My family has always liked to travel, and every road trip was always viewed as an adventure. Even the ‘vacations’ back to where my parents grew up in the South were at least in part an adventure, even if on the whole I would have preferred to have never gone on those adventures at all. Being on the road and headed ‘somewhere’ always held the allure of a romance for me, and each city and town, desert and forrest, mountain and river and cow and cornfield all looked new to me, even if they looked like every one that I had seen before. It was therefore with great eagerness that I agreed to accompany my brother and his wife on a road trip in June of 1969.
I had only just returned home from the Army; May 29 was my day of liberation to be exact, and after two years in Vietnam a trip across a thousand miles of open and friendly country sounded like heaven to me. I was nearly scalped by the Army barbers who were intent on getting their last pound of flesh, thin as a stick because I ate only enough Army food to stay alive, and at twenty years and three hundred and thirty seven days old I was twenty eight days too young to have a beer in public. Packing my bags and leaving everything behind me for a couple of weeks seemed like a dream come true. Brad, my brother, would finish his spring semester in a week and a half and then we would all be away.
I chafed at the delay. Being a Vietnam veteran in California, even a military-friendly town like San Diego, was not a sure road to popularity. My old friends accepted me of course, but the experiences of my last three years, the things that I had seen and done, made it impossible to just pick up and move on as if none of us had changed. I enjoyed going to the homes of friends and having a few beers, smoking a few bowels of weed and talking and laughing, but there were things that I did not feel able to talk about, that my friends did not want or, for that matter, need to hear. These things were what I wanted to sort out, to see what I should hold onto and what I should let go of, and that sort of business could be better done alone in a 1963 Mercury rolling across the Southwest desert. So the days crawled by until the eve of our journey
I would be driving my mother’s car. Dad had a truck and Mom could live a week or two without wheels. She didn’t tend to do much shopping or make social calls anyway, so it was of little inconvenience to her. Brad and Ginny would be in their tiny Datsun pickup with an equally tiny camper on the back. We loaded our vehicles the night before and planned to set out when we usually did on such trips, about two in the morning. I loaded a cot and some blankets, food and minimal toiletries (I had little hair to brush), clothes and a few books that I knew I would not read. I made sure that I had a cooler to hold the sandwiches that I would eat as we rolled down the highway and the beer that I was still too young to drink. Brad and Ginny packed whatever it was they packed and a couple of cases of beer. I knew that wouldn’t get us very far down the road, but it was at least a start.
We did not leave at two in the morning. In fact, it was well after sunup and a good home cooked breakfast before we fired our vehicles up and nosed them into the traffic on Fairmont Avenue, which led to the onramp of Interstate 8. Once we gained the Interstate we followed it for the five or six miles of it that had been completed, and which then fed us into the two lanes that comprised U.S. Highway 80, which we had always used before. President Eisenhauer’s dream of a great, broad network of straight highways connecting all parts of the country was still in its early stages of development, and great stretches of the United States were still served only by the winding two lane roads which arose with the early age of the automobile.
U.S. 80 snaked across the El Cajon Valley, up and over the Laguna Mountains, and finally across the Imperial Valley towards the Colorado River and the border with Arizona. El Cajon was warm and the mountains were cool and fresh, but the Imperial Valley was as hot as the very hinges of hell, and I loved every minute of it. The mountains are beautiful, with live oak growing in the valleys and the slopes covered by chaparral and huge exposed boulders until one gets high enough to reach the pines. The road only briefly gets that high and then returns to boulders and chaparral and then the descent into the desert.
The desert; how I love it. There was little to look at but sand and rock, greasewood and sagebrush, cholla and ocotillo cacti, and a few other hardy plants struggling to earn an existence in such a forbidding environment. Shallow, dry washes would appear and run through culverts under the highway to divert the rare rains which would come to this thirsty place. Parallel to some stretches of the highway ran the tacks for the Yuma and San Diego Railroad which sometimes ran and sometimes did not, and at other places in the sand dunes one could still see segments of the old plank road which once connected Arizona with the port of San Diego. I am certain that those old segments are completely gone now, but what do I know? The desert is dry and does not give up its possessions lightly.
