Category: Journal

Day 12 San Diego!

Sunday January 23, 2011

Last night we pulled into Yuma. We were exhausted and went against our better judgement (read: intuition) and stayed at a Motel 8 instead of doubling back to the more promising Yuma Cabana Motel. The 8 was fine, but devoid of character. The “blankets” were made from something unnatural and had more a texture of fiberglass insulation than plant or animal based fabric. They were blue-grey. No. Grey-blue. The lighting made us look like sallow brain-eating zombies. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

As we tried to find the ‘heart’ of town we passed one RV park after another. Separating these vast expanses were other types of vast expanses like train yards and fenced off areas with high-voltage structures. It was all kind of mysterious.

The USMC Air Station, the Yuma Proving Ground, and the Federal Border Patrol employ as many people as all other large employers (medical, schools, gov’t, farmers, etc) combined. That might account for why Yuma seems at once to be both sprawling and deserted. We wondered; what, exactly, is a Proving Ground? It turns out that it’s where we prove that we have bad-ass military equipment. 90 percent of the activity at the YPG is to test weapon systems. They also provide Army units a realistic environment for desert military training before they deploy to the real thing. Yuma is well situated because it simulates so precisely the physical environments in which we find ourselves in conflict–it’s hot, arid, blindingly bright and susceptible to sandstorms. Of course it does not (and perhaps cannot) simulate the subtleties and eccentricities of Arab culture which might be just as helpful as testing ‘smart weapons.’

They are busy:

“…Realistic villages and road networks representing urban areas in Southwest Asia have been constructed and are used for testing counter-measures to the threat of roadside bombs…In a typical year, over 500,000 artillery, mortar and missile rounds are fired, 36,000 parachute drops take place, 200,000 miles (320,000 km) are driven on military vehicles, and over 4000 air sorties are flown from the proving ground’s Laguna Army Airfield…”

Divide by 260 working days and that’s a lot of bang per day. BpD. Yuma is no shrinking violet in the ‘get your war on’ arena.

We ventured downtown to a main street that looked like so many others we have seen on this trip. Excellent buildings partly boarded up and mostly struggling to hang on. We were, of course, looking for a coffeeshop. BA had wisely stopped for a Starbucks out near the highway. We asked around and were told that there was one place (and one only) that we could find coffee downtown on a Sunday morning: the Happy Chef. We walked a few blocks and indeed, the lot was full, but the name had changed:

What had happened?! Was it the economy? Had someone backed into this sign one too many times? Should this be read in the British sense– that the Chef had gone crazy? We decided to find out. He couldn’t be mad for lack of business, the place was hopping.

Once again, we were in a restaurant with a re-purposed train car addition.

Judging from the style of the coffee cup, the gargantuan cinnamon roll, and the fact that they left the coffee carafe on the table we figured the Mad Chef must be Greek. We asked our waitress why the Chef had gone from happy to mad and while she thought it might have something to do with the economy, she didn’t know for sure. She pointed him out; he was sitting in the next room holding court at a table full of regulars. We ate the rest of our breakfast and worked up our courage to approach this angry man.

This is John. He’s definitely Greek and he had the craziest laugh we’d heard in a while. We recorded him just to remember his excellent accent. He explained that he was mad because he had been in a car wreck (hence, the cane) the previous year and he couldn’t cook anymore. Ahh. The ravages of time and limitations of the body. On the whole, though, he admitted to actually being pretty happy (it was obvious) and grateful for the customers that continued to stream in and address him by name. There was a sign above the cash register that read, “Here you are a stranger only one time.” We talked for a while and he gave us a hug and wished us safe travels. The entrance had filled up with people waiting for tables. Since we are keeping track of the best of everything we’ve experienced on the trip, Chele asked this guy for a picture. He gets an A+ in the category of  ’Best Beard in 1,500 Miles’:

Yuma isn’t quite on the border, but it’s close. Besides the cinnamon roll and the Happy/Mad chef, Yuma seemed like a downer so we dug out our passports and pointed the Subie due south towards San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora, MX. We had gotten an e-mail from Wendy suggesting that we cross over and get tacos. We also decided to try and score some Advair for Chele’s mother. This idea was based on a tip we’d received back at a shoe store in McPherson, KS. The clerk there was from Yuma and she told us that snowbirds who wintered in town would often cross into Mexico and stock up on cheap drugs. We love being on a mission.

All around Yuma, if land isn’t held down by the weight of irrigation, it just blows:

south to the border

Right at the checkpoint there is a green-space euphemistically named ‘Friendship Park.’

We love that it is Main Street that takes you to the checkpoint.

Though admittedly immature, it has become sport for us to try and sneak pictures of the Border Patrol. It seemed like any other checkpoint, so we were mystified when the agent motioned for us to get out of the line and pointed to an area where they were searching vehicles. Wha?

And then it dawned on us: these were Mexican agents working for Mexico. It was kind of a relief. We were finally being treated like two people in a car visibly packed with who knows what. Being Mexican agents in Mexico, they were asking us questions in rapid fire Spanish. We floundered. Then they called in a colleague. In better English than either of us command, he asked us why we had come to Mexico. Suddenly, the idea of tacos seemed dubious. They asked about the photo equipment and when we explained that we were artists en route from Madison, WI the agent had more questions about the merits of a Canon versus Nikon than whether we were there to fence electronics. For a minute we thought they might actually dig through the car but they seemed amused by what a curious wreck our ride was–still filthy from the Jornada del Muerto with a pile of confusion topped by 60′s Mexican telenovella posters from the junk store in Ajo–  they smiled and waved us on.

San Luis Rio Colorado was named for the Red River. Until the twentieth century, the Colorado flowed through here on its way to the Gulf of California. Now it does not. By the time it gets to Yuma, it has been picked off by numerous diversions and dams so that little if any water flows in the river bed here. San Luis is a dry, dusty, jumbled mix of US fast food chains, independent electronics stores, bustling tiendas, taco stands, etc. Neon colored banners drape the crowded storefronts and announce great deals; cars pack the wide streets and faded stop signs seem to provide some order. We inadvertently ran a few of them and had second thoughts about the Mexican Insurance we’d passed up in Why, AZ. If there was a central plaza or quaint historic district, we missed it. About two miles from the border, San Luis quieted down and was actually kind of pleasant.

we're suckers for Dr. Seuss trees

The side-streets were oddly spacious:

Not surprisingly, it seemed that this water park was out of business. But you have to love the figure it cuts against the sky.

The best part of any Mexican town is the color sense.

It was already 11am and we had dinner plans with Wendy and Bill in San Diego. We decided to get down to business. We thought that maybe we could work up an appetite by tracking down asthma drugs. Chele saw a guy sitting in a doorway and jumped out to ask questions:

He had an open-air used appliance store.

He was very sweet, asked where we were from, and directed us up the street to a pharmacy. The Advair haul was a bust. They had other types of inhalers,

but nothing we wanted to take a chance on…”Daughter Kills Mother with Discount Asthma Meds from Mexican Border Town” Umm. No. We do not want to be responsible for this headline. Besides, we figured we’d have another shot in San Diego and could do some research in the meantime. Both the guy who gave us directions and some other guys up the street (we were inquiring about a good place for tacos. The answer? “Everywhere.”) had warned us that the line to get back across the border could get pretty bad; especially because it was a weekend. Without a real plan, and still full from the ample breakfast at the Mad Chef, we headed back to the border. To find the end of the line, we traveled east on a parallel street and looked north through the cross streets. After more than a mile, we finally saw a clearing.

