Caught between a rack and a hard body

So much, so much, so much. Driving back from the bar tonight, after spending the whole evening composing what I was going to write, Bill said, “Don’t forget the Lolita factor.” Damn Bill. Damn all who have heard him laugh. Damn me.

Shae, our waitress for the evening, was about the friendliest person I have ever met. She had a way about her that made us feel right at home.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, you all know already that I have a soft spot for any woman who brings me beer. Shae was, honestly, different. She made me feel really special until I saw how she made the regulars feel even specialer. Still, before she was busy she pulled up a seat at our table and we had a chance to chat. Here’s a way I thought of to describe myself that won’t come as a surprise to those who know me: while I am verbally gregarious I am physically introverted. While I can (on a good day) engage strangers verbally, it takes far more than a good day for me to relax and allow familiar touches. Shea uses her hands to reinforce the contact she makes while she talks to you, or just walks past your table. With her, for whatever reason, I was comfortable. One time when she came up behind me she ran her hand up my spine. Boy that felt good. We talked about stuff, Bill making my aimless mission of drifting around the country sound much more important than it really is. We talked about itchy feet. Shea has difficulty staying in one place for a long time.

Shae is an attractive woman. “I don’t normally dress this way,” she said. “Well, I certainly appreciate it,” Bill replied. I must agree with Bill. There was another waitress there as well, young and cute smiley and all, thin and fit and generally hot, but our hearts and minds belonged to Shea. And to the Big-Ass Beers. (They actually call them Big-Ass Beers on the signs around the bar.)

But I’m racing ahead of the story. I’m sitting here now, aware of the smoke in my clothing, trying to figure how to tell you all the things that happend tonight. Triage is clearly in order; just because it was interesting to me doesn’t mean I should write about it.

We were there for a band. The No Dern Clue Mystery Family Revival Band. Bill knows the guy who put together the band, but this was their first public performance. We didn’t really know what to expect, but the guy’s previous bands played what Bill described as “eclectic country rock”. Not this band. I could see it was going to be a pretty big band when we sat down and I started counting microphones. Then the band members started to show up wearing black suits.

We sat and listened to the music, to grumbly growly vocals by the guitarist, to smoky raspy songs when the organ/acoustic/cornet player stepped up to the mike, sometimes singing with the cigarette still hanging out of his mouth, and to the clear tones of the bass player’s voice. The trumpet player could wail, and when he put a little growl into a riff the guitarist would spit right back with a grumble of his own. All the players could solo.

The core of the band was the horn line, however. The trumpet player, a little guy, middle aged, the one in the band that wore the black suit like he belonged in it, could quite simply wail. The sax and the flute were kicking ass, and the trombone wasn’t bad if a little more sterile than the others. Trumpet guy did a plunger solo, and it reminded me of a time when I was listening to amateur jazz in Scotland with Jesse and we were discussing the subpar plunger work. “You gotta feel like there’s a string from the plunger to the audience,” I said, or something like that. You’re trying to hold it shut, but eventually the drag it open.” This guy had that feel, that connection with us.

The band was at it’s best, however, when they were all grinding away together, getting big and ugly at the ends of songs, the red light shining on the bass drum jumping and throbbing like a vampire’s heart as the sound built to a train wreck where all the engineers were Picasso.

The only reason I know I got the name right is the flyer I pulled off the Men’s room door. Just below the name of the band it said “Saturday the 16th”. Half of October is gone. Time sure flies. My trip is almost over, or at least this part of it. I’ll have to come up with another name for the next part of my life.

Shae brought us another round and stopped to chat for a while. The tamale guys came through, and challenged her to a game of pool for some tamales. “Not tonight, hon,” she said. “He just wants to see me bend over,” she said to us, “I don’t need to in this outfit.” She was right about that. Ample amounts of ample chest were exposed. “My daugter saw me in this and said I must be going for the tips tonight.” Shae has a sixteen-year-old daughter, and in defiance of stereotype they get along. And that is the Lolita factor Bill mentioned on the way home. I imagined dating Shae, easy to do when a pretty woman is sa dang friendly with you, and I imagined meeting her daughter, who it only stands to reasin is every bit as pretty as her mother, while saying to myself “Look at her eyes look at her eyes only lookathereyeslookathereyes…” ’cause the last thing you want is for you date to catch you checking out her daughter, or even to think you were.

Oh, but the story gets better – even better than I realized at the time. While the band was playing two very attractive girls came in. I was concentrating on the band, so I paid them little heed. I did notice that they looked pretty young, but sad to say they all look young these days. Shae went over and talked to them, and they left. Here’s the thing I didn’t know at the time. Bill picked it up, but I was oblivious: Shae said to one of the girls, “Don’t call me Mom in here.” Shae then kicked them out. Yikes! That girl I was checking out was Shae’s kid. Luckily for all concerned, I found the mom to be more attractive. She came back over to our table and she said something like “Well, I got to be the bad guy tonight.” Not realizing that she had just kicked out her own daughter, I simply nodded sympathetically. At that point I was much more interested in the band and Shea’s breasts. But her daughter was cute, I’ll grant that. It’s the Lolita factor. When Bill first mentioned it, I had no idea how appropriate it was.

