I walk down the fissure, hopping boulders, to a less populated point lower on the side of the Rock. A voice calls out to me from below and I slip down through some rocks to see who it is. It's a crew-cut high school kid out with his buddies doing some impromptu spelunking. His two friends are already down a deep hole and he's a little nervous about following them -- there's some mention of a frayed rope. He paces back and forth, deliberating manhood versus common sense, talking nervously to no one but this bearded stranger about the rope and the precariously balanced boulders over and around us. His boyishly plump and spotty face imploring me for approval -- or at least cooperation.
The two boys down below shine their flashlight up and tell us to join them. I slide my way into the crack, barely wide enough for my shoulders, and see that the rope, solid for its entire length, stretches down all of four feet. I climb down and the first young man follows me. The other two, dressed like the first in jeans and boots, shirtless and with buck knives on their belts, greet me friendly and with no surprise -- another nice thing about Texas. Once we are securely placed, the lead man shines his light ahead again to look for a path. It is at this point I realize that I don't have a flashlight of my own. In fact, we only have one for the four of us. It is very, very dark. I try to remain calm in spite of my stupidity. Thankfully, it is cold in the cave, and the cool, solid rocks against my hands and back, and those sensed inches from my face, are a comfort. Not to the guy next to me, who seems sure they're going to come crashing down at any moment.
His friends, on the other hand, are impervious to fear and are pressing on at breakneck speed, unsure of their course, our fate, or the need for light. Eventually they find a painted arrow pointing down, descend, and hand the light back to us. Further down we go, with no assurance that our little tomb leads back to the surface.
Soon, however, reprieve comes in the form of another group of spelunkers behind us, obviously perturbed at our inexperience. They tell us that the arrows do in fact lead to an exit, but that the entire cave takes 40 or so minutes -- and we're only halfway through! I contemplate spending twenty minutes underground, blind, at the mercy of two Texas high school yahoos. Urk.
Further down we go, occasionally seeing light above, only to find the crack insufficiently wide for human passage. The group behind us has mysteriously disappeared. The first kid starts talking of snakes, his voice trembling slightly. Finally, an opening appears that is large enough for my escape! I inform the three of them that I'm bailing out and the first kid eagerly agrees with me. We climb out hurriedly into the warm air and glaring light. I bid him adieu and continue down the Rock on the surface, towards the rim trail.
He says good-bye, his voice pleading, for now he has to face his dilemma all over again: to be alone and safe or with his friends and worried. A tough choice for a young man.
I'm standing by the side of the road, my truck parked next to me. I'm in the middle of the Texas Hill Country, and the road dips slowly in front of me down towards the next dry wash. All of the roads here are gorgeous. They twist up rocky and shaded canyons decorated with shrubs and trees in the brown grass and fall again over broad pastures to a never-ending series of washes. It has been raining off and on all day and some of the washes are flowing with water, in many cases over the road itself since bridges are not used, but others are mysteriously dry -- rounded rocks and gravel lining sinuous white ditches across the landscape. And always, always, the roads are lined on both sides by fencing, unobtrusive wire fencing occasionally separating me from a small herd of longhorns or goats.
I breathe the cool and moist wind gusting around me, the only sound reaching my straining ears, and scan the horizon. The strip of asphalt next to me, galloping over the topography to meet the sky, is bare. There is nothing here but rippled and speckled earth and a white billowing sky.
I'm sitting on the edge of Seminole Canyon, overlooking Panther Cave, just off the Rio Grande. The Canyon drops away before me a hundred feet straight down to the water, and across it I can see, tucked under the lip of the Cave, the faded remnants of the red panther painted on the rock hundreds of years ago. The land around me is similar to that of the rest of West Texas: scrub and grass and cactus, with numerous wildflowers and the occasional yucca sending its glorious plume of waxy white flowers ten feet straight into the air.
