As I lay freezing under a tarp on my makeshift cart-bed, I fondly recalled feeling the warm sun on my face as I took my first steps into New Mexico.
A Whole New World
With my spirits high, I descended down the mountain which separated my home from the unknown beyond, and came upon a beautiful sight. The whistling green forests gradually gave way to goldenprairie grass on a rolling plain that stretched east as far as the eye could see, to the base of a towering purple mountain range that spanned the horizon. From the south, a cool wind flowed through the long grass in a rhythmic pace that made the earth breathe like the sea. Hidden among the frozen waves of the yellow earth was a little place called Mule Creek, a ranching village nearly forgotten by the world, if not for the presence of the stalwart Postal Service hosting a mail shack there.
Traversing the ups and downs of the plain, I arrived in Mule Creek around 1pm, passing herds of wary cattle which stared at this strange vagabond walking through their land. There wasn’t a store or gas station here among the solitary homes and barns, but through the approximate center of the village there ran the eponymous Mule Creek. Although it was a humble trickle of water that was hardly a hand-breadth’s deep, it flowed clean and clear through the hills, and wise old trees grew along its sandy banks. I hauled my cart down next to the creek, emptied my water jugs, and refilled them with the cold creek-water. Although it looked and tasted clean, this was cattle country after all, so I made sure I filtered the water through my Sawyer to prevent any disease from ending my journey short.
But it was peaceful here, with the sound of the creek babbling over smooth stones, dragonflies buzzing along the banks, and tiny little white flower-buds dancing in the gurgling eddies; this was a happy place. I could almost hear the ghost of Bob Ross narrating the sights around me: “Now, here’s a happy little creek running through the hills. But she looks mighty lonely out there, so let’s give her a few friends. There, now she’s got a whole bunch of happy little tree friends to keep her company, and if you squint, you can see a little bunch of rabbits all hopping around in the shade. Aren’t they just the sweetest. Now, let’s switch over to some Cadmium Yellow to work on old Mister Sun up there. Gonna dip my brush in some thinner, and *hehe* just beat the devil out of it…”
I departed from the happy little creek and kept on hiking through the hills. The constant up and down was quickly wearing me out, so I got creative and started hiking a zig-zag up the slopes to ease the incline a bit. Although the traffic was extremely scarce, it was a bit risky, as I would have to quickly switch lanes as I heard cars coming from behind or ahead of me beyond the crests of hills.
Towards the evening, after finally reaching a large even area, up ahead I saw a truck coming my way that pulled off to the side of the road behind a big tree. It was about a hundred paces away, so I didn’t think they were stopping for me, but I kept an eye out as I neared it. After coming around the tree, I saw that it was two young guys and a girl standing around their old truck with the hood propped up. I wasn’t much of a mechanic, but I said hello and asked if they needed any help.
One of the guys, Alex, spoke up and said they were fine and just taking a break to let the engine cool down. Quinton and his wife Shani confirmed what he said and added, “But where are you going, man? We saw you up ahead but we were all like, ‘There’s no fuckin’ way that guy is walking out here!’”
I told them about my adventure from Phoenix to New York City, and naturally we started talking about our life goals and dreams together. Alex, the same age as me, said he had two baby kids and wasn’t sure he would be able to go on any adventures anymore, and Quinton and his girlfriend Shani have a bun in the oven and were thinking the same thing. But I believe their fears are ill-founded, because having kids is just another part of The Adventure! Sure, they’re helpless for a couple years, but after that you can throw ‘em in a carrier and take them hiking and camping, and as they get older you can go on road trips and sightseeing all over the country. When they’re teenagers, you can travel the world with them, and after they’ve grown up and moved out, your life is back to the way it was before, just with a few more wrinkles and gray hairs.
It was getting dark, and I had to say farewell, but they wished me good luck gave me some parting gifts for the road: a big sack of salted peanuts, two cans of Pringles (Salt and Pepper, and Zesty Pickle), four beers, and a box of ten chicken McNuggets! I thanked them for the gifts, and waved goodbye as I kept hiking on into the night. Later, I devoured both cans of Pringles together because, as a wise man once said, once you pop you can’t stop.