Bill said, “That’s the friendliest waitress I’ve ever met in my life.” Shea was that, hands down.

Big-Ass Beers in San Angelo

Location: Bill’s house, San Angelo, TX
Miles: 141nn.n

Driving between Clovis and Lubbock, I had the thought “Columbus was wrong.” The world is very flat out there. There is a town called Levelland. You can see a long way across the planar plain, and what you see is… telephone poles, power poles, and the occasional silo. The poles march in straight lines across the land, criss-crossing each other’s paths without rhyme or reason.

Windmill at Sunset Past Lubbock, as it started to get dark, the land started to roll a little bit. I rolled with it, cruise control set on exactly the speed limit, along with everyone else. A few people were going a wee bit over the limit, but there were no flagrant violators that I saw. Nevertheless I saw two drivers pulled over by cops. We got law and order in this state, son. It was a relaxing drive, however, as the road was nearly empty after 8:30. They also have early bedtimes out here. The night was dark. No moon and few lights left me imagining what the terrain was like outside the splash of my headlights.

Now I’m here in San Angelo (“The largest city in the country that’s not on an interstate,” Bill tells me.), helping Bill enjoy his weekend, which occurs on Wednesday and Thursday. Bill has been an excellent tour guide, showing me the sights. (In Clovis it was more about the smells.) Last night of course we went to a couple of bars, The Steel Penny and one Bill referred to as 5-point. The name refers to the 5-way intersection outside; the bar is named something else I don’t recall. It was bazooka night at 5-point. Bazookas are big-ass beers, something like 36 ounces. On Wednesday’s they’re both big and cheap. Two of my favorite attributes in a beer. Top it off with free hot dogs and a pretty bartender (did she say her name was Kelly? Kristen?) and you’ve got yourself a good place to hang.

Hang we did. Bill’s friend joined us and did his part to reduce the world beer supply. After a couple of those big ‘ol mofos we pushed on to the Steel Penny, which was pretty quiet but they had a good beer selection and lots of sports on the televisions. We sipped Dead Guy Ale slowly until it was time to head home. A couple of my rival presidential candidates were debating on TV, so we watched them blather on for a while.

Here’s something interesting: if the electoral college splits exactly 50-50, the House chooses the President and the Senate chooses the veep. The voting rules for the House are odd, but Bush would probably win there. The Senate is close, and if the Democrats pick up a couple of seats they would probably install Edwards as VP. What would Bush do without Cheney to give him instructions? I imagine that Rumsfeld would be even more influential than he is now.

But enough of all that silliness. It’s time to go out again. No great big beers tonight, I expect, but a guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.

Sing a Song for Sarah

How many of these details only seem interesting to me now, while they’re fresh and the free shots are still whispering sweet nothings to my cerebellum? Was Sarah’s sweet smile directed at me or was it for just another customer?

It was directed at me. “I love Billy Idol”, she said. “That was so awesome. Did you see The Wedding Singer?

“I really liked that movie,” I answered truthfully. She flashed me a smile that put Drew Barrymore to shame. Later her boyfriend showed up, and I chose not to notice the crazy mad desire that passed between the two. Although I could tell that I was at the back of Sarah’s mind. Already she was asking herself the difficult questions.

After a less than stellar attempt at Ring of Fire I was flipping through the song book when Sarah came by the table. “You liked the Billy Idol,” I said, “What should I sing next?” She came up with many, many ideas, only to find them not represented in the rather limited song list. Suddenly she exclaimed “Credence!” We flipped, and there were plenty of options. She left it to me to choose which one I would sing.

I looked over the list and realized that I am not John Fogerty. I committed myself to one of the slower ones so at least I cold keep up with the lyrics on the screen. This was going to be ugly. Bill, however, being the driver, was ready to go before my name (or actually, Zebart’s name) was called.

I Love the Road

Long Road Ahead Somewhere between Hoover and Glen Canyon, on the stretch of road where I took this picture, it hit me. Not for the first time, not for the last. You know the feeling. You look at your lover/spouse/significant other over breakfast and the face you see just blows you away. “Wow!” you think to yourself. “I’m so damn in love!” It never gets old. Her face, his face, whoever’s face it is, strikes you as new and completely beautiful. It’s the first time you’ve ever really seen that face. There’s something about it that strikes your soul.

Yesterday I saw the face of the road again. I was blasting down a two-laner, sun baking the land, when I passed under a vulture catching a draft off the blacktop. I went directly under the raptor, and praised the sweet lord of the open skies for the ragtop as I looked up into the huge bird, its great wings aglow from the sun above. I shot past and nearly locked up my brakes for a doe and her fawn crossing the road. Sublime to rush. Love.

A couple hundred feet later I saw a deer dead at the side of the road. I think about death out there. Every rain-slicked curve at the edge of a cliff could be my last. Every time a semi hurtles past on a small highway, knocking my hat loose, I pass within feet of death. One sneeze, one seizure, and my tiny car is crushed beneath the juggernaut. A swift, unexpected way to go. That’s death on the highway. A matter of moments.

