LETTERS

In the course of my journey, I sent ten dispatches out to friends and family: from Seattle, Pasco, 4 Mile Road, Driggs, Salt Lake City, Moab, Santa Fe, El Paso, Austin, and New Orleans.  These are letters from the thick of things.  Sometimes the writing is downright bad.  Sometimes they’re a little loopy, and they by no means tell the whole story, but I sure remember where I was when I wrote them.  For the full series, continue below.  Alternatively, jump to a dispatch by clicking on one of the links above.

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I-5

West vol. 1: Adventure

Seattle, Washington

10 August 2013

Dear friends, family, mentors, supporters, bright spirits and daredevils,

In a moment, I’ll be setting off to walk across the American West.  The journey will take me from Seattle to El Paso (about two and a half thousand miles), and will likely take until early December to finish.  Over the course of my journey, I’ll be compiling video interviews with Westerners who help to move people, goods, and information across the region.  I’m curious how their work ties into local communities, how it influences people’s sense of where they live, and what kinds of geographic issues are particularly important to people doing different kinds of transit work.  At journey’s end, I’ll combine the interview material with footage of my own experiences walking across the West to create a short documentary – a collection of stories about what it takes and what it means to get around in the American West.

When I described the project on Kickstarter, I said it would be adventuresome; and some people would say a trip isn’t an adventure until things start going wrong.  Happily, I’ve been having plenty of adventures already.

I piled together most of the new gear for the trip in Palo Alto, California, where I was staying with family and working at a shoe store.  Two of the major equipment items that I got just in time were the cart I’ll be using to haul everything (a modified Dixon Rollerpack) and a MacBook Air to wrangle the video data I’ll be recording.  Two hours before I had to leave Palo Alto for the bus that would take me to Seattle, I sat down at the kitchen table, frantically trying to print maps for the start of the walk off the new computer.  I had hardly slept in the previous few days.

Within minutes, an unfortunate chain of events led to my brand-new laptop sitting in a pool of cucumber juice, inert, insensible, and very much dead.  I’d never thought before about just how much cucumber juice you can store in a laptop – it’s not usually listed in the technical specs – but the results were impressive.  I left the carcass draining and staggered back to the Apple Store, where, to my overwhelming relief, they volunteered to swap my cucumbery wreckage for a functioning computer.

After this low point in my ability to keep things together, I made it to the San Francisco Greyhound station and began the long haul northward.  I left Palo Alto at 3 pm, and arrived at my host’s in Seattle at 9 pm on the next day.  All in all, the two-hour midnight delay in Sacramento wasn’t much of an adventure, seeing as Greyhound held our subsequent connection in Portland – but adventure came tantalizingly close.

Fate decided not to disappoint me.  The evening before I originally intended to leave Seattle and start the walk, I was heading to REI to pick up a last piece of gear, and I swung down one of the steep narrow lanes on the west side of Capitol Hill.  The sunset view over the city, past the Space Needle, and over the glimmering surface of Puget Sound to the Olympic Mountains seemed worth a picture.

I stopped to set up my camera.  Three dashingly-coiffed young men jogged past in polka-dot pastel animal costumes.  A woman behind me sorted through cleaning supplies in the driveway of a parking garage.  A car turned the corner below me and came squeezing up the alley.

As I stepped out of the way, I realized I was running late for dinner with a friend.  I stooped to get my phone from my backpack, dialed, and as the phone rang against my ear, I stood up directly into a jagged concrete overhang.

I fell flat on the pavement, clapped my hands to my head, and let loose with an extremely undignified shriek.  First the computer, I thought – not my brain, too.  I could feel a long dent in the top of my head; and then, holding my hand in front of my face, I saw that my fingers were red.  I stood up with blood running down my face.

It turned out that I’d knocked myself flat just opposite the workshop of a local violin maker.  He very kindly allowed me to scrub my face and hands in his washroom, and gave me a stack of paper towels to stanch the wound.  A few hours later, with the two-inch gash in my scalp swabbed and glued shut by a competent doctor, I was ready for more adventure.

The next morning – yesterday – I packed, loaded the cart, and headed for the waterfront to begin my journey right on the wave-washed edge of the West.  Before I’d even gotten down Capitol Hill, it was clear that the cargo weight was giving the cart trouble.  The wheel assembly was swaying and splaying alarmingly, even on easy ground.  Two miles later, when I finally stopped on a small beach to take stock of the situation, the metal clips attaching the cart’s wheels split summarily in half, and the cart collapsed flat on the ground.  The axles had both bent.  I spent the rest of the day getting things fixed.

Traveler, 0 – Adventure, 3.  31/2, even, if you count the bus.

Last night I finally got more than a couple of hours of sleep.  The increasing crawling jitteriness of the last week has mercifully eased off.  Now it’s 11 am, and I’ve got a long road ahead of me, if adventure will give me a chance.

Hope all is going well,

Owen

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Columbia

West vol. 2: Inland empire

Pasco, Washington

24 August 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

When the grasshopper first springs in the air, its wings flash black with orange, and it flourishes in long arcs down the rail grade.  It touches earth with a bounce.  The ridges and clouds merge in a blue mist of rain, and the river prowls swerving and shivering through tall timber gorges.

Farther on, the grasshopper is gray.  It hides on the gravel and flies into sage, and its sound hides, too, in the tick and the ratchet of sprinklers and the algal sluicing of a thousand canals.  The broad valley bottom is verdant with hops, the hillside with grapes, and trucks roar through the afternoon hauling stacks upon stacks of crates filled with apples.  There are so many apples, cows stand in the yard amid heaps of them.

Farther on.  Somewhere above me is the sun; I walk on my shadow.  The steppe is a cardboard backdrop on a wall.