In total, the line was two miles long.

It's amazing. Three blocks south of the wall, there was no cell signal at all. (BTW, 2.8 miles in 5 minutes? Not when you are traveling at 2 mph)

As we sat and guessed at how long we would sit we considered whether this diversion was the first decision (besides not staying at the Yuma Cabana Motel) we’d made that we regretted. No tacos. No Advair. And now what would surely be  two hours of sitting in line… But there is a strange micro-culture in the border back-up. A whole industry of entrepreneurs selling ice cream, fried things (we don’t know what), tchotchkes, piñatas, jewellry…FURNITURE!

drunken cowboy monkeys

People were performing to raise money…in this case, a martial arts team was trying to get to a tournament:

The wall reminded Chele of the Berlin Wall except that there it was covered with art and protest; here, it is covered with ads. In Berlin, it divided two distinctly different economic ideologies; here, well…it advertises a conforming view that offers little to substantiate the kind of gulf this wall actually signifies.

do they have green cards?

We sat. And sat. We played a game in which Chele quizzed BA about the all-American quotes printed on each page of her new passport. (BA will not be on Jeopardy anytime soon, btw) We were frequently visited by the entrepreneurs. “Gracias, no.” and “Muy gracias, no.” And “Muy bonita, pero no.” And then, as if drawn by some spectral aura…wait…it IS a spectral aura…we simultaneously saw the rooster guy:

Like a heat seeking missile, he was coming straight for us.

Nothing was working! Where was our resistance?! Even our haggling instincts were thrown off. Before we knew it,

wha? what just happened?

that rooster was out of his arms and our cash was out the window. The paint was still off-gassing. Amazing. Wasted trip to Mexico? No way!

We finally made it back to the customs gate.

We sneak another picture as they sneak numerous shots of us. oy.

This time US agents asked the perfunctory questions and though our answer hadn’t changed (‘tacos’), we sailed on through. Even though BA’s tattoo was showing, it’s clear we just don’t fit the profile of people who might stuff a plaster rooster with weed…say now

Onward! Back to Yuma and west on Interstate 8. It was becoming inevitable that our trip was reaching a conclusion.

This made us a little sad.

But a few miles into California there were more border agents to cheer us up:

Most people coming from the mid-west would take I-10 (Albuquerque, Gallup, Flagstaff, Phoenix, Riverside, San Diego)  unless something (like tacos or plaster roosters) drew them south. We’ve both taken that route in the past. The downside is that by sticking to I-10, you have no idea that this exists:



Holy Ben Hur! The change in landscape was sudden; one minute we’re at another checkpoint and the next we’re in Egypt. The Algodones dunes stretched on for miles along Interstate 8, and extended 45 miles north up to Calipatria. They were so beautiful that we were shrieking just a little. At some point, we noticed this canal.

After a little bit of jack-ass research (ie: wikipedia) this is what we learned:

The canal is called “The All-American Canal.” As you might guess, the All-American is the biggest irrigation canal in the world. It was authorized at the same time as the Hoover Dam (circa 1928). It was supervised and designed by a guy named John Savage (this is a lob ball to all the environmentalists out there). Indeed, it took some savagery to tame the Colorado into traveling hundreds of miles from its banks to irrigate the Imperial Valley which provides a huge percentage (we heard over 50%, but we need a fact check here) of the green vegetables consumed in the US during the winter months. If it weren’t for the All-American, the valley would be a desert. Well actually, with an annual rainfall of 3 inches it is a desert. The canal feeds smaller diversions that find the agricultural fields and indirectly the AAC supplies water (via field run-off) to the Salton sink. Because the sink is now full of water (since a 1905 engineering screw-up), it is referred to as The Salton Sea. We will make a trip back to this inland sea while we are in San Diego.

Here is a chilling factoid about the canal. The current can be wicked and apparently hundreds of illegal immigrants (550 to date) have died trying to cross it. There is an active proposal to stretch safety ropes across to prevent such tragic mishaps. So far the oversight board for the canal has denied the rope idea because they think it will encourage illegal immigration. Last time we checked, though, it was opportunity and the pressures of poverty (the exact same forces that drove the Joads from Oklahoma to California) that encouraged immigration. C’mon. Ropes, please.

The landscape of the southwest is legendary for a reason. It cannot be contained by words or pictures– moving or still. It is a view contingent upon the degree of  openness in one’s heart. Maybe this is why every trip west can seem like the first. Just when you think you cannot frame a more ideal vista, you round a bend and are stunned by a more impossible composition, color field, or cultural intervention.

it was like these mountains were dumped from a pail full of river stones

We pulled into San Diego and turned north at the College Street exit. SDSU was in view to our left– the art school overlooks I-8. The enormity of navigating from Madison to San Diego instantly shrunk to navigating from the art department to our apartment three and a half miles up the hill.

our apartment is the green flag, the art dept. is the red one

It seems like an apt metaphor. After two weeks– starting in St. Louis with hermit crabs named after the fab four evangelists and ending with a persuasive rooster salesman in Mexico– all we can say is, “What just happened?” Shrinking/expanding/little/big…we have seen (or, more accurately, we have started to see) this country from an Alice-like perspective; tumbling down rabbit holes and drinking from little vials simply because they say, “Drink me.”

We are both from a generation when encyclopedia salesmen (yes. they were likely all men) went door to door and convinced young parents that it was their civic duty to have these (up to date) books of knowledge available to their growing children. These were books that “[brought] the world right to your livingroom.” Perhaps this trip would be analogous to the very best section which was in the first volume. The lengthy Anatomy section included acetate overlays that looked beautifully abstract when viewed singly with a white sheet of paper inserted underneath; and they were intelligible –nerves, arteries, veins, bones, organs, (sex parts!)– only when all the pages were stacked neatly. For a five year old, these pages were endlessly intriguing and vaguely terrifying because stacking them neatly was never the most interesting thing to do. Finding new forms by offsetting (and eventually removing and re-orienting) the leaves rendered the body–the map–contingent.

The next few weeks will be about re-drawing the map, condensing and collapsing events and stories to see which overlays reflect the hybrid absurdity and beauty that nuanced the entire experience. Writing this journal has given us a lens with which to inspect our own thoughts and feelings as we have gone along; and it has also given us the opportunity to think further and research a bit about the things we encountered. Knowing that we have had virtual travelers along with us has been such a gift. Thank you for your comments, encouragement, fact-checking, and energy.

At this point, we will continue to write about our experiences and the side trips to the desert that we have planned. Stay tuned!

So. We picked up our key and our landlord accompanied us to the apartment. In an effort to document “The Arrival!” Chele took this uninspiring photo of the back of the building:

our balcony is under the one with the weird plywood insert

and for the first time, her camera flashed the message “CF Card Full!”

Hmm. Just right.

