Sunday, January 26, 2014

visiting my grandma’s house, or background, part I

My mother spent the first few years of her life on a farm near Nora Springs in northern Iowa. In 1931, when she was 11, her father, Homer, traded the farm for an auto dealership in the small town of Aledo, Illinois. The family left the farm, moved into a rented house, and my mom would later write in a brief memoir she wrote for her daughters, “It looked good to me—indoor plumbing and hardwood floors.”

Homer died in 1950 at age 61. In the late 1940s, when he was ill, my mother, who had been living in Chicago working for the American Red Cross, moved back home. Although she and my dad had both grown up in Aledo, it was only then that they met. In 1949 they married. My parents stayed in Aledo for a few years but soon moved on and by 1963 had settled in a suburb of Chicago.

After Homer’s death, my grandmother, Daisy, stayed on in the house. According to my mother’s memoir, in 1938 Daisy had purchased the rental house they were living in with money she inherited from her family in Nora Springs, the Morrises. Every summer we would visit Daisy in Aledo, usually when the cantaloupe, musk melon, and watermelon were just ripe—melons grew well in that area, in the sandy soils around New Boston and Keithsburg—and on that late August drive from the northeast edge of Illinois to its western hump—a hump my father liked to call “Forgottonia”—my mother would say things like: “Oh! Look at all that good black earth!” and “Oh! Look at all that corn! All that good, sweet corn!” Between Chicago and Aledo were miles and miles of black earth and corn, and yes, indeed, it was good, black earth and good, sweet corn.

Daisy’s house was on a corner surrounded by scrappy lawn and an uneven, decaying brick sidewalk. We would pull into the gravel and dirt driveway, spill out of the station wagon, course through her house like new blood in old veins.

A pencil drawing of my grandma’s house by my mother, date unknown.

Just off the driveway, tacked to the side of the house closest to the garage, a small stoop led up to the kitchen. We would slap through the screen door, pull on the big silvery handle of the dull white refrigerator, its edges all softly rounded like a big lump of dough, and find always within nubby glass bottles of orange and grape Nehi.

The kitchen was large, anchored squarely in the middle by a grey-topped, chrome-legged table with four matching chairs. I lay on that table once with a gash under my left my eye. I remember looking up through bloody tears, seeing the concerned faces of my Uncle Charles and my dad. I had tried to ride Grandma’s old dog, Butchie, and had fallen. Oh yes, I was wounded, it left a scar, and as the story goes I made a point of telling anyone who asked that “Butchie did it.” For years people fought to re-enact that comment, complete with sorrowful, weepy expression. It made people laugh.

A door in the kitchen led to a bath, and a second door in the bath led to my grandmother’s bedroom. This, to me, was one of the wonders of the house, the bath being like a secret tunnel of white cast iron leading from the bright, bustling kitchen to the warm, dark bed chamber where everything seemed antiquated, old, incredibly still and quiet. On the dresser, its dark wood slightly worn, were a crocheted doily, thick and wheat-colored, and hairbrushes and combs and perfumes and hairpins and a delicate hand mirror backed with etched silver. A large, dark armoire held mysterious clothing. The bed was covered in worn chenille. In that room I felt my grandmother’s life, but it was an elusive life, as if camouflaged on the dresser or hidden in the armoire. It was a life different from the one I knew, from the one I saw. A past life, certainly, and a private one. Here in this room were clues, but only clues.

The kitchen opened onto a dining room that was filled with a large table surrounded by tall-backed chairs. Here we ate dinners of minute steak and sweet corn, pot roast and Lima beans, breakfasts of eggs and bacon, pancakes and French toast. At the far end, along one wall, was an immense wooden desk laden with papers and all the hodgepodge of life. There were old letters and bills and pens and pencils and paper clips and scissors, scattered notes and photos. Stamps and scotch tape, a letter opener, a bottle of ink, a stapler. A clunky black telephone with a thick tail of wire, and, best of all, a glass candy dish with a lid in the shape of a chicken setting on eggs. There was always candy in that dish, from hard disks of butterscotch to chewy fudge.

A curio cabinet of flat and curved panes of glass consumed one corner of the room. It loomed and leaned on skinny little legs and it scared me to be near it, thinking somehow something was going to fall or break, but inside, among many finer things, I’m sure, were Daisy’s plastic Easter decorations, including little pink and yellow chicks. In braver moments, I would carefully turn the skeleton key that rested in the keyhole, open the doors, and take out these trinkets to play with.

