Roadside Attractions From The Rearview Mirror

compassRose

I feel like I’ve driven half-way around the earth’s diameter.  Actually, according to the odometer on the red Ford Escape, we did indeed travel that far.

Our total distance driven, including side trips for sight-seeing, came to an astounding 13,589 miles!  If you’re into engine care and maintenance, that’s would be three oil changes (and filter, of course).  And, as we pulled into our driveway, we were overdue for a fourth change.

I walked into the kitchen and saw the calendar next to our Samsung refrigerator.  Take a look:

2015Calendar

That was our departure date, October 15.  I see it was a Thursday.  I took the calendar down (I was thinking there was something superstitious about leaving old calendars on the wall.  I only see them in Auto Repair Shops and they have Betty Page photos and the dates are around 1956 and the guys that work in some of these places often have seen times of hard luck).  It took me a day to locate the 2016 calendar I bought (20% off) at a Barnes & Noble store in Texas.  The theme is Circus “Freaks”.  Changing calendar themes from Vintage England Travel Posters to The Circus Sideshow must say something about my change in tastes.  The sideshows are vanishing from America…but there will always be an England.

Unusual things and marginalized people have always fascinated me.

Don’t ask.

So, here’s the new calendar:

AprilCalendar2016

In case you can’t read the dates very well, we got home on April 1.  I was so exhausted and sore from driving that I didn’t find anyone or anything to play a prank on.

But, the Tattooed Girl will brighten that corner of the kitchen until May 1!  This brings up an interesting thought…this sideshow girl was once considered an oddity…she made her living exhibiting herself in a circus.  At least half the baristas in the Starbucks I visited had tats far more artistic, exotic and erotic than our Miss April, 2016.

Culture changes…but, as I said, there will always be an England.

So, let me run the numbers.  Using the above dates, we spent 169 days out there…somewhere out there, driving, camping, hiking or just sitting on a beach.  This come out to 40.6% of a year.  Nearly 41% of a year of my life has just been spent looking at things.

We emptied the r-pod (we’re going to sell it, but it needs a few repairs first) and I piled our guides and maps and memorabilia on the floor.  Of course, I arranged everything to look haphazard and casual, but every pamphlet and sticker and book and CD is carefully placed to give you an idea what we accomplished.  I probably should mention that I couldn’t find most of the guide books and National Park maps and tee-shirts that we purchased along the way.  They’ll show up sometime in late July.

GuidesOnfloorFromTrip

I even re-highlighted my route on our Rand McNally.  Here it is:

Atlas

I’m aware that it’s hard to see clearly, but you only need to see the orange line and the green/blue line.  The orange line was our route to Palm Desert, California.  This is where we made a turn on a highway that was surrounded by wind-mills, and began to set our course eastward.  That’s the green/blue line.

Far be it for me to brag, but I do think we took in a pretty good chunk of the lower part of the Lower 48.

If you’ve been following the many blogs I sweated and struggled to produce for your entertainment, you will know that I did accomplish quite a bit more than just fill up the memory chip in my digital camera.

I became certified in sailing (any keel boat up to 30′).  I posed with Miss Sonoran Desert Queen (and she put her arm around me willingly and eagerly…as she thought of her long deceased grandfather).  I saw my first rodeo, an American child’s dream (if you were raised in the 1950’s).  I saw the graves of dead outlaws and B & B’s that were former brothels.

I drank Tequila in a bar in Juarez, Mexico…the same bar where Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean and Steve McQueen drank.  I tried to feel their spiritual entities, but looking for the nooks where they sat and kissed and drank, only led me to the men’s room.  We crossed the International Bridge from El Paso.  I looked down at the line of defense our government has built to deter (read ‘keep out’) illegals.  The trenches, fences, walls and razor wire reminded me of the Berlin Wall or the Maginot Line.  I was struck by the seven inches you unknowingly step across that separates two cultures that are so close yet so far apart.  I also did this on a day when I was in constant FB messaging with my son Brian.  I pleaded with him to dig into his iTunes for Bob Dylan’s “Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues”, so he could, somehow in the cyber-world, be connected with me as I walked across the border bridge…and he would, at that same moment be listening to:

When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez and it’s Eastertime too.  And your gravity fails and negativity don’t pull you through, don’t put on any airs when you’re down on Rue Morgue Avenue, they got some hungry women there, and they really make a mess outta you.”

We crossed the bridge.  Brian said he listened.  But it wasn’t raining and there’s no Rue Morgue Avenue in Juarez.  I did find a Mexican busker who sang Cielito Lindo for us, but no hungry women.  But, I’m not such a dreamer to believe that there are really no hungry women in Juarez…or hungry children…or hungry old men who sit and smoke and drink and think.

