Russ Ringsak

Small Diversions in the Southwest

May 1, 2003

On Interstate 40, the part that used to be Route 66 in western Oklahoma, seven miles from the Texas line, a billboard says: "ERICK, OKLAHOMA. THE HOME TOWN OF THE KING OF THE ROAD -- ROGER MILLER." He was on our show in Nashville years ago, and I recall him coming through the stage door with a satchel and a cased guitar. He stood for a moment, surveying those of us fortunate enough to be there, and he said: "Well, I just got my second wind -- I broke my first one."

We laughed and he smiled and turned to the nearest person and said "My Daddy had that Midas touch -- everything he touched turned to mufflers."

He started on a roll: "I asked this old boy for rough estimate; he kicked me real hard in the balls and he said: 'Four hunnerd dollars!'" He must have gone through twenty zingers and when he finally went to his dressing room and we put ourselves back together I was grateful to be able to remember even those three. You grinned for days after an encounter with Roger Miller. Or years.

The 100th Meridian Museum is located near Erick. I don't know if being raised near the intersection of the 100th meridian and Route 66 had anything to do with the genius of Roger Miller, but I've seen a goodly part of this nation now and I do believe it to be our only meridian with its own museum. On its way north the 100th leaves its main job of separating Oklahoma from Texas and makes its way through notorious old Dodge City, and then up in my home state of North Dakota it intersects another notable highway: The High Line, US 2, at Rugby, at which point it marks the Geographic Center of the North American Continent. I've been there and was struck by the trust implicit in that marker.

It's not exactly intuitive. At the marker for the highest point on I-80 east of the Mississippi, for instance, you can tell that's most likely true because it feels like the high place; same with the continental divide east of Butte, Montana, or most any highway marker. They verify themselves. But the literal geographic center of the entire North American Continent, you have to take that on faith. No one person, no matter how well equipped with rangefinders and theodolites and levels and compasses and whatever, can possibly confirm or deny it. It's there, it's been that way a long time and that's it and you take their word for it. It's just coincidence that in all the irregularity of the coast lines and the vast vagueness of the polar ice cap, the precise center of the whole mess is exactly where the 100th meridian crosses The High Line. If you're in the space station sometime you might be able to look down and check it out for yourself. And if it's after school you could also check and see if anybody down there in Rugby is actually playing rugby. I used to wonder about that, because nobody else in the state played it.

Back on I-40 and somewhere along the stretch west of the 100th meridian, maybe around the 102nd, I saw another compelling billboard: RATTLESNAKES -- EXIT NOW. As if it might be your last chance to experience rattlesnakes -- which is unlikely in the Southwest -- or that if you were a rattlesnake yourself you were required to get off the freeway and either take the back roads or just slither off into the desert and stop bothering the rest of us.

Billboards in general don't agitate me as much as they do most people, because if you do take the back roads you can often ride billboard-free for hours, and in light traffic. The freeways are a trucker's place of business and commercialism seems natural there. But I wish the highway people would let you know where you are. The mileposts are terrific and bless'em all, but they could help our sense of geography even more if they'd put a name to every river, every wash and gulch, every canyon and cliff and mountain peak, and of course to every meridian and parallel. I wouldn't mind some small increment of my taxes diverted from social engineering into sadly neglected geography. I'd like to know when I crossed the 34th parallel north of Phoenix, and the 32nd at Anthony, New Mexico; and the 30th down there at Comfort, Texas. The number 30 is indeed a comfort to someone raised halfway between 48 and 49.

Ten years ago I met a man in Tulsa, on the 36th parallel, who had lived in Minot, North Dakota, on the 48th, and I asked him how he came to move to Tulsa. He said, "I had one of those extension cords that stick out of your [car's radiator] grille, connected to the headbolt heater, you know? So you plug it in at night and maybe the damn thing'll start in the morning? Everybody up there had 'em."

"Right. I had'em on my cars, too."

