Sunday, October 31, 2010

Day 123: The Roswell Rodeo

Somewhere in Eddy County to Artesia. 19.7 miles/2334.6 total

Sunday, October 31, 2010

9:15 a.m. I’m in the middle of Eddy County on US 82 heading west to Walmart on the far side of Artesia, a distance of 19.7 miles.

It’s party cloudy for a change, but the clouds are high cirrus clouds; nothing threatening rain. There’s a gentle breeze blowing in from the southwest and the temperature is about 65. I’m back in just a t-shirt. Yesterday it got up to 90, but I don’t think it’ll go that high today. And the temperature in the motor home never went below 65 overnight. Sometimes I wake up and it’s in the low 40s.

I took the day off yesterday and have already spent two nights at the Artesia Walmart, which is located on 26th street at the west end of town. Artesia is a reasonably prosperous community, built mostly with oil money. Oil, cattle, and farming are its principal sources if income.

I went to a laundromat in Artesia, a fairly painless experience as those things go. It was pretty clean, and very busy on a Saturday. The washers and dryers were all coinless, and you had to purchase a plastic card, which you credited with money through an ATM-like device, then inserted in the washers and dryers. You had to pay four dollars just for the plastic card, then put the money on it for the machines. I suppose if you’re a local and only have to perform this task once it’s not so bad. But for a tight-fisted itinerant like me it was painful.

So at the end of my time there, with fifty cents credit left on my four-dollar plastic card, I decided to bestow it on a deserving person, since I’ll probably never be back here to do laundry again. Once I made that decision the beneficiary was pretty easy to find. As I was folding my clothes I looked around for the most attractive young woman in the place who looked as if she could use a little help. I found a pretty Mexican woman in her early 20s with a handful of kids in tow. Beauty should receive its little rewards here and there, especially since that beauty will soon be lost to a life of domestic drudgery.

As I walk along I spy a patch of baseball-sized gourds growing wild, maybe from something someone threw out the window. It’s somehow appropriate that I should see these on Halloween, a day we celebrate with another member of the gourd family. And speaking of members of the gourd family, I noticed while driving from Seminole to Hobbs that they grow watermelons in the twenty-foot swath of cultivated earth between the cotton fields and the road. The guy in Loco Hills told me they grow them all through the cotton fields, between the rows. They have to water it all anyway, he added. And I suppose the watermelons are all finished before they go through to pick the cotton. The ones I saw were leftovers, small and round. Texas ranks third in the country in watermelon production, behind California and Arizona.

A couple of miles into the walk I pass the entrance to Turkey Track Ranch, which sports ten black iron signs boasting of rodeo championships they’ve won. In the 1990s and 2000s they won events in the Roswell Ranch Rodeo, and also the Eastern New Mexico State Fair and the Eddy County Sheriff’s Posse Fair.

I don’t know if the Roswell Ranch Rodeo has just the traditional rodeo events, like calf roping and bull riding, or if there are extra events such as alien probing and flying saucer shooting. I can just hear the announcers:

“Now the object of this event, Billie Bob, is to lasso the alien as he’s flying up to the mother ship. You gotta get him around the neck, pull him down and hogtie him, then stick the probe in him, all in under ten seconds. And you gotta watch for the green stuff he shoots out of his eyes, which can blind you. Jimmy Clyde Baxter, out of Turkey Track Ranch in Artesia, holds the state record at 4.8 seconds.”

“Yes sirree, Donnie, these aliens can be tricky as well as feisty. Sometimes they fly horizontally, just to confuse you. You gotta have split-second timing at the moment you throw that rope, and know which way they’re gonna go. These little guys might only weigh about eighty pounds, but they can be slippery and ornery. So let’s watch Jimmy Clyde now as he attempts to rope the alien.”

I had occasion last night to meet some local folks and one of them, Ray, works for a gasoline distributor. I asked him if he knew about the cheap gas down in Carlsbad, and he did. He said Murphy, which is affiliated with Walmart, opened a new station down there and started selling cheap gas to drive out the competition. According to Ray retailers currently pay $2.49 a gallon for gas. That means the station where it was $2.29 is losing twenty cents a gallon. I don’t imagine that can last for long. But maybe they more than make it up in sales of beer and cigarettes.

I haven’t said anything about my beloved New York Yankees, mostly because I’m trying to forget. But I must acknowledge that the Texas Rangers handed them their asses. They jumped on the Yankee starters pretty consistently, and New York’s middle relief wasn’t too strong. You can’t win with Mariano Rivera if he’s not in a save situation. So, better luck next year to the boys. Knowing them they'll throw some money at the problem and fix it. Now Texas is trying to make a series of it, down 2-1, playing in Arlington later this afternoon.

As for Michigan football, that’s just too depressing to talk about.

I fear I’m disappointing you lovers of road kill. I just haven’t seen much of it. Three coyotes, a rabbit, a vulture, and a skunk in five days. There just isn’t that much out here. Or they’re all to fast. Maybe when I start walking up the mountain I’ll see some deer. I heard they’re hunting them up there right now.

Then again, I am only forty miles from Roswell. Maybe the aliens are eating all the animals around here, like those wonderfully carnivorous prawns in District 9. And speaking of meat, I saw a billboard in Artesia for that restaurant in Amarillo, Texas, where you can get a 72 ounce steak for free if you eat it and the rest of the meal in under an hour. I keep promising myself I’ll go there, and I’m pretty sure I can tuck away the steak dinner in the prescribed time. I’ve watched them on the Food Channel, and the strategy is simple: eat the steak first, and do it within the first twenty minutes, before your brain tells your stomach no mas. Then you can pick at the potato and the rabbit food for the next forty minutes.

I’m reminded of the opening lines of one of the early chapters of James Joyce’s Ulysses:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liver slices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

Now there was a carnivore after my own heart.

Finally after 9 miles I’m looking down into a valley at the City of Artesia spread out before me, and beyond it in the far blue distance the mountains where I’ll be later this week.

At 10.4 miles I come to a small junkyard spread out over several acres, containing mostly old trucks and cars, tanks, oil equipment, hills of broken concrete, old dumpsters. There’s a used tank sitting on the ground bearing the name “Enchantment Propane.” I really love stuff like this. In another life I’d like to be either a scrap dealer or a garbologist, examining landfills like an archeologist.

Just out of curiosity I thought I’d check where I was on Halloween last year. I was walking through Marion, Illinois, named for the Swamp Fox, and home to the federal prison that once housed John Gotti, Nicodemo Scarfo, Manuel Noriega, and, of all people, Pete Rose.

On the flatlands in the outskirts of Artesia there are several cotton farms, some picked and the others just about to be. At 16.5 miles I enter the City of Artesia, elevation 3,380 feet, population around 10,000. The city got its name in 1903 from an artesian aquifer located here. And just inside the city is the Navajo Refinery, its dozens of towers twinkling with little lights like a forest of odd-shaped trees all lit up for the holidays. So there’s oil on one side of the street and cotton on the other. Throw in a few cattle and you’ve got the whole picture.

Just past the refinery with its deep hollow rumblings and the hissing of hot gasses escaping from pipes, Artesia proper begins at the intersection of US 82 and US 285, which is called 1st Street. At this intersection is a handsome bronze sculpture about fifteen feet high called “Trail Boss” by Vic Payne, from Wyoming. It's a cowboy on horseback waving a rifle over his head and driving a couple of longhorn cattle. Up at the next intersection there’s a similar sculpture called “El Vacquero,” again with a rider posed in action on his horse pushing a cow along.

At 6th and Main (as 82 is called here) there’s another group of bronze sculptures in a little park on the south side of the street. The large central one is of an oil derrick being worked by several men. Another sculpture depicts a meeting between two men, Matt Chase and Johnny Grey, called “The Partnership.” These two men went into business together in 1972 as Marbob Energy Corp., which they named after their wives, Marilyn and Bobbie. They sold their interests in the partnership some time in the 80s to pursue other interests, but Marbob is still a major presence in Artesia.

I come across a huge prickly pear cactus plant in someone’s yard, with no needles on it. I don’t know if they’ve been removed or if it just grew this way. It has large clusters of fruit on it, not yet ripe. The fruit does have needles.

