This is how the magic happens: The highway winds on and on through the endless desert and dulls the senses, and you begin to think there’ll be nothing more to see but windshield scenery for the next 2,500 miles.
Then someone, usually your wife, says she needs to avail herself of a bathroom, and you pull off the road at the next exit. You turn left, cross over the freeway and ease into the truck stop, realizing with belated chagrin that it’s no longer a truck stop at all.
The moon is nearly full, hanging voluptuously on the terra cotta rim of the Cady Mountains, as if waiting patiently for Ansel Adams to snap the shutter. Your son is pissing on sagebrush beneath a palm tree, and your wife is looking for cover amid a river of garbage at the back of the boarded-up building.
And then a spectre enters stage left, riding in on a red tricycle and looking like a defrocked Santa Claus. His fathful mutt follows hard on his heels.
We’d left Tehachapi 109 miles ago, and the desert has been in full glory for 100 of those. Cactus, sagebush, creosote dominate the foreground while brownrock mountains rise north and south. On the edge of Barstow, we crossed over the Mojave River, a broad plain of dried mud, a dirt waterway.
Now we’re in Newberry Springs, as fetching a wasteland as you’ll find in the bleak western desert. We’re 2,457 miles west of Wilmington, N.C., which means we’ve been on I-40 for 97 miles, since the first sign that greets you when you hit the interstate is “Wilmington, NC – 2.554 miles.”
“Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ?” he says in a voice slurred by the brain damage he suffered in a 1968 car accident.
There’s something vaguely ominous about a bicycle-riding prophet materializing out of the wasteland at twilight. Without warning. It almost makes one question his ontological assumptions.
Harry Hugunine, 62, grew up in Vestal in New York’s Southern Tier, about 150 miles east of Portville, home of the one and only Terry Mosher. He was a woodsman until the wreck robbed him of his balance, dexterity and worldly insouciance.
Harry politely asks for a bowl so he can give his dog, whom I believe is called Pal, a drink from the water jug he totes in the basket at the rear of his cycle. We oblige, of course. He says everything changed for him on that March day 43 years ago. Prior to the wreck, he says, he called his mom and told her his plans.
“I told here ‘I’m not coming home. I’m going to join the Marines and go to Vietnam,'” he says. “She said, ‘Harry, you get home right away get on your knees and pray, or the Lord will have you on your back.'”
Next came the terrible wreck at 94 mph, at least I’m pretty sure he said it was 94 miles per hour. Wouldn’t you know it, when Harry emerged from the accident a broken but unbowed man, he was lying flat on his back.
“I woke up nine weeks later,” he says. “I’d been on my back for nine weeks. I couldn’t even talk for a while.”
He’s been out here since early 1970s, bouncing from one desert outpost to another as the decades unraveled.
“When I first got here, I was the only man in 100 square sections of land,” he says. “I tried to leave the desert twice, but it keeps pulling me back.”
Out here in the desert, the surreal is just part of the natural order. We bid Harry adieu, thanked him for his time and returned to the ceaseless monotony of the interstate highway system.