The setting sun flashed blindingly in my rearview mirror, last Tuesday as I motored eastward on I-10. I wanted to be further ahead by sunset, but getting out of LA took longer than I suspected, having got caught up in the Mass Exodus for Thanksgiving. My augmented goal was Blythe, California, the last town before Arizona, before the desert. I sped toward the mountains that glowed in earthy shades of purple, far out on the horizon.
The SUV ahead of me roared passed a man riding a bicycle on the shoulder. The wind shear nearly pushed the biker into the ditch. But he over-corrected at the last minute and veered toward me as I approached. He wore a beat up baseball cap over long stringy hair, cut-off shorts and a winter coat, and many duffel bags, backpacks and jugs of water were tied to every part of the bicycle. An American flag flew atop a little flag pole fixed to the frame. He stared straight out from under the bill of his cap, eyes fixed on the mountains or something beyond them, his stringy hair blowing straight back like the flag.
Moments later, I caught up with the SUV that nearly blew the biker off the road. Across the back windshield were stickers with phrases like “Stand Up For America! Stand Up To Treason!” and “All Traitors WILL Be Shot!”, along with two stickers of American flags and one of a skull and crossbones. I read the phrases over and over, as I followed the SUV. The phrases, flags and skull would pop off the car and float in the apricot light of the fading day. When I pulled around to pass the SUV, I found an old, white-haired white man at the helm, staring straight ahead calmly. His contemplative gaze stood in stark contrast to the exclamatory remarks stuck to the back of his vehicle. His shoulders were relaxed, he wore a sweater. His hand draped over the wheel, lightly. The rest of his being presenting the countenance of someone listening to classical music, or maybe a book on tape. He wasn’t even going the speed limit. After I passed him, I turned my gaze onto the road. The sun was down. Those far off mountains were now blackblue figures and getting darker.
I was back on I-10 at dawn the next day. The sun came straight through the windshield as I sped into the desert. The radio stations were few and after a while I quit trying and turned the radio off. I let my mind go and talked to myself when I felt the urge, sang all the songs I wanted to sing. But most of the time I just sat silently – one hand on the wheel, my foot resting on the pedal to maintain 80 or so miles an hour. The desert sprawled out in every direction, and there always seemed to be mountains on the horizon. Hours of driving and the mountains would still be so far away. I am immeasurable when it comes to the Big Picture, I’d say to myself every now and then, or something like that.
I stopped for lunch at a Dairy Queen somewhere in Arizona and ordered a chicken basket. The place was nearly empty but it still took a long time for my order. The three manager-less Indian women working that day were not in a hurry to do much. After I went to the restroom and sat down, I noticed they were bent over, leaning in close over the ice-cream machine, examining it as if it were a crashed UFO.
“I don’t know why it ain’t workin, you know,” said one of the workers. “It was workin’ fine just yesterday.”
I turned my attention to an old, white couple sitting next to me. The old woman was eating a chilidog without much devotion. She stared down hard at the greasy, cheesy mass, picking at it with a plastic fork. The old man was sitting on the other side of the table, staring through her.
“Godammit, I don’t give a shit one way or t’other,” the man finally said to the woman. “I gotta go find me some cigarettes.”
He got up and went inside the convenience store adjoining the Dairy Queen. When he came back, he walked passed the woman without saying a word, went outside and smoked, pulling in long drags that I never saw him exhale. He stared out at something far away and probably long ago, scowling at it through the crags in his face, rarely blinking his eyes. The woman dug out the last bit of the weenie from the goopy hot dog bun with her fork, put it in her mouth and chewed. After she swallowed, she went over to the trash can, dumped the contents of her tray into it and left. She said nothing to the man as she walked to the car. The tiny, wrinkled man followed her, lit another cigarette, fished for his keys, got in the car, reached over and popped the passenger door lock. The woman got in the car and they drove away.
It was a long and quiet afternoon, very few radio stations. Somewhere around the point where the I-10 rises out of the old ocean bed that is the low desert and ascends onto the high desert, and incredible amount of anger welled up within me. I’ve crossed the desert many times, and have felt this happen with other emotions, but the emotion had never been anger. The anger was about nothing and everything at the same time. The anger grew. I started arguments with every one I knew to fully reconcile myself with this anger. Yeah, that’s right. That’s what I think…what I have been thinking all along! What do you think of me now! But each face would look back at me, bewildered, saying nothing. What is the point of this anger? But as I dug into myself to find the answer to that question, the anger fooled me, became abstract and malleable, like murky, rising water. I desperately looked around the desert for something to be mad at. My eyes caught the odometer. Nearly a 100mph. I slowed the car down and wanted a cigarette, or a pack of them. Then I was craving anything. I reached out for the radio dial like a sailor gone overboard, grasping for a life-preserver in this frothy wheezing blackwater abyss. Yes, radio would save me…
Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke. You gotta be f#$king kidding me…
I scanned the gamut of the FM dial several, times. No dice. Robin Thick was some kind of perverted, cruel, joking, freak siren sitting on a jagged rock in the writhing desert sea, singing me toward destruction. Then he was gone. I hit scan but the dial just raced from 88.1 to 107.9 over and over. I looked in the rearview mirror at my own reflection…I didn’t know you were still angry.
