Thoreau’s Bastard Chapter 2

 

The size of the dot was a portent of mother´s unhappiness. Her mouth twitched as she peered down her nose over the map, finally finding Thoreau after nearly a minute. My father waited quietly while she stared hard at the small dot, as though trying make out distinct buildings and gas stations. Even though the town was right on I-40, it seemed away from the highway somehow, isolated. She expected the town to be significant enough to have a larger dot; even an extra millimeter´s width might have satisfied her that the town was worth visiting, let alone moving to. Finally she looked back up at my father, a frown on her thin face.

“So we would be doing what, exactly, in the middle of the desert?”

“It´s not in the middle of the desert, Margaret. It´s right on the interstate.”

Mother chewed on her nails, waiting for him to continue.

“Donrey bought out the signs between Grants and Gallup. They need me out there to do the painting and maintenance. I´ll get a nice raise and the company will pay for the house while we´re there. Our own place, no rent. How does that sound?”

“If it´s so great, why are they throwing in the house?”

My father just sighed.

“What about Mark? Do they have a school there?”

“Of course, honey.”

“And what am I supposed to do? Do they have an insurance agency I could work at?”

“I don´t know. I told you: I´ve never been there. But it can´t be too bad.” He took her hands in his. “Look, if we hate it, we´ll just leave. But let´s give it a chance. What do you say?”

Mother shrugged and searched her fingers for an unchewed nail.

We left for Thoreau the following spring trailing a U-Haul. As we drove, my father pointed out which billboards were now his responsibility. I had never seen a man get so excited about the prospect of painting twelve-foot pecan logs, but to him each billboard may as well have been the Mona Lisa. He told me all about the paints and banners he used, how he would take a small original picture, place a grid over it, then sketch each square in one at a time.

Thoreau was in fact just off the road, about three hours west of Albuquerque, sandwiched between the highway and steep red cliffs that rose up to meet a long, wide mesa. Thoreau looked like a town that had been forced back into a stone wall with nowhere to go. Thoreau had only a few thousand residents, a few dozen street lights, and a few paved roads.

Mother made disapproving noises as we pulled off the highway. That was her way; she would rarely come out and say she was angry about something. Instead, she preferred to let everyone know by precisely timed sighs and ritualized finger tapping, a sort of emotional Morse code. Our home was on Broadway Street. “I always said I´d take you to Broadway, honey,” my father said, turning onto the tumbleweed-lined street. Mother didn´t laugh.

The company house turned out to be a mobile home, much to my mother´s horror. It was a double wide, tan with white trim. It was fairly nice, but clearly not what she expected. There was enough room for everyone, including a cat I had found out by the highway. The poor thing was grimy and grey when I found it, mewing and shivering inside a huge blown-out semi tire. Most of the other kids had dogs: big, lumpy, territorial dogs with lopsided ears and deranged dispositions. Every Friday after I got home from school, I would throw my books on my bed, snap on the radio, kneel down, and plunge my hands deep into the cat box. I´d feel around for a few minutes past the kitty nuggets until I found five silver dollars and some quarters. Cleaning out the cat box was one of my chores, although I usually forgot. My father´s solution was to bury my allowance in the cat box, so I´d have to clean the whole thing out to get paid. He said to think of it as simplified plumbing. It didn´t really bother me, since it was after all my job, but Steve down at the corner store got tired of exchanging Snickers and Amazing Spider-Man comic books for legal currency that reeked of cat piss. Months later, you could sniff the coins in Thoreau and know which ones had been used for my allowance. Steve finally started keeping my coins separate and handing them to tourists so they wouldn´t stay in Thoreau.

As it turned out, Thoreau had no insurance company for my mother. Had anyone bothered to get car insurance she´d have had a job, but as it was no one enforced the law. She eventually found part-time work watching children after school.

The first year was difficult on mother, but the second year she finally began to fit in. She got to know a few of the neighbors and eventually culled a small circle of friends. They would get together over discussions about Days of Our Lives to coo about how handsome Victor Kiriakis was and pine over Jack and Jennifer´s doomed love. Mother was embarrassed by our mobile home, despite the fact that it was still one of the nicer homes in Thoreau. In an effort at redemption, she made curtains.

Mother made new curtains every month. She´d work on them at night, staying up until Johnny Carson told her it was time for bed. She would gather all the women in the living room, offer them iced tea, then dramatically whisk a black cloth off her latest design. The sunlight illuminated her curtains brilliantly, and even my friends commented on how nice they were, much to my mother´s pride.

Most of my dad´s days were spent in a hot company truck taking care of the signs. He would cruise the highway with a warm Coke between his legs, singing opera along with Lotte Lenya about Mack the Knife. Signs would always be out of date, or not paid up, or battered down by the fierce desert winds. The worst were the gas station billboards and having to change their gas prices every few days. It was a lonely, dusty job but dad loved it. He was a fighter; when the winds would bash a sign down, he´d be there in a few hours with a hammer to slap it right back up. When local kids spray-painted a huge penis onto a smiling roadrunner, dad whited it out expertly.

Most of Thoreau was Hispanic, and much of the town spent their days down at the railroad, along with a few Navajo, working for a company called Savage Industries. Its logo was an Indian chief in his headdress. The other big employers were the mining companies. About a dozen coal and uranium mines in that corner of the state paid decent wages to small towns hungry for scraps. The only other jobs were at Stuckey´s and McDonald´s along the highway, but even for those there was competition from the reservations. My friend Joe worked at a laundromat that served a few dozen Navajo families. They´d come from all over, showing up with clothes and blankets heaped in the back of dusty pickups.