Out there, there are crosses by the road, marking places where people have died. I look at the contours of the road, trying to reconstruct the events that led to the tragedy. Sometimes it’s obvious, other times it’s a mystery. Some unholy and unfair convergence of the world, or just asleep at the wheel. I have passed my fair share of twisted metal, surrounded by flashing lights and solemn policemen, shattered coffins spilling blood onto the road. Move on, the officers say, waving emphatically. My presence can only compound the harm. I stare ahead and resolutely do not add to the slowdown, riding the bumper of the car in front of me.

But you can’t have death without life, and you can’t have life without love. The road is the perfect lover. There is the yellow stripe shooting down the middle of the asphalt, stretching out into the future, always there, varying but never ending. The road itself is constant, an uninterrupted ribbon connecting here with everywhere so well that there is no here and there anymore. The road itself is the only remaining place. To the sides of the road, above it and under it, is constant change. Even the same stretch is different every time. Seasons pass. Stripmalls appear. Towns wither and die. The road is still there.

Today I drove through the Chama Valley in all it’s autumn splendor. I chased rainbows on the plains. I got cold, I got wet, I shouted into the roaring wind. I was on the road.

Rio Virgin Grille

Location: Rio Virgin Grille, Mesquite NV (map)
Miles: 12804.9

I am sitting now amidst the remains of a very good breakfast. The eggs were flipped too soon, but not too much too soon. The bacon was exceptional. The tea was hot and tealike.

I slept like a baby last night. Better, even. If I dreamt of Bobbi or (what did I call her?) Katie I don’t remember it. Boy, I needed that sleep. I awoke gradually, the sounds from the road outside insinuating themselves into my dreams. Finally at about 8:30 I dragged myself out of bed and scraped the residue from the previous night off my body. When I was done I put on my glasses. I thought at first they were fogged from my shower, but no, there was a film on the lenses from the bars of the previous day. I wonder what the insides of my lungs are like now.

I’ll say this: The folks in this town can be right friendly. Now, to the desert.

Through the Valley of Fire to the Bosom of Bobbi

Location: Stateline Motel, Mesquite NV. (map)
Miles: 12,804.4

Here’s all I’m going to say about Vegas: I stayed up till 5 a.m. with Amy the night before I left. I slept two hours while I was there. I left Sin City with a nice lump of dough in my pocket and no venereal diseases. Overall, a success. I have not slept since, so much of this will probably make no sense.

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds accompanied me on my drive over to check out Hoover Dam (that will become a link when I have the pictures ready). That’s a nice bit of work. Another place on my journey that seems to be on the “must see” list for foreign tourists that is just a historical curiosity for Americans. For all the “No Trucks or Busses” signs as I approached the dam, there sure were a hell of a lot of trucks and busses crossing. (Though to be fair the trucks all seemed involved with the major construction project to redo highway 93 from a road that twists around the hills to one that blasts through the hills. That makes the road better, somehow.)

I walked around the dam for a bit. While the enormous sweep of concrete is impressive, I wish there was a way to help people understand the enormous force that structure must oppose. It is that force that turns on all the lights in Las Vegas, and more than just one or two elsewhere.

Move on, Jerry; move on. Sleep is catching up. After the dam I played K’s Choice and doubled back to Boulder City to pay way too much for gas. There was a gray road on my map heading north along the lake that looked interesting, but I didn’t want to try something like that out there without plenty of liquids for both me and the car. I also thought to confirm with the Gatorade salesman that the road I was about to take did indeed go through. He was effusive and earned the high gas price for his employer. I learned that I was about to drive through the Valley of Fire, that it cost five dollars, and that Captain Kirk was buried there.

It doesn’t happen every time, but on occasion I make the right choice. For those of you keeping score at home, the Valley of Fire (map) is a fantastic drive. Iggy and the Stooges were cranking. I really want to describe the geology for you. I want to describe how the ridges broke from the valley floor like dog’s teeth, black except where something had broken the surface to expose the blood red stone underneath. I could tell you how I drove past a basaltic dike into a section of twisted and folded white ridges standing over the red and undulating floor. I could speculate on life and death and heat and iron and blood. I just don’t have it in me to write stuff like that right now.

At the top of the lake, the road passes through the MOPAR valley. (No, silly, it wasn’t really called the MOPAR Valley, but daddy is a little dotty right now. It was something like that anyway) I had an Idea to stay in MOPAR, get up really, really early in the morning, and go back while the light was good to take all the pictures I didn’t take today. They would be much better when the Sun was low to bring out the features of the landscape. So I kept telling myself as I drove past photo ops. We all know the real reason I didn’t stop was because the road had me and she would not let me go. But this story gets squirrely enough without the new pantheon pulling my strings.

Title of my first nonfiction book: The New Pantheon.

Right, then. MOPAR valley. At the north end of Lake Mead is a lush and fertile valley. As I was driving into Overton a train tooted at me just to say hello (or so it seemed), and while there were people crawling up my tailpipe as I drove along at the absurdly low speed limit, overall I got a good vibe from the place. At least I did at first. The MOPAR Valley is an orderly and tidy place. White church steeples are visible across the valley, looking over their flocks and watching one another. I had started to look for a hotel next to an interesting bar, but then I realized there were no bars that I could identify. The only reference to alcohol I saw was a political banner for a guy named Tom Collins.