From 1st Street to 6th Street is the central business district, with most of the buildings occupied. There’s the Ocotillo Performing Arts Center, a few cafes and restaurants, ATES Petroleum in a huge glass and brick building, and the Land of the Sun movie theater. After 6th the solid blocks end and it goes to separate buildings, which get larger and more scattered as I go west. A hardware store, a K Mart, a grocery. A florist with the somewhat suggestive name The Love Bud Floral and Gifts. I look for the county courthouse, then it hits me that this isn’t the county seat. That honor belongs to Carlsbad.

Finally I reach 20th Street and the well-maintained lawns and stately corporate offices of Marbob Energy. Across the street is the Pecos Inn Best Western Motel where I stayed last April on my way out to California. I ate at the Kwan Den Chinese buffet, which as I recall was not a great dining experience. But it was handy and I was hungry. The Kwan Den proved my rule that the farther you get from each coast the worse the Chinese food gets. And it’s still over a thousand miles to L.A.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Day 122: The Boys of Loco Hills

Maljamar to somewhere in Eddy County. 20.5 miles/2314.9 total

Friday, October 29, 2010

9:35 a.m. I am setting out from the rest area a mile and a half west of Maljamar, headed west on US 82 through the community of Loco Hills, and about nine miles beyond to a spot on the road near the intersection of 82 and Eddy County Routes 210 and 211, a distance of 20.5 miles.

It’s another cloudless day, with a breeze from the south. It’s in the high 50s now, heading up to around 70.

Since I came down off the high plains yesterday, and through Maljamar, the terrain has changed markedly. The plains were flat. Down here it’s not exactly hilly, but sort of bumpy. The land undulates with little hills fifty or so feet in diameter and only a few feet high. There appears to be very little farming or ranching going on here. And the vegetation is different. It’s greener than the plains were, with their yellow grass. There's grass here too, but there are very few cactuses and there’s much more growing than just grass. Sage brush, for one thing, light green and aromatic. And of course mesquite bushes and trees, and also some kind of low-growing shrub-like ground cover with tiny oak leaves. I hope it’s not poison oak, because I just picked some leaves. (Damn, why didn’t I pay more attention in Boy Scouts?) After I check my tree book I see this is probably gambel oak, also known as Utah white oak, which grows as a shrub or a small tree. There's also something that has thin spiky leaves with needles at the ends. Some of the mesquite trees are beginning to turn a golden yellow.

The main feature of the landscape is the profusion of oil wells, those small shallow-well pumps that look to me like busy insects. They’re everywhere amid the little pale red hills, thousands of them, perhaps one on every two or three acres, in a variety of colors—olive drab, khaki, orange, black—and in several sizes. Most of the newer large ones by the road appear to be driven by electric motors, quietly dipping down and slowly pulling up. The overall effect, looking out toward the distant mountains, is of gentle green hills with adobe-colored circles and slashes here and there where the wells have been sunk.

Soon after I start I leave Lea County and enter Eddy County, and the shoulder on the road becomes wider, about enough to accommodate a vehicle. So the walking will be much more comfortable today. My ankles are sore this morning, and I think that’s because of all the walking in the ditch on uneven ground yesterday.

At 11.6 miles I enter the limits of the village of Loco Hills. This place looks a little larger than Maljamar. And I guess this means that the hills I’ve been walking through are the Loco Hills. Loco Hills has the usual scattering of buildings, including a post office and a fire station and some oil and gas-related businesses, most of which are in prefabricated buildings. At the center of the town is Kelly’s Cafe, and I decide to go in.

Before I even get in the door a man who has been standing outside says, “Let this man in and get him something to drink; he’s been walking a long time.” I say he must have seen me on the road and he nods his head vigorously, and says he saw me yesterday, too. These guys drive back and forth between Hobbs and Lovington and Artesia on oil business and see everything.

I go inside and order an iced tea and a piece of pecan pie. The pie is okay, nothing great. Diner food (or dive food, in this case), despite what the guy with the spiky bleached hair would have you believe, is usually mediocre. There are two men at another table, just as friendly as they can be, one an Anglo about my age and the other an Indian of some kind, I think, about 40. They start talking to me about the walk, then invite me to join them at their table. I tell them the whole story, of course. They introduce themselves, but I immediately forget the white guy’s name. The Indian is Joe. Joe runs for exercise, sometimes 30 miles at a time, so we talk about shoes for a bit. He tells me he saw me parked at the rest area outside Lovington Wednesday night and on the roadside last night. I tell him he’s pretty observant and he agrees, grinning.

They’re in the drilling business. I ask them how much oil each of those wells produces, and they say it varies. Some of the older small ones might only produce a barrel a day, but the newer ones might pull up two or three hundred barrels a day. Right now they’re doing something called horizontal drilling, where they go down a few thousand feet then drill out sideways. Business is booming around here right now, and everyone in the restaurant is doing something with oil or gas or the equipment necessary to get them out of the ground. There are a dozen white pickups in the parking lot.

At some point I mention Seminole, Texas, and the older guy says there are a lot of Mennonites there. In fact, he tells me, that huge house that looks like a chateau, some five miles west of Seminole, is owned by the head of the Seminole Mennonites. They’re rich, according to these guys. I mention that I saw quite a few of them at the Walmart in Seminole last spring, and that I thought the women were particularly ugly. “It’s all that inbreeding,” the older guy says. Confirming what George in Snyder said last spring, he tells me they come up from Mexico and they speak mostly German and Spanish. Up here they farm quite a bit. I get a feeling the Mennonites are not viewed at all charitably by the locals. Joe even opined that they might be dealing drugs out of Mexico, which seems like a stretch to me. (Joe also thought the price of cotton was four dollars a pound until I told him it was just over a dollar, so I take what he says about Mennonite dope dealers with a grain of salt.) But there seems to be a mixture of fear and envy of the Mennonites that’s probably a milder version of the chronic European attitude toward Jews.

I make a point of telling them how helpful and friendly everyone has been on my trip. After about twenty minutes they have to get going, so our little party breaks up. As I go to pay the cashier she tells me that Joe, who'd been ahead of me in line, has already paid for my pie. By the time I get outside he’s in his truck and gone. As I walk back out onto the road through the oil fields, with the pungent smell of gas in the air, I feel as if I’m among friends.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day 121: High Plains Drifter

US 82 and NM 238 to Maljamar. 19.6 miles/2294.4 total

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Day 121. Thursday, October 28, 2010.

9:57 a.m. I starting this morning from near the intersection of US 82 and NM 238, headed west on 82 for 19.6 miles to a rest stop just beyond Maljamar. Maljamar will be the only community I’ll be going through today, and it barely qualifies as such. No gas station, and just one restaurant that I can see. So I’m leaving nothing to chance, carrying everything I’ll need for today in my vest, including extra water. I’ve bumped the distance up another two miles today, and in another day or two I’ll be at warp speed again.

It’s only in the 50s right now, and I’m not sure how warm it will get. It’s cloudless, as usual, so I imagine the sun will warm things up a bit. On the first two days of the walk I wore only a t-shirt under the vest, but today I have on a lightweight long-sleeved shirt over a t-shirt, and that feels just about right.

There’s nothing between here and Maljamar except flat grassland covered with cholla cactus, oil wells and other petroleum-related apparatuses, and cows. In regard to the oil, I feel a little like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, with his “water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink.” While all around me there are oil and natural gas pipelines, storage facilities, and pumps, there’s not a retail gasoline outlet for the 60 miles or so between Lovington and Artesia.

Last night I stayed at a quiet little picnic area a few miles west of Lovington, and tonight I’ll probably stay at one of several large truck pull-offs I saw along the way. Then tomorrow night it’ll be Walmart again, and a day off on Saturday.

I’ve seen a couple of references indicating that where I’m walking right now is part of the "high plains." The high plains is a large area east of the Rocky Mountains, extending from here up to Wyoming. So maybe instead of being the Ancient Mariner today I’ll be the High Plains Drifter.

