The Trip That Changed My Life | Part Four

April 21st – 28th
Once again, something big had been turning in Troy’s head that fully revealed itself only after he had made a big decision. It was no surprise he wanted to leave Hobbs. By this time we all did. But here he was, packed and ready to thumb it out of town.

“I’m going to El Salvador. See the war first-hand, and write about it.”

The Salvadoran Civil War: it was full on, with the Government death squads murdering thousands of civilians a year, and the FMLN waging guerrilla warfare in the countryside. Yeah, he had talked about it, about the war, about working as a freelance journalist. But this?

“Now wait a frickin’ minute,” I said, or something like it.

“Let me ask you: Why am I here, in Hobbs, living in an oil field? Answer: you. Why did I come here? You. For that matter, why did I drop out of high school and move to Seattle? Why did I give up my last $300 and and my last $80? Answer: you.”

“And you,” I added, looking at Mark, “And this idea we had – together. No one is leaving.”

El Salvador. For crying out loud.

As we sat in our sleeping bags wrapped up over our shoulders, we asked Troy several times to sit down to talk, which he didn’t want to do, because he knew its only purpose was for us to talk him out of leaving. Finally he relented, which meant: No, he wasn’t walking across the the field and down Marland to Highway 18 south, at least not until we let him go. We talked a long time, about wars and death squads, and how those work; about how he pulled us back together, and here we were, and we ought make the best of it and figure out a plan. Finally, we convinced him to stay.

Hobbs was a bust, it was plain to see. But where should we go? We talked to a lot of people, roughnecks mostly, and roustabouts. We even hitched over to Odessa, leaving our camp for a few days.

(On the way: Scariest ride ever. When we got in the car the floor was covered two-deep in empty beer cans.Two good ole boys, pie-eyed and bombing down that Texas two-lane going about 90.)

We stayed with Stacy Gruby, who first gave Troy the idea of roughnecking the previous summer. But Odessa was a bust, too. Stacy said try the Panhandle, maybe, or Oklahoma. But it was back to Hobbs for now.

* * *

We survived, and not much else. We got canned food from a church. I think Troy had a little money, but it wouldn’t have lasted long. We might have panhandled. For myself, after getting sick of canned food, I lifted a banana from a big grocery store in town. I mean I stole it, you know, just so we’re clear. Man, I must have wanted that banana. Did it, even though I was scared to death of getting busted and facing Judge Roy Bean.

Luckily we had a handy source of water. There was a faucet on the side of the Totem Grocery that faced our field. There we could fill containers or rinse out our clothes. We could also come as close as we ever did to bathing. The Totem building is a concrete rectangular box with a front door and no windows. Unless we were in the store or in front of the door, they never saw us.

I was now living the full experience of being homeless. All the incidental things of life, like eating, drinking, washing, talking with strangers, these became the substance of our lives. There wasn’t anything else. Your day was an empty canvas, but the only paints were the minutiae of your daily life, and that was what you made into the sprawling pictures your long days called for.

Reading took up most of our days. I finished my Pelican History of Medieval Europe and handed it off to Troy. Then I read The Communist Manifesto, Herman Hesse’s Journey to the East, the Baghavad Gita and Kahlil Gibran’s Voice of the Master.

My favorite thing about Hobbs was the nighttime. Sunset would would quickly turn the light from warm to cool, the temperature would drop, and the stars would pop. Once dark, there was a wild flame in the distance that mesmerized me, sometimes short and sometimes long and waving like a flag. It was an Occidental Petroleum refinery stack southeast of us. When this pillar of fire was burning, we could hear the rushing sound it made, like a jetliner passing overhead, even though it was about a mile and half away.

Another persistent element was the weather. I had no real notion of what was coming. Until now the temperatures had fluctuated drastically: highs of below 60 and over 90 within a few days; and lows of 70 and nearly freezing in the same week. But it had been dry.

Then some rain came. I only remember one real downpour in Hobbs. It happened after dark while we were in the cafe, and enormous drops were suddenly pelting the front windows. Looking out at the torrent, we hurriedly flipped a coin three ways to see which one would stay (it wasn’t me) while the other two ran like wild men across the road and the field to our camp. We grabbed a few things, but mostly piled our stuff up and covered it with the  tarp. Then we ran back, drenched to our skin. I don’t remember how or where we passed the night. The next day, one of Troy’s acquaintances let us dry off some of our stuff in their mobile home. The sun dried up our camp.