Onward, then! North to I-15 and up to Mesquite. I drove down the main drag in town looking for a likely motel. I saw a couple of promising ones, but then I passed an interesting-looking sports bar/pizzeria. Soon after that was the Stateline Motel, where I sit now resisting my inevitable journey into the Land of Nod. Ah, sweet sleep, you shall have me soon enough.

The motel had its own casino, if by casino you mean a smoky bar filled with slot machines. I was very thirsty from my travels, so I moseyed on in to catch some baseball and drink some water with a beer chaser. Drinks were free if you were actively playing video poker, so I put some money in the machine in front of me. I have read that if you play the simple, straightforward video poker exactly perfectly the payout is actually over 100%. I don’t think I played it perfectly, but I did end up with enough money to pay for my room, plus I got several free beers. When I hit the payout button the message came up “hopper empty” so the bartender had to reload it. When he closed up the machine it still didn’t work. Thus began my career being a pain in the ass for the bartender. I won’t go into all the details, but when I moved to another machine I had more troubles, and this time they were my fault.

Of course, I was not the only one at the bar. They had a promotion going that night and the place was filling up. As I sat down a man was tellin his credulous friend Buck about the SR-71 Blackbird spy plane. He seemed to know what he was talking about. Things started to get out of hand when their conversation turned to rattlesnakes. I almost did a noser with my beer when he explained that if you wanted to eat a rattlesnake you had to be careful how you caught it or it would bite itself and poison itself, making the meat deadly to eat. Riiiiiight. And watch out for those Mojave greens! They don’t rattle and if one decides to bite you it’ll chase after you until it catches you.

But my long tale is not over yet, boys and girls. To my right, beyond the machine that had broken, were two women in the 50ish age range. We’ll call them Katie and Norma. Slowly I was drawn into conversation with them. My story came out, as it must in a situation like that. When I mentioned that I had considered going back to take pictures in the Valley of Fire, Katie said, “Well, if you’re in town tomorrow, you can crash at my place. That would be no problem.” I was already pretty sure I’d be heading east, but I thanked her for the offer. Not long after that the bartender told me to go back to my poker machine or give it up. I went back to the machine. I’d built up quite a few credits on it, and the conversation was getting into more dangerous territory.

An indeterminate time later, as I watched baseball and bet on the poker machine, Katie was at my elbow. “You understand,” she said, “that when I say you can crash at my place I really mean dinner and a fuck?” I failed to disguise my shock. “It’ll be good, I promise,” she said.

“Hammina hammina hammina,” I said, or something equally as eloquent. Which was better that what I thought, which was “GAAAAH!” She continued the hard sell. “Think about it,” she said. “Just a good time then goodbye. No tomorrow. You’re just my type, that’s all.” She proceeded to be very complimentary. I didn’t say no to her face—which she would have taken well, I think—but I had already decided to move on the next day. If there had been any doubt before, there was none now. The drawing occurred, the other of the two women won a disappointingly small prize, and it was time to go get some food. I skipped out and went to Playoffs Sports Pub and Pizzeeria.

OK, we all know about Jerry and bartenders. Bobbi more so than most. I won’t discuss the behavior of the assholes to my left in detail (although there was one chick who sat down next to me for a few minutes and burned through ten bucks on a video poker machine with an intensity that verged on madness but was probably only drug-induced), just know that Bobbi handled them with style and grace. They were all in love with Bobbi (except, perhaps, for the tweaker chick). So was I. Rose once said. “Boobs are men’s kryptonite.” Bobbi is kryptolicious. When she let her hair down, that was it. To quote pL, “Dang.” I had an excellent burger along with my Sierra Nevadas, and the bill came out quite reasonable.

I met the new owner of the place (he had bought it three days ago), and when he heard that I would be writing about Playoffs Sports Pub and Pizzeria (map) on the Web he was excited. I tried but failed to impress upon him just how insignificant my opinion is, how few people will ever read this and of those how many will find themselves in Mesquite looking for chow. But if by some miracle that describes you, dear reader, then trust me, Playoffs is a good place to go. It’s right on the main drag. (Sorry, Marc, that’s the best I can do. The rest is up to you.)

Back to Bobbi. Bobbi, Bobbi, Bobbi. Tonight I will dream of Bobbi. Tonight is now. I must sleep. I am becoming transparent, not really here at all. That my eyes are open is only a formality. Good night, dear readers. Thanks for sharing my day with me.

Goodbye, Rose

This will be my third time heading out of town, but the previous two times I knew I was coming back. Not this time. I’m really not much of a goodbye guy; I prefer to slip out unnoticed, but to Rose I really wanted to say goodbye. Maybe that’s why she slipped away. We’re alike that way. We’re alike in a lot of ways, the notable difference being that she rocks.

