Vol 7, Num 11 :: 2008.05.30 — 2008.06.13
The low desert was hot and the air above the broken asphalt writhed in undulations of heat. Route 66 has a different meaning in every state. In Missouri, it is a four lane highway; in parts of Texas, a dirt track so narrow that if we had met an oncoming car, we would have had to pull off to the shoulder. We didn’t. Here in New Mexico, the old road cut across the red desert in a straight line. It ended as a pinpoint on the distant, always receding horizon, like an art student’s study in perspective.
We stopped in the town of Cubero to get water and fuel and to stretch. It never seemed that we sweated in the dry heat, but at the end each day our skin would be covered with a glaze of dried salt. The sun licks up every drop of moisture in the parched desert. After a morning of dehydration headaches the previous day, we now guzzled water by the gallon, straight out of the plastic jug. Our van too had a powerful thirst to quench. With a twenty-gallon tank, the behemoth could drive for hours without refueling, but when it needed to be filled, it lapped gasoline like a camel with extravagant tastes.
Cubero was a tired town, like so many we had seen and were to see on Route 66, one that had sprung up in the boom days, when money and commerce flowed along the black pavement that was the only link between East and West. The interstate system had sapped the life of the bustling golden days of streets lined with diners, prostitutes and hawkers. Like a hundred other towns, 66 had been Cubero’s main street. Once, a town of mirrored tin, steel and glass that lit the day and colored the night with a wash of neon signs, Cubero was now dingy and dusty, moldering under the merciless sun.
We were sore and stiff from the morning’s drive and slouched out of the van and stretched in the parking lot.
I gave my travel guide a cursory glance. “Huh,” I exclaimed to my traveling companion, “Hemingway, spent the night here while he was writing Old Man and the Sea.”
“Here? In the gas station?” Chris retorted, amused with himself.
I didn’t bother to reply.
Chris manned the pump, dumping gallon after gallon of gasoline into the great steel maw. The vehicle was caked with the dust of the six states we had crossed in the last three days. I tried wiping down the windshield with a squeegee, but only succeeded in turning dirt into mud. I gave up and walked to the edge of the road to look for Ernest.
The guidebook said that he had spent the night in Cubero’s inn and had written in the town café. Nothing in view looked like an inn or a café. There were only ramshackle buildings, boarded up or broken down. Here and there, signs advertised long defunct businesses. I turned back toward the gas station.
The air inside the building was cool and welcome after the baking afternoon. We wandered through the snack aisle, selecting appetizers to go with our peanut butter sandwich lunch. We always took our time in gas stations. It felt good to walk, good to be cool, good to be free of seat and seatbelt for a few minutes. We bought Sunchips and water, more than we needed just in case.
I inquired of the portly Native American attendant where Ernest was as he rang up our groceries.
He looked at me blankly and shrugged.
The heat had been waiting for us while we were inside. It swirled over and around us as we came out and trailed behind us like the tail of a comet as we walked.
Past the van at the road’s edge, we stood together silently, both expectant, semi-reluctant to recommence the journey that had already taken us so far, but still had so many miles to go. Desire mixed with obligation marks all long journeys: the road-weary traveler has his long imagined trip and now has come so far that even turning back will mean a journey of 1,500 miles. Like a child forced by a parent to do what they wanted to do all along, a confusion of the emotions afflicts him. Chicago lay at our backs, a distant memory, and Los Angeles lay ahead, as far off and imaginary as Oz. And this, a picture of a lost or fading America, a minor interlude to the miles piled on miles, one of many to come: Valencia with its ancient, decaying church; Oatman with its wild burros; North Platte, where we stopped to watch a high school baseball game.
I looked out at the town, browned and crumbling, a cake left too long to bake in this desert oven. There was no trace of Ernest in the wreckage of this spent American dream. Perhaps he had stood, like me, on the roadside staring out at a road of De Sotos, Studebakers and Cadillacs, thinking of the days of the war, when rumbling army convoys had moved troops and tanks along the main street highway. That America too was gone.
A big truck passed down the street, stirring the roadside dust. A tumbleweed careened in its wake. A pretty, native girl jogged along the roadside, her raven ponytail bobbing from side to side in rhythm with her stride. She smiled at us as she passed, her long, slender legs carrying her on down the road. We watched as she disappeared into the shimmer of heat and dust and walked back toward the van to drive on.