West vol. 9: Amplifier

What doesn’t kill you still hurts

Austin, Texas

14 February 2014

Dear fellow-travelers,

I spent the end of January in the town of Pecos, in the Chihuahuan Desert, temporarily unable to walk.  On the evening of my return to Texas following a long and peculiar detour from El Paso back through New Mexico, I stepped off the asphalt of Highway 285 to get clear of oncoming traffic and put all my weight on an acacia thorn hidden in the grass, which punched through the sole of my shoe and deep into the ball joint of my left big toe.  The local pharmacist later told me that around Pecos, people call these thorns “horsecripplers.”  My own particular crippler put me in the Reeves County emergency room, and then in the Pecos Christian Home, where I spent several days flat on my back, on antibiotics, and on the mend.

It wasn’t supposed to go this way.  I was supposed to go from El Paso to Alamogordo, cross the Sacramento Mountains, and then travel as quickly as possible across the vast plateau known as the Llano Estacado, on the border between eastern New Mexico and northwestern Texas.  The Llano Estacado was notorious in olden times as a place so flat and so empty that travelers could get lost there like hapless sailors on an arid sea.  What no one told me, however, was that these days, no one thinks of these borderlands in those terms.  You don’t even hear the name Llano Estacado: the name you hear is the Permian Basin, and what the Permian Basin means is oil, gas, and money.

I’ve been hearing about oil and gas from the beginning of this trip, but until I reached eastern New Mexico, the actual oil and gas fields were always on the other side of the Rockies.  People on the Columbia River told me about huge influxes of heavy machinery from overseas, bound for Wyoming or the Dakotas; I stayed up one evening with hosts in Wyoming watching Gasland, in which the narrator travels the country attempting to tie fracking to water and air pollution; and I met people in northern New Mexico who were campaigning to keep fracking out of the valley where they lived.  Another cross-country walker who came stalking toward me on the highway one day told me that the oil and gas fields wouldn’t smell very good, but offered plenty of places to hide at night.  Until I reached the fields myself, that was about all I had to go on.

The first field I encountered was right outside the refinery town of Artesia, New Mexico, on the long haul up into the Loco Hills.  This area has such a high concentration of wells that, in satellite pictures, it looks like a geometric rash has overspread the landscape.  Seen from the ground, pumpjacks bob up and down with a cyclical wail, gas flares burn a wavering orange, and tanks cluster like teeth – tall thin separator tanks and squat storage tanks lined up in rows.  The air on the road grew increasingly fetid the farther I went, but it wasn’t until I started passing signs warning of poison gas that I considered there might be a problem with my Llano Estacado plan.

It turns out that the sour smell invariably attending the pumps and tanks is a sign of byproduct hydrogen sulfide gas.  Hydrogen sulfide is invisible and heavier than air; it collects and concentrates in low-lying or enclosed spaces; it’s highly flammable, and it’s also a weapons-grade poison gas.  It’s possible to smell the gas in low concentrations, but not in high concentrations or with prolonged exposure – inhale too much, and it wrecks your sense of smell before doing further damage. Virtually every tank cluster in the well fields includes a wind sock to indicate which way the gas is blowing, and people who work in the fields carry detectors to warn them if the concentration spikes.  The people in the most danger are often workers climbing to the tops of the tanks, where the gas escapes into the open air.  A single bad breath there can cause a “knockdown” – instantaneous loss of consciousness or death.  Sometimes, though, the threat is more of a communal risk.  In 1975, a gust of hydrogen sulfide went through a house in Denver City, just east of Artesia, and killed all nine people inside – they had enough time to realize that something was wrong, but not enough time to get away.  I learned all of this by phone, standing on the side of the road in the dark, breathing a steady low dosage of poison gas and coming to the conclusion that a camping trip across the Permian Basin wasn’t a good idea.