The dining room spilled into the living room which contained two or three upholstered chairs and a sofa that unfolded to become a double bed. There my sister Jennifer and I slept on starched white sheets. Across from the sofa was a rocking chair next to a round table on which stood a heavy, bronze lamp with a glass shade of subtle blue, green, and orange hues, even a little pink. The shade fanned out from the top finial in six sections, each of which held the same woodsy, park-like scene created by bronze cut-outs atop the glass. At night, before drifting off to sleep, I would stare at the lamp, now the only light in the room, and imagine myself drifting across the blue lake into the trees, getting lost in that world rather than my own.

There were several doors in the living room. One led to my grandmother’s bedroom and opposite was the front door of the house. It led out to a big wrap-around porch. Another door led to a hallway at the end of which were stairs, and the corner of the living room opposite the dining room opened onto another room where there was a sofa, a couple of chairs, a television, and a piano, a very old, upright piano with chipped ivory keys where my mother had learned to play, a half hour every day. I remember vaguely a story about my grandmother sitting next to her, ruler in hand. But now this room was for Lawrence Welk, once a week, on the TV. One day I realized that the wall behind the sofa was actually two large doors that if open would show the hallway.

The hallway was dark and cluttered. Here Grandma kept the toys we played with. I remember particularly a large bear covered in worn checkered cloth with big buttons for eyes and large, flat feet with cardboard stitched in the bottoms. Also a metal gas station and garage. At the end of the hall, the narrow staircase turned and led up to the second floor and a door next to the staircase led out to the far end of the wrap-around porch, the end where the overgrown lilacs began and flourished. These bushes meandered like a jungle all along the backside of the house. The front part of the porch was comfortable with a glider and chairs, wide steps leading up to the front door, but this part of the porch, on the side of the house with its wide steps set at the corner, was neglected. No chairs, no glider, no adornment, just overgrown bushes flopping over a railing. Through the lilacs you could climb up this side of the porch, sneak in the door, creep up the stairs or down the hall, feel all the world like a fugitive or a spy.

My oldest sister slept in an upstairs bedroom, as did my grandmother when we visited, my parents using her first-floor room. Being upstairs seemed forbidden to me, though I’m sure it was not. It was just a narrow hallway with three, maybe four bedrooms. The only room I remember is Uncle Charles’ room. In it was a trunk with some of his things, including relics of World War II. Charles had taken over his father’s auto dealership in 1940 and had a house with his wife, Thelma, just a few blocks from Daisy, but his room here remained intact, or so it seemed to me, as if a boy or young man might walk in at any moment and it would be 1936 or ’38 or some such crazy year all over again. It’s possible Charles shared this room with his brother, Hugh, or maybe it was Hugh’s room and my memory is fuddled.

I wish I had a memory of my grandmother as full as the one of her house. She was the only grandparent I ever knew. My father’s mother died when he was 15, and his father passed on when I was young, my only recollection of Grandpappy, as we called him, being that of a very old, thin man in a large, white bed. So in the grandparent department, Daisy was all I had.

What I do remember is this: She was soft, quiet, slightly stooped, wore horn-rimmed glasses, shapeless dresses, and sturdy shoes, always dressed neatly, always dressed nicely. Her skin sagged a bit and her ears were intriguingly large, like two big bookends on either side of a lopsided smile. She had a vaguely mothballed, clean, sweet smell, and a light touch that brings to mind dampness. I have no sound of her voice, but I know it’s there in my head, or maybe my heart, I can almost hear it, just not quite.

In 1971, Daisy had a heart attack. Shortly before Thanksgiving, she died. She was 85, I was 14. Often she would have visited on Thanksgiving or Christmas, Charles and Thelma driving her to the Big City, to the suburbs, to see Dick and Marion and the girls, or we would all meet in Peoria, where my mother’s younger sister, Vada, lived with her family.

Growing up, my mother knew Daisy’s parents, the Morrises, as they lived in Nora Springs near the farm. Daisy named her firstborn, Charles, after her father. The Morrises died before Daisy and Homer moved to Aledo, but while on the farm, my mother recalled that the family would go to “Nora” for Sunday dinners, visiting Homer’s father, Grandpa Treloar, as well.