For the first few years, I thought the only cars sold in the area were burgundy Buicks, because that´s all anyone had. Some were junked, some still ran, but other than a few utility trucks, nothing but dusty burgundy Buicks roared down the dirt roads of Thoreau.

I worked down at Herman´s Garage for three years until I finished high school. Herman´s was a tiny place just off the frontage road with an office the size of a toolshed lumped next to a two-car bay. A guy in his fifties named George ran the place. One lazy afternoon I asked who Herman was; George said Herman owned the place, but he hadn´t seen Herman in years. He had been tempted to change the name to George´s Garage, but he was afraid that Herman might suddenly show up.

A Coke machine (vintage even by Thoreau standards, where relics were common and lots of folks distrusted push-button phones) stood in the shade of the small porch, luring passing cars from the dry highway. George had three gas pumps, the old kind with rounded tops and one cracking black rubber hose coming out. The arm slung down low, then looped back up to rest on the side carriage. With the faded digits in the little windows, they always reminded me of three one-armed, stoop-shouldered men, each facing the highway with their fingers in their left ears. At different times I had different names for them, like Larry, Curly, and Moe.

One Saturday afternoon my father pulled up at Herman´s. It had just rained, and the droplets left millions of fragile little dimples in the dusty driveway. He waved me away from the gas tank and told me to get in. I looked for George, but he was asleep in the office. I jumped in. I always loved riding along with my father, zooming down the highway, my lips chapping in the hot wind. I thought he was taking me to see a sign he had finished, but he made a left onto a dirt road a few miles from the Continental Divide. We drove down the road, paint cans and a stepladder jostling loudly in the back.

“Where we going?” I asked.

My dad just grinned and sipped from a can of Coke.

We headed toward a mesa, pulling off near a low slope. He got out and walked but I stayed put, with my arms crossed. Finally I rolled down the window. “Where are you going?”

“Treasure,” he called back. I scampered out of the truck and followed him down a gravelly slope into a low arroyo. The smell of rain on rock mixed with piñon, energizing me. I stepped over a trickle of rainwater as I ran to catch up with him.

“Is it buried treasure?”

“No. It´s the best kind of treasure,” he said. “Open for anyone who looks.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Out here? In an arroyo in the boonies? There´s nothing out here. I don´t—”

“There it is,” he said, pointing into the jagged curve ahead.

I stepped around him and gazed past a moist earthen wall. I had never seen anything like it: The arroyo just stopped. A boulder had fallen into the crevice, and rain runoff from the mesa spilled out around it. Three small but distinct waterfalls spewed out, spattered, then disappeared into the cream-colored sand. The boulder wasn´t very high, maybe six or eight feet, but it was majestic. It was the most beautiful thing I´d seen.

I walked ahead a few feet and sat down in front of the waterfall, just watching the flow, enchanted by its mesmerizing rhythm. While one wide cascade hit the sand with a deep, satisfying thump, its thinner sister tapped out a quick, jaunty rhythm. The third maintained a soft hissing drizzle, leaping from a gnarled root. My father was right: it was treasure. A waterfall in the desert, a magical place far away from dusty broken beer bottles and gas fumes. My father sat next to me, and we watched until one by one the waterfalls turned to wispy drizzles and the magic was spent.

While Thoreau wasn´t a great place to be a wage-earning adult, it was a wonderful place for kids. Joe and I loved to scramble down the hills, through the ravines, and across the mesas.

Even the highway held magic. To the adults it was just a paved surface on which goods and people were transported, a lifeline to the rest of the world. To many workers it was also a necessary evil, in the sense that it competed with the railroad for freight. But it was much more than that. It had a life of its own, and it spoke to those who spent time on it. You couldn´t see the highway when you sped along it, not really. You could see the stripes and asphalt and shredded tires, but that was it. You had to walk along the highway to hear its story, to get its character. You had to see the waves of heat warp lines you knew were straight into shimmering white snakes. You had to sit G.I. Joe in a defiant pose and watch him get battered and skid off the blacktop, a demise even COBRA couldn´t devise.

The highway held kid treasures, and the two of us would walk along the shoulder gathering them. We hoarded the more interesting gems in a shoebox; eventually we graduated to a 25-inch television box. We had tire weights, gravel-mottled credit cards, dead batteries that leaked acid, two Richie Rich comic books, a few dirty magazines, and a Pac-Man Atari 2600 cartridge. Hubcaps went to George for five bucks each, with an extra five if we completed a set.

One summer the highway department sent a crew out to repaint the road stripes. I had envisioned a line of workers with paint brushes bent over the road, but instead they sent a huge tractor-like contraption that seemed unnecessarily large just to paint three-inch stripes on the road. The crew was cool, a bunch of guys from Albuquerque who let us play on the equipment until a supervisor showed up and kicked us off. We got them back, though: Joe and I ran ahead of the big machine and stood in its path, refusing to move. We then broke into a sincere, if inauthentic, rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” The workers tried to push us out of the way, but when we started yelling cars slowed to watch. To this day there´s a little bump in the paint where they had to steer around us: our first mark on the world.

There wasn´t much nightlife in town. Thoreau had an equal number of churches and bars, one or the other every block or two. Roman Catholics ruled the town, but missionaries tried to colonize the natives on occasion. In 1980 a group of Jehovah´s Witnesses, who also happened to peddle Amway, came to town. They tried for two months to sell both salvation and revolutionary food storage containers to elderly shut-ins who didn´t speak much English. They finally gave up and went back to wherever they came from.