I have with me a field guide common cactuses, and after examination I determine that one of the chollas on the roadside is a cane cholla and another one is a teddy bear cholla. Chollas are bushy-looking cactuses, mostly about four feet high, with lots of thin branches ranging in diameter up to about an inch and a half. They all sort of look the same from a distance, like bare spare bushes, with smaller branches growing off of longer ones, except that when you get up close you see that some have one or two yellow fruits growing off the ends of the branches and some have green fruit, and in some (the infamous jumping cholla) the fruit grows in hanging clusters.

The autumn sun rises and sets far to the south so its arc is abbreviated considerably this time of year. When I’m walking due west the sun is always on my left side; in the morning it shines on the left side of the back of my neck and in the afternoon it shines on the left side of my face. And I have my shadow at my right side all day long.

This morning before I did anything else I had to crawl under the motor home and reattach a hanger on the exhaust system. I noticed yesterday that something was hanging down and saw that it was the muffler hanger. The weight of the rather large pipes was causing the muffler to buckle a little, like it was folding up. I couldn’t do anything last night because it was getting dark and the pipes were still hot, but first thing today I got under there and with the help of a large hose clamp I found, made the improvised repair. On summer days at home that would have been a whole day’s work and I probably would have put it off for a week. But now there’s no rest for the wicked, and I had to do that then get ready to do everything else.

Incidentally, in case you’re wondering, things are going fine with the portable generator. I have a plywood ramp about six and a half feet long, but I haven’t had occasion to use it yet. It seems to be more trouble than it’s worth to get it out. Instead I’ve been walking the beast up and down the three steps from the ground to the floor of the motor home, so I only have to lift half of it at a time. Of course it’s a lot easier to walk it down the steps in the evening than to walk it up in the morning, but at least in the morning I’m rested. It stays outside all night, after I’ve turned it off for the evening, and so far that hasn’t been a problem. If it ever rains I have a tarp to cover it with and some bungee cords to secure it. And it runs pretty quietly out there. The electric starter is a nice feature, and I’m glad I didn’t decide to skimp on that.

Typical of fall everywhere in the country, the grasshoppers are very active just now. The predominating variety around here are dark brown to black, and when they jump up they take flight with orange and black wings—Halloween colors. When I walk in the ditch I scare them up by the hundreds. They take off, rarely more than three or four feet in the air, and fly only as far as they need to in order to reach the other side of the road, where they tuck in their wings and settle down, perfectly still, as if nothing had happened.

When I say there’s nothing out here, I mean nothing except fences, lonely ranch houses set back far from the road, utility poles, the occasional can or bottle on the side of the road. There isn’t even any road kill. Here and there a small petroleum facility fills the air with its pungent sulfurous smell.

Because I wasn’t able to stop anywhere for my afternoon coffee today, I mixed up some cold coffee in a Coke bottle, adding several spoons of instant to the water. In addition to my abrupt increase in physical activity this week, I’ve also decreased my coffee consumption from five or six cups a day to only about two. I try not to drink it much after about three o’clock.

It feels as if I’m going slightly uphill, although the difference in elevation between Lovington and Maljamar is only fifty feet or so. I walk a few miles to a slight rise in the road, and on the other side of that is more flat ground and another slight rise.

I see what I identify as a staghorn cholla. These cholla predominate here, with very few prickly pear cactuses, and apart from brown grass and very occasional mesquite bushes and trees, they’re about all the vegetation. I don’t know if the cattle like to eat cholla, but they don’t seem to mind being around them. No large herds of cattle here, only the occasional bunch of twenty or thirty, mostly black angus and Hereford.

Since I arrived in Hobbs last week I’ve been listening to the Mexican music stations pretty regularly. I don’t know what the style is called. It’s not mariachi, but it’s similar. Some kind of folk music of northern Mexico, I suppose. The presence of the accordion and the 4/4 time make it sound very similar to Polka music. In fact it was the Germans who introduced the accordion to Mexican music, as they did to Cajun music. I’ve always been fond of Polka music, it’s so damned happy and somehow ineffably silly, just like this Mexican stuff.

Another similarity between Polkas and Mexican music is that often while the musicians are good the singers are somewhere between amateurish and awful. Sometimes they just sing flat, and sometimes they sing even worse than that. In fact, very few vocalists are really good, though they try their best. I understand very little Spanish, so I just sort of get into the mood of the music, which always seems to be about love or going to Nuevo Mexico or drinking cerveza. Once in awhile a word or phrase will jump out and I’ll say, “I know what that means!” Like paloma, which means dove. When I was in 4th grade our teacher, Mrs. Baumgartner (known to some of my readers), brought in a woman named Senora Lopez to teach us Spanish. I don’t remember shit from that except a song about la paloma. There’s a very famous song by that name, written in 1863 by a Spanish guy named Sebastian Yradier, but the song we sang was different. Occasionally I’ll hear a singer saying mi corazon, which I know means “my heart,” but also means “my love.” So these days when I get back in the motor home after walking, the first thing I do is put the radio on scan, and skip past the country music and the right-wing Christian hatemongers until I can find some Mexican music.

At 16.5 miles I reach the intersection of US 82 and New Mexico 249, and I’m one mile from Maljamar. Wikipedia has very little to say about Maljamar, because there’s very little to report. It has a post office, a restaurant, and a few dozen houses. You might think the name is Spanish—it does have a sort of Spanish feel to it—but according to legend the founder of the village, William Mitchell, named it after his three children, Malcolm, Janet, and Margaret.

About a half mile past this intersection I come to the crest of another hill, but this time I’m abruptly treated to an entire change of scenery. Below me a few hundred feet lies Maljamar, and beyond that, in the hazy distance, are mountains. Off to the north is a ridge of several mesas. It appears that I’m leaving the high plains.

At 17.5 miles I reach the center of Maljamar. On the way down the hill it smells like rotten eggs, and at the bottom it smells like sewage, right where Linda’s Grill sits in a shabby one-story building. Linda’s is closed now at four in the afternoon, but it was open when I drove by earlier. Maybe they ran out of food, although my nose tells me otherwise.

I’m now only a mile from the rest area where the motor home waits patiently. My feet are aching and I’m ready to get off them.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Day 120: Zip the King

North of Humble City to U.S. 82 and NM 238. 17.6 miles/2274.8 total

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

9:25 a.m. I'm trying to get up a little earlier each day. Today I arose at 7:30, and after all the crap I have to do in the morning, two hours later here I am. But it's a half hour earlier than yesterday. Tomorrow, who knows?

Leaving from mile 63 on New Mexico Route 18, about halfway between Hobbs and Lovington, heading north northwest to Lovington, then west on U.S. 82 to just past the intersection of New Mexico Route 238. 17.6 miles total.

It’s clear again, and about 60 right now, expected to get up to about 70. It got a little cooler overnight, which was good for sleeping.

Out in the distance, in addition to the mesquite and other bushes, is an increasing number of little oil wells, which look like praying mantises on exercycles, pedaling slowly. There’s a refinery in the distance.

And there’s evidence that cotton is grown around here, along the side of the road--loose cotton recently picked. I haven’t seen any cotton fields besides the one just inside New Mexico yesterday morning, but they’re out there somewhere.

I found my first money in New Mexico just now. A penny, then a mile later a dime and six pennies. And another coyote on the roadside, so that’s two so far. I did see a couple of things that might have been raccoons, but it was too difficult to tell. Now I just have to visit a cemetery, then I’ll feel that I’m officially in this state.

At about an hour into the walk I come to the Navajo Refinery, which I think is owned by Chevron. I step off the pavement and begin walking on a two-track dirt road that runs right next to the railroad tracks, about 30 feet from the highway.

