Thursday, January 6, 2011
Day 155: Cattle For Watch
Tonopah to Salome Road. 18.5 miles/2980.9 total
Thursday, January 6, 2011
[I write this on Friday afternoon, having spent a quiet night in the large parking area next to the Tonopah post office, together with two other camping vehicles, one an old orange Volkswagen bus and the other a small job that fits into the back of a pickup truck. In the morning the truck was gone, but the VW is still here, and I see that we’re parked near an abandoned and gutted building that would fit nicely into any third world slum. Across and down the street are the three gas stations of Tonopah and a place called the Ranch and Land Office, whose name is reminiscent of an establishment in a western movie where some sneering rapacious cattle baron holds the town in his sway, just waiting for Clint Eastwood to come in and set things right. It’s bright and sunny, despite predictions of rain, but I do see some cumulus clouds rolling in from the northwest.]
10:00 a.m. I’m leaving the parking lot next to the post office in the village of Tonopah with its hot springs, going up onto I-10 and west to Exit 81, then getting off at Salome Road and going another five miles or so out into the country, a total of 18.5 miles. This walk is a little shorter than usual because I slept in and got a late start.
I have a choice today either to walk along the interstate, which I’m doing, or to go down Indian School Road, which runs roughly parallel to the highway. I drove the motor home down Indian School, but found that it was gravel most of the way, and quite dusty due to construction. I think they’re preparing to pave it. I decided on the flatter, smoother shoulder of I-10. Also, there’s nothing on Indian School, but here on the expressway there’s a rest stop with vending machines, offering some of the creature comforts I enjoy.
It’s chilly today, in the high 40s or low 50s now. It is unlikely to get much over 60, but it is partly sunny with high clouds. They’re predicting rain for tomorrow.
I do occasionally go down off the shoulder onto the right-of-way and over the fence onto a very sketchy dirt road. The area down from the road is mostly flat and covered with bushes and palo verde trees and mesquites. At times like this I’m conscious of the deficit in my knowledge of desert plants other than cacti. There are dozens of bushes, most no more than three or four feet high, and I have a tendency to think of them as sages, though I know most of them are not. They all have variations on pale green to blue-green leaves, some still covered with them and some mostly bare.
At 6 miles there’s not much happening. Just the desert and the mountains and lots of trucks and the breezes they create. Just to the north are the Big Horn Mountains and to the south are the remains of the Palo Verde Hills and Saddle Mountain, the tallest peak in the group.
At about 8 miles I come to the rest area, in the shadow of Burnt Mountain to the north, which probably got its name from the fact that like many hills around here its rocky face is black under relatively sparse growth, making it look as if there's been a recent brush fire up the side of the hill.
Having left the rest area, I’m drinking coffee from the vending machine—one of those chintzy coffee machines found all over the country at rest areas but hardly anywhere else, where you can get a cup about three-quarters full for 75¢. I get two, and also avail myself of the facilities. I’ll probably spend tonight or tomorrow night at the identical rest area on the opposite side of the expressway.
At last I see the sign that says it’s one mile to Exit 81, Salome Road. Just at this moment a first occurs in my journey so far. An Arizona State Patrol car stops and the cop tells me I shouldn’t be walking on the interstate. Of course that's true, but I’ve been passed numerous times by cops while walking on interstates, and have even had conversations with a few, and never has anyone mentioned this universal legal point. The only one who ever did was a sheriff in Mississippi who insisted, wrongly, that I wasn't allowed to walk on Highway 61. The Arizona partolman says he wouldn’t even have stopped, except that a motorist called to report a man walking on the shoulder, and he’s now doing his duty. The old Nuremburg defense. So I guess an officious intermeddler is responsible for his visit. I tell him I know I shouldn’t be there, but that I’m planning to leave the highway at the next exit. Still he writes me up, which consists of taking the information from my driver’s license and issuing me a warning citation. It means nothing, he says to me almost apologetically, and adds as he hands me my carbon copy that I can tear it up if I want to.