"Yeh. And so one January it was about 40 below and I got so fed up with the cold and ice and the whole rigamarole that when I finally got my station wagon started I left it runnin' and loaded up all my gear and I headed south and I said to myself I'm gonna just keep drivin' until somebody asks me what the hell that cord is for. And a guy at a gas station here asked that exact question, and I been here ever since."

Allow another small diversion here. Vast highway experience has clarified for me certain superficial issues, one of which is the meaning of "Family Restaurant." One easily assumes it means they don't serve liquor or they don't like bikers or they just don't want the singles trade, period, but none of those hold true. What they really mean by "Family Restaurant" is that they don't know how to do steak. Families maybe don't eat steak. Never order steak in a Family Restaurant unless you like steak overcooked, tasteless and tough. In a Family Restaurant, "rare" means a slight shade lighter of dark grey than "well done." In a Family Restaurant order meatloaf. Order pie and coffee. Order all three. Don't order steak.

Sunday morning after the Phoenix show I eased onto Interstate 10 and headed towards the sun, and a beautiful desert morning it was. Expected a truck stop or two on the outskirts but didn't see anything for 50 miles; then just past the junction of Interstate 8, around Eloy, there were four of them. The surge of San Diego traffic joining the L.A. traffic on I-10 explained why there weren't any before that. In the crowded truck stop drivers were talking over coffee and hash browns and ground round about the price of fuel and the crazy tourist traffic and the low rates these days and how there ought to be a ten-day drivers strike until the rates go up; all familiar material. I took on 254 gallons of diesel fuel, 2 eggs, 2 sausage patties, a piece of buttered toast, three cups of coffee and a paper, did a little shopping and got back on the eastbound superslab. And that makes it sound too quick because it all took over an hour.

There was sculpture to the right of the roadway, big whimsical metal assemblies suggesting horse-and-wagons, dinosaurs, rocket ships; classic themes of the western range, in bright colors and abstract shapes. No advertising. Just something an artist had to do out there where people could see it.

There is an Arizona State Prison at Picacho, a kindness to escaping inmates in that it's a fairly easy walk to the truck stops; no bones of dehydrated runaways baking in the barren sand, like in the bad old days. Nearby is Picacho Peak itself, a dramatic jagged rock stabbing skyward in a landscape of wide spreading buttes overlooking wide beds of flat scrub desert.

You pass a large pink-stucco-walled community calling itself the "RV Resort Voted Best in the Nation," with an inn, a restaurant, a store, golf and all the usual hookups. Inside the wall you see the tops of a sea of RVs, like shiner minnows in a net or ten thousand silver-backed cattle in a corral, ready for shipment. And soon after that you see an ostrich ranch. The big flock in the pen looks like a great herd of a different kind of cattle, snake-necked cattle, tall and bizarre with just the front halves, the back halves somehow missing. Kind of a Western nightmare. Can't imagine steely-eyed tightlipped cowboys ever getting in gunfights about ostrich, or even with ostrich in the background. Women and cattle, sure, and Brahma bulls, mangy curs and trailer houses, maybe. But not ostrich.

But on the subject of RVs, they keep getting bigger and they're pulling bigger vehicles. Used to be they'd tack on a little Toyota behind so they could leave the house at the park and drive the car into town, but now RVs are big as Greyhound buses and they're pulling full-size 4x4 crew cab 4-door pickups. Pickups big enough to pull full-size RV trailers themselves. I've never quite understood the whole phenomenon; at a motel someone else makes the bed and cleans up, and you leave it behind and there's no monthly payment. A vacation is someplace I go to get away from the house, but these folks bring the house along. But hey, it's none of my business anyway. Maybe they don't even have a house to get away from, and this is their whole thing right here. Vagabonds.

A mix of Hell's Angels and Red Devils thunders by, nine bikes in a tight formation, all wearing their colors, something you don't see so much of lately. Nowadays motorcycle gang colors serve less to intimidate the public than to distinguish the wearers from all the leathered-up lawyers and doctors out there.

