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By ERICA HENGELFELT, CONTRIBUTOR

We should have recognized the omens the night we cruised into Santa Fe. When snowdrifts obscured the friendly signs and covered the windows of strangers that would normally welcome visitors like us; when blizzard-like conditions caused every automobile to creep along the interstate in fear that an overcorrection of the wheel might fatefully crush metal and bones upon impact with red rock encased in ice; when we finally arrived at our hotel room, exhausted after twelve hours on the road, and it appeared as though a drug dealer or wild animal had inhabited the place for months — crooked picture frames and dank, mustard-colored sheets left behind as ruffled remnants of his nightly terrors, induced by bad trips, bad dreams, or bad luck.

This was not our destination.  We were just passing through on our way to Arizona, stopping only for the night; but the interstate wound us back through New Mexico two days later, and it laughed. 

And this is the practical joke in the way we came to understand it: for us, the “Land of Enchantment” decided to disguise itself, and no matter from which direction we chose to attack, the border to the east or to the west, it formed the puddle in the road between where we stood and where we wanted to go.  We had no choice but to march right through.

Passing the spray-painted eyes and disembodied heads of countless dinosaurs and other indistinguishable pieces of “art” that lined the thawing roadside throughout the vast state of in between, we alternated between sleeping and driving.  The number of miles between each exit doubled, tripled.  So did the dinosaurs. 

What seemed like hours passed before we were free to begin the search for a restroom and after, a park with a table or bench, one where we could stretch out our legs, crack our necks from the cramped quarters of the Buick, satiate our hunger.  We consumed delicacies in this foreign territory, a full spectrum of flavor — soggy turkey sandwiches fished from a cooler full of slushy ice, neglected and left in the trunk for several days, coupled with mustard and mayo packets hurriedly swiped from a gas station a few miles back while the pump devoured our twenties. 

It was at this spot in the center of some dusty desert town, under an array of dinosaurs, that we encountered a Spanglish-speaking cowboy who had the cajones to ask for a sandwich of his own without the courtesy of tipping his hat or saying please.  He seemed homeless and harmless enough.  A police officer, trailing behind the scoundrel, offered a shrug and genuine look of concern for the safety of two young women, because after all, we were having a picnic with the town nut — sharing grace, a loaf of bread, and sparse bits of conversation.  If this was small-town Nebraska, we might have predicted the gossip about to combust between old ladies and cashiers in the windows of the grocery store across the street.  Perhaps it is why we left home, to escape the flames.

We sat with the cowboy until we heard the catcalls.  Gravel swirled up behind a pickup truck full of rowdy, ponytailed men, who yelled and hollered in muffled phrases, and looked straight toward our picnic table.  A few of them pointed.  The cowboy asked for money, and in a mess of quick decisions, we left him with a Bible tract that resembled a million dollar bill, and fled the scene as quickly as possible. 

Later on, after the shock-induced silence had worn away, we contemplated the what-ifs aloud: what if we had been kidnapped right there in the middle of the town square?  What if those ponytailed men decided to follow us — do you recognize that truck?  What if the cowboy can’t read, and therefore, won’t be saved?  Or worse, what if he thinks the money we gave him is real, and tries to exchange it for a bottle of soda or something?

But all such worrying ceased when we found ourselves on the opposite edge of the muddy puddle, relieved, and the sign finally came into view: “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.”

We dried off our feet.

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