Sitting next to me is a very nice old woman from Michigan. Her slightly rounded body in floral cottons and wan, oval face with painted eyebrows are surmounted by a floppy white sailing hat. She's vacationing with her husband, who's still a ways back, and is just happier than pie to be talking to me. And 'to me' is the proper preposition. She goes on and on about how they're looking for a new place to live but the ticks in Tennessee are too bad for a dog lover like her -- even if the place had a waterfall next to it -- but they really like the Southwest, too, although the summers are rather hot, she's heard. AND it's so nice to see young folks out doing things like me -- why, she just came down from the Tanks and they were all over there, climbing around, and they're so interesting to talk to, so full of enthusiasm. AND don't I just think this presidential race is fascinating? Bush is no good on domestic issues -- he was born with a silver foot in his mouth! -- but the others aren't too great either -- not that she votes very often anyway... I slip in the occasional surrealist platitude to keep her going -- something like: yes, it's always nice to have all four elements near a household.
Eventually she departs back up the trail with many warm good-byes. I soon start up, too, and on the way run into her husband. He's a deeply wrinkled and limping Korean War veteran, sprouting huge tufts of white fur from all four points of his head and sporting a green cap jeweled with enamel pins. He is only slightly less talkative than his wife, although much of his gravely ramble is unintelligible. The pieces I do pick up are fascinating insights into the life of an aging Real Man. He talks a lot about Korea and his time there, and a lot about his farm up in Michigan with the stream and the acres of land and the cabin he just picked up with the pre-fab porch and gazebo that was on sale from the lumber company. But mostly he seems to be talking about all the dead animal parts he has soaking in vinegar in his RV. Some are purchased, some are found by the side of the road, but all seem to be immense sources of pride. As is his live rattler which he hopes to cook up back home with his snake-eatin' buddies.
We walk together slowly back towards the campsite for quite a while. Eventually his wheezing overtakes his monologue and he sits down on a bench for a rest while I continue on. Later, at the campsite, I wave to them as they drive by.
I'm on top of Emory Peak, the central and highest peak of the Chisos Mountains in Big Bend National Park. The sky is a pale blue scattered with puffy white clouds, many of them remaining stationary above the tallest mountains push the warm desert air up beyond the condensation point. Far in the distance, sixty miles or more, the horizon is lumped with gray silhouettes, some low and flat, others high and jagged. Closer, the numerous hill shapes become visible in detail and are separated by vast expanses of flat earth a mottled light brown.
The jagged hills are all igneous, mostly basalt. They are decaying, dark lumps, ominous and mysterious, the basement of the Earth. The flat ones are sedimentary, elegant and pure. In some places they soar up to immense striped cliffs thousands of feet in the air, remnants of the ubiquitous strata domed by the igneous intrusions. The cliffs and their capping mesas are cut to the ground in places by the mighty Rio Grande -- sinuous canyons with vertical walls.
Closer still the intervening flatness starts to ripple and bump at the edges of the massive, intrusive dome on which I sit: the Chisos Mountains. They thrust up from the surrounding desert with towering cliffs skirted by steep talus slopes. The dark red rock, hypnotically complex with thousands of spires and canyons, is pocked and crumbling and spattered with bright green lichen. Dikes crisscrossing the formation gird it with twenty-foot walls.
At the higher elevations the chaotic red rock gives way to cool mountain air and forests of pine, fir, cypress, and even quaking aspen -- the southernmost stand in the US. Scattered amongst the trees are century plants, purple-tinged prickly pears, and a number of bizarre ferns and grasses.
And in the immediate foreground is....nothing. The rocks on which I sit drop off on all sides a hundred feet in places. The entire countryside around me is visible in clear, crisp detail, from the sheer rocks under me to the dry forests and rocky meadows below to the massive decaying red mountains nearby. And on across the flat browness weaved with bright and braided washes to the mountains in the distance. And the shapes beyond.
This is Texas, west of the Pecos.
I'm in a small white room. There are bars on the window. Two officers of the Department of Justice Border Patrol have placed me in here after reading me my rights. A small amount of marijuana was discovered in my truck by a well-trained dog. A hundred miles from Mexico and without even crossing an international boundary I have fallen under the omnipotent powers of the Border Patrol.