I stop to sample the fruit of a prickly pear. They’re quite abundant around here, and look as if they’re about as ripe as they get, but I don’t really know. I stab one of them with my knife to pull it off the plant, careful not to touch the little clusters of fine needles that dot the outside. For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, the fruits of the prickly pear cactus grow on the edges of the flat spiny leaves of the plant. They range from about the size of a large grape to that of a good-sized plum, and vary in color, when ripe, between bright red and dusky purple. Carefully holding the fruit by both ends I use the knife to peel some skin away. The inside is about the consistency and color of cooked beets, and the juice runs purple down the knife and onto my hand. It stains, but comes off with a little water. I imagine this juice was once used as a dye. I sample it sparingly, because I’ve heard that it is constipating, probably from the pectin. But I don’t know how much that would take. I eat maybe a teaspoonful. It's not very sweet or flavorful, but I don't have anything to compare it to. I think with some sugar it would be pretty good. In the center of the fruit is a mass of seeds that are reminiscent of the inside of a fig, which is probably why the French call the prickly pear the figue de Barbarie, or Barbary fig, since they grow on the north coast of Africa. However, they must have been introduced there, because like all true cactus plants they are native to the Western Hemisphere.

A couple of employees of Navajo Refinery meet me on the dirt road in a red pickup truck. The passenger, a woman, asks me if I’m walking across the country. I say, “How did you know?” She says she thought so because she saw me yesterday in Hobbs. So I tell them the whole story, and they’re appropriately amused, and wish me well. I tell them that if they see me on the road to Artesia to honk and wave.

A string of about fifty gasoline tanker cars sits idle on a siding, waiting to be filled up. I marvel at the graffiti on the sides of the cars, some of it quite imaginative and well done. One intriguing legend says, “They all fear pirates, swindlers, and trixters.” I wonder what far flung places these cars have been tagged in—maybe Denver, Phoenix, Houston, Chicago, LA.

Beside the tracks, beneath the graffiti-splattered cars, is some evidence of fall in New Mexico. The robust weeds—future tumbleweeds—are turning from green to purple, brown, grey and red. When these plants dry up and become skeletons they’ll snap off and begin to roll around in the wind, across the roads, spreading their seeds.

On the outskirts of Lovington I come to a historic marker. It says that Lovington’s elevation is 3,900 feet. Founded in 1908 by Robert Florence Love (who we know preferred to be called Florence and perhaps to dress in women’s clothes), as a farming and ranching community. But the discovery of the Denton Pool after World War Two turned it into an oil town. The population was about 9,500 in 2000.

At 6.7 miles I enter the city limits of Lovington. I am now over one-third of the way through the walk, and it’s a good thing too, because I’m feeling every inch of it (that’s what she said). My legs ache from the knees to the hips, the cumulative effect of yesterday and today, and my back catches when I bend over to tie my shoes, making it difficult to stand up again. I think I’ll double knot these shoes so I can stay upright. But this pain is a necessary part of getting back into the swing of things, and some of the pain never goes away no matter how many miles I walk. So what the hell.

The outskirts of Lovington are long, and it takes me about two and a half miles to reach the center of the city. Downtown doesn’t have a lot to distinguish it—the usual one- and two-story cement block buildings with brick fronts, containing beauty salons, easy finance companies, and more often than not just empty. At the corner of Route 18 and Central Avenue I arrive at the courthouse square. The Lea County Courthouse is a reasonably attractive yellow brick building of two full stories with a smaller third floor set in fifteen feet or so on all sides. It has some nice concrete decorative touches over the doors and windows, representing Indian themes. Inside, apart from the handsome five-foot-high marble wainscoting, there’s not much to distinguish it. I walk around the building looking for a cornerstone, but don’t find one. I’d estimate it to be from the late 1930s.

Across the street to the east is the Lea County Museum, housed in a hotel that bears the date 1918 across the front. Inside I learn that it was bought by the ladies’ guild in 1969 and opened as a museum in 1971. The old guy who is acting as host says they’ve had visitors from over forty countries.

The rooms of the museum are filled with old equipment, appliances, furniture, western regalia. There’s a room dedicated to Max Evans, a local writer and screenwriter, whose book The Hi Lo Country was made into a movie in 1998 starring Woody Harrelson and Patricia Arquette. He had other novels that became movies, including The Rounders, which starred Glenn Ford and Henry Fonda. Photos of Max with the likes of Sam Peckinpaugh and Slim Pickens. Max is a New Mexico cowboy, still alive at 85, living in Albuquerque. But for at least some of his childhood he lived in none other than Humble City, ten miles south of here, which is probably why they have a little shrine to him here. There’s a picture of him in front of Humble City School (long gone now) at about the age of eight.

This museum was interesting in a way that probably appeals to the locals more than visitors, because they might recognize or be related to the people featured in the museum. And of course the Japanese and Europeans, who never seem to get enough of this cowboy stuff.

I head over to 1st Street to visit Papa’s Barn, an antique store. With a name like that I just have to stop. It makes me think of my grandsons. No good knives, though, so I head down for U.S. 82 and start walking west. The thermometer on a sign outside a restaurant says it's 67 degrees.

Now that I have slipped the surly bonds of Lovington I don’t think there’s much between here and Artesia, some 60 miles away. Just open country. This is the point in the afternoon when I usually get out the iPod and listen to tunes or a recorded book.

At 12.9 miles I come to the Lea County Zip Franklin Memorial Airport. Off in the flat distance I see a few small metal buildings and hangars, but there’s not a whole lot to this airport, save the fact that it was dedicated to someone by the zany name of Zip Franklin. It's a lonely piece of real estate over which old Zip presides. Looking around me at the endless expanses of cholla cactus and mesquite and dry yellow grass, I am reminded of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, a portion of which I'll paraphrase:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Zip Franklin, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

This highway 82 is a narrow two-lane road with no shoulder. It reminds me of the road I walked on back in Indiana, down from Michigan City to Lafayette. At least there’s a bit less traffic on this one and the ditch next to the road is dry and fairly flat. I have a feeling I’ll be down in it more often than not between here and Artesia.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Day 119: Land of the Cowboys

Hobbs to somewhere past Humble City. 15.2 miles/2257.2 total

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

9:55 a.m. I am leaving from a spot just a few feet inside New Mexico from Gaines County, Texas, heading through Hobbs and northwest up New Mexico Route 18 to about halfway between Hobbs and Lovington.

This is my first day back walking after a six-month hiatus. I pick up at this now-familiar spot. It's a cloudless day with the wind out of the south. Temperature is around 60 now, heading up to about 75. Perfect.

Getting back into the swing of things, wearing the vest filled with stuff, talking into the recorder, making notations in the little notebook. The walking itself won’t be challenging, just tedious. But during the spring and summer I did very little to keep myself in shape, other than some cycling and sporadic trips to the gym, which became less frequent as summer progressed into fall. So as I begin this morning I am keenly aware of being overweight and out of shape. That’s why today’s walk will be only 15.2 miles instead of my usual 21 or so. I need to ease myself into the rigors (such as they are) of this undertaking.

If you’ve been following this blog recently you know that for the past several days--since Friday, in fact--I’ve been dwelling at the Walmart in Hobbs, except for the one night Laurine and I spent in El Paso before her flight. So I’m pretty familiar with all the wonderful allurements of this place. As a result I won’t be walking through the center of the town, but rather skirting it to the north on the Navajo Road bypass, which will take me through the newer parts of town and bring me out onto Route 18. But for those of you who are curious, let me tell you that downtown Hobbs consists of a half dozen blocks of one and two-story buildings, storefronts mostly, about half of which are empty, because the real action is to the north, closer to the Black Gold Casino.

Off to my left is a cotton field, planted in the familiar circular pattern. A little overlap from next door Gaines County, Texas, the largest cotton-producing county in Texas.

My first piece of road kill in New Mexico is a fairly large rabbit, which from the length of its legs I take to be a jackrabbit. Jackrabbits are actually hares, different from rabbits because of several things, including longer legs and ears. Hares also are adapted to less sheltered environments, and are born more or less ready to rock and roll, whereas rabbits are born blind and hairless, and on my street at least, ready to eat if you’re a cat. I’m guessing that the jackrabbit’s main predator around here is the coyote. The one I’m looking at may have escaped the coyote, but he didn’t make it across the road.

Where a sign of large turquoise letters welcomes me to Hobbs, I take the right turnoff onto Navajo Road. The terrain here is flat grasslands with occasional mesquite trees and bushes, power lines, lonely oil pumps. A sign to my left says, “Welcome to the Prayer Journey.” I wasn’t aware that I was on a prayer journey, but there it is. It thought I was on a journey of, well, of something else.