It’s not secret that I have a soft spot for bartenders. They have to pretend they like me even when they don’t, and I’m willing to believe the fiction. Given time, I can turn the pretense into reality. I’ve got to be the prototype for the ideal bar patron. Low maintenance, friendly, and appreciative. I shudder to think how many IQ points I’ve lost to alcohol (not that IQ is worth a crap anyway but you get the idea), but I still know how to mount a gyroscope to hold a motorcycle up and I still can hold a good argument, and quite frankly everyone else’s ideas for a hotel on the moon are pathetically misguided. Seriously. Those guys are idiots.

But Rose and I will not be meeting on the moon. I am leaving the bar that has been my home since it opened, fifteen years ago. I am leaving Rose. More reliable than any lover, she has always been there for me. While I’ve never been deep inside her life and she’s never been deep inside mine, we understand each other. Rose, quite simply, rocks. Tonight is one of the only times I didn’t tell her so. It feels like I left the period off the last sentence in a story. I may never see her again. She may forget she rocks. The latter is much worse than the former. But without me there to remind her…

She slipped away tonight. I’d like to think that’s because we have a certain unspoken connection. I’d like to think there’s a bond between us that she picked up on to tell her that this was the final goodbye. Too much freight to carry. I’d like to think it mattered to her. Maybe it did. Eventually, it’s not going to matter what mattered to her. It’s done now.

So goodbye, Rose. You Rock.

Six Months on the Road

Location: Country Inn, Poway CA
Miles: 12154.9

Yep, you read that right. Six Months. My own sense of time has gotten so warped that I have no idea how long ago it was that I was in any particular place. Tahoe seems recent, Calgary impossibly distant.

A while back Jojo asked me how the trip had changed me. I wasn’t able at the time to give her a good answer. Honestly, I don’t know that the trip has changed me much at all. I’ve had more experience at being alone, at walking into a place where I don’t know anyone. Perhaps I’m better at striking up a conversation with a stranger – those of you reading this probably get the idea that I do it all the time – but in fact with the possible exception of bartenders I’ve failed more often than I’ve succeeded.

One change that is possibly measurable is that I value peace in my surroundings more than I did. Not the library peace-and-quiet atmosphere, but one free from anger. When I am around people who are needling each other it’s like a hot poker in my brain. I’m sure I was better at tolerating that stuff before. Now when people are bugging each other I just want the hell out of there. Not sure how this came to pass, but I think out there on the highway somewhere I lost some mental calluses that had built up over the years.

Although there are many friends here in town that would have happily put me up for the night, tonight I chose to stay in a hotel. There are days when I just need a space that is mine. Rented rather than borrowed. A place that does not put me in a situation of psychic debt, a place where I am not an intruder, however welcome, in someone else’s space. Amy, of all my hosts, has been the easiest to intrude on, since she isn’t in the least inclined to tiptoe around me. She’s got her life going on and some guy on the sofa isn’t going to get in her way. It’s like writing in a bar. Life moves around me, and pays me no heed.

This isn’t the first time I’ve taken a hotel room to have my own place for a few hours, but lately I’ve understood better why I’m doing it. As I came through the door this evening and looked at my haven I felt like there should be some ritual I perform, some gesture to the gods to consecrate this place, however temporarily. I stood there like a dork for a few seconds and completely failed to come up with the appropriate gesture. Finally I hung the “do not disturb” sign on the outside door handle. Not really the poetic/creative modern witchcraft I was looking for, but it is a symbolism that is widely recognized.

I said above that this life is getting old, and that certainly is true. However, if I could find someone to pay me to keep doing this, you know I would. This morning I think Amy felt the change in me. She saw the one-foot-out-the-door Jerry. Getting back on the road is becoming a need again. And maybe that’s the change Jojo was looking for.

Another Night at Chumps

I’m tired. Maybe I’ll fill in the details later, but here are the key facts.

It was karaoke night.
I wasn’t in the mood for making an ass of myself.
Jen wasn’t there, and I was slightly relieved about that. In this forum I had kind of waxed lyrical after our last meeting, and I wasn’t sure I could live up to that.
I was talking to an old softball chum when Jen showed up.
I was glad to see her there.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in Prague?” she asked, which meant she remembered me, but maybe I was a continent too close.
I sang a couple of songs, but didn’t nail them. The last one was Dylan, at Jen’s request. I’ve done it better. So has the rest of the planet.
Amy, you were totally wrong. I was right. Let me say that again. You were totally, totally wrong.
Jen can still wail, but she’s got to lay off the duets with (searching for polite term) losers.
Perhaps I could have stayed, but I was feeling decidedly unsmooth. I don’t think I mentioned before about her eyes. They’re good ones. They struck me tonight. Not like getting plowed over by a hurtling Peterbilt kind of struck, but a “damn, those are some fine orbs” kind of way.
I didn’t stay. If it is preordained that you do something stupid, make it walking away.
Pff. Who am I fooling?

Highway 60

Location: Traveloge, Globe, AZ (map)
Miles: 11256.1

I knew as soon as I turned up Highway 60 out of Socorro that I had made the right choice. Not only is this a beautiful and interesting stretch of highway, but for me it is filled with history.