I entered the Intermountain West nine days ago, through the two-mile dark of the Snoqualmie Tunnel.  My every move has been accompanied by the rumble, scrape, or clatter of the cart I’m pushing, and by the constant worry that the cart might be falling apart.  I’m on my third pair of wheels already – the tires on the first pair stretched so badly that they wouldn’t stay on the rims, and the bearings on the second pair buckled a few days later.  I’m falling apart steadily myself, as well – hands aching and clumsy from pushing the cart over hundreds of miles of jolts and bumps, knees no longer working symmetrically, sunburned, blistered – so healing, recuperation, and maintenance are as much on my mind as water and shade.  I’ve been hugely fortunate in finding friends along the way, without whom all those necessaries would have been hard to come by.

The Yakima Valley is behind me.  The next stage of the walk follows the Oregon Trail southeastward, cutting off the long northward bend in the Snake.  When I’ve walked about as far again as I’ve walked already, I’ll reach Idaho.  I’m hoping the mania for NO TRESPASSING signs that distinguished the last two hundred miles will ease up a little, somewhere down the line; because when I’m the only person out under the sun, and the thirty-mile days are dragging, every one of those signs has my name on it.

Hey, grasshopper!

Owen

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Halfway Grade

West vol. 3: The people you’ll meet

4 Mile Road, Idaho

9 September 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

I got a late start out of Pasco, and night was falling by the time I reached the hills between the Snake River and Walla Walla.  I came up the rise to find a looming signboard detailing the many things I was forbidden to do once I’d started down the long stretch of private road ahead.  I hadn’t realized the track to Walla Walla was farm property, and I wasn’t sure what I was getting into by embarking down the road when it was already getting dark.  With fifty miles between Pasco and Walla Walla, I’d be walking through the night.

As I hesitated, a man parked his car by a water truck on the roadside.

“Excuse me!” I said.  “Is this the way to Walla Walla?”

“Yes.”

“Is it all right if I go this way?”

“Yes.”

“Even though it’s a private road?”

“Yes.  This is the road to Walla Walla.”

So I whisked off into the dark and a sweeping gust of rain, and he turned his attention back to the truck.  The sage awoke to the rain, and I dried as I walked on past sprawling fields, a forest, irrigation rigs hissing, anonymous utility sheds by the roadside.  The cart bounced and growled over the gravel, and every now and then I saw lights miles away on the Columbia.

In the dark, size and distance are hard to judge.  Something was rumbling out in the fields, and as headlights swept over me, I stepped aside to look up at the driver of the water truck.  He looked anxious.

“Do you need a ride?” he asked.

“No, I’m okay – I’m walking across the country.  Thank you, though!”

We waved, and he drove off.

For the next several hours, as I rolled up and down and up and over the swells in the washboard gravel road, the rumble and the blazing yellow headlights of the tanker truck roamed through the night around me – watering here; watering there; watering, it seemed, most everywhere.  Every time the truck got close, I turned on my headlamp and stepped out of the way, and the driver leaned from his window and asked if I was all right.

A few days later, I had just reached the eastward foot of the Blue Mountains when a man shouted at me from a pickup truck across the road.  The next morning, I found myself looking down on the fields and forests of the Grande Ronde Valley from the back seat of his ultralight aircraft – deer ducking in the long grass and flocks of birds streaming underneath our wings – and in the evening, among the Persian carpets and Hendrix posters of the barn loft, there I was, inexpertly whacking a djembe while my host, in between bursts on the flute, urged me to play with more feeling.  Earlier, he’d introduced me to a Jethro Tull record at a volume that shook the house and made the carpet ripple.

“You have to turn it up to eleven!” he said.

I have found hospitality, generosity, and kindness over the past month, and over the past six hundred miles, in extraordinary measure.  Unexpected friends, pilots, hosts, cart engineers, artists, counselors, and masters of the fine arts of burrito, waffle, moussaka, pancake, and salad manufacture have made my progress toward the Rockies not only possible, but fun.  The walk has become an extended conversation, with a tangle of laughter, advice, and wonderings working its way along the shores of rivers and the slopes of mountains.

It’s midnight.  Tomorrow I head for Emmett, and from there I aim for the Sawtooth Mountains.  I’m told it’s cold there, and that the sunsets are spectacular.

Hope things are going well,

Owen

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Namesake

West vol. 4: Desert moose

Driggs, Idaho

8 October 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

Trail Creek Road descends into a vast dry valley.  The horizon ahead is barred by mountains that rise a vertical mile into the sky, snow-streaked and desolate.  For much of my journey, hawks have circled overhead, but there are no birds flying here.

During the night, I had camped in a tangle of willow bushes, trying to hide from a strong, cold wind.  Headlights on the road swept the tent regularly in the dark.  As I continued eastward in the morning, I made a point to wave or nod at every driver visible behind the wheel; and as I emerged onto the open desert, a blue and white pickup that had just gone past me backed into a turnout on the side of the road.

Usually, this has been the prelude to a conversation – where are you going?  Do you need a ride? – so when I got close enough to see the faces of the two men in the cab, I waved.  They didn’t wave back.  I waved again when I was close enough to make eye contact, and the man on the passenger side gave me a distracted scowl.  They were looking up and down the road as though they meant to pull out and were afraid of getting broadsided by another vehicle, but as the only other car in sight shot past, they stayed where they were, looking increasingly desperate.  I couldn’t tell what was agitating them.  The desert was empty in every direction except for a horse off in the sage across the road, and it wasn’t doing anything.  It was just standing there.

Then the horse moved, and I realized there was something wrong with it.  It was too…huge.

Abruptly the pickup lurched into motion, and I caught a glimpse of a rack of antlers protruding over the tailgate before the driver slammed on the brakes, because the moose came striding up out of the sage and came to a stand right in front of the bumper.  I stopped; the truck stopped; the moose stopped; we all stood looking at each other.  The two hunters were clearly having a crisis of inordinate, moose-like proportions, and the moose looked like it was considering what to do to their truck.  It must have been a pacifist, because it stalked across the road and broke into an enormous trot, weaving around bushes and fence posts and stopping periodically to look around in a perplexed kind of way, as though it had misplaced its glasses.  It veered through the brush along a gully and loped up the bank to consult a band of horses milling there.  The horses lined up rather formally to receive it, and after a brief how d’ye do, the moose either turned shy or remembered that it was a moose, because it suddenly lit out parallel to the road, running with surprising swiftness up on its long, long legs, its body a high antlered rectangle over the sage.