<< Day 11

Day 11

Saturday January 22, 2011

We had a perfectly perfunctory stay at the Tucson Fairfield. We stayed as far east of town as possible thinking we’d go to the Suguaro National Park at sunrise to take pictures. If the sun rose at 9AM our plan would have worked. We looked at the atlas over breakfast to find a route west other than interstate 10. Within two seconds we had a plan.

easy enough

Yow. Not many choices. HWY 86 it is. We drove towards what we thought looked like the center of town to do an informal flag count. Even though the period of observance had ended a week ago, we were curious if the flags would still be at half-staff in Tucson. We didn’t even see that many flags, but the count was 2 half-staff, 4 full. We wondered where the Safeway was and tried to find the address online. After a few failed attempts, we deliberated whether it was tacky to go there –like rubber-necking at a bad highway accident or stalking celebrity houses in Brentwood (which we totally are planning on doing when we visit Los Angeles). BA felt that it would be really weird to be in Tucson, given the project we’re working on, and not go. We exited the beltline at HWY 19 which leads to 86 to fill the tank and the first person BA asked told us exactly how to get to the Safeway. It was north and east of the center of Tucson. Chele deferred to  BA’s intuition which seemed more clear than her own ambivalence. It had been exactly two weeks since the shooting and Chele predicted (rather cynically) that to avoid further bad press the Safeway would have already removed the flowers and candles that had been placed there after the tragedy. Just before the exit we saw a billboard with no sponsor. It simply said, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the many affected in our community.”

The first thing we saw in the shopping mall parking lot:

copycat crime is a huge concern

We parked and quickly realized BA had been right.

the note on the cactus says, "together we thrive"

There were blank ribbons for people to write on and add to the installation.

they have been overwhelmed with support

Giffords was transferred to Houston to begin therapy the previous day

There was a steady stream of people observing and also leaving notes and offerings

People seemed to want to respond in any way that they could. We don’t now what an appropriate balloon for a memorial would look like, but this one stymied Chele so she took a picture of it to show BA so they could think about it later:

a curious choice

When we were sorting pictures for the blog, we noticed something strange. This is the very next photo Chele took:

Hmm…wait a minute…


Here is the truth of the matter. As terrible, frightening, sad, and deplorable as the Safeway shooting is, we must go on. But moving on isn’t about getting back to business as usual; it’s about working together to turn the tide of animosity that compelled someone to murder and maim people at a grocery store. The woman in this picture is as buoyant as she looks. Her name is Valerie Miller and she is holding a a document entitled, ‘A Call to America for Civility.’ She and other citizens are taking action to address something that is so far out of check that we can barely find a place from which to begin a dialogue. This cascade of insanity, afterall, is inextricably linked to the power of words. How we express ourselves is a responsibility each of us bear. Please take a moment and read their document. After talking to Valerie, we felt enormously better. The energy at this site is hard to describe. There were people saying prayers, people lugging grocery bags, people who swung wide and people who zeroed in. No matter whether one wants to avoid the memorial or engage with it; the charge is palpable. We were changed by the experience and grateful to have taken part.

If we return to Tucson, we will stay at a place Valerie told us about; The Arizona Inn on Elm Street. It was founded in 1930 by Arizona’s first congresswoman Isabella Greenway. To this day it is the go-to place for  conferences, meetings, and events that involve women and Arizona politics.

We headed back to HWY 19 and as we exited west onto HWY 86, two border patrol trucks pulled up next to us. We started a tally.

Within moments, a third truck pulled up behind us, then cut us off in order to get behind the other two:

BP #3

After about ten or fifteen miles, they signaled and turned south on HWY 286. Still stinging from being cut-off, we decided to tail them.

heading south

Once they were on this road, they instantly stopped observing the 55mph speed limit and at 85mph we were losing them.

hwy 286, mile marker 35 and counting down

We passed a fleet of three  Border Patrol trucks (all identical white Chevy pick-ups) that were heading north. We had already followed the southbound guys 15 miles when we decided that this adventure could only reach one conclusion which was that we’d have to turn around in precisely 35 miles and double all the way back. Oh well. It was a good effort. We did a U-turn and headed back to 86.

It was really empty out there. And yet, someone is getting mail:

Yes, we counted. Ninety-one boxes of mail on the posts...

We pulled back onto 86 west, and guess what?

We decided that in addition to just keeping a tally, we would document every BP we ended up following.

Our guy did a U-turn here and parked. This is a checkpoint, but we weren’t stopped.

We entered the  Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation and came across this trading post.

it looks like a movie set

They were selling traditional crafts from a number of different tribes; plus gas, snacks & chilis. They were also making these:

we're not sure what they are.

Thank you Wiki, for the following information about the Tohono O’odham:

Though the 2000 census states that there are 10,000 people in the TO nation, their own tally is 25,000 enrolled members. The Tohono O’odham Nation gains most of its income from its three Desert Diamond casinos. This source of income is just over a decade old. About every 2 years, each adult gets a cut of the casino profits- approx. $2,000/ea. The casinos have paid for the tribe’s first fire department, but cannot cover tribal members’ numerous basic needs. Housing, emergency services, medical, and educational needs require expensive infrastructure, including transportation, personnel, education, and technology. The physical isolation of the Nation has always been a handicap to its economic development.

When the Mexico border was drawn in 1853, part of the nation ended up south of the border. The TO used to be able to travel freely across the border because thousands of their people live in Sonora. This is impossible now (witness the swarms of BP). For the past decade, numerous bills have been introduced to congress to allow the TO dual citizenship, but all have been rejected. This creates a problem, for instance,  when TO born in Mexico want to work (or be with family) on TO land that lies in the US. By granting dual-citizenship the “one people–two nations” problem has been addressed for aboriginal people whose land straddles the Canadian border. But not so with the TO on the Mexican border. Go figure.

We got to Sells, the capital of the reservation, and Chele espied a yard sale sign. Yard sale on the rez? We had to check it out. The mostly cinderblock houses are built for the people by the TO nation and the winding streets and neatly spaced units had the feel of an army base. Breaking the order and monotone palette was this inflatable jumpy cube.

We found the yard sale. The family was hanging out on the front stoop. We were the only shoppers; and clearly, awkwardly, outsiders. It was too late to back out, and there was no getting around, so we followed some sage advice we got before heading out on this trip– when faced with conflict, head straight into it. The conflict, in this case, was our own inner-conflict.  The cliché “white guilt” is something that gets bandied about and made light of, not because there isn’t plenty to feel guilty about but because it is so conceptually complex that one squirms under its weight. What were we doing here– looking for bargains in an impoverished and subsidized neighborhood? Actually, no. We were trying to meet people. But  from their lack of interest in our presence we sensed exactly how the situation must appear. If it weren’t for the puppies, we might have never gotten to talk to them. Have we mentioned lately how much we love dogs?

A teenaged boy was playing with a puppy that was a few months old. Chele walked over and asked if the puppy was part of the yard sale. The boy grinned and replied that for one thousand dollars, he could be ours. Just then another dog walked over and absurdity and laughter came to the rescue:

We love you, eyebrow dog.

And that did it. We talked to them for the next half hour. We asked about the crazy eye brows and they told us that they weren’t sure what was going on. With regularity, it seems, he  goes out into the neighborhood and when he comes back, someone has drawn eye brows on him. They told us we should visit Kitt Peak Observatory (it is on land leased from the TO nation and is home to the most diverse range of telescopes anywhere in the world) and asked us about our trip. We asked them to be part of the camera project and had them pose for a family portrait:

When we asked for a picture, the grandmother whispered something to the younger girl and she disappeared into the house and returned with baby Ariel. Adorable!