Before I hit the open road, however, I took a spin around my old Alma Mater, New Mexico Tech, which back in the old days when I was there went by the moniker New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. Two shocking things have happened to the place. One I witnessed myself, the other is hearsay from a fellow alum. First, the campus has been beautified significantly. I almost didn’t recognize my old dorm. It doesn’t look like a Motel 6 anymore. The second thing is (are you sitting down?) there are almost as many female students there as male now. Some of them are even attractive. Contrast this to when Bob challenged me to name seven attractive students at Tech and I got stuck at six. It made me want to go up to each male student and shake him by the shoulders and holler “Do ya know how good you have it here now? Do ya? DO YA?

But I restrained myself and made my way to the south end of town and the highway. Ah, Highway 60. That critical artery of commerce connecting Quemado, Pie Town (right on the continental divide), and Magdalena. Wide open plains. Rolling hills. Grassland. Forest.

Memories.

The first fifty miles I could still do in my sleep. I drove it five times a week during the summer of the first bacchanal, 1985. It’s hard to believe that was more than 19 years ago. VLA By the time we reached the VLA the pups and I were ready for a break and a walk, so we spent some time stomping around my old “office”. If the place looks familiar to you, yes, it was on a Nightranger album cover. (It was also in a couple of movies—you don’t want to watch Concact while sitting next to me. The movie’s OK, but the radio astronomy’s complete and utter crap.) Knowing the woeful state of science education in this country, let me put on my Dr. Science cap for a moment and give you the rundown on the VLA. The Very Large Array (Those guys were poets at heart when they named this baby) is a set of 27 antennae set up in the shape of a Y to act as one huge antenna (map – railroad tracks marked indicate the branches of the Y). It is, in fact, an enormous pinhole camera for radio waves. The dishes move on railroad tracks to change the size of the virtual antenna to optimize looking at big, close things (like the Sun) or very distant things (like quasars and white dwarfs. Actually Quasars are pretty honkin’ big, but they are all very, very far away.) This photo and the others over in the album reflect the widest spacing of the antenna, which is when the tiny-thing scientists try to book time. One side effect of the wide spacing on a day with scattered clouds is that it’s almost impossible to get all the dishes in a picture to be in the sun at the same time. Each arm of the Y stretches for miles. The dishes in the pictures are more than a mile apart.

Past the VLA is the continental divide, Pie Town, Quemado, and Springerville, AZ. Ah, Springerville. It was a chilly spring weekend in 1985. It was the weekend of my 21st birthday. A day to be celebrated, to be sure. My birthday was on Sunday, and at that time one could not buy alcoholic beverages on a Sunday in New Mexico. No problem. Being college students, when we learned of this crisis we quickly devised a plan to buy all the necessary beverages ahead of time. Saturday afternoon we stocked up. Saturday night we had a party and drank it all. Sunday dawned, bright and bleary, and we came to the realization that we had invited every female on campus (there weren’t that many, remember, and as a rule of thumb half the women who said they were definitely going to be there would show up, and twice as many men would be there as women. As long as you didn’t invite any men.) and we had no party ammunition. After trying to work a couple of local connections we determined that it was time for an interstate beer run.

Now, you boys back east with your dinky little states probably think nothing of this. It turns out the beer store closest to my dorm room that was open on Sunday was 158 miles away, west on Highway 60 to Springerville, AZ. Glen and I set out in the Alpha Romeo, top down, bundled up against the cold, heater blasting and tunes craking. 316 miles and one speeding ticket later (The State Trooper was bemused by our top-down stance when it was freezing cold. “Yeah, I remember when I was young and stupid,” he said, and it was clear he did. He was a cool cop.) we had our booze and the party was a resounding success, despite the fact that not one single female showed up. Perhaps because of that, things got pretty crazy that night.

Salt river canyon, on hoghway 60 Speaking of driving a long way, Highway 60 came into play again a few years later, when I was living in San Diego. It was on the eastward leg of another trip in the Alpha, this time with Bob as copilot, as we set out one Memorial Day Weekend to get Green Chile Cheeseburgers at the legendary Owl Bar in San Antonio, New Mexico (map). The chile isn’t the same every year, but after driving 800 miles I took a bite of the burger and blurted out “This is so good!” I was getting misty with the emotion. It was a damn good green chile cheeseburger. After we ate we drove a few more hours to visit our folks, and after sleeping a bit we headed back to California by a more northerly route (not all of it paved).

Highway 60 was also the road I took when I first drove out to San Diego. The Alpha was running in top form; I outran the raindrops and tasted freedom. It’s my favorite flavor.

Early Morning Vibrations

Location: Little Anita’s, 2811 Cerrillios Rd, Santa Fe NM
Miles: 10708.8

Got up before the sun this morning and after a brief dog-draining followed by a speedy shower I was on the way to Santa Fe to have some work done on the car. When I had called for the appointment the guy asked “What time do you want to bring it in?” I said “As early as possible.” “OK,” he said, “7:30.” “Uh, how about eight?” I asked.

