We awoke at 5:30 the next morning, packed up, and made our way back down the mountain and into Saguaro National Park for some hiking on the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail. It’s about 14 miles and serves as the main access to back country camping, but we had places to go, so we only went a couple of miles in and a couple of miles back. There was a pretty tough climb about a mile into the hike. Given the quickly rising temperature that day, it was quite a workout. Ethan got stuck with several cactus needles. I somehow made it though unscathed.
As Ethan and I climbed on disarmed weaponry, the United States Army was busy subduing a foreign country because it dared acquire some of their own. Or so we were told anyway. The case for WMDs in Iraq has been thoroughly discredited by now, but it was pretty questionable even then. At least I thought so, as did just about every smart person I knew at the time. Nevertheless, our soldiers had invaded in March and President Bush declared that the mission had been accomplished just the day before. We know now that the mission, such as it was, may never be accomplished and its undertaking was always a mistake. While there was a time a few years ago when I would engage anyone in an argument on the pros and cons of the war, I can barely discuss it anymore, even with those who share my opinions about it all. Especially with those people, actually. When it comes to Iraq and what our country has become because of it, right and wrong are virtually meaningless to me anymore. All I can feel is sorrow.
After leaving the range, we stopped at White Sands National monument. It may as well have been the surface of the moon, with gypsum dunes covering hundreds of square miles. We took the road into the monument until we lost sight of gypsum-free land, parked, and hiked into the dunes. After walking around half-century-old monuments to the destructive force of man a mere half hour before, there was something refreshing about making tracks and footprints which would be covered up by nightfall.
Twenty five miles later we were in Alamogordo, where we stopped to pick up food for another night of camping. I sat in the car as Ethan went into the grocery store. Looking out the window, I watched a poor-looking Mexican woman struggle with a baby and two bags of groceries. Looking in another direction I saw an old, beat up Chevy Impala filled with four or five kids waiting for their parents. Since I became a father, there’s a feeling that I get when I see children in what I perceive to be less than prosperous circumstances. It’s not pity, but it’s not not pity if that makes any sense. Whatever it is it makes me sad, even if I realize that it’s mostly a function of my shallowness, naivete, and insecurity. That afternoon in Alamogordo was the first time I ever really felt it, and I’ve not been able to shake it since.
Ethan got back with the grub – chicken this time – and we made our way to a campground just outside of town. Unlike the night before, this was a flat utilitarian place in the shadow of a mountain rather than atop one. I was quiet that evening, wrestling the anxiety of impeding fatherhood that had been creeping over me since we left the grocery store. Ethan could obviously sense that something was up with me – I’m pretty sure I came off more standoffish than introspective – and he soon found a comfortable place to sit down and fired up his laptop. As it grew dark, bugs descended on our campsite. I got into the car to escape them and to write in my journal.
I crawled into my sleeping bag a few minutes later, but sleep wouldn’t come quickly. My head was filled with the notion that I didn’t know the first thing about being a father, and the thought had me on the verge of panic. I know now that that feeling of fearful ignorance is about the best thing that can happen to a prospective dad because, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel in the short term, it certainly makes you pay attention once the baby comes.
As usual, I felt better by the morning light. After cleaning up camp, we headed east on US-82, which took us up into the Sacramento Mountains. It was beautiful country that reminded me an awful lot of West Virginia (which is what I consider home, for those who don’t know). The only thing that ruined it was an over eager sheriff’s deputy who decided to tag me for going 60 in a 45. Amazingly – after days on-end of setting the cruise control at around 100 – I get a speeding ticket for going 60. To this day I consider it a horseshit ticket, though Ethan maintains that I deserved it. Given that I’ve gotten something like seven or eight tickets in the nearly 19 years I’ve been driving, he’s probably right.
We came down out of the mountains near the town of Artesia, and then headed south towards Carlsbad Caverns. We were eager for some subterranean hiking, but once we got there and saw the tour buses and old people with fanny packs, we realized that there wasn’t anything all that rugged about it (this is what happens when you don’t read guidebooks). Carlsbad Caverns is basically a leisurely stroll down a paved trail. There’s even a snack bar at the bottom.
Despite all of that, Ethan and I made the best of it, taking our time to walk and talk as we descended into the cavern. About Ethan’s marriage mostly, and how he wanted to arrange his life going forward. Would he date? Would he dive headlong into work? Would he travel? Knowing Ethan like I do, I assumed the answer would be “yes,” and I was more or less right. As a guy who can’t juggle two balls at once, I have always been amazed at Ethan’s ability to juggle five.