I don’t know what fall looks like down here but I don’t think it has set in yet. Everything that's supposed to be green still looks pretty green. At 5.1 miles I reach Grimes Street, one of the north-south thoroughfares in and out of Hobbs, on which are many fast food joints, big box stores, chain drugs stores, and so on. Having reached the one-third point in my trip I know it's a good thing I’m not doing a full walk today. Already my legs burn and my feet are developing aches. But nothing serious.

This part of Hobbs appears to be quite prosperous, probably due to the nearby racetrack and casino. Middle class neighborhoods, new apartment complexes, new schools. I guess when the black squirrels didn’t work out they decided to go with horses and slot machines. The Zia Park Raceway and Black Gold Casino, which are together at the north end of the city, have been around for maybe a decade, I’m not sure. I do know that in 2007 they were bought by an outfit called Penn National Gaming, so this isn’t an Indian casino. Penn National started in Pennsylvania, and for several decades has been starting and buying up race tracks and casinos around the country. In other words, badda bing, badda boom. In addition to gambling, Hobbs derives money from oil and cattle. Also, I met a guy last night who works at a uranium enrichment plant in Hobbs. There must be money in that. It's called "enrichment," after all.

At 6.1 miles I turn right onto New Mexico 18 to head toward Lovington. In the McDonald’s where I stopped to go to the bathroom I saw a couple of tables full of Mennonite girls, probably from some of the same tribes of Mennonites who inhabit Seminole, Texas, about 30 miles east of here.

The sign says it’s 17 miles to Lovington. I’ll do half of that distance today and the rest tomorrow. Hobbs and Lovington both lie in Lea County and Lovington is the county seat.

At 7.5 miles, as I approach the turnoff for the casino, I pass a string of new hotels. I’m halfway through with this walk, and feeling it. Here in front of the Lea County Event Center there’s a nice wide walkway and jogging path. Up from the casino is New Mexico Junior College and the Lea Regional Medical Center.

I stop at the Allsup’s Conoco station for some refreshment, my last opportunity to buy anything for the remainder of the walk. They’re very big around here on these iron silhouette sculptures, mostly of cowboys. Cowboy on a horse, cowboy with a rope, praying cowboy.

In front of the medical center is the Lea County Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Museum. I go inside. From the looks of it the Cowboy Hall of Fame inducts two people a year. They have names like Homer and Virgil, Marvin and Tom, Roy Dale and Daniel Clyde. Here’s Jiggs Dinwiddy. And my favorite so far, Sanford Columbus Bilberry, Jr., known to his friends as San. I don’t know exactly what qualifies someone to be in the cowboy hall of fame, but from the little bios on their plaques I suspect it's owning a big fat ranch that produces lots of cattle. Also things like the ability to ride and rope. A number of champion riding cowboys have come from Lea County. Most of these guys, and a few women, seem to have come over from Texas at some point, which makes sense. This area was once part of Texas, and it was open cattle range as recently as a hundred years ago.

There’s also a photo gallery, with color photos mostly of cowboy activities. And an animatron named Gus, who sits beside a chuck wagon and answers questions in a down home twangy way that makes me think of a Firesign Theater song:

Back from the shadows again,
Out where an Indian's your friend.
Where the vegetables are green
And you can pee into the stream! (and that's important)
Yes, we're back from the shadows again.

In the historical museum there’s an exhibit showing all the flags that have flown over this part of New Mexico. Spain, Mexico, Texas, the Confederacy, the U.S., the State of New Mexico. The Republic of Texas once claimed all of New Mexico east of the Rio Grande, about half the present state. The U.S. didn’t recognize this claim until it became expedient to do so during the Mexican War. Then, once Texas was part of the U.S., the fatherland decided to take this area away from Texas. In the Compromise of 1850 the U.S. created the New Mexico Territory. During the Civil War this was claimed as a slave territory, under the suzerainty of Texas.

Lea County didn’t become a separate county until 1917, five years after New Mexico became a state. It was formed out of portions of Eddy and Chaves Counties. Lovington was founded in 1908 by James Benjamin Love and his brother Robert Florence Love (who preferred to be called Florence--and hey, why not?). Hobbs was founded by James Isaac Hobbs, who arrived here in 1907, with his banjo on his knee.

Well, that was an enjoyable sojourn. My interest in cowboys isn’t so keen these days, although when I was a little kid it was. Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, Sky King, the Lone Ranger. Back then cowboy shows were as common as shows about forensic cops and Dancing with the Dipshits are now. Yee-ha. Whoopie Tie One On. Or, as Bruce Willis is fond of saying, Yippi Ki Yay, motherfucker.

It’s 2 o’clock and the temperature has risen to about 75. Quail dart in and out of bushes along the jogging path. Across the street is a place called the University of the Southwest, a small campus set back about a quarter mile from the road. It turns out to be a former Baptist college that is now not affiliated with any religion except, apparently, the religion of free enterprise.

At 9.6 miles I pass another big turquoise Hobbs sign, going the other way. I come to a place called Humble City. And humble it is, comprising only a few dozen trailers along a 150-yard road, and a few other scattered ones. It’s listed on the internet only as a “populated place.”

I find only my second road kill of the day, a coyote. Chasing a jackrabbit across the road, probably. Then a few feet down a third one, a vulture. Killed while swooping down to eat the dead coyote, probably.

At 12.6 miles I come to the Cowboy Junction Church. As I walk the last two or three miles to the motor home, off to the east is the vast expanse of high plains where the cowboys once drove their cattle unimpeded by fences. It’s still not difficult, if you ignore the barbed wire, to imagine it as it was then, interrupted only by telephone poles and railroad tracks.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Satan Is A Nerd

El Paso, Texas

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Yesterday at about noon, on the way to the Carlsbad Caverns, we stopped to get something to eat in the city of Carlsbad. There we found a memorable restaurant called Calloway's. It's a plain and rather shabby-looking place probably known best to the locals, which doesn't reach out to the passer by with any fancy neon signs. Inside, the walls are decorated with miner's hats and empty potash sacks. (Potash mining is big around here.) Seedy-looking locals, old and young, hunker over brown wooden tables, the men thinking no more seriously of removing their hats than they would of taking off their pants.

On the whole I wouldn't recommend the food, which appears to be mostly the ordinary diner fare--meatloaf and mashed potatoes, fried chicken, burgers, french fries, and the obligatory Mexican items. The usual. Our coffee was hot but tasteless, served by a teenage girl wearing a t-shirt that said "satan is a nerd." But what caught my eye was someone next to us being served a short stack of pancakes that were about a foot in diameter--overlapping a large dinner plate--and an inch thick, topped with a fist-sized chunk of butter. We'd already ordered lunch by then, but immediately I wished we'd gotten breakfast instead.

Turns out we were in luck. About five minutes later another waitress came by. This woman looked more like a waitress at Calloway's should have looked than did the girl wearing the Satan put-down message, in that she wore her ratted bleached blonde hair piled up on top of her head, had spots of rouge on her cheeks that made me think immediately of Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and was missing a few teeth, just like the jack-o-lantern on her vivid orange holiday t-shirt. With profuse twangy apologies she asked us to tell her again what we had ordered, because they'd lost our ticket. Laurine and I looked at each other and said that was okay, and as long as they hadn't started our order we'd like to get breakfast instead of lunch. On the breakfast menu I noticed the pancakes came in two dimensions, regular and "miner's" size. I opted for two regular sized pancakes, figuring the ones we'd seen were the miner's version. Imagine my surprise when the waitress brought out a plate filled to the edges with the same huge pancakes the people behind us had been served. I asked if these were regular size, and was assured that they were, and that the miner's pancakes had to be served in pizza boxes. Beside the pancakes were slices of bacon so thick they almost qualified as pork cutlets.

Then, as if fortune had not shined brightly enough, the waitress announced that since they'd lost our first ticket there would be no charge for our meal. For that she earned from us what might have been her best tip of the day. My only regret was that I didn't get to see one of those miner's pancakes the size of a pizza box.