Its course took it back toward the road again, and the car that had just passed me slowed as the moose came to a halt behind a barbed-wire fence.  The car stopped.  The moose considered.  Then, with something of the cadence of a breaching humpback whale, the moose leaped over the barbed wire, passed looming right in front of the car, and trotting off, vanished in the direction whence it came.

This is Idaho.  A one-room cob house built by hand; flamenco music in the desert night; a schoolhouse in the mountains filled with cloth, calligraphy, and every sweet and savory thing that grows; steam billowing into the rain along the dark shores of a canyon, a burst of water, coruscating heat.  Idaho is greasy hair and wild tattoos, TACKLE AMMO LOTTO AMMO, spent shells in the dust like toys and severed legs along the road.  Split the atom: light a town.  Its towns are dying peaceful deaths, igniting, disappearing, fighting tooth and nail against a landslide and a flood and unemployment, meth, the Forest Service, loneliness, and life without a purpose.  Idaho has no time for a life without purpose: not with winters this inhuman.  Idaho is where you come back to rebuild, to make a stand, to measure strength, to be a person in a family.  Are you a fighter?  No?  Then learn.  A wood flute and a knife, a truck, an elk, a swarm of flies, a dizzying abyss, a storm of snow, abandoned storefronts and a heap of blankets, a handshake and a parting smile, is Idaho.

For a thousand miles, I’ve been walking toward the Tetons.  I wanted something I could show to people – this mountain, you’ve seen it, I was there.  I wanted to leave the cart behind me for a moment and head into a higher place.  On the way out of Rigby, I ran into the worst stretch of road on the trip so far and broke the bearings of my left wheel trying to heave the cart through a wallow of dust and loose rocks.  By the time I got to Driggs and the sky was expected to clear, I needed very little egging on to cram two days’ food and equipment into my backpack and start out on a still, blue morning, up past the silent houses of Alta into the snow.

First the trail was muddy underfoot.  Then I tied my borrowed gaiters down.  The sun danced through cascades of powder sloughing from the trees, and torrents wound through stony channels, muffled, deer tracks leading on until the clear ice glistened and the trail went cold.

Above the tree line the sun stopped moving and I lost my breath.  The snow ahead curved up through bands of black rock, scoured on the open slope, knee-deep in switchbacks.  Stumbling, sinking.  An eagle swept above me, soundless, riding a wind I couldn’t feel into the distance.

Hold your eyes to the skyline.  The first thing to pierce the rim of snow is a jagged horn.  Then come talons, scutes and bones, a towering mass of ribs and shoulder blades and vertebrae on cathedralic scale.  The bones of the Earth drop into an intervening gulf whose final crevices are too far down to see.  From the highest spire on the Grand Teton, a shout takes six seconds to reach the bottom.

Staggering dazedly across the stones above the pass, I checked my watch.  Four in the afternoon.  As soon as I made up my mind to retrace all eighteen miles of my steps that day back down to Driggs, the sun fell from the place where it had hung all day, and I crashed into the trees as night stirred, drawing all the grayness from the thickets by the streams and inking in the groves with spilling black.  A twisting, turning path; thick stands of brush; the masking rushing of cascade after cascade; the autumn twilight; if only the bushes had still borne berries, a headlong meeting with a bear would almost have been inevitable.  I marched along in the dark singing anti-bear pop anthems until my inability to remember lyrics reduced me to shouting, for miles at a time, the following refrain:

“Yope yope yope yope yope yope yope heeeeeeeiiiiiia yope yope yope yope yope!”

On and on until I got to the road and a man in a pickup stopped to ask if I was okay.

Thirty-six miles is, for me, a long way to walk in a day, even without snow.  The night of my fifty-mile stretch to Walla Walla, I found myself waking from a walking doze convinced that I’d been on the road for ten years running, maybe more.  On the road out of Teton Canyon, for a moment it seemed I had watched the old planets die, seen new ones born.  The moon was gone, and the river of the Milky Way flowed over like a gateway; not walking west, but walking perpendicularly, tumbling forward through the cold edge of the galaxy.  Then lights swim up, and the sound of a man and woman singing through the PA speakers in a roadside bar.  The moment barely happened; it’s lying somewhere in the black behind, in the mountain.

Now it’s time for a southward turn.  The mountains were in front of me; then I was among them; and now it’s time to go.

So long, Idaho,

Owen

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O sleeper

West vol. 5: Borderline

Salt Lake City, Utah

1 November 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

Midway in the journey, I have a new cart.  I was pushing it up a frozen road in the dark to the top of the Preuss Range, out of sight of the moon and considering wolves, when a hunched shape rose out of the snow above me.  His back was turned, and he was setting his rifle across his chest before turning his quad down westward.

“Hey,” I said.

The hooded figure spun in the saddle, revealing, under the enormous parka, a mild narrow man with a mild moustache.  We stood for a while in the shrouded forest, above the far-off yellow glow he pointed out as Georgetown, and he told me how his German wife had never understood what exactly he and his friends filled their time with, hunting, until he took her to Jackson Hole, and they stood there looking up at the mountains and the passing time made perfect sense.

“Don’t you have a coat?” he asked.

My cart wore out, but I found a new one.  My shoes wore out, but duct tape won me another hundred miles.  My feet went numb that night in the Preuss Range, but I did crunches in my sleeping bag until I could feel my toes again, one by one, and fell asleep as morning showed the ice in the tent.

