Do You Know The Way To Veracruz, Part I

As I have written elsewhere, 1976 was not my best year. In February of that year my first marriage began to unravel and in May it melted down completely. Up until that time I had been working long hours sometimes seven days a week trying to make a success of a construction company which I began with a partner, plus finish my last class in order to earn my bachelor’s degree in history at a nearby college. With the collapse of my marriage came a collapse of my focus. The construction company and college class were abandoned and I secured a small part-time job at which I performed poorly and then devoted the remainder of my time to medicating my pain in whatever ways presented themselves.

For six months I shared a three bedroom apartment with three other people, and that was a time of impressively dissolute living. Every hour of the day when I wasn’t working, which was most of them, I was lounging in the sun drinking beer and reading classic literature or history, and every evening the music was on, beer and rum and tequila were flowing, and marijuana smoke was rolling out of our windows in clouds. One evening a young woman with whom I worked came over to our place with a friend. We had a keg of beer in the bathtub packed in ice and were passing joints like hot potatoes. My friend’s date began to feel bad about partaking of our intoxicants and at length said “If I had known that you were having a party I would have brought something to share.” My friend let out a small, musical laugh and answered him “They’re not having a party. It’s like this here every night.”

Eventually I began to tire of this life however, and the urge to move on began to grow in me. In August my wife and I stood before a judge and said the magic words in proper sequence and he declared us to be legally separated, divorce to be final after a six month waiting period to allow for any possible reconciliation. As we emerged from the courthouse I cried, not the first time and certainly not the last, and returned to my apartment to try to drink and smoke myself into annihilation.

It was a couple of months later as Christmas was approaching that I received a phone call from out of the blue from my oldest friend Wes, who still lived in San Diego where we both grew up. Wes had just broken up with a girlfriend qnd was feeling down in the dumps. We hadn’t spoken to each other in ages so Wes had no idea what my story was. After we hung up I began to take stock of my situation and decided that I couldn’t stay in this rut into which I had fallen much longer.

It was December at this point and Christmas was approaching. Two of my roommates and I had crept commando style onto a high-roller golf course and cut down a tree that would fit nicely in our living room. It was a revolutionary act, you see. We decorated the tree with strings made from the pull tops from our beer cans and crowned it with a piece of cardboard which we painted into a Chinese flag and onto which we glued a picture of Chairman Mao. Our revolutionary credentials were impressive and we were proud of our creativity.

But the thought of spending Christmas of 1976 in Northern California removed from my relationship with my wife but physically residing less than a mile from her was a prospect which I did not relish. Thanksgiving had been bad enough and the hangover from that binge lasted for two days. I had been thinking seriously about leaving for several months and now believed that the time had come.

I called Wes back and said “You want to meet me at my brother’s place?” “Whata you got in mind?” he asked. “I’ve got my passport and I thought about going to Mexico and getting work on a freighter that would take me to Saudi Arabis and work in the oil fields.” Now I had no connection with work in oil fields and in fact had no idea what one actually did in an oil field. I only knew that there was a gob of money being made in oil and I wanted to get as far away from my current life as possible. Wes, being my equal in age, wisdom and capacity for reasoning answered almost immediately and said “Sure. Why not?”

So a week before Christmas I showed up at my brother’s house in Albuquerque. I had at least called to let him know that I was coming, which was very out of character for me, and upon arrival I let him know that Wes would be showing up in a day or two as well. Brad was fine with that, but his wife Ginny was less enthusiastic. I assured them that we would stay a few days only and then be on our way. Brad is four years older than Wes and I and a little more willing to use his head as something more functional than a hatrack. He was therefore tempted to accompany us in our wild scheme but the responsibilities of a family, and the presence of a large wooden rolling pin in a kitchen drawer, persuaded him to sit this one out.

The day after Christmas came and, good as our word, Wes and I were on a Greyhound bus before the crack of dawn rolling south towards El Paso. We arrived there in the early afternoon and walked across the bridge into Ciudad Juarez. A short taxi ride brought us to the train station where we planned to purchase tickets to the port of Veracruz. The ticket seller seemed to be having trouble understanding us even though I spoke a little Spanish. He also seemed to be having trouble figuring out the train timetable, and even the cash register and the book in which the blank ticket stubs were located seemed to be beyond his capabilities. I knew what was going on of course. The ticket seller was waiting for us to pay ‘la mordita’, the ‘little bite’, a bribe to grease the process. I had had a very bad year and was nursing a very bad hangover, and didn’t feel like paying any damned bribe. Consequently, Wes and I were still arguing with the ticket guy when the train to Veracruz pulled out of the station.

So away we went by taxi to the bus station. We had changed our plan and would now take a bus to Veracruz. There were no shenanigans at the bus station, although at this point I would have paid ‘la mordita’ if it had been required. Perhaps they figured that two Gringos taking a long-distance Mexican bus must be so down on their luck that there was nothing to be gotten from us.

The bus meandered south down the Mexican roads, picking up passengers and the occasional chicken or goat along the way, and by evening we arrived at Torreon, deep into northern Mexico. We did not have any Mexican pesos with us, which had never been a problem in Mexico before, but Mexico agt this time was in the midst of an economic crisis. Inflation was out of control and nobody but a bank knew from moment to moment what the exchange rate was, and so no restaurants would take American money because nobody knew what it was worth, and we were hungry! Finally a very nice hotel restaurant took pity on us and took a chance on the value of our money, and we got a meal to hold us over to the next day when a bank would be open. In an hour or so our bus was back on the road leading east into the gloom of the Mexican evening towards Monterrey, the next city on the road to Veracruz.

