Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Day 133: Old West

Las Cruces to somewhere in Doña Ana County. 18 miles/2539.7 total

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

9:50 a.m. I am setting out from the corner of Frontage Road and Harry Burrill Road near the Las Cruces airport, heading west alongside and sometimes on I-10 to a spot on New Mexico 549, 18 miles from here. Today’s walk is a little shorter than usual and I’m getting started a little late because I had to buy and install a battery for the motor home this morning.

It’s an absolutely clear day, with the temperature in the high 50s, going up into the mid-60s. There’s a breeze from the west. Behind me stand the jagged peaks of the Organ Mountains and the San Augustin Pass, 25 miles away but still looming very large in the distance.

Today I'll have to walk along the side of I-10 for a bit, and although pedestrians technically are not allowed on interstates, I anticipate no problem. There really is no alternative in spots and the authorities know this.

Tonight I’ll go back and stay again at Walmart in Las Cruces. After staying at the one on the east side for a few days, off I-25, I’m now staying at the one on the west side of the city, near I-10, about seven miles east of where I start today’s walk. I don’t usually backtrack like that, but right around here the border patrol is pretty active, and I don’t wish to attract any attention by parking overnight on the highway. Besides, this Walmart is so accommodating that it’s really quite delightful. I don’t know when I’ve seen so many motor homes at one time at a Walmart. There were at least a dozen, and the security guard who drives around in his little truck stopped by and welcomed me when I arrived, advising me on the quietest place to park and recommending some places to eat nearby. He asked me where I was from in Michigan, then told me he used to live in the Chicago area and vacationed on Lake Michigan, at Pentwater. Small world.

The highway signs around here are quite civil and genteel in their tone. I pass one that says, “Notice: Prison Facilities in This Area. Please Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers.” I would think that “DANGER. Prison Area. Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers” would be more to the point, but they say “please” as if you would be doing them and not yourself a favor by forgoing the opportunity to pick up an escaped criminal.

On long walks through nothing, such as this one promises to be, I listen to my iPod as the afternoon wears on—sometimes to music, but more often to recorded books. I just finished listening to The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, a very engaging book about the nature of epidemics, not only of disease, but of various human behaviors. This is at least the third book by Gladwell I’ve listened to. Just yesterday I started listening to The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. I don’t think I’ve read that one since high school. Which reminds me that somewhere in the greater Los Angeles area there’s an Upton Sinclair house, and I’ll have to make a point of visiting that when I get out there, just as I visited Terre Haute, Indiana, the home town of Theodore Dreiser, as I was reading Sister Carrie. Sinclair was a dedicated socialist, as was Dreiser and of course Dreiser’s fellow Terre Haute native, Eugene V. Debs.

At 3 miles into the walk, still on Frontage Road, I come to the first of about a dozen billboards for a place called the Old West. This is one of those stores that inundate you with billboards, like a much smaller version of South of the Border in Dillon, South Carolina, well known to all travelers on I-95 up and down the east coast.

At 5.4 miles I reach this emporium, Bowlin’s Old West Trading Post, and go inside for some refreshment. Back outside I sit on a guard rail and enjoy my coffee and eat lunch. Afterwards I cross over I-10 and now am walking on the south side of the highway. I see that the road here is called the Pearl Harbor Memorial Highway. Since they commemorate the Bataan Death March every year between Alamogordo and Las Cruces by holding a hellacious marathon across the desert, I wonder if they commemorate Pearl Harbor Day in a similar way over here, maybe by flying over the expressway and dropping bombs and strafing passing motorists. I’m sure there are any number of people around here who would eagerly volunteer for such an assignment. Yeeee-haaaa!

About a mile after I cross the highway the paved access road veers off to the south, and I stay to the right on a dirt road, which soon becomes two rocky and sandy ruts. It’s covered with animal tracks—horses, cloven-hoofed animals, coyotes, birds. I wish I knew more about how to identify them. In the summer I suspect the rattlesnakes and scorpions would be a consideration here, but now it’s cool enough that they’ve retreated underground.

At one time camels roamed this area. In the mid-1800s the army brought some over from the Middle East for use here in the Southwest. They proved very well suited to the terrain and climate, and were working out, except that they tended to spook the horses and mules. With the outbreak of the Civil War the camel experiment was largely forgotten, and many of them escaped into the desert and became feral. Camel sightings throughout the Southwest continued into the early 20th century, with the last one being in 1941 in Texas. But who knows?

Finally even this little rough path disappears, and it’s time for me to climb over the barbed wire fence and get up on the highway, which I manage to do with the dexterity of a pollo coming up from Old Mexico. I acquire a number of burrs on my pants and shoes, and after pulling them off I am marching along the shoulder of I-10 against a very strong headwind of perhaps 30 mph.

At 12.2 miles I pass the U.S. Border Patrol inspection station, which is on the other side of the road, for cars heading west. No one seems to notice this fence jumper.

Another example of the elevated tone of the highway signs is this one: “Dust Storms May Exist Next 15 Miles.” Some dedicated state employee whose first language is not English must have come up with that one. And a philosopher to boot. Not “Dust Storms Possible,” or “Watch for Dust Storms,” mind you, but “Dust Storms May Exist.” Or they may not, depending on whether we acknowledge them. What, after all, is this thing called existence but the sum total of our perceptions? Dust storms might exist without us, but what meaning would they have? As Descartes said, cogito ergo sum; je pense donc je suis.

Off to the south is a line of pointed peaks rising from the desert floor. Some of these mountains probably are in Mexico. One of them looks like a breast, topped with a nipple. At least it does to me.

After five miles on the interstate I negotiate a passage through some prickly tumbleweeds and climb another barbed wire fence to get onto Frontage Road 1028, which will take me to New Mexico 549 down at Exit 116. Near this exit there’s a small collection of houses on either side of the expressway. This might qualify as a community of some kind, but there’s no name on the map.

A couple of Border Patrol guys in a white SUV stop on 549 to ask me if I need a ride, but don’t seem interested beyond that gesture of courtesy. In another mile and a half is the motor home, and the end of another day.

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