For many the desert holds no attraction. When my grandfather traveled west from Georgia to stay with us for a while he crossed the desert in a Greyhound Bus. Inside the bus was air conditioned comfort, while outside was a furnace which usually topped 110 degrees with a sun that would begin to redden unprepared flesh within a few minutes. Accustomed to trees and streams and lakes, Grandfather was revolted by the empty, tortured wastes which stretched for seemingly endless miles in any direction. The inhabitants of the desert unsettled Grandfather most of all. People of indeterminate age, skin wrinkled and turned to leather by the sun and wind, doing what was necessary but only just what was necessary to survive one more burning day, and yet without any idea of leaving to live anywhere else. Grandfather shared those thoughts with me and I told him that in some small way I understood those old coyotes of the desert; there was something of them in me as well.
It was therefore with a sense of freedom and rest that I rolled along the concrete and asphalt ribbon behind the Datsun pickup, thinking of times that I had passed this way before and the lives going about their business that very day in the late spring heat of the valley. We passed fields of lettuce and other crops, aqueducts, rows of eucalyptus and cottonwood providing shade and a windbreak, and finally we arrived at Yuma on the border of California and Arizona. We were not stopping there but instead turned north and drove a few more miles intending to stop for the night at Martinez Lake, one of many reservoirs on the lower Colorado River. Brad and Ginny and my parents had camped here a time or two before and sent pictures when I was in Vietnam. I could hardly wait to see the place.
We pulled into the camping area and noticed right away that the temperature had not dropped one little bit; in fact the humidity was uncomfortably high due to the proximity of the lake. Nevertheless Brad and I rigged up an awning on the east facing side of the camper which protected us from the sun until it descended below the western horizon. At that point we intended to cook a meal and relax before resuming our journey the next day. The sun went obligingly down, but there was to be no cooking that night. With the fading of the sun and cooling of the evening breeze came the mosquitos. First a few and then hordes of them. We slapped at our tormentors until we sounded like Spanish dancers with castanets. I don’t remember who spoke up first, but we quickly agreed that we didn’t sign up for this and stowed our gear back in our vehicles. Soon we were pounding back down the road and heading east, unsure of where we would stop for the night but dead certain that it would be nowhere near Martinez Lake.
Nightfall overtook us as we travelled east across the farmlands of southern Arizona. That was a time before cell phones, and as I followed the two red taillights of my brother’s truck I had only the AM radio and my own thoughts to keep me company. Listening alternately to country and western, rock and roll, and the ubiquitous Wolfman Jack I thought again about the times I had travelled this road on the way to Georgia and Kentucky, and how I use to count the minutes until we would load up the car and point ourselves west again. I also thought about the neighborhood kids who also went into the military, and about Frankie Mendoza and Marty Dempster who came home in boxes. Why them and not me? I think most veterans wonder about that every now and then.
I also thought about Carmen, Cathy and Greg. I had known Cathy since elementary school and considered her a friend. She was just a plain, ordinary kid in the first grade but grew up to be a beautiful young woman and our homecoming queen in my senior year. Lovely as she was she never acted as if she was better than anyone else; in fact, it was almost as if she didn’t really know how stunningly beautiful she was. Greg was on the high school diving team with me and we mostly played on the diving boards rather than honed our skills and truly competed. Our coaches knew a little about swimming and nothing about diving, so we just did the best we could and considered it a great thing that we could play on the boards for high school credit. Carmen I met while on leave between my two tours of duty in Vietnam. By the time I returned home once again a civilian all three were dead. Cathy died from some damned cancer, Greg was stabbed at a drug deal which went bad, and Carmen was at a stock car race with her husband when a car went out of control, flipped, and landed where she was sitting in the stands. “Two in Vietnam but three here in San Diego” I thought as the mile markers slid past my windshield. “I was safer in Vietnam!”