I heard that in Grants, an hour away, A. A. night at the bowling alley was the big thing. The alley would fill with both recovering and resolute alcoholics every Tuesday night to bowl, bicker, and berate sobriety. Foster, the manager, gave them a group price break, but everyone knew that the five bucks off was just going back into his pockets, because Foster also owned a liquor store across the street. Rumor was he paid somebody off to put in a stoplight in front of the alley so bowlers could go back and forth to the liquor store without getting hit. The whole incestuous enterprise did serve a community service, though: For a lot of folks A. A. night was the only time they saw their relatives.

Joe and I didn´t need bowling; we created our own entertainment. We would walk along the highway and pick up tire scraps from blow-outs. If we were lucky, we could find ones that were more or less intact, and about three or four feet long. We would then get some cardboard boxes, fold them flat, and duct-tape them to our forearms as shields. We used the tire scraps as swords to beat the hell out of each other until we were bruised and exhausted. Radial tires hurt the worst, and left dozens of tiny puncture wounds that didn´t bleed much but hurt like hell. The first couple of times mother was aghast at the bruises and welts on me, convinced I´d been flogged by a roving band of Hell´s Angels. At that age, as a fan of The Road Warrior, the idea of being a whipping boy for marauding bikers actually held a certain perverse appeal (as long as they took me with them and I got my own chopper and “biker bitch”), but it never came to be. My father just looked me over quickly and said, “That´s some heinous weltage, son. Just be careful.” He remembered the glory and pain, mostly pain, of being a boy in mock battle, and wasn´t about to stifle me.

One time as Joe and I collected tire strips, a nice looking blonde woman in a big white sedan with Texas plates pulled up next to us on the shoulder. The passenger side window slid down and she motioned to us.

“Excuse me, where is Thoreau?”

“Right here,” Joe said.

The woman glanced behind us. “Oh. Good. Can you tell me where the visitor´s center is?”

Joe and I looked at each other. “Visitor´s center?” I asked.

“Yes, you know, for people to get to know the town. For sightseeing.”

“She means Larry,” Joe said. I nodded; it made sense. Send her to the town drunk. He was usually a sight to see.

Joe pointed back to Thoreau. “Sure. Yeah, uh… just go back the way you came and take a left onto the overpass. Go past the Five Star Auto about a block. You´ll see a red house with tumbleweeds and empty bottles in front. That´s it.”

The blonde lady in the cool car sat upright in her seat, full breasts in silhouette. “Okay, thanks.” Our reflections appeared from the bottom up as the window slid back up, sealing out the heat. She waved goodbye and pulled onto the highway, nearly hitting a split snake baking on the road.

We later saw Larry, looking more disheveled and puzzled than usual. Sputtering Captain Morgan, he haltingly and emphatically told us about a visit from the lady, who, according to him, badgered him for nearly twenty minutes about a “visiting sinner.” Apparently Larry wasn´t sure if he was being propositioned or berated by the blonde Texan, but, in a burst of optimism, tried to grope her. She slapped him so hard he passed out, and he was now wondering if she was still around.

Joe and I weren´t the only ones to enjoy the sparse outdoors. Some weekends in the summertime before the sun got too hot, my father would take us hiking all around Thoreau. He loved the craggy rocks and the windswept mesas. One particular hill was special, and only the three of us knew about it. It was in plain view, right up against the cliffs that rose up behind the town. At one point it had been part of the cliff, but it broke away. Instead of tumbling far below, with the rest of the boulders, this sliver of cliff just sort of slid down about fifty feet and sat there, upright. From the road, and from all of Thoreau, it appeared to be part of the cliff face. But once you climbed right up to it you could see that it was its own little chunk of fallen cliff. The very top was only about twenty feet across, and it gave a great view of Thoreau. Joe and I kept it our secret, because all the other places we used to hang out were soon discovered and collected cigarette butts, graffiti and broken beer bottles.

Joe and I spent years, or at least a few hours a week for years, sitting on top of our little hill, watching the trail of little metal ants wind their way through the desert on the ribbon of highway in front of us.

The size of the dot was a portent of mother´s unhappiness. Her mouth twitched as she peered down her nose over the map, finally finding Thoreau after nearly a minute. My father waited quietly while she stared hard at the small dot, as though trying make out distinct buildings and gas stations. Even though the town was right on I-40, it seemed away from the highway somehow, isolated. She expected the town to be significant enough to have a larger dot; even an extra millimeter´s width might have satisfied her that the town was worth visiting, let alone moving to. Finally she looked back up at my father, a frown on her thin face.

“So we would be doing what, exactly, in the middle of the desert?”

“It´s not in the middle of the desert, Margaret. It´s right on the interstate.”

Mother chewed on her nails, waiting for him to continue.

“Donrey bought out the signs between Grants and Gallup. They need me out there to do the painting and maintenance. I´ll get a nice raise and the company will pay for the house while we´re there. Our own place, no rent. How does that sound?”

“If it´s so great, why are they throwing in the house?”

My father just sighed.

“What about Mark? Do they have a school there?”

“Of course, honey.”

“And what am I supposed to do? Do they have an insurance agency I could work at?”

“I don´t know. I told you: I´ve never been there. But it can´t be too bad.” He took her hands in his. “Look, if we hate it, we´ll just leave. But let´s give it a chance. What do you say?”

Mother shrugged and searched her fingers for an unchewed nail.

We left for Thoreau the following spring trailing a U-Haul. As we drove, my father pointed out which billboards were now his responsibility. I had never seen a man get so excited about the prospect of painting twelve-foot pecan logs, but to him each billboard may as well have been the Mona Lisa. He told me all about the paints and banners he used, how he would take a small original picture, place a grid over it, then sketch each square in one at a time.

Thoreau was in fact just off the road, about three hours west of Albuquerque, sandwiched between the highway and steep red cliffs that rose up to meet a long, wide mesa. Thoreau looked like a town that had been forced back into a stone wall with nowhere to go. Thoreau had only a few thousand residents, a few dozen street lights, and a few paved roads.

