Yes, the road.

Yes, the road.
Eagle Nest, New Mexico. “People like to drive because driving is actually and symbolically an almost perfect mechanism for escape…there is probably no human being who does not have troubles, real or imagined, from which he at times feels the need to flee.” George R. Stewart.

PHB

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Brooklin, Maine, United States
We own a 1975 GMC Sierra Grande 15 in Maine and a 1986 Chevrolet Custom Deluxe 10 in West Texas. Also a pair of 1997 Volvo 850 wagons. Average age in the fleet is 28 years--we're recycling. I've published 3 novels: THE LAW OF DREAMS (2006), THE O'BRIENS (2012), and CARRY ME (2016). Also 2 short story collections: NIGHT DRIVING(1987) and TRAVELLING LIGHT (2013). More of my literary life is at www.peterbehrens.org I was a Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study for 2012-13. I'm an adjunct professor at Colorado College and in the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte. In 2015-16 I was a Fellow at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The Autoliterate office is in Car Talk Plaza in Harvard Square, 2 floors above Dewey Cheatem & Howe. SUBSCRIBE TO THE AUTOLITERATE DAILY EMAIL by hitting the button to the right.

Monday, October 31, 2016

What does a cowboy have for breakfast?

Q: What does a cowboy have for breakfast?

It was the longest road trip ever. No, it just felt like the longest. Leaving Alberta in a snowstorm. Down along the Rocky Mountain front ranges in a ’52 Chevy 1-ton grain truck, pulling six canoes on a homemade trailer, heading for Texas and the whitewater canyons in the Big Bend. 

Low gear over Raton Pass. The highway was banked with sedimentary layers of snow. Coming down out of Raton the snow faded quickly, the air smelled of sun and piñon. The sky was crisp, dry blue; and the road was muddy, red New Mexico mud. South of Taos, the road met the Rio Grande for the first time. We pulled over at the first set of gorges and lay like bugs on the warm red rocks, hearing the water rushing, absorbing sun, winter fleeing our bones.

It’s a challenge driving vehicles older than yourself. Keeps you on your toes. Miles don’t spin by in any meaningless, heedless blur. You’re thankful for every one. You start to pay attention. 

That truck was happiest cruising in the high 40s. The brakes were free-spirited. Approaching 55 mph, the steering wheel started to bounce, the engine began whining, and I could picture thrown rods leaping through the hood like miniature Titan rockets launched from underground silos. When it was cold, driving at night, we crammed towels into holes in the floorboards. We developed an addiction to cheap nasty cigars, the kind you buy in gas stations, cigars that continuously explode while you’re smoking them, like dry grassland burning in a fast wildfire. 
Following the weather south, every 50 miles was hotter and drier. South of Santa Rosa, the desert came out a silvery shade of green. We always slept in the back of the truck, which was crammed with an expedition’s worth of canoe paddles, life jackets, rescue gear, tents, and trip food packed in 10-gallon plastic buckets. I liked waking up in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico, crawling out of a sleeping bag, jumping down off the truck, feeling the sun, smelling sage. The atmosphere was perfectly clear and still. Nothing moving except maybe a hawk.

Voices overheard in truck stops of New Mexico sound semi-Okie with Hispanic softening. The chili verde is stronger than you, the coffee weaker, and sometimes the tortillas are homemade. At the truck stop between  and Albuquerque, a photograph of the Apache warrior, Geronimo, hung on the door of the men’s room. 

In Vaughn, N.M., a kid called Ramon with amazing forearm tattoos meticulously performed an oil change on the Chevy, then offered to buy it. He wanted to transform it into a dump-truck lowrider – chromed, chopped, and candy-painted, like his beloved ’69 Impala parked outside. He kept offering more money. We hated to turn him down, but we had to keep going. As we were pulling out, Ramon yelled, “So tell me what you want for it, man!” I guess he didn’t want to let go of a vision of himself cruising Saturday nights in a ride bigger and weirder than anything else around.

Sometime after dark, just south of Orla, Texas, the trailer blew over in a crosswind, flaring sparks along the highway. We pulled over and checked the damage. The canoes were dented and scratched, but they’d been hit harder before bashing river rocks. But the wind was so relentless we couldn’t get the trailer back on its wheels, and we were afraid that the canoes would fill up with wind, tear off their cross-trees and go sailing into the desert, cartwheeling to Oklahoma. There was nothing to do except lash everything down as tightly as possible, crawl into the back of the truck and try to sleep, hoping the wind would die down before it blew the whole rig over. That night the truck felt like a boat battened down in a mid-ocean storm, but by morning the wind was down, the air was crisp and sharply tuned. We got everything righted enough to limp the trailer into town. A waitress at the café phoned her welder boyfriend who asked what we were doing with six canoes in the desert; then went to work mending, reinforcing and ballasting; and soon we were on the road again.

Hard traveling in questionable vehicles isn’t something I want to do for the rest of my life. Or maybe it is, and I’m only wary of admitting it because it sounds so, well, unproductive. There’s nothing like a good long drive to be reminded of – maybe reassured by – the resilient emptiness and the harsh, sweet loneliness of the West. 

A: a piss and a look around.

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