At the dealer in San Diego there is a long line right at opening and that determines when your car gets worked on. So even though my appointment was at eight I wanted to get there closer to 7:30 so I would not be kicking up and down Cerrillos Road all day. As I came out of Los Alamos I got behind the Slowest Driver On The Planet. It was right where two lanes went down to one, and I almost zipped on past him but I told myslef, “Relax, Jerry. This is New Mexico, land of mañana, you’ll get there.” That whole ethic was lost when I realized just how slow the SDOTP really was and how many miles it was going to be before I could pass him. In seconds I went from New Mexico Mellow to Raging Green Impatient.

After finally finding open road I breezed along for a while until hitting the 14-mile constructivitis (announced by a sign reading Scheduled to be completed Summer 2004 – the days are getting shorter, boys!) but things could have been a lot worse through there. Deep breathing and flashing signs that said “Friendly Officers Ahead” kept me rolling along at the posted 45 mph.

When I reached the dealer I realized that all my high blood pressure was for nothing. There was no long line of impatient customers. There were, in fact, no hassles at all. As the mechanic entered my information we talked about San Diego and road trips. I asked him what his favorite place to get breakfast was, he told me to get the huevos rancheros at Little Anita’s, across the street. Little Anita’s had been my first choice anyway, so that was a done deal. He told me that the car would take about two hours unless there were leaks in the air conditioning. I was almost disappointed to hear that; I’d been planning to walk over to the Green Onion for an exceptional Chile Relleno for lunch. With an ailing pup back at the ranch, I feel guilty about staying down here longer than necessary.

Little Anita's warm interior The breakfast was excellent. The eggs were cooked right, the chile was good, and the service continues to be outstanding. Breakfast done, green chile afterglow warming the base of my brain, fresh tea bags with refills of hot water, it was all good. I started to write about my morning. I had just typed “OK” above when the manager (owner? he doesn’t look much like an Anita) asked if I was getting good wireless reception where I was sitting. It turns out he had just installed the system and hadn’t advertised it yet because he wanted to make sure it worked well first.

Oh, man. It just doesn’t get much better than this.

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Freeloading

Location: The patio behind Jojo’s house (map)
Miles: whatever they were before

I’m here with my long-lost brother, pL, sitting under a dark and cloudless New Mexico sky, the Rio Grande Valley sprawling before us. The lights of Santa Fe shimmer in the distance. Coltrane is spilling out of the not-bad-for-a-laptop speakers of pL’s slick new machine, and the night creatures are singing along. Jojo and Spencer’s dogs are in the house and take to barking occasionally. I can’t blame them; their masters aren’t at home and there are strangers on the back porch.

It’s a little dark right now. Turning on the light in the kitchen would be ideal, but I don’t want to just go barging into the house, since Jojo and Spencer are not here.

But their broadband is. Oh, sweet heaven. So my brother and I are sitting on their nice patio furniture, plugged into their AC, enjoying high-speed Internet access.

Next to me there is a big bucket filled with suspect water with a bare tree branch sticking out of it. The story goes like this: Jojo and Spencer catch rainwater in the bucket and use it to water plants. Unfortunately, the water was also a magnet for ground squirrels. After two of them drowned and were reduced to icky masses, Spencer put the branch in the bucket to allow the squirrels a way to escape.

Jojo and Spencer have arrived, and just in time. Our second six-pack requires a bottle opener.

Back to the Canyon Bar and Grill

Location: Canyon Bar and Grill, Los Alamos, NM
Miles: 10632.4

There was a place I liked more, but right now it’s Saturday afternoon. The other bar is closed. I suppose that makes sense; I mean, who would go to a bar on a Saturday when there’s no work tomorrow and the cable channels are filled with college football?

Granted, I don’t give a rat’s ass about a semi-pro league masquerading as “student athletics”, but I know a lot of other people enjoy that stuff, and the only reason football exists is so you can go to bars and watch it with your buddies. My only concern was whether anyone would mind if I watched the Czech Republic play Canada. I pulled up to the Aspen Lounge and it looked dark. I went to the door and saw that it opened at four, about half an hour hence. Then I saw the lettering beneath the hours. Closed Saturday and Sunday. I blinked a couple of times to make sure it didn’t say Open late Saturday or something like that, but alas, no.

There is a fairly new restaurant on the edge of town, and I had noticed that it’s sign said “Restaurant and Bar”. No problem, I thought, I’ll head on out there and have some vittles while I type. Nope. There were two sets of hours, summer and winter. I didn’t know which applied but it didn’t matter. They were both Monday through Friday. Not only do people not go to bars on the weekend, they don’t even go out for a bite to eat.

Actually, that’s not entirely true. People do go out, they just drive an hour to the nightlife in Santa Fe. A Get-Poor-Quick scheme that has been tried many times is to bring night life to Los Alamos. Forget about it.

Now I’m back at the Canyon, where for all its warts it has one key advantage: It’s open. They gave me a beer, I paid for it, and I sat down. There are a few people here, including one rabid Macintosh fan who responded to the antediluvian glow from the lid of my machine by making sure I knew he had been using the infernal machines since before they were invented. At the bar they’re having a good ol’ time; the only female in here is attached (by the lips) to the Mac fan, and collectively they’ve hit that perfect part of the afternoon where the buzz is just right and every joke is funny. It is a communal perfect buzz. A group like that makes any bar better. You know this place is home for some of these people. And in the end, isn’t that what makes a good bar? If there was a pretty bartender I’d probably hang out and fall in love.

