Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Day 139: Home on the Range

Gary, New Mexico to Arizona line. 16.4 miles/2658 total

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

9:43 a.m. I’m leaving greater metropolitan Gary, at Exit 15 of I-10, going to just beyond the Arizona state line, at Exit 390, a distance of 16.4 miles. My goal today is to get into Arizona, and having accomplished that I will break off early. I’m traveling up to Phoenix tonight and tomorrow to spend the Thanksgiving weekend with my wife and various in-laws.

Although the sky is cloudless overhead there’s a thin covering of high clouds in the west. The temperature is in the low 50s with the usual breeze blowing at me. It should get into the low to mid 60s again.

I’m walking toward the southern edge of the Peloncillo Mountains, most of which are in Arizona. After a few miles of flatlands I will begin to climb into the foothills. As I look around me here, the area is a vast dried mud plain for miles in each direction, with the railroad tracks about a half mile to the north of the expressway. It occurs to me that this area was ideal for the building of the World War Two internment camp, with its flatness and proximity to the railroad. So the camp must have been here or somewhere very nearby.

A mile or so into the walk I come to the skeleton of an old car lying bottom up on the cracked mud on the other side of the barbed wire fence. It is, or was, pale green, and is now more rusty than anything. I can’t be sure, but it looks like a 1960 Mercury. Not much of it left, however. In its present state it resembles a huge insect stranded on its back.

When I’m finished today I will have walked a total of 415.5 miles in New Mexico over 21 days, averaging 19.7 miles per day. Since this is to be my last day in this state I’d like to say a word or two of valediction. New Mexico has been beautiful from stem to stern. Not a lush familiar eastern beauty, of course, but magnificent in its own desolate way, with the mountains and an amazing variety of desert plants.

Although I have walked through a sparsely populated part of a sparsely populated state, the people I have met have been almost uniformly friendly and helpful and open. The few exceptions were Anglos, conservative and paranoid. But the Indians and Spanish-speaking people were uniformly decent regardless of their political views, which they were thoughtful enough to keep to themselves. I get the same feeling here I’ve had everywhere in the south (and many places in the north, truth be told), that if all the white people left this would be a much better place to live. In saying that I’m sure I echo the sentiments of generations of Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans. And on that note, I am leaving.

I can best sum up my time here by quoting a couple of lines from a song all of us learned as children:

Where seldom is heard a discouraging word
And the skies are not cloudy all day.

I come to what looks like a dirt road a few dozen yards from the interstate. It’s all cracked and baked mud, in mottled chunks hard enough to walk on. Just off the road I see abandoned filthy heavy wool blankets under the abbreviated shade of the mesquites, evidence that people have spent a cold night under the stars. As I look off to the south I see that it’s just like this for hundreds of acres. This would be a great spot to film a movie, and I'll bet they’ve set a few here.

At 9.5 miles I see the sign for the exit for Road Forks. I wonder if they named a community for a traffic direction sign—“Road Forks Ahead.” I get off the highway. The internet says this is or was a real community, founded in 1925 by G.H. Porter. There may be something to the north, but what I see here on the south side is a fireworks place and a gas station convenience store and one or two other businesses whose viability is dubious.

This is one of only a couple of times I’ve walked five days in a row. Ordinarily I take every fourth or fifth day off, and sometimes more than that. I think I owe the success of this journey, from the standpoint of my health, to the fact that I do rest fairly often. I think if I walked day after day without a break I’d get run down and probably contract some local illness. Maybe not bubonic plague, but perhaps the collywobbles. As it is, I've only been sick once, when I had a sore throat for a few days around Austin, Texas, and that didn't cause me to miss any walking. Knock on wood. All this is an elaborate way of saying I’m feeling more fatigue than usual today, and will appreciate five days off.

I visit the gas station mini mart in Road Forks for a cappuccino, which is so sweet I have to water it down. As I sit on the front steps of the place and look back to the east I see the long plain I’ve just crossed from Lordsburg, and to the west the rolling foothills I will begin to climb when I get back on my feet.

As an afterthought about the origins of the name of Hidalgo County, it seems to me that whether it was named for Miguel Hidalgo or the Treaty of Guadeloupe Hidalgo comes pretty much to the same thing. That’s because Guadeloupe Hidalgo, the city north of the Mexican capital where the treaty was signed, was no doubt itself named after Miguel Hidalgo, as well as the Virgin of Guadeloupe, who I believe was Miguel’s first wife. That the marriage ended and she is still referred to as the Virgin will perhaps afford a glimpse into what went wrong there.