I remember that the Blood, Sweat and Tears cover of “God Bless the Child” was playing when I saw the red taillights pull to the right and into a roadside rest area. Ginny must have had enough. Several other cars and a row of long haul semis were already parked there and we found a space to set up at a little distance from the nearest other traveller. We were in saguaro cactus country which boasts a plethora of its own bothersome bugs but was thankfully mosquito free. We didn’t bother with cooking; sandwiches would do. A couple of beers and a shared joint later, Brad and Ginny crawled into their camper and I onto my old military cot and slept the sleep which is reserved for the innocent and the forgiven.
I slept so well that next morning I did not even stir when the truckers fired up their diesels and the families loaded up their children to continue on their journeys. My slumber was not impervious the the smell of Ginny cooking sausage and eggs on the camp stove we had brought along however, nor the aroma of the coffee which Brad was percolating over a small fire that he had made underneath a wire contraption which my dad had rigged for just this sort of occasion. I lounged in the cot for as long as I felt it was safe and then emerged to get my fair share of the breakfast. Although we were in no great hurry the breakfast was quickly consumed and I performed the clean-up while Brad and Ginny straightened up their camper and stowed the coolers and the clean utensils once I was finished. I merely had to fold my blankets and cot and replenish my small cooler with snacks and a few beers, and we were once again on our way.
The air was still cool from the night and the sunlight seemed to make everything sparkle. The sun can have as many faces to the desert dweller as ice has to an Eskimo. Sometimes it will beat down on you with what feels like physical force, and at other times it will tease you as it rises over a frigid winter scape, offering the hope of some warmth for your numb fingers or aching bones but then snatching that promise back when the next chill blast of Siberian air rolls over a land without any barrier to protect you from its malice. On this morning it made the sand and rock seem warm and comfortable; as comfortable as rock and sand can be anyway, and the giant saguaro cacti and their lesser co-inhabitants of this dry land seem stately and not threatening, if not exactly friendly.
A short distance up the highway we deviated to the south and followed a long local road, sometimes paved and sometimes gravel, into the Dragoon Mountains and up into Cochise Stronghold. What is now a campground and recreational area was once the last refuge of a band of Native Americans who yet held out hope that they might retain their lands and way of life in the face of a White tsunami which had roared in from the east, crushing all in its path. Eventually they, too, were overwhelmed and were removed from their beloved homeland in the mountains and high valleys of Arizona and removed first to Florida, then Oklahoma, and finally allowed to return to the less inspiring hills of their cousins the Mescalero Apaches in south central New Mexico.
And what a home the Apaches lost. Up in the mountains at about the 5,000 foot level the evergreen forest begins and there is grass and softer brush than found among the more prickly growth closer to the desert floor. We could walk among the trees without having to navigate the sort of dense undergrowth common in the South and the Pacific Northwest. Sandy washes, called arroyos, spoke of mountain rains ancient and recent, all of which are greedily swallowed up by the soil to be preserved underground, safe from the evaporative power of the strong sun in the thin, dry mountain air. Water is too precious a treasure to allow it to be snatched back into the sky from which it fell without imparting life at several levels along the way.
It was early but we made a snack and cleaned up, poked around for a short while longer, and then resumed our journey down the gravel road on the east side of the mountains. We shortly passed into New Mexico and found paved road. We had decided to make for Carlsbad Caverns and so we stopped only for gas and restroom breaks as we pushed the speed limit along the way through Lordsburg, Deming, las Cruces, and then across the Llano Estacado (a God-forsaken wasteland of desert, but beautiful in its own way) and finally arrived at our destination. It was early afternoon and we wasted little time in purchasing our admission and entering the elevator which would take us 750 feet down to where our tour would begin.
There are many things which stand out about that tour, and the first one was that it was 750 feet underground. I have never been claustrophobic, and even used to crawl into the large sewer pipes which once emptied into the canyons in San Diego to divert the infrequent rains. Later on, being as I mentioned earlier skinny as a stick, I was considered for duty as a tunnel rat in Vietnam, tasked to enter the tunnels of the enemy to flush him out or kill him if possible and check for useful intelligence left behind. Being underground would not have been a problem; the whole rest of the package would, and so I was gratefully relieved that my six feet of height made that duty for me mercifully impractical. Even so, the thought of being 750 feet beneath solid rock was at least a little bit disconcerting. I reasoned that it was hardly likely that I survived two years in Vietnam as well as being friends with Carmen, Cathy and Greg only to be smashed into a greasy stain by a cave-in at Carlsbad Caverns, and so pressed on with the tour.