It was a very long night. Wes and I slept on the bus, of course, and when morning came we were cramped, hungry, sweaty and thoroughly fed up with the bus. Upon our arrival in Monterrey we decided to forget the bus and rent a car. Both Wes and I had driven in Mexico a lot and were perfectly comfortable with the idea of doing so again. We looked in a directory in the bus station and found the name and address of a car rental agency nearby, and a short walk brought us in front of that establishment.

“En que puedo servirle?” asked the agent at the counter. “Por favor” I replied. “Habla usted Ingles?” “Yes, I speak English” she replied, and I told her that we wanted to rent a car and drive to Veracruz. For those of you who are geographically challenged the distance from Monterrey to Veracruz is 529 miles. “You want to drive one of our cars to Veracruz?” she asked, and we affirmed that that was indeed our intention. The agent looked skeptical. “Have you identification? A passport? A credit card?” We had all but the credit card, which I have since learned is critical to renting a car anywhere.

The furrows in her brow deepened as the agent struggled to grasp completely how imbecilic the two Gringos standing in front of her really were. “Do you have an employer with whom we could check?” “No, not currently. I worked for that last six months at such-and-such a business but before that I have been in construction for the last four years.” She looked over at Wes and asked the same questions and got virtually the same answer. The agent thought for a moment longer and then excused herself to go consult with her manager. I could see them on the other side of the office and I am almost certain that I saw them laughing. At length the agent returned. “I’m sorry sir, but we are not going to be able to rent you one of our cars.” We already suspected that that would be the case, and so we exited the building with no further ado and found ourselves out on the sidewalk in Monterrey debating what to do next.

“Aw, the hell with it. Let’s fly” I said. “That would leave me with almost no money there” said Wes. “No worry. I’ll cover you” I said. I had a good bit of cash from splitting our savings when my wife and I divorced, and getting to Veracruz with Wes that very day seemed like a great way to spend it. Wes felt uncomfortable with that plan at first but I convinced him that I thought of it as money well spent.

Within the hour we were at the ticket counter at the Monterrey International Airport buying our passage on the next plane to Veracruz, which was leaving in just under two more hours. Wes and I hurried to a restaurant in the airport where we bought some belated breakfast and washed it down with a couple of beers. At the appointed time we boarded the plane and sat back into the soft seats of the jet airliner. The flight was a quick one, little more than and hour, at the end of which the doors were opened and we descended the portable stairway. We crossed the tarmac, entered the terminal, and exited into the front of the building where the taxis were lined up. Phase one of our mission was accomplished. We were in Veracruz.

A Memorable Day With My Friend Clay

The year 1971 is a year that was nearly lost to me. I grew up in a very authoritarian family, and upon reaching eighteen years of age in 1966 joining the Army, even in the middle of a way, was like liberation to me. My father was raised in a strict rural Georgia family and spent twenty years in the Navy where he flourished in the military environment. It was natural then that Dad modeled that regimented style into his parenting.

Being in the Army was, as I said, like liberation. After basic and advanced training I found the Army to be a routine which left me more or less alone for a good piece of the day, with large amounts of free time of which I could dispose pretty much as I wished. I know that this will sound odd to a lot of people, especially those who have also served in the military, but that is the way it was. My first real duty station was a supply company in name only. We didn’t supply anyone with anything. After breakfast we were supposed to return to our barracks and wait for the First Sergeant to come and select us to perform menial labor around the fort where I was stationed. Most of us elected not to hang around the barracks, and our sergeant became very good at finding us in the snack bars, the PX, the post swimming pool and so on. I don’t think Sarge was much of a reader however. I mostly hid in a branch of the post library not two blocks from our company area and Sarge never looked for me there. He really hated me for hiding so efficiently from him.

When my name was called and orders arrived for Vietnam I was glad to go. I had had enough of Texas and needed some newer scenery. I arrived in country and soon was working twelve hours on, twelve hours off, with every fourteenth day a day of rest for me. I found a surprising amount of free time within that schedule as well and, in the absence of all of the spit and polish that is common to the military life outside of a combat zone, I actually felt free and mostly left alone except for the inevitable annoyance which comes with being in a place where people are trying to kill you.

When I left the Army after three years I was now free of my father’s close supervision, free of the regimentation under which I had lived in the Army, and free of any kind of good sense. All of this took place in the late 1960’s and as most people know the late 1960’s were a time when, for many people, moderation and restraint were ripped out of our lifestyles and thrown into the ash bin of history.

Being ungrounded in any spiritual or moral framework I embraced a lifestyle of radical personal freedom that was visceral and not philosophical. If I wanted to do something and it seemed like I could probably get away with it, I did it. I was neither nihilist nor anarchist; I just wanted to do what I wanted to do and mostly did it. All of which is to say that I was stoned a lot on recreational drugs in those days and don’t remember a lot, and that is why there are big parts of 1971 that I do not remember so well. On the other hand there are parts which I remember quite vividly, and this is a story of one such event which stands out clearly in my otherwise foggy memory.

I loved to travel then, even as I still love to travel now, and when one of the guys in the group of students and ex-military guys with whom I was hanging out returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to become involved in his father’s large construction company, this gave me all the excuse I needed to pay a visit to that magnificent part of the country. My main traveling partner in those days was Joe Medina. Joe had been in the Air Force with Clay Wistler, the recently moved friend, and we all met at college. Joe and I needed almost no excuse to drop whatever we were doing and go backpacking in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California or just putt around the state visiting his friends and/or mine. Joe and I would throw a few items into his Volkswagon bus (yes, when you were stuck on a two lane road going uphill in a string of 200 cars behind a chugging VW bus, that very well might have been us) and roll down the roads and highways of California stoned and happy.

We would camp near Lake Tahoe, stop in for a few days in Sacramento to visit his friends Mike and Yoko, or drive over to Petaluma to see my friends Lara and Sherry, whom I met on a camping trip in my teens in the Laguna Mountains behind San Diego. A couple of times we stopped in Yosemite, parking in the public areas and then hiking way back up the east end of the valley where it begins to climb up into the Sierras. That was some of the most beautiful country that I have ever beheld.

