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  • Rick and I were 20 and looking for America. We’d driven south and west from St. Louis that winter and in twists and turns found our way to Big Bend State Park in Texas.

    Big Bend is a sea floor a few million years after the plug was pulled. It brings the Neil Young song to life, the one about the horse with no name and the desert being a sea with its life underground.

    We hadn’t come all that way to hang out with the snowbirds and retirees hauling their lives from asphalt campground to campground like diesel powered turtles. We passed the tame sites at either end of the long road through the territory and struck out alone for the wilder sections in the million acre park. Back in the ‘70’s life was considerably less regulated and we parked our ’64 Ford pick-up where we wanted and set up camp where we felt called to.

    We found the abandoned ruin of a turn of the century luxury hotel built over the hot springs that melded with the rushing water of the Rio Grande. The river flowed alongside the old stone foundation of the steaming pools. We watched the stars from a mammoth hot tub with the river’s song all around us.

    A couple of Australians appeared out of nowhere and said you could cross the river and get to a town called Boquillas.

    Good place for a beer, mate, they said. Other stuff too if you want.

    Why not we thought.

    Like a sign, a guy with a donkey was waiting on the banks of the Rio Grande. He had big bags of reefer, all leaf and green as grass but for $20 a kilo how could you go wrong. And, buried in the sand, grim looking peyote buttons. We struck a deal and then, for appearance sake, headed to Mexico for a beer.

    He took us across across the river one at a time on his donkey. My legs dangled in the Rio Grande as the little donkey slogged through the wet sand.

    Boquillas was the end of the line. The only road in came out of miles of desert on the Mexican side and gave up in the middle of town. It was either that or a donkey hop across the river on the US side. Boquillas was silent and dusty. The bar was a crumbling adobe building with a rickety table out front and a couple of broken chairs. We were the only customers.

    We drank a beer and headed back. At the river we picked up 2 Ks and a sack of buttons. This time I gave the donkey a break and waded across on my own.

    A day or two or three later we headed out of the park and hit the road again. Once we left the park the road was empty. Just us and the long quiet of a desert afternoon settling towards evening.

    Somewhere south and east of Presidio and a few hundred meters north of Mexico with 2 Ks of leafy green weed and a sack of grey-green peyote buttons stuffed in the spare tire in the back, the truck began to act up.

    We crawled up a hill with the engine sounding rougher and rougher and then, just before the crest, she died.

    We drifted backwards down again in neutral.

    Looked at each other.


    Rick turned the key. She started up alright, still a bit rough but going.

    We tried the hill again.

    This time we got a yard or two further but she died just the same and back we went, down the hill and into a patch of sand just off the road.

    Rick turned the key but she was done.

    The Rio Grande sounded large and loud in the desperately dry land.

    We got out, popped the hood and looked at the engine.

    We’d had some troubles few hundred miles and several days back. Rick had crawled in and checked the spark plugs and after a time got her going again but recently progress had been painful and her gas consumption had gone from not so good to distressing given the state of our cash flow.

    Maybe it’s the air filter I ventured. We took that off slapped some dust out tried starting it without it just to see.


    A green car with an official looking seal on the doors pulled up. A couple of guys in uniform stepped out. Adjusted their shades, shook out the kinks in their legs, shifted their gun belts.

    You boys in some kind of trouble?

    She won’t go, I suggested.

    One spit something dark into the puckerbrush.

    Where you boys headed, the other asked.

    Rick babbled about going to his uncle’s place up in Arizona.

    They nodded.

    You boys better get this truck out of here, the first one said. We’ll be back to check.

    They got back in their car and left us there.

    Just before dark a truck as beat up as ours pulled up. Two guys got out.

    We tensed.

    They spoke Spanish to each other and then the one with a pony tail asked if we’d seen the immigration men.

    The guys in the green car, I asked. They just left but they’re coming back.

    They nodded. Talked some more in Spanish.

    One raised a hand to say good-bye and crossed the road and splashed across the river. The other got a length of rope out of the bed of his truck.

    Guess we better get you boys outa here, he said. You can spend the night at our place. We’ll look at your truck in the morning when it’s light.

    His place was a little ranch, yellow lamp light spilled out the door. His kids ran to hug him, his wife stood in the doorway framed in light, her soft dress flowing around her.

    He had a carp from the river. He asked if we knew anything about fish. I cleaned it and sliced it into steaks and his wife fried them up on the old wood cookstove.

    The next day as the sun came up he looked the truck over and jiggled this and fiddled with that and got her running.

    She’s rough, he said, but she’ll get you there.

    We drove off while it was still cool and the shadows were still long.

    We made it to Rick’s uncle’s place. By the time we got there we were down a quart of oil every 100 miles and were lucky to get 4 miles to a gallon of gas. Rick’s uncle was a mechanic. It turned out some spark plug wires were switched around. He gave us a lecture on always taking them off one to a time and putting one back on before taking another off.

    Years later I looked on a map to see where the little ranch by the river might be and if I could send him a letter to say thanks. I couldn’t see where it could be and the name of the town he said he was coming from wasn’t there. No towns at all near the river. I can still see his wife framed in yellow lamplight her dress all flowing soft over her curves and she’s watching him take their children into his arms and the stars are so brilliant it feels they have moved in closer.
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