The biggest mistake of the day – and maybe the trip – came next, and that was taking the guided tour of King’s Palace, which is a set of large rooms at the bottom of the cavern. The tour group was large and disorganized. The guide – a ranger named Clint – was an information-free bore. We entered a large room and were put to sleep with irrelevant geological details, tangents about the difference between cavers and spelunkers, and more bad jokes than you could shake a stick at. At the one-hour mark, the group began to turn on poor Ranger Clint. People were openly groaning and grousing, and some asked his young assistant if the tour could simply be stopped. Ethan corrected Clint when he claimed that his aluminum flashlight was steel. A middle-aged woman loudly described the tour as “an interpretive nightmare.” By the end of the tour I almost felt bad for Clint, but those feelings were far outweighed by my joy that it was all over.
The original plan was to find someplace else to camp that night, but it was barely mid-afternoon when we got back to the car so we decided to press forward and see how far we’d get. Crossing into west Texas was a load of fun, as we took an empty bit of highway (Texas route 652) across some open range over to US 285. Strangely, after nearly a month of crossing deserts and mountains and canyons – after standing on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and lying awestruck under the Milky Way – nothing made the world seem larger, and myself smaller, than the open ranges of West Texas.
We cut down US-285 with the intention of hooking up with Interstate 10 in Fort Stockton. We encountered a slight detour in the town of Pecos, however, when a truck pulling a trailer with an extraordinarily large boat had managed to get stuck in the middle of the junction through which we had to go. The police officer at the scene said it would be at least an hour before they could get a crane in to clear it out. This didn’t bother me especially, because it gave us the opportunity to travel down another empty highway (county road 17) which, while taking us about 40 miles out of our way, afforded another opportunity for blazing speed and open spaces. Unfortunately it was a bit too much speed, as I saw the flashing lights of the Texas Rangers in my rear view mirror right after we hopped on I-10. I pulled over to the side of the road cursing my bad luck (certainly I bore no responsibility for this terrible misfortune).
Based on some accounts I’ve read, Ethan and I fit a pretty questionable profile that afternoon. We hadn’t showered or shaved in a couple of days and we each looked like hell (my respectable bald pate was covered by shifty looking corduroy Kangol). The car was an absolute mess inside and out. We were a mere handful of miles from the Mexican border, hauling ass, with out-of-state plates. When I saw the big white cowboy hats and mirrored sunglasses walking up towards us, I fully expected the car to get tossed for drugs or, at the very least, to be given an extremely hard time.
We need not have worried. The two rangers who pulled me over were the most polite law enforcement officers I have ever encountered. They called me sir and asked us how we were enjoying our trip. Yes, they gave me a ticket – I was really going like a bat out of hell – but they marked it down as 89 mph in a 80 zone, which is at least ten miles per hour slower than I was really going. The day’s tally: $270 worth of speeding tickets. I rationalized this by amortizing the amount in my mind over the course of the whole trip, convincing myself that it was no different than paying $10 a day for a license to speed, which I would have gladly paid beforehand. Unfortunately, neither Carleen nor my insurance agent saw it the same way.
We had planned to just drive until we got tired and found a hotel, but there isn’t a hell of a lot in west Texas. It was a nice evening though, so we drove. And drove. And kept on driving. We came close to running out of gas just before Sonora, but just made it into town on fumes. As I filled up the tank, Ethan decided that we should pool our money and open up a gas station ten miles to the west to take advantage of all of the desperate folks like us who thought they wouldn’t quite make it. We’d call it the Pump ‘n Dump (we really needed a bathroom by the time we hit Sonora as well). It would make us rich, he said. Sadly, we neglected to follow up on the idea when we got back to civilization.
It was getting good and late by the time we made it to Fredericksburg and we were ready to stop for the night. We couldn’t, unfortunately, because a biker rally had taken all of the hotel rooms, so we pressed on to Austin. It was nearly 1AM when we stopped at the airport Ramada, which was the first hotel our weary eyes could see from the freeway. We checked in and passed out.
The day’s tally: nearly 800 miles, 2 speeding tickets, a wasted trip down an overdeveloped hole in the ground, and about 17 hours of good conversation. I’d take that just about any day.