January 8, 2003 - 66 etuoR no skciK ruoY teG
© 2003 by John Varley; all rights reserved
I had been planning for some months to go to Big Spring, Texas, for Xmas 2002. The whole family was going to be there, for the first time in maybe 30 years. But sometime in November a swelling on the side of my dadís face (which one doctor had told him was nothing to worry about) was diagnosed as a malignant cancer. So the trip took on a new urgency for me. And Lee, who had been intending to go to North Bend to spend the holidays with her mother, decided to go with me, too. Which was a good thing, since it turns out Iím not really up to driving 500 miles three days in a row anymore.
I wanted to go the northern route, since all three possible routes were about the same distance, and Iíd done the I-10 route entirely too many times, usually traveling by thumb with my friend, Chris Kingsley. Tucson, Lordsburg and Las Cruces hold no real attractions for me anymore. The first day got us as far as Flagstaff, where it was freezing. I mean, FREEZING! The next morning when I left the motel room our car thermometer was reading 7 degrees. (For my Canadian friends: -13 C.) I wanted to continue on I-40, see the big meteor crater, Santa Fe, and Roswell, and snow wasnít forecast until the next day, but Lee hated the idea of driving on possibly icy highways, so we headed south to Phoenix, where the temperature dropped rapidly. She was probably right.
Youíll see Amarillo,
Gallup New Mexico,
(Donít forget Winona)
Well, I hadnít expected to see either Amarillo or San Berdoo, but I liked the idea of traveling the old highway in reverse. "Route 66" is a song about going WEST, you see, which is the American way, when you come to think about it. I mean, nobody ever said "Go East, young man!" did they?
But we didnít. (And wouldnít you know, I forgot Winona. Not as awful as forgetting the Alamo or Pearl Harbor, I guess, but still Ö Other places I forgot: Twin Arrows, Two Guns, Rimmy Jims, Meteor City, Jackrabbit, and Penzance, Arizona, and Defiance, Rehoboth, Ivanbito, Top Oí The World, and Anaconda, New Mexico.)
When you are going some place far away and have to be there by a certain day you canít go the way Lee and I prefer, stopping when you see something interesting. So there isnít a lot to say about the trip except about things we saw from the car at 80 mph. We made a few observations, though:
BARSTOW: The town is completely surrounded by windmills, hundreds and hundreds of windmills taking up every available foot of space on the bluffs overlooking town. I was reminded of the whole Sioux and Cheyenne Nations poised on the hills just before they swooped down on Custer at Little Big Horn. Or maybe an invasion of huge, tall, three-armed alien death machines. On the day we drove through none of them were turning, but they wouldnít have put them up there unless it was usually pretty windy in Barstow, would they? If I was thinking of moving there, one gander at the windmills would nix that idea pretty quick. I hate wind.
It looks like, if you put a dome over the down, cut it loose from the bedrock, and fed electricity INTO the mills rather than taking it out of them, the whole town could lift off into the air, or outer space. (Somebody wrote a series of SF stories about something very like that, in the '50s, "Cities in Flight," or something like that. Was it James Blish?) But itís not a very attractive idea to me. I mean, no matter where you went, youíd still be in Barstow, right? Now, if New York ever decides to go spacefaring, sign me up.
PARKING LOTS: In Barstow, and later just north of Tucson, we saw something Iíd seen before but never on such a scale: parking lots for airliners. The Barstow airport is vast, WAY out of proportion for a town of that size. And parked on every inch of tarmac, mothballed and useless, wingtips overlapping, are commercial airliners. They are every size from DC-8s to 747s, and from any and every airline in the world. Barstow must have a salubrious climate for planes that are too expensive to just throw away, but for which your company has no earthly use. Iíd been through here once before and seen the place, but it didnít have nearly so many planes parked there. Iíll bet itís a pretty useful gauge of the economy, going to Barstow and counting tailfins. It looked like a high-tech elephantís graveyard.
HOUSING FOR THE URBAN PROLETARIAT: Everywhere you go now, at the edges of cities and even some larger towns, farm land is being eaten up by these horrible collections of condos or apartments. Duplexes, triplexes, quadraplexes, maybe even hexaplexes, jammed close together. Thereís a swimming pool somewhere on the grounds, and probably a sauna and Jacuzzi room. Iím sure theyíre quite comfortable to live in, but they look just awful. Typically they are gray with white trim. Cape Cod, saltbox, something like that. In California they are often beige, or have red tile roofs, trying to look like missions. Sorry, fellas, no WAY do they look like missions. They look just like the strip mall down the street, the strip mall that has exactly the same stores no matter whether they are in Arizona or Florida. The people who live in these places commute back and forth from the condo to the strip mall in their SAVís (Suburban Assault Vehicles) made by Toyota, Ford, Lincoln, Cadillac, even Mercedes. And now, road versions of Hummers. These are vehicles suitable for a landing under fire at Normandy, and theyíre beginning to look like it, too. Whatís the deal with these gray ornamental wheel-well trims, and grills that look like armor plate? What do you call those new ones, half SAV and half pick-up? They get 10 miles per gallon and are just the thing for driving your two kids to soccer practice while under attack by terrorists, apparently.