Just as we were leaving, one of the girls came out of the house with a tortilla for us. When Veronica (far right) realized she’d only wrapped up one, she sent her back for another.

they told us the O'odham word for tortilla, but we didn't write it down fast enough

(update! The Tohon O’odham word for tortilla is ‘cemit.’ Thanks RVG3!)

They were delicious. Home-made and cooked over an open fire in the back yard. This gesture, simple yet intimate, left us almost speechless. We promised to send a print of the family portrait and we are looking forward to getting their photos. We wished that we could have stayed longer…

the best yard sale ever

we headed out of the neighborhood and turned west on 86. Guess what?!

honest. it was crazy.

He pulled into a Shell station:

then got right back on the road behind us. WTF?

Then another BP blew past us and once again, we were following.

This land is incredibly harsh. But also beautiful.

the saguaro are everywhere

this looks so

the fence followed the entire length of the highway on both sides, but where were the animals?

At the moment we saw two forlorn and emaciated cows in the distance, it occurred to us that we hadn’t seen any cattle since we entered the reservation. We saw more BP heading east, and then came upon a cemetery. The colors exploded in this otherwise brown and dull green landscape.

And we noticed that many of the graves were mounded up like Ma Joad had mentioned.

Aha! Mystery solved. The wreathes that we saw at the trading post are for the graves.

a yarn vase

trash collection seems to be a problem- there were piles like this all around

We continued our drive. There isn’t a whole lot going on- no houses, no barns, just miles and miles of arid desert.We passed one of the TO casinos near Why, AZ. It was a curious amalgamation of a gas station, a convenience store and the Desert Diamond casino.

BA wanted to gamble the nest egg, but Chele talked her out of it.

Why indeed.

We pulled over for some snacks in Why.

No drinking, beer for sale. Plus insurance.

We love the idea of Why. Why? It’s obvious.

donation cans for Mr. & Miss sweetheart competition

From Why, you can go south to Lukeville or north to Ajo on 85. HWY 85, 86 and 286. These are the only roads south of the Interstate between Tucson and Yuma. We have traveled them all. Math is not our strong suit. But is it possible that this area of AZ is 15,000 square miles with only 3 roads? We’re throwing out a lifeline to the fact checkers.

BA asked Joe Flores, the owner of the station, about the Mexican insurance and he explained that we should buy it for traveling in MX because our stateside homeowners policy wouldn’t cover calamity south of the border. We’re not sure about that advice, but the cider he recommended was delicious.

Joe wanted a copy of this picture. When we asked for his e-mail he looked at us like we were crazy. USPS only. We like Joe.

Up the road about 40 miles, we pulled into a strange little town called Ajo. It used to be a big mining town but that has died out and now it is an inexpensive place for snowbirds to pass the winter. There are a few unexpected buildings around town like this church:


Another surprise in Ajo:


We were lucky enough to find Ray there and spent over an hour chatting with him

and checking out his collection. He used to have a store up near Phoenix but got burnt out and came to Ajo. Chele was obsessed with the giant pile of old Mexican movie and tele-novella posters (yes, we left with a small selection of them) and BA found a minty green teapot. We checked out the two huge murals painted on either end of the warehouse. One was a fantastical desert scene and he asked if we saw the Javalina (pronounced: Hav-a-lina). Aha! So Javalina isn’t just a cute coffee shop in Silver City. It’s actually a nasty wild pig that lives in the desert. Another mystery solved. If you are ever traveling through Ajo, be sure to stop at Ray’s for amazing must-haves like this:


and this:

better than butter.

What a great way to end our southern Arizona backroads adventure. There’s more from Ray’s (so much more) but we needed to get on the road so will have to document the rest of our haul at a later date. The sun was setting

and we still had to make it to Yuma. We were about 10 miles from Interstate 8 when we had our last Border Patrol encounter.

This gets really wearisome. But once again, with even more crap in the car, we are waved through without question.

Final tally for Border Patrol truck sightings was 23. We don’t think it’s much of a stretch to estimate that one in ten vehicles that we saw on hwy 86 & 85 was a BP. We talked for a long time trying to figure out what this must be costing taxpayers.

We caught the interstate at Gila Bend.

Finally! And yet, this made us a little sad.

Oddly, we had to go east to go west…

Halfway between Gila Bend and Yuma we stopped for gas at a Texaco.

As BA filled the tank, Chele went in search of snacks. We don’t know how to prepare you, dear reader, for the adventure about to unfold, but you should know that nothing delights Chele more than dates. (Of the dried fruit variety, that is) Check this out:

They had nine varieties for sale– plus there were samples everywhere!

There were fancy giftboxes!

date butter! date jam! date syrup!

date steak sauce!

date milkshakes!

sweet Estrellita who was selling dates!

Good lord! Everytime we think the day can’t possibly get any better, something like this happens. And as if crazy date overload wasn’t enough, the truckstop itself was deluxe.

dog treat dispensers!


who cares if they don't match?

Wha? Kohler sinks and a Dyson air blade?! Texaco, you have gone too far!

Oh lone star of Dateland, you will always shine bright in our hearts.

We hit the road giddy with our good fortune and high on date sugar. We listened to The Grapes of Wrath. Even though they are driving an overloaded, piece of crap Hudson ever on the verge of death, the  Joads have made it to California before us. They are looking for the work that was promised on handbills back in Oklahoma, but it was a scam to overpopulate the work force and drive down the cost of labor on the farms and in the orchards. Things are not looking good. The people need to organize.

<< Day 10 (2) | Day 12 San Diego! >>

Day 10 (continued)

Friday, January 21, 2011 (still…)

After barely making it through what Chele perceived as a driveway apron, and BA (correctly) perceived as a rock barrier, we were stopped by uniformed border agents. Reluctant to try and drive back through the rip-rap, Chele jumped out and decided to fess-up and appeal to the sympathy of the guards while BA (illegally, it turns out) took pictures.

>Tip of the day. You are not allowed to take pictures at checkpoints. They will take your camera.

"We were just driving through the valley of death..."

We led with, “Where are we?!” and then explained that we were doing research (if you are ever in a jam, pull out the “research” card) on the El Camino Real, and that we were artists (if you  are in a REAL jam, blame it on art) and at this point we just needed to head back north on HWY 25. And by the way, “Are we in Mexico?” The agent was really nice. No. We weren’t in Mexico. This was just a checkpoint about 20 miles north of Las Cruces. We would have to go a few more miles to reach the end of the Jornada and find the entrance for hwy 25. There were cars lined up further than we could see. Chele whined a little about having to drive back over the barricade and another guard came over and told her to get back in the car. Then he did the unthinkable. He stepped in front of a semi-truck, held up an authoritative hand and used the other to wave us in like a maitre d’ ushering us to the best table in the restaurant.

we snuck one more picture

It was really disorienting to encounter this place. Except for the occasional holiday drunk-driving sting operation when police will block a road and do random sobriety surveys, we had never been interrogated for simply being in a car on the road in our own country. In her book, ‘Something in the Soil’ Patricia Limerick writes about factors that distinguish the west as ‘The West’; a culture that finds distinction from the rest of the U.S. (and world, for that matter) based on it’s geography, it’s conquest, it’s aridity…and we would add, it’s tension regarding the border. For all the time she has spent paddling the boundary waters of far northern Minnesota, Chele has never encountered a check-point. BA was hassled crossing into Canada last year, but she was driving a U-Haul loaded with dead insects for one of Jennifer Angus’ art installations– and she was actually crossing into another country. This checkpoint was 60 miles north of the border.