Tucson, like Albuquerque and newer parts of Phoenix, has done a great job on their freeway retaining walls and overpasses, finishing them in restful stone and sand hues and trimming them with angular patterns and bright colors from southwest Indian designs; a pedestrian bridge is shrouded in beautiful ironwork. It all takes on a monumental, even ceremonial, aspect, so different from that depressed heavy-traffic desperate-engineer dirt-grey urban-misery look of most freeway construction. Not to put too fine a point on it there.

Got some Arizona Iced Tea in those fancy bottles and a little cooler and a bag of ice and life is good, bombing across the desert. An oversize chair sits on the paved shoulder of the road, not the kind of thing you would put on top of a load where it could escape, but this one did. If you sat there in it you'd get a close and windy look at oncoming traffic. Reminded me of a delicate antique parlor chair I saw lying in the right lane the last time I was leaving Wolf Trap, near Washington DC; just up the road a pickup with a couple more chairs had pulled over and a frantic man was running back to this one. You would not believe how people with no concept of the power of wind tie loads down. They'll set a chair loose back there and expect it to sit still at sixty miles an hour, or they'll tie stuff down with string. When I come up behind a shoddy rigging job I give it a wide berth. I've seen angle iron, lumber, a kitchen table, watermelon, bags of clothes, bags of cement, a gallon of green paint spread all over, car parts, a potted tree, rolls of sod, a garbage can full of trash, rolls of roofing, a bicycle, quite a few mattresses and once even a porcelain toilet on the road. No need to mention the hundreds of carcasses.

I pass a wide load, wide and high, a good-size yacht, probably bigger than the original Mayflower and very professionally lashed down. The keel is close to the road and the sleek hull looks out of place in this bone-dry landscape. I figure the rigging and moving bill is well more than a year of my pay, and wonder what it is about this boat that it has to go across the country and wouldn't it be cheaper to sell it and buy one like it on the other coast. But of course there I go, showing how little I know about boats. Ignorance acting like authority here, a not-uncommon phenomenon in the cab of a truck. Or on the floors of legislatures, either.

Rough cattle move in the brush out there. Looks like a mean and dry existence among the scorpions and cacti, the snakes and coyotes and cougars and what-all. Being free range cattle might not be as romantic as it sounds. Exits for Patagonia, Sonoita, Fort Huachuca; scenic route 83 and Tombstone, Bisbee and Douglas. Ocotillo Street. THE THING ? -- EAGLE FIGURINES and DREAM CATCHERS. Exit 322 Ahead, in Texas Canyon. A followup billboard: COLORFUL AGATE BOOKENDS. THE THING ? -- MYSTERY OF THE DESERT. The question mark is a big exaggerated curlycue to snare curious kids. "Can we pul-LEEEZ stop? Pul-LEEEZ Mom?" Here it comes again: BUCKLES- BELTS- EARRINGS -- THE THING ? -- CHICKEN BASKET DEAL -- FRESH HOT COFFEE. You are a fish cruising the shallows, rejecting one lure after another. Gravel trails with interesting names head off towards vacant skylines. Pomerene Road. Sybil Road. You don't see any houses; people who wait for you in convenience stores and who tend to The Thing must live somewhere out past where the roads disappear.

In Texas Canyon big rounded rocks sit around, sit on top of each other, some very delicately balanced on high places, round on round, some nestled together in a pile like pillows in a luxury hotel. As if they had gathered there from all parts of the world, a pilgrimage of big round rocks. Even knowing the abilities of water, wind and time, you marvel at the power of it. But you also think, well, the rocks may be losing the battle here right now but if they grind'em all into dust there's a whole lot more rock down below.

Billboard: COCHISE STRONGHOLD NEXT RIGHT. An old style wooden windmill sits next to a cattle tank there, the blades idly turning. There are unseen cattle out there in the gnarly brush depending on this rickety assembly to bring up water, and it occurs to you how rare it is to see a cowboy on a horse on the western desert these days. And what would Cochise say if he could see his old range now?

