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.

“Yes.”

“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.

No.

Wait.

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.