Much later in the day, David and I stopped off at a tiny little rest stop off I-25, just South of Socorro. A brown sign, made for tourists, announced we were on the famed Camino Real, also known as the Jornada del Muerto. The journey of death. Finally, it all made sense.
I knew it would be a dangerous day hours earlier. Descending out of Taos and into the canyon, where the highway hugs the Rio Grande for twenty miles or so, I pulled out to pass a line of cars. It’s something I do all the time. As I finally got a clear look down the hill, a horse-trailer was backing up traffic ten cars ahead. I tried to merge back, but there was nowhere to go. (In the exact spot where a family died a few years ago.)
Desperately, I jammed the gas and barely wedged myself in just beyond the nose of a semi-truck hauling pressurized chemicals. Releasing a pent up breath, seconds later, I looked in my rear-view mirror to see the truck swerving, barely keeping it together. Not 30 minutes into my trip, and I almost ignited a firestorm of misery. Classy.
Twenty minutes later, traffic came to a stand still. Lights were flashing, sirens screaming. Not good. As I inched along, off to my right, another semi-truck had launched off the road into the rocks along the river. Hard to see how the driver could have survived. Never seen that before. Bad omen.
From there, I herky-jerked my way down past Santa Fe. Cops were everywhere, brainless drivers the norm. It was so odd, so disconcerting, that I mentioned it to the Native American woman behind the counter as I paid for my breakfast burrito at the Casino/Gas Station/Rest Stop just north of Albuquerque. (Casino Hollywood on the San Felipe Reservation, BTW.) She nodded, implacably, and said, “Yeah, one of those days. You never can tell.”
So by the time the brown sign reminded me that the Camino Real is not for the faint of heart, I was practically relieved. At least I wasn’t imagining things. One needs to keep one’s wits when heading down to the borderlands, a world populated with smugglers, junkies, truckers and dropouts. (Now that I think about it, I suppose it’s not that different from where I live.)
Why a road trip? Well, that’s an easy answer. David and I were headed South to Las Cruces, where we intended to meet up with our friends Ken and Scott. After a pit stop of a studio visit with photographer David Taylor, (the king of La Frontera) we ditched one car, piled into Ken’s Prius, and continued on towards Marfa, Texas, Art Mecca. So there’s the why. I rallied a few buddies to take a big Texas road trip, to go see some great art and write about it for you, the APE audience. Nobody died, nobody even got hurt, so in the end, it was worth it. But drama-free? Not likely.
My three friends are all photographers, and also accomplished in other aspects of the field. (An editor/publisher, a professor, & and a museum executive.) Each of us drowns daily in a sea of email, commitments, and plans. So for once, we relished the opportunity to wing it. No hotels were booked. No Yelp reviews were solicited. No idea where we were going to spend the night. Romantic? Not exactly.
When you’re 21, you don’t mind sleeping anywhere. Road Trips are just an excuse to drink way too much Mountain Dew (which lacks any other purpose), smoke too much weed, and take pictures of absolutely everything. Think about it. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, every single fence-post seems profound. “Look man, it’s a cactus, just oozing cactus-ness. Just one more shot, OK?”
On this trip, however, I was the youngest at 37. Creaky backs and coffee-snobbery are the norm in this demo, and the idea of just stopping “wherever” for the night doesn’t work as well as it did a decade or two ago. (Though Ken did bring along some coffee-crack in a creamer cup called Stok. Look into it…)
David Taylor, desert expert, mentioned there was a town a ways North of Marfa called Van Horn. He assured us there was nothing else around for miles, so we default set that as a destination for the night. Hopped up on shitty burgers and vitamin water, the four of us drove. And drove. Mountains in the reflected moonlight are a sight to behold, but very difficult to photograph from a moving car. So they’ll exist in my memory only. (Close your eyes, and maybe you can imagine it. Charcoal gray, texture, jagged lines pushing up from the ground, no other light around.)
By the time we got to Van Horn, it was almost 11 at night. (Damn you, time change.) The decent-looking motels were the first into town, and surprise, were all booked. So there we were, sitting in the the car at a gas station, doors opened for fresh air, and that’s when the Iphones came out. Seriously? If you don’t want to TripAdvisor that crap three weeks ahead of time, what’s the point of doing it near midnight, thirty yards from the nearest hotel? We pounded the pavement for a bit, checking in at the certainly haunted Hotel El Capitan, before finally settling on a Days Inn adjacent to the off-ramp. I was confident, which was a mistake.
In these long articles, I try to keep it breezy, keep it funny, and keep moving along. But we’re what, ten paragraphs in and I haven’t even gotten to the Art yet? It’s not like this is the New Yorker, and I’m aware that you don’t have unlimited time to stare at your screen. This time, though, I have to slow down. We’ll get to the art, and the insane mashup of billionares slumming with South Texas poor folk. We’ll get there. But what my friends and I witnessed that night, in Van Horn, is worth conjuring for a couple more minutes.
We walked into the Days Inn lobby, David and I, ready to book a room. Immediately to our right, recumbent on a sofa with a TV behind it, we saw a young woman. At first glance, she looked 25, and attractive. Dark hair, nice figure. As she swooped around us to the front counter, though, we got a better look. Not a day over 20, and more likely less than that.
She would have been beautiful, and probably was until a few years before. But now? With the discoloration under her eyes, she was like a cancer-ridden raccoon, and the expression peering out was dead. Not defiant dead, like the junkies in a Mikhailov photograph, but dead in a soul-sucking, depressive way that makes you touch your wallet and lock the car door. Meth, most likely, though I suppose it could have been crack. Whatever the culprit, this girl was gone.
She handed over the key cards, and ushered us on our way. I wanted to cry. We got to the rooms, and David rushed right to the bed to see just how crappy this place was. He found…blood stains on the bed. For real. That’s the kind of detail that a better writer than I would make up, but there it was. Real blood. Perfect. As my room’s door was broken, we had to re-engage our meth-head princess, which was one more encounter than I ever wanted in my life. Her reaction, if you can believe it, was to throw the new bedding at a co-worker, and scream, “Blood stains? I don’t get paid enough for that shit.” She stormed off, never to be seen again.
Her colleague, a nice enough guy, was from India, and rocked a thick accent. At that point, you reach the “I’ll believe anything phase,” so I only grinned. Scott, who’d been to India a few times in the last couple of years, was fascinated, and chatted with the guy for a few minutes. I was shocked that he was shocked. It is America after all.
We drove around the town a bit, stopping here and there to take photographs. Once we returned to the motel, we stalked around the parking lot like quivering hunters, never straying out of eyesight of each other. Lest you think we were scaredy-cats, I’ll state that between the four of us, we’ve traveled the world, and lived in many a metropolitan city. This place was just that disturbing. Why?
Because we’d entered that part of America not often seen by Coastal Elites, or fancy-boy artists such as ourselves. The kind of place where, behind each Motel door, someone’s shooting up. Someone else is getting smacked around. And door number three has 32 Mexicans huddled together, chained, while their minder watches “Dancing With the Stars.” Tomorrow, they’ll climb back in the van for the trip to Chicago, or Raleigh, if they’re lucky.
We woke, the next morning, very glad to see the daylight. (And the Prius, for that matter. At least we had four walls to protect us, but the Prius was a sitting duck.) I surmised that there was probably not a plate of vegetables in the entire town, and my comrades concurred. So we piled back into our little Japanese rolling box, found the highway, and drove South to Marfa, where fancy coffee and fresh fruit, doubtless, awaited us.