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updated: Jun 25, 2011, 9:30 AM
"New Mexico, Land of Enchantment." That's what their license plates say, and it's not too far off. That is, if you ignore some dreary little towns and occasional stretches of not much but hot sand and juniper bushes. Let's stick with the enchantment aspect:
There we were a couple of weeks ago, a mile or two above Arizona, where a frightening amount of smoke hung in the air above AZ's record-setting brush and forest fire.
Looking down at five broad columns of smoke billowing out of the desert floor and blowing toward Albuquerque, I diverted myself by letting my mind drift back to some memorable motor trips on old Hwy 66, now I-40. Mom, Dad and I slowly crossed all that red earth in New Mexico and got a view of actual Indians, plodding along beside Hwy. 66 with their horses, the shrubbery and their rounded earth homes --"hogans" -- offering an exotic, even exciting, view. I think there are still hogans here and there, although in Arizona, the homes on the vast reservation leading to Mesa Verde, Colorado seem to be mostly inexpensive pre-fab little houses or mobile homes - both roomier than a hogan.
My images of this colorful state go back to the 1940s, when, for summer vacations we traveled from the coastal hamlet of Carpinteria, CA, to the cotton farming hamlet of Tipton, OK, whence I sprang. Or rather was pulled, with great difficulty, by a Dr. Childers, making a home delivery. My mother- like Dad, a reasonably tough Texan - said my bulk (11 lbs.) and stubbornness were the reasons I never got a brother or sister.
My memories of one trip are mostly tinged with blurry fatigue; my Dad having driven all night to cross the burning sands of the Mohave Desert while it was relatively cool, the first motel stop being somewhere in western New Mexico. It would be years before air-conditioning came along.
It was a tough ride. Even the Land of Enchantment got to be boring. Along eastern Hwy. 66 it was more like West Texas prairie and less interesting all the time. And Dad wouldn't stop for anything but gas, food or tire repair. Once when he went to work cursing and changing a tire -- actually taking the rubber off the rim, patching the inner tube and pumping it up - I, thinking of my extensive collection of rocks at home, had a great old time clambering up a low hill in search of garnets. I had read you could find the ruby red stones, little ones, on red ant hills. I was delighted to find that it was true! Pebbles helped hold the soil down on the broad earthen cones, and I found several nice specimens.
Unfortunately, the red dust of New Mexico made a terrible mess out of my new Levi's, bought at great expense to my low-income parents. Mom gritted her teeth and muttered angrily at me for an unusually long time. She never hit me, but used bad words in extremis, which wasn't often.
I apologized but said "It was worth it, look!", and held out my garnets, beautiful in my filthy palm. She barely looked, instead sighing and saying a few more unmentionable things. "Worth it my …" Dad had no comment, and we drove off in silence.
Nothing was said for miles, my folks being tired and me being humble and contrite, but eventually I got extremely bored and decided to break the silence. There was nothing much to look at here as we neared Texas, but I was curious about a couple of spots on the flat horizon. We had to be somewhere. I leaned forward over the seat and asked, "How far is it to Texas?"
Dad, severely dyslexic, as well as being raised in the east Texas boondocks, said "Hit's about at tat fur tree up 'ere," pointing at the horizon. I was puzzled, as often happened.
I asked, "How can you tell it's a fir tree from this far away?" Dad only frowned and sighed deeply.
Mom, having had two years of Oklahoma high schooling, translated: "FAR tree, he means it's the tree that's the farthest away."
We drove on in deep silence for quite a while, the corners of Dad's mouth drawn tightly down in his customary scowl.
Street signs line Central Avenue in Albuquerque, N.M. Before the Interstate highway system was installed across the country, the street doubled as Hwy. 66. A song said you could "get your kicks on Route 66," but not many people did.
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There's not much to look at after motorists leave eastern New Mexico. West Texas is a very empty place, between its occasional towns. The song "Amarillo by Mornin'" celebrates one of the few cities there.
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Next: Fast-forward half a century, driving down to Las Cruces, N.M.
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