On one trip however we went specifically to visit our friend Clay. Clay was now driving a cement truck for his father’s construction company when he worked at all, which was not very often. One can sometimes get away with a certain amount of laxity when one is the only son of a wealthy businessman. Most of the time Clay spent loafing on a twenty-six foot sloop which he tied up to a buoy thirty yards or so off the dock in Sausalito Harbor on the north side of the Bay. Clay had a six foot boat called a dinghy tied up to the back of his sloop, and when he wanted or needed to go ashore he would cast off in that little boat and putt into the dock. This guaranteed Clay a certain amount of privacy, a situation which Clay valued greatly.

Joe and I arrived at the dock and locked up his VW. We walked to the end of the dock and Joe took out of his pocket a little compressed air horn, such as people use at sporting events to make a loud, annoying noise. This horn was Clay’s doorbell. Joe pointed it at the sloop and gave it three short blasts. Shortly after that Clay’s head appeared over the side of the boat, or the gunnel, I think nautical types call it. Clay waved back to us, mounted his dinghy, and putt-putted his way to the dock to pick us up.

Clay’s boat was surprisingly comfortable for the three of us, with room for three sleeping bags, a galley, a head, and room to lounge on outside on the deck. We relaxed from our long drive, smoking a joint or two and sharing a six pack of Budweiser that we brought out to the sloop with us. At length however the sun began it’s descent in the sky above and we decided to go into Sausalito and eat rather than cook in the small galley. We climbed into Clay’s dinghy and he navigated it over to the dock, where we tied the dinghy’s rope to a piling and climbed up a ladder to the surface of the dock, and then walked a short distance to the No Name Bar.

That was not really the bar’s name. In fact, the bar had no name. There was no sign on the front identifying the establishment as a bar. Only a sign in the front door window alerting people under the age of twenty one that their presence was not welcome gave any indication whatsoever of what to expect upon entering that establishment. If you lived there however you knew exactly what you would find there; excellent mixed drinks if your preference ran to that (mine didn’t), great wines, cold beer, and pub grub that bordered upon gourmet.

We sat at a table, ordered our food and some beers, and spent quite a while at the No Name. I don’t really know how long because time was not something that I cared about all that much and so I usually chose to ignore it. However long we were there, it was quite dark when we exited the building and began to wobble back across the street and along the dock to where we had tied up earlier. When we returned to the dinghy we learned that time might be a concept of little consequence to us but tide was a much more substantial and pressing issue.

The tide may have been coming in when we tied up in the afternoon or it could have been at low tide, but one thing was abundantly clear; it was certainly coming in now. The point on the piling at which we had tied up the dinghy was several feet below the surface of the bay now and the rear of the dinghy was being raised out of the water as the bow of it was being pulled down by the taut rope. Clay cursed his stupidity and began to peel off his shirt and shoes. He extracted a knife from his pants pocket and slipped into the water, submerging near the piling and slicing through the rope as close to the piling as he could. The rear of the dinghy slapped back down as the rope gave way and Clay broke through the surface of the water, still fuming about his rope and unschedule dip in the water.

We climbed into the dinghy and made the short trip back to the sloop, where Clay toweled off and changed his clothes. His shower facilities were on land and so he would have to wait until the next morning to wash off the salt water from his swim in the Bay. We smoked another couple of joints and then turned in to sleep to the rocking and rolling rhythms of the swells on the Bay. It was a relaxing motion and I slept like a baby.

The next morning Clay got up early to shower and pick up some supplies at a store. By the time Joe and I awoke Clay was back with bacon and eggs cooking in the galley and a couple of six packs in the cooler. We had decided the evening before to cast off from the buoy and take a ride out on the Bay in Clay’s sloop, and although we had slept late it didn’t take us long to eat and clean up, and soon Clay was navigating his sloop out of the harbor and onto the broad expanse of San Francisco Bay.

If you have ever been there you know that the Bay is one of the most beautiful places on Planet Earth, and this day was one of the finest and most clear that I had ever seen. The massive yet graceful span of the Golden Gate Bridge stood out in its red/orange glory against the indescribable blue of the sky over the Pacific Ocean. Alcatraz Island slipped past and behind us as we slid effortlessly across the slight chop of the untroubled surface of the Bay. Sipping our beers, sharing joints and gliding like a phantom over the waters I felt as free as I ever had. Out in the middle of the Bay there were no rules, no expectations, no timetables to be met. This was exactly where my radically individualistic, unmoored soul longed to be. Nothing could touch me here. Nothing could make me dance to its tune. Nothing except—.

AHHHWOOOOOO! The deep roar of a ship’s horn brought the three of us out of our stoned reveries. The Gate we had seen. Alcatraz we had seen too. But somehow the gigantic oil tanker that was now bearing down upon us had eluded our attention. “Holy Shit!” we bellowed in unison, and Clay instantly maneuvered the sail and tiller so that we would catch the maximum amount of wind to push his sloop out from in front of the black behemoth which was looming up over us already. Joe and I leaned far over the port (left) side of the boat as the starboard (right) edge dug deep into the water after Clay’s maneuver. From that position I could see the top of the ship’s bow which was pressing relentlessly straight towards us. Some Asian crewmen were looking down at us, probably certain that we would be run down and killed beneath the hull of their great ship.