By this point in my long northward detour from El Paso, mind you, things had already taken a turn for the sour.  Several small towns in the eastern part of New Mexico advertise locally-made apple cider, and since apple cider stands pretty high on my list of the good rare things in life, I figured that at some point before leaving the state, I should make the most of the opportunity.  When I reached the hamlet of Mayhill and saw a cider sign outside Bill Crouch’s convenience store, I thought this might be the place; but as I walked up to the door, past a couple of pint-sized Rapa Nui moai figures, I found that the windows were completely papered with home-made posters.  One of them said that the restrooms were for paying customers only, but the others said things like:

2012 No Re-nig

Where is the, KKK When you need them?

Hillary Clinton Chicken 2 Small Breasts 2 Large Thighs 2 Left Wings

Kill Obama (care)

Send the Half Breed Back to Kenya

I could live without cider, I decided.

As I was turning away, a car pulled up in front of the store.  There were two women about my age inside, one very debonair in a crew cut, and the other, as it happened, not white.  As one of them got out of the car, the other leaned out after her.

“The cheapest thing possible,” she said.  “A lollipop, or something.”

The following day, I passed Tom and Pam Runyan Ranches, a roadside store specializing in snack mixes and crucifixes, plus fishing, a petting zoo, and apple cider…which was delicious.  Mr. Runyan himself was manning the till, and we got to talking about NAFTA.  The North American Free Trade Agreement had already come up in conversations I’d had in El Paso, but it isn’t a topic I know much about, and Mr. Runyan described how NAFTA and other government arrangements had changed his life.  Previously, he’d sold a large part of his apple crop over the border to Mexico, but NAFTA had priced him out of the Mexican market – the people who formerly bought his apples buy Mexican apples now, and this loss in business prompted his expansion into snack foods, crucifixes, fishing, and the petting zoo – anything to stay afloat.  In fact, Mr. Runyan told me, even the focus on apples had been the consequence of earlier government intrusions that ruined his cattle and sheep ranching – environmentalists and communists had re-introduced cougars, coyotes, and bobcats, which meant that any livestock needed constant watching, but everyone who might once have worked as a herder was on drugs or on welfare, so he’d been forced to sell off almost all of his property.  He indicated a desolate sweep of the hills, once an empire, and told me he wouldn’t deal with Sierra Club people or Demoncrats any more – wouldn’t talk with them or even waste his time knowing any; and neither would his wife, and neither would any of their friends.  Ever since people elected “that nigger,” he said, things had been going from bad to worse – they’d started going bad with Carter, they’d been bad under Clinton, and they’d been bad under both Bushes.  Only Reagan had done any good, because he’d reduced regulation, and regulation was how ignorant city people were crippling the rest of the country.  Let’s see what kind of situation those city people will be in, he told me, when the rest of the country can’t support them any more.

By this point I’d finished my apple juice, but Mr. Runyan, taking a new tack, asked if I read the Bible.  A succession of four blood moons was coming, he said, which was a billboard in the sky, prophesying a great cataclysm if Obama should do anything to damage the state of Israel.  Most likely, this spring, the fault zone along the Mississippi River would convulse in a huge earthquake, and the Great Lakes would all flood rushing out to the Gulf of Mexico.  In any event, he was stockpiling guns, ammunition, and propane, so he’d be as prepared as a man could be when things started happening.

My thoughts heading onward from Runyan Ranches were not particularly happy.  Back in Alamogordo, I had stayed overnight with a hospitable Air Force engineer.  He’d studied history at the graduate level, and he had a fascinating book collection; so in the morning, when I should have been making tracks eastward, Sebastian Junger’s book on combat infantry in Afghanistan had me glued stock-still in the middle of the living room floor, surrounded by heaps of half-packed gear.  My host generously lent me the book to finish reading on the road, and so, the whole time I was learning about apples, I had a firefight in the Korengal Valley rampaging in the back of my mind.  The brain-splitting anger of these two successive stout aging apple grocers cast previous incidents and patterns of the trip in a weird and sickly light.  Guns, terrain, religion, fear, suspicion, overpowering resentment, poverty, mutual deliberate ignorance; in mounting frantic paranoia, I could see the huge web around me failing, ties unloosed, a nation in collapse.  For the remainder of that afternoon and evening, it was the easiest thing in the world to imagine the United States on the brink of civil war.