The guide, a civilian working for the Park Service, gave us a vast amount of data about limestone, groundwater, erosion rates and so on. I remember little of that, but I remember strongly the difficulty I had believing that what I was seeing was real. I had been to Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm and other such places and seen re-creations of balancing rocks and stalagmites and stalactites, but they were all man made. At those places stones would teeter back and forth as if ready to topple, all controlled by motors and gears and cogs and axels to mimic the real thing. Here WAS the real thing. I wanted desperately to touch it and reinforce its reality with tactile input but was admonished not to do so. “The oils from your fingers, multiplied by all the fingers which pass through this place, would eventually change it, and change it for the worse” said the guide, and so I refrained.
When we emerged back into the daylight we saw that the sun was sinking rapidly towards where we had slept last night, off to the west. The guide informed us that the bats which nested in the caverns would emerge at dusk to begin to feed on insects in and around the fields of New and Old Mexico. We debated if a bunch of bats was worth seeing and decided, since the coming and going of the bats is how the caverns were discovered in the first place, we would take in the sight. We grabbed dinner at the tourist center and then went with the guide and a few other fellow travelers to seat ourselves in a small stone bowl with a ragged gash in the earth opening up in the center. We were seated on stone seats on the west side of the bowl and chatted together as the shadows crept down the seats, across the hole in the earth, and then up the rocky bank on the far side, away from us.
The sky began to shade into gray when we heard the first rustle, the first whirr, the first fluttering of thousands, no millions, of tiny leathery wings. The first scouts emerged and flew a circular arc around the bowl in which we were seated. Right on their heels were the rest of the colony. Millions of bats followed the same spiral of the leader, creating what looked like a black coiled spring which rose up into the sky, bent southward, and then dispersed into the evening to begin their nightly gorge on the insects which would devastate the crops if they were not contained by the bats. “They’ll be back at sunup” said the guide. “Pretty much all of them at the same time. They’ll get back to their same perch and after a while of bumping and jostling and perhaps making little bats they’ll go to sleep and rest so that they can do it all again tomorrow.”
We thought that sounded like a good plan for us too, so we took our leave of the Caverns and drove out onto the very flat plains of eastern New Mexico. A few miles down the road we found a convenient turnout and pulled into it to make our evening camp. Across the road was a sign that declared the presence of a potash mine somewhere in the distance. Brad and I enjoyed making ‘momma jokes’ and found great amusement in finding occasions that evening to declare that “your momma is a potash miner.” it was irrelevant that we enjoyed the same momma. The entertainment was to be had in artfully crafting the joke, not about who’s momma was referenced or if, in fact, said momma had ever mined potash or even knew what potash was. And if the subtleties of this form of entertainment is too complex for you, dear reader, It is highly likely to be because YOUR momma was a potash miner.
We did not stay up late that evening. A beer and potato chips or some other snack and we went to our separate lodgings. My cot at the edge of the turnout was soon swallowed up by the night but still faintly illumined by the billions of stars which poured their light down on this tiny patch of earth. I thought about the bats, feeding in the fields to the south, and how there were a million stars for every bat I saw curl up and out of that crack in the ground. My mind drifted back to a time when I was about 10, sitting in a bath tub and thinking about the universe. It’s infinite, you know, which means that when you get to the end of it there’s more to go. Always. How does a 10 year old wrap his mind around infinity? How does anyone wrap their mind around infinity? The concept was overwhelming then and all I could do was cry. As I lay on my cot I thought about the stars and universe and infinity, and concluded that it was not for me to wrap my mind around anyway. It just was and it was beautiful to look at on this night in southeastern New Mexico, and that would have to be enough for me, at least for now.