The other odd thing about this encounter is that we had come out of the middle of the desert. Our car was packed almost to the roof, from the front seats to the tailgate, with a pile of stuff. Not neatly packed boxes or suitcases, but a kind of organic pile. One would think that would present a kind of, well, red flag to a patrol agent looking for drugs, weapons, or smuggled people. And could we have a person curled up beneath our pillows and jackets and maps and food? Could we have been to the border in our all-wheel drive vehicle on a 1,000′s year old trail that goes through remote desert STRAIGHT TO MEXICO? Naw. “You ladies have a nice day.”

We had decided to double back half-way to T or C in order to take a route through the Mimbres Mountains in the Gila National Forest. Here is a picture of the Caballo Mountains on the west side of the Jornada. In between us and the mountain is the Rio Grande.

heading north on 25

Heading west, we climbed through the mountains towards Silver City. It was absolutely stunning and a complete shift from the arid desert:

tiny house big hills

big house tiny hill

BA mastered the switch-backs, Roxy didn’t complain at all:

This shot isn’t quite at the top (8,228 ft) but it’s close. You can see all the way back to the Caballo Mountains, probably 40 miles away:

Amazing. This would make a great paint-by-number. Whatever happened to those?

The mountains shift from looking like sand to solid rock.

As we descended towards Silver City, we would be treated to seeing what the inside of a mountain really looks like.

Santa Rita is about 15 miles from Silver City and was established during colonial times as a copper mine. It seems they’ve been shaving away ever since.

Speaking of shaving the tops off of things, we found an interesting bit of history about Santa Rita. Back in 1837 an American trader, James Johnson, lured a local Apache tribe to a supposedly friendly trade meeting and feast, then massacred them from the brush with Horwitzers. He had been after a couple of scalps of high ranking warriors in the group. The call by a Spanish governor of Santa Fe to kill every Apache man, woman, and child by any method necessary and without mercy had been made 40 years previous. Though the Apaches and locals (now Mexicans) had been living in relative harmony all the interceding years, technically the bounty offer was still valid. Johnson managed to kill a number of women and other unsuspecting, peaceful people, but his targets escaped. In retaliation, the Apaches attacked and killed nearly 500 townspeople; basically everybody except for a lucky six inhabitants who escaped to Chihuahua.

Tip> do not piss off the Apache.

The bad mojo left the town abandoned for over a decade and mining didn’t resume until 1873. In 1901 they started open pit mining and the town had to keep moving as the pit grew outwards. In 1957, heavy rains washed boulders and mud through the most recent townsite and they basically hung it up for good about ten years later. Santa Rita is now considered a ghost town. It is not listed in our trusty 2010 Road Atlas.

But the mining continues.

As we were driving through the Mimbres, we kept coming round bends to a blinding setting sun. Every time we thought that surely the sun would be over the horizon, we’d crest another curve and get blinded again. As we left the massive mining area, the sun was finally petering out for real.

everything had a soft glow

We pulled into Silver City in desperate need for coffee before the last push to Tucson. We found a great place called Javalina and we wished we’d had time to linger:

Velvet couches at the Javalina! Another NM ur-man!

BA chatted with Tricia, a friendly barrista who was especially interested in stories from the beginning of our trip since she hails  from Arkansas City, Kansas. Tricia recently moved to Silver City, but she also maintains some sort of home-base near Atlanta, Georgia, where she spends time white-water rafting on the Chattooga River.

The Javalina is huge. They had Scrabble. So tempting...

Tricia sent us a few blocks down Main Street to Nancy’s Silver Cafe for tamales. Downtown Silver City is historically intact and well maintained. It is on our list for more exploration at a later date.

we're suckers for old time barber shops

Nancy’s looked promising…

we are starving

Yea! An actual hand-painted window; not vinyl.

The food was amazing! And the only sad part was that

next time

we were too full for pie.

We hit the road, bound for Tucson, and listened to The Grapes of Wrath. The family finally makes it to California and Grandma Joad dies; mostly from heartbreak. Grandpa Joad died right in the beginning of the journey and they had to secretly bury him because they couldn’t afford an undertaker. Burying someone and not reporting the death is illegal, so they stuck a note in a bottle explaining the situation and wrapped Grandpa’s hands around it. A curious detail was when they smoothed out the dirt to conceal the burial and Ma Joad said, “It just ain’t right” to not mound up the dirt.

We will look into this.

<< Day 10 (1) | Day 11 >>

Day 10

Friday, January 21, 2011

We started the day with breakfast burritos and coffee from the Happy Belly Deli, a charming local hangout with a garden patio. (though it was a little chilly to sit out there)

BA getting a grip on the day

We asked these guys if we could take their picture. We’ve discovered a kind of ur-man in New Mexico– characterized by white hair (usually long), intelligence, uncommon sense, idealism (but also a touch of cynicism) and they seem to be plugged in AND tuned out…the fact that the third guy got up and out of the picture was no surprise. The ur-man is sometimes paranoid. We love the NM ur-men because they have a mysterious kinship to the landscape– craggy and weathered, and yet their eyes are bright and seem to have the crisp desert light within. What continues to surprise us is that many of them are not native to NM but relocated from elsewhere decades ago (Roger, for instance, is from our own Wisconsin). They seem, however, to have always been here.

After breakfast, we strolled around town and lamented that the junk stores weren’t yet open. Another reason to get back to TorC is that:


Not entirely true. We saw this:

and inexplicably, this:

don't know what this is, but want it in my livingroom.

We turned off the main street to get a look at the Rio Grande – it’s beautiful.

This town was called “Hot Springs” before it won a contest announced in 1950 by Ralph Edwards, host of the popular NBC radio program called Truth or Consequences. Edwards said he would air the program from the first town that renamed itself after the show. Hot Springs won the honor and Edwards visited the town during the first weekend of May for the next fifty years. This event was called “Fiesta” and included a beauty contest, a parade, and a stage show. The town still celebrates the Fiesta, and everyone we talked to feels that the celebrity the new moniker brought to the town is, generally, a good thing. But it does obfuscate the fact that there are amazing hot springs throughout the city. Here’s an acequia channeling water to the river.

It is hot, not warm, HOT

so hot our hands tingled

We kept waffling on what to do. We knew that it was about 10 degrees in Madison and it seemed like we should find a hot spring to sit in; wouldn’t our loved ones back home want that for us? And yet, we had a job to do and a trail to explore. We decided against it this time around, but picked up numerous brochures for our next visit. On the way back to the car, we met a white haired ur-man walking his sweet rescue dog named Sumac. We talked about dogs, enjoyed the funky neighborhood

check out the tree. Dr. Suess has been here.

there's stuff like this everywhere

and took in a few more sights on the way back to the motel.

A home-made shrine for the Buddha that was taller than the house. We could live in TorC.

Cool signs all over town.

We decided that our next trip to T or C would be longer.

Back at the motel, Hans came through and delighted us with several accordion songs in German and Spanish that included yodeling and clucking.

10am...where would this day lead with a start like this?!