Mother made disapproving noises as we pulled off the highway. That was her way; she would rarely come out and say she was angry about something. Instead, she preferred to let everyone know by precisely timed sighs and ritualized finger tapping, a sort of emotional Morse code. Our home was on Broadway Street. “I always said I´d take you to Broadway, honey,” my father said, turning onto the tumbleweed-lined street. Mother didn´t laugh.

The company house turned out to be a mobile home, much to my mother´s horror. It was a double wide, tan with white trim. It was fairly nice, but clearly not what she expected. There was enough room for everyone, including a cat I had found out by the highway. The poor thing was grimy and grey when I found it, mewing and shivering inside a huge blown-out semi tire. Most of the other kids had dogs: big, lumpy, territorial dogs with lopsided ears and deranged dispositions. Every Friday after I got home from school, I would throw my books on my bed, snap on the radio, kneel down, and plunge my hands deep into the cat box. I´d feel around for a few minutes past the kitty nuggets until I found five silver dollars and some quarters. Cleaning out the cat box was one of my chores, although I usually forgot. My father´s solution was to bury my allowance in the cat box, so I´d have to clean the whole thing out to get paid. He said to think of it as simplified plumbing. It didn´t really bother me, since it was after all my job, but Steve down at the corner store got tired of exchanging Snickers and Amazing Spider-Man comic books for legal currency that reeked of cat piss. Months later, you could sniff the coins in Thoreau and know which ones had been used for my allowance. Steve finally started keeping my coins separate and handing them to tourists so they wouldn´t stay in Thoreau.

As it turned out, Thoreau had no insurance company for my mother. Had anyone bothered to get car insurance she´d have had a job, but as it was no one enforced the law. She eventually found part-time work watching children after school.

The first year was difficult on mother, but the second year she finally began to fit in. She got to know a few of the neighbors and eventually culled a small circle of friends. They would get together over discussions about Days of Our Lives to coo about how handsome Victor Kiriakis was and pine over Jack and Jennifer´s doomed love. Mother was embarrassed by our mobile home, despite the fact that it was still one of the nicer homes in Thoreau. In an effort at redemption, she made curtains.

Mother made new curtains every month. She´d work on them at night, staying up until Johnny Carson told her it was time for bed. She would gather all the women in the living room, offer them iced tea, then dramatically whisk a black cloth off her latest design. The sunlight illuminated her curtains brilliantly, and even my friends commented on how nice they were, much to my mother´s pride.

Most of my dad´s days were spent in a hot company truck taking care of the signs. He would cruise the highway with a warm Coke between his legs, singing opera along with Lotte Lenya about Mack the Knife. Signs would always be out of date, or not paid up, or battered down by the fierce desert winds. The worst were the gas station billboards and having to change their gas prices every few days. It was a lonely, dusty job but dad loved it. He was a fighter; when the winds would bash a sign down, he´d be there in a few hours with a hammer to slap it right back up. When local kids spray-painted a huge penis onto a smiling roadrunner, dad whited it out expertly.

Most of Thoreau was Hispanic, and much of the town spent their days down at the railroad, along with a few Navajo, working for a company called Savage Industries. Its logo was an Indian chief in his headdress. The other big employers were the mining companies. About a dozen coal and uranium mines in that corner of the state paid decent wages to small towns hungry for scraps. The only other jobs were at Stuckey´s and McDonald´s along the highway, but even for those there was competition from the reservations. My friend Joe worked at a laundromat that served a few dozen Navajo families. They´d come from all over, showing up with clothes and blankets heaped in the back of dusty pickups.

For the first few years, I thought the only cars sold in the area were burgundy Buicks, because that´s all anyone had. Some were junked, some still ran, but other than a few utility trucks, nothing but dusty burgundy Buicks roared down the dirt roads of Thoreau.

I worked down at Herman´s Garage for three years until I finished high school. Herman´s was a tiny place just off the frontage road with an office the size of a toolshed lumped next to a two-car bay. A guy in his fifties named George ran the place. One lazy afternoon I asked who Herman was; George said Herman owned the place, but he hadn´t seen Herman in years. He had been tempted to change the name to George´s Garage, but he was afraid that Herman might suddenly show up.

A Coke machine (vintage even by Thoreau standards, where relics were common and lots of folks distrusted push-button phones) stood in the shade of the small porch, luring passing cars from the dry highway. George had three gas pumps, the old kind with rounded tops and one cracking black rubber hose coming out. The arm slung down low, then looped back up to rest on the side carriage. With the faded digits in the little windows, they always reminded me of three one-armed, stoop-shouldered men, each facing the highway with their fingers in their left ears. At different times I had different names for them, like Larry, Curly, and Moe.

One Saturday afternoon my father pulled up at Herman´s. It had just rained, and the droplets left millions of fragile little dimples in the dusty driveway. He waved me away from the gas tank and told me to get in. I looked for George, but he was asleep in the office. I jumped in. I always loved riding along with my father, zooming down the highway, my lips chapping in the hot wind. I thought he was taking me to see a sign he had finished, but he made a left onto a dirt road a few miles from the Continental Divide. We drove down the road, paint cans and a stepladder jostling loudly in the back.

“Where we going?” I asked.

My dad just grinned and sipped from a can of Coke.

We headed toward a mesa, pulling off near a low slope. He got out and walked but I stayed put, with my arms crossed. Finally I rolled down the window. “Where are you going?”

“Treasure,” he called back. I scampered out of the truck and followed him down a gravelly slope into a low arroyo. The smell of rain on rock mixed with piñon, energizing me. I stepped over a trickle of rainwater as I ran to catch up with him.

