Morning began to make its appearance at Wind Cave National Park and I did my best to ignore it. I awoke several times and several times I buried my head in my blankets and returned to the bliss of dreamless sleep. Probably I just didn’t want to face the fact that this would be the last day of my vacation and sleeping was as good a way to ignore that prospect as any other that I could think of. Not that I ever needed much of a reason to sleep late; I have never been a morning person and until the day I die I never will be. At last, however, consciousness cautiously returned to me and this time it was accompanied by the smell of coffee. That was all that was required to make consciousness stick around this time.
Brad had brewed the coffee before Ginny had crawled out from under her blankets, so we sat at the camp table and sipped from our cups while doing what most brothers do everywhere, I think. We spoke of everything and nothing, and just enjoyed the closeness of a relationship that is unlike any other; not better, just different. I am certain that sisters experience something very much like it, but different in its own way. We emptied the pot and set another on to perc, sipping the final few swallows and enjoying the quietness of the campground on a midweek morning.
Ginny rolled out of the camper just as the percolating bubbles in the second pot turned a rich brown and poured herself a cup. She joined us on the bench seat of the table and mostly listened to our rambling conversation, adding a bit here or there whenever we stopped to take a breath or a sip. The chatter slowly died away and finally we were all three staring glumly into our cups. It was Ginny who finally took the bull by the horns. “I guess I’d better get breakfast going. You’re going to want to make some distance today” she said. “I think I’m just going to plow through all the way” I replied. “I want to get this leak business off of my back”. Ginny told me that I was crazy but Brad knew what I was thinking. When we were young and would accompany our parents on their vacations back to the South (they were no vacations for us), Dad would pack at night and leave San Diego at about two in the morning. He would then proceed to drive non-stop until we reached central Texas, or about thirty six hours. After eating and sleeping he would wake us up early again and do the same thing until we pulled into Georgia. Dad wanted to make the most of his month. Brad knew that I was about to do the same thing.
Ginny just shook her head and went about the business of preparing the ham and eggs and potatoes we had picked up in Rapid City on our way back from Phillip the day before. She crammed as much into the skillets as they would hold, and we soon sat down to a substantial breakfast. After slowly eating my share I offered to help clean up, but Brad knew that I had to quit procrastinating and get started. He helped me pack my gear, which took all of about five minutes, and then we stood mutely looking at one another.
“Well, I’d better get this show on the road” I said, and Brad agreed and stepped forward to give me a big hug. Hugging had become popular in California while I was away and I still wasn’t used to it. I gave it my best shot however and then shook his hand in the familiar old way. Then Ginny stepped up to give me a hug as well. This seemed really weird, as hugging my brother’s wife was something I just wouldn’t dream of doing. Ginny sensed my awkwardness and just hugged me harder, then stepped back and laughed at my reddening face. We all chuckled for a moment and then I knew that the time had come. I climbed into my leaking metal stallion, fired it up, gave a last wave, and pointed the nose of that Mercury down the lane towards the highway and home.
Away from home, actually. The straightest, flattest route to San Diego led east and north, back through Rapid City, then north around the Black Hills to lead, Wyoming, and then south, straight as an arrow. I gassed up in Rapid City and topped off the transmission fluid, and then crawled from stoplight to stoplight until the north end of town gave way to the endless plains. As I rolled along at just five miles per hour over the speed limit my mind ranged freely, thinking about Chief and Strawberry, Alex and Rob who were still in Vietnam. I thought about Diane, the girl who I thought was the prettiest in the neighborhood when I was younger and who was now an adult and still the prettiest girl in the neighborhood, and a friend. I wondered if anything more might ever come of that. College, a job, things I enjoyed during my childhood and childhood hurts that had never been addressed also took their turn on the stage of my mind. Bullies whom I finally punched out. Put-downs that I finally turned the tables on with a well-placed rejoinder. What it would be like to be a hero; what it was like to be the goat.
