“You see all these cars and trucks?” says the bus driver. “Every single view is a book you have to read. Pass a vehicle, it’s like turning a page.”
There are also yellow signs showing running figures in black. “That’s because all the illegals come through here. The Mexican border’s not far, but it’s hard going — terrible heat, no water. They put water out for them, but the cops are already there, waiting. It’s like those lakes where hunters wait for deer to come drink. I met one man, he crossed over with a bicycle, three days pushing that thing over rocks and through sand, but at least he could lug cans of water and a sack of food with him, so he survived. But you know what? Some people over in L.A. are complaining because they say those signs with black silhouettes aren’t politically correct.” He shakes his head. “Some folks got nothing better to do in life.
He’s the one who recommends I leave the bus at Dateland. “Pretty original place. You’ll enjoy yourself. Just take the dirt road north.” Caught by his enthusiasm, I don’t ask normal questions such as, “is there anywhere to stay in the area?” or “when does the next bus come through?” I simply disembark.
As far as the eye can see there’s nothing but one small restaurant and a gas station-cum-travel center. I enter the latter — a place filled with souvenir schnick-schnack, but no informative literature, and no literature of any kind. The woman working there is surprised to see someone minus car who isn’t an illegal.
“The bus driver told me this was an interesting place.”
“Oh.” She looks confused.
“What is there to see?”
“I dunno. Guess you can walk around, take a look at the date palms behind the station.”
“How about a motel where I can stay?”
“Nothing like that around here.”
“No boarding house, no hostel, nothing?”
“Well, it doesn’t matter. I have a sleeping bag.”
“Get’s really cold out here at night. And, you better make sure you can be seen in the dark by people arriving in trailers.”
No way. The last thing I want, aside from being squashed in my sleep, is to be found out here alone in the middle of no place.“Do you live in the area?”
“Sure do. Twenty miles away.” She stops for a minute before adding, “I always keep coming back.”
Which sounds as though she’s tried, possibly with desperation, to get away.
I cross over a patch of dust to the restaurant because I haven’t eaten since early this morning.
“Kitchen’s closed,” says the waitress when I enter. “We closed at 2:45. It’s now 5:30.”
“Don’t tell me that.”
“Well, I just did.” She smirks with sadistic satisfaction.
“Okay, then. Where can I get something to eat?”
“There’s a dairy around eighteen miles down the road and a diner twenty miles in the other direction.”
“Microwave food in the gas station.”
Sounds too grim for me. “The bus driver mentioned a whole community not far away. Somewhere to the north.”
She harrumphed. “It’s a pretty big walk.”
“What’s out there?”
“Dunno really. Maybe a sort of tavern. Never been out there myself.”
“Ah.” I chew over the information for a few minutes, then optimism — and curiosity — both desert me. Outside, the sun is disappearing with the speed of lead in a lake. “When does the next bus come through?”
“Tomorrow. Four-thirty in the afternoon.”
Outside, I wander around, then find a little hollow under the palms. I curl into it, pull all my clothes out of my knapsack, and cover myself with them. They’ll serve as a blanket. Then I lie there, think of hungry cougars, wolves, giant killer ants, and zombies, all waiting for a victim; of armed, two-legged cranks who roam through the night, teeth grinding, saliva dripping. I hear strange noises, see shadows move. How can I possibly sleep?
When I next open my eyes, it’s early morning. Amazing! Evil has passed me by. I head north, taking the dirt road over the perfectly empty desert landscape … a very lonely dirt road. Still, I keep walking: whatever’s going to get me, will get me coming or going in a place like this. Where could I hide? Still, bleak as it is, there are wildflowers everywhere, and they are utterly beautiful.
The community that does, finally, hove into view is one of far-flung shacks, and shabby trailers. But the tavern is open. It’s a huge place with mismatched tables and chairs, a low ceiling, and a long bar that winds its way around the room, curving, straightening, indenting, curving again. Photos of laughing people cover every inch of wall not taken up by bar signs: “Jesus loves you, everyone else thinks you’re an asshole”; “If assholes could fly, this place would be an airport”; “I may be a cruel and heartless bitch, but I’m good at it.”
Behind the bar are two ageless wild women, who can cuss better than any male I’ve ever heard, and there is even the traditional Old Timer with long white beard and drooping white mustache seated at the counter.