After that experience I expected the Carlsbad Caverns to be kind of disappointing, but they weren't. A cave is, after all is said and done, a big hole in the ground, and this one was no exception to that immutable rule. But it was a pretty nifty hole. Lots of stalactites and stalagmites and other drippy limestone formations, built up over jillions of years. During the long walk to the bottom of the cave we listened, on the self-guided tour recorders, to various facts and statistics about the caverns, none of which come to mind now. The one thing I do remember is that the rangers, or whoever they were on the recordings, kept talking about how in spite of the fact that there are boulders and loose rocks everywhere, there was absolutely no danger of any rocks falling on us. Which, in the scheme of things, made very little sense. And they maintained a harangue about how harmful people could be to the cavern, and that if any rocks did fall on anybody, it would probably be the fault of some human intervention. Pleading in the alternative there, as they say in the law. It was an absurd assertion, because it didn't take into consideration the previous millennia during which rocks have been falling for any number of other reasons, and also because the whole goddamned point of the national park, from beginning to end, is to entertain the humans who want to see the cave. Why insult the intelligence of the species you're catering to? It made me want to take a piss against the rocks to see if anything happened. By the way, those friendly aliens I'm posing with are wooden statues in front of the souvenir store at the entrance to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, and are apparently a vague reference to Roswell, a hundred miles or so to the north. To the best of my knowledge no one claims there's an alien connection to the caves, although you'd think someone would have asserted that by now. Could that nerd Satan have had anything to do with it?

Coming back through the city of Carlsbad (20 miles or so to the east of the Carlsbad Caverns National Park) this afternoon on the way to El Paso, we stopped to take advantage of another remarkable natural phenomenon. In the middle of the city, like an oasis, is a string of filling stations selling gas for around $2.30 a gallon, while pretty much everywhere else in the state the price is in the neighborhood of $2.80. We stopped at one of these stations to fill up, and I asked the cashier why their gas was so cheap, but he didn't know. He only knew they were selling it at below cost, and that the owner was upset because the station down the street was selling it a penny a gallon cheaper. I marveled at this little city, where the gas is so cheap and the pancakes are so large.

I was curious about the black t-shirt that said "satan is a nerd," just like that, in lower case white letters, so I googled it. This turns out to be a bit of brainwashed young teenage Christian hipness. In fact, there's a Christian rock group with a song by the same name, all about how Satan is a greasy-haired nerd/dweeb/loser sitting in the cafeteria all alone. And how the singer isn't afraid to insult Satan because he has Jesus on his side. Believe it or not (and why the hell wouldn't you believe it at this point?) there's a blog posting from a guy who's upset about the slogan because it's an insult to nerds, who he says aren't evil people. When I first saw the t-shirt the girl had her hair hanging down over the words and I couldn't make them out and I thought it said "stan is a nerd," like it was some inside joke about somebody she knew at school named Stan. Then again, maybe there's someone in her school named Satan. There are probably several guys named Jesus, so why not?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Goodbye, Mr. Gomez

Snyder, Texas and Hobbs, New Mexico

Friday, October 22, 2010

This will be sort of a double post. This morning, as I write this, we're in Snyder, Texas, relaxing after three days on the road and seeing to a couple of minor repairs in the motor home. In a few hours we will attempt to meet with the Boys of Snyder, who convene regularly at 2 p.m. at Jaramillo's Restaurant, just down the road from Walmart. I hope to find them in good health.

Meanwhile, it's warm and rather humid this morning. Fall hasn't gotten much of a start hereabouts. About half the cotton is still a bit green and not fully opened, and the other half is just about ready to be harvested. I see that a few fields have been picked already, with modules sitting ready to be taken to the gin.


Now it's early evening, at the Walmart in Hobbs. We went to Jaramillo's for lunch at about 1:30, and sure enough, when it was nearly 2:00, in walked either Lonnie or Tommie, I wasn't sure which, and began chatting with a table of extremely old ladies. When I went over I saw that it was Lonnie. I had to remind him of my name, but he recognized me immediately as "that feller was walkin' to the west coast." (Think of Slim Pickins and you'll have the accent.) I introduced him to Laurine and we took our coffee cups over to the table where he was about to hold forth. Then he remembered that his twin Tommie wasn't going to be in for coffee that day, but was to meet him later for a football game. And he remembered that George wasn't going to be there today, either. And worst of all, he informed us that Mr. Gomez had died during the summer, of cancer. Mr. Gomez was the elder statesman of the group, probably in his early 80s, and was called "Mister" in recognition of his advanced years. Either that or nobody knew his first name, which is possible, because no one seemed to know for sure the name of another member of their group, a Mexican they called Appaloosas. It turns out even that guy wasn't going to be there today. So it was just Lonnie and Laurine and me. But that was okay.

Lonnie caught us up on the weather (very warm fall so far) and the price of cotton. Lonnie farmed cotton all his life and is impressed that it's over a dollar a pound. He gave me a refresher course, so I could picture the value of those semi-trailer-sized modules that sit out in the fields. A cleaned bale weighs 550 pounds, and a module renders about 10 or 11 bales after it's ginned. So a module is worth between $5500 and $6000 at a dollar a pound. (Later I thought of a number of questions I should have asked, like how much of that money goes to the gin, and how much a farmer might expect to clear after expenses.)

After more chat we parted ways, and I told him to give my regards to George and especially to Tommie, who first befriended me at the barber shop in downtown Snyder, over by the courthouse, with its statue of the albino buffalo. He assured me that Tommie would be very sorry he missed me. I told him they could expect me in a few more months on my way back from the west coast.

So here we are in Hobbs, which at 28,000 is a veritable metropolis compared to Snyder or Lamesa or Seminole, the small cities we passed through on the long barren 130 mile trip today. Hobbs is a nice enough place, but with nothing too exciting going on. The fact that it's in New Mexico and not Texas, after all those hundreds of miles is refreshing. Also, that it's in a new time zone for me, Mountain Daylight Time, and that I'm now only one time zone away from California.

Oh, and one more thing, in the interest of infotainment and full disclosure. In the Wikipedia article on Hobbs it says it is one of the cities in the country that can claim to be home of the black squirrel. When I read that I immediately though of Holland, Michigan, another place where they have black squirrels (and some beautiful shiny sleek ones, at that). So I went to the Wikipedia article on black squirrels, for which a link was provided. And there it said that Hobbs did try to introduce black squirrels back in 1973, but that they were all killed off, probably by local fox squirrels (the regular brown ones). Apparently Battle Creek, Michigan, also is a black squirrel city. For that matter, there are a few on Hoskins Avenue, around the corner from my little subdivision in Cedar Springs. So go figure. And why do people want black squirrels anyway? But they do. And they keep taking them from one place and introducing them to another. From Michigan to Westfield, Massachusetts. From Canada to Washington, DC. The ones in Hobbs came from somewhere in Kansas. Isn't this how strange opportunistic pathogens and parasites are spread? Doesn't anybody think of things like that before they round up rodents and move them around? We have rats, malaria, syphilis, small pox, all introduced from Europe. The south is covered with kudzu, introduced from Japan. And they're always crying about things getting into the Great Lakes from ships. Not to mention all the aliens that come to Roswell. When will people learn?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Back In The Saddle

Bristow, Oklahoma

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Back on the road, and back at Walmart for the night. This feels familiar. We're moving slowly, owing to a late start Tuesday morning and another late start today. Taking it easy and only doing about 400 to 500 miles a day, stopping fairly early in the evening. Went to a couple of antique malls to buy pocket knives, and tried to see the "world's largest rocker" today, near Cuba, Missouri, but couldn't locate it in spite of signs on the road. Maybe I was looking for the wrong thing. I assume it's a rocking chair, but for all I know it could be a 900 pound guy who looks like Elvis. Actually, they have a guy like that in Las Vegas, called Big Elvis. I don't think he's much over 400 pounds, but you get the idea.