This has been a lonely and disorienting stretch of road.  It’s not that it’s been empty – I’ve been around kind and generous people every day, all through his glimmering October – or that signposts have been lacking, or that the map and the territory haven’t matched.  In fact, the road hasn’t been lonely or disorienting at all.  It’s been full of aspen leaves, warm blankets, tractor magazines, banana peels along the roadside, smog so thick it hides the mountains, taco seasoning, expectant dogs, guns, TV news about polygamists and feuding irrigators, curious policemen, bicycle mechanics wearing perilously snug jeans, taxidermy, firecracker stores, familiar things like long-haul trucks that make the ground shake and the air cave as they pass.  Maltodextrin, MSG, titanium dioxide, nitrites, salt.  Even in the back of beyond, in places where people told me I should be packing in order to deal with critters, the rest of the world was a phone call or email away.

In a high snowy place, there’s a light down the canyon.  You can’t see windows, or streetlights; can’t see cars, can’t see neon.  By the time you get there in the morning, along a straight main road where every business is for sale, you’ll remember the cold, and remember the glow, and the passing miles won’t make sense.

I’m counting on a deeper desert.

Owen

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The Book Cliffs

West vol. 6: East of the sun, west of the moon

Moab, Utah

21 November 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

In the dream you might be a banker, or perhaps a thief – at one point, I was darting furtively through an enormous mansion, trying to replace a bronze wall clock I’d initially stolen and then had repaired – when the rooms and the figures you swim through plunge into a terrifying sound.  The ground shakes and hammers with the groan of a mountain falling, a tremendous shriek of wheels, and you jolt awake in the certain knowledge that you’re about to be crushed by a train.

The walls of the tent sway in the night, and on the other side of the grade crossing, an immense load of coal is grinding toward the lowlands.

With winter storm warnings for the road ahead, the fall is rounding to a close.  On the way here from Salt Lake City, nights cold enough to freeze my water bottles and ice my tent were interposed with days so powerfully sunny that the block of pepper jack cheese in my bear can wilted.  I would wake in the morning, shiver for the space of a breath as the sun rose to my left, and then walk the highwayside all day with the sun perched on the brim of my hat, just above my right eye.

At the gas station on the outskirts of Wellington, a long-time trucker pulled out her map of the state and pointed out the places I might look to camp on my way to Green River.  The old gas station at Woodside, the cashier agreed, would be just about perfect, and just the right distance, too, for the following night.

“It’s abandoned?  Just a gas station?”

“Well, there used to be a town there, too,” she said.  “You could put up your tent out back.”

Sundown on the Grand Army of the Republic Highway: trucks running northbound rattling like enormous lengths of chain across the desert, cold piercing stars, and far off on the skyline, the edge of the plateau.  It was getting too dark to be marching at headlights, and there was a break in the fence coming up, across the road.  I set down my cart and ran over to the sign by the cattle crossing.  Woodside Cemetery.  Ahead along the shoulder was the old gas station, looking gaunt and dismayed, still sporting outsized letters reading OPEN.  Behind it, a herd of empty mobile homes and camper tops straggled over a low rise, broken down on the way to the cemetery or broken down on the way out of it.  It looked like the perfect place to stumble into a late-night crime.

Farther down the dirt road was the perfect place to stumble into a ravine – the white desert crust broke away into thorns and a steep drop to a streambed.  On the other side, a path up a knoll looked more promising.  Maybe I could get out of the noise of the traffic for once, and find a flat place at the top to pitch my tent.

I picked my way up the path a little gingerly, not because the way was treacherous but because something I was stepping on sounded like broken glass.  On bending down, however, I could see strange dark straws sticking up from the ground, not quite vegetable but not plausibly mineral and certainly not glass.  I tapped one with my toe and it shattered.  Hmm.

Cresting the knoll, I found the wind cool on my face, the stars keen in heaven, and a startled, indignant llama.  Apparently it had been enjoying the breeze, the stars, the cozy flat place at the top, the quiet, all the little comforts deserved by a wild llama at the end of a long day, and I’d come bumbling in without even stopping to knock.

I was, I realized, acutely ignorant about llama etiquette.  I did recall something about spitting, and something about kicking, and something about powerful blows delivered with the neck, and I could also imagine, without too much of a stretch, something about strong front teeth, but that might only have been imagination playing tricks on me.  In any case, the creature was about my height and twice my weight, it had the high ground, it was there first, and there was more than enough desert for everybody down below.

I set up my tent beside the ravine, the llama standing vigilantly over me at the top of the hill, a silhouette among the constellations.

From where I am now, I had originally hoped to press on south or even southwest, deeper into the canyon country, into Arizona, and into the Navajo Nation.  This is not in the cards.  Coming through Monument Valley, the nearest town and the quickest return to an east-west road would be Kayenta, and from Kayenta to the edge of the reservation at Farmington is a desolate journey of five or six days, in the course of which I wouldn’t have permission to put up a tent – to walk, yes, but to sleep, no.  There’s a lot that I’m willing to try, but six days on the open desert without sleep is not high on the list.

Instead, I’m heading southeast into Colorado, up into the fog and the snow on my way to Durango.  The Rockies keep coming back, and the temperatures keep falling, but there are other seasons turning than the change from fall to winter.  The sun is ahead of me, just on my right, just over the edge of the canyon.

Owen

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Uranium country

West vol. 7: Watershed

Santa Fe, New Mexico

17 December 2013

Dear fellow-travelers,

I had made a deliberate decision on the morning I left Dove Creek, Colorado: it was going to be a good day.  The sky was visible.  The landscape was visible.  Pain and misery were not conspicuous at any point around the compass, and there was no good reason why a passing sheriff might consider me a danger to myself.

