“… and though I had been there so often, in so many moods, it was to that first visit that my heart returned on this, my latest.” — Evelyn Waugh
If you leave Las Vegas, which, if you live in Las Vegas, you ought to do frequently, do not leave the Sunday morning following the National Rodeo Championships. Boulder City will be dammed—dammed with traffic so long as Interstate 11 remains in its fetus stage. Every F-350, trailer, camper, hitch, lead-foot with his ten-gallon-head roaring away from the ’Mack back to some ranch in Nowhere; every cowboy in the country “gettin’ outta dodge” and likely heading there too; the smell of horses and cattle mixing with dry December wind from Vegas to Kingman, where the same characters dam another town and create a log-jam of longhorns. So, if you ever leave Las Vegas, wait until that following Monday, or leave that same Saturday.
I imagine the residents of Boulder City can’t wait for, as they surely call it, that “Dam Interstate” to be built, pushing traffic, finally, around rather than through town. It’s, of course, not just rodeos that make Boulder unbearable. Any long holiday weekend, any fight, any big event, brings folk from as far away as Phoenix to the City of Sin. And, unless Wayne Newton picks them up in a helicopter, these folk must travel through Boulder. It is a shame, too, for Boulder is a quaint town, all things considered. The only town in Nevada, I believe, which outlaws both gambling and prostitution, the town’s business district, instead of attracting Vegas-style amusement, enjoys several little shops, all named, fittingly: “Dam Gift Shop,” “Dam Ice Cream Shack,” “Dam Bar.” The town, in such contrast to Vegas, is a breath of fresh air, even when that air is polluted with horse manure.
The road to Kingman, US 93, and future I-11 corridor, could benefit from more government funding. Clearly, the state of Arizona does a poor job of maintaining it. By twenty-first-century American standards, it is a bumpy ride, which mimics nicely the bumpy, rocky landscape surrounding it. If you’re on this road, not driving, or surrounded by trailers, you may catch stunning glimpses of the Colorado, post canyon, post Dam, winding its way below, dividing Arizona, Nevada, California, lazily seeking that familiar destination all rivers must find.
Interstate 40 is a welcome relief from US 93. The interstate, if followed it its entirety, flows from Los Angeles to Wilmington. Not the longest US interstate, it is surely the longest interstate to cover the American South—stretching to each coast, it traces desert landscape, the south plains, the Arkansas hill-country, crossing the Mississippi and into and through the southern tip of the Smoky Mountains before plunging itself into the Atlantic. From Los Angeles to Albuquerque, nothing really exists by way of large cities. Entering at Kingman and heading east, one meets the refuse of LA—semi after semi—until passing the exit for Phoenix several leave and distance separates you from them. From Kingman to Flagstaff, the landscape changes significantly, as the elevation rises and the tree-line thickens. The Coconino National Forest is a gorgeous accumulation of pine, evergreen, and elk-warning-signs, which offers the necessary respite from red-dirt, clay, and shrubs. One should plan a lunch in Flagstaff. One should take a long lunch and fill his lungs with as much pine-scented air as possible. There will not be another real tree until Albuquerque.
Typically, one does not consider Arizona and New Mexico as chilly places. But until you pass Albuquerque, the elevation remains at a steady five to six-thousand feet, and even in early August a jacket may be required at night. But though chilly, it is still dry and windy and barren. Dodging tumbleweeds, nothing else may catch the eye besides signs for Route 66 shops, word about a meteor, some petrified wood, maybe news about a canyon up north. But all this is hidden away off the interstate and all one sees is flattening tan across eastern Arizona. The New Mexico border, the New Mexico mesas, never look as pretty as when one enters from the western desert. I’m not sure what to make of these mesas. They are pretty, though not necessarily breathtaking. Dotted and flecked with the same shrub-trees one sees throughout Arizona, they seem, in their own way, shrub-mountains.
My route home means leaving the interstate, and therefore civilization, in Tucumcari. US 54 is also a bit rocky in New Mexico, but in Texas, the road smooths and the speed limit jumps to 75. I scan the radio to pass time and find two Spanish and at least three conservative Christian stations. A Pastor Skip rails against adding works to grace—“If your Jesus does 99.9% of the work and you add .1% of your own effort to what He’s done, you’re adding to His sacrifice, you’re believing in a false gospel. He doesn’t need your works!”—A woman talk show host rails against forcing contraception on nuns and suggests all liberals are communists. One of these communists calls in from Michigan. He tries to speak but can’t edge a word in. The host hangs up on him and chastises his rudeness. I turn to the Orange Tabby, fast asleep in his carrier: “Ah, Theo, we’re home!”
My trip ends as it began: near Dalhart, Texas a huge feedlot sends its aroma through my vents. Its seventy degrees out, and I have to make the call between running the AC and smelling the cows or being a little warm. I turn the AC off as we cross into the Oklahoma panhandle and prepare for more feedlots.
By now the landscape has changed significantly. I’m still witnessing a mixture of brown and tan, but I know they are the browns and tans of life—of trees and grass. “I’d kill to see an oak tree,” I tell the Orange Tabby somewhere in Arizona. Now I see them—dead but alive. And I see, too, eventually, a sunflower. It too is dead but alive. In it is a number, the number 25. “Theo, my boy, look! You know what that means. That means we’re home. Can’t you feel it? These smooth roads, these fields. Ah, life, my boy. Ah home.”
I swear the roads are nicer in this state, the field richer, the air cleaner, my soul lighter. On a fencepost, to my delight, I spot a few birds fluttering about as if they live in a perpetual spring, fluttering from the post to nowhere in particular. But I follow this numbered sunflower north, seeking a single home somewhere on the range.
December 19, 2017
By Thomas Sidney Cooper
Oil on canvas, 1881