That’s how I got to Artesia.  In order to avoid the poison gas, I made a second detour, this time to the south.  I marched clear around the heel of the Permian Basin to the Pecos River country, and that’s where I spiked my foot and wound up at the Reeves County Hospital.

It was about two in the morning when I got there, and the unfamiliar surroundings, fatigue, pain, and anxiety fortunately put me in the perfect state to appreciate the ritual that followed.  Registration complete, the nurse asked what had happened, wiped the residual bloodstain off my rigidly swollen foot, and drew a circle around the site of the injury.  I had a while to compose my thoughts before the doctor arrived, and when Dr. Roy Brough finally made his entrance, he made an entrance.  The door inched open, and the frailest, oldest, palest, most crooked, most moustached, and most watery-eyed medical practitioner I have ever seen crept agonizingly into the room.  He took up station at the corner of the examination table and leaned forward.

“Where does your head hurt?” he asked.

“It’s not my head,” I said.  “It’s my foot.”

“Must have the wrong patient,” he said, and hobbled back out of the room.

When he returned, he checked my eyes, my ears, and my throat, listened to my breathing with his stethoscope, and asked me if I smoked.

“No,” I replied.

“How much?”

“I don’t smoke.”

“What?”

“I don’t smoke.”

The doctor sat down by my foot and looked at the spot where the nurse had drawn his circle.  By this time, several hours had passed since the initial injury, and the exterior skin had already sealed, in a frayed kind of way.  There was no gaping hole in my foot, and Dr. Brough called the nurse back in to ask where the puncture was.  The nurse couldn’t find any sign of a puncture either, and they suggested to me that perhaps I had simply suffered a bruise.  Having pulled a thorn the size of a carpentry nail out of my foot, with subsequent swelling so severe I could hardly put my shoe back on and total loss of mobility in the joint, and having watched the same nurse wipe blood off my foot himself, I had my doubts about this.  I especially didn’t like the gentle tone the two of them had suddenly adopted in talking to me, the tone reserved for listeners who are a little overexcited and imaginative.

Eventually they decided they couldn’t proceed any further without X-rays, and while they left to arrange this, I cast about for some way to prove I had in fact suffered a deep puncture wound, with an accompanying high chance of infection and possible internal damage to the most important joint in my foot.  It finally occurred to me to show them my sock, so I staggered back out to the computer terminal where the nurse was chatting and held the repulsive thing up.

“There’s blood on my sock,” I said.  Dirt, sweat, bits of grass, and dead skin, yes – but also blood.

Point made; but they still wouldn’t do anything about it without two X-ray pictures first.  As the technician got her equipment ready, I asked why it was necessary to X-ray my foot when there was no indication of a broken bone.  She told me they had to check to make sure that no foreign bodies had lodged in my foot, took her pictures, and released me back to the examination room.  I had already told both the nurse and the doctor that the thorn came out of my foot completely intact, so I was a little surprised, not just by the X-ray tech’s explanation, but by the question Dr. Brough asked when he came back with the results.

“What’s this you’ve got in your toe?” he asked.

The picture showed an enormous rectangular shape in the center of my big toe.

“I don’t have anything in my toe,” I said.

“Must be an error in the picture,” he growled, and put it aside.

I asked if the pictures confirmed that the thorn had come out intact, and Dr. Brough replied that the X-rays wouldn’t have picked up any vegetable matter one way or the other.  What’s more, he added, as he got started tidying up, even if there had been a piece of the thorn lodged in the joint, it wouldn’t have been possible to remove it; and ultimately, even if the joint itself had been damaged, they wouldn’t have been able to tell.  He wrote an illegible prescription and told me to stay off my foot until the swelling went down.  By this point it was about four in the morning.