I hit El Paso at rush hour. I hurried up, stopped, hurried up, stopped, etc, with all the other travelers, dodging cars that carelessly jumped from lane to lane. The sense of urgency on the road was palpable on this Thanksgiving Eve, the busiest travel day of the year. At sunset, the clouds turned dark black as a sliver of fiery yellow hovered just above the southwestern horizon. The vast event that was the violent and thriving Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande, floated in millions of lights. The Mexican metropolis went on forever, or at least too far for me to see any end. Maybe it did, indeed, have no end. When I reached the edge of El Paso, I stared ahead, followed all the red taillights through the mountain pass and into complete night.
An hour outside of El Paso, the traffic thinned drastically. I’d been driving for 12 hours. The dark night ahead of me was a cloud that came in through the air conditioner vents that formed squid-like shapes with long appendages. They would dance around in the cab until a pair of oncoming headlights would shine in and disintegrate them. I was pleased to find the anger was long gone, overtaken by fatigue, as anger usually is. And the radio was picking up stations consistently – the usual Top 40, Classic Rock, Modern Rock, Shitty New County, and several Evangelical Stations. I can drive forever. But I knew better. So I let the music tug me thought the calming waters to the nearest harbor.
And that was Fort Stockton, Texas. I shivered in the cold as I walked to my room at a cheap hotel. I turned on the TV and the temperature at the bottom of the screen read 30˚F. The room had no carpet, the cold came right in. I switched on the heater, crawled under the covers and watched the news – a segment on the benefits of prison labor. Footage of black and Latino prisoners cleaning up yards of homes and parking lots of offices was interspersed with interviews of white people praising the idea.
“Yeah, think it’s great,” said one fellow wearing a tie. “Long as they stay in line and don’t creep nobody out, you know.”
The next segment was something about the oncoming Black Friday with accompanying footage of people crowding the check out counters at a Wal-Mart. I turned off the TV and the world and lay under the warm blankets. I love hotels, I thought as I stared at the white ceiling softly reflecting the parking lot lights. The good ones and the roach motels. The minimum-wage effort to make a room cozy. The shower, the sink, mirror, desk, TV, table and bed and linens all harken to something like a home but yet is so far from it. This pillow is soaked with dreams and nightmares…a faint rumble by the oilfield crew who took up the two rooms next to mine…little bars of soap…the door opens, slams, more voices…brand new bar of soap just for me…they turn their up TV loud...no one will ever use that bar of soap but me...beer cans opening next door, general yee-haws ensue…tomorrow it’ll be a new bar of soap for a different traveler in another America...I fell asleep.
It was still pitch black the next morning, Thanksgiving day, when I got back on I-10. Only the faint outline of far off mesas, and of course mountains, could be seen. A few minutes into the drive, I saw two school busses in front of me, lights flashing atop the cabins. School busses, on a Holiday? I sped around to pass the busses and read “HALLIBURTON” written on the side of each bus. The windows were tinted and I could only make out faceless shapes of heads. Just in front of the busses were two mobile Halliburton oil rigs. After I sped around them, there was nothing but empty road ahead.
I searched up and down the dial for a radio station but only found an evangelical station.
“Did you know,” preacher said, “that Napoleon finished only 42nd in his class? A failure in many eyes. He was a man who nobody thought would amount to nothin’. Well, he fooled ‘em all, didn’t he? But because he was dedicated to makin’ somethin’ outta himself, he became one of the greatest men in history.”
An image of Martin Luther King, Helen Keller, Jesus and Abe Lincoln standing outside in the cold in front of a towering locked door popped into my head. I hit scan, but the digital numbers scrolled back to the preacher. I hit scan again…the preacher…
The sky had lit up to a pure steel-blue and I was able to get lost in it for a while. The preachers voice faded to nothing. When the flashing lights of a state trooper ahead caught my attention, I tore my gaze from the heavens and came back. The preacher had moved on from talk about dictators to the importance of sparing not the rod upon thy children. “Now I know there’s all kinds a talk out there about how whipping or…spanking…a child hurts them, but the fact is the rod molds them, builds them up, keeps them from strayin’. Then they start making all kinds a choices. Limit choices for your children early, for you have to get ‘em early, or they’ll go their own way and be lost, forever.”
During a commercial break, the DJ announced a special Thanksgiving day auction, at a nearby town. “After dinner, come on down, bring the family. Enter and you get a chance to win a gun safe that can hold up to 56 guns!”
The sun broke the horizon but low clouds kept it from bursting bright across the new cold icy day. In seconds, the eastern sky was glowing blood-red. Hmm, red sky at morning…
Oh yes, the endless expanses of West Texas. Looks like you rolled through our neck of the woods as that storm bore down on us. I hope your anger subsided. The desert can do strange things to people.