The Places In Between: A Road Trip

In the stillness of midday, the sun warms the washed out ochre and yellow on the roadside. A solitary, abandoned house sits proud overlooking the valley. The absence of windows are like gapping mouths, toothless and dark. Ahead, miles of tarmac stretch over the hill, dipping into the valley, an empty four-lane highway disappearing into the distance.

powerlines in scrubby landscape
Leading lines in a scrubby landscape.

We are somewhere in Oklahoma, driving west toward Tucson. Crossing the Continental Divide a few days earlier, we left the raucous Nashville scene and the bars competing for our attention – louder singers, larger hats, tighter jeans, taller shills, each trying to charm us in. The streets are crowded with people walking up and down Music Row – looking to be a part of something great – everyone appears to be a caricature of themselves. By the volume of their chatter, they are apparently having a good time, they are, after all, shrouded in the aura of the city and all its promise and dreams – we’re in Nashville y’all.

Betty Boots Neon Sign in Nashville
A little tired of riding that guitar, Betty Boots needs a break

We join the crowds, walking under the neon signs that dimly light the streets – the cowboy with one lit pant leg, Betty is comically missing a few letters and Ernest Tubbs revolves with the same country warm smile fixed on his face, a vestige of something legendary. We enter the record shop and pick up the best of Earl Scruggs, a copy of Costello – the other Elvis, and Gordon Lightfoot out of nostalgia for Canada.

Back on the road, we drive past one town after another connecting the dots on the map of long stretches of empty space. The road extends past places like Hereford and Bovina where we are overwhelmed by the putrid smell of cow shit. Here, the cows crowd the horizon as far as the eye can see, and there are mountains of silage covered in tarps and weighed down with old cut up tires.

Our discoveries found outside the crowd-sourced reviews on Google or Trip Adviser are not burdened with expectations or pretense of being the best or greatest or most awe inspiring. These are simply the places in between.

With only a vague idea of our next destination, we drive toward Roswell, an area ripe for clandestine and hidden government agendas. We veer off the main road and drive deeper into the scrubby landscape and further into the wilderness. Maybe there is a possibility of witnessing something alien, something greater than us?

UFO crash site
UFO crash site! Actually, it’s only a diorama, right?

We drive down a dusty road and pull off to follow a dried riverbed leading into Salt Creek Wilderness – it is hard to imagine this cracked earth of the Chihuahuan Desert ever being flush with water. Amidst the flashes of the mica and quartz embedded into the red earth, my eye is attracted to an old tincture bottle discarded over a hundred years ago. A few miles down the riverbed, I find another one; this one still has a cork in tact and the liquid trapped inside is vaguely iridescent.

Large cow sitting in the scrub
Wrong Turn: Driving down a dead end street to be greeted by this bemused-looking desert cow.

Moving with a vague idea of our next stop, we pull into White Sands National Monument and are drawn into the expansive gypsum dunes, walking deeper and deeper into the dunefield toward the mountain range. As the sun sets and the last of the pastel colors, light pink and peach fade behind the soft curves, the definition between one dune and the next disappears in the absence of light and shadow.

walking into the white sand dunes
Light and shadow fade into the night in White Sands National Monument

Dawn tells a different story. Shimmering in the early morning light, the ripples are smooth before the harsh daylight contours and shapes their folds. It is difficult to leave this place; each dune presents a new discovery, a new turn with a promise of something just around the next bend.

We press on to Tucson, wending our way past streets that pay tribute to cattle pastures and farmsteads – Flying W, Circle Z – and into a community of single and double-wide prefab homes. Tucson Estates. The retirement community where we’ll be spending a few days visiting family, fans out at the base of an ancient collapsed volcano. The backdrop of jagged mountains lined with saguaro cactus shelters the wilderness that skirts the town.

Harris hawk perched on cactus
Harris hawk perched on a Saguaro cactus in Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

Here, the coyotes, in contravention of the Estate rules, defecate on the front drives in the middle of the night. I imagine that the impudence of this behavior is not lost to the lap dogs who are forbidden to set foot on the streets and must be shuttled to the edges of the compound in golf carts, legs crossed no doubt, for their morning constitutional.

We abandon the order of the community even though it presents an endless opportunity to golf, play cards, participate in shuffle board and test out retirement living in all it’s leisure. Instead, we head into the mountains, ambling up and down vague footpaths, and winding our way past well-armored cactus, the occasional Cholla clinging onto our pant leg, or worse.

teddy bear cholla attached to leg
Attack of the Teddy Bear cholla -there’s nothing cuddly about these guys. I hardly felt it attach itself to my leg, but shit, did it ever hurt getting it off. Ouch.

Our visit would not be complete without a day spent in Old Tucson – a movie studio set with a wild-west theme with saloon, mines, and Chinese laundry. We wander the grounds between shows and stunts, peering behind the building facades propped up with metal girders – a stage set against empty space. Here it is all illusion and trickery, the lines between real and imagined are blurred with a comic awareness – like the plot from the Three Amigos, where art imitates life, or is that the other way around?

We take a different route home to South Carolina, more direct and hurried through the heart of Texas, past oil drills, wind farms and refineries glowing red-orange in the night. Our only stop is past Texas in White, Georgia. We spend the morning touring a junkyard, paying reverent homage to the automobile industry’s glory days now stacked in rows and piles of rust and ruin. The levity of the mind behind the installation at Old Car City USA is evident in the random, hand-painted signs posted onto trees, a lighthearted attempt at self-help platitudes.

Be Yourself - everyone else is taken!
Kind of makes me smile.

Driving from one place to the next and crossing 11 states in less than 3 weeks, we are impressed not by our final destination, but by the unexpected places that are a spec on the map. Our discoveries found outside the crowd-sourced reviews on Google or Trip Adviser are not burdened with expectations or pretense of being the best or greatest or most awe inspiring. These are simply the places in between.

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