Somehow, that didn’t happen. Clay’s quick action and a good breeze propelled us like a shot across the water and we looked back with relief as the tanker, with a huge “Phillips 66” emblem painted on the side, plowed irresistibly past us. Clay backed off on the sail and we slowed down to a more measured pace. For a minute we just looked at each other, too shaken to say anything. Joe had peed his pants, and I have no idea why I had not done so too. Then we began to laugh so hard that piloting the boat became impossible, We lay more or less dead in the water while we laughed away the terror which had so recently owned us. Joe peeled off his soiled pants and underwear and gave them a good wash in the Bay. He got some fresh clothes out of his pack which was stowed in the sleeping area below deck and we proceeded to continue our tour of the Bay.

On the way back we stopped in Tiburon to pick up a case of beer and then returned to the safety and calm of the buoy in Sausalito Harbor. After tying up the sails, I think that may be called “reefing” them but I am not sure, and immobilizing the tiller we climbed into the dinghy to go get showers and a meal somewhere that was a little less expensive than the No Name Bar. That night we slept the peaceful sleep that God grants to drunkards and fools before arising the next day and continuing with our journey to wherever we went next (I’ve forgotten that part), blissfully unconcerned with how close we came to a watery death the day before on the beautiful but sometimes dangerous waters of San Francisco Bay.

Movies on the Road, Part Three

After enjoying the bustle and glory of London, the pastoral beauty and awe-inspiring history of Normandy, and the slower and thoroughly French and barely-touristed cities of Bourg en Bresse and Beaune, our trip finally brought us to Paris.  Paris, the city of lights.  The city that, in my opinion, is the most beautiful city in the world.  I admit that I have not seen all of the cities of the world, and if my travels ever bring me to Rome or Vienna, Beijing or Buenos Aires, I may perhaps change my mind.  I have been to Paris, Kentucky and to Paris, Texas, but they just don’t measure up.  For now, the most beautiful city that I have ever seen is Paris France.

As soon as we possibly could we checked in to our hotel on the Rue de Bac, deposited our gear, and hit the streets.  Within an easy walk was the Eiffel Tower, the Invalides where Napoleon lies entombed, the monument where Princess Diana had her tragic accident, and a little further down the Champs Elysees the Arc de Triomphe.  We took in all of these sights and more in the five days that we were in Paris.  A full recitation of those excursions would require a story of its own, and a long one at that.  I will set the table for this story of watching a movie by recounting only a few of the highlights of the week.

The most stunning moments for me happened at the Louvre and at Chartres.  The Louvre is the former palace of the French kings and is now a gigantic art museum.  The building is so enormous that on gray and rainy days, when it was engaged in its kingly duties, there would sometimes be hunts organized, horses and all, in wings which were cleared out for that purpose.  My wife and I walked together for a while, but as our tastes differ and she wanted to see wood cuts by Albrecht Durer while I preferred to see Sumerian and Akkadian artifacts we split up with the agreement that we would meet at the snack bar at a certain hour.  We both knew that I would get there early to enjoy a glass of wine and a crepe.

It took me a good while to find the Mesopotamian room but only a moment to see that for some reason it was closed.  This put me in a somewhat sour mood and I began to wander the halls of that cavernous building, passing here an exhibit of central American masks, baskets and sculpture, and there passing Japanese Samuri figures in full dress.  I was walking through a section of renaissance paintings of David; I was completely blown away to learn that Hebrews in the ninth century BCE, their kings especially, wore little or no clothing, and saw a sign which read “Mona Lisa” and pointed to a stairway.  I determined that the Mona Lisa was something entirely worth seeing and began to mount the broad stairway which led upward to the next floor where the painting was alleged to be waiting.  Halfway to the top I reached a landing where I turned one hundred and eighty degrees and prepared to climb the remaining set of stairs but was stopped dead in my tracks.  I just stood on that landing looking up and struggling to breathe.

There at the top of the stairs, bathed in light which may have come from artificial or natural sources (I could not tell then, was too stunned to think about looking, and wouldn’t have been able to remember such an odd detail anyway), stood the Winged Victory.  For those unfamiliar with that piece of sculpture it is of a winged female humanoid figure.  The head is missing (which prefigures my trip to Chartres Cathedral) but the rest is intact, and it is a marvel in marble; perfection in form.  I am not an aesthete by any measure, and cannot tell you clinically why this sculpture arrested my attention while time stood still.  The beauty of the detail in the feathers on her wings, the ripples of her clothing, the feminine form which projected regal, even divine strength, and the fact that she still possessed the power to awe an admirer over two thousand years after an unknown Greek artist liberated her perfect form from a marble prison, held me captive.

After staring at her for a good long while I continued down the hallway to where the Mona Lisa rested hanging from a wall behind velvet security ropes and with an armed security guard present, presumably instructed to shoot anyone who should try to steal, disfigure, or take a photo of the famous lady with a flash camera.  The Mona Lisa is indeed a phenomenal piece of work, and if I would have seen it first I would surely have been even more impressed than I was at the time.  The afterglow of my introduction to the Winged Victory was strong however, and even the Mona Lisa played second fiddle to that magnificent lady.

the next day we went to Chartres Cathedral, which is about 50 miles southwest of Paris.  It was a gray day and we arrived a bit early for the tour.  Chartres Cathedral is one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture in the world and one of a select number that remain standing after the insane wars of the twentieth century.  We walked slowly around the cathedral while sipping coffee and hot chocolate, inspecting the exterior of the building and the landscaping, the labyrinth in the garden behind the cathedral, and the statues which surrounded it and which were, like the Winged Victory, missing their heads, or most of them anyway.  At 10 o’clock the doors opened and a guide bade us enter and showed us around the inside of the building.