On the way out, I showed the prescription to the nurse and asked if a pharmacist would be able to understand it.  He assured me that everything would be fine.  Later in the day, when I showed the slip to the nearest pharmacist, she told me that Dr. Brough had neglected to specify a quantity for the medication; and when she rang him up to ask what he’d intended, he bungled his arithmetic, and she had to tell him the correct quantity herself.  Ten days on cephalexin, at four 500mg capsules per day – one capsule every six hours.  Noon, six, midnight, six: repeat.  It was $5.34 for the antibiotics and probably a few hundred dollars for the hospital visit, though the bill is still on its way.  Thank goodness for the X-rays.

I got started on the capsules at the Pecos Christian Home, wrapped up in blankets and re-reading Sebastian Junger.  My roommate, Raúl, was the resident caretaker for the house.  He was getting on in years, and they were the kind of years that add up.  He said that when he used to cross the border, coming from the mountains in Chihuahua, he would travel for five or six days through the desert with no food but a single small bag of the kind of cornmeal called pinole, hard to find in the United States.  He drank very little in the course of a day – a little coffee, sometimes a soda, hardly anything else – and said that he once walked three days without water.  He’d worked his whole life out in the open – in Washington, in the Montana Rockies, in the Dakotas – and he would have kept at it, except that he’d suffered a stroke while he was working in Pecos, and now he was not only unable to get work, but trapped in his old age in a dreary town a long way from any mountains.  He still has trouble with his right arm, and in the evenings when he would come up the stairs, he would sink on his bed by the door gasping.  When he first arrived at the Pecos Christian Home, the yard was dirt.  The grass, the two apple trees, and the pear tree in the yard were his idea, his money, and his doing.

One time, on his way past me out of the room, he said, “I got nobody.”

When I mentioned that I was starting to feel nostalgic for Idaho, he said, “No!  No!  I worked in Idaho three years, digging potatoes.  The only thing they have in Idaho is potatoes.”  I tried to convince him that there were mountains there, too, but I got the impression that even if the Idaho Rockies had been the Himalayas, they could never compare to the mountains of Chihuahua for Raúl.

Before his stroke, he had been working as a West Texas cowboy.  A horse once kicked him in the stomach, breaking (here he motioned at his front) just about everything, and knocking out his teeth as well, when his face hit the saddlehorn.  He dragged himself back to his lodgings and was alone like that until the next day, when a bus driver found him and asked what the matter was.  By that point, he didn’t even know.  He wound up in a coma at a hospital in El Paso, and he hasn’t been able to eat more than a tiny amount at a time ever since.

In the evening, after working around the house and the associated thrift store all day, he would dig through a collection of DVDs and VHS tapes below a small television set and watch movies until he fell asleep.  On my first night at the house, apparently in my honor, we watched an interminable high-school-history documentary about the attack on Pearl Harbor.  The next night, Raúl started with an Ice Cube / Dr. Dre / Snoop Dog / Eminem concert video, but after a while, he shook his head, muttered “American music,” and swapped in the final season of Walker, Texas Ranger.  We got a lot of mileage out of that before switching to Citizen Kane, which put Raúl to sleep, and a Beau Bridges revenge thriller, which put me to sleep.

West Texas is a place of extremes.  One night in Pecos the temperature dropped to 12°F, or -11°C; two days later, it had shot to 82°F, or 28°C.  The sun bleaches everything in Pecos to a scoured steel monochrome.  The place is bleakly inhospitable; when the Comanches controlled the region, their subsistence largely depended on their ability to ride far and fast and raid softer, settled people with more to lose.  These days, at least, the people pair their toughness with incredible generosity.  A bit farther down the road, after I’d lost my warm jacket under suspicious circumstances in Fort Stockton, people in both Iraan and Eldorado gave me extra clothes to keep warm, and I couldn’t believe how many people pulled over to give me food, money, and encouragement.  I’ve met kind people in many places, but West Texans are truly special.

