El Paso, Texas
11 January 2014
The main culinary question in New Mexico is, red or green? The red chiles are the ones strewn mile after mile along the highway, particularly near the town of Hatch, looking like outsized firecracker papers after a Chinese New Year; but in home after hospitable home on this southward run, I’ve found myself tending to answer: green. Red or green was also the question as I neared El Paso, which I’ve been calling the end of my road since I left Seattle – but the closer I’ve gotten to Mexico, and the further I’ve moved from the cold, the more I’ve been thinking, likewise, green.
I’ve been following the cranes along the river, watching them ripple over the trees and mudflats of Belen and the Bosque del Apache. I’ve been sidestepping syringes in the dirt and sweeping surreptitious campsites for broken glass. For the first time, I’ve walked along the shoulder of an interstate, because there’s a stretch of central New Mexico where it’s the only way to walk from one town to the next. It took phone calls to the county police, the highway patrol, and the Department of Transportation to convince me this was legal, and a dead-end at a backroads RV park office decorated from floor to ceiling with rifles, saddle scabbards, and bone-handled Bowie knives to convince me it was a good idea. I’ve stepped on so many thorns that there’s no hope of ever prying them all out from the soles of my shoes, and every once in a while, they work their way completely through.
Looking at the soles of these shoes, with the right wearing out much faster now than the left, I’ve finally had to admit that I’m limping. My left knee is injured. Whatever is wrong with it is probably complicated, and considering that it’s traveled more than 2,600 miles / 4,100 kilometers in this condition, it isn’t likely to bounce back in a hurry. This is a shame, because a hurry is exactly what I’m looking at for the next fifty days; but more on that later.
I’ve seen so many restaurants boasting menudo that I finally decided to try some. Restaurants are usually above my station, so I got a can at the supermarket in Truth or Consequences, and subsequently discovered that the phrase “I got a can” will appall anyone who grew up eating menudo at home, while the simple soup itself will appall anyone else. I can’t look at a cow the same way again, that’s for sure.
Around me, landscapes and preoccupations have changed. The juniper in the north gave way to creosote bushes, pickup trucks made room for pony cars, and I finally saw a lowrider. An Albuquerque TV news segment about the return to service of the station’s traffic helicopter, following an unfortunate incident in which someone shelled it with a shotgun, fit a pattern of steadily increasing pandemonium in the local media. I was told not to bother trying to knock on anyone’s door after dark near the border, because fear of beheading has made people cautious; and my contact at the New Mexico Department of Transportation warned me that, as I got close to El Paso, things would get “gross.”
Aside from the menudo, though, things worked out. Last evening I went down to the pedestrian bridge across the river, which is practically hidden at the end of a bustling avenue of used clothing stores in the belt of downtown El Paso where all the conversation is in Spanish, all the plaintive lyrics to the songs are Spanish, and all the jeans mannequins face away from the sidewalk, the better for passers-by to appreciate the one quality of a pair of jeans that truly matters, apparently. Across the border, Juárez; across Paisano Drive, the United States; and in between, sequins, chicharrones, mayoreo y menudeo, taxis, headlights, jeans. The river itself is invisible.
It doesn’t feel like an end, so today I head north. I’ll cross a desert, cross some mountains, and set to work crossing a plain.
The Great Plains.
The West, after all, keeps going east – all the way to the Mississippi, the Gulf of Mexico, and New Orleans – and so, I’ve decided, will I.
Hope the new year is starting well,