“Is it buried treasure?”

“No. It´s the best kind of treasure,” he said. “Open for anyone who looks.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Out here? In an arroyo in the boonies? There´s nothing out here. I don´t—”

“There it is,” he said, pointing into the jagged curve ahead.

I stepped around him and gazed past a moist earthen wall. I had never seen anything like it: The arroyo just stopped. A boulder had fallen into the crevice, and rain runoff from the mesa spilled out around it. Three small but distinct waterfalls spewed out, spattered, then disappeared into the cream-colored sand. The boulder wasn´t very high, maybe six or eight feet, but it was majestic. It was the most beautiful thing I´d seen.

I walked ahead a few feet and sat down in front of the waterfall, just watching the flow, enchanted by its mesmerizing rhythm. While one wide cascade hit the sand with a deep, satisfying thump, its thinner sister tapped out a quick, jaunty rhythm. The third maintained a soft hissing drizzle, leaping from a gnarled root. My father was right: it was treasure. A waterfall in the desert, a magical place far away from dusty broken beer bottles and gas fumes. My father sat next to me, and we watched until one by one the waterfalls turned to wispy drizzles and the magic was spent.

While Thoreau wasn´t a great place to be a wage-earning adult, it was a wonderful place for kids. Joe and I loved to scramble down the hills, through the ravines, and across the mesas.

Even the highway held magic. To the adults it was just a paved surface on which goods and people were transported, a lifeline to the rest of the world. To many workers it was also a necessary evil, in the sense that it competed with the railroad for freight. But it was much more than that. It had a life of its own, and it spoke to those who spent time on it. You couldn´t see the highway when you sped along it, not really. You could see the stripes and asphalt and shredded tires, but that was it. You had to walk along the highway to hear its story, to get its character. You had to see the waves of heat warp lines you knew were straight into shimmering white snakes. You had to sit G.I. Joe in a defiant pose and watch him get battered and skid off the blacktop, a demise even COBRA couldn´t devise.

The highway held kid treasures, and the two of us would walk along the shoulder gathering them. We hoarded the more interesting gems in a shoebox; eventually we graduated to a 25-inch television box. We had tire weights, gravel-mottled credit cards, dead batteries that leaked acid, two Richie Rich comic books, a few dirty magazines, and a Pac-Man Atari 2600 cartridge. Hubcaps went to George for five bucks each, with an extra five if we completed a set.

One summer the highway department sent a crew out to repaint the road stripes. I had envisioned a line of workers with paint brushes bent over the road, but instead they sent a huge tractor-like contraption that seemed unnecessarily large just to paint three-inch stripes on the road. The crew was cool, a bunch of guys from Albuquerque who let us play on the equipment until a supervisor showed up and kicked us off. We got them back, though: Joe and I ran ahead of the big machine and stood in its path, refusing to move. We then broke into a sincere, if inauthentic, rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” The workers tried to push us out of the way, but when we started yelling cars slowed to watch. To this day there´s a little bump in the paint where they had to steer around us: our first mark on the world.

There wasn´t much nightlife in town. Thoreau had an equal number of churches and bars, one or the other every block or two. Roman Catholics ruled the town, but missionaries tried to colonize the natives on occasion. In 1980 a group of Jehovah´s Witnesses, who also happened to peddle Amway, came to town. They tried for two months to sell both salvation and revolutionary food storage containers to elderly shut-ins who didn´t speak much English. They finally gave up and went back to wherever they came from.

I heard that in Grants, an hour away, A. A. night at the bowling alley was the big thing. The alley would fill with both recovering and resolute alcoholics every Tuesday night to bowl, bicker, and berate sobriety. Foster, the manager, gave them a group price break, but everyone knew that the five bucks off was just going back into his pockets, because Foster also owned a liquor store across the street. Rumor was he paid somebody off to put in a stoplight in front of the alley so bowlers could go back and forth to the liquor store without getting hit. The whole incestuous enterprise did serve a community service, though: For a lot of folks A. A. night was the only time they saw their relatives.

Joe and I didn´t need bowling; we created our own entertainment. We would walk along the highway and pick up tire scraps from blow-outs. If we were lucky, we could find ones that were more or less intact, and about three or four feet long. We would then get some cardboard boxes, fold them flat, and duct-tape them to our forearms as shields. We used the tire scraps as swords to beat the hell out of each other until we were bruised and exhausted. Radial tires hurt the worst, and left dozens of tiny puncture wounds that didn´t bleed much but hurt like hell. The first couple of times mother was aghast at the bruises and welts on me, convinced I´d been flogged by a roving band of Hell´s Angels. At that age, as a fan of The Road Warrior, the idea of being a whipping boy for marauding bikers actually held a certain perverse appeal (as long as they took me with them and I got my own chopper and “biker bitch”), but it never came to be. My father just looked me over quickly and said, “That´s some heinous weltage, son. Just be careful.” He remembered the glory and pain, mostly pain, of being a boy in mock battle, and wasn´t about to stifle me.

One time as Joe and I collected tire strips, a nice looking blonde woman in a big white sedan with Texas plates pulled up next to us on the shoulder. The passenger side window slid down and she motioned to us.

“Excuse me, where is Thoreau?”

“Right here,” Joe said.

The woman glanced behind us. “Oh. Good. Can you tell me where the visitor´s center is?”

Joe and I looked at each other. “Visitor´s center?” I asked.

“Yes, you know, for people to get to know the town. For sightseeing.”

“She means Larry,” Joe said. I nodded; it made sense. Send her to the town drunk. He was usually a sight to see.