My mother also had a Grandma White in Cincinnati. Grandma White visited the farm once, when my mother was about five, my mother remembering her as a nice lady, somewhat “hep.” Daisy once told my mother a story about being temporarily left at an orphanage in New York City when her mother, this Grandma White, could not care for her. The Morrises had come to New York looking for a child to adopt, Daisy said, and chose her. Later her “real” mother had spent a good deal of money looking for her.

Daisy had two much older sisters, daughters of the Morrises, named Mary and Mahala. Daisy also had a younger brother, Joe. His last name was Heintzelman. He grew up in Nora Springs but as an adult lived in Spokane, Washington and then Florida. I have always heard that he was a successful man, perhaps in sales, perhaps running his own business.

One day, Joe’s son Bob called my mother. It may have been 1978, the year that Joe died. Bob told my mother a story that his father had told him just before he died. It was about Joe and Daisy being left by their mother at an orphanage in New York City and soon after being put on a train which shuttled them west. It was called an “orphan train,” and it made many stops, stops where the children were taken off the train and presented, offered up, as it were, to local townsfolk. Throughout the journey, Daisy refused to leave the train, refused to be taken in by anyone who would not also take her brother, so the two rode the train all the way to the middle of Iowa where, in Nora Springs, they were taken in by separate families. The Morrises took Daisy, age 9, the Heintzelmans took Joe, age 7. According to Bob, as his father related this story from his deathbed he “broke down and cried like a baby.”

Sunday, January 19, 2014

a pea picklin’ california diary: cousins elliott and frankie, heat, a horse, the orphan train

So I’m sitting here working on the Orphan Train Letters and behind me I hear a little squeak. Elliott just came in. I get up and see he’s got a little mouse. Brought in a little mouse. Now he’s eating it on the little rug in the little kitchen. Crunch crunch. It’s gone. It took Elliott only ten days to get the lay of the land here in California, to figure out the 24-hour-in-and-out kitty door in the wall of the laundry room, to get slapped around by his cousin Frankie and to slap around his cousin Frankie in return, to start hunting and chawing down mousies in 30 seconds flat. Yippee.

Why is life so slippery?

Today Frankie must go to the vet. He has been wounded, on his neck, it abscessed and burst. We all know who is responsible. Having gotten the lay of the land, Elliott has appointed himself king of the land. He lolls around by the kitty door, waiting for one cousin Frankie to come or to go—daring one cousin Frankie to come or to go. He then spends time in this chair or that chair, on this cushion or that cushion, trying every spot, testing for every comfort, examining every view. He has secured every vantage point for spying on Frankie as Frankie passes by a window, scurries past a door, appears around a corner.

And now Frankie must go the vet.

A cousin Frankie collage by nephew Lucas.

Frankie is one tough cookie of a cat, but he is also sweet and shy. He came in from the wilds a few years back, slowly but surely, and has put up with many cats, but refuses to mess with dogs. Between him and Elliott there have been moments of peaceful proximity, but there have also been moments of war. In war, they become one tight ball rolling through garden dust or across living room floor in a turmoil of yowl. Fur does indeed fly. Frankie executed the first pounce days ago, a beautiful flying leap that landed him square atop Elliott; now it is Elliott stalking Frankie around the house, down the walkway, into the garden. In quieter but perhaps no less contentious moments, Frankie steals food from Elliott’s bowl and Elliott steals food from Frankie’s bowl.

That’s my boy.

Just another rockin’ fine spot for Elliott.

Slept lightly as a feather on the dry nose of a dog. Perhaps it was the brightness of the full moon. Or the warmth. Or the horse in the yard next door knocking about, letting go with a bbbbhhhhhrrrrrr every now and then. There must be a name for that noise a horse makes, that exaggerated exhale through lightly pursed lips.

According to (oh, the places we go!), it is called “The Snort” and is the result of the horse exhaling through his nose with mouth shut, the noise actually coming from vibrating nostrils. I could have sworn it was the lips that were vibrating—that’s the way it looks in all the cartoons, anyway. It says the snort is about potential danger, the key word being potential, I’m sure.

The sun rises about an hour and a half earlier here than at home. Here, at this time of year, the sun is up about seven while at home it is not up until about eight-thirty or so. Sunset times are about the same—five-thirty at home, a little after five here. Here there is sun all day long on these longer days, with no relief in sight. At home those shorter days are, for the most part, cloudy and snowy, with little relief in sight.

