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Dispatch 2: Emerging from the desert
Last Thursday I woke up in Junction, Texas, and began the drive west towards Marathon, but I didn’t get far before my car started groaning. I’d logged about 3,500 miles without an oil change and was about to head out on a desolate desert highway, so I drove straight to the local auto body shop. The mechanic was a Hispanic man named Henry. He was born in Mexico but had lived in Junction since he was a boy. He and his wife had seven children and dozens of grandchildren—‘They’re scattered across Texas but all close enough that I can see ‘em,’ he told me. His oldest had died of lymphoma exactly four months ago to the day, a grim anniversary he knew offhand. One month earlier he’d had his fifth heart attack, but he was sure that he was being kept around for a reason — perhaps because he was contributing to his grandkids’ college fund through his work as a mechanic. After changing my oil he put air in my tires and filled up the windshield fluid reservoir free of charge. Before I drove off he squeezed my shoulder and told me he hoped I’d find what I was looking for. It’s been the generosity and wisdom of people like Henry that have defined my time on the road to date.
I was still in Texas when I heard the news about the school shooting. I looked up Uvalde on a map and saw that it was exactly 100 miles south of Junction, and I thought of Henry. I wondered if any of his grandchildren went to Robb Elementary School, and if they did, what sort of terror awaited the sweet man that got my car back in order and had already been through so much.
It’s all so staggeringly awful. There are no words for it, so I won’t attempt to find them. And I’ve struggled to reconcile the profound experience I’ve had on my trip with the fact that it’s been virtually bookended by two horrific mass shootings — the first in my home state, the second in the state I was traveling through — so I’m not going to try that here, either.
But even without these tragedies, I haven’t yet had the time or space away from this trip to begin to process what it’s all meant to me. So this post will be light on my inner dialogue and the trip’s impact – I hope to attempt that writing project at a later date — and more of a rundown of my first two and a half weeks on the road.
The first stop was Shenandoah National Park. We hiked ten miles through two waterfalls and then stayed up late looking at the stars and the moon. On the way out, we stopped in the sleepy town of Syria, Virginia, where I ordered a chocolate milkshake at the general store and drank it in an empty country lot. The first leg of the journey was one of solitude.
Next we drove down to Savannah, Georgia. We toured the charming, historic streets and then wandered into a converted boarding house to share an enormous family-style Southern meal with a table full of locals and fellow travelers. That night I found the neighborhood dive and sometime between one and three a.m. a big red kiss appeared on the top of Dorothy’s head. The prime suspect, Diana, who had stories of long nights with Bob Dylan in the 70s, swore up and down the bar that it wasn’t her.
Out of Savannah we drove through Amelia Island where we made a quick stop so Dorothy and I could rinse off the night’s sins in the cool blue ocean, and then we made our way to a farm in rural North Florida. After setting up camp on a pond where eagles circled overhead, the farmer, Allie, invited me to join her in her farm chores – milking the goats, feeding the pigs, brushing out the horse’s coat. Dorothy wasted no time in becoming a farm dog, joining the two giant Great Pyrenees in roaming the grounds and chasing the coyotes off the property. The next morning I went floating down the Ichetucknee Springs under a cover of palmettos, cypresses, sweetgums and sawgrass before heading to a local bar for some beers and a titillating conversation with a 70-year old Navy vet named Gary. Gary and I generally shared the same worldview with the caveat that, in his estimation, the conspiracy of the elites was grounded in their stealing and reverse engineering of information from fallen alien spacecrafts— by my third beer I’d conceded that it couldn’t be ruled out. When Donald Trump came up in our conversation he insisted that we speak in hushed tones unless I was prepared for the man sitting to my right to start swinging on me. I was not, though the man to my right would later confide in me that he, too, despised Trump, but he didn’t want the man sitting to his right to hear him say it. Sure does make ya think.
It stormed that night – I called it a hurricane at the time but was laughed at by Allie – so Dorothy and I went to sleep to the sounds of rain and wind whipping against our tent, plus the unceasing choir of croaking bullfrogs and buzzing cicadas.
We drove west to Mobile, Alabama where we camped in a swamp. For future reference, this is not advised. A biblically-dense swarm of large flying insects – somewhere between termites and tussock moths – sent us running for cover in the tent, (literally) dodging snakes in the process. The next day we went to Alligator Alley and the Spear Hunting Museum — a seemingly-endless winding hall of taxidermied animals all felled by the spears of one man, Gene Morris, who must have had Nolan Ryan’s right arm based on the size and breadth of his hunting conquests — before staying out all night at the Honky-tonks. I met an eccentric little person who, in explaining his livelihood, taught me a new term – tripod porn. I met a large railroad worker who was quick to say, ‘You probably think I’m a racist, and I might make the occasional slur, but I bet I’ve got more black friends than the average New Yorker.’ It was a crude point and surely not a valid one, but I do think he may have been clumsily getting at the scourge of NIMBYism in the North. I met a local ceramist who taught me how to use a pottery wheel while sharing her thoughts on the Confederate flag – ‘It represents slavery and nothing else — there’s absolutely no reason to fly it, and nobody that I associate with does.’ She promised to ship me the bowl after putting it through the kiln.