Joe pointed back to Thoreau. “Sure. Yeah, uh… just go back the way you came and take a left onto the overpass. Go past the Five Star Auto about a block. You´ll see a red house with tumbleweeds and empty bottles in front. That´s it.”

The blonde lady in the cool car sat upright in her seat, full breasts in silhouette. “Okay, thanks.” Our reflections appeared from the bottom up as the window slid back up, sealing out the heat. She waved goodbye and pulled onto the highway, nearly hitting a split snake baking on the road.

We later saw Larry, looking more disheveled and puzzled than usual. Sputtering Captain Morgan, he haltingly and emphatically told us about a visit from the lady, who, according to him, badgered him for nearly twenty minutes about a “visiting sinner.” Apparently Larry wasn´t sure if he was being propositioned or berated by the blonde Texan, but, in a burst of optimism, tried to grope her. She slapped him so hard he passed out, and he was now wondering if she was still around.

Joe and I weren´t the only ones to enjoy the sparse outdoors. Some weekends in the summertime before the sun got too hot, my father would take us hiking all around Thoreau. He loved the craggy rocks and the windswept mesas. One particular hill was special, and only the three of us knew about it. It was in plain view, right up against the cliffs that rose up behind the town. At one point it had been part of the cliff, but it broke away. Instead of tumbling far below, with the rest of the boulders, this sliver of cliff just sort of slid down about fifty feet and sat there, upright. From the road, and from all of Thoreau, it appeared to be part of the cliff face. But once you climbed right up to it you could see that it was its own little chunk of fallen cliff. The very top was only about twenty feet across, and it gave a great view of Thoreau. Joe and I kept it our secret, because all the other places we used to hang out were soon discovered and collected cigarette butts, graffiti and broken beer bottles.

Joe and I spent years, or at least a few hours a week for years, sitting on top of our little hill, watching the trail of little metal ants wind their way through the desert on the ribbon of highway in front of us.

The size of the dot was a portent of mother´s unhappiness. Her mouth twitched as she peered down her nose over the map, finally finding Thoreau after nearly a minute. My father waited quietly while she stared hard at the small dot, as though trying make out distinct buildings and gas stations. Even though the town was right on I-40, it seemed away from the highway somehow, isolated. She expected the town to be significant enough to have a larger dot; even an extra millimeter´s width might have satisfied her that the town was worth visiting, let alone moving to. Finally she looked back up at my father, a frown on her thin face.

“So we would be doing what, exactly, in the middle of the desert?”

“It´s not in the middle of the desert, Margaret. It´s right on the interstate.”

Mother chewed on her nails, waiting for him to continue.

“Donrey bought out the signs between Grants and Gallup. They need me out there to do the painting and maintenance. I´ll get a nice raise and the company will pay for the house while we´re there. Our own place, no rent. How does that sound?”

“If it´s so great, why are they throwing in the house?”

My father just sighed.

“What about Mark? Do they have a school there?”

“Of course, honey.”

“And what am I supposed to do? Do they have an insurance agency I could work at?”

“I don´t know. I told you: I´ve never been there. But it can´t be too bad.” He took her hands in his. “Look, if we hate it, we´ll just leave. But let´s give it a chance. What do you say?”

Mother shrugged and searched her fingers for an unchewed nail.

We left for Thoreau the following spring trailing a U-Haul. As we drove, my father pointed out which billboards were now his responsibility. I had never seen a man get so excited about the prospect of painting twelve-foot pecan logs, but to him each billboard may as well have been the Mona Lisa. He told me all about the paints and banners he used, how he would take a small original picture, place a grid over it, then sketch each square in one at a time.

Thoreau was in fact just off the road, about three hours west of Albuquerque, sandwiched between the highway and steep red cliffs that rose up to meet a long, wide mesa. Thoreau looked like a town that had been forced back into a stone wall with nowhere to go. Thoreau had only a few thousand residents, a few dozen street lights, and a few paved roads.

Mother made disapproving noises as we pulled off the highway. That was her way; she would rarely come out and say she was angry about something. Instead, she preferred to let everyone know by precisely timed sighs and ritualized finger tapping, a sort of emotional Morse code. Our home was on Broadway Street. “I always said I´d take you to Broadway, honey,” my father said, turning onto the tumbleweed-lined street. Mother didn´t laugh.

The company house turned out to be a mobile home, much to my mother´s horror. It was a double wide, tan with white trim. It was fairly nice, but clearly not what she expected. There was enough room for everyone, including a cat I had found out by the highway. The poor thing was grimy and grey when I found it, mewing and shivering inside a huge blown-out semi tire. Most of the other kids had dogs: big, lumpy, territorial dogs with lopsided ears and deranged dispositions. Every Friday after I got home from school, I would throw my books on my bed, snap on the radio, kneel down, and plunge my hands deep into the cat box. I´d feel around for a few minutes past the kitty nuggets until I found five silver dollars and some quarters. Cleaning out the cat box was one of my chores, although I usually forgot. My father´s solution was to bury my allowance in the cat box, so I´d have to clean the whole thing out to get paid. He said to think of it as simplified plumbing. It didn´t really bother me, since it was after all my job, but Steve down at the corner store got tired of exchanging Snickers and Amazing Spider-Man comic books for legal currency that reeked of cat piss. Months later, you could sniff the coins in Thoreau and know which ones had been used for my allowance. Steve finally started keeping my coins separate and handing them to tourists so they wouldn´t stay in Thoreau.

As it turned out, Thoreau had no insurance company for my mother. Had anyone bothered to get car insurance she´d have had a job, but as it was no one enforced the law. She eventually found part-time work watching children after school.

