The Great American Road Trip – Episode VI
by Carolyn McLaughlin
Rob and Dan drove all the hours it took to get to the border of the States. When we cleared this time, it was about the same early hour of the morning when we arrived in Mexico. We had to empty the trunk and open our smelly luggage. I began to drive when we were finished with the officials. We took Route 83 North, rather than Interstate 35 because our reasoning deduced that there would be less traffic, a euphemism for less patrol cars.
There wasn’t anyone or anything along this road. Small towns kept materializing and evaporating before I could toss their names around in my memory bank, seeing if they were interesting enough to save. None can be recalled.
The guys were in the back seat hard asleep since they had stayed awake together during each of their turns to drive. Melissa was ready for an hour of conversation and tape assessment. About ten minutes into my driving I realized that we really needed gas. Badly. I had visions of us rolling the car into a dilapidated gas station. The closest I came was about eight miles down the road. A gas station all right. But as silent as the graveyard across the street. It was four in the morning. The blessed gas station was locked tight, lights out. What about gas? A groan, a nail bite, a pang of hunger engulfing the car….
Melissa. Sweet Melissa. She has this constant laugh attached to her. She was going through the tapes and checking radio stations at the same time. She looked up at the dark, abandoned road. With wide eyes and a chuckle she said this could really be it; breakfast was soggy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from the trunk, and then we’d have to hitchhike. Then she looked at the gas gauge again. I looked at her and grinned. We kept going. The red light glared at us. And then, the Texaco sign waved to us. We were there, we were saved. We pulled into the 24 hour convenience center and I felt like we had just gotten home.
A full tank and a fresh supply of caffeine and candy bars. The clerk in the store was humorless and catatonic. This clashed tremendously with the enthusiasm that flowed from us. We got hot dogs and sodas and ate them while we were in there, making coffee and figuring out what brands of chewing gum kept their taste the longest. We used the bathroom which seemed to sparkle after the poor plumbing facilities in Monterey. I even put my filthy feet in the sink and went to work cleaning them up. Until then I hadn’t even realized how filthy they had gotten after walking around in sandals in the dust and funk of Mexico.
All paid up, we climbed back into the beast and continued driving Northwest, destination: New Mexico. My sister Annmarie lives in Santa Fe. We were ready to be indulged by the hospitality of a local. It was a hot, bright Monday when we found ourselves in El Paso, Texas. This was only the eighth day of our road trip.
Pondering the decaying atlas, we saw that we would drive within 25 miles of a National Park, White Sands. The opportunity to see something on the way was in hand, we nabbed it. The roadsigns for the monument began to appear and directions were simple. We were ready for lunch and more gas so we pulled into the next gas station. I called Annmarie to give her fair warning. She couldn’t wait to see us. I told her it’d be another ten hours. No problem.
We ate and got postcards and filled the tank and paid, the only things that were – usually – guaranteed on a vacation like this. In another 2 hours we were driving into White Sands and gasping and loving it. The paved park roads had the thinnest layer of powderlike sand on them. The dunes of sand were like a crisp vanilla icing on cake. They were like snow when it is coming down in buckets and the weather is so freezing that the snow stays crunchy and hard but won’t melt together. The grains of sand were very fine; silky and liquid.
We parked below the biggest dune in the park and pulled our bathing suits on. Dan and Rob corrected Melissa and me, however, and told us that we were wearing swimming costumes. Sure boys. Anyway, we scrambled up the dune with the bright sun beating down upon us.
It was truly magnificent. When we were at the top of the dune, which was about 50 ft high, we could see for miles and miles – an ocean of white dunes. The glare was intense. The silence was deafening. The wind was exhilarating. The mood of this beautiful place on a planet full of amazing sites had captured us.
At that particular moment when we were all so impressed with our own capability to be awed by something natural in such a packaged world, Melissa spoke. She said, “it’s how I pictured heaven.” We all smiled and agreed.
Then we’d stare far out again to the dunes we’d never touch, watching them tear away and shift by the strong winds of the valley we were in.
Melissa wanted to camp at White Sands for the night. Actually, I think she’d still like to permanently reside there. Rob, Dan and I, however, had a different frame of mind. While we were running around on the dunes like there was no tomorrow, Melissa was working on her summer tan. The constant breeze had kept her cool, but the rest of us were sweating ferociously. None of us had had showers since an RV park in Texas, the morning before Corpus Christi. The last water on our backs was that of the Gulf of Mexico. Then we had been in the car for countless hours, touring Monterey, more hours in the car, and now caked with sand in New Mexico. Camping that night in White Sands was a 1, dealing with the grime for another 6 hours to get to my sister’s was closer to a 10. Melissa was easily outvoted.
So continues the endless highway. About twenty minutes on the road and Dan and I are in the back, being true primates as we get sand off each other. The center of my back is in bad shape, behind his ears you’d never think there’d be enough room for all the sand that kept falling. I couldn’t help laughing at the sight of his beard and eyebrows. He looked like he was suffering from frostbite. But there it was. The Rio Grande. We had just crossed a small bridge and seen the running water. It resembled gold.
Dan and I were like little kids leaning forward in our seats, asking Rob to pull over. It turns out there was a road to a landing primarily used for fishing. We parked and headed towards the water like steel to magnets. We even carried some shampoo. We were on a mission of cleanliness. The water was great. It was really cold and the current was strong but it was great. Five minutes of bliss and we were toweling off, in search now of more food and gas.
We drove on to Santa Fe with a stop in a town called Truth or Consequences. How could we pass that up? A very quiet town with friendly but quiet locals. We were ahead of the summer tourists, I don’t think they were ready to be too hospitable. We got pizza at a place run by a New Yorker, and she was quite friendly. I don’t remember what the story was behind the town’s name because it was not that significant, but she said she had come there years ago and never left. She was very enthusiastic about the town.
We continued on our way, feeling very good about the day.
Next week: Santa Fe came upon us around midnight and we spent several days there, hardly driving anywhere, taking a vacation from our adventures.