There was much to see and much history to learn, but the gloom of the interior was an impediment to seeing the pictures, the wood and stonework, and the historical objects that filled the place.  The gray, overcast sky did not permit very much light to penetrate the unrivaled stained glass windows.  Usually, when the sun is full, the play of light and color within the cathedral is breathtaking to say the least.  On this day we were forced to enjoy the cathedral as a work of art rather than as a place of living beauty dedicated to reflecting glory to the God who was the inspiration for this place.  At the conclusion of the tour and on the way out I remembered the headless statues and asked what was the story behind them.  It turned out that in the days of the French Revolution the removing of the king’s head was an event much approved of by the common folk of Chartres.  These good folk, having never received much of an education and having probably slept through many a long and boring sermon in the cathedral, believed these statues to be of the kings of France, while in fact they were of the kings of Judah.  Filled with ardor for the revolution and being sadly bereft of real kings to send to the guillotine, they gleefully decapitated the statues of the kings of Judah.  Ah, well.  From what I know about most of the kings of Judah, they probably had it coming too.

On the evening before our departure from France we took a barge trip up the Seine and ate at a restaurant who’s name I have forgotten but who’s food I will never forget.  It was beef bordelaise with caramelized carrots and a wine that was like drinking warm velvet.  My wife and I returned to our quarters exhausted from five days of walking all over Paris and twenty days of walking all over southern England, western Switzerland, and northern France.  We decided to retire to our room where we took our showers, packed our luggage, opened one last bottle of French wine and turned on the television.

Just as it was in Bourg en Bresse, we saw mostly the same slime which oozed out of our American television sets (shout out here to Frank Zappa and the Mothers).  There was one movie which attracted my attention however.  It was “The Eiger Sanction”, a thriller staring Cling Eastwood in which he climbs mountains, kills bad guys, and generally does all of that Clint Eastwood stuff.  My wife was as interested in this as she would have been in examining stool samples in a medical laboratory, so once again she was quickly curled up by my right side and snoring peacefully.

I watched that movie to the end and drank that bottle of wine to the end too.  Clint and George Kennedy climbed a volcanic chimney which I had seen in Monument Valley in Utah and so the movie had a little personal interest for me, but by far the most interesting part of the movie was the fact that it was in French.  Try to think about that; a Clint Eastwood movie in French.  The fluid, melodic, slightly nasal quality of the French language simply does not lend itself to a Clint Eastwood movie.  German maybe, Arabic is a possibility too, Klingon absolutely!  But French?  Imagine if you will Clint with his face hard as stone, his eyes squinting with malevolent intent, his teeth gritting like two boulders grinding living bone between them, and then:  “Je bleh bleh bleh.  Sui le Bleh du bleh, etc., etc., etc.”  Really?  I almost laughed loudly enough to awaken my wife.

Turning out the lights I reflected on the wonderful things we had seen and tasted and learned on this trip.  Perhaps I will write of them some day.  Many things filled my soul with awe, and many filled my head with new facts and understandings.  My stomach had been filled with some of the most amazing food on the planet and my heart filled with affection for wonderful people whom we met in three countries on a different continent than our own.  But as I drifted off to sleep on that last night in beloved Paris I couldn’t empty my head of the image of Old Clint growling at his enemies with a voice meant for poetry, not mayhem.

Movies on the Road, Part Two

When the time came to leave England my wife and I boarded a train in London and soon were speeding across the English countryside towards a large hole, into which we plunged and emerged less than twenty minutes later, and at almost twice our previous speed, flashing across the French countryside.  At first, everything seemed the same.  In a matter of a few hours however we were immersed in all things French; French language, French culture, French food, the works.  We spent a few days in Normandy and then travelled across France by bus, slow train and very fast train to a small city and then a tiny hamlet in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.  After a few days there we climbed back onto a bus which would take us back to the train, which in turn would take us to Bourg en Bresse, a small city in Eastern France.

Bourg en Bresse was the place on our itinerary that I most looked forward to visiting because there is no real reason for a tourist to go there.  The area does in fact enjoy a small amount of local notoriety for the very tasty chickens that are raised there, and if one is desperately seeking a ceramic chicken with which to decorate one’s kitchen or a kite in the shape of a chicken for the delight of one’s grandchildren, or any other conceivable use that one could wish to make with the image of a chicken, it could be found in Bourg en Bresse.  Unfortunately we did not at that moment have any use to which we could put the likeness of a chicken nor room to carry it if such a use presented itself, so we had to find other attractions to bring us to Bourg en Bresse and keep us there for two full days.

Fortunately those attractions did exist.  For my part I wanted to see a French city or town where the only attraction was French people being French.  Nobody in that city would be seeking to separate me from my tourist dollars any more than they would want to separate anyone else from their French Francs.  Except for my rather longish hair and beard which was somewhat uncommon in France at that time I did not look very much unlike any of the citizens of that city who thronged the streets and sidewalks and shops and parks.  That was exactly what I wanted to see, and I got my money’s worth.

My wife was on another mission.  Decades earlier when she was a teenager she had a pen pal in Bourg en Bresse.  My wife was taking French and a French girl, Edith was her name, was taking English.  They would write to each other in their native languages so that the recipient of a letter could practice reading real English and real French as real people speak and write them.  Now, almost thirty years later, we were standing on a sidewalk in front of the house which shared the same address as was on the letters in the bundle which was tied up in a ribbon and resting in my wife’s hand.

“Go ahead and push the button” i said, pointing to the button at the gate entering into the property where the house stood.  “We’re never going to be here again so why not?”  My wife is a cautious person and ringing the bell of a house owned by somebody we do not know in a city half way around the world from home is not the kind of thing that she would normally do.  This time it was different however, and so to my surprise she extended her digit and the button was pushed.  Nothing happened.  Nobody was home, apparently.  “Ah well, we might as well get a picture of you standing in front of the house”.  She agreed to that and I backed out into the street to get a decent shot of my wife and the squarish front of the large white house where Edith once lived.