April 29 – May 5th
It wasn’t long afterward that we decided to move on. The time had come to see if there was some work on down the road.The day we left Hobbs, April 29th, grew bleak as we headed north, venturing toward the Panhandle. We stopped near a town called Milnesand, NM, and by nightfall it was raining hard. All I remember is giving up on actually pitching my tent, owing to wind, I suppose, and just using it to cover myself from the rain.

The next day, Friday the 30th, we turned due east and landed in Lubbock. That night we went into a big, crowded honky-tonk. At that time the drinking age was 19, which Mark and Troy both were. I used my fake Minnesota ID to get in. Somehow, I got drunk. I mean, I know how that happens, but whence the means, I couldn’t say.

I stood behind a girl playing a video game and watched. Respecting this particular video game, I heard a lewd joke from the girl at the cafe-store back in Hobbs, and stupidly and disgracefully repeated it to this girl, something that I would never have done sober. But there it is. Without looking at me, she shrugged one shoulder at me and let that suffice as “Get lost.” That I did.

A little while later, as I stumbled around this totally jumpin’ joint, I looked over in time to see the girl pointing me out. To her boyfriend. This is surely not the only time, but it is certainly one of the times that I needed a cowboy’s appraisal of my behavior. That was a new experience. I could see it happening from twenty feet away, and it filled me with dread. He walked toward me like Jake LaMotta.

“Did you talk to her? Did you make a suggestion to her?”

Suddenly I felt pretty sober. “Yes, I made a stupid joke. I’m sorry I did, I’m very very sorry. Please tell her how sorry I am.”

“I think we should go outside, so I can teach you how to talk to girls.”

I had a feeling I was going to get taught about unilateral pugilism. Just then Troy nudged his way in. Troy the diplomat. Troy the guy who can talk his way out of any situation.

“Hello, sir,” he said in is most earnest and respectful tone. “Yes, could I please talk with you a moment?”

I couldn’t believe it. He got the guy’s attention, got him to turn away from me, defused his anger. He explained that his friend was pretty wasted, and we’re very sorry, and we’re leaving now, right now, and very sorry. Okay?

Classic Troy.

We hurried toward the door, the three of us. Out to the street.

We found our way to a Denny’s and spent the most of the night there, drinking coffee and trying not to nod off.

* * *

I want to see some friends of mine
True loving people whose hearts are kind
Find that little town that’s in the back of my mind

-Jimmy Webb
Oklahoma Nights

So this is how it was: Whenever we’d come to the next town, we would ask around. “How’s roughneckin’?”

And we’d hear something like, “Ya checked Lubbock?” And so we’d thumb it over to Lubbock, ask around again.

“No, nothin’ here, really. Ya’ll been to Odessa? Zat right? You know what. Y’all oughta see about Anadarko.”

“Anadarko?”

“Oklahoma.”

Oklahoma. Man. That’s another state.

And so we would aim to beat it on down the road, again.

The next day was grey and cool. We were in a little town east of Lubbock. A waitress told Troy we could see the parish priest about some assistance. When he want to the rectory, the priest made out like he was going to help, and told Troy to come back. When he did, he wouldn’t answer the door, told his secretary to tell Troy he was gone, and a few minutes later, as Mark and I watched from a  distance, the police came.

Troy was incredulous that the priest would’ve lied to him. Sadly, the man was afraid. To him, we were scary.

The police told us to get out of town, and we assured them we’d be gone with the first ride. That took us only as far as the next town, Crosbyton.

Then a ride came from a man I will never forget. Driving a car with his teenaged daughter and son, and another teenage friend, he didn’t really have room for three passengers. But he stopped anyway. Bud was a generous, talkative, tenderhearted man, in mourning for his wife who had died perhaps a year before. When he told the story of her illness and passing, and the grief that followed, and how the three of them had drawn closer, I was moved. But I never understood him like I do now.

He got choked up a couple of times.The girl, sitting between us in the front seat, looked at me and said apologetically, “He gets pretty emotional sometimes.”