The first year was difficult on mother, but the second year she finally began to fit in. She got to know a few of the neighbors and eventually culled a small circle of friends. They would get together over discussions about Days of Our Lives to coo about how handsome Victor Kiriakis was and pine over Jack and Jennifer´s doomed love. Mother was embarrassed by our mobile home, despite the fact that it was still one of the nicer homes in Thoreau. In an effort at redemption, she made curtains.

Mother made new curtains every month. She´d work on them at night, staying up until Johnny Carson told her it was time for bed. She would gather all the women in the living room, offer them iced tea, then dramatically whisk a black cloth off her latest design. The sunlight illuminated her curtains brilliantly, and even my friends commented on how nice they were, much to my mother´s pride.

Most of my dad´s days were spent in a hot company truck taking care of the signs. He would cruise the highway with a warm Coke between his legs, singing opera along with Lotte Lenya about Mack the Knife. Signs would always be out of date, or not paid up, or battered down by the fierce desert winds. The worst were the gas station billboards and having to change their gas prices every few days. It was a lonely, dusty job but dad loved it. He was a fighter; when the winds would bash a sign down, he´d be there in a few hours with a hammer to slap it right back up. When local kids spray-painted a huge penis onto a smiling roadrunner, dad whited it out expertly.

Most of Thoreau was Hispanic, and much of the town spent their days down at the railroad, along with a few Navajo, working for a company called Savage Industries. Its logo was an Indian chief in his headdress. The other big employers were the mining companies. About a dozen coal and uranium mines in that corner of the state paid decent wages to small towns hungry for scraps. The only other jobs were at Stuckey´s and McDonald´s along the highway, but even for those there was competition from the reservations. My friend Joe worked at a laundromat that served a few dozen Navajo families. They´d come from all over, showing up with clothes and blankets heaped in the back of dusty pickups.

For the first few years, I thought the only cars sold in the area were burgundy Buicks, because that´s all anyone had. Some were junked, some still ran, but other than a few utility trucks, nothing but dusty burgundy Buicks roared down the dirt roads of Thoreau.

I worked down at Herman´s Garage for three years until I finished high school. Herman´s was a tiny place just off the frontage road with an office the size of a toolshed lumped next to a two-car bay. A guy in his fifties named George ran the place. One lazy afternoon I asked who Herman was; George said Herman owned the place, but he hadn´t seen Herman in years. He had been tempted to change the name to George´s Garage, but he was afraid that Herman might suddenly show up.

A Coke machine (vintage even by Thoreau standards, where relics were common and lots of folks distrusted push-button phones) stood in the shade of the small porch, luring passing cars from the dry highway. George had three gas pumps, the old kind with rounded tops and one cracking black rubber hose coming out. The arm slung down low, then looped back up to rest on the side carriage. With the faded digits in the little windows, they always reminded me of three one-armed, stoop-shouldered men, each facing the highway with their fingers in their left ears. At different times I had different names for them, like Larry, Curly, and Moe.

One Saturday afternoon my father pulled up at Herman´s. It had just rained, and the droplets left millions of fragile little dimples in the dusty driveway. He waved me away from the gas tank and told me to get in. I looked for George, but he was asleep in the office. I jumped in. I always loved riding along with my father, zooming down the highway, my lips chapping in the hot wind. I thought he was taking me to see a sign he had finished, but he made a left onto a dirt road a few miles from the Continental Divide. We drove down the road, paint cans and a stepladder jostling loudly in the back.

“Where we going?” I asked.

My dad just grinned and sipped from a can of Coke.

We headed toward a mesa, pulling off near a low slope. He got out and walked but I stayed put, with my arms crossed. Finally I rolled down the window. “Where are you going?”

“Treasure,” he called back. I scampered out of the truck and followed him down a gravelly slope into a low arroyo. The smell of rain on rock mixed with piñon, energizing me. I stepped over a trickle of rainwater as I ran to catch up with him.

“Is it buried treasure?”

“No. It´s the best kind of treasure,” he said. “Open for anyone who looks.”

I put my hands on my hips. “Out here? In an arroyo in the boonies? There´s nothing out here. I don´t—”

“There it is,” he said, pointing into the jagged curve ahead.

I stepped around him and gazed past a moist earthen wall. I had never seen anything like it: The arroyo just stopped. A boulder had fallen into the crevice, and rain runoff from the mesa spilled out around it. Three small but distinct waterfalls spewed out, spattered, then disappeared into the cream-colored sand. The boulder wasn´t very high, maybe six or eight feet, but it was majestic. It was the most beautiful thing I´d seen.

I walked ahead a few feet and sat down in front of the waterfall, just watching the flow, enchanted by its mesmerizing rhythm. While one wide cascade hit the sand with a deep, satisfying thump, its thinner sister tapped out a quick, jaunty rhythm. The third maintained a soft hissing drizzle, leaping from a gnarled root. My father was right: it was treasure. A waterfall in the desert, a magical place far away from dusty broken beer bottles and gas fumes. My father sat next to me, and we watched until one by one the waterfalls turned to wispy drizzles and the magic was spent.

While Thoreau wasn´t a great place to be a wage-earning adult, it was a wonderful place for kids. Joe and I loved to scramble down the hills, through the ravines, and across the mesas.

Even the highway held magic. To the adults it was just a paved surface on which goods and people were transported, a lifeline to the rest of the world. To many workers it was also a necessary evil, in the sense that it competed with the railroad for freight. But it was much more than that. It had a life of its own, and it spoke to those who spent time on it. You couldn´t see the highway when you sped along it, not really. You could see the stripes and asphalt and shredded tires, but that was it. You had to walk along the highway to hear its story, to get its character. You had to see the waves of heat warp lines you knew were straight into shimmering white snakes. You had to sit G.I. Joe in a defiant pose and watch him get battered and skid off the blacktop, a demise even COBRA couldn´t devise.