These actions were very much out of the ordinary in Bourg en Bresse and we were noticed by an older woman who lived across the street.  I guess French people are not shy about asking slightly shaggy strangers in their neighborhoods why they’re taking pictures of houses, and so this inquisitive neighbor emerged from her house to enquire after our business there.  She spoke French and French only and I do not speak French at all, so the lot fell to my wife to use her high school French learned thirty years earlier to explain our purpose.  She failed miserably in that task.  Apparently there is no easy translation of ‘pen pal’ into French.  We were getting nowhere until my wife hauled out her beribboned bundle of letters, one of which contained a picture of Edith when she was a girl of sixteen.

Understanding flashed across the elderly neighbor’s face like fireworks over the Statue of Liberty on the Fourth of July.  You could see this neighbor, who had lived there when young Edith was showing neighbors the letters that she had received from a girl in the U.S., connect the dots; that this was the very girl!  She practically dragged us into her house and we waited as she got on the telephone.  I could hear a sporting event on a television or radio somewhere in the house and soon, as the woman was making her calls and explaining her mission, an older man appeared around a corner to see what was going on.  He was a great looking guy, wearing khaki colored trousers, what we call a ‘wife beater’ undershirt, a day’s growth of stubble on his face and a bit of a pot belly topped off with suspenders.

In French he asked, in a few words as is customary with men everywhere, what was going on.  His wife answered, in French and also in a manner which is customary with women everywhere, and told him in excruciating detail what was going on.  I will never forget his reaction.  First a slight lifting of the eyebrows.  Then an ever-so-slight pursing of the lips and a barely noticable tilt of the head which said, as clearly in French as in any language, “Whatever”.  He then retreated back into the interior of the house, presumably to enjoy the rest of the sporting event which I could still hear.  I really wished that he would have opened a bottle of wine and invited me back into the house to watch or listen to the sporting event with him.  Language, I am certain, would not have been a problem.  By the end of our visit with the old neighbor and her disinterested husband my wife was in possession of Edith’s new address and they remain in contact to this day.  I am deeply envious of them and have already written the story of my own still-lost pen pal.

We spent the rest of the day seeing the city; eating delicious snacks, doing laundry, and by early evening we had enjoyed a sumptuous dinner and withdrawn to our very comfortable hotel to relax for the evening.  We showered and made our plans for the next day and then turned on the television to see what the the French people of Bourg en Bresse were watching that night.  By far, the most interesting movie on the tube that evening was Forrest Gump.  We had already seen Forrest Gump in the United States but now we were watching it in a spacious continental hotel on a huge bed with a bottle of extraordinary wine.  Also, we were watching it in Italian.  Now Forrest Gump is a very good movie and the actors all turned in marvelous performances, and soon it didn’t matter that the movie was in Italian.  Between our memories of the general plot of the movie, the magnificent performances and the bottle of very good French wine we were all in with the movie and blubbering along with Forrest as he was talking to Jenny at her grave site under the big tree which they had climbed as children.

Soon after that Forrest saw his son climb into the school bus which brought the movie around full circle, sat down to await his return, and we watched the feather take off and begin to fly to wherever the winds would take it, just as we all do in our turn.  We gave our noses a final blow after the sad scene and then turned the lights off, resting to prepare for the tomorrow’s journey to wherever the winds would blow our feather that next day.

Movies On The Road, Part One

I love watching movies.  The magic which is created on the Big Screen transports me from my mundane (but pleasant) existence of working seven-to three thirty five days per week, with gardening, church, family and friends filling in the rest of the time when I’m not asleep, and moves me to a place where empires strike back, kings return, and very large lizards with very bad breath rise out of the ocean to stomp cities and then return to rest in the lightless depths of the sea until they are needed once again to save us from destruction or, at the very least, entertain us for a few hours.  It is therefore not at all surprising that some of my favorite memories from a trip which my wife and I took to Europe many years ago revolve around movies.

That might strike a person as being somewhat odd, but it really is not.  One can only bounce from one historic site to another via Tube, bus, Metro, taxi or on foot for so long and then it is simply time to return to bed & breakfast or hotel and recharge for the next day’s adventures.  It is when the street clothes are off, the bath taken, a glass of wonderful french wine poured and the weary traveller is stretched out on a big luxurious (or small and cramped sometimes) bed that the television snaps on and the mystical journey into fantasy begins all over again.  In this story I will recall one of three movies which stood our among the dizzying number incredible sights and feelings that I stored up on that trip.

This first movie was watched in London, in an unspectacular bed & breakfast that we stayed in for nearly a week.  But first, a little background on the bed & breakfast.  We arrived in London from Bath early in the afternoon and took the Tube, London’s underground mass transit system, to Hampstead where we had secured a place to stay in advance.  The Tube station nearest to our  B&B was about five or six blocks away and we crossed that distance quickly as we were traveling very light.  When we arrived at the residence we were admitted inside and shown to our quarters.  They looked very clean, comfortable, and well lighted with windows and skylights in abundance.  The only feature which gave pause to reflect were the two female mannikins on the wall attired in S & M leather.  I don’t normally allow trivial things like that to bother me but my wife was instantly put on edge.  We were told that the room wouldn’t be ready for occupancy for another hour or two and we cheerfully agreed to depart until the appointed time.  Immediately upon our departure we consulted our Rick Steves guide and found another B&B less than a block away.  After proceeding to that facility we rang the bell, explained that we were in town without reservations, and were shown the cramped and rather dingy accommodation which was available.  These accommodations, for all of their shortcomings, were reassuringly free of any leather-clad mannikins, and we instantly settled upon renting it for the duration of our stay.  The landlady agreed to call the B&B which we would now not be taking and inform them of the change in plans.

