Saturday, March 24.
I’m deep in the abyss, stuck in the funk that stalks me like a baleful shadow. Can’t string two sentences together without courting emotional cataclysm.
Plodded about Lubbock today. Pretty blue skies hang above an uncompromising flatness that stretches in all directions and as far as the eye can see, if the eye is brave enough to endure the ache. Everything in Lubbock looks as it might’ve looked in Buddy Holly’s time, only careworn and neglected. Somehow Lubbock manages to make El Paso look cosmopolitan and hopeful.
We made breakfast (potato-and-egg tacos, with onions and red peppers in the mix) in our parking-lot niche. We dicked around at Walmart for another few hours, It was past 1:30 when we pulled out of the lot. As always, our reliance on well-lit, cut-rate hospitality threatens to suck the soul right out of the journey.
Convenient scapegoat for all ills both global and personal, Walmart.
I got the road heebie-jeebies, the writing heebie-jeebies and the life’s-slipping-through-my-fingers-as-I-stand-by-dumbly heebie-jeebies.
So we drove on, without any conviction, and only after stealing a quick look at the Buddy Holly museum. A striking photo in the gift shop showed Holly in London between England’s Tanner sisters. He looked as beautiful and happy as I’ve ever seen him.
Here in old Mexico, a dusty, reverse charm holds sway. Old-fashioned, T-shaped telephone poles stretch to the horizon. Plants of corrugated tin lie abandoned to the mercy of the ages.
Where’d all the money go?
So we drove, through the blistering heat, the sun on my left as we glided north and east on 84. It bore into my left arm, and there was nothing on the landscape to rise up and provide a momentary respite. I thought I might need the Sandy Koufax elbow-in-ice treatment by the time we made Clovis.
Not much to see here, aside from the occasional mesquite tree, which serve to enhance the lonesome feeling of the high plains. I guess saying “not much to see here” is inherently shallow and misleading. Lazy, in a word. Wherever you are, no matter how dolorous the landscape, there is always a world of eccentricity to see.
You follow alongside the Burlington Northern Santa Fe tracks most of the way. Once you put a little distance between yourself and Lubbock, out beyond Levelland and Floydada, the land begins to reveal gentle rises and declivities.
Speaking of Levelland, here’s a musical interlude from the great James McMurtry, a song of the same name he wrote about the novelist Max Crawford, who grew up in Floydada.
It’s hot in Levelland, and we press on.
An hour or so later, we pass through Muleshoe, Texas. It’s late in the afternoon, and the digital read-out at the Muleshoe State Bank says it’s 85 degrees. We drive past the Muleshoe Pea and Bean factory and say goodbye to Muleshoe.
I’m happy to report, however, the Muleshoe High Mules won the Texas Class 2A Division I state football championship in 2008, waxing the Kirbyville Wildcats, 48-26. Go Mules!
Jesus, Texas is immense. I know everyone knows this. The expanse of Texas has long been a worn-out metaphor, a one-size-fits-all cliche for all things big and outsized in the Lower 48. But just how big, empirically speaking, is the Lone Star State?
Well, it’s 650 miles from Kirbyville in the southeast quadrant of the state to the burgeoning metropolis of Muleshoe (population 5,158; up from 4,530 in 2000!). That’s a good 12-hour drive. Or a bad 12-hour drive, depending upon your outlook.
And we made just 100 miles today. Pikers!
By the time we approached the New Mexico border, the sun had swung around, bringing us face to face with its blinding intensity. We crossed over railroad tracks and pulled into a gas station in Texico, New Mexico, just across the border. We parked in a spot adjacent to the convenience store that offered us shelter from the white-hot glare.
On our way into the store, we passed a local cop on his cell phone. It was impossible not to eavesdrop when he said:
“Yeah, OK, but right now I’m trying to find a guy with blood all over his face, and I can’t find him.”
With that he exited, leaving us behind a world of potential drama. I immediately went to the men’s room, a little worried I’d find bloody-face guy holed up in one of the stalls, squatting with his feet on the toilet seat in hopes of escaping detection.
