had our fun,” he says. “Going home is also part of the journey.”

And so it is. I’m noncommittal, but all night I remain half-awake, wondering how the morrow will play out.

(Conclusion next week)

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