The next day we spent traveling from one amazing attraction to another, and the tale of those experiences deserves several stories in their own right.  The British Museum, which contained artifacts that filled me with awe and in one case led me to tears.  The National Library which contains the Gutenberg Bible and the hand-written manuscript of one of the Beatles’ early songs, among a million other things.  Harrod’s Department Store which is like a small city itself, and the tiny shops and bakeries that line the main roads and back streets of London.  In one hour’s time we left Harrods, I saw my first Mini Cooper, stood in front of the clothing store where Madonna purchased her conical bra whatever thingy that she wore in concert and a little French bakery that would take a story to tell about in order to do it justice.  After a full day of being mostly on foot we took bus and Tube back to Hampstead, had dinner at what was probably the only cigarette smoke-free restaurant in London, and returned to our quarters exhausted but not yet ready to go to sleep.

British television at that time enjoyed the same reputation as British cuisine, so I had little expectation of finding something worth watching.  I could not have been more wrong.  As I flipped through the channels I came upon a scene of a young man on a motorcycle in a motocross race, and being a man (if not necessarily a young one) I was drawn to this movie ever so slightly over the forgettable rest.  My wife was initially unimpressed but as the movie proceeded even she was drawn in.  And I should point out that the movie moved at a pace that only a culture with two thousand years of history could appreciate.  This thing just crawled along!  Still it was compelling and we settled on watching it to the end.  I opened a very nice bottle of Bordeaux and poured the first of several glasses, and we snuggled under the covers on our narrow and lumpy mattress while we got sucked into the show.

The motorcycle racer was the main character and he was young, handsome, cocky and macho, and living on top of the world.  He was very good at a sport for only the strong and reckless and he felt like he was untouchable, just like many another young man in the UK and elsewhere.  It was therefore not a great worry to him when some lumps appeared on his chest.  His girl friend was concerned but initially he brushed her worries off with his hyper-testosterone bravado.  It was only after the lumps became painful and she pestered the hell out of him that he went to his doctor, just to get her off of his back.  The doctor delivered the young man a shock however.  After poking and prodding, hemming and hawing as doctors love to do in movies, he stated that he was concerned and extremely suspicious that the hero had breast cancer.

The young man almost hit the doctor.  “Only birds (English slang for girls and women) get breast cancer, ya bleedin’ quack” he raged.  The doctor, expecting this reaction, remained calm and explained in simple and plain English that men too can get breast cancer, and that it has nothing to do with your manhood or want thereof.  The doctor recommended that the young man get a diagnostic workup for breast cancer, including a mammogram and ultrasound.  After hesitating for a long time and incurring the wrath and severe henpecking of a very worried girl friend and family our hero capitulates and presents himself to a facility where the tests could be made.  Seated in the waiting room he sees that he is entirely alone in a sea of female patients and reception personnel.  After a considerable wait, and when we are talking about British television drama a couple of decades ago I mean a CONSIDERABLE wait, his embarrassment and shame and frustration boil over and he bolts onto his feet and stalks out of the office before being seen.  The drama ends after he sells everything he owns, moves to Thailand where an alternative treatment is offered for breast cancer, and he dies.

I would not have believed that an excruciatingly slow English drama delivered in black and white on a television in a somewhat sketchy London bed & breakfast would have had such an impact upon me.  We were exhausted from a day of crawling all around London and I was several glasses of wine into the bottle by the time that the movie ended and the credits began to roll.  My wife was not up to the challenge and was already snoring softly, curled up against my right side.  I clicked off the television with the remote control, for which I was heartily thankful since it spared me the trouble of having to get out from under our covers in the cold, dank room, and drained the last of my glass of wine before setting the glass on the tiny table next to the bed.  After clicking off the gooseneck lamp which arched over us from behind the bed I snuggled a bit closer to my wife and thought about the movie for a good hour before finally drifting off into a deep sleep, resting for another day of museums, galleries and tours to be taken on the next day.

That movie, the title of which I haven’t a clue, has stayed with me for many years now and has even moved me to make a bit of a row once at work.  A brand new facility dedicated to diagnosing breast cancer was being built at the hospital where I worked and a host of possible names was being kicked around.  A front runner amongst myriad possibilities was the “Women’s Center”.  Remembering that movie I raised a stink.  “Men get breast cancer too” I opined to all who would listen to me or read their email.  “How many men will die because they are not about to go to a ‘Women’s Center’ to get an evaluation for breast cancer?”  Apparently the one-person campaign worked.  The new facility was named the “Breast Care Center” and several cases of male breast cancer have been diagnosed there in the years that it has been open.  I really wish I could find out the name of that drama, its stars and producers, etc.  I would like to thank them for awakening me to a problem and maybe, just maybe, impelling me to agitate for a name change which just might have saved a life.

Road Trip, Part VI

I felt lonely for the first few miles after Ben parted company with me to rejoin his people at Laguna, but before long my mind returned to the patterns of the previous day; ranging far and wide in space and time.  The road was somewhat broken, as construction of the future Interstate 40 was underway and I would be sometimes hemmed in tightly by construction barrels and sometimes had to wait as eastbound traffic used a single lane, followed by westbound traffic when our turn came.  The delay was annoying but it allowed me to appreciate the harsh beauty which surrounded me.  The red cliffs on the north side of the road looked as if they belonged on Mars, and the jagged, broken black rock of the Malpais, a vast volcanic extrusion which occurred eons ago and yet still only sported tenacious and ragged shrubs and other hardy plants which grew in cracks and depressions in the rock where a little windblown dust had gathered in sufficient quantity to support life.

By the time I got to Grants I had broken free of the construction and was sailing once again on good and open road.  I stopped to get fuel and check my transmission fluid, which was low but no worse than before.  Near the gas station was a tiny hut which sold burgers, burritos, fries, and not much else.  I ordered a cheeseburger and found that it was even hotter than my breakfast burrito had been.  I gobbled that down and washed it down with an RC Cola, and then returned to the road.  On the very outskirts of Grants I saw two more hitchhikers and, since I greatly missed Ben’s company, I pulled over and indicated for them to climb in.  I no longer remember their names so I’ll call them Tom and Jerry.  They were returning home from some school east of New Mexico and one was going to Flagstaff while the other was going to Prescott.  Once again, this was not exactly the route I had been planning to take, but I could drop them off right at their destination at no inconvenience to myself.