Every morning by eight-thirty, outside my window, the drone of buzzing bees.

I may have missed January’s historic cold, but I am not missing its historic heat. Here along the coast in southern Cal, it is shaping up to be the hottest and driest January ever, or at least that people can remember, and on last night’s local TV news the weatherman said that this weather is “starting to blow my mind.” An anchorman agreed: his mind is beginning to blow, too. It is very dry—right now the relative humidity is 15 percent, the same as in the Mojave Desert—and the Los Angeles Times, in a story about water, said something about this weather being “monotonously sunny.”

It all made for a nice afternoon at the beach.

Yesterday I asked my mom if she remembered the orphan train story, and she said no, she did not. It’s a long story, both in itself and how it came to be known, so I told my mother just pieces of it, including how she had first come to hear of an orphan train, how she learned years after her mother had died that her mother had been an orphan train rider. I told my mom how she then ferreted out the details of the story, the rest of the story, as it were, including how in 1895 her mother, then a nine-year-old girl, was put on an orphan train in New York City and that is how she came to live in Iowa. I told her how before the orphan train her mother was Fannie Shapiro, and how after she became Daisy Morris. I told her about the letter she received in 1997 that told much of this story about Daisy and her brother Joe, otherwise known as Sussman Shapiro, and how these two had started life in Russia with the last name Saladuchow, and how that name was changed, upon arrival in America, to Shapiro.

My mother said the story sounded interesting and asked to see some of the material I have, the letters and pictures that are all we have, really, to tell this tale.

So many times I have tried writing the orphan train story, and every time it is a struggle of perspective, structure, and it comes to a screeching halt with the one big question—whose story is it, anyway? Now that my mother has, quite simply, lost her memory of it, well, now, all I know is that that is part of the story, too.

Should report that Frankie is fine, though laying a bit low. His trip to the vet got him caught up on some overdue shots, so one might say that cousin Elliott did him a favor.

Or not.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

2,600 miles: the beginning, the end, and the Flint Hills of Kansas, America

Now I am ensconced in southern California, on the coast, where it is temperate and, for the most part, calm, and I have missed the experience of historic cold in the Midwest and other parts of the country brought on by something called a polar vortex. I imagine I might have frozen solid in my little cabin up north, but it is also hard to imagine—despite all my years of winters—the feel of bitter cold when all around the sun is shining, the birds are singing, ripe lemons and limes and oranges are falling off trees, and the bougainvillea is rosy pink. Mounds of rosemary hum with honeybees, and poinsettia grows tall, outside, its petals bright green and red against adobe walls.

Then there are these funky flowers that flew here from Paradise.

And the cross-country trip taken to get to this place fades. The trip is done, or so it seems, so on with the next, and it feels like an effort to recall the sights and feelings of driving from upper Michigan to the Pacific coast, to recall the crusty roads of snow and ice and dirty salt that led Elliott and me across the western U.P. and the northern watery edge of Wisconsin into Duluth, Minnesota, where we turned south, heading straight for bright sunshine. That was a warm day, in the 30s, maybe even the 40s, and the roads became wet with melting snow, and it felt good to be driving, to be heading through and into new territory.

As we headed out, the day we left, way back in 2013.

Elliott and I quickly fell into a routine, and he proved to be a fine traveling companion. His main job was to investigate thoroughly each motel room upon arrival. His nose showed me which spots on the carpet had the most experience (of what sort, I don’t know), and his creeping and leaping exposed every nook and cranny and hiding place in the room. He always sought out the highest spot and sat there for a while like an eagle surveying for prey. I shuttled him in and out of the rooms in his carrier, and once free in the van he sought out the space below my knees, on the floor, huddling as close to the seat as possible (he couldn’t quite fit under it). Escaping the van did not seem to enter his mind, and although he showed interest in whatever was beyond the motel room door, he never attempted that dash into nowheresville.

In Faribault, Minnesota, Elliott got up high with The Rifleman.

Every morning we hit the road before dawn, and as the sun rose on the second day we found ourselves in Iowa. I had planned to stop in Mason City and Nora Springs for reasons of family history, but that did not pan out. Instead, we flew past windmills with Casey Kasem’s Top 40 from 1975 on the radio. A feeling of Americana swept over me. Here we go! An All-American Road Trip! I experienced this feeling most every morning—an excitement, an exhilaration, a sense of freedom and over-arching purposefulness. By most afternoons, that feeling would wane.