“Make yourself at home,” says he. “Everyone’s welcome. We were all from someplace else in the beginning.”
“Back at the gas station, no one mentioned there was a place like this out here.”
“Tourist taps, those places. We don’t have nothing to do with them.”
“They don’t know nothing about us,” adds a man in a straw hat. “But this is one great community, and this tavern is the center of everything. Me? I’m from Oregon. Was in heavy construction up there. One day my car broke down on the main road. I ended up here, took a look around, and liked what I saw. Got a job in a hardware store, and stayed. No red lights, no traffic signs, no traffic, no noise. Not even Oregon is as empty as this.”
“City folks always in a hurry,” says Old Timer. “Here, no one’s like that. See that bookshelf over there? We all do a lot of reading. Just take a book, bring another one back. That’s how things work.”
“That list with dates and names up there on the post?” adds another man who has come over to examine me. “Those are the birthdays of everyone who lives here. We celebrate every single one of them with a barbecue. We sure get up to some wild things.”
“Everyone talks to everyone,” says Old Timer. “There’s a lot of solidarity.”
“Especially when the monsoon comes in August — that’s what we call it. Winds up to a hundred miles an hour, and everything floods out. Suddenly it’s 120 degrees with no electricity, no air conditioning, and no water pump. What do we do? Take our sleeping bags to the school where there’s a generator, and we all sleep there. The Red Cross brings in water and ice.”
“When it’s 120 degrees, the ground gets up to 200. If you don’t find a bush to lie under, you get cooked alive. Found seventeen dead illegals out there, recently, just kids of around fourteen. They’re told to head for the cell phone antennas — one’s 35 miles away from the border, the other is 80. Head for the wrong one, you die.”
“People are out there right now, trying to get here,” says straw hat. “Coyotes tell them to wait in one spot, they’ll bring water. But since they’ve already been paid, they just leave them.”
“Plenty of farms in this area, and all the workers are illegals. They work seven days a week, twelve to fifteen hours a day for low wages. That’s half what Americans get, so no one hires us anymore, and sometimes the foremen take a cut from their wages, too. They’re just exploited.
“Hell, no,” booms one man in the far corner. “You can’t call it exploitation ‘cause they’re illegal and don’t have no rights.”
Everyone ignores him.
“Do any ever come in here?”
“A few, but they have their own bar down the road.”
“Who cares if they do? They’re people, too.”
“Now, if they was Ay-rabs coming in here, that’d be different.”
A younger woman who has been quiet up until now looks me over. “You thinking of staying? This is a great place. I was a single mother living back east, but I met my future husband out here. More men than women here, but there’s no harassment. I’m just treated like one of the boys.”
“How do you make a living?”
“I gather seeds for replanting burnt-out areas where weeds have taken over, killed all the natural vegetation. Or, in areas destroyed by real estate brokers who think they’ll subdivide, then belly flop. Why do they burn and destroy everything first? Who knows?”
“Some people come out, think they’ll grow grass, plant apple,and pear trees. Everything dies. There are wells, but the water’s either too salty, or poisonous. Used to be a river, too, but it was dammed up for golf courses in Phoenix — they created seventeen new ones in ten years. These days, if you want to fish,you have to go as far as the Colorado River. Sure, there are some canals around, but who wants to sit on a cement canal?”
Suddenly, a band strikes up the national anthem on the overhead television. Almost all rise to their feet, stand to attention. A few salute.
“Had a brother in a POW camp in Europe back in WWII,” says Old Timer. “He survived. Tell me, has the place changed a lot since then?”
Okay, the mentality might drive me crazy after a while, and the heat is certainly obnoxious. Aside from those blooming wildflowers — and they’re only temporary — it doesn’t look like much, but this is the place I’ve been looking for, the one I want to live in.
“Is there anything to rent out this way?”
“No problem,” says one of the women behind the bar. “Don’t worry about rent. Plenty of empty places. You can take your pick.”
“You coming back, then?”
“For sure. Next year.”
“We’ll be waiting for you.”
I set out, taking the dirt road back toward the highway and arrive just in time to catch the bus heading east.
I haven’t made it back there. Not yet, anyway. But who knows?
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