Here we must digress and back up one hour to tell you that until we ordered breakfast at the Happy Belly Deli we didn’t really know the name of our hotelier. For all the chatting at check-in, this was one detail we overlooked. The woman at the HBD said, “Oh, you’re staying up at Hans’ place.” We were confused because Hans isn’t exactly an English name. When we asked Hans about this, he said, “Well, Hans isn’t really my name. It’s Ed. But everyone knows me as Hans, and I got tired of explaining.”

Of course we disregarded his weariness and asked him to tell us the story .

When Ed was 11 his family moved to a smaller house where there was no room for his beloved piano. His father felt badly about it, and one day came home with an accordion, which Hans taught himself to play by ear. He also taught himself to phonetically sing German songs so he had no idea what he was singing about. He fell in love with a Swiss girl and followed her to Vienna where he finally learned German. Eventually he ended up in Canada (we can’t remember why) where a guy who liked his yodeling would fly him down to Miami to sing for his birthday parties. One time, while staying in Miami he got an ongoing gig in a Bavarian restaurant. The owner didn’t think a yodeling accordion player named Ed Townsend would have enough draw, so he renamed him “Hans Steiger.” The Hans part stuck. Hans has been all over the world and has owned hotels and restaurants from Chicago to Taos, but he loves TorC for its laid back pace, beauty and uniqueness.

After a lovely concert, BA left Hans with a baby kombucha SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). He had been wanting to brew his own kombucha for a while but didn’t know where to get a scoby. Felicia was at school, but we explained the camera project to Hans and asked him to pass it along to her. We are looking forward to her report on life in TorC  (perhaps in the form of an interpretive puppet show?)

Before heading out of town, we stopped in the Post Office to mail a package. It was a well preserved Classical Revival building

with an enormous mailroom, the original, oak p.o. boxes, and one clerk –a pleasant young woman with undying patience. There was only one other customer there when we arrived, but BA stood in line for what seemed like a half-hour while the clerk explained how to fill out a passport application (apparently for the first time). Any other day this may have tested our nerves, but the thought of someone setting a journey into motion made her a kindred spirit. Chele passed the time taking photos of an intriguing painting high up on the wall depicting some kind of Native American situation.

Eventually another woman joined BA in line where she saw Chele taking photos of the painting and she began noticing it as if seeing it for the first time. She and BA tried to figure out what was happening in the scene. What was that crazy bent hand gesture about? Aside from the artist’s signature, Boris Deutsch, there was no information re: the date of completion or title. The clerk told us she thought there was info somewhere and offered to look, but we really didn’t want to make people wait any longer. Who knows how long she would spend on the task…and now there was even more of a line. Post office people are strangely unflappable.

We did some online research.

It turns out Deutsch’s painting is a “WPA” art project—part of the government’s New Deal public arts program that employed artists during the Great Depression. We also found out that the building is known as “a good example of an unaltered, small-town single-purpose post office.” Who knew there was such a specific genre of buildings? No doubt the mural, painted in 1940, is one of the things that keeps it “unaltered.”  The Indian Bear Dance, is one of 48 murals that were painted by professional artists in post offices in each of the then 48 states. They were chosen out of 1,475 submitted sketches. Apparently Deutsch’s color studies for the T or C mural, now held in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, reveal an interesting change in plans. Instead of the mountain behind the figures performing the bear dance, the preliminary sketches depict a Native American chief dancing out of the path of an oncoming “Super Chief” locomotive from the Santa Fe Railway. “For some unknown reason” (as the Spring 2006 edition of the Sierra County Artists Directory puts it), the mural was redesigned, replacing the locomotive with an inert mountain. The directory also claims, “The balance of the final work is essentially the same as the studies.” I guess it depends on what kind of balance you’re talking about. It’s not that difficult to imagine why someone wanted the subject matter altered –this was, afterall, a government sponsored public mural.  But we wonder who in the chain of command took control of the imagery, and thus shifted the conceptual framework. Deutsch’s studies and a few written details are listed on the Smithsonian website but they are accompanied by annoying blank square boxes reading, “Image Not Available.”

For a larger image of the mural and a more in depth report regarding our thoughts about a Lithuanian immigrant painting a (censored) WPA mural in Truth {ahem} or Consequences about Native American ceremony in the style of a German Expressionist at the beginning of World War II, please click here.

After the post office we stopped by the Geronimo Museum. We knew we didn’t have time to see it this trip, but we figured we could get an idea of what it was about. We met a fascinating and serene woman named Cissy who worked at the front desk. She told us about the great history of the hot springs, the medicinal quality of the water, and where the best baths were. She also filled us in about the Spaceport- something we had heard about in passing. Spaceport America is a controversial project being built out in the desert on state owned property. In fact, she said, we’d go right past it if we were going to the Jornada del Muerto. The Spaceport is a publite, errr…we mean private, enterprise that was heavily promoted, praised, and pushed by governor Bill Richardson. In October of last year the runway was dedicated as “Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway.” One of the big private players is Sir Richard Branson, billionaire owner of Virgin Atlantic. The plane, designed by Burt Rutan, that carries the spaceship to the edge of the atmosphere is called The White Knight II. The first White Knight was named for Branson’s mother Evette. Officially it is the Virgin Mothership Eve. There is something oogey about that mash-up of shining armor, mother love, virgin birth, good and evil, Freud and consequences. But thoughts on that will wait for another day.

Recently, Virgin Atlantic scored a win when the NM legislature signed into law “Informed Consent” legislation that holds the company faultless in the event of client injury or death. “Hello….just sign on the dotted line. And welcome to the Jornada del Muerto.”  C’mon people.

Cissy’s concerns were for the environment and the tax bill incurred by the residents of Sierra and Doña Ana counties. While jobs will be created, Cissy thinks that the type of clientele (tix are $200K for 5 minutes of weightlessness) that the Spaceport attracts won’t be interested in small town T or C. Furthermore, she worries that it would put incredible pressure on fresh water resources to make T or C  the type of resort town that would appeal to the VMS Eve crowd. Like so many of the people in NM with whom we spoke, Cissy thinks deeply about the delicate environment of the desert, water conservation, incessant poverty, failing schools, and the poor economy overall. Exactly how $200,000 joy rides into space address any of these concerns is hard to fathom. We wondered if we could get a look at the Spaceport and Cissy told us we could –but that they charge for site visits. So much for public land.

Three cheers for Cissy.

The Geronimo Museum book & gift shop

We took third street out of town, due east to a giant reservoir called Elephant Butte. T or C depends on this reservoir which has been shrinking in recent years. She knows it’s not PC, but Chele loves dams:

it's not a love of dams per se, but the aesthetics of the architecture

Seeing a lake in the middle of the desert, manmade or not, is surreal:

it's like another planet. trip into space unnecessary.

over the mountain we entered the valley of El Camino Real.

We had never seen a sign like this:

Indeed, the pavement did end about 10 miles down the road and about fifty feet past the driveway for Spaceport America.

go north for Elephant Butte, south for Spaceport. This was part of a guerilla sticker campaign.