On my way out of town I stopped in Bayou La Batre where I watched the shrimp fisherman coming in with the day’s catch. I bought two pounds of fresh shrimp which fed me for days. From Mobile we passed through New Orleans for a quick jaunt through the French Quarter and a couple of Po’ Boys.
Then it was on to Texas where the soundtrack shifted from blues and jazz to exclusively Townes Van Zandt. I met an Uber driver — a grandmother with photos of her grandchildren taped to the dashboard — who, while telling me about the rising crime in her neighborhood, disclosed that she had a Glock 19 in her glove compartment. I asked her if she’d ever had to use it. “Not yet,” she said. “But I keep a hollow point in the chamber.”
The first stop in West Texas was Marathon where I dropped off Dorothy with her sitter, June – there are no dogs allowed on the trails of Big Bend National Park, a frustrating rule that was immediately justified when a black bear ambled through my campground within ten minutes of my arrival. I camped at the base of the Chisos Mountains and spent the next two days hiking through the burnt red range. On mile twelve of the second day’s hike, at the top of Emory Peak – the park’s highest point – the sole of my left boot became fully detached. I was stranded until a fellow backpacker spared me a roll of duct tape which I used to reconfigure my boot and get me down the mountain.
After Big Bend I drove to Terlingua Ghost Town, an end-of-the-road town that became largely obsolete when mercury mining was banned at the end of World War I. Things were quiet in Terlingua until 1967 when a man named Wick Fowler brought a crowd to town in order to settle a feud between two men who each claimed to cook the best chili in Texas. The chili cookoff became an annual event and Terlingua was born again. I heard all this history plus some wild desert stories at the local watering hole, Starlight. For dinner I ordered the chicken-fried antelope with a cold Modelo.
After Terlingua I met June and her husband, Wayne, in Alpine, Texas, to pick up Dorothy. It turns out that Wayne is the local high school football coach, so for about one hour while we ate breakfast in the middle of town, I was West Texas Royalty — people straightened their posture when they approached the table to speak with June and Coach Wayne, and the two always stood up to say hello. I’m not entirely sure how I wound up at their table but I feel lucky to have gained a piece of their Texas wisdom.
From Alpine we drove up to Marfa where I toured Donald Judd’s old compound, ‘The Block,’ a beautiful and fascinating haven for art and furniture and architecture – and books, over ten thousand of them, of which you are not permitted to so much as touch, let alone flip through. The home and its artifacts have been kept in pristine condition, so while I am not mad about their strict policies, I’ll just say that I walked through the library stretch of the tour with my hands in my pockets clawing at my legs. That night I went to an old tavern where a group of drunken cowboys and musicians took turns lassoing a metal steer dummy until the place closed down and we were all kicked out. Outside the bar I met a local poet who wrote with me until the sun came up.
We drove north to Balmorhea with an impromptu stop at a live rattlesnake exhibit off the side of the road. Balmorhea is a small town known for having the world’s largest spring-fed pool. I spent the better part of the day submerged before taking an afternoon nap that was interrupted by the sound of rolling thunder and excited shouting outside – the first real rain that West Texas had seen in over a year, which gave way to hail the size of marbles. We watched the storm from under an old wooden awning where I met a man named Mike – a seventy-something Vietnam vet turned pot smuggler turned federal inmate turned local business owner. Mike had giant, callused hands and the build of an old wrestler but his white ponytail and kind eyes gave away his sweet nature. When he spoke of the war his eyes became glassy. ‘All those people I killed, all the people that died around me — I can feel them with me all the time. We travel together,’ he told me. We traded stories over a bottle of Mexican whiskey, though I think I’ll remember his more than he’ll remember mine.
Next we drove through El Paso for enchiladas and a breathtaking overlook across the whole city and its border into Juarez. We continued up to White Sands National Park where Dorothy and I frolicked through the endless rolling dunes until we were covered in sand from head-to-toe. And then we drove into Duncan, Arizona – ‘a town that was left behind’ – where we treated ourselves to a night at the historic Simpson Hotel. I lost track of the pursuits of the wonderful couple that runs the place – they’re artists and art collectors, historians and writers, builders and sculptors – but all of this shows on the hotel’s grounds. The walls are lined with books and art and objects that the two have ‘picked up from behind the caravan of time.’ There’s an old collapsed warehouse in the back that’s been overtaken by grass and vegetation, and the adjacent sprawling sculpture garden is filled with dozens of roaming cats that call the place home. Eat your heart out Ernest Hemingway.