Time has passed since I wrote the above, and things have moved apace. I have a nickname, at least from a couple of the regulars: Mac. I like it. It’s the quintessential bar nickname. Mac. I’m going to write myself into a story with that name someday. No one has to know it’s a reference to the computer I was using in the bar. In all the years and years of going to Callahan’s, I never had a nickname, probably because they already knew my real name and my impact was gradual and constant. Now I’m the welcome stranger, and lacking my real name they just went and gave me one. Mac. I’ve never been anything remotely close to a Mac before.

One of the flys left and came back with a guitar. He’s much better at playing than singing, but he’s been taking requests from the others at the bar. Right now he’s covering “All along the Watchtower” with far more passion than skill, but it’s passion that counts, baby. Earlier he was doing Eagles tunes at the request of other patrons and, well, he doesn’t know the words very well but that doesn’t stop him.

Another guitar has arrived. A jam session will shortly ensue. There are two guitars. There are five patrons. Three are guitarists. There is one geek pounding away on his laptop. There is one female taking it all in. Finally, there is one bartender, far more attractive than the dude she replaced a few minutes ago.

I miswrote before. There is one guitar and one mandolin. The mandolinier is just getting his confidence up, and it’s starting to work. So for the record there is one guitar for two guitarists. The guy that brought in the guitar just lamented, “I have to get drunk to play in front of people, but then I suck.” He’s right, but that never stopped most of his peers. They’re finding a rhythm now, drunk guitarist doing the vocals while the other two play the blues. Vocals are becoming increasingly rare.

Man I wish I could just pick up someone else’s guitar and make it sing and cry. Hats off, then, one and all, for those who can. It takes a lot of work to make it seem easy. Writing is different. It still takes a lot of work, but in music all the work you put in comes down to a moment when you are in front of the public and it’s all on the line right then. With writing, you hone and tweak until the rewrites make it worse instead of better and then you put it out there as a pile of paper glued on one edge and you hide in the dark while people judge it.

I think I’ll stick to stacking rocks.

The jam session has lost the drunken guitarist, and while the quality is much higher, the soul has gone out of the endeavor. It’s still OK to be in a dive and hear good musings, but there was a fire before. Oh, well. Dive bar geeks can’t be too picky.

Litho, Ergo Sum

I need to be going soon, to get the pups back to Los Alamos and to meet up with Jojo et. al. to go watch Zozobra. So this morning I was right here in this chair, checkin email and whatnot, generally procrastinating. Outside the window was a stack of rocks. A few feet away was another rock, and as I looked at it I realized that rock had to go on top of the stack. It went from being an observation to an obsession in just a few minutes. The rock was yearning to be put in its proper place.

Time to take the dogs out. While the dogs explored I put the rock where it so clearly belonged, a definitive refutation of Aristotle. Mission accomplished, I noticed that there was a nice flat spot on the new rock that called for another rock on top of it. Thus was a monster created. There are now five new sculptures (if I may be so bold) in the area surrounding Five O’Clock Somewhere. Well, four and a half—one’s just a little guy.

rock pile 1
Rock Pile 1. I added the top three rocks to the existing pile. Hey, this is fun!

Rock Pile 2

Rock Pile 2, going for altitude!

Rock Pile 3

Rock Pile 3, defying gravity.
That top rock is pretty big.

Rock Pile 4

Rock Pile 4, getting fancier.
I almost knocked the whole thing down while doing “one last little adjustment”. This picture doesn’t show the structure that well, but I like its drama.

The High Country Saloon

It is a little more than fifteen miles from here to the High Country Saloon. I went, and I wrote. The value of my writing has yet to be determined. But today was reinforced the most important way to measure a bar.

It’s all about the regulars.

It was quiet when I first got there; no one was at the bar and the only occupied table held a group of yuppie bikers. The tables and chairs were dark-stained wood, the bar also. The floor was littered with peanut shells. There were about ten taps with a reasonably wide selection of beers. I settled into a chair and started to write. My beer arrived, the bikers left, and I ordered a green chile cheeseburger. It was deeeeelicious.

Before long the regulars began to arrive. Eventually there was quite a crowd at the table abandoned by the yuppie bikers. One chair remained empty, however, even as the table became very crowded. It was the King’s chair. No one knew when of even if the king was coming in, but his chair was waiting for him. It’s a good thing that I hadn’t selected that table for my writing; it would have thrown the whole bar out of alignment.

After I had finished writing, I went over and sat at the bar for one more beer. I was probably the only non-fixture among those lined up across from Gail, our bartender. The guy next to me got up and said, “Keep my tab open. I’ll be back later. You can have my fries.” There is a generally recognized definition of regular there—when Gail eats off your plate without asking first that means you’re a regular.

Your typical regular or fixture is a bar’s best marketing machine. The people I talked to really sold the bar; I’ll be going back.

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