Before you head south to the part of  El Camino Real that is named the Jornada del Muerto, you get to the “town” of Engle. Engle consists of a few small ranch house type office buildings, barn shelters and one small church sitting in a big dirt lot. We stopped in to see what was going on and discovered that we were at Armendaris, one of Ted Turner’s 3 NM ranches. His NM land adds up to over a million acres and comprise about half of his total land holdings. One ranch in NM is 920 square miles. Rhode island is 1,214 square miles. Just sayin’…

The goal of the ranch is to provide refuge for what is the largest herd {50,000} of captive bison in the world– ironically, they also supply meat for his chain of {46} Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants. The ranch functions as a preserve for the Bolson’s tortoise, desert bighorn sheep, pronghorn, desert mule deer, cougar, oryx and it is a major migration station for Mexican free-tailed bat. Though these animals seem safe from the restaurant menu, Turner Ranch Outfitters operates managed  hunting and fishing on it’s landholdings. The people in the office were professional-style nice and immediately jumped to the conclusion that we wanted directions to the Spaceport. They were a little more patient with us when we told them we were interested in the history of El Camino Real. Still, we didn’t hang out long. Engle was empty of people except for the office manager and ranch hands who must have all been out doing whatever ranch hands do (we asked but didn’t get a definitive answer–”you know, mending fences and stuff”). We never did find out what they use this for:

we want one.

About 10 or 15 miles down the road, we found the Spaceport. Without clearance, this is what you get:

a manly design

it looks lonely

Suddenly we were having a real experience on the rutted out washboard of the Jornada del Muerto! Finally!

we had to slow to 20mph

The story behind this stretch of El Camino is that travelers could cut days off their trip by staying between the San Andres mountain range to the east and the Caballo Mts. to the west. Though travel along the Rio Grande would have supplied water, it was also a route of steep ridges and canyons and it was unpredictable because the river continuously changed course cutting new paths and leaving quicksand where a previous route had been. In either case, one also needed to be mindful of the Apaches. The Jornada stretches 90 miles from Las Cruces to Socorro where the El Camino Real Heritage site is.

looking back

looking forward

where we stand

Imagine doing this at 3MPH. In temperatures in excess of 100 degrees. Oy.

We were out of Turners bison territory, but for some reason, we still thought we might see some wildlife. And then suddenly a large cat–and by large, we mean about the size of  a Greyhound (dog)– leapt from the brush and across the road in one fluid move. And then another, baby one. If we both hadn’t seen it, one might suspect heatstroke. But it’s January and not that hot…it sounds so dramatic, but we think they might have been cougars. Of course, with our limited skills, we only caught the more lumbering, bovine types on the trail,

our lame wildlife action photo

and the idea of a bird:


The desert went on and on. There are a few trails leading off the Jornada, but if there are ranches or dwellings, you can’t see them from the road. We thought we must be near  the end of the trail; we started seeing HWY 25 to our right, and to our left was the south end of San Andres mountain range:

The map shows the Jornada crossing HWY25 about 20 miles north of Las Cruces. After a while, we felt we’d gone too far and were looking for a way to get on the highway; was this a desert style on-ramp?

This goes under HWY 25. Chele thought the framing was beautifully reminiscent of old super-eight.

Hell…that didn’t work. We saw what looked like a gravel driveway, but the rocks were heaped up and the size of bricks; Chele was enthusiastically telling BA to “GO FOR IT!!!”

BA carefully guided Roxy to the high points of the rock piles so we wouldn’t bottom out. (Roxy’s been a champ on this trip!)

And then…

we saw this:

they were gesturing in a somewhat unfriendly manner...

Where were we?! Had we crossed into Mexico?

This day is only half over.

Stay tuned until next time to find out what happens to our bewildered explorers in the valley of El Camino Real on the Jornado del MUERRRRTO!

<< Day 9 | Day 10 (2) >>

Day 9

Thursday, January 20th, 2011

We said goodbye to our friend Stacey and gave her a camera before she left for work. One of the categories in the booklet that we hand out with each camera asks the collaborator to take pictures that have to do with work. In part the prompt asks, “…[if] there is a difference between where you are employed and what you consider your true work.” Where Stacey is concerned, we already know the answer to this question.

Stacey’s painting is incredible…in this pic there are new starts on the walls; but for now there is just time enough to scrape the palette clean before heading off to the day job. We said goodbye to John in his studio behind the house:

It was great to see John and Stacey – we got to catch up over strong coffee in the mornings, an excellent Thai dinner last night, and we got a much needed dose of puppy love from Merx and Coppy.

Today we finally had enough on the blog to send an e-mail (en masse) inviting people to check it out. We thought we would execute this simple task in a matter of minutes, but after a fitful couple of hours of mail bouncing back and contact groups disappearing, we finally gave up and decided to go to the Apple store on the way out of town– it was supposed to be a day in which we got “an early start.” This notion has become a running joke because we can never seem to make any serious headway before noon.

The Albuquerque Apple Store was friendly and helpful, and they straightened out the uncooperative tangle of  POP, STMP, ISP numbers, incoming and outgoing servers….yech.


Geeky Apple fans that we are, we located ourselves on Chele’s iPhone map, navigated our way out of the mall, found HWY25 south, and we were on our way. Time of departure, 1:45pm. Whatever.

We found the El Camino Real International Heritage Center, and it was as described – some miles off of hwy25, in the middle of the desert and nowhere near anything.

The building/museum is only 6 years old and it is located south of Socorro, NM on El Camino Real. The building is also referred to as a monument and architecturally the form is sculptural, insinuating a passageway and journey. Here is the entrance:

looking south

And this is a view from the south end of the building looking north. There there is an observation platform that  juts off the large outdoor theatre:

(full disclosure: we snagged this photo from the internet!)

this observation deck looks south down the trail

The exhibits are text heavy and being who we are, we read it all. For every idiosyncrasy we have discovered about each other on this trip (Chele will not eat apples in the car; BA travels with her kombucha scoby) being glacially slow in museums is a trait we (luckily) share.

El Camino Real (The Royal Road) was claimed for the Spanish Crown by Juan de Oñate in 1598. It was established, however, by the footfall of indigenous cultures for thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived. The trail starts in Zacatecas, Mexico and stretches 1,500 miles terminating in what is now New Mexico. Technically, the trail ends at the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in NM. Established more than twenty years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, El Camino Real is the oldest European route in the US. Eventually, the trail became HWY 25.

The museum tells the story of how ancient civilizations of Aztec culture became New Spain, how New Spain became  Mexico, and how Mexico became New Mexico, Arizona, California, southern Nevada and Texas. The route was used for Spanish colonization and also retreat:

The museum also tells the story of Mexican Independence (1821), the Mexican-American war (1846) how 4,000 Mexicans kicked the butts of 8,000 heavily armed Napoleanic III troops (May 5, 1862, aka Cinco de Mayo. Power to the people). If anyone is keeping track, this battle took place just a little over a month before the Civil War battle of Glorietta (see Day 8).

What we didn’t know was that the reason Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in the US (though not so much in Mexico outside of Puebla- it’s not even a federal holiday in MX) is because even though the French eventually took back the gains achieved with the Battle of Puebla, it slowed them down by about a year. If the Mexicans hadn’t set their undies in a bunch, the French–who were concerned about America’s growing power and wanted the Confederacy recognized a legitimate government–  could have supplied Confederate forces even more ammunition at a critical moment when the war was turning. Once the Civil War was (technically) over, the US sent tens of thousands of  guns to Juarez’ troops and helped defeat the French once and for all.