He wasn’t there. And he wasn’t in the women’s room, either. At least that’s what Rhoda says.
We left Texas at 7:41 and entered New Mexico at 6:42, Mountain Daylight Time. We spent the next hour and a half holed up there, sipping margaritas and eating chips and salsa (Max opted for chocolate milk and goldfish crackers) as the temperature reading on the store’s electronic display board dipped from 87 degrees to 71.
We enjoyed the respite and the accompanying sonic backdrop provided by BNSF freight trains which crossed U.S. 84 about one every 15 minutes, horns blaring furiously. In an hour’s time the railroad ambiance had devolved from romantic to obstreperous, and by the time trains Nos. 6 and 7 passed in the twilight and let loose a dizzying cacophony, it was time pull our fingers out of our ears and get back on the road.
Alas, I had misread the signs and didn’t realize Clovis is less than 10 miles from the border. In the darkening gloam, the road terror worked its way into my fragile consciousness. I didn’t want to get stuck between Clovis and nowhere without gas to purchase and a safe place to bed down. I was afraid of the behemoth breaking down in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. So we stuttered and sputtered, and we hemmed, hawed and hesitated, until I eventually succumbed to the ghosts inside my own head.
We found our way to into Clovis, where we made a beeline for the Walmart on N. Prince Street.
Again, I have come to realize the stultifying effect fleeing to the well-lit, 24-hour surveillance safety of Sam Walton’s parking lot is having on our travels. And I know we need to break free of Sammy’s insidious embrace to experience America beyond the strip-mall safety net. Not that it isn’t plenty instructive. No matter what the recent statistics say about falling unemployment and rising economic indicators, most of America is in a pretty sorry state.
The evidence, while anecdotal, is inescapable. Pawn shops and money stores, dollar stores and Walmarts, have swooped in to gobble up the crumbs of consumer business left in the wake of the 21st century economic meltdown. They stand astride a benighted nation like cut-rate colossi. They carve ubiquitous, box-shaped scars into the landscape from Martinsburg, W.Va., to Clovis, N.M.
Collectively they offer testimony that people, in the formulation of Esquire’s Charlie Pierce, got no jobs, got no fucking money. At least they don’t have very good jobs, and not a whole lot of money at that.
So we shop at Walmarts and Dollar Trees, and Dollar Generals and Family Dollars. We eat off the dollar menu at McDonald’s and Burger King and Taco Bell. And if we don’t have enough money for that, we lower our heads and visit the payday-loan Potters and pawn-shop Shylocks. And that’s what we got, from sea to shining sea.
The thing is, the evidence is more than anecdotal.
Take this headline from the Associated Press, July 10, 2011: “Stocks of Payday Lenders, Pawn Shops Rise as Economy Sputters.”
“Profits at pawn shop operator Ezcorp Inc. have jumped by an average 46 percent annually for five years. The stock has doubled from a year ago, to about $38. And the Wall Street pros who analyze the company think it will go higher yet. All seven of them are telling investors to buy the Austin, Texas, company.”
We skipped the Rock and Roll museum in Clovis and opted to drive to Albuquerque and get a motel room ($37.28, tax included) at the Edgewood Suites on the northeastern fringe of the city. You may wonder just what sort of motel room you can get for $32.99 plus tax, and you probably won’t be surprised to find out the Suites of Edgewood are a haven for the down and out, a motel for shadowy characters with real problems.
Problems like crack, meth and heroin, to name just a few. Broken glass, cigarette butts, Styrofoam coffee cups adorn the parking lot. But AMC came in clear and sweet. And you know Rhoda Morgenstern loves herself some Mad Men.
And the nice thing about a $33-a-night flophouse is you have virtual round-the-clock police protection. The beds are a little soft, the amenities scant, but there’s a shower, and one with hot water, once you figure out how to manipulate the nozzle.
And if you close the door and draw the curtains, and avert your eyes from curtains and focus them on the television, you can celebrate Don Draper’s 40th birthday like any Madison Avenue sophisticate.
And so we did, and we did so in a drunken haze that might’ve made Roger Sterling proud.