This shakedown cruise with the new motor home has been interesting and pretty predictable so far. One of the things I had hoped for was better gas mileage, but that's not happening. If anything, this one does a little worse than the other one. And when I think about it, that makes perfect sense. It's about the same size as the other one (two feet shorter). Compared to the buslike Class A Holiday Rambler I had before, this Class C model is significantly less aerodynamic--the Winnebago part of it balances on the Ford part of it like a mattress balances on a bottle of wine, as Bob Dylan would say. Also, it's about the same age as the other one (three years older, in fact), and has about the same size engine (461 cubic inches, versus 454, I think, in the other one). So it shouldn't have surprised me that it gets, when everything's going just right and I don't go over about 60, between 6.5 and 7 mpg, which is about what the other one got. And it's got less pickup than the other one, too, especially pulling the car on the dolly behind it. Zero to 60 in a few minutes.

But all of that is okay. It's feeling more like home all the time. By Friday we'll be situated in Hobbs, New Mexico, at the starting point of the resumption of the walk.

Bristow, Oklahoma, where we're spending tonight, is about 30 miles west of Tulsa. Oklahoma so far seems to be filled with some pretty seriously geeky people. I can see why California tried, albeit unsuccessfully and unconstitutionally, to prevent the Okies from entering back in the 30s. They must have definitely brought down the class average, even in places like Ridgemont High.

Here are a couple of factoids about Bristow, so you'll get that up close and personal feeling I try to impart about the places I visit. Although it was dark when we pulled into this town of 4500, I could tell right away I was entering a community where the Walmart is the biggest thing that's happened in many decades. And it is a damn fine Walmart, as these things go. Despite being under cover of the night, I did find out that Bristow was where the folk singer Tom Paxton grew up and graduated from high school. And it's a mere stone's throw from Okemah, the birthplace of another pretty serious folk singer named Woody Guthrie.

It was while working the midnight shift at the Frisco Depot in Bristow that Gene Autry (one of California's most successful Okies) would sing and accompany himself on the guitar, to pass the time. And it was while doing so that he was encouraged to sing professionally by a guy passing through named Will Rogers. And he did, going first to New York to record, and eventually out to Hollywood to become an authentic made-for-the-movies singing cowboy, and much later the owner of the Los Angeles-California-Anaheim-Los Angeles Angels.

Interestingly, one of the songs Gene Autry recorded in 1931, in his much less conservative days, was a labor anthem called "The Death of Mother Jones." And it so happens that yesterday we visited the grave of Mother Jones herself, in Mount Olive, Illinois, where she shares a monument with union miners killed in a strike in Virdin, Illinois in 1898. Mary Harris "Mother" Jones was an Irish-born labor organizer, one of the co-founders of the Industrial Workers of the World. She was born in either 1830 or 1837, and died in 1930. At any rate, she hung in there for a good long time, organizing mostly mine workers.

And I've hung in there as long as I intend to for one day.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Stewardess, I Speak Jive

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Monday, October 18, 2010.

This will be my last dispatch from home; leaving tomorrow. My wife and I will be traveling together in the motor home down to New Mexico, and she will depart for work at the end of the week, flying out of El Paso. Then it will be back to walking for me.

Okay sports fans, I think I might have jinxed Jim Tressel with my suggestion last week that he should come and coach at Michigan. I'm not sorry for that, however. Practically the only joy here in Mudville on Saturday was the victory of Wisconsin over Ohio State. I never get tired of seeing the Buckeyes lose. It just doesn't happen often enough to get tiring.

Despite his loss, my invitation to Tressel still stands. I'm thinking fat Jack McCaffrey (known to some of my readers) could do at least as good a job with Michigan as Rodriguez and his minions have, even though old Jack has probably already departed for that great locker room in the sky. To be sure, it's not all DickRod's fault, as much as I'd like it to be. He doesn't throw the intercepted passes, nor does he kick the blocked field goals that are run back to midfield. But he's the skipper, by God, and the ship is sinking. Again. Before we drown, we might just get lucky against Penn State, Illinois, and Purdue. I have no illusions about Wisconsin or Ohio State. A finish of 8-4 is therefore possible, and would set up my nightmare scenario, in which people would point to the fact that Rodriguez has improved once again from his previous season, and use that to justify his existence in Ann Arbor.

Meanwhile, the Yankees have finished off Minnesota, and are taking a 1-1 tie with Texas into a three-game home stand starting tonight. Right now that's my focus. I know most of you Michigan football fans don't care about Yankees baseball, and vice versa, but I need both these teams, and this is the beautifully brief time when they overlap. There's also a European contingent who are indifferent to both these American sports, not to mention our local politics, and look forward to the resumption of the walk so I'll start talking about something they understand. Soon.

Speaking of Americana, like many of you I am in mourning this week for Barbara Billingsley, who played the mom on Leave It To Beaver. As odd and remote as it seems now, I grew up in a home that was very like that of the Cleavers in many respects. I was about the Beaver's age, and I had an older brother who was more or less a version of Wally. My dad came home wearing his dignified suit and tie and kept it on while he read the paper before dinner, and my mom wore dresses all day around the house, though she didn't have a string of pearls to go with them.

Besides being kind of dumb, the Beaver was the beneficiary of dumb luck, in that his folks were some kind of new parental model that hadn't been tested in the real world yet. It was a rare example of television attempting to lead its audience, rather than pander to it. It was the parents who were new and different on that show, not the kids. Father didn't bellow, he didn't whine, he wasn't an absent-minded clown, he wasn't the center of attention. He didn't even necessarily know best. And mother wasn't bossy or smug; mostly she just stood by and watched, patiently and lovingly, stepping in once in awhile with a glass of milk when things got dicey. Ward and June were sane and in control of themselves in an almost eerie way. Wally was equally self-assured, not to mention athletic and good-looking. The only thing you couldn't figure out about that show was how this little dope Beaver managed to find himself in the midst of such a together family. You were supposed to see his penchant for screwing things up as typical boyish goofiness, but more often than not you were left scratching your head over his stupidity. Even as a kid I thought the hidden key to the show might be that the Beaver was an actual beaver that had somehow been transmogrified into this kid, and the others were trying to make him feel like he fit in. I think of the hearbreak of having that little boy as having been June's biggest challenge. Standing there looking wholesomely beautiful and cultured, every hair in place, every pleat sharply pressed, faithfully serving her family, all the while thinking to herself, "Jesus, how could those people at the hospital have switched my baby for this ... this retard!"

Here's to you, Barbara, for having pulled it off with panache.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Pity the Fools

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Thursday, October 14, 2010.

Progress. Got the new refrigerator into the motor home a couple of days ago, with help from my neighbor Kevin from across the street. Hooked up the gas and electricity, and everything seems to be working as it should.

After much debating with myself and comparison shopping, I finally bought a generator this afternoon. One thing about a debate with oneself is that there are no clear winners or losers. I held out in my mind for a built-in generator, but the space allotted along the outside of the motor home isn't big enough for one of today's 4000 watt models, although it would hold the next size down, 2800 watts, which would probably be fine for what I have. But when I added the high cost of a Cummins-Onan built-in to the several hundred dollars more estimated for installation (with warnings from the installer that costly "problems" could arise due to the age of the motor home), it aggregated to an amount out of all proportion to the cost and condition of the motor home itself. So I ended up buying a portable one, a very quiet little 3000 watt job with an electric starter. It's still too big to fit in the space along the outside where the original generator was, but it has wheels and I'm going to roll it on a ramp into and out of the motor home. (I could lift it, but it's 130 pounds, and I'm definitely not going to feel like doing that at the end of a long day of walking.) The only other chores will be to plug it in and add gasoline on a daily basis. And I've found a use for that outside generator space--it will hold two 5-gallon gas cans quite easily.

Now I'm beginning the serious aspects of the preparation--putting up my Muddy Waters poster, laying in a supply of books, clothes, pots and pans, and tools. Not too much, though, in case I have to cram it all in the car along with the generator at some point.

Elsewhere in the news, the election campaigns are heating up here in Michigan. Every five minutes or so, we are treated to an assault on our senses and our intelligence in the form of a political ad that makes the rest of the stuff on the tube look almost sublimely literary by comparison. The candidates from both parties have the same profoundly stupid message, too. It's this: we need to control taxes so we can create jobs. How anyone ever got the idea that lowering taxes would mean more jobs is way the hell beyond me. And I'm not just saying that because I had a career in the government tax department of what a contestant on Wheel of Fortune might refer to as "a major New England state."

