If you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to write about the rest of my trip, it’s because I don’t want to remember days like this. The day I left Tucumcari.
After two restful nights at the Blue Swallow Motel, it’s time to get out of bed and out of Tucumcari. I took yesterday off to recover from my longest ride and to let the winds die down. I wake up full of vigor, and so, too, is the wind.
I must leave as early as possible. I don’t get a chance to say good-bye to the motel owners, Kevin and Nancy. I would have loved to talk to them more about what it takes to run a place like this because I have my own dreams of creating a hospitality concept.
After a greasy breakfast of short stack pancakes, sausages, and hash browns, I leave town at nine o’clock. The next six hours will be spent alone going against the unforgiving wind and endless beige-brown landscape.
Leaving Tucumcari, old Route 66 is an empty four-laner that leads to I-40 where I’ll rendezvous with the interstate. The farther down the business strip I go, the bleaker it gets. Gas stations in shambles. Motels burned to the ground. A great destination deceased, Tucumcari is a New Mexican Leptis Magna, an ancient Roman city that fell into decline, fell into the hands of the Arabs, and was then slowly swallowed by drifting sands.
The on-ramp to I-40 provokes an ice-water-in-face feeling — the shock of merging onto an interstate on a bicycle. After initial discomfort, I warm up to the highway, which distracts me from the wind until I see a yellow sign warning of Dangerous Crosswinds.
A green sign eases anxiety. I love green highway signs, especially ones that tell me I’m one mile away. Exit 321 for Palomas is my escape from the interstate, which slopes uphill around a curve and out of sight.
Palomas means doves in Spanish, but I see no purity among the discarded beer cans and soiled clothing dumped along the off-ramp. I cross the flyover towards Palomas, which may just consist of an abandoned Shell station and burned down Dairy Queen. This part of New Mexico is hidden from tourist brochures. Palomas is where doves cry.
I follow a frontage road. No birds, animals, or cars are in sight. The sky is empty but the wind is everywhere. Lacking a sense of progress, my mind clouds with doubt. New York City’s energetic cityscape sheltered me from boredom, but New Mexico has nothing to stimulate my senses.
Wind from the west is now sustained at 22 mph, a disabling force that renders me impotent. The landscape is overwhelming and I question my presence in it. I don’t know what I’m doing here anymore. This was about the experience, and I’ve had that. Now it feels like punishment. Every mile requires the effort of three or four. New Mexico is no place for a bicycle.
My legs are creaking. My stomach is growling. Candy supplies are low. I’m done with pretzels, done with gummy bears. I rattle the last licorice pellets from the Good & Plenty box into my eager palms.
The valley of despair hits a few miles before Newkirk. The winds are so strong that I get off the bike and surrender. I sit on the double yellow with my legs wide and chest slumped over, hoping a car will knock me out of my misery. I’m done with this sh*t.
Newkirk offers no more than a stamp-sized post office attached to a mini-mart with a pump of off-brand gas you’d only trust if the fuel light were on.
I slowly de-accessorize before walking in. I’m in no rush. It’s three o’clock. Where else can I go today moving at three miles per hour?
The store is crammed with Route 66 trinkets and packaged snacks. A man and woman stare me down. I assume they are a couple because they kinda look like a set.
In my mind I call them Mr. Bean and Billie Jean. His dark hair, enlarged eyes and awkward gestures remind me of the comic character. Bean sits behind the counter gazing outside, and silently judging whatever rolls by like a cat perched on a windowsill.
Billie Jean is in a wheeled office chair, armrests prop up her body. She’s watching the TV suspended above the door.
She's been watching me, too. I’m peppered with questions when I walk in. Where am I from? What am I doing? Why am I riding a lady’s bike? She wants to trade her bike for my bike, but the only trade I’ll make is for a vehicle with enough engine power to reach Santa Rosa.
I browse for something edible among the road atlases and Route 66 keychains. Food selection is limited to chips and jerky. I’d rather gnaw on the souvenirs. Given all the candy I’m eating, you might think I’m being picky, but the candy is simply energy to make the desert miles a little sweeter. Now I want real food. I press my nose against the drink cooler. I see blocks of cheese, suspicious lunch meats, withered clementines, and a moldy grapefruit.
Mr. Bean’s eyes track my moves. I approach the counter with empty hands, but armed with a question.
“How far to Santa Rosa?”
“Only 25 miles... just down the road,” he says as if it’s no big deal. He turns back to a Sudoku sheet.
I already knew the answer. I am testing his sympathy.
With daylight on the decline and the winds still strong, I might make it halfway to Santa Rosa, but there’s no relief in between. Cuervo is eight miles out, but there’s even less there, which is to say, absolutely nothing.