The highway held kid treasures, and the two of us would walk along the shoulder gathering them. We hoarded the more interesting gems in a shoebox; eventually we graduated to a 25-inch television box. We had tire weights, gravel-mottled credit cards, dead batteries that leaked acid, two Richie Rich comic books, a few dirty magazines, and a Pac-Man Atari 2600 cartridge. Hubcaps went to George for five bucks each, with an extra five if we completed a set.

One summer the highway department sent a crew out to repaint the road stripes. I had envisioned a line of workers with paint brushes bent over the road, but instead they sent a huge tractor-like contraption that seemed unnecessarily large just to paint three-inch stripes on the road. The crew was cool, a bunch of guys from Albuquerque who let us play on the equipment until a supervisor showed up and kicked us off. We got them back, though: Joe and I ran ahead of the big machine and stood in its path, refusing to move. We then broke into a sincere, if inauthentic, rendition of “We Shall Overcome.” The workers tried to push us out of the way, but when we started yelling cars slowed to watch. To this day there´s a little bump in the paint where they had to steer around us: our first mark on the world.

There wasn´t much nightlife in town. Thoreau had an equal number of churches and bars, one or the other every block or two. Roman Catholics ruled the town, but missionaries tried to colonize the natives on occasion. In 1980 a group of Jehovah´s Witnesses, who also happened to peddle Amway, came to town. They tried for two months to sell both salvation and revolutionary food storage containers to elderly shut-ins who didn´t speak much English. They finally gave up and went back to wherever they came from.

I heard that in Grants, an hour away, A. A. night at the bowling alley was the big thing. The alley would fill with both recovering and resolute alcoholics every Tuesday night to bowl, bicker, and berate sobriety. Foster, the manager, gave them a group price break, but everyone knew that the five bucks off was just going back into his pockets, because Foster also owned a liquor store across the street. Rumor was he paid somebody off to put in a stoplight in front of the alley so bowlers could go back and forth to the liquor store without getting hit. The whole incestuous enterprise did serve a community service, though: For a lot of folks A. A. night was the only time they saw their relatives.

Joe and I didn´t need bowling; we created our own entertainment. We would walk along the highway and pick up tire scraps from blow-outs. If we were lucky, we could find ones that were more or less intact, and about three or four feet long. We would then get some cardboard boxes, fold them flat, and duct-tape them to our forearms as shields. We used the tire scraps as swords to beat the hell out of each other until we were bruised and exhausted. Radial tires hurt the worst, and left dozens of tiny puncture wounds that didn´t bleed much but hurt like hell. The first couple of times mother was aghast at the bruises and welts on me, convinced I´d been flogged by a roving band of Hell´s Angels. At that age, as a fan of The Road Warrior, the idea of being a whipping boy for marauding bikers actually held a certain perverse appeal (as long as they took me with them and I got my own chopper and “biker bitch”), but it never came to be. My father just looked me over quickly and said, “That´s some heinous weltage, son. Just be careful.” He remembered the glory and pain, mostly pain, of being a boy in mock battle, and wasn´t about to stifle me.

One time as Joe and I collected tire strips, a nice looking blonde woman in a big white sedan with Texas plates pulled up next to us on the shoulder. The passenger side window slid down and she motioned to us.

“Excuse me, where is Thoreau?”

“Right here,” Joe said.

The woman glanced behind us. “Oh. Good. Can you tell me where the visitor´s center is?”

Joe and I looked at each other. “Visitor´s center?” I asked.

“Yes, you know, for people to get to know the town. For sightseeing.”

“She means Larry,” Joe said. I nodded; it made sense. Send her to the town drunk. He was usually a sight to see.

Joe pointed back to Thoreau. “Sure. Yeah, uh… just go back the way you came and take a left onto the overpass. Go past the Five Star Auto about a block. You´ll see a red house with tumbleweeds and empty bottles in front. That´s it.”

The blonde lady in the cool car sat upright in her seat, full breasts in silhouette. “Okay, thanks.” Our reflections appeared from the bottom up as the window slid back up, sealing out the heat. She waved goodbye and pulled onto the highway, nearly hitting a split snake baking on the road.

We later saw Larry, looking more disheveled and puzzled than usual. Sputtering Captain Morgan, he haltingly and emphatically told us about a visit from the lady, who, according to him, badgered him for nearly twenty minutes about a “visiting sinner.” Apparently Larry wasn´t sure if he was being propositioned or berated by the blonde Texan, but, in a burst of optimism, tried to grope her. She slapped him so hard he passed out, and he was now wondering if she was still around.

Joe and I weren´t the only ones to enjoy the sparse outdoors. Some weekends in the summertime before the sun got too hot, my father would take us hiking all around Thoreau. He loved the craggy rocks and the windswept mesas. One particular hill was special, and only the three of us knew about it. It was in plain view, right up against the cliffs that rose up behind the town. At one point it had been part of the cliff, but it broke away. Instead of tumbling far below, with the rest of the boulders, this sliver of cliff just sort of slid down about fifty feet and sat there, upright. From the road, and from all of Thoreau, it appeared to be part of the cliff face. But once you climbed right up to it you could see that it was its own little chunk of fallen cliff. The very top was only about twenty feet across, and it gave a great view of Thoreau. Joe and I kept it our secret, because all the other places we used to hang out were soon discovered and collected cigarette butts, graffiti and broken beer bottles.

Joe and I spent years, or at least a few hours a week for years, sitting on top of our little hill, watching the trail of little metal ants wind their way through the desert on the ribbon of highway in front of us.