Gosh, I loved driving through New Mexico. There was so many unlimited vistas. At one such point, the highway seemed to stretch straight to infinity to the distant mountain range. I remembered Dad playing this little game where we would see who came the closest in guesstimating the mileage to the where the highway disappeared. I still enjoyed the challenge, even in solitary. It was a good test for one’s perception of distance. At this particular juncture, I made an estimation of sixteen miles for the straightaway. By the time I reached the faraway crest, the odometer read 18 miles. Not too bad a guess, I thought, considering the distance. As I glanced in the rearview mirror, I tried to envision the city of Dallas laid out in the immense valley with the downtown skyscrapers a good 12 miles away (viewing from the North Dallas Forty, of course). Big D would have fit in there alright. I loved boggling my mind with such fantasies.
I crossed into Arizona and stopped in Springerville for gas and groceries. Then it was north by northwest on U.S. 180 in search of several wayside areas that were purported to be in Marshall’s “new” Atlas. Nary a one showed up. The frustration was overshadowed by a glorious sunset turning the clouds into a crimson orange. It was spectacular! I was determined to persevere. Finally, I pulled off at a farm road entrance and snuggled my way in between a scrub cedar and a barbed wire fence, just enough to shield myself from the highway. It was improvisation night, but it turned out to be just as comfortable as any rest area. Before retiring, I sat in the easy chair gazing out at the moon-lit landscape and every star in the universe. I felt so far, far away from everything, except for the Big Man Upstairs. He was all around me.
There’s something unique about waking up in the middle of nowhere not knowing exactly where the heck you are. I headed northwest to Holbrook where I was forced to engage I-40. I had done pretty good so far avoiding the interstates, having been only sixty miles on them out of approximately 900 miles. I made an abrupt exit at Winslow, all of a sudden thinking about taking AZ 87 south to Carefree to see my old architect buddy, Gene Watson and his lovely wife, JoAdda. At the pull-off there was a China Inn Restaurant, an abandoned RV park, and one of those Holiday Inn Express motels, the horrible replicas of the Super 8 Motel boxes. I thought, “How can anyone feel comfortable staying in such an uninviting atmosphere?”. It was obvious that the grand-daddy of all motel chains had lowered itself succumbing to financial pressures by putting up these “econo-boxes”. Their original two-storey, rambling layout surrounding an outdoor pool was slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past. What a shame.
I used the outside pay phone in front of the restaurant to call Gene. I carried a note in my wallet with the 12-digit personal code number of my A.T. & T. PrePaid Phone Card. I had a habit of “cleaning out my wallet” before trips, or, in other words, stashing the plastics in the safe deposit box in the van. Anyway, I had laid my wallet on top of the phone while making several unsuccessful calls to Carefree, and remembered thinking to myself: “Don’t forget your wallet.” I sat down at a picnic table to study the map once more, figuring out how many miles “out of the way” it was to Carefree. Time was of no essence. I had plenty of that. However, the time on my phone card was about to expire. Good ol’ A.T. & T. was now debiting me nine minutes for every call made from a pay phone. Highway robbery! So, I made one more call, this time collect. The young lady’s voice at the other end refused to accept. “Was she the maid?”, I wondered. Figuring the Watsons were out of town, I took off to Flagstaff just 90 miles up the pike.
My first stop in town was the friendly Albertsons. As I was walking towards the store, I happened to reach for my wallet, and to my utter dismay I found only an empty pocket. That’s gotta be the most sinking feeling. The cash loss was of little concern (I figured 20 or 30 dollars) and, as mentioned before, I still had my precious debit cards. The major setback was that I was sans driver’s license. Yep, you guessed it – the wallet was sitting on top of the pay phone back in Winslow. At first, I thought about hightailing it back to that freakin’ phone booth, but then I reconsidered, thinking, “That’s a lamebrain idea. I’ll simply put my faith and trust in mankind and hope some sympathetic sole will mail the wallet home.” That was it. I would just have to chance it the rest of the way without an I.D. Che sara, sara.
The best way to put my misfortune behind me was to visit my favorite spot in town – the railroad station/info center. I photographed the classic 1926 depot and watched the endless freights rumble through…what a rush! I went inside to ask a few questions about Zion National Park. I was entertaining thoughts about revisiting the incredible rock formations and was curious if one could still drive through the antiquated 1920s quasi-tunnel (it had openings on one side so you could catch glimpses of the park’s interior). The helpful lady responded, “Yes, you can drive through unless you have a RV, and the traffic is staggered for one way only (I could certainly believe that). They want to discourage auto traffic through the park, so they’ve incorporated bus tours from parking lots outside the park.” Okay, so that was the revised format in Zion.
I returned to Albertsons to make one more call to Carefree. I didn’t want to get another rejection for making a collect call, and I wanted to save the few minutes I had on the PrePaid account. Then I had a brainstorm. Why not use my anachronistic A.T. & T. credit card. I didn’t even bother looking for the card…I wasn’t sure I still had the sucker. Out of sheer memory, I punched in the requested personal code number (my home phone number plus my birth date) and, sure enough, I got through. I never ceased to amaze myself with my recollection of numbers. It had to be from Dad’s genes. The young lady answered, and after telling her who I was and where I was, she said. “They are in Pinetop. I’m Jennifer, Gene’s daughter Do you want their phone number there?” I was in such a state of shock, all I could say was, “Thank you, no.” After hanging up, I realized, to my consternation, that the Watsons were only about fifty miles from where I had spent the night before behind a scrub cedar. That was devastating.
I retired to the corner of the Albertsons parking lot near the BNSF tracks. I was feeling sort of numb. Aside from my visit to the depot, it had not been one of those perfect days, to say the least. It was one of those “if only” situations – if only I had emailed Gene from Dallas before I left. I didn’t think I was going to be that close to seeing him. Forget it. I could go completely mad thinking about all the “if onlys” in my life. I figured with all the fortuitous twist and turns in my travels, there had to be a few misfortunes along the road. I didn’t anticipate falling asleep very easily that night, but somehow I did. Maybe it was the rumble on the rails next door.