There was a spring in my step, then, when I came upon a bicycle on the side of the road, attached to a skeletal trailer and half-buried under immense ragged rolls of what might once have been cotton batting.  On the other side of the bicycle a man sat on an upturned bucket with a bottle dangling in his hands.  If you imagine what a cow might look like, having died long ago in a lonely place, and having subsequently been dragged through a tangle of barbed wire and run through several tubs of engine grease, you might imagine the substance from which the man, the bicycle, and the luggage seemed to be made.  A tiny American flag pinned to the stern of the trailer fluttered over him as I walked up.  He wasn’t moving much.

“You’re doing okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.  He looked at the dirt a bit more.  “I had some rain.  The last three days.”

He took a swig from the bottle, which looked to contain a mixture of iced tea and mud.

“Where are you heading?”

“Utah.”

“You’re close.”

“Yeah,” he said.

A blue sky and a dry road: what a good day we were having!  Four nights earlier, I’d been howling with frustration as snow fell thick and fast on the thorn brush along Highway 191, losing all sensation in my toes, trying to put up my tent with fingers that no longer bent and hands that might as well have been ping pong paddles, trying to throw in my gear without throwing in drifts of powder, and hoping nothing hidden under the snow would punch through the floor beneath my weight.  Then the tent condensed in the night, and every time I woke to knock the snow off the outside, on the inside, it rained.  Once there were red lights flashing on the other side of the shrubs I was sheltering behind, but it wasn’t until morning, when the police pulled me over, that I learned they’d had people out searching for me in the blizzard, because concerned drivers had phoned in reports of a man staggering through the dark and the storm pushing a baby carriage, out in the middle of the desert.

That was the night before I reached Monticello, which is where things really got interesting.  The police think it’s bad when you’re out on the highway, but it’s when you’re in a motel room, crumpled over and feeling eviscerated – no one’s phoning for you then.  That’s on you.  You pack up, open the door, and go out for a good day.

My destination that good day out of Dove Creek was a house by a canal north of Lewis, and my host had told me there were two ways to get there.  I could follow the highway southeast and then take a side road north, or I could veer east off the highway on a dirt road that would be shorter, but muddy.  It had, after all, been raining.  I was having a good day, so when I got to the eastward turnoff, I squared my shoulders, put on a happy grin, and took it.

I was still in sight of the highway, and the object of several horses’ doleful curiosity, when the mud began to disagree with me.  It caked to my shoes, but didn’t stick to itself; it formed great masses on my shoes, but it wouldn’t completely hold my weight.  It didn’t stick to itself underfoot, but it stuck to itself on the bicycle wheels of my cart – stuck so successfully, in fact, that in short order the wheels were entirely cased in solid mud a handspan thick, and I was sliding and gasping, and eventually screaming, out in a field of stubble and clay, still in sight of the highway, heaving viciously at a cart with cemented wheels that had rapidly come to rival me in weight, as my good day set westward in the cold thin Colorado air.

On the advice of my hosts in Lewis, who helped me cobble a makeshift psyche together and helped me break the frozen mud from my wheels in the morning, I spent Thanksgiving eve at The Bridge Emergency Shelter in Cortez, on the premises of the former Montezuma County jail.  The staff there helped me wrestle my cart through the door; I followed the manager to the office, set down my backpack, and checked in.

“Do you have any weapons?  Do you have a knife?”

“I have a knife in the cart.”

“Not on you?”

“It’s in the cart.”

“How big is it?”

“About like this.”

“Nothing in the backpack?”

“No, just in the cart.  I can go get it.”

“If it’s in the cart, it’s all right.  No one’s allowed down that hallway, and if anyone does go down there –“ she pointed at the monitor behind the desk – “we’ll see them.”

Then, to make sure I was heading to the correct wing of the facility, I took a breathalyzer test.  The Bridge, the manager explained, is unusual in admitting people who are intoxicated, but it does shelter anyone with a blood alcohol content above the legal driving limit in a separate room.  I stayed up late talking with two of the staff about their travels in Uganda and Costa Rica and spent the rest of the night restlessly, my assigned place in the sober men’s dormitory being next to the plastic curtain separating the bunks from the toilet.  At 5:30 am, a man in blue gloves came in and turned on the lights.  I ate something, bundled my bedding into the laundry cart, mopped the floor, and waited with some of the other residents in the dining room for it to get a little warmer outside.

Across the table, a middle-aged woman sat down, talking fretfully to herself, clutching a doll in one hand and stuffing doughnuts haphazardly into her mouth with the other.  We were joined by the man who had kept the plastic curtain flapping through the night.  He wanted to know if he should transfer his belongings to the other wing of the facility right away, given that he hoped to have a couple of beers to celebrate Thanksgiving, or if he should wait until the evening, and see if he failed the breathalyzer test then.  He was also curious about my trip down to Texas.

“You’re going to El Paso?” he asked.

“Yeah.”

“Are you going to get there today?”

It took me a moment to realize we weren’t quite speaking the same language.

“I’m walking,” I said.

“You’re walking?”

“Yeah.”

“To El Paso?”

“Yeah.”

He tilted his head at me, and said, slowly, “Well…”

It kept getting colder.  Fall ended, and on the first of December, I was in Durango, on the brink of a cold front unlike anything I’d experienced.  I bought a thermos as a last-resort way to keep at least some water liquid, and my host loaned me an extra sleeping bag; and I made it to Pagosa Springs before the temperature dropped.  Thanks to the kindness of my hosts there, I kept indoors through a spell that registered as low as -20°F, or -28°C.  As soon as the front moved through, I moved south as fast as I could.  I reached the New Mexico border and crossed the Great Divide on the tenth, stopping for two nights in Chama, at an official elevation of 7,871 feet, or 2,399 meters, on the high western edge of the Rio Grande drainage.

My host there was teaching himself to play guitar, and had, as yet, two songs up his sleeves: “Amazing Grace” and “This Land Is Your Land.”  I asked him why he’d gone for those two songs, and he told me he particularly liked the melody and message of the Guthrie song, especially the original final verses, which for some reason tend not to be sung in grade school.  He handed me a sheet of the lyrics, and they would certainly have taken some explaining in the grade schools I went to, Woody Guthrie being a fellow traveler in more ways than one.

