I had done long, boring drives before. A few years earlier, during my summer in Australia, my buddy and classmate Paul and I decided to drive the country, and drive it we did. We put 20,000 kilometers on the little white station wagon. Yes, we saw many amazing things along the way, but sometimes we would drive for hours upon end seeing almost nothing except the red Australian dirt infinitely surrounding us. You learn to take joy in little, unexpected pleasures: stopping to pick up a delicious Golden Gay Time ice cream bar; seeing a feral camel meandering through the desert; or if you are Paul, flicking off a church with two glorious fingers a blazing for no one but maybe God to see. Once, in the outback, we got excited when we came across pavement markings on the road, painted to assist airplanes in emergency landings. Not knowing at the time what they were, we followed the Bengals advice and walked like an Egyptian across the seemingly impromptu crossing.
The sky was incredible. For the first time since my Australian odyssey, where I was able to see the Milky Way in the middle of the Simpson Desert, I was able to see many of the stars that populate the sky. These, of course, were many different ones, but brilliant no less. The stars’ long-traveled light came to my eyes uncontested by the floodlights of the city.
Darkness brings a chill to the desert, so I got back into my red pick-up to continue on my way to El Paso. There is little else besides the road and its modest traffic, the impossibly long freight trains inching along their tracks alongside the highway, and the pungent and persistent fumes that permeate the air. Like Australia’s Northern Territory, a land of few people, the speed limits in West Texas are fast, sometimes getting up to 80 miles per hour. Most folks tend to drive slower than that, perhaps because they are in large vehicles that suck down gas at high speeds, but sometimes you see someone barreling along at a rate that far exceeds the generous maximum granted by the great state of Texas. Perhaps the speed demons contribute to the notion that Texan highways are well policed.
Along my drive, I saw many drivers pulled over by the Texas Highway Patrol. The highway patrol is outfitted with sleek black and white Dodge Chargers which seem up to the task of running down speeding drivers along that stretch of desolate and unpopulated highway. Almost without fail, every hour or so I would see a spate of drivers that had been collared, the Chargers parked diagonally behind the speedster with their bright police lights signaling for a wide berth that most passing drivers conceded.
About an hour before I was to arrive in Van Horn, my stopping point for the night, I saw yet another set of flashing lights, this time around the bend of the road. I changed lanes to pass the anticipated police car, but upon my approach, I realized that what I was seeing was not a simple police stop. There had been a spectacular accident some time before and the emergency workers were there to deal with the aftermath. White dust filled the air and the bright lights illuminated the cloud that had formed several hundred feet around the accident site.
I passed the wreckage of the car on the shoulder, in a single file line behind a tractor trailer. The car was burnt all the way to the tires. If the people inside that car survived, someone awaiting beatification should be credited with that miracle. Ahead, a semi was off in the neutral ground, its trailer crumpled and torn and the cab at an awkward angle from the trailer it had been pulling. Behind me, through the lights, I saw the shadows of the road workers through the floodlights as they picked up the debris that covered the road to make that road ordinarily passable again. As I drove along, several truckers, perhaps deterred by the grizzly accident they had just passed, pulled off to the side of the road to call it a day.
Shortly thereafter, I-20 merges with I-10, the very road that could take me back to New Orleans and those cheap tacos if I so desired. Perhaps if it wasn't in the entirely wrong direction, I would have been tempted. Westward bound, I continued in the red pickup truck. A while later I exited into Van Horn. James had told me that I could find cheap accommodation there and it was a good place to stop before El Paso. I had been on the road for over 9 hours and was sick due to the fumes and dryness which had imbued me with a headache and a nasty case of cotton mouth respectively. Tired and glad to be off the road, I stopped at the first motel I saw: The Sands Motel and Steakhouse.
As I walked through the office door at the Sands, the little bell hanging from the door knob jingled. Two women, one old and one young, sat in the back section of the office, lost in conversation with the television blaring in the background, masking my entry. After a few minutes, the old woman finally noticed me and came to the desk to greet me. She reminded me of Ms. Alice, one of my grandmother’s neighbors back home in Springfield, with her big, permed white hair, friendly smile, and soft demeanor. After some small talk, she kindly handed me the keys to my non-smoking room and the remote control to the television.
The room was all I needed. In spite of its smelling like stale cigarettes, it was reasonably clean. I don’t know if the TV worked, but I assumed it did since that was one of the selling points on the Sands Motel’s roadside sign. The room was larger than many an expensive hotel room I had stayed in and certainly an improvement, if not in quality then in price, on the Motel 6 that I had stayed in Oklahoma. Only one of the lamps worked and its meager light betrayed the wood-paneled walls that adorned the room since its construction and the water damaged ceiling. No matter. I turned on the wall unit heater to warm the cool space I was to be in for the night, crawled under the sheets, turned off the light, and passed out fast asleep.