A couple hours after nightfall, I reached highway 180 going north. My dogs were tired and I felt ready to call it a night, but after searching the area with my headlamp and finding only empty ground with no place to camp out, I wearily kept on hiking. About two miles up the road, I found a long, tall bridge that traversed a very deep wash. Unfortunately, the wash was fenced off, but there was a depression near it deep enough to hide me from the highway. Although there was no flat place for a shelter, I rigged my cart and backpack into a makeshift bed and laid my brown tarp over me for the night.
It was uncomfortable in the extreme. I used some clothes and my sleeping bag liner to cushion my torso in the cart, and propped my backpack up against the end where my legs overhung the edge to give them at least some support. Every hour or so I’d wake up to adjust my bedding and find that my legs had gone numb, so I’dmassage them for a bit to wake them up, before I myself could fall asleep again. After midnight, the air became icy cold, and since I was using most of my bedding as a cushion, I only had my clothes and the tarp to keep me from freezing. It was then that, for a brief moment, I wished I was back in the burning desert. Yet, just as one should wish for stronger shoulders instead of a lighter load, I turned my desires to better equipment instead of that blasted Hellscape I moseyed from.
But the sun did rise again, and soon enough I was thawed out by its light, though I was still exhausted and sore. I continued on in search of some shade to rest under, and two miles up the road on top of a tall hill, there was a rest stop with some toilets and benches. I laid my pad in the shade of a large signpost away from the main area, and rested as best as I could, listening to the occasional “Is that a guy over there?” coming from curious travelers.
When I had my fill of sleep, I pressed on towards Glenwood. After the hill I descended from, the road went up, down, and around the bases of mountains which gradually closed in to form a narrow valley. Towards the late afternoon I saw storm clouds converging in from the north and south, and with great speed they collided above me, soaking the land in rain. It was cold and clean, and I walked on in the downpour until I found a tall elm tree I could wait out the storm under. I needed to lie here for a few hours, but it was getting late, and I had to reach Glenwood before nightfall.
Although I had walked only eleven miles since dawn, I was growing weary from the poor sleep I had the night before. After climbing a slippery hill, I sat on my cart to take a break.While I was massaging my legs, a chubby woman with curly black hair pulled up next to me in a sedan. She rolled down her window. “I know I shouldn’t be asking this, but do you need a ride or something?”
I considered it. “Well that depends, how far up the road is Glenwood? I’m heading to the motel there.”
“It’s only like two miles, I can take you there if you like.”
My first instinct was to refuse the ride, but in my current shape it would take me nearly an hour to get there, and the sun was already setting behind the peaks of the mountains. “Yeah, alright.”
After loading my cart into the trunk, and as I was buckling myself in, she offered me a cigarette, which I declined. Then she seemed to get nervous for a second and turned to me. “Okay, just so you know, I might have been drinking a little bit, but it’s not like I’m driving drunk or anything.”
I stared at her. “Are you serious?”
“It’s not a big deal, look,” she pulled out a small bottle of whiskey that had about two shots missing from it, “I only had like, a couple sips. It’s just that I’m getting married tomorrow, I’m really nervous about the whole thing, and I’m just using it to chill out. It’s really no big deal.”
I thought about ditching this ride, but it was only two miles, what’s the worst that could happen?
“Alright, just go slow and be cool.” I replied, as I tightened my seatbelt.
“It’s fine, I do this all the time,” she said, as if trying to reassure me.
“Great. You should put that bottle away, though.”
“Oh, yeah that’s a good idea…”
She stashed the bottle away, and we headed down the highway.
After taking a few turns that she braked just a little too late on, we arrived outside the Whitewater Motel in Glenwood, population: 100. I thanked her for the ride, and got out as quick as I could. Finally, after spending four days outside, I had a roof to sleep under.
Hungry for Adventure
Inside the front office, I met the owner Marienne, and reserved a room for two nights. I was nearly out of food and I was mighty hungry, so I asked her about the town.
“Is there a place to eat anywhere around here?”
“Yes, there’s a pizza place up the road a bit. I think they close in an hour or so.”
“Okay great, I’ll check it out. You guys have a grocery store or a gas station here?”
“Oh, I’m afraid not. The only place in town closed about a year ago, so the only store is up the highway in Alma.”
I became a bit worried. “And how far is Alma?”
“Oh, about five or six miles.”
Five or six miles?! That would take me over five hours to bring back food and water.
“Ooo… that’s not good. I don’t have a car.”