Newkirk at least has this place. It also has two streets, creatively named A and B, but I’m not knocking on doors. The houses I saw from the frontage road looked haunted.
“I can’t make Santa Rosa,” I say, pulling my helmet-tossed hair in frustration. “I’ve never been stuck like this. I don’t know what to do.”
Mr. Bean looks up at me. “That’s a son of a bitch,” he says with a shrug, returning to his puzzle.
Why should he care? I’m the idiot riding a bike across New Mexico in November. I stand by the counter watching his pencil marks, hoping he’ll come up with a solution for my problem, too.
The door opens and the pencil drops.
“Well, you could ask someone for a ride….”
I’ve already considered that, but Newkirk isn’t exactly the crossroads of America.
“Maybe this trucker will give you one,” he says.
A caramel-colored man with a shaved head in gray sweats and a hoodie is cruising the snack racks. He approaches the counter where Mr. Bean diligently records his bags of chips and soda in his ledger. Then he asks the man if he has room in his truck to give me a lift.
My heart jolts with hope. Mr. Bean is on my side!
“Truck?” the guy asks. “I ain’t driving no truck. Man, I got an ’88 Chevy Caprice and the radiator is damn near busted.”
The two entangle in a volley of problems and solutions. Mr. Bean suggests something with the anti-freeze, but the man isn’t buying it. His voice rises in frustration against the bad advice, and he walks out to attend to his ailing burgundy Caprice.
I’m not getting a ride.
Perhaps to save face, Mr. Bean tells me how much he really does know about auto repair because he’s seen enough troubled cars pass through. I begin to think that maybe people pull off the interstate and break down here never to be seen again.
I flash back to the early 90s flick Nothing But Trouble where Chevy Chase and Demi Moore are detained by a cop (John Candy) for a traffic violation in the bizarro village of Valkenvania. The cop’s grandfather is a 106-year-old judge (Dan Aykroyd) with melted flesh who metes out justice from a courthouse of horrors. Despite the cast, it was a box office flop, but it terrified me as an 11-year-old viewer. Newkirk could be a real-life Valkenvania and I need to get the hell out as soon as possible.
“HEY, here’s the weather!” shouts Jean from her desk chair.
We turn to the screen and I cross my fingers. Sun and wind are expected to continue the next two days. The meteorologist highlights the number 57 for the day after tomorrow. That’s the high.
“That’s a son of a bitch,” Mr. Bean says, punctuating the fact that I’m basically screwed.
I decide that Mr. Bean is the son a bitch. I exit the store. The Caprice is gone and the golden afternoon sunlight isn’t far behind. I stand by waiting for a miracle that won’t come.
Two guys in a box truck ask me where I’m going, but the conversation ends as soon as it starts. A pickup truck pulls in. There’s room in the back, but the door is labeled New Mexico Game Warden. That seems as hopeless as the one belonging to a state livestock brand inspector.
Here’s something that could work: a pickup pulling an empty horse trailer. The driver, in a cowboy hat and boots with spurs, looks at my sweats and neon yellow vest like I’m an alien from Roswell. I do not engage.
Doors pop open on a Subaru with Missouri tags. Two overweight girls in matching sweatshirts waddle towards Mr. Bean’s store. They look right past me. Stupid, apathetic college kids.
Traffic tapers with the creeping darkness. The gas station closes at seven, but reality sets in before. I’m not getting to Santa Rosa. I am right next to the interstate, yet stuck in the wilderness.
I roll my stuff to the far end of a gravel area where long-distance truckers layover. Nobody’s here now, but I wonder if I’ll get 18, 36, or 54 wheels of company in the middle of the night.
Tent posts aren’t sticking into the ground and my tarp — a thin plastic drop cloth — won’t stay flat in the wind. I detach the trailer and rest it and the bike on the ground, wedging the tent in between.
Headlights from east-bound vehicles beam at me on the left. Train tracks run parallel to my right. I’m hoping the cars and trains will keep away the coyotes howling from deep in the darkness.
I crawl inside the tent and unwrap my store-bought dinner: two sticks of cheese, pretzels, and animal crackers. Thanks, Mr. Bean. I look at my phone and its got no reception. Without it, I can’t tether my laptop to the signal. It’ll be a long and lonely night without a portal to the outside world.
On the plus side, I have my original summer sleeping bag as well as the warmer one I purchased in Amarillo in case of emergency. I didn’t expected to use it, much less at a rural gas station, but here I am. The store lights are off and the lot is empty. I double bag myself and burrow into the hard edge of an uneasy abyss.