Sometimes facts get in the way of a good story.  For me, I have to immerse myself in a landscape, get my hands dirty, my mouth full of dust, get pricked by a cactus or bitten by a scorpion to fully understand where it is that I am standing. If I’m in Mississippi, I listen to Delta blues, if I’m in Texas, Bob Wills goes into the CD player.

Anytime on this trip, “Happy Trails” would be a welcome tune.

I drank a Lone Star beer at the Broken Spoke in Austin when Mariam, my friend William McHone and myself took lessons in the Texas 2-Step.  I even bought a pair of cheap cowboy boots for that night.  I didn’t do very well.  I have no sense of rhythm…only the desire to move around the dance floor to the sound of Texas Swing…and hold my honey in my arms.  I still have the boots, but I still can’t dance the Texas 2-Step.

I saw things that made me cry.

I saw acres of cattle, with no place to graze, penned and waiting to be herded to the killing rooms.  The miles I drove past these death-camps smelled of cow shit.  I wondered if it was their diet…or their fear.

I saw shanty-towns of the most squalid poverty and hopelessness.  I saw Native Americans reduced to playing “Indians” for the tourists…like me.

When we entered a National Park, I flashed my Golden Pass, which allowed us, as seniors, free entry.  I pondered the situation of an average family with four kids paying close to $100 to see the extraordinary landscapes that really belong to all of us.

I laid a flower at the grave of a prostitute in Dodge City, Kansas…a luckless young woman (somehow, I prefer the term “Soiled Dove”) who died from an infection caused by bar-room brawl over a cowboy, or was it Bat Masterson, or a banker, or a lover.

I placed another flower at the grave of an old friend of mine who died forty-some years ago.  He died and I lived.  We were hiking the same trail in the High Peaks.  I lived to return to his grave and place that Adirondack wildflower I had picked months earlier.  Now it was dried and withered from months on the road.  A flower from the mountains that were his last views of his life on this earth.

I saw an elderly man after he tripped on the curb outside a 7-Eleven.  He was bleeding.  The EMT’s were all over the situation.  But…was I seeing myself in fifteen years?

I saw a woman crying while she sat an outside table at one of the thousand Starbucks we visited.  She was alone in whatever sorrow had overcome her.  It took me days to get the image of her heartbreak out of my head.

I saw another woman crying in a bar.  She was with a male friend.  What happened?  Was she leaving him?  He leaving her?  I couldn’t tell, but the scene made me turn away.  I sat in her seat more than once in my life.

I cried one afternoon in the countryside outside of Dallas.  It didn’t have to do with the trip, directly.  I was driving to visit a large cemetery about fifteen miles southwest of the city.  I was listening to NPR and I sat up straight in the seat of the red Ford when the radio host announced that David Bowie had died.  I mulled this over for a few miles.  I realized I didn’t have any Bowie music on any of my playlists.  Then it happened.  They began a segment of “All Things Considered” with the opening riffs…the soaring chords of  “Let’s Dance”.

I didn’t dance.  I pulled over onto the shoulder and wept.  I wept for the lost talent, the lost beauty, the lost art…and another lost member of my generation’s music.

But, I saw sights of jaw-dropping beauty.  Rainbows that lasted over an hour.  Rock colors I never knew existed.  Canyons and valleys and washes and rivers, many that are famous and many that are unnamed.  Actually, I think nearly everything in the world has a name, I just didn’t have the right map.

When you travel, always have the right map.  It doesn’t have to be of any place you’re planning on visiting, but it’s good to have the map anyway.

There are maps of the wild and empty deserts of Arizona and California.  And, there are maps that exist only inside one’s mind.  These are usually the most interesting ones to use as guides.  Landscapes, towns, roads, Interstates, trails and horse paths can change with a sudden rainstorm.

But, the map that has your heart and soul and restless spirit as the compass rose…those are the maps to carry.

You can’t buy them on Amazon.  You were born with them deep in your chromosomes.

FinalPicAtEndOfTrip

On A Dusty Street Corner In Juarez

“When you’re lost in the rain, in Juarez, and it’s Easter Time too,

And your gravity fails you and your negativity can’t pull you through…”

–Bob Dylan  Just Like Tom Thumbs Blues

Let’s be realistic.  You didn’t think I was going to write a blog about crossing the border bridge to visit Juarez, Mexico, and not use this quote by Dylan?  If you did, you haven’t been doing your homework.

The problem here is that I wasn’t lost, it wasn’t raining and my negativity never pulls me through.  Ever. Not here. Not anywhere.

But, I found a moment of beauty and art and sadness and love on a dusty corner…all for a few pesos.  No, it didn’t have anything to do with a Mexican girl named Felina.  It had to do with an old man in a wheelchair and a sombrero…and a guitar.

