Across the U.S.A. Dept.: Fearing the loss of any claim to hippiedom, my wife and I took a cross-country drive 23 years ago. We spent a month traversing the United States in a VW camper, close enough quarters to quickly teach you what love and ripeness really mean. I wrote a couple dozen articles along the way, pieces published by the Schenectady Gazette. Here's what we found (and didn't find) in the southwestern desert.
Skulls are available if you want to pay for them. You’ll find them, bleached or colorfully painted, at many of the roadside concession stands. “My brother looks for them every morning,” a young Navajo woman explained at her jewelry stand in Arizona. “Then he paints ‘em. They sell pretty fast.”
But buying one isn’t as romantic as finding one lying amidst a desert stand of crisp brown grass. I announced this ambition to Susan, who quickly squelched it. She’s had enough of dead animals.
Normally a peaceful driver, she hit a rabbit as we left the Grand Canyon. In New Mexico she squashed an armadillo. And she’s always behind the wheel when the biggest, ugliest bugs smack into the windshield. So she wasn’t enthusiastic about discovering more deceased wildlife. “If you want to see something dead, let’s find a ghost town,” she suggested.
We were driving from Santa Fe to San Antonio that weekend. On Friday, the sky had a low, dreary-colored layer of clouds that looked as if someone had spilled a box of dirty cotton balls above our heads. But weather systems are self-contained in that part of the country, where it can rain on one side of the street and burn you with sunshine on the other.
South of Albuquerque, travelling on Interstate 25, we saw the distinct edge of the low clouds. Beyond it were wispier strands of cirrus. Clear sky was visible above the town of Truth or Consequences. We took a right onto a small state highway and headed for the ghost town of Lake Valley.
It was indicated on our map in italic capital letters, the ghost town symbol. Such towns, or remnants of towns, exist as tourist attractions throughout the southwest, a lifeless memorial to the gotta-make-it spirit of early prospectors for gold and silver.
A long, flat, two-lane road led us to Hillsboro, where bar, general store, post office, and trailer camp marked the center of town. An even less-distinguished road took us onward to the ghost town. What will it look like? We’ve seen it in a million movies, the little collection of buildings built with all the sincerity of movie set, meant only to briefly shelter and amuse a bunch of greedy wayfarers.
Not that the landscape was dead. We passed the gates to a half-dozen ranches, set so far from the road that no structures were visible and the only evidence of life were herds of free-ranging cattle.
And it was the livestock who owned the road. Not us. You don’t argue with a steer loping across the asphalt, and the only time we drove quickly was when a bull, first I’ve even seen that close and that loose, began to paw the ground beside my suddenly frail-seeming camper.
This was where I would have expected to find that skull. The ground was sand and rock with clumps of cactus offering the only green. Signs and highway markings gave careful instructions on when and when not to pass, but ours was the only car on the street that hour. That day and year, for all we knew.
Had we gone another 60 miles west we could have toured Silver City and its environs, where the namesake ore was and is successfully mined, and which maintains a museum of prospecting-related equipment. But we wanted the real thing, in the wild.
Our first glimpse of the Lake Valley ruins was the corner of an adobe hut, a few rows of big red bricks hinting where a house once stood. A cluster of buildings down the road was probably our destination.
As we approached, the configuration changed. One building had an old Conoco sign on it, and gasoline certainly wasn’t a staple of your 19th-century miner. Another had a new-looking covering of stucco. A ring of shacks, badly weatherbeaten, stood near a house, but all of it was fenced behind a KEEP OUT – PRIVATE PROPERTY sign.
We drove a few more miles to confirm our fear that this ghost town was now someone’s run-down ranch, and this was confirmed for us by the bartender at the “Middle of Nowhere Bar and Grill” at the end of that stretch of highway.
It’s creepy enough to think of a town as having been abandoned, but who on earth would want to buy such a thing? Yet, we’re told, that’s happening more and more. In the Big Bend area of Texas, the former ghost town of Terlingua, once home of an annual chili cookoff, is now in private hands.
But Saturday we found ourselves a ghost town, and we weren’t even looking. We crossed from New Mexico to Texas the night before, a move confirmed by a change of roadside sign: At regular intervals on New Mexico highways a small sign states, “Courtesy Pays.” Next door the attitude is different: “Don’t Mess with Texas,” it says. It’s an anti-litter campaign that is extremely effective. Texas roads are the cleanest we’ve seen.
At Van Horn, a couple of hours east of El Paso, we took State Route 90 through an area known as the Texas Alps. The first town on the map, Lobo, had no visible structures to confirm itself, but Valentine, a few miles later, had a welcome sign with a large red heart in its middle.
And that was about it. There were buildings – gas station/store, a few houses – but it was as dead-looking as a town can be. Everything was made of mud, it seemed, and nothing was built true. Disintegrating auto bodies were stuck crazily into side yards, and the only sign of human life was a pair of animate legs protruding from the open hood of an elderly car as some manner of repair was made.
This town was all the creepier for its pretension to life. We probably should have stopped for gas and spoken to a resident or two, but it looked too spooky, as if Anthony Perkins might leap from behind a building.
That’s also where I saw my first vulture. I thought it was a big old hawk as I saw it take flight, but then I saw another one, sitting on a fence just outside of town in the classic hunchback position.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Susan, who was behind the wheel. Then she ran over a snake.
– Schenectady Gazette, December 9, 1989