The next place I stopped was Cebolla, and my hosts there brought Guthrie up to date.  Like other people I’ve met in the course of this journey, Bill and Leah Hoffman are worried about fracking.  They live in a solar house, partially subterranean and made largely of recycled materials, on a dirt road a couple of miles off the highway, amidst dry forest and grazing land, off the grid for water and electricity but connected to the Internet and landline phone service.  They’re engaged in a grim, prolonged struggle over potential Bureau of Land Management leases of surrounding public mineral rights to oil and gas development.  Such development could essentially trump their immediate property rights as homeowners, pollute the headwaters of the drainage, expend enormous quantities of water in fracking slurry, overwhelm the local road network and sanitation infrastructure, and turn the valley where they live into an unregulated toxic industrial wasteland – business, in other words, as usual.  They should know.  Coming from a family business in the tanker truck fleet out of Salt Lake City, Bill used to work in the industry.

In the evening when I arrived, and in the morning when I left, my host accompanied me through the field below the house, to make sure I wasn’t trampled by the horses.

Finally, on the road to Abiquiú, the elevation began to drop, the air to warm, and the vegetation to change.  At Española, heroin capital of New Mexico (or, depending on whom you talk to, of the United States), I crossed the Rio Grande.  I’m in the land of ristras, chiles hanging from every ceiling, wall, or doorway with space for a hook; in the land of adobe, square houses, wood beams, and metal gateways; in the land of casitas and trailer homes; in a land of memorial crosses, guard dogs, diapers on the roadside, and a ubiquitous scattering of miniature hard liquor bottles.  Vote Catholic.

I’m beginning to feel that I’ve walked a long way.  I have seen immense things.  I have been given much, and have lost much, in some balance or imbalance I can’t measure.  I continue growing older.  I feel kindness more acutely.  I miss places where I’ve felt at home.

On the night I reached La Puebla, the sky was a pale purple band above the trees; and above me, everything else was blue.

Owen

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Las Cruces

West vol. 8: Resolution

El Paso, Texas

11 January 2014

Dear fellow-travelers,

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,

Owen

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What doesn’t kill you still hurts

West vol. 9: Amplifier

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

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159_vlcsnap-2014-03-05-01h24m34s102

Down on the bayou

West vol. 10: Masquerade

New Orleans, Louisiana

19 March 2014

Dear fellow-travelers,

When I saw the supermarket on the outskirts of Conroe, Texas, I was barely five miles from the trees where I’d woken up, but I pulled over anyway.  It wasn’t that I needed to buy anything in particular.  I’d just reached a point at which I couldn’t see a grocery store without imagining that something inside would quiet the signals my body was sending my brain.

Going into a store always meant leaving my cart outside the door, and I usually made a point of asking an employee if this was okay.  I didn’t want to get hassled for leaving the cart somewhere obstructive, and I figured it couldn’t hurt in case someone tried to walk off with my gear while I was in the dairy aisle.  Talking to an employee also gave me a chance to demonstrate that I wasn’t deranged or on drugs, always good things to establish up front.

The day before had been a little trying, and I was particularly keen to start the morning well.  Rather than catching the first employee I saw, I cleared the cart with the man at the customer service counter – it felt somehow more official that way – and got to work.  My recent diet had been heavy on gas station food, so I went for the most supermarkety things I could think of.  I picked up a bottle of apple juice, some granola, some chocolate chips, and some rice pudding, and rang myself up at the self-checkout station.  It never makes sense to carry granola in the cardboard packaging, so I chucked the box into the trash can by the curb along with my receipt, stowed the food in my cart, and was about to hit the road when I heard a shocked female voice say, “Stealing!”

“Aha,” I thought.

Good retail security guards have a way of moving casually at speed, so it seemed promising when a burly unobtrusive fellow came out as though he were curious about the weather and only happened to see me.  He also made sure, in that first vague glance, that I hadn’t hidden stolen goods behind the shopping carts or flung any merchandise to a fleeing accomplice.  Then he asked if I needed any help.

So far, so good; but the more I tried to respond to his escalating questions like a normal person, the smoother and more sarcastic he got.  Not so good.  When he got around to indirectly accusing me of theft, I told him I’d happily get my receipt from the trash.  Even as I dug around in the garbage, though, he didn’t really believe I’d thrown anything away to begin with; and when I handed him the receipt, he didn’t believe it was mine.  The food in the cart was a match, though, so it was almost as if I’d purchased what I’d bought.  He never did slip out of stop-thief mode.  I’d walked forty miles the previous day and then slept on the side of the highway – next to a mattress store, of all things – and by the end of our conversation, it wasn’t much fun.

I was unwashed, unshaven, and unkempt.  I looked poor.

A few days earlier, I’d wandered through the camping area of the Sherwood Forest Faire just east of Austin.  Most of the adults were dressed in tights, faux fur, and leather, the way rogues, vagabonds, and other outlaws dress.  I was the one guy in the office who hadn’t read the memo.

The days grew warmer, and the ditches on the roadside filled with water, frogs, and crickets.  There were still dead deer and pigs and armadillos on the shoulder, but the possums became the main concern.  A rotting possum is a bad thing to step on at night.  I’d imagine it’s even worse than stepping on a fire ant nest, which got to be such a regular occurrence that I almost stopped worrying about it.

In the middle of the longest week of the walk, I was nearing the town of Kountze when a logging truck veered toward me on the shoulder.  It didn’t stop, so I stepped out of the way; but then it kept crawling along until it halted right beside me.  The window was down, so I took off my sunglasses and looked up into the cab.

The driver was an older man, a little grimy around the collar, more than a little dilapidated.  He asked what I was doing.  Over the idling engine, I shouted back that I was walking across the United States.

“Where are you planning on sleeping?”

“Probably Silsbee – do you know if there’s a motel in Silsbee?”