“I do.”

“When he says goodbye to y’all, he’ll probably cry.”

“I probably will.”

“That’s all right,” I said.

He was driving home to Hobart, OK. All the way, black clouds drifted overhead. I marveled at how green it was on the rolling plains of Texas. Finally, it  looked like spring somewhere. Finally, we were out of the dust.

Bud was in no hurry. He was really enjoying this return trip, with the seven of us crammed into his car. Several stops. Easy drive, on into the night.

He let us out near a town called Mangum, about 40 miles miles south of Interstate 40. And, saying goodbye to us on the roadside late at night, he did cry. It was all right.

We slept in a crop field, and my thoughts, going to sleep and waking, were about rattlesnakes. That morning we headed north. We could have asked Bud to take us all the way to Hobart, which is only about an hour from Anadarko. We decided against it. I can’t say what we were thinking, but it may have been Kansas. I do know that a few days later, continuing north was the crux of a decision that would change the course of my life.

You ain’t gonna find nothin’ down here friend
Except seeds blowin’ up the highway in the south wind

-Bruce Springsteen
Seeds

We came to Elk City, where it was stormy again, and we slept that night in a park in the rain.

Elk City was a town, eighty years old, of about 10,000 people, situated on the old Route 66. Its highest distinction is that it’s the hometown of the great singer-songwriter Jimmy Webb (Wichita Lineman, Up, Up and Away, By the Time I Get to Phoenix, Highwayman, Galveston). The first day or two we were there, I saw a newspaper. It had an article about unemployment. It said that of all the states, the one with lowest rate in the country right now was: Oklahoma.

We talked again about where to go next. Troy thought there could be some roughnecking further north, in Nebraska.That’s where he and Mark thought we should go. I didn’t want to go north. I didn’t want to keep chasing oil. I was done with it. How much work were we going to find, if we found any at all? If we were going to get work, any kind of work, weren’t our chances better here, with the best employment rate in the country?

Of course they didn’t want just any job. What, settle down and get a fast-food job, or farm labor? What’s the point of that? We can get crappy, low-paying jobs anywhere. That’s what  we had, what we left, to come down here.

But I didn’t want to keep drifting. I was tired of going from town to town looking for the Holy Grail, which was, after all, just a job on the rigs. I had become less and less enthusiastic about the idea. Seemed every time I met some calloused roughneck, one that had been at at it for years, he was missing a finger or a thumb. That was from throwing chain, Troy told me.The kind of luck I have, I’ll lose a digit my first day on. No thanks.

On May 5, my friends were ready to to hit the road gain. I told them I wasn’t going. I was going to stay in Oklahoma, see if I could get some work, maybe go home, maybe go to school. I was dirty, tired, and hungry most of the time. It was fun while it lasted.

Look, we tried. We tried in Seattle, we tried here. It’s over. It was a mirage. We chased it, but it’s gone. I’ve gotta quit the road, that’s all. I’ve gotta be done with it.

Perhaps I thought I’d get them to stay, too. I would’ve liked that. But they weren’t going to stay. They had decided, and so had I.

I was telling them goodbye.

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The Trip that Changed My Life | Part Three

And we headed down south with just spit and a song
But they said “Sorry son it’s gone gone gone”
-Bruce Springsteen
Seeds

 

April 1st – 3rd
The first of April, 1982 found me and Mark making our way toward Hobbs, NM, thumbing it out on Interstate 10 in the Arizona desert, reading our Gideon Bibles and hoping for a ride from the ever more seldom-passing drivers.

From a spot near Benson to another somewhere on the hundred or so miles to Lordsburg, we whiled the better part of two days. Finally we got a ride, but got dropped once again at a spot well short of a human population center. This time we were taken to rest area 25 miles west of Lordsburg, with nothing in between. The sun was going down. We slept under concrete picnic tables.

In the morning we were awakened by one RV after another making their morning stops. After talking about it, we decided it made no sense  go back to the road, when everyone inclined to stop was doing it right here. We couldn’t just stick our thumbs our, though. We’d have to ask for a ride. We split up and began walking up and down the long line of motor homes, looking for friendly faces. I found a man in his sixties and his wife and asked if we could at least go as far as Lordsburg with them. As he looked me up and down, I waved Mark over. The man was thinking about it, but wanted a feel for us, to make sure we were safe. He had us sit a spell and chat.