Windmills at dawn in Iowa.

After Iowa, Missouri, where I pulled off at a rest stop, which was also a welcome center, just about the nicest I’ve ever seen. Inside there was a great mosaic collage depicting Missouri history.

Thomas Hart Benton, one small part of the Missouri mosaic.

We spent that night in Ottawa, Kansas, and shortly after dawn the next day we passed a sign in Emporia: Last Free Exit. Before I could fully ponder the implications of that, we were on the Kansas Turnpike. I had no idea how much it would cost to exit the turnpike or when I would even get the chance. Last Free Exit. Maybe one should one take it? Just because it’s free?

The turnpike was a marvelously smooth road surrounded by gentle, treeless hills rolling smoothly off to the horizon. A sign told me we were in the Flint Hills of Kansas and the next sign cautioned me not to drive into dense smoke. Now, why would I drive into dense smoke? And, wait, was this a ploy? Some kind of Kansas money-maker? No more free exits, dense smoke up ahead, better get off here, but, guess what, it’ll cost you twenty bucks … There was no exit, no smoke up ahead, no demand for money, just an overcast sky and rolling hills and plenty of time to think about it all.

The Flint Hills of Kansas in December.

Crossing into Kansas the day before I had reached back among my CDs, pulled out, by happenstance, “The Wizard of Oz,” and it was still in the CD player. Oh, if I only had a brain … As I tootled through the Flint Hills, I tried to think of a musical for every state, coming up with only the obvious, “Oklahoma!” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” But of course there is also “Chicago” (for Illinois) and “The Music Man” (for Iowa). Does “New York, New York” count?

There is a barrenness about the Flints Hills of Kansas in December. The road is grey, the prairie brown with flat amber highlights. An outcropping here and there, as if something were just under the crust of the earth, pushing it up, taking a peek, hey—what’s out there? It became beautiful and calming, but then, after 20 or 30 miles of it, I began to wonder if there were ever going to be an exit, free or otherwise. I was beginning to feel in need of an exit. There was an off-ramp for cattle pens at Cattle Bazaar Road, but that wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

A little buttery yellow began to show up in them thar hills. The whole thing became a mirage, a stack of golden brown pancakes topped with a pat of melting butter drizzled with maple syrup. A little crisp bacon on the side.

At long last a service area, tucked between lanes. I had guessed it was windy, but not until I got out of the van did I realize how windy—50 or 60 m.p.h. does not seem an exaggeration—and how gosh darn cold it was. We gassed up (et cetera) quickly, and hurried on our way.

I began thinking about the middle of nowhere. Take a trip across this country and you begin to realize that the middle of nowhere is just about everywhere—everywhere, that is, but where I live, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. There you may be on the edge of nowhere, but you are certainly nowhere near the middle of nowhere. The middle is here, in the thick of the country, all around you.

When the turnpike ended, it cost me five or six dollars to stay on the same road, Interstate 35, to head into Oklahoma. In Oklahoma City we hooked up with Interstate 40 and headed west.

In Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley,” he talks about a journey taking on its own character, becoming its own entity as it happens, as it unfolds, and I suppose that’s true. I thought about that before I left, and I also, somewhat incongruously it seems now, tried to think of a name for my vehicle, the dark blue 2004 Dodge Caravan with its back seats removed and its rust all along the front lip of the hood; the mighty steed with more than 120,000 miles under its belts that I was counting on to ferry Elliott and me across northern plains and prairies and desert and hills and the cloverleafs and forks and turns of a few unknown cities and towns. Steinbeck named his truck Rocinante, in reference to Don Quixote, and in “Blue Highways” William Least Heat Moon traveled in Ghost Dancing, a truck named for Least Heat Moon’s Native American heritage and his circumstances at the time. But I could think of nothing to call the van except The Van With No Name.
I’ve been through the desert in a van with no name,
it felt good to be out of the rain …
One cannot go out to discover America, it seems to me, or anything else. One can only go out to discover.

A few seconds along Ventura Highway, in California.