To the near right three big Union Pacific locomotives pull an eastbound container train, the Stars and Stripes flying from the center unit. They're painted bright yellow and grey, very classy looking. The UP seems to have survived and held together better than any other railroad; they always had the biggest engines and the coolest graphics, and they never seem to run mishmash combinations of unmatched power like others have fallen to.

EAT BEEF, it says out there, then PECANS WALNUTS AND WINE, sort of a play on parsely sage rosemary and thyme, a tune I don't miss much, and you pass orchards and a vineyard and shortly after that you are in New Mexico. In the sparse vegetation of a salt flat to the right stands a herd of maybe 40 Black Angus; they are spaced evenly around, probably thirty feet between them, as if nobody is really pals with anybody else but they like to stay in sight anyway. Sort of like an abstract painting representing the isolation of modern man, or in this case, modern steer. Farther on a car lies on its roof just inside the fence, a rusting husk of a 60s-era four-door Chevie. Would someone from an unseen ranch haul it all the way out there to the fence line and roll it over just for fun or did it crash there thirty years ago and they just fixed the fence behind it and left it lie; or is there a more interesting story here. If it's a mystery it is a familiar one.

Twenty miles into the state you see an old man walking over there on the westbound side, dark skin, white beard, walking slow and bent, a huge roll on his back and where is he heading and what did he leave behind, and it's soon getting dark and who will stop to give him a lift. You feel a sudden gratitude for the relentless smooth beat of the Cat engine beneath your feet and the high whistle of the turbocharger. You have somehow become an unstoppable eastbound force, sitting high above the road. And a few miles later you have to stop at the weigh station. Show your credentials.

Miles later a sign says BELTS - WHIPS - ROCKS. I'm thinking I've come all this way and finally found a belts-whips-rocks store, and we just don't have a single one back home. All we have is the old paper-scissors-rock stores. By 5:30 at Deming the traffic has its lights on and no sunset has fallen; a heavy overcast came on from behind and it just got dark. Pass the exit to the Mimbres River. Cross the Rio Grande at Las Cruces and cruise on in to El Paso as the rain begins.

Crossing into Texas from any direction brings on a palpable increase in the energy level, here manifested by industry and downtown El Paso itself, jammed between the river and the mountain and the lights of Juarez to the south. I made Van Horn two hours later. The restaurants were closed and I settled for dinner from a convenience store, a bag with a couple of hot dogs, a Diet Dr Pepper and potato chips; the 'Classic' kind. At the parking lot of the motel a 6-wheel open trailer sat behind a 3/4 ton pickup, holding an indecipherable load of yellow and aluminum junk, hundreds of pieces, large and small, lashed together with 3" ratchet bands like you see on flatbed trucks. It looked like something that had come from a crusher. Eight or ten bands wrapped the mess tight and you wondered how they could have put it all together and why, and of what possible value could it be, and then it suddenly dawned that the broad yellow slab along the right side was a ripped wing and the thing up on top with the angled bars had once been a cockpit. With the context established the pieces came into focus: wing struts, landing gear, propellor, bits of fuselage, tail slab, engine parts, nose cowling, shards of the other wing. A sad assemblage, and you wondered who was hauling it and if they were related to the pilot and could the pilot possibly have survived this horrific scattering. You picture them in a flat field somewhere gathering the metal bits, organizing them onto the trailer, fitting them together and ratcheting them into this strange taut package. A bird, forced into the shape of a rough egg, suggesting it could somehow suddenly morph itself back into flight. An impossible vision, but someone must be wishing that time could go backwards and that this, like so many other irreversible events, would never have happened.

There is an oft-told story of Bill Monroe: a jealous girlfriend once grabbed his precious mandolin by the neck and smashed it to smithereens, about 85 in all, which were brought to the legendary Gibson luthier, Lloyd Loar, and it took him many months of careful work but he reassembled the smithereens back into a mandolin. They say it looked and sounded as good as it had in the beginning, and Bill played it from then on. A modern-day resurrection, from one legend to another.

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