The Long Haul - Part Two

The Long Haul - Part Two

Driving east into the sunrise out of Albuquerque, the colors of the landscape changed from chili-powder red to the browns and golds of cumin and turmeric as the miles rolled away beneath my wheels. A stout wind rocked the van and brittle tumbleweeds rolled down the broad hills that lined the highway from Santa Rosa to Cuervo, Montoya and Tucumcari. I passed more dead coyotes along the highway than I could keep track of and wondered which is more deadly for the coyotes – highway traffic or local cattle ranchers.

Excessive numbers of billboards littered both sides of I-40. One place called Flying C Ranch had over 20 billboards lined up one after the other on both sides of the highway, with each one offering an even more enticing reason to stop and shop: “Fireworks!!” “Black Hills Gold!!” “Talavera Pottery!!” “Mexican Imports!!” “Authentic Indian Rugs!!” “Turquoise Jewelry!!” Of course, they also couldn’t resist the tacky, yet amusing “Eat Here! Get Gas!”

Other billboards announced far-off attractions:
“See Carlsbad Caverns! Take Exit 218 to Route 285, then drive 3 ½ hours south!” “Don’t miss your FREE 72 oz steak: Just 170 miles straight ahead at Big Texan Steakhouse!”

Notions of distance, size and time are truly different here. Other signs along the highway announcing “Land for Sale” listed acreages of at least four figures (always with +/- after the number – as though someone might give a hoot whether the parcel was EXACTLY 8193 acres, as advertised!) Even the sky looks bigger here than it does back east.

After a Mexican lunch at “Del’s” in Tucumcari, I left I-40 and “The Land of Enchantment,” and angled northeast on Highway 54, a two-lane road that slices across the northwestern-most corners of the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, where it was just me, long-haul truckers, livestock trailers and local cowboys in pickup trucks covered in red dust. Many of the locals offered the low-key “cowboy wave” as they passed – simply raising an index finger from the top of the steering wheel.

The landscape flattened and the road stretched out in front of me for endless miles, straight to the horizon. The universe felt like two flat planes: cloud-swirled blue sky above and golden brown earth below, and I skimmed along the narrow thread of highway that lay in the gap between earth and sky. Long dusty lanes intersected with the main road, but no houses or other signs of humanity were anywhere in sight, except for the occasional rusted out car or truck, weathered wooden windmill or small oil rig drilling down into the earth then back up. Endless stretches of railroad tracks, power lines, massive irrigation sprinklers and rows of wind turbines added to the feeling of desolate vastness out here.

At one point, the landscape ahead was suddenly an endless sea of black. I couldn’t imagine what it was. When I got within sight distance, it was so shocking and unbelievable that I had to stop and take photos. It was a massive commercial cattle feedlot (or “Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation”, to use the EPA’s vernacular) owned by corporate giant Cargill. Tens of thousands of cattle were crowded into densely packed pens, apparently to be fed and fattened as quickly and efficiently as possible before slaughter. The sight of it, along with the stench and the noise, was so nauseating I don’t think I can ever stomach beef again.

Just beyond the Cargill factory farm, after leaving Texas and passing into Oklahoma, I passed a series of Burma-shave style signs that had me laughing for miles. Talk about target marketing! Take your captive Highway 54 audience and provide an immediate alternative to anyone turned off by the thought of beef after passing the Cargill operation. Brilliant! (you’ll have to check out the photos of the day to see the signs – see the link to photos at the end of this post)

As dusk settled like a blanket over the flatlands, I reached Kansas. Though I never thought I’d say so, after nearly 400 miles and 9 hours in the van, I was thrilled to arrive in the Sunflower State. I had decided ahead of time that a place just over the border, called Liberal, Kansas, was probably the safest bet for the likes of me.

Liberal is home to “Dorothy’s House” and “Land of Oz” which offers “5,000 square feet of animated entertainment – good and bad witches, the Munchkins, talking trees, winged monkeys, and of course, Dorothy, the Scarecrow, Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and Toto, too. Visitors can wander down the Yellow Brick Road with Dorothy, Auntie Em or Uncle Henry as their tour guide.” After a good night’s sleep tonight, I may not be able to resist its charms before leaving Liberal tomorrow. Then again, the experience might make me click my heels and say, “There’s no place like home!”

But for now, it’s time to call it a day. You can find the photos of the day here.

Before closing, I want to say that the many phone calls and emails I’ve received on the road from family, friends, church members, and neighbors back home have been a godsend, as your familiar voices help keep me grounded and your expressions of love and concern buoy my spirits. Thank you! I love hearing from you!

Posted by Melanie Tagged as: grace goes to prison book tour

Next: Small Town Wonders

Previous: The Long Haul - Part One