While he’s writing me up we get to talking, and he mentions that most of the people he finds walking along the road are crazy. I tell him I know and understand that for a fact, and that the majority of walkers out in the country are indeed a little on the outer fringes of sanity. I've seen their squalid encampments down in the brush off the highway. We discuss the pros and cons of the deinstitutionalization of mental patients, and I tell him that in the cities it would be nice if there were more places for street people to stay at night and where their medications could be monitored and administered in a reliable way. Institutions, in other words. He concludes the conversation by saying, “There’s just no money for that right now.” I think to myself "Well, they could find the money for that if they wanted to, like by cutting down on spending for prisons and police." But as a fellow state employee, I forbear from voicing my opinion out loud. The cop and I both make our living off of the people’s taxes, as the Steve Miller song says.
Finally the officer (you can tell this is the high point of my day, can’t you?) tells me I need to get down by the barbed wire fence at the edge of the right-of-way, and I’ll be all right there. First he’d told me I should be on the other side of the fence, but I think he took pity on an old man. I don’t mention that I’ve already climbed the barbed wire fence twice today. Born and bred in the briar patch.
At about 14 miles I get off at the Salome Road exit. In my conversation with the trooper I discovered that Salome is not pronounced in three syllables, like in the Bible or the opera, but with two, rhyming with “Jerome.” That figures.
If the walk along the interstate was mostly void and without form, the walk on Salome Road north of it is even more so. I have about five miles of nothing but road and fields to go through now, with something called the Harquahala Plain to my south and the Eagletail Mountains beyond that, and to the north the Bighorn Mountains and Bighorn Peak, rising 3,481 feet.
Here on Salome Road they are preoccupied with cattle. Although I don’t see a cow anywhere, every half mile or so there’s a sign that says to watch for them on the road. Most strikingly they have painted the warning on the pavement itself. And as they tend to do everywhere, they’ve put the words in reverse order, so that from a vehicle the warning reads “CATTLE FOR WATCH.” I don’t know about you, but I find this practice, which is ubiquitous, to be rather absurd. We learn to read from left to right and from top to bottom, and unless you’re a pedestrian (or perhaps a cow, come to think of it) you’re going to be riding up high enough to see the entire phrase all at once, and in any event there are the yellow signs on the roadside.
When I was taking driver’s training at good old Waterford Kettering High School in the middle of the last century, we watched a film on the very first day, and the first two tenets of driving they emphasized are burned into my memory. A man’s voice, in that stentorian and formal way of the newsreels and other public discourse of the time said, “Get the big picture. Aim high in steering.” And I’ve always striven to do so. So when I pass these reversed words on the asphalt, whether they’re “X-ING SCHOOL,” or “CHILDREN SCHOOL FOR WATCH,” or whatever, I inevitably lose myself in wondering about the potential meaning of the words as they are rearranged, which in turn takes my mind off the warning itself. This morning as I was driving the motor home to its place on the side of the road a few miles off, I thought of a scenario where Europeans are offering a Rolex to some Masai people in exchange for their cows. Cattle for watch? The head of the Masai takes the watch, shakes it, holds it up to his ear, then shrugs. One of the Europeans shows him how to put it on his wrist, It gleams in the noonday sun. The Masai breaks into a broad semi-toothless grin. Cattle for watch! Yes, yes.
All of this puts me in mind of a wonderful Ogden Nash poem, which deserves recitation in full at this juncture:
In between the route marks
And the shaving rhymes,
Black and yellow markers
Comment on the times.
All along the highway
Hear the signs discourse:
Cryptic crossroads preachers
Proffer good advice,
Helping wary drivers
Keep out of paradise.
Wisest of their proverbs,
Truest of their talk,
Have I found that dictum:
When Adam took the highway
He left his sons a guide:
Up ahead the motor home slowly comes into focus, or I think it does. Often when I have a clear view of the distance and think I’m pretty close to the end of a walk, I’ll start seeing little glimpses of something on the roadside, which I’m not sure is the motor home. Then a seemingly interminable interval goes by and I look over there again, still not sure, but thinking maybe the two dark spots that look like eyes on a flat face are the back windows. Then a bit later I’ll become convinced that it’s not the motor home at all, due to a trick of the light or the distance. Usually at some point I’ll be pretty sure the motor home isn’t there any more, and has been stolen or towed away. And of course eventually it will come into view, unmistakably, and I’ll limp closer and closer until I reach the door, and that will be the end of the day’s walk.