This week, my mother celebrated her ninety-fourth birthday with her three daughters, lunch, a bit of chocolate, a slide show of some old family photos, and a lot of love. How lucky I was to be there.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

2,600 miles: the part along route 66 in Gallup, New Mexico

Trains constantly pass through Gallup, New Mexico, and these trains whistle loudly and regularly and unpredictably all night long and I suppose all day long and, in my experience, these trains whistle most frequently and loudly between four and seven in the evening and four and seven in the morning.

I first got wind of these whistles fifteen minutes or so outside of Gallup. Elliott and I were heading west on Interstate 40 in the old, rusty van having set out early that morning from Groom, Texas, with the thought that on a bright, sunny, Monday morning it was something to be traveling a wide open road in a wide open country.

Monday morning in the western panhandle of Texas.

Now it was mid-afternoon on this fourth day of driving and it was time to stop for the night, and I had planned to stop in the much-anticipated Gallup, New Mexico. Those six syllables—Gallup, New Mexico—had been playing over and over in my head all day long to the tune that goes along with traveling I-40 westward as it bumps and rubs up against Route 66. The historic Route 66, where, of course, you get your kicks. On Route 66. But then, just fifteen minutes or so outside of Gallup, I saw a big giant billboard advertising a motel with the big giant selling point of:
No train noise!

Train noise? What train noise? I didn’t need no stinkin’ train noise.

Soon I was leaving the highway, following the directions I had to the motel where I had a reservation that now, I worried, might have train noise. After driving a bit in what seemed like a circle, around and down and back along the highway, I thought, this can’t be right, so I turned around, traced my route back to the I-40 exit, and continued as if I had taken a right from the exit rather than a left, so now I was on one of those roads of six or eight lanes, everyone traveling as quickly as possible, scurrying past the thousand and one businesses huddling quiet on the sidelines pining for attention. After driving a bit in a straight line, I thought, this can’t be right, and I pulled into the parking lot of the Zen chinese restaurant. I called the motel where I had reservations. In the past few days I had used my cell phone more than ever before in my entire long life, mostly to send silly photos saying “here I am!” as I traveled from upper Michigan down through Minnesota, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and now, New Mexico, and finally—finally!—I was using my phone out of necessity rather than giddiness. A woman answered. I asked for directions.

“Oh, you have gone the wrong way,” she said.


“You know the Midas? Turn right at the Midas.”

“No, I don’t know the Midas. I’m not from here. Right now I’m at the Zen restaurant.”

“Oh. No. Go back. Go back to the Midas and turn right.”

The directions would get no better. I headed back down the road, and it was then I realized that everything lining the road and crowding up against it looked alike, that the only difference between the businesses layered thick and deep and all in a jumble were the names on the signs, this hodge-podge of signs for Denny’s, KFC, Auto Zone, Sonic, Taco Bell, This, That, & Every Other Thing You Ever Wanted but Didn’t Know You Wanted Until You Were in Gallup, New Mexico and Saw This Sign.

All I needed was one sign.

I tried to stay in the far right lane, but it kept turning into an exit-only lane, so it was a jerky dance, scanning for Midas, scanning the traffic. Then I saw Midas up ahead, made my turn, and with a sigh and much relief the road narrowed and the road opened up.

I passed Walmart, as the woman had said I would, and I followed the quiet road, as the woman had told me to. But then the road ended. I had to turn right or left. I could not just follow the road. On a whim, I turned right, found myself in a scrap metal yard. Oops. I turned around, saw an underpass and remembered that I was to go under an underpass so I went under the underpass and the road dipped and curled and I followed.

Around a bend, I stopped, became the last vehicle in a long line of vehicles waiting at some railroad tracks. The gates were down, red lights were flashing, bells were clanging. A train sat motionless on the tracks. I waited. I cut my motor, as had the many before me. Cars lined up behind me. They cut their motors. Now and then a car or truck started up, pulled out of line, turned around, went back up the one open lane of this two-lane road. Up ahead there was a road going off to the left, but no one went down this road, they just turned around there, and once in a while two vehicles met head to head trying to get out of this jam. They maneuvered carefully around each other. The side of the road was a scrubby ditch; pull too far off and you go atilt.

Overall, there wasn’t much around this spot, just scrap and brush and wire and chain link fence and a low building with chipped white paint, kind of like a train yard anywhere, I suppose, or that area of a town or city around a train yard. As I waited, I watched a young man in disheveled clothes lurch by, navigating the slope and slop of the roadside ditch.