This running mental drama of what had been, now was, and might yet be played on as I passed through Lead and began the long southward leg of my return. Lead, Wyoming, is such a spectacular town that I have completely forgotten what it looked like. That shouldn’t be held against lead however. I was on a mission to get home before the Mercury puked a wad of rings and gears in the middle of the road and died in a cloud of blue smoke. As I drove steadily southward I recalled a game which I used to play on our long trips to Georgia and Kentucky. I would estimate the miles to some physical feature on the horizon and see how close I could come to the correct guess. Five, eight, sometimes ten miles would be gobbled up in that manner. A form of hypnosis set in and it was almost a surprise when I rolled into Cheyenne Wyoming, to gas up, top off the transmission, buy a soda and some chips, and resume my journey south.
Shortly after leaving Cheyenne I crossed the border into Colorado. That crossing felt good; it felt like progress was being made. Colorado shares a border with Arizona, which shares a border with California. It was like I was almost home already! Well, not really. The highway continued on and on, across the grasslands of Colorado with the Rocky Mountains rising up on my right and the endless plains extending out in every other direction. I grew weary of my estimation game and my mental activity slowed to what was necessary to keep the car at seventy miles per hour and pointed in the right direction. Fort Collins, Denver, and finally, as the day was slipping into evening, I pulled into a parking space in front of a Denny’s in Colorado Springs.
I had been hungry for a while but was loathe to stop. San Diego was still an enormous distance to the west and south and I wanted very much to get there. The stomach makes its demands known however, so into the Denny’s I went. My legs were a little shaky as I emerged from the car and I went straight to the restroom, mostly to stretch those cramped limbs and splash some water on my face. I sat at the counter and ordered a patty melt with fries and coffee. I don’t really remember ordering that particular dish, but that’s all I ever ordered at Denny’s, so it’s a good bet that that was exactly what I ordered. I ate quickly, as I usually do anyways, and paid ahead of time so that I could simply get up and leave when I was through. As I exited the restaurant I saw that the sun had set below the mountains to the west. The Rockies are a very high range of mountains however so I knew that I would have a good bit of light left in the day. I also knew that darkness would inexorably arrive and that I was faced with the long, lonely night and the duel with sleepiness that would begin in the not-too-distant future. I fired up the Mercury, addressed my fuel and fluid needs, and once again headed south.
The monotony of the featureless drive put me once again in a reverie. Occasional radio reception broke the silence, but usually it was country and western which I decidedly did not like. I would hang on it, and local news too, for any kind of blessed diversion, but eventually it would crackle into static-y silence. Soon I would once again be alone with my thoughts and the increasing darkness. The darkness was finally complete somewhere between Pueblo and Trinidad.
I was not too tired but knew that I would be struggling in a few hours. The nearness of the border between New Mexico and Colorado was calling. I knew that a good many hours after I crossed that border I would would finally turn west, and that thought gave me a boost of energy. I played with the radio dial and tried to keep my mind clear. At some point close to midnight I thought I picked up Wolfman Jack a few miles north of Raton Pass, but it faded quickly and I finally just turned the radio off.
At last, the border! “Welcome to New Mexico”. The yellow sun with the red rays emanating from it that is the New Mexico emblem warmed my heart as I sailed through Raton Pass towards the town also called Raton. I pulled into that town, which was mostly fast asleep at that hour, to get gas and top off the transmission and fill a thermos with coffee. It was going to be a long night. I drove a short way through town and finally turned onto the southbound lanes of the highway. And that’s where I saw Ben.
Ben was standing by the side of the road with a small bag at his feet and his thumb stuck out. Hitchhiking was common in those days and serial murderers were not, so I pulled over to give Ben a ride. He climbed into the passenger side, said “thanks”, and closed the door. That was it. “Where’r you going” I asked. “Laguna” was his one-word reply. “Laguna Mountains” I asked, it being the only Laguna anything which came immediately to mind. “Laguna Pueblo” he said. It turned out that the way home for him lay south to Albuquerque, then about forty miles west. I had intended to drive to Los Cruces and turn west there, but I could turn at Albuquerque just as well and agreed on the spot to do just that.
