Summer ’86: Part XXI

I rekindled the fire the next morning for a coffee warm-up, and then continued on NM 518 to Las Vegas (that’s in New Mexico in case you’re wondering) where I junctioned with southbound U.S. 84 that lead me a short distance to I-40.  My altimeter registered about 6700 feet and again I felt like the high plains drifter even though I was some 2,500 feet lower than when I was drifting through South Park in the middle of Colorado.  Fortunately, I was at the junction of NM 219, which took me ten short miles to southbound U.S. 54 and eventually to Vaughn, practically the geographical center of the state. I stopped at the southwestern-style train depot (adobe arches and Spanish tile roof) to kick back and watch the containerized freights rumble through going from Long Beach to Jersey City and back. Vaughn (pop. 737) was a good-size rail junction with freights converging from both Amarillo and Clovis. Sad to say, the unique depot had not accommodated passenger service for more than 15 years thanks to Amtrak and its deleted routes.  I could only imagine what a thrill it must have been for kids to come down to the depot and watch the steam locomotives pull in.  Those days were long gone.

I continued south past mesas and mountains that were only indigenous to New Mexico.  It was truly befitting its title of the Land of Enchantment.  I passed through the towns of Corona, Ancho, Carrizozo, Tularosa, and Alamogordo before reaching Las Cruces.  I thought, “With town names like that, how could you not think you were in Old Mexico.”  I stopped at a sprawling one-story Best Western motel and used the payphone in the lobby to call a real old friend (since 1949) Barbara Stegall Jones at her ranch that she shared with her male friend Larry Foster.  Their spread was just off I-10 about 45 miles to the west, which meant a 90-mile turn-around drive.  That was out of the question since I was in the 64th day of my odyssey and had just eclipsed more than 10,000 miles of roadwork.  I suggested that if she drove in, I would treat her to a drink and dinner, but she politely declined the offer.  I told her I didn’t blame her – that was one dull drive.

We had a great talk reminiscing about my visit two years ago. That was one super time spent at their hacienda with the highlight being a grand tour in a jeep of their immense spread (tens of thousands of acres).  I told Barbara about my visits with four of my ex-classmates and she was especially overjoyed that I had seen Billy Rodgers (she had several dates with him in high school).  She said that she envied me for having the opportunity to make such a memorable trip.

I nixed the idea of staying in the motel, and after grabbing some groceries and gas, I drove back to Alamogordo and then took eastbound U.S. 82 up an incredible steep grade towards Cloudcroft during which I could actually see the altimeter needle inch its way up to almost 8,000 feet in a span of 30 miles from the base camp at 4341 feet (a.k.a. Alamogordo).  I found myself in the Lincoln National Forest that was like an arboreal oasis compared to the semi-arid treeless plains over which I had been driving for the last 370 miles.  I was more than ready to stop for the night and easily found a spot under a cathedral of pine trees.  I got a fire going to cook my final meal outdoors.  I sat watching the fire flicker away and reflected on what a glorious journey it had been and thought, “What a blessing it had been to find one last mountain retreat before entering the homestretch.  Tonight was to be o NM‘My Last Hurrah’ so to speak.”  As I crawled under the covers, I punched the thermometer button and a reading of 55 degrees came up which was quite a swing from the 90 degrees down in Las Cruces.  I thanked The Lord for a safe trip.

After one last fire dousing, I coasted down Hwy 82 to Artesia (elev. 3779) where I stopped for gas which was going for 89 cents a gallon.  Then it was on to Hobbs where midway I branched off on to U.S. 180 and crossed the state line into the Lone Star State.  To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel as though I had “arrived home” as much as I had felt when crossing the state line into Colorado. The Mile High State still held a special place in my life.  I cruised through the west Texas towns of Seminole, Lamesa, and Snyder as the elevation kept lowering and the temperature kept rising. I was definitely back home in the torrid Texas heat.  In Sweetwater I checked in at a Best Western for a much deserved motel room.  The last indoor overnight had been in Denver at the Broadway Plaza more than 1600 miles and eleven days ago.  Whew!  In case you’re wondering about my personal hygiene during that span, I did manage to scrub down with a washrag and soap bar while standing knee-deep in the creek at my secluded campsite in the Santa Fe National Forest. The motel bed with its refrigerated air still didn’t compare comfort-wise with the van bed where there was something special about being able to fall asleep in the cool mountain air.  Nevertheless, I was in the comfort of 72 degrees while the outside temperature was still in the 90s.  I fell asleep watching Johnny and The Tonight Show.

The next morning I took advantage of the complimentary Continental Breakfast. As I munched on a bowl of Cheerios, I had time to reflect back on the memorable morning meals that I had enjoyed with ex-classmates.  Surprisingly, I found myself not all that anxious to get home, especially on the impending 220 miles of boredom on I-20.  So after checking out, I filled up the tank at 10,665 miles into the trip and made a detour onto TX 70 north for 19 miles to Roby where I hooked a right onto eastbound U.S. 180.  It was a most pleasurable drive across the rolling farm lands, and as an added treat, I passed through Anson and Albany where I captured on film two remarkable county courthouses.  I thought, “What a neat idea it would be to travel around Texas photographing its magnificent courthouses and then transitioning the photos into watercolors.”  It was just a vision at the time.

Not only was I was determined to avoid the interstate as much as possible, I was still fixed on prolonging my return route, within reason of course.  About 30 miles past Breckenridge, instead of plowing straight ahead through Ft. Worth, I turned right onto TX 16 for 12 miles to I-20.  I was forced to drive nine miles before exiting at TX 108 for a 23-mile drive to Stephenville which was home to an extraordinary 1892 Romanesque Revival-style courthouse.  I was really getting inspired now.  I headed east on U.S. 67 on the final homestretch and stopped in Glen Rose for a last tank of gas.  The tiny town (pop. 2067) was also the county seat and had a smaller version of the Stephenville courthouse.

I eased through Cleburne (another county seat) which had a rather uninspiring 1913 Texas Renaissance courthouse and finally had to succumb to the fact that the pleasant rural highway was turning into a quasi-interstate through the suburban blight of Dallas County.  It was mid-afternoon so I was able to zip right along on I-35, I-30, and North Central before pulling up in front of Apt. 415 after amassing 10,960 miles over 66 days (averaging 167 miles a day) through 22 states. I slumped over the steering wheel, took a deep breath, and gave one last thanks to The Lord for a delivering me safely home.