Stagecoach

One of the rich experiences of hitchhiking is that a surprisingly diverse range of people will pick up a hitchhiker, but they all have this in common: they want to give a ride to a stranger. It’s remarkable when you think of it. The inside of a car, or the cab of a truck, is such an intimate space, and inviting a stranger to share it with you is a generous, even a friendly gamble. Sometimes drivers are tired of driving alone. Or they are paying forward the rides they got when they were on the road. Sometimes they want to save your soul, or share a joint or a sandwich, or add a little spontaneity to a routine drive. Whatever the motive, they have this little albeit sufficient bit of trust, enough to reach out to a stranger and help out. It’s a beautiful thing, and I’m sad the psycho killers have all but ruined such an honored custom.

After he had a sense of us, he said we could ride with them. He was a retired rancher, and they were spending a good part of the year on the road. They were solid, conservative, Midwestern Protestants taking on a couple of Northwest lefty drifters, and what a fine time we had! This was one of the nicest rides we got. It came right after we had spent the last of our money, and we didn’t know how we were going to eat, or how many days we were from Hobbs.

As it turned out, we traveled in their motor home for two days. They drove us about 350 miles, to within  70 miles of Hobbs. The first day we went as far as Guadalupe Mountains National Park, where we stayed for the night. Along the way we stopped at a KFC, and when they realized we didn’t have any money left, they bought us lunch, and fed us thereafter.

lone-highway-to-guadalupe-mountains-texas-292824

Interstate 10 dips south at Las Cruces into Texas. I remember my shock as we swung near the Rio Grande and I could see across the rail tracks, fences and the river what looked to me like a shanty town in Ciudad Juarez: the houses of paper and tin and others of bare, crumbling cinder block. The contrast between the two cities, where the houses on one side were only a thousand feet from the houses on the other, was stunning.

And then there was this land we were driving through. As I crossed the Western and Plains states in 1978, I fell in love, deeply in love with the American landscape. Now, cruising across the great desert Southwest, entering Texas and then New Mexico for the first time, I was falling in love again. This was the land that starred in the old westerns I grew up watching with my grandpa, and my dad, who shared this romance. Open, hard, dry ground – red and yellow dust – sprinkled now with green –  against a blue and white sky. There is history here, and timelessness, air that can choke or drown you, but let you breathe deeper than you ever have; land that fights you but also frees you.

At the Park, I believe we pitched a tent outside the RV. The next day they dropped us at Carlsbad, NM. We were one ride away from Hobbs, a roof over our heads, some food and the next chapter of our lives.

By Boston Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

With any kind of luck, Troy lives at the Barton Motor Court!
(By Boston Public Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

As we set foot in Hobbs, I looked around. Picture west Texas, just six and half miles away, and you’ve got Hobbs. It was a flat, dusty town, and there was only one reason I could think of for having a town there, or any place like it: oil. That’s just fine by me. Oil is why I’m here.

I pulled out the Rolodex card with notes about how to find Troy. Eventually we made contact. Troy found us at the Totem Grocery, a convenience store on the main drag. (The building is still there, with the Totem sign over the door.) After all the introductory remarks were dispensed with, I said something like, “Well, what do you say you take us to your place so we can drop our loads?” I was thinking of a cool, shaded room, and some real food.

“Yeah, let’s do that.”

We were on the western edge of town. A few sparse businesses, like the Totem and the Caprock Lounge, open fields of scrub, pump jacks – little more. Troy led us in a straight line north and west out into the middle of the field next to the Totem. In a few minutes we came upon a 20-foot canvas army tarp spread out on the ground, with a backpack, a sleeping bag, some empty food cans, some books, and some pots and pans. All around us were pump jacks bobbing up and down. Troy stopped.

“What’s this?”  I asked.

“My place.”

“Your place? This is where you’re living?”

“Yes, it is.  I guess it’s where you’re living, too.”

“You told me you had a place to live. I mean, indoors.”

I looked at Mark, expecting him to be as incredulous as I was. He wasn’t.

“You knew? You knew he was – ? Oh, crap.”

