I had been walking along that highway for the better part of three days. Not a single car had passed me by. The quiet was surreal. I could hear the winds blow through the desert Larrea and the sound of the sand brushing across the pavement. The occasional calling of a bird or the howl of a coyote. My feet were blistered and my legs were sore and tired. When that old Indian from the Navajo reservation picked me up in his dusty red pick-up.
I was making my way across the country. I started out four months prior from the coastal sands of Virginia beach. I had every kind of sand known to man filling my very worn Doc Martins. I was heading nowhere particular. I had nowhere to be. I was simply walking. I figured I would end up back home in California eventually. There I would crash on the beach for a few days and rest long enough to plot out some kind of plan as to what to do next.
But first I was going to make a stop in a small town in New Mexico called Quemado. It was in the middle of nowhere about a hundred or so miles west of Albuquerque. There I knew a girl named Jennifer. I met her in the Summer of my sophomore year of high school. Her family was on vacation and at Disneyland one afternoon when we started talking while in line for a ride. We spent the entire day together until night settled on the park and we had to leave. We never saw each other again but we wrote one another constantly, we talked on the phone and sent pictures when we could. I wrote her before starting out on my journey and told her I would stop by on my way through.
The kind old man dropped me off just outside of a general store and told me that the place was owned by Jennifer’s family. I thanked him for his hospitality and walked inside. From the moment I arrived I felt nothing but welcomed. Her family brought me into their home and hugged me like I was a long-lost relative. They fixed up the guest room for me and washed what little clothes I had and fed me the first home cooked meal I had eaten in well over a year.
I guess in the back of my mind I thought that Jennifer and I would rekindle that infatuation we had for each other when we were teenagers and I would end up staying there for a while. But we weren’t kids anymore. She was engaged to be married and I was just some guy she once wrote letters to. But we did have a connection. And it wasn’t long before we were hanging out staying up talking like we use to do for hours on the phone. Her father told me I was welcome to stay for a bit as long as I was willing to help out around the store and the house. So I spent my days repairing the fence along the barn, bailing hay for the horses and stocking shelves.
I became friends with Jennifer’s future husband who never once treated me indifferent. I was part of the small town and everyone wanted to talked to me and hear about my adventures. There were only a few stores along the main road in the center of town. The family general store and a gas station they also owned. A fish and tackle shop, a diner and a grocery store. Then there was a bar all by itself on the far side of the highway. The closes high school was almost an hour away and the kids were bused in every morning.
We worked all week and on weekends we would bring tents out into the middle of the desert and drink until Sunday afternoon.
The sunsets were as intoxicating as the moonshine and the stars at night were like no other stars I had ever seen. To this day I have never seen a sky as beautiful. Friday nights were spent at the high school watching football games under the bright lights. Jennifer’s older brother use to play quarterback when he attended class there. Jennifer was a cheerleader back then and now her fifteen year old sister was. Everyone from every small town in the area would show up to the games. They tailgated like it was Giants stadium. The crowd was rowdy and full of energy. It was an incredible thing to be a part of. Right after the games we would head out into the nights sky and set up camp. Life there was very simple, yet loyalty and strength of those people was like nothing I had ever experienced. I loved it there. But I knew the time would come when I would have to leave.
One night a storm was coming through and I was awaken by a group of people who pulled me from my bed. They told me they were heading out to watch the lightning. We drove out into the desert along some narrow dirt path where we met up with a few other people. We sat up on top of the cars drinking cans of beer and watching the storm roll by. The lightening was hypnotic. Hundreds of bolts firing off every second. No trees or mountains or city lights to take away from the beauty of it all. I’ll never forget it.
I stayed on helping out and sleeping in the guest room for the better part of three months. I waited until after the wedding to pack up my things. I was really happy for Jennifer. I was happy she was my friend back when I was a child and I was happy we were friends then. I remember sitting on the porch one evening talking with her mother for a long period of time. What a remarkable woman she was. Kind and nurturing. I told her I would be heading out in a couple of days and she told me she loved getting to know me but knew it was probably for the best. She told me how my letters use to light up her daughter’s face. And how special she felt being my friend. How she kept a picture of me by the nightstand next to her bed. She gave me some money for the work I did while I was there. I didn’t want to take it but she insisted.
We spent the last day there out by the lake not too far from the house. It was like an oasis in the middle of all that sand. I thought about the pioneers back in the day who stumbling across it and how happy they must have been. We swam and fished and cooked out in the open. It was so hot that day and I remember how good the water felt. Those memories I will always have.
The night before I left there was an accident out on the highway just past the high school. Four kids had been out drinking and were driving home from a football game. The driver lost control of the car and it flipped over several times. Three members of the football team and one cheerleader were killed. Jennifer’s younger sister was one of them. The darkness that fell on that town was blackening. The weight from the tears and the sorrow from that community and from her family was absolutely crushing. I had never felt such pain before that day.
I wanted to stay until after the funeral but I couldn’t. I knew that the family needed to grieve and I would only be in the way. As much as I wanted to be a part of that group, I knew I wasn’t. The next morning I threw my pack over my shoulder and headed out the door. Jennifer and her husband were nowhere around. Her father would not come out of his room where he had been since he heard the news. Her brother was out in the barn tending to the animals. Her mother packed me a bag filled with sandwiches and cereal bars. As much as she was hurting, she still made me something to take with me. As she hugged me I felt grateful for that long talk we had on that porch a few nights before. Because I knew that the woman that sat next to me that night would no longer exists. None of them would. I was grateful for passing through when I did, and getting a small glimpse of such a beautiful life before it was forever changed.
I stepped out onto that highway the same way I had come into it, yet not as the same man. The town was empty. There were no cars parked along the sides and no one eating at the diner. It was a ghost of a town. I walked for a while then lifted my arm and stuck out my thumb. I suddenly felt in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere. Before a minute past a truck pulled off to the side and I was gone.
I still close my eyes from time to time and I go back to those weekends out in the desert. And those memories become a personal oasis.