These places are so depressing to me. I mean, theyíre like Levittown in 1950 Ö only without the lawns to play on. I predict that in 20 years they will be even worse, like the high-rise housing projects from the '60s that looked shiny and new for about two years.
FOOLS ON THE HILL: On the other end of the housing equation is something Lee and I have seen on previous trips into the American countryside. Huge, baronial, three-story, five-car-garage mansions sitting on hilltops, giant homes that still manage to look cheap and mass produced. Iím sure they all have gyms, spas, and home theaters. We fancy they were put up (and are still being put up) by dot.com millionaires. We wonder if some of them are empty now, as the builders failed to make payments after the crash. No way to tell except knocking on the front door, and most of them are gated, and besides, weíre in a hurry.
El Paso is closer to California than it is to Fort Worth. Thatís six hundred hard Texas miles, and I donít have any affection for a single one. Chris and I thumbed those roads, I-10 and I-20, and Iím pretty sure we hiked between Midland and Odessa three times, twenty miles all night long, because it was too cold to curl up and go to sleep. We never got a ride until sunrise.
Big Spring is almost exactly halfway to Fort Worth. After a night at a Red Roof Inn in El Paso, we headed out over land all too familiar to me, except Iíd never seen it rainy and overcast. This is the desert, after all. The first hundred miles has a few low, stony mountains to break the monotony, but after that it is flat. Flat, flat, flat.
But the terrain softened a little bit, almost at the Big Spring city limit. There were a few rolling hills that made it look less forbidding, or maybe we were just starved for a hint of shadow.
The big gathering was at the home of my niece, Daphne, and her husband Lyle and their three kids, Joshua, Jennifer, and Julia. (Continuing a traditional infatuation my family seems to have with the letter J: my Portland cousins are Jim, John, Jane, Joe, Janice, and Jerry.) They have a terrific house on the eastern edge of town. Thereís a chicken house (fresh eggs every morning), three hunting dogs in their own pen, and an artificial pond where I was informed that catfish lurked. Inside Ö well, until that day I had thought the densest concentration of Xmas knick-knacks per square foot on the planet was in a little shop in Solvang, California, we had visited a few days before, but Daphne had set a new record. The theme was snowmen, and they were everywhere you looked. Snowmen and snowwomen, and snowboys and snowgirls and snowcousins and snowuncles and snow families and maybe even snow posses and snow juries and snow congresses. I counted 114 snowcritters just in the living room, and thatís without even attempting to count the ones on the big tree, which was festooned to the breaking point, half of the ornaments being snowmen. It had the look of a lifetime collection, but Daphne said sheíd only been collecting them for a few years. Yikes! I figure that, come December, she must hit those Christmas stores like Sherman hit Atlanta, taking no prisoners.
As soon as I walked in the door I was hit by a heavenly smell. My brother-in-law, Jerry, was baking some sort of soft cranberry cookies. I donít know if they had a name, but I propose to call them "Diabetic Death." I simply could not keep my hand out of the cookie jar the whole time I was there. My blood sugar didnít get back to normal until we got back to California.
Dad looked pretty good, for a man with no toes. (Over the years the doctors have whittled away at his feet, trying to correct their mistakes, until now heís left with about half of each foot. Somebody gave him a pair of those silly socks with individual toes, like gloves, and put them on his feet so on Christmas Eve he had toes, though he couldnít wiggle them.) There was a healing skin graft on the side of his head where they cut into him and found the cancer was too deeply involved to cut out without risking too much damage. So now he will be undergoing radiation treatment for some weeks, which is supposed to be not nearly as unpleasant as chemotherapy. I hope thatís true. Thatís the good news. The bad, as I understand it, is that the doctors thinks the cancer came from somewhere else, and they canít find it. Anyway, the prognosis seems good, over all.
Iím not going to try to describe all the Christmas festivities, oh ye on my mailing list. If youíre in the Varley/Castilaw family you were there, and if you arenít, itís not really your business, and it would probably bore you anyway.
One bummer: several of us got sick with a flu-like bug, but it didnít last too long (I didnít get it until we got back to California, luckily enough).
One funny highlight that Iíll bet is a part of a lot of family gatherings these days: Lyle and Jennifer and a helpful neighbor trying to cope with six or seven film and digital cameras (EVERYBODY wanted to be sure to have some pics on THEIR camera) and the rest of us shuffling around on the couch and behind it, trying to get pictures of every possible combination of relatives. We re-created a family portrait of my parents, myself, and my two sisters taken when I looked to be about 16. Then pictures of Dad with Mom and his second wife, Doris. I remember thinking, in some families, this would be either very ugly or flat-out impossible, and how lucky I was that everyone present was friendly.
In fact, how lucky I was in many, many ways. Daphne and Lyle handled a situation that would have driven me insane in about ten minutes with what seemed like perfect ease, and I canít thank them enough for that. As I told them, Weíd be glad to go a-wassailing with yíall any Christmas.