Since ancient times, El Camino Real has been an international thoroughfare for exploration,culture, religion, trade, arms, troops, romance…etc. One of the best perqs of traveling in the dead of winter is that you have these museums all to yourself. Even better, the guards and docents have plenty of time to chat. Lucky for us. At the ECRIHC we met José Guzman. José has an encyclopaedic grasp of history and its influence in contemporary issues. He has worked at a number of NM cultural institutions and we talked for quite some time. At some point, while discussing the importance of history, museums, re-enactment, etc José made the comment that if we actually took the time to learn about people’s stories there wouldn’t be so much hate in the world. We couldn’t agree more. Of course we asked him to be part of the camera project…

Camera #14 now spoken for!

José told us about two things we’ll follow up on in the short term. He told us about a character named Tom Horn and that there was a movie of that name with Steve McQueen. Apparently Horn was an Apache scout, a lawman, a detective of dubious repute and eventually an outlaw. José told us that he had done re-enactments of Horn but had morphed him into a Vaquero scout…we are intrigued and have already put Tom Horn in the Netflix queue and José in the tumbler of potential collaborators in the future.

The other tip was that there is a section of El Camino Real that you can actually drive (the trail just parallels HWY25) by heading east into the desert just south of Truth or Consequences. It was already after 5PM and the idea that we would make it to Tucson seemed increasingly remote. And how could we resist experiencing a stretch of the actual El Camino Real known as the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death)? The Heritage Center sits in the Jornada del Muerto. Here’s a picture looking south into it:

Looking south from the cantilever deck (those are modern park trails, not the El Camino Real. But you can pretend)

We had to let José lock up the museum, so we said goodbye knowing that we really meant hasta luego.

On the way back to 25, we stopped at the Santa Fe Truckstop to gas up; it’s the only built structure between the museum and the highway. We knew when we pulled into the lot that it was different. The building looked like it had been randomly expanded through the years to accommodate various new ventures. Inside, there was an enormous hearth and a crackling fire.

BA and Salem

Ice cream!

A train car had been tacked on as a cafe

there was a bar:

circa 1940

And a crazy painting:

Salem told us who that guy was, but I forgot to write it down; hopefully he’ll post it in a comment…

BA was buying an awesome covered wagon belt buckle that she found in a small collection of antiquey things for sale in a dusty old case, and Chele was snapping pictures of some toy wagons on ledges above the booths

this is a hearse!

when a guy came in and sat down. Chele enthusiastically asked him if he minded being in a picture for our blog and he said, dryly, “You girls aren’t from out west, are you?”

Joe is a trucker living in Florida but he drives all over the country. He had just driven from Miami, made eighteen drops at Lowes all the way across Texas (tropical plants) with his last drop in Albuquerque. He had left Monday morning. We were amazed that someone could cover so much ground in four days, especially considering that at each drop site he unloads and loads all the pallets, scaffolding and cargo by himself. He was staying here at the Santa Fe (the truckstop rents two rooms…we considered taking the other but after hearing how much ground Joe covered we couldn’t bear the thought of having traveled only 75 miles today) and driving to Las Cruces in the morning to load cheese. A truck full of cheese. Think about that. We asked about soup and Salem said that he had home-made chicken. Since Chele was on a sort of de facto cross-country chicken soup tour starting with the Mexican chicken-avocado soup in Great Bend, KS, we each ordered a bowl. We have to say– it was the best yet. Fresh zucchini, carrots, sweet potatoes…outstanding on a chilly night and so completely unexpected in this desert outpost.

Joe asked us to sit down and join him for dinner, which of course is what we were secretly hoping for.  Our conversation veered from his experience as a coal miner in western Pennsylvania (age 16-23), where he was buried alive a few times, to transporting mysterious cargo for the gov’t, to his rig being used as target practice by the air-force as he drove through the desert, UFO’s, etc…

OK. We should explain. We were talking about kooky Roswell, NM and strange things that happen out in the desert. Joe told us he thinks that sometimes people get freaked by stuff the military is doing. Like when they use laser-lights (instead of artillery, thank god) and night time highway traffic as ground targets. Joe has seen that more than once and said that it would be really eerie if you didn’t know what was going on. The gov’t job entailed picking up a padlocked refrigerated trailer from a pharmaceutical company in NY and delivering it to a remote building in the Nevada desert. When he arrived, Joe was escorted to the nearest hotel 70 miles away and redelivered to the site the next morning to find the truck turned around, keys in the ignition, and not one mile added to the odometer since leaving NY. The ‘disappeared’ job. Joe said he had no idea what had been in the trailer. Maybe test animals, but he couldn’t be sure. And did you know that while mining companies are responsible for getting miners bodies, dead or alive, out of a collapsed mine, they really only have to get something that identifies them. And that is why one’s name is on every single thing carried into a mineshaft; goggles, respirator, underwear –everything.

Joe was a natural storyteller, but only because we asked. And kept asking. There were stories that he told us but politely asked that we not share publicly, and in the end he gave us his cell number in case we ever got lost or needed advice about a route or perhaps a tip on where to find a good truckstop. If this trip is about understanding what America is up to, with Joe we hit pay-dirt. We reluctantly said good-bye, paid for his dinner, gave him a hug and asked him to be part of the camera project.

We decided to travel the Jornada del Muerto in the morning and therefore it made sense to get a room in Truth or Consequences (T or C as the locals refer to it). Salem, the owner of the truck stop (a Palestinian immigrant whose been in NM for 25 years), said it was a cute town and he thought we’d like it. T or C has plenty of motels which, as a rule, we choose over hotel chains.

didn't choose this, but loved the font

The main drag through T or C was really dead and it felt later than it actually was. We looped through town and decided on a motel at the north end by the way it looked on the rise of the road, it’s cute orange picket fence and old mullioned windows. We were greeted by a friendly British guy and his enormous bear of a dog, Penny. We had been talking to Hans for 15 minutes (about hot springs, kombucha, medicinal kelp… you know, typical check-in stuff) when his daughter Felicia peeked through the office door. He chided her about coming out when there were guests, but she was bored. She asked us if we wanted to see her fish made from a sock. Are you kidding? We are total sock-fish enthusiasts.

the fins were cardboard!

Of course, there was more. An eel —

the teeth are a hair clip. Genius.

and an ostrich—

incredible things happen in the desert

We noticed a pile of instrument cases and mics stacked at the back of the small lobby. Hans told us he was a musician and that, among other things, he played the accordion. Felicia whispered to BA that her dad could yodel. First a truckload of cheese and down the road a yodeling, accordian-playing hotelier?!?  Had we even left Wisconsin? Chele signed for the room on the condition that Hans yodel for us in the morning. Done! It took an hour to check in, but was worth every minute.

So, in the end we just weren’t ready to leave New Mexico and, in fact, we were nowhere near Tucson. But that was just fine. If we hadn’t had the computer problems that made Chele such a wreck, we wouldn’t have been running hours behind schedule. We would’ve been at the Heritage Site early enough to talk ourselves out of the Jornada detour to make tracks to Tucson; and we never would have met Joe, Salem, Hans, Felicia or the sock menagerie. We channeled Roger’s words which have become a mantra. We were “taking the time” which, we’ve discovered, is the only way to find the thing that you don’t know you’re looking for.

Tomorrow- The Journey of DEATH!

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