Troy had moved to the field because rent was costing too much money, and money was tight because…

“Well, the work has kind of dried up around here.”

“Dried up? That’s why we’re here – to work. Dried up? You haven’t been working?”

“Not as much.”

“But you made a lot of money. You saved your money.”

“I did. I had some money. Until a few days ago. Somebody came through while I was gone, and ripped me off. I had a little with me, though.”

My heart sank a little. When Mark and Troy first talked about this, they knew they wouldn’t get me to come down here if I knew we were going to be camping in an oil field. That was probably true. But if I had known that work on the rigs was falling off – never. Never. I felt betrayed. They had both lied to me. White lies to them; to me, black.

There was no shelter, no shower, no refrigerator, toilet or sink. No water or electricity. No food, no money, and who knows, maybe no work.

Welcome to Hobbs, the Oil Capital.

April 4th – 21st
Now my grievances against my friends were having a cumulative effect. But what could I do with them? Me, not much. So I filed them away in my overstuffed file labeled, “Crap I don’t want to keep but can’t get rid of.”

And hey: the Alliance was re-allied, after all. And that was great. Together again. I rather marveled at where our friendship had brought us in less than a year and a half: from our homes back in Missoula to Seattle, then dispersed in opposite directions, only to reunite in this of all places. Being homeless and nearly destitute was a small thing. In fact, in light of our travel plans, it was funny. We were back to laughing at our self-made predicament.  Situation normal.

And there was an amusing irony here, that only now occurs to me. What did we do back in Missoula? We griped about our small-town captivity and longed for the freedom and opportunity to make our lives what we wanted. No parental constraints, no demands from school or jobs to hamper us. We didn’t want our lives mapped out for us by family or teachers or society. Freedom, baby.

Well, we got what we wished for. And you know what that freedom looked like? Eating VanCamp’s pork and beans out of a can on a dusty piece of canvas in the middle of an oil field. No jobs or school or parents to pin us down, push us around or rob our time and energy. All the time in the world, in fact. Freedom, baby!

* * *

Not a lot happened in Hobbs. The three of us lived on the tarp for the rest of April. Every weekday we rose early, dressed for worked and went to the Totem Grocery. There we waited as the roughneck crews stopped for coffee and food on their way to work. If a crew was short a guy or two, they’d pick someone up. This is what Troy had been doing. The more work, the  more likely a guy wouldn’t show, so when the rigs were hopping, Troy would get plenty of work. Problem was, the big oil boom, which had been going since 1978 or ’79, was going bust. Just in time for our arrival.

We went every day, but weeks passed, and we never got hired. We would spend the rest of the day on the tarp, or at the library, two miles away. At night, or when the weather was bad, we often took shelter at a place across the road from the Totem, which was a service station with a cafe and a store. (Also still there, under new owners.) The girl who worked there like to flirt with us, and we’d flirt back. We’d drink coffee, and occasionally drop a quarter in the jukebox.

It is no exaggeration to say that every week I spent in Hobbs felt like a month. This is how it had been for me since El Centro. It wasn’t that nothing happened, or that I was particularly bored. It’s that time, every hour, every day, crawled. It moved so slowly because, apart from going to  the Totem Grocery every morning, the notion of time grew irrelevant. I looked at my watch only out of habit, but next to nothing we did needed to be timed by anything more than the rising of the sun. Never again have I experienced this, but I remember it well. I believe it is not possible for this to happen if I have any sense of my current situation being in any way defined or delimited by time. The fact is I live with this time-definition every day, and the only way I know to be rid of it is to not know what is happening next or when. That doesn’t happen on a camping trip or a even a meandering vacation, if you have a job or family to get back to. I was floating, drifting through the days, as if I were in a raft on a river without any oars. I didn’t know where or when I could or would put out.

I only know three dates from that month. The first two are the day we arrived, and day we left. The third is April 21st.

That morning Mark and I woke up to Troy rousting us.When I looked at him, I couldn’t believe what I saw. He was standing there, wearing his army coat and his backpack, ready to go.

“What are you doing?”

“Guess.”

“You’re leaving? You can’t be serious!”

“I am leaving,” he drew out like a carefully worded announcement. I sat up, my mouth open.

“Just wanted to tell you guys: So long.”