Tuesday, August 29, 2006

i was heading west out of new orleans, glad to be out of the south, although overall i had had a good time. it was not like they said it would be up north- in fact, people were real nice, especially in the countryside, and out on the road, though the cities had been a touch hostile to travellers, especially kids, vagabonds, or yankees, or some combination of those, like i was. but out under the open sky, getting more open as we went, i saw texas ahead and further beyond, california.

i thought of the first texan i'd met, e.l.g., up in new hampshire, driving a van and talking about how confining the small towns and states in the north were, compared to his home, a sprawling ranch in big bend country out on the south edge of texas, down on the mexican border. his partner, a coloradan, agreed, especially about how you could cross a dozen states without taking your foot off the pedal up there in new england, whereas out west, you'd have days of driving all in one state or two, out under the open sky. the stories of big bend had gotten me thinking, now that i was here- of veering down south a ways, toward the open desert, toward the canyonlands, and seeing a little of texas and maybe the mexican border.

outside of port arthur a guy gave me a ride in a van with a guitar in back. he expected me to recognize port arthur as the home of janis joplin, which i didn't. he kind of expected me to remember, also, a famous remark janis had made at a public place, a concert or reunion or something, in san francisco in 1969 or sometime before she'd died. this was maybe 1974, but i didn't remember much, on account of being only 19, and not really having been much hooked into the media, except maybe the radio, as a young teenager, though i definitely knew who janis joplin was. he was really nice about it, but the gist of it was this: she had said, all my friends back in port arthur are being plumbers and such, and i just couldn't take that. he was a plumber (said so on his van, too)- and had been a personal friend of janis joplin in high school. so he'd taken that remark personally. it was like her telling him, from way across the country, what are you going to do, be a plumber the rest of your life? hang around in that small town doing nothing? and he'd responded, basically, by grabbing his guitar and heading for austin, music capital of the state.

texas followed the pattern of the rest of the south- houston was sprawling, huge, unpalatable, compared to the open country. we just sailed right through it, all hundred or two hundred miles of it. but he broke down in sealy, just on the other side of houston. the seed had been planted, though, and i looked a little at the map in the sealy gas station, as they told him what was wrong with his van. one could do what one wanted. there was nothing stopping me from veering south, seeing a little more on my way out west. i could put a foot in mexico, maybe even stay there a day or two. why not?

at the border- i was in brownsville, but i can't for the life of me remember why- i had to wait for the visa, and i remember reading 'on the road' entirely through, at the library or somewhere, as i waited. that small book captured a little of what i'd gone through, but nothing of what was ahead - i was adjusting to the idea, really, of another country. luckily, this border town was a place where the idea of another country was really a pretty everyday idea. i met another traveller who couldn't get his head around the idea of hitchhiking- he was going to take the bus, and go to saltillo, an old mountain town, scenic, historic, outside of monterrey, which we had to go through in order to get there. i did this with him, when the visa finally came through, and it was good. but the cities were making me feel that same old feeling again. that longing to talk to people, under the open sky, without the hustle and bustle of people coming and going and blowing smoke all over the place. i said goodbye to the other traveller and set out on the open road again.

my first ride was from an old truck whose driver invited me to climb up on top of the bed, where another rider sat, a mexican who knew no english, i assumed. my spanish, i found out, was also quite poor, in spite of four years of it in high school. we were on a garlic truck- thousands of heads of garlic, and a fragrant smell of the whole huge pile of it below us. the garlic made its sounds as we bounced around on top of the truck, going down the highway. the sun, i knew, was going to burn me up here. but i talked to the guy, practiced my spanish, tried to figure out where we were going. he offered me a cigarette which i declined. this was a mistake, for cultural reasons, maybe. i couldn't smoke. i didn't know the word for 'allergic' to cigarettes in spanish. i tried to explain it the best i could. that apparently wasn't very good. it was awkward, but he seemed to understand, finally, that i wasn't trying to be unfriendly.

the truck went quite a ways, and then dropped me off. somehow i was finding that being in another country was even more liberating than being free in one's own. the sun was going down gently with a wide sunset in the west, open desert, nobody around. i saw some scrub trees, some wasteland, and rolled out a sleeping bag in a low spot, under the stars, out of the way, where i couldn't possibly bother anyone, kind of like i would have done in the states, but at least up there, i knew how to talk my way out of it if i was wrong about not bothering anyone. it did occur to me that, if i bothered someone, i might be in hot water, but, i figured that near a road, it was pretty clear i was just passing through, so what mattered was the total damage i did to the surroundings, which was, as usual, almost nothing. i was just a guy sleeping on the sandy wash, slept hard, had a number of dreams too.

but woke up to a rattling sound- i was right in the path of a rattlesnake, and his tail was up and rattling. he was not happy about my choice of location, i guess. the strange thing was, as woozy as i was from a hard sleep, unfamiliar surroundings and all, i really didn't have much trouble with the rattler. i just kind of looked at him, and got out of the way, and he went along on his way. i guess he just wanted me to know, i shouldn't be making a permanent encampment there. but of course, i had no intention of doing that. the morning sun was rising bright and early- little did i know it, but i had ten, eleven hours of desert in front of me, and the days would get hotter as i got further into it. one would eventually live for those evenings, the cool nights and early mornings, when it was possible to think clearly, to communicate - in whatever form - and to enjoy being alive. and i felt that, if i could explain that to a rattlesnake, i could explain it to anybody.


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