For generations, the area has literally been dirt poor, with meager soil, hardly any water, hardly any people, and hardly any hope; now, the oil and gas boom has the whole place buzzing.  To reverse that statement: no one complains about the environmental havoc, because call them what you will, the Llano Estacado or the Permian Basin were borderline wastelands to start with.  The people at the Christian Home told me that the man in the house next door was bringing home $3,400 every two weeks trucking water out to the drill sites for fracking slurry.  They were incredulous that a young man in good health (overlooking the foot for a moment) would be wasting his time walking across the country when he could be making a fortune in the oil and gas industries, particularly considering that I had even basic ability using a computer.  The prospect of money was so electrifying in Pecos that it took on a febrile intensity in conversation, and, indeed, was seldom missing from a conversation.  When I went with Raúl to church on Sunday, Mr. Winkles the deacon, who also oversees the Christian Home, stood before the congregation and asked where the town’s new prosperity was taking it: pockets were filling, but the church was not.  Isn’t it wonderful, he asked, that scientists and engineers can do so much, but that no one is yet able to make a tree?

In some ways, the prosperity feels not only new, but almost hypothetical.  The towns of West Texas don’t have the innumerable boarded windows and For Sale signs typical of so many small towns earlier in my journey, and their motel prices are about four times what you’d find in comparable towns elsewhere, but they also don’t look like they’ve just won the lottery.  The day when I decided my foot had healed enough that I was able to resume walking, I suddenly had to find a stable Internet connection to upload a video file for some people in Montana, and in Pecos, this proved almost impossible.  It was only thanks to the kindness of the local librarians that I was able to stay in the county library overnight to take care of things, and that’s how long the ludicrously anxious slow-motion process took.  I spent the whole night sitting at the guest electrical-outlet table, which happened to be next to the stacks on all things military, paramilitary, and hemi-demi-semi-military, so I washed down Sebastian Junger with Marcus Luttrell and Chris Kyle.  It got me thinking about other career options, anyway, and the file finally did finish uploading late the next morning.

As I left the Christian Home for the last time, Raúl was talking with a friend out in the street.  He told me that if I got to the end of my journey and wanted a job, I’d be welcome back home in Pecos.

It’s been a crazy road since then.  There was a long stretch coming up to the hundredth meridian when the temperature never rose above freezing – cold, fog, wind, endless gray.  At one point I stopped at a roadside grill shack where Highway 190 meets the Toe Nail Trail to see if I could use the toilet, only to learn that the toilet had frozen solid.  Crossing the hundredth meridian itself was like something from a dream.  One day I was in the desert, and the next, I was in a leafy green woodland reaching as far as the eye could see.  There was still prickly pear cactus all over the place in the understory, but the trees, the trees, the trees.  I met a lean young fellow named Greg Hindy who was walking across the country in the other direction, carrying an accordion-style camera with film plates.  He’d taken a year-long vow of silence, so we stood in the dusk on the side of the road like a couple of scarecrows and handed a notebook back and forth so he could scribble his half of the conversation.  I’ve seen so many roadside dead animals in so many gruesome conditions that I doubt there’s a living one left, crested so many hills that I doubt the Plains really exist.  I’ve climbed notorious mountains with less effort than it took to heave my cart through the western suburbs of Austin.  I could see from the huge Italianate housing developments under construction that a good part of the oil and gas money, and a good part of the slime, has found its way here; but I ultimately concluded that the European sports cars prowling the streets were coveted less for their ostentation than for their mechanical ability to get up the hills.

It’s after noon.  It’s long past time to pack.  I don’t feel like I’ve done this last leg of the journey justice, but it turns out that Texas really is as big as they say it is, and figuring these miles out will take some other time.  I’m on the edge of the West, and it’s time to dive into the South, to the end of this road.

So long for now,

Owen

Next: West vol. 10: Masquerade

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