I've been in this room for about three hours now, watching and listening. The barred window looks out on the checkpoint along Texas 118, where our diligent officers have stopped every longhair and Mexican since my arrival, letting the RVs, cowboys and pretty women pass by unchecked. Just down the hall from my holding cell the arresting officer has been calling around, trying unsuccessfully to find someone to prosecute me. No one seems to be interested in a minor possession charge. I listen and watch, searching for clues as to my fate, sitting in solid boredom.
The phone rings. They pick it up and I eavesdrop carefully, sitting still. "Yeah, I'm having trouble with 28 down and 35 across," he says. Closet crossworders. You find them everywhere.
Eventually, Brewster County agrees to take my case and a patrol car soon shows up. I'm cuffed and searched by a county police officer with a pistol down his pants. He's very nice and helpful but, like all policemen I've run into, insists on making a joke about shooting me. After cuffing me he tells me to slip off my shoes so he can search them. This he does, and then tells me to put them back on. I struggle handless for a few minutes until he bends down, embarrassed, and puts them on for me. He takes my truck and I'm driven up to the city of Alpine, population 5500, by a State Trooper who is also very nice and we converse amicably. He asks if I began smoking in high school and then manages to slip in the Moral: "Maybe this is a good opportunity to quit." Once in Alpine I'm shuffled through numerous offices and registered on hundreds of meaningless documents. People generally try to avoid eye contact with someone in cuffs. I am charged with a class B misdemeanor possession of marijuana, maximum penalty 180 days in jail and a $1500 fine. Even though I was caught with only an eighth of an ounce, I fall into the 'less than 2 ounces' category. Bail is set at $500.
Soon I'm taken to the county jail and booked in. This is probably the laxest jail I've ever seen, with inmates walking freely around the administrative area and joking with me as I'm processed. I'm fingerprinted by one of those lanky young cowboys who's never had an impure thought in his life. Six foot five and a foot wide in his five gallon hat, with smooth white skin in a crisp brown shirt. Peach fuzz frosts his slack jaw. He, like the county officer, seems to be a little unused to the process and keeps mixing up his rights and lefts. In nervous confusion, he tries to imprint my right forefinger without inking it.
The county officer asks me some statistical questions obviously aimed at proving that marijuana is a gateway drug. We confer off the record and he tells me that the 1/8 ounce I was arrested for is the smallest amount he's seen in years. They priced it at $11. In California, the current price for that amount is about $50. He seems aware of the stupidity and waste of my arrest and tells the jailers to help me find a bail bondsmen.
After a couple dozen more papers and signatures I'm given a lovely orange jumpsuit and led to my own little cell. On the way in I look at the roster board and see that well over half of the 25 or so inmates are here on DWI or possession of marijuana. I talk with the guy in the cell next to mine, unseen through the wall. He's been here a week on a felony possession of cocaine charge, bail set at $10,000. He's already on probation and has a number of outstanding DWIs. He knows he's looking at some time and paces fitfully.
After an unusual and bland Friday fish dinner (macaroni, breaded filet, two slices of whole wheat and two jalapenos -- all cold, but you can't beat the price), my bail bondswoman shows up and I get my clothes back. She takes me to the garage where my truck is (thankfully they've not confiscated it) and I'm told to go over the checklist of things in my car. Apparently the county officer has had to catalogue everything in my truck for administrative purposes. Poor guy. I've often thought of a doing a general sort of listing for the purposes of your edification, but have always been daunted by the volume of junk. His list is two pages of careful and Lilliputian script. Two things I've been missing for a number of months are now sitting on the front seat. I check for the major objects in the disarray he's left and drive off to a motel.
It's nighttime now, and I lay staring at the ceiling for a long time, unable to fall asleep.
I'm in Books Plus, Alpine's only used book store. I've been here almost an hour browsing the tall shelves that line the walls of the small house's three rooms. There are more books here than people in Alpine, I'm sure. The selection is quite impressive, including a number of books I've been looking for recently. I approach the owner sitting behind the register and complement her. What starts with my appreciation for her two copies of Earth Abides turns into a 20 minute conversation ranging over books, the interests of college kids, and World War Two propaganda. She tells me of her sister, who was convinced there were Japs hiding in the garage behind their house in Texas. She tells me of her love of Le Carre, one of whose books I'm buying, and I tell her of my recent fascination with H. G. Wells. Then we both discuss the undying popularity of Hesse. It's the kind of conversation I've been having a lot of lately: rambling, without destination or purpose, and filled with a warmth and friendship that's assumed to exist from the start.