It was surprising to me how easy it is to cross from El Paso in Juarez.  All it took was 25 cents and you were on the upward arch of the border bridge.  At the apex was the plaque that announced that you just had taken a step into a foreign country.  That’s where the poor panhandlers and sad faces began to appear.  All the way down the Mexican side of the bridge, men, women and children were selling trinkets and gum for a peso, or less.  Some young men worked the stalled cars in the endless line of traffic trying to enter the USA, by selling CD’s or fake flowers.

When we started walking along the main street, no one bothered us, no one had their hands out.  Everyone was hanging out in the store fronts and on benches.  Only about two men looked like members of a cartel, if you went along with the stereotypes.

I was looking for a certain destination.  I wanted to visit the famous Kentucky Club.  This bar, according to my internet research, was the watering hole for the likes of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Steve McQueen and…Marilyn Monroe.  I’m sure countless others, rich famous or just tourists, had licked the salt from their hands and tilted a tequila   living the vicarious life of Marilyn or Liz.

I almost walked past the place.  Mariam had to grab my arm and say:

“Here it is.”

BarKentuckyClub

[The legendary bar of the Kentucky Club]

I sat at the bar and had a tequila.  Mariam had a dark Modelo.  We snacked on a dish of guacamole.  I tried to look as un-touristy as I could, but the more I tried, the more goofy I looked.  I had a backpack, a red Moleskin notebook sticking out of my pocket, a bright orange ball point pen from a bike shop in Fort Myers, Florida, an iPhone and a baseball hat that had the logo of a health food store in Saranac Lake, NY. (Nori’s, if you’re interested). At least I wore a short beard and had a bad haircut that, hopefully, gave me that do you really want to mess with me? kind of look.

Back out on the street, we began to walk a few more steps into this fabled city, this dark country that produces guys like El Chapo, Pancho Villa, Richardo Montalban and Emiliano Zapata.  I thought I had walked several blocks, but we only had gone to the nearest street corner.  There was a man in a wheel chair with his back to us.  He was playing the guitar and singing, but the traffic noise prevented me from hearing him…but I knew I wanted to stop and listen.

I walked past him, turned and leaned against the light pole.  Next to his left ankle was a red plastic gallon-size Folger Coffee container with the top cut away.  A few people dropped a coin or two into the bucket.

He finished a song.  I went up and dropped $2.00 into his tip container.  He reached out and touched my arm and said something in Spanish.  Mariam knows some of the language and she said he was telling us that he had another pretty song for us.

We went back to the lamp-post.  He began singing Cietlito lindo. I didn’t recognize the first few lines…then after a pause…”Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay…”.  It was a song I heard a thousand years ago as a child.  I heard it a thousand times, yet I never knew what it was about.  When we got back to the rPod, I googled the song.

Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay

The title translates, according to one source, as Lovely Sky.  I read the English lyrics several times.  It wasn’t the sky above our heads that is the subject of the song…it’s a woman.  Her name is Lovely Sky.

From the Sierra Morena

Lovely Sky, come down

A pair of dark eyes…Lovely Sky

Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay

Sing and don’t cry

Because singing, they brighten up

Lovely Sky, the hearts.

Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay

An arrow in the air,

Lovely Sky, Cupid has launched it.

An arrow in the air

Lovely Sky, that has struck me.

I watched his gnarled fingers fret the strings.  I looked at his immobile feet in the wheel chair.  I saw the gap from a missing tooth.

I watched as he sang…his eyes were closed…he was singing to me, to Mariam, to everyone, to no one, to himself, to a woman, to a love remembered.

SingerJuarez

[And I don’t even know his name…]

I wondered what kind of life he had.  What did he go home to?  Was it a house of grandchildren…or empty rooms and a bottle of beer?

Me?  We began our walk back to El Paso.  Another quarter in the slot.  No one checking our bags in Mexico…but when we came down the bridge and entered the Port of Entry building, the security was as bad as the TSA at JFK airport.  We pulled out our passports.  I was quizzed briefly. I felt like joking with the Border Patrol guy.

“Bringing anything back?” he asked.

“Nothing penicillin can’t fix,” I was thinking about answering.  He didn’t look like the joking type, so I let it drop

I was waved through.  Mariam had to have her bag searched.

Our packs went through an X-ray machine.  We emerged about seven blocks from where our car was parked.

I would never be able to convince myself that I had seen anything of Mexico.  It would be fifteen miles of malls and outlets, Taco Bells and muffler shops along I-10 East to our RV site.

I felt cheated.  I had denied myself any other experiences in that fascinating city.  I walked fourteen minutes into this amazing country and sat in a tourist bar.  What kind of soul-searching wanderer am I?

But, for a brief moment, on a dusty street corner, I could close my eyes (along with the singer) and imagine I was sitting in a cantina in La Boquilla del Ranchos on the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental.

Yes, I would sit in the cantina and wait for Lovely Sky.