In the wake of this lighthearted blasphemy, the most amazing thing happens. I’ve been picking up a penny here and a quarter there, and am beginning to tally how much change I’ve found on the road in New Mexico, when I come upon the site of a roadside fire. It appears that an RV or a semi truck cab has burned, destroying virtually everything. The fire has melted a bowling ball to a misshapen mass, and I identify it only by the familiar Brunswick logo. Pieces of flip flops and charred tools and bits of metal are all that remain of this conflagration, which even spread to the grassy roadside a bit. The frame of the vehicle has been taken away.

I spy in the midst of the strewn black wreckage the glint of something metal, with that dark blue-silver tint that fire produces. At first I think it’s a slug, but when I bend down to take a closer look I see that it’s a quarter. Cool, I think. Then I see another one, and another and another. I begin picking them up, all soot-covered, and soon I can’t hold them in one hand. Then I start to see larger coins—Eisenhower dollars, Kennedy halves, Susan B. Anthony dollars. Finally I come to a metal dashboard ashtray, half sunk, which is also crammed full of coins. I gather it all up in both hands and carry it back away from the road onto some clean sand, spread it out and begin to count it.

When all is said and done I have over $92 dollars in coins--$38 in dollars and halves, $52 in quarters, and the rest in pennies, dimes, and nickels. Also a handful of foreign coins of various kinds. I spot at least one Indian head penny and a few wheat-backed ones. Some of the smaller coins, from quarters on down, have bent from the intense heat. I quickly sort them a bit and drop them into two baggies I happen to have on hand, then after using the rest of my water to wash the black off my hands, I put the coins into the back of my walking vest. They're much heavier than the two 20-ounce bottles of water I usually carry, but since I have only about five miles to go I cheerfully shoulder this burden—my treasure trove.

Scenes from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre begin to flash through my mind, and I imagine myself as Fred C. Dobbs, gaunt and haunted by the burden of my money, trudging up the hill and waiting to be set upon by banditos. I feel a pang of sympathy for the person who lost such a great deal in that fire—not the money so much as all those other possessions. It could as easily happen to me. Knock on wood again.

Two miles later I get to Exit 3 and a place called Steins. It’s supposed to be a ghost town now and was once a railroad stop along the Southern Pacific that had as many as 1,300 inhabitants. There remain a dozen or so buildings, built of stone and what looks like railroad ties. At the entrance, just at the bottom of the exit ramp, near the sign that says “Welcome to Steins,” I am accosted by a woman smoking a cigarette on the back porch of a double wide. She asks me in a rather surly way if she can help me. I know this is a cheesy tourist place, but I can’t imagine that she could be gatekeeper. So I answer her in kind, rather flippantly, with “I don’t know, can you?” A mistake. She takes offense, informing me that I’m a smartass and that I'm trespassing on private property. I’m in no position to dispute either of these assertions, so I leave. Only on the way up the entrance ramp does it occur to me that she might be running this little tourist trap.

On my way up to the freeway I can still see her on the porch, and I give her a friendly wave. She glares at me, but waves back. Off I go, pausing to take a couple of photos of the back of this railroad ghost town.

On the way down the hill from Steins I see a cat-like animal with a tawny body and a long ringed tail, dead on the roadside. Later I look it up on the internet and discover that it's a ring-tailed cat, which is not really a cat, but related more to the raccoon. It’s native to the southwestern mountains. This is a new species for me on this trip.

Not long before entering Arizona I sit on a guard rail to take a short rest and look back fondly once more at the Land of Enchantment. I can see the colorful sign up ahead at the state line. When I get close enough I see that it says “The Grand Canyon State Welcomes You” under a star with rays coming out of it.

At 15.9 miles I leave New Mexico and enter Arizona, my eleventh state so far. It’s time now for a last statistical wrapup for New Mexico. In money, not counting my treasure, I found $3.37. Also one Mexican Peso. Add to that today’s spectacular find of $92.15 and the total is $95.52, a record for sure. I had 40 ride offers, which is about two a day and very respectable, not including several inquiries after my wellbeing from police officers. In the all-important category of roadkill, I saw 13 coyotes, 12 skunks, 11 rabbits, 6 raccoons (my spirit animal), 5 miscellaneous birds plus one vulture, 3 deer, 2 porcupines, 2 snakes, 1 ground squirrel, 1 bobcat, 1 domestic dog, 1 domestic cat, 1 ring-tailed cat, and 1 javelina. Plus the usual multitude of unidentified bones and patches of fur.

Thus do I close the spiral notebook on one state and open one for the next. I get off at exit 390 and walk the last half mile to where the motor home is parked, and bid you all a happy Thanksgiving weekend.

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