I'm in the Longhorn Cattle Co. Restaurant, a long, low building of boards and cheap tables. It's Saturday night and the place is quite busy with people feasting on great slabs of beef. Due to the crush, I take a table with a man sitting alone. He's around 60 years old, with a large wave of white hair breaking over his forehead and sweeping back across his scalp. He has a lovely, tan face and a large healthy body suited in fine cowboy clothes right down to the red handkerchief around his neck. He's from California. He, too, is traveling the country -- though in week-long bursts -- in search of a better place to live. We naturally fall into a conversation about this. About other topics I can barely coerce and answer: his profession...there's some hint of a corporation in Europe. He speaks haltingly in a quiet, smooth voice about culture, weather, and open public land. He desires warmth. He desires a major airport nearby. He desires room to ride his horses. He thought West Texas might be the place for him, but all the land here is closed off and tied down in vast tracts of fenced ranches. I tell him what I'm looking for: open land, water, mountains, culture, verve. I tell him of my disappointments and near-misses. He suggests Grand Junction, Colorado. I tell him I'll go check it out. He is pleasant, terse company. He is not entirely here, now. Soon he finishes his steak and bids me farewell, and walks stiffly towards the door.
I'm in the Railroad Blues bar, about ten feet from the train tracks in Alpine. Every half hour or so a freight train rolls by, shaking the walls and nearly disturbing my billiard balls. The large, open room in front leads back through a set of couches to the game room in the rear where I stand. The entire building blasts with great music through the sparse crowd on this bright and warm afternoon.
I'm shooting pool and talking with Buddy, a government worker from Austin. He has sparse gray hair and an equally sparse and equally gray beard, and a slow, thoughtful manner. He is not a very good pool player, though fortunately he is a very good talker. We expound together the joys of Austin and of Texas in general. It turns out that he is also a big fan of travel literature and names a number of his favorite books -- due to my occupation I've read them all in the last few months. We talk in detail about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and the more he talks the more thoughtful he becomes. Soon, we stop playing pool altogether and just sit and talk. He's an extremely nice guy, one of those who I quickly feel is of like mind.
Our conversation winds down after a while and soon he has to catch his train back to Austin. He gives me his address and asks me to send him a completed copy of what I've written.
I'm sitting in the Fine Arts Auditorium of Sul Ross State University. Around me sit about a hundred cowboys and -girls: it's the National Cowboy Poetry Gathering. On stage are five cowboys in full regalia: big hats, big mustaches, big boots, and big bellies. Some read original works about self-reliance and bull-riding, others read classics of the Old West and Australia: beautiful, cold and bitter tales of suffering pioneers and rabid gold-diggers. One man, an iconoclast in soft leather moccasins, a South American vest and an earring, reads Walt Whitman. Another rants on and on, chip clearly visible next to his unbalanced head, about how his students in California make fun of him and don't understand that us cowboys are complex, sensitive people, Goddammit! He then goes on to state that the Japanese somehow seem to understand and posits that they gained this knowledge through some sort of espionage. He reads an extensive Kipling.
I'm lying in the back of my truck, parked in the lot of the Alpine Motel. It's a cold morning and my stiff fingers fumble through my tapes looking for today's selection -- the day of my long-awaited departure from Alpine, my $200 fine paid in full. A man approaches the back of my truck from across the lot. I've seen him around this morning, trying to get his delivery truck started. He's got that wild-eyed and messy-haired look that's just slightly more off-balance than I trust. He greets me warmly and with a crooked smile: "California, eh?" I make some innocuous reply about his truck. He peers into the back of my truck, crowded with gear and me amongst it. "You smoke? Wanna go burn a jay?" he says.
No Simple Highway:
Last modified: Wed Feb 18 23:20:52 1998
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.