I called the motel to see if there was another route I could take, but I could make no sense of the directions, so, no. The woman assured me the train would move in a minute, and I decided to wait another five then go look for that motel advertising no train noise. After five minutes, I decided to wait for ten. Then, in the nick of time (maybe), a train—a long, long freight train—pulled past on a track just beyond the stationary train. This seemed hopeful. Once it was past, in another few minutes, the sitting train moved, pulled forward and away. The red flashing lights switched off. The clanging stopped. The gates lifted. Slowly, very slowly, the long line of cars began to move. I crossed the tracks and there it was, my motel.

So this is how I experienced New Mexico, traveling Interstate 40 rubbing up against the history and the reality and the catchy tune of Route 66. I had gotten on 40 at Oklahoma City. It was an easy travel, the countryside flat, the road unspooling endlessly ahead with no surprises.



I take that back.

That there were no trees—that was a surprise. That the sky was as huge as all outer space—that was a surprise. That there were giant windmills sprawling all across Oklahoma and Texas—that was a surprise. The chill and frost of 11 degrees in Groom, Texas—that was a surprise. And that every billboard along I-40 in New Mexico was advertising authentic Indian jewelry, authentic Indian pottery, authentic Indian moccasins, and authentic Indian blankets, well, that was a surprise, too.

It was almost like a concertina, these billboards. They started out slow and wide apart, one advertising the jewelry, the next the pottery, the next the blankets, and so on and so forth. Topless? T-shirts 2/$10. With barely a hitch, then, the billboards came closer together. Best Selection! Largest Selection! Best Prices! And then, suddenly, the broad messages in black on the always bright yellow background came one right after the other, practically on top of each other, the concertina now squeezed tight. Authentic! Authentic! This Exit! Now! Jewelry! Pottery! Blankets! Now!

The first of these mega authentic Indian souvenir superstores along Interstate 40 in New Mexico lured me in. How could I not stop? I had to pee, after all. And there I found everything but a beaded belt, and a beaded belt I might have bought. Especially if the word “Indian” had been beaded into it. When I got back on the highway, the concertina of billboards began anew. Over the next 20 or 30 miles they got squeezed tighter and tighter until there was another chance at Indian authenticity and whatnot. But I would not stop.

On the road in New Mexico.

I did, though, meet an authentic Indian—Native American?—in the parking lot of the motel in Gallup, New Mexico. He offered to sell me a painting of his for ten dollars, a small painting of a horse juxtaposed against a backdrop of mountains, as I recall, the horse’s head large in the frame as if galloping out of the mountains, out of the picture, the feathers attached to his halter spreading out as if taking wing. This parking lot was really more of a glorified alley between the motel and a Mexican restaurant, my room far back where the alley then turned behind the restaurant. I hoped it was far enough back that I might not hear the trains. I was unloading the van—Elliott was already in the room, secure in his carrier—and I had propped open the door to the room with a chair so I would not have to swipe the key card each time I brought in a load of stuff, the stuff being food, clothing, litter box, laptop, purse, et cetera. As I turned away from the van with an armload of this stuff, there he was, an authentic Indian hoping to sell me an authentic Indian painting. I continued walking toward my room, told him to wait right there, to not follow me, and he said OK, I am a gentleman.

I deposited my armload of stuff in the room and returned to the alley parking lot. I looked at the painting, but did not want to buy it and told him so, with a bit of regret. He asked if I could just give him a dollar or two, times were hard. Yes, I said, times are hard. My wallet held fives so I gave him one, and this seemed a prompt for him to launch into a story, his story, a story I had no desire to hear at that moment—or maybe at any moment, I don’t really know—so I told him that, or began to, then realized that maybe what he wanted was an exchange, such as ten dollars for a painting. But what for five dollars? And what could he give me that I actually wanted? I told him that what I needed right then was quiet, and if he could give me quiet, I would be grateful. He looked at me, said he could do that. I thanked him, and we shook hands, his all leathery brown and gnarled and mine ghostly pale and soft. He told me his name was Black Wolf, and he disappeared.

For a moment, I enjoyed the quiet. Then a train went whistling by, blasting its horn. I could hear it as clearly inside the motel room as out.

The next morning, beyond Gallup, at the New Mexico-Arizona state line.