After telling her my story, she said that she might be able to give me a ride to Alma after I checked out the day after next. I’d be able to stock up then, but I’d have to ration my food for the time being. I set up everything in my room, and after relaxing for a short while, I headed up the road to the only food shack in town, Mario’s Pizza and Video.
It was a cramped little place, but the inside had a lovely landscape painted on them that wrapped around three walls, and the pizza was some of the best I ever had. I don’t know if it was just me being used to eating ramen and Spam, but the pizza here was far too good to be hidden away in a dying village in the mountains. Before leaving (knowing that I wouldn’t have any more food tomorrow), I ordered a big sub-sandwich to go, and spent the rest of the night updating my social media stuff, and enjoying one of the beers Alex had given me the day before.
The next day, since I only had a packet of ramen and the sandwich to sustain me, I did as little as I could to stretch out the precious few calories I had left.After many hours of surfing the internet, I grew bored and decided to talk a walk around town and see if there was anything interesting. There was a small tavern across the street, and I figured there was a chance they might have some bar food, like peanuts or chips. I strolled in through the windowless door and entered into an empty bar. For a second I thought it might be abandoned, but an old man came from outside through a back door. “Hey, what can I get for you?”
“Evenin’. You guys have any kind of food or snacks?”
“No, ‘fraid not. We have plenty of beer, though.”
“Ah, bummer. What have you got?”
“We have any kind of beer you want.”
“Alright, got any Blue Moon?”
“We only have country beer around these parts.”
By “country beer,” he meant “beer from billion-dollar corporations served throughout the greater part of North and South America.” In other words; Coors, Miller, Budweiser, and Dos Equis.
At least with Dos Equis you get a free lime, so I ordered a can of that. After giving me my change, he turned on the bar TV and walked back out the door, leaving me alone in this sad little dusty tavern. I drank a couple sips in silence, then ditched this place and walked around town with a beer in hand. Up and down the highway main street, there were buildings that used to be bars, restaurants, motels, even a cabin rental compound, but they were all closed and boarded up. All that was left was a motel that mostly catered to wilderness firefighters, a pizza place only open three days a week not including today,a cosmetics shop (oddly enough), and a tavern that might as well close down. All surrounded by the husks and memories of abandoned dreams.
I got back to my room and ate the ramen, leaving only three cans of beer to sustain me until tomorrow morning. I rationed these as best I could, and fell asleep to the melody of my gurgling empty stomach. Morning came, and I spoke with Marienne, who told me to meet her out front in an hour and she would drive me to Alma in her truck. After packing my things and loading it into the truckbed, she dropped me off in Alma in front of the local restaurant and gas station/grocer, the Alma Grill.
I went inside and met the co-owner Misty, who looked so much like Marion Ravenwood from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” that I half-expected her to turn to me and say, “In-di-an-a Jones!” She let me store my cart around back while I ate, and let me fill my water jugs up and sit in the back room while I used the wifi to post some pictures to Facebook. I thanked her when it was time for me to go, and began hiking towards Reserve.
The road north was much like the one before Glenwood, with plenty of ups and downs, although eventually I came upon a long plain that gave me some time to breathe. My destination ahead was a campground called “The Cosmic Campground,” because it is apparently what is called a “dark sky sanctuary,” a rare location that has no light pollution from any nearby city or town.
It’s popular with stargazers and amateur astronomers, so I was looking forward to meeting up with some campers and talking about the cosmos. But when I arrived there in the evening, there was only one camper trailer off in a corner and no signs of telescopes or astronomy. I set up camp between two bushy trees, and as the night fell I saw the whole universe open up to me. A billion stars shined out amongst the blackness, and the river of our galaxy ran across the sky. Indeed, the campground was a true sanctuary for darkness.
In a nearby rock ring, I made a small fire, the first (and so far only) one of my entire journey. It was nice sitting around the fire. It made me feel familiar and at home, even though I was a stranger in these lands.I suppose every man feels that to some degree; the time and place changes, but the flame is eternal. Friends come and go, and the world will surely change. It’s only in these moments around the fire, I think, that we truly remember. The light in the darkness reflects our memories to us, and we see them there, dancing in the flames. I saw many memories that night. Some I wanted to leap back into and live again. Others I wished I could have done just one thing differently, and it would have been a happy memory. And some I wished I could forget.
But, the flame is eternal, and we are not. You can never go back, only keep pressing forward, with just the shimmering light of memories to guide you. I put out the fire and went to sleep.