Of course, I know what the candidates are getting at, or at least what they think they mean. They think the reason there are no jobs in Michigan is because we have business taxes, and that somehow if businesses only could exist tax-free they'd come running into Michigan, dragging their factories behind them, and we'd suddenly be back where we were in the 1960s, with everybody sucking on the old sugar tit and making big bucks and being protected by a union. I've already talked about this in this blog, and I won't go into detail about it again, except to say that taxes are only one, and a relatively small, cost of doing business, and we've already offered to do everything for businesses short of sacrificing our first-born children to them, if they will only locate here. Fixed operational costs, material costs, proximity to markets, and transportation costs are all at least as important, and labor costs are the most important of all. And the truth is, the people of Michigan couldn't work cheaply enough, even at minimum wage, to satisfy the demands of rapacious capitalism at this point in time. But who wants to hear that kind of news from a political candidate? So they all say the same thing--"I'm going to lower taxes and create jobs"--which means about as much as if they said "Jesus loves you" or "Santa Claus is coming to town."

Oh yeah, I almost forgot. Taxes pay for absurd and frivolous things like police, fire protection, roads, sewers, water, trash removal, education, courts of law, libraries, and parks. In fact, taxes usually create more jobs in a state than any other piece of the economy does. (Except maybe Walmart.)

I almost pity the fools who get elected. But I don't, because they'll probably be the ignorantly lucky beneficiaries of a market upswing that will, indeed, create some additional prosperity. And they'll take full credit for it, while they're getting paid with ... you guessed it, tax money.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Cedar Springs, Michigan

Monday, October 11, 2010.

Nothing in particular to report on the motor home. Still procrastinating on the job of putting in the new refrigerator and buying a generator. Another week to go. One thing about putting things off until the last minute is that those last minutes are busy, and go by quickly.

So let's talk about sports. First the Yankees. Yes, Goliath beat David once again. Money and greatness will out over sentimentality and small markets. In baseball, as in life itself, the underdog isn't supposed to win. Now it's on to either the Rays or the Rangers. My preference would be for the Rangers, because they seem more vulnerable. Also they are from Texas, and used to be owned by George W. Bush, and for those two reasons deserve to be beaten by the team that best represents the North.

Now for the more serious problem, the Michigan Wolverines. We got a look at the Denard Robinson of last year on Saturday. Too bad, because we needed this year's model. And credit is due to MSU on both sides of the ball. They kicked ass fair and square, and those three interceptions and the blocked field goal made the difference in the game.

I told you I was going to the game, but if you didn't see me on TV that was because I never made it into the stadium. Certain people wanted to go to the game, and so we went, and the whole thing turned into a Charlie Foxtrot of the first magnitude. For one thing, there were three of us, making it virtually impossible to obtain seats together from a scalper. In that regard I got very lucky, however, and got a couple of good tickets from a drunk student rather than from a scalper, for a very good price (only $10 apiece over face value). I had to literally elbow a scalper, who also wanted to buy them, out of the way and shove the money into the kid's hands and grab the tickets, but I succeeded. The scalper would have turned a nice profit on them. The professional ticket sellers outside the stadium were asking several hundred dollars apiece, and evidently getting what they asked. Altogether a good day for the underground economy.

After getting the other two members of my party into the stadium I set about trying to obtain a single ticket for myself and quickly realized I had just gotten the bargain of the day, if not the season, from this drunken scholar. Back on the steps in front of Crisler Arena, which is mostly where the scalpers lurk, there were far more buyers than sellers, and I saw that no more good deals were to be had. So, with the first quarter coming to an end, I decided to spend the game wandering from one tailgating party to another, watching on big screen TVs placed in the backs of SUVs, standing behind youthful revelers. Actually a good way to see a game, though I could have done without the beery high fives and trash talking. But at least I saw the action up close. During that time I came to the realization that I don't care if I ever go to Michigan Stadium for a football game again. It might sound like sour grapes, but my favorite way to watch Michigan football is and always has been to sit in my chair in my living room in front of my own TV. The in-person thing is exciting if it's the Rolling Stones we're talking about, but to occupy half-a-butt's-worth of space on an aluminum bleacher with a hundred thousand doofuses watching a game from half a mile away isn't really worth the trouble.

So, whither Michigan? Obviously they're perched pretty much where they were at this time last year, with the rest of the serious Big Ten ahead of them and the easier games behind them. I hate to see them lose, but if they shit the bed again this year, maybe that'll spell Rodriguez's doom, which might just make it all worth it. My personal preference for a replacement would be Jim Tressel, but I don't think he's looking for another job. Get him out of those silly maroon sweater vests and into something more fashionable, in blue. Hey, don't laugh. We had another pretty good coach who came out of the Buckeye State. Why not?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The RV Gods

Cedar Springs, Michigan

Monday, October 4, 2010

It's getting down to the wire. Just two weeks until the resumption of the trip. Every day I go out and turn the key in the ignition of the motor home, just to hear the sound of the properly-functioning starter, thinking about many more starts to come.

Yesterday afternoon my son-in-law and I pulled the old non-working refrigerator out of the motor home and got it out the door, with a nice fat sixteenth of an inch of clearance on either side. If I didn't already know differently, I'd swear that refrigerator had been installed at the factory before the rest of the thing was built. Talk about a perfect fit. (That's what she said.)

Tomorrow I'll take a trip down to a place near the Indiana line that sells used and surplus motor home equipment, to look for another refrigerator and a generator. After that, if the RV gods continue to smile, there should be nothing left to do but begin packing in provisions. But considering how things have gone so far, I anticipate a comedy of errors between now and time to go.

It's one of those sunny fall days that makes me think of baseball and football simultaneously. For most of my life growing up as a Tigers fan, the beginning of October would mark the end of the baseball season. In fact, it would usually be all over by about the All-Star break. But since I converted to Yankeeism, the dawning of October has come to betoken the beginning of the real season, the one all players wish to be involved in, whether they admit it or not. And the Yankees have played in October more often than any other team in baseball, period. By a wide margin, and not just lately, but for about 90 years now. This year my guys spent September squandering their comfortable lead in the AL east division, and yesterday they finished with a loss to the hated Boston Red Sox, letting Tampa Bay into first place in the division. But New York goes forward as the wild card team, to play the Minnesota Twins, a team that has built a reputation as sort of the anti-Yankees, due to the fact that they manage to do well with a relatively small payroll, while the Yankees of course have the largest in baseball. However, this year I did notice that the Twins have outspent the Devil Rays and are ranked roughly in the middle for money paid to players, not at the bottom. The question is, will that jinx them? Still, I think Minnesota's entire budget only slightly exceeds what Alex Rodriguez pays the guy who cleans his cleats. As for the outcome of the ALDS, well I'm going out on a limb to say that in real life Goliath beats David most of the time. So here we go again. And for for all you Tigers fans there's always next century. (If you're lucky, by then the oceans will have risen enough that there won't be any more competition from New York, Boston, or Tampa Bay.)

And then there's Michigan football. We somehow have to figure a way to clone Denard Robinson so he can play on defense and special teams, then we'll be okay. The guy just doesn't spend enough time on the field. Seriously, I think that's what messed them up against Indiana. Put a shaky defense out there for, literally, almost three-quarters of the game, and it doesn't get any stronger. They have to get Robinson to pace himself, use all four downs, and move the chains like a mere mortal. Naturally it's a temptation to just run thirty yards, then pass for forty yards, and get it done that way. But when it only takes 30 seconds off the clock, well, it just leaves the other team with more time to do its mischief. And that's just not long enough for the big uglies on the U of M defense to catch their breaths, or eat steroid-laced cheeseburgers, or whatever they do. I wouldn't have thought so, but apparently it's possible to have too efficient an offense.

The Spartans will be cocky coming in on Saturday, and that one will be a much bigger test of Michigan than the Indiana game was. I'll be there. Look for me on TV. I'll be the guy wearing the blue shirt with the big yellow "M" on it. You can't miss me.