Tom and Jerry were likable guys who were very grateful for the ride.  We talked of our homes and their school experiences, and mine in Vietnam.  The miles flew behind us.  Soon we drove through Gallup, on the eastern edge of New Mexico, and then we began to cross the high, flat countryside of northern Arizona.  That part of Arizona is very much unlike the arid land of the southern part of the state, or the lands further north near the borders with New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.  There were shallow ponds, or perhaps small lakes, with high grass growing as far as I could see.

As we approached Holbrook, one of the railroad towns that run across the West, I had a bright idea.  Tom was twenty years old like me, but Jerry was twenty one.  i pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store and provided Jerry with the funds to buy a couple six packs and some snacks, which he gladly did.  Soon we were back on the road and enjoying ourselves even more than we had been before.  Winslow rolled behind us and in another hour we were in Flagstaff.  Jerry got out in the downtown area and said that he would like to walk the rest of the way home.  I was beginning to wonder about this walking home thing.  Prescott was an hour further down the road to the south, and Tom let me take him to his door.  I was offered the hospitality of his family but I was by now wanting very much to get home.  We waved and I was alone again and pointing the Mercury towards Phoenix and, beyond that, home.

The road from Prescott to Phoenix back then was a gently winding and steady drop from the evergreen-dotted high country to the low desert.  As I drew nearer to Phoenix the vegetation grew more and more scrubby and sparse while the land became drier and more rocky and the air like a blast furnace.  Driving through Phoenix was like swimming in a volcano, and as I turned first west to Glendale and then south to Gila Bend it got even hotter.  There is a story told about this low desert country.  At Yuma, which was in my path, there once was a prison.  A prisoner who had lived many years in one of the cells there died and, being a very bad man, naturally went to hell.  After a short while he petitioned the Devil to let him send a message back to earth, to which request Old Scratch surprisingly agreed.  His message was simple:  “Send my blankets”.

Turning west at Gila Bend I was now on a straight line for home.  Across the farmland of Dateland, Tacna, Dome and Azteca I flew, stopping only in Azteca for gas, fluid and a restroom break.  It was in the restroom at that gas station that I saw a sign that has stuck with me for all these years:  “We aim to please.  You aim too, please”.  It was now mid afternoon and hot as hell, but I had visions of home dancing in my head.  Since I was now driving straight west the sun was beaming in my windshield and roasting my knuckles on the steering wheel.  I had to take turns; first one hand and then the other.  The windows were rolled down and the scorching wind swirled around the growing fuzz on my head and face.  Occasionally I would rest my elbow on the drivers’ side door, but quickly the flaming sun would begin to cook my pathetically pale skin and I would withdraw a slightly more pink arm back inside the safety of the car.

Soon I climbed a low pass through an outcropping of jagged, sun-blasted hills and descended into the town of Yuma, of the shivering bad guy in hell fame.  A long, long line of traffic lights; the entire town seemed to be strung out along the east-west axis of U.S. Highway 80, finally gave way to the bridge over the Colorado River, the state checkpoint to keep out fruits and vegetables which could harbor pests injurious to California’s agricultural industry, and I was at last barreling across the sand dunes and sage-and-greasewood-and- cactus covered desert floor of the Imperial Valley.

The climb up the east side of the Laguna Mountains was a wonderful thing.  Each thousand feet that I rose brought the temperature down further and further from hellish to miserable to hot, until finally I achieved comfortable at the top of the grade.  Watching the temperature gauge on the Mercury’s dashboard gave me a few moments of heartburn as the extra effort of propelling a ton of vehicle and passenger up the steep, winding, 4,000 foot grade made the engine overheating more than a dim possibility, a prospect which was attested to by the rather large number of cars pulled over in turnouts provided with large barrels of water by the State Division of Highways to grant succor to those who had to drop out and cool off before continuing up the grade.  The needle climbed into the “HOT” range but never made it to “TOAST”, and almost the moment that I rose up over the crest and began to wind my way westward across a level valley north of Jacumba the needle began to dip back down to its usual resting place.

I wanted to keep going but needed one more gas stop in Pine Valley, where I was to be married one day eight years later.  The transmission fluid was not leaking any worse than before and I felt relieved to know that a phone call and a couple hours’ wait for my dad to arrive with a tow bar was the worst thing that could happen now.  I got a burger and fries, this one cooler than molten lead, from a little place next to the only motel in Pine Valley, and ate it as I resumed my journey west.

A couple of miles west of Pine Vally I mounted a gentle hill that marked the last high point between me and home.  Descanso slipped by and then Alpine, the town with a tavern that has a huge oak tree growing right through the center of the building.  Flinn Springs, El Cajon, and finally back to the incipient Interstate 8.  No more than five miles after that I was pulling up in front of the home that I grew up in.  I turned the motor off and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the motor cooling down.  It had been a long and arduous drive for both of us, and my admiration for that car grew as I thought back over the last 36 hours.  It was about eight o’clock, just before the last fading of light in San Diego in the summer.  I emerged from the car and walked up to the front door.  I hadn’t called ahead, so i rang the doorbell.  it was Dad who came to the door and he was surprised to see me home so soon.  He opened the door as Mom came from a room in the back of the house to see what was going on.  I said “Hi”, and gave them both a big hug, just like the hugs I had been given at the campground at Wind Cave.  It was the hug that I should have given them a couple of weeks ago when I returned from two years of war.  It was the coming home that mattered, like Bens.

Road Trip, Part V

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.