Through all of this, Dorothy has been by my side for virtually every waking and sleeping moment – my adventure buddy, but more importantly, my ultimate source of comfort. If I haven’t said much about her in this post it’s because having her with me has been such a given that I no longer give it much conscious thought. She’s just always there, an extension of me.
So we drove from Duncan to Rimrock to set up camp, and then to Sedona to meet my friend Ian, an Arizona local, for a hike in the red rocks. I brought three liters of water for a pretty moderate five mile hike – I knew it would be hot out, but I must not have checked the actual forecast, because it would get to over 100 degrees in the desert that afternoon.
The hike started as they all do – Dorothy out in front, scoping out the trail before circling back to me and then running out ahead again. But about two miles in she started dragging a bit, so we stopped under a tree and took an extended water break in the shade. When we started moving she seemed okay, but pretty soon she was lagging behind again. I checked the map and saw that we were less than half a mile from the top – Devil’s Bridge, an enormous sandstone arch with a sweeping view of the northern Verde Valley – so we pushed on through the final steep pitch. We ran into a sixteen-year-old kid who didn’t know what the hell he was doing up there, so, thinking I still had a mostly-full Camelbak, I filled up his empty Poland Springs bottle with the water in my Nalgene. Finally we reached the top, took some photos and another long break in the shade, and then started back down. By this point, Dorothy was hobbling. She’s been known to limp a bit after longer, steeper hikes, but this was different. There was no pep in her step whatsoever. Fifteen minutes into the descent we stopped in the shade again. That’s when I realized we were just about out of water – I’d completely underestimated how much I’d been drinking along the way, as had Ian. I was feeling fine so I poured what was left into Dorothy’s bowl, which she quickly finished. We rested for another few minutes, and then I figured that the best bet was to just get out of the desert as quickly as possible, so we started moving again. Or Ian and I did, but Dorothy wouldn’t get up. I kept walking, expecting her to follow – she never lets me get too far from her – but still, nothing. I called her name repeatedly and finally she rose. She took about three steps – I don’t know how to describe her gait other than to say, she looked completely wasted – and then collapsed. I ran back to her and held her head – she was burning up and her eyes were rolling around in their sockets. I checked my phone and there was no service, so I picked her up, flung her over my shoulder, and started running down the trail. I went as far as I could until I felt like I was going to pass out myself, so I found some shade, put her down, and ran off to look for help while Ian stayed back with her. I won’t describe the places my mind went, but I’m sure you can imagine where they might have been. Then I heard something in the distance that sounded like an engine, and within moments, an ATV rounded the corner of the trail – the first we’d seen on the hike. I flagged it down and asked the family of four where they were headed. “Up there,” said the dad, pointing towards Devil’s Bridge where I’d just come from.
“Look,” I said. “I’ve got a very sick dog back there. I could really use–.”
Before I could finish the sentence, he said, ‘Get the dog.’ I ran back to get Dorothy and Ian, and by the time I was back the mom and two daughters were waiting outside the ATV with two bottles of cold water – one to pour on Dorothy’s head, one for her bowl. We hopped into the ATV and the father, Greg from Chattanooga, hit the gas. We flew down the jagged, rocky hill in what would have been the wildest joy ride of my life if not for the dire circumstances. I was holding Dorothy in my lap, and a few minutes into the ride, she stuck her head out of the side of the ATV to feel the breeze, the first positive sign I’d seen since it all began. We reached the parking lot and I tried to thank Greg but could barely get the words out. We hopped in the car and sped off to the nearest animal hospital. I put Dorothy down on the cool floor of the waiting area and went up to the front desk, and when I turned back around she was up and sniffing around.
We spent about an hour there. Dorothy got an IV and we all got some time in the A/C. After an examination, Dr. Hunsberger said that in all likelihood we’d just narrowly escaped a grave outcome. They see it all the time. Dorothy was overheated and dehydrated, but she was going to be just fine with some more fluids and a lot of rest. This all happened about eighteen hours ago from the time of writing this.
Just the other day on one of my long car rides I was on the phone with my friend Rachel, and she asked if we’d faced any crises yet. I told her no, there’d of course been plenty of moments of discomfort, but nothing had gone seriously wrong.
“Okay, well, something will,” she said. “But you guys will be okay.”
And we are okay. Dorothy was up with the sunrise today, hovering, waiting for me to open up the tent as she does every morning. I let her out and she went bounding into the open field, howling for the whole honest world to hear. Tomorrow we’ll get back in the car and push further west. Our planned route has us taking the Devil’s Bridge straight into Death Valley, so I’m thinking we’ll veer off course and head for the coast.