He pondered for a while.  “I think so.”  Then he said something I couldn’t quite catch, because of the noise of the engine and his dental issues.

“What?” I shouted.

“Would – you – like – a – blow – job?”

“No, thanks,” I shouted, and kept walking.

By the time I pitched my tent the next night, on the left bank of the Sabine River, I’d walked all the way out of Texas.  It took a stretch through a forest where I’d been told in all seriousness that I’d be lucky not to get shot, plus a final blind sprint in the dark across a bridge where I could easily have been hit by a car; but as I fell asleep to the roar of Louisiana traffic and the sighing of Louisiana trees, I couldn’t help but feel a goofy kind of contentedness, which lasted right up until the rain got so heavy that it flooded my tent.

Louisiana was not what I’d expected.  I’d expected swamps, but not vast tall forests so quiet it felt impolite to sing.  The industrial earplugs littering the roadside at least fit the logging theme, but I didn’t understand the innumerable car washes and small scrap metal yards.  I couldn’t help but grin every time I saw a sign at a pipeline crossing reading DO NOT ANCHOR OR DREDGE, not because I couldn’t imagine the consequences of a massive petroleum spill, but because the signs reminded me how far I’d come from the lands of CALL BEFORE YOU DIG.  In Louisiana, the expression “dirt cheap” doesn’t make sense.  There are roadside businesses that thrive on selling dirt, presumably so people can thicken the water enough to post signs in it warning passing drivers not to anchor or dredge.

At 69 feet, or 21 meters, above sea level, the town of Opelousas felt like an island.  The streets were buckled and the air was heavy, but at least it was possible to step off the asphalt without plunging waist-deep into an algal slough.  I was heading for a house on the south side of town, past sagging shacks and lanes where people sat in parked cars in the dark or walked with dogs and children, laughing.  I reached my destination just before the forecast rain set in, at the end of the longest three-day haul of my life.

When I reached the house, the lights were off, but the car by the door suggested my host was home.  There was no answer when I knocked and rang the doorbell, but the key to the door was right where I’d been told to look, so I let myself in and found a welcome note in a circle of lamplight on the kitchen table.  There was a light under the door at the end of the hall as well, and someone on the other side was listening to the radio in a room that must have been fitted with blackout curtains; but again, there was no response when I called “Hello” and knocked.  I stayed awake until two in the morning and woke at four to find the radio off.  When I checked the carport, it was empty.

It was still cold and raining outside as I assembled my luggage in the kitchen.  I had a system for loading the cart, and the first things to go in were always my spare jugs of water, so I picked those up and stepped out into the carport.  In that instant, I realized that closing the door behind me had been an exceptionally bad idea.

The key, my rain jacket, all of my warm clothes, my shoes, my phone, and my host’s phone number were all an arm’s reach away, but breaking down the door to reach them seemed ill-advised.  What was particularly vexing was that I remembered my host’s welcome note had ended with explicit instructions on what to do if I locked myself out, and I could remember having read them, but I couldn’t remember what they were.

Prominent signs on the street warned would-be burglars that the area was under a neighborhood watch.  As I checked each window of the house to be absolutely sure it was locked or painted shut, and checked every mat and flowerpot to make sure a key hadn’t been hidden beneath it, I consoled myself by reflecting that no burglar in his right mind would be out in this weather without an umbrella, a jacket, or shoes, so my behavior probably couldn’t have been construed as criminal.

In the end, it turned out that the ninety-year-old woman who lived across the street had my host’s number.  I didn’t have to cross the Mississippi barefoot after all.

For a thousand miles, I’d been traveling downstream along a system of pipelines and tanker truck routes delivering oil and gas from the Great Plains to the Gulf of Mexico.  I’d seen a sizeable refinery in Artesia, but that in no way prepared me for the sight of the storage and processing infrastructure on the lower Mississippi.  There were chemical plants the scale of small cities, looming over the river in tangles of ductwork and bracing, glimmering with aircraft warning lights and billowing with storm clouds of their own emission.  I reached the outer fringe of this environment on the way into Baton Rouge, and that’s where I made the personal acquaintance of ExxonMobil, the third-largest company in the world.

On the north side of town, at the intersection of Highway 61 and Evangeline Street, I came face to face with a gigantic sign.  It read:

EXXONMOBIL AND BATON ROUGE

GROWING TOGETHER

WORKING TOGETHER

The slogan was painted in bold red letters on the corner unit of a massive tank farm, and essentially served as the city’s welcome sign.  I thought it was interesting, and I had a moment while I waited for the traffic light to change, so I pulled out my camera and took a shot of the sign from across the street.

As soon as I cleared the intersection, an unmarked car swerved honking onto the sidewalk behind me, and the driver leaned out the window.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

I’d been asked this question many times before, but never in this tone of voice.

“I’m walking across the United States,” I said.  “Who are you?”

“City police,” he replied; and as he stood up out of his car, I saw he had a gun and a bulletproof vest.  He also had backup.  A uniformed officer in a squad car and two ExxonMobil security guards arrived on the scene almost immediately.  They were physically impressive and completely in control.

They told me surveillance cameras had caught me taking pictures.  They’d received phone calls about someone taking pictures.  They wanted to know why I was taking pictures.  They wanted to see my camera.  They wanted to see what was in my cart.  They wanted me to explain what was in my cart.  They wanted identification.  They told me it wasn’t very smart to take pictures, especially after 9/11.  They took my ID card and phoned me in.  They surrounded me.  They told me the terrorist threat was elevated after 9/11.  They told me it wasn’t very smart to take pictures.  They wanted to know why I was taking pictures.  They wanted to know if I’d taken any other pictures.

“I’m walking across the United States,” I said, for possibly the tenth time.  “I’ve been taking lots of pictures.”

“Have you taken other pictures of oil facilities?”

“I walked across Texas,” I said.  “There were hundreds of miles where it was nothing but oil facilities.”