We talked a little as we barreled through the northern New Mexico darkness; through country I would later come to know well and love even more than well in future years. Actually it was mostly me that talked, but Ben did share a little of himself. He was from Laguna Pueblo, a Native American tribe which has existed for hundreds and perhaps even a thousand years or more, depending upon which anthropologist you ask. Ben said that they had been there forever, and I suppose he was as much an expert on Laguna history as anyone. Ben was in the Army and stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado. He was going home to participate in some holy days at the Pueblo. “I would invite you to enjoy my family’s hospitality” he said, “but these particular ceremonies are closed to all but the Laguna” I thanked him for the thought, but explained that I was in a bit of a hurry to get home myself.
It was about two in the morning and we were approaching Las Vegas when a thought occurred to me. “You drive” I asked? “Sure. You want me to take a turn”? I jumped on that offer and we soon pulled into a gas station on the northern outskirts of town. The gas wasn’t that low but I topped it off and the transmission fluid too, and then climbed into the passenger seat as Ben took the wheel. Ben pulled back onto the road and I leaned into the corner where the seat back met the door window and, like any ex soldier who learned to catch sleep whenever the opportunity presented, I was soon out like a light.
The lights came back on when Ben pulled into the town of Bernalillo north of Albuquerque for gas. I saw that the new day was making a strong showing behind the Sandia Mountains to the east. We took on gas and I checked the transmission. It had dropped considerably since the last stop. I asked Ben if he would let me buy him breakfast for letting me sleep, but he insisted on buying breakfast for me for giving him a ride. Bernalillo is not excessively far from Laguna and Ben was familiar with the place. He knew where a hole-in-the-wall takeout place was and ordered a couple of breakfast burritos there, something I had never heard of before, and we were soon on our way again. “I told them to go easy on you” he said. I had no idea what he was talking about until I bit into my burrito and began to chew. And sweat. The spicy sauce lit my mouth and insides on fire but it was a strangely pleasant burn. “You stay here long enough and you can eat it a lot hotter than that” he said, laughing at the changes of color that were going on in my face. He didn’t tell me that my breakfast would be even hotter coming out than it was going in.
We were hardly finished with our burritos before we turned west in central Albuquerque and began the last leg of Ben’s journey. Soon we were climbing onto the high mesa west of the city, crossing the Rio Puerco and at last came to the turnoff which led to Laguna Pueblo. Ben pulled over and set the handbrake. I looked up the dirt road which stretched out from the passenger side window and followed it with my eyes as it meandered away up small hills and around gullies, sometimes disappearing around a curve, and always reappearing higher up as it climbed the hill upon which Laguna Pueblo is perched.
Laguna Pueblo is a collection of adobe structures, mostly brown and mostly multistory, with hardly a right angle to be found anywhere in the community. Even from where I sat I could see that the buildings were not planned on a geometric basis, unless the geometrician had indulged in way too much alcohol before planning this town. The whole place seemed like it was stuck to the crown and upper sides of that hill with a thin cement and could begin to ooze down the hillside at any moment. The fact is that the Pueblo has been in that location for at least four hundred years and probably isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. I couldn’t see any people moving about but there was no doubt that the community was already a hive of activity, getting ready for the ceremonies and festivities to which Ben alluded.
“I could give you a ride up the hill” I offered. “No thanks. I walked away from home and I want to walk back into it.” I vaguely understood what Ben was saying. I shook his hand and wished him well, and then I was back on the road headed west. I felt moved by Ben’s approach to his homecoming. it was more to him than “Hi Mom, I’m home”. Ben was rejoining a community which spanned centuries and generations. He was returning to resume, for a short while, a role that only he could play, and the community would be more whole because of it. How Ben had left mattered, and how he returned mattered too. I thought about all of this as I sped west on the asphalt ribbon which threaded its way between red rock mesas and the lonely train tracks and decided that I, too, should make it matter when I walked back into my home.