Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Notes From The Shell Station

The good news is coffee is still 49¢  and a copy of the daily News & Record sits mornings on the table. The bad news is the price of regular after holding steady at $3.39 for three weeks has joined the rest of the stations in the area at $3.49. Should have filled up yesterday,

This particular Shell Station is a good place to walk to in the morning. The people come and go here, trade stories, buy lottery tickets, coffee, donuts and groceries.

It is not your ordinary gas station/convenience story. There is a down-home family feel. No large, glass-doored refrigeration units with racks of sodas. Here the sodas sit in large tubs of ice.

"The payoff," says the woman behind the counter, "is in summer. You can't get sodas that cold anywhere but here!"

The atmosphere is friendly. "How's my favorite customer?" the woman asks as a man with a slight limp  walks in. "How's my favorite clerk?" he replies, and aks for a pack of cigarettes. "Gotta see your ID," she says. "Again?" "Again. Same as always."  "Hell of a country we're coming to," he says.

Just outside and behind the Shell Station there is a mobile home. Three small dogs and a small girl greet me as I walk by. A timid dogs approaches very slowly. "His name us Petey," beams the girl, quickly adding. "My cat got killed."

She doesn't say how. She leads me  to the side of the house to a freshly dug grave, pulls back sod to show me the dead cat, but the grave is empty.

"Maybe coyotes," says mom, who is standing on the porch. "I seen you before  in the store," she says to me. "I work there behind the counter."

"Yes, I know," I say. She is the brunette. The other woman is the blonde. "It's a friendly place," I tell her.

"We try to be," she says. "We really do. It's what we're selling."

I wave to the small family and move on.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land ....

We take off across country in mid-December, from Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, heading in hard cold to Santa Fe 225 miles to the north. Our goal—the Maitreya Project, opening in that city on the next night. The bus is cold, and there have been wiring harness problems; but now we roll along smoothly as darkness descends. We stop for gas just outside Santa Fe. A hard wind and 26 degrees.  We crash at a Red Roof motel—too cold to camp.

The Maitreya project has been touring the globe, a collection of more than 1,000 Buddhist relics, many of them pearl-like objects found among ashes of cremated Buddhist masters, believed to be relics of the masters themselves.

The exhibit began touring way back in March 2001. It crossed the United States this year. Santa Fe was the last stop in this country before re-opening in Guadalajara, Mexico, in January.

Buddhist nuns with shaven heads chant at the opening
of the Maitreya exhibit December 16th in Santa Fe, NM.

The exhibit in Santa Fe is held at a Catholic church where a large stain glass image of Jesus behind the altar set up to hold the relics around a statue of Buddha adds an ecumenical note to a serious yet joyful ceremony.

The Maitreya project will culminate in building a 500-foot tall stature of the Buddha in Kushnigar, India, where the relics will be housed.

The next morning it is not so cold. We grab a bagel and head southeast to re-join I-40 and then west to Santa Rosa. The bus purrs through hills flecked and dusted with snow. The sky is gray with occasional teasing patches of blue. Traffic is light.

In Santa Rosa we eat lunch at a downtown dinner. Santa Rosa is the town that time forgot, or rather that I-40 forgot when it by-passed it. Through the 1930, '40s and much of the '50s Santa Rosa lay in the sweet spot where legendary six-lane Route 66 cut through New Mexico,  the big east-west highway to the southwest. Now former stores, restaurants and motels stand empty. Santa Rosa is proper. The action such as it is has moved north, near the on-off I-40 ramps.

After a lunch of chicken fried steak we push on. The next 100 or so miles from Santa Rosa to Texas are flat. The sky is gray. The land all but deserted.

It's nightfall in Texas. Suddenly there are flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror. We get a warning ticket for a failed license plate light. The trooper is anything but polite, leaving us in a grim and angry mood.

We push on the Elk City, Oklahoma, and glad to be out of Texas. In Elk city we crash for the night but not before asking where to eat. We are directed to an all-you-can eat restaurant across the highway, where people apparently do just that—eat all they can. The avoir-du-pois of the clientele is mind-boggling. So too the next morning at Denny's. We wonder if this is what the middle of country is about—eating? Or this a legacy of I-40 truck stop cuisine?

Cotton clouds in a blue sky at dawn.
The next day, Sunday, the sky begins to clear. Blue sky and white spun candy clouds greet us as we hit the road. The weather is warms the bus is comfortable, the music plays through the radio. The spirit, if not the music itself, is Woody Guthrie—This Land Is Your Land, This Land Is My Land. It is immense, huge, this rolling country of ours we see rolling by out the windows as we roll east.

At gas stations and pit stops the people are cheerful. This is a land of big confidence and large SUVs, big sedans and humongous Ford pickups, Toyota Tundras.

We are a small bus among overloaded 18-wheelers, scary RV's and Harleys that pass us with buzzing insect sounding fury

In a few hours western Oklahoma gives way to the eastern part of the state, no longer flat but rolling hills and meandering rivers. Pastures are grassy and dotted by occasional stands of hardwoods—mostly oaks— not seen since we left New Mexico.

Low rain clouds brood ...
With each passing mile the landscape continues to look more eastern. It is as if we are witnessing the gradual unfolding of the plains in reverse.

By the time we reach Arkansas we are back in the east. Trees are the norm now, and there are small towns every 10 miles instead of every 50 or 100.

The towns are welcoming but the motels, the eateries, the gas stations,  the rest stops, the off-and-on ramps are identical. I-40 paints its way east with a dreary sameness of brush, smearing identical structures onto different canvases using limited imagination and no variation of palette. America the beautiful has become America the almost identical, with green and white highway signs, red, white and blue interstate markers, big and little box stores  in flat beige shopping malls illuminated by halogen lights and patrolled by security cars with flashing yellow lights.

They day fades to dusk and to dark. We stop at a motel outside Nashville. The bus seems as happy as we are to quite the highway after three days of travel. This motel like all the others has no charm. I'm beginning to miss the outdoor trees and grass and lukewarm showers of even the shabbiest park or campsite. But it is too cold and we are too much in a hurry

Motels begin to look the same.
The last stretch on the last day is a straight 425 shot from mid-Tennessee to mid-North Carolina.
Finally the road takes on some character. It bobs and weaves and climbs and falls as it snakes its way through the Smokies and the Blue Ridge mountains, following cascading rivers to the Piedmont.These aren't the mountains of the southwest, the Sangre de Cristos east of Santa Fe dancing with aspens and tall pines. These are the old folks of the east home to even older forests.

By the time we are into North Carolina four days of driving has taken its toll. It's is a straight shot through Hickory, Statesville, Winson-Salem and Greensboro where we hang a left toward Reidsville and home— a journey of 2,000 miles average 19.7 mpg at 56 miles per hour in a bus filled to the windows.

At 10:13 we are home, five days before Christmas. There will be many more bus adventures in store come spring.

Now it is time to unpack and regroup. There is the tree to get ready, and gratitude for another year.