“So you’ve taken other pictures of oil facilities?”

“Yes.  No one ever had a problem with it.”

It went around and around.  I explained repeatedly that I would happily delete the picture of the sign, but that I’d have to connect the camera to my laptop first, and that the downloading process would take about fifteen minutes.   I could unpack my gear and take care of it right there in front of them on the side of the road if they wanted me to.  Mostly, I was worried that they’d confiscate my camera.  They already showed no intention of giving back my ID.  It was the kind of situation that I imagine activists train for, but I hadn’t planned to be an activist that evening, and I didn’t know the drill.  They were making calls – who was I supposed to call?  They were taking down my information – if I so much as looked at their badges, would that only make things worse?  It didn’t help that I hadn’t found a single place to pee since I started walking that morning.  Now the sun was setting.  I’d developed pretty impressive bladder control since I hit barbed-wire desert country back in December, but this was getting ridiculous.  I decided I shouldn’t tell them that I’d spent the night sleeping next to a nuclear power plant.

Eventually they gave me back my ID and let me go.

“You should be careful,” said one of the city police, in parting.  “This is a dangerous neighborhood.”

In a way, he was right.  Out of all the places I’ve traveled, the corner of 61 and Evangeline is the only place so far where I’ve been surrounded by hostile armed men.  It also turns out that the Baton Rouge ExxonMobil facility, which includes one of the largest refineries in the United States, has the highest accident rate of all the petrochemical plants in Louisiana.  It’s a hideously dangerous place to live, not only because of the constant air pollution, but also because of the regular chemical spills.

The neighborhood surrounding the refinery is visibly impoverished, and all of the residents I saw were black.  They were surprised to see me walking down the street, and not because I looked homeless.  I drew suspicious stares when I reached the neighborhood near the university where I spent the night, too, but not because I was white.  The only people who seemed to think I looked normal were my hosts for the evening and their circle of friends, all tropical ornithologists used to months in the field in the Amazon.

I kept my word and deleted the ExxonMobil file off my camera as soon as I unpacked.  I don’t know what kind of warning flags are tagged against my name now in government databases, in part because I’m not exactly sure what it was I did wrong.  I never did see any signs forbidding photography at any of the oil or gas facilities I passed on this trip.  The slogan I photographed was intended for public view.  You can even take a look at the sign yourself using Google Street View; and in fact, it was only by zooming in twice on Street View that I was able to see the placard at the intersection of 61 and Evangeline reading:

WARNING

THIS INSTALLATION IS A

FEDERALLY PROTECTED

ENERGY FACILITY

If you ever visit Baton Rouge as a private citizen, it might be best to refrain from taking a picture of ExxonMobil’s civic pride sign.  If, however, you happen to visit Baton Rouge as the operator of a Google camera car, you’re probably all right.  In fact, there’s not much point taking a picture as a private citizen, because Google’s already done it for you.  I can’t help but wonder what efforts the third-biggest company in the physical world is making to harass the second-biggest company in the virtual world on account of this photograph.

The walk from Baton Rouge to New Orleans took three ragged days.  I had already wrenched my left knee one more time for good measure in Batson, Texas; now I strained both calf muscles and started to experience a recurring pain in my chest, in addition to the popping I felt in my shoulders every time I took a moment to stand up straight.  A couple of bloodily broken toenails.  The temperature see-sawed violently from day to day, but I kept at least one jacket on regardless, because both my shirts were so badly shredded that I couldn’t afford to walk into a store without covering up.

I spent my last night on the open road camped on the Mississippi levee, by a long row of barges and a tall ocean ship named the Orient Dispatch.  The next day, it was just a question of reaching shelter early enough to rest before heading downtown to catch the night’s parade.

I’d arrived in New Orleans the day before Mardi Gras.

In a blaze of brass music, shivering crowds lined St. Charles Avenue, hopping up and down to stay warm and stumbling over beer cans, trinkets, and each other.  Quentin Tarantino sailed past pelting people with miniature tambourines, and my hosts, strategically costumed as Dr. Schultz and Elle Driver, received one from his own manic hand.  A minor deluge the next day soaked the Society of Saint Anne on its way down Royal Street, and as the afternoon wore on and I lost track of everyone I’d met, I finally retreated indoors and sat down.

Cycads and skyscrapers.  Broken windows and prayer flags.  Wrought-iron balconies, gas lamps, and shotgun houses painted violet, poppy-red, and tangerine.  Enormous pipes to drain the river out from under people’s homes and crawfish heads strewn in the street.  People darting through the night with tubas wrapped around their chests like snakes.  Streets named Desire and Mystery, and shops named Spider Meat Market and Inhibit Menswear.  It’s the only inhibition in town.  Short of menswear, anything goes.

Buildings weigh anchor and reveal themselves as ships.

One night my host took me to hear some real New Orleans jazz.  The room was full and close and dim.  One moment I was laughing, and the next I was close to tears.  Then back again, and back again, ten seconds at a time, in no relation to the music or the people I was with.

On the tenth of March, I went to the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, put my hands in the water, and called the walk done.  I’d walked across the American West, the United States, and North America, from salt water across the divide to salt water on the other side.

I have nightmares about getting pulled over by police, about still being on the road, and about the state of Louisiana getting bigger.  I wake in the night with my calf muscles cramping.  I still haven’t managed to buy a fresh vegetable, but I ate a bowl of spaghetti sauce this morning, and that seems like a promising step.

Outside the window, Highway 610 rushes toward the interstate.

Imagine yourself on a plane.  You’re still at the gate, and the people next to you are wrestling suitcases, adjusting travel pillows, and loosening their shoes.  It’s a seven-hour flight from Seattle to New Orleans, with a stop in Houston, Dallas, or Atlanta.  It’s been days since you slept more than two hours at a time.  You pull down the shade and turn the gasper vent away.  You buckle your seat belt.

You never feel the moment when the plane takes to the air.

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