While I was back there, I did a quick inspection of her outfit. The mule was bright-eyed and seemed to be in pretty good shape. The wagon was of a common type consisting of the wheels, axles and frame of an old automobile, topped with a sort of open wooden box made out of whatever kind of scrap lumber was available. The tires had been patched numerous times, and had a dry cracked look that indicated they would soon be beyond patching and would fall to pieces. I had seen tires split and come apart for seemingly no reason whatsoever, once they were in this state. But for now, if they could hold up for a couple more hundred miles, they would get Catherine’s family to Oklahoma City.
By now Catherine had joined me. “What do you think?” she asked. “I know it doesn’t look like much.”
“I’ve seen worse,” I told her. “You should be okay, so long as the roads aren’t too bad. Have you heard anything about what the interstate is like farther east?”
“The Texas part is pretty clear,” she said. “It’s because of that new law, you know. No funding for roads of more than two lanes.”
“Better to have two good ones than four bad,” I agreed.
“So how far east are you going?”
This was the question I had been dreading. “I’m not sure yet,” I said, and it wasn’t entirely a lie. If there was a faster way to Kentucky than cutting due east across Oklahoma, I would take it.
“I wouldn’t mind having another grownup to visit with along the way. I love my kids, but there’s only so much you can talk about with a child, you know?”
“I’m sort of on a schedule,” I said. “I got delayed, so I can’t go making a lot of stops. I’m not trying to be mean, but—“
“It’s okay. We’re not inclined to dawdle. I want to be in Oklahoma tonight, and my kids are good travelers. They know I’m not going to stop for every little thing. I’ve told them the more we stop, the longer it’ll take to get to Grandma’s, where we’ll have better food and proper beds. They understand.”
I was skeptical, but it seemed like bad manners to act like I didn’t believe her. So I helped her hitch the mule and bring the wagon around, and then I strapped my gear onto Flecha while Catherine and her oldest boy, David, loaded the wagon and made a little nest of blankets for the two youngest to rest in along the way. It didn’t take as long as I had feared, and it looked like Catherine and David had done this many times.
And so with much less fuss than I would’ve anticipated, we were on our way.
As Catherine had said, the road was in pretty decent shape. It needed some repairs, but it was relatively clear of debris, the cracks and holes weren’t too bad, and we made good time. The children were quiet and well-behaved, and when the youngest got whiny around mid-morning, Catherine turned around in her seat and said, “Jessica!” in a tone that silenced her and made her lie down with her head against a duffel bag. Soon she was asleep.
Around noon, we took a winding dirt road off the interstate that looked like it might lead to a town. It did, sort of. If there were people around, they were living on farms and ranches, not in the town, although it looked like some of the buildings might still have been used occasionally for market days and other community events.
Disappointed that we couldn’t find a store or market, we had lunch in the shade of a tree beside an old restaurant, and the children chased a ball around for awhile. Then we packed up and continued on.
We finally reached the border in late afternoon and got in line with the other people waiting to cross. I asked Catherine why they were stopping everyone, but she wasn’t sure. So I rode on ahead and asked a man driving what looked like a trade cart. “They’re just checking identification papers and searching bags to make sure you aren’t taking anything out of the country that’s vital for national security,” he told me.
“And what kind of stuff would that be?”
“Medicines, gold, copper, any weapons other than a hunting rifle. . . that sort of thing. You know, the usual stuff.”
I went back to Catherine’s wagon and explained the situation.
“Well, that won’t be a problem for me, unless they consider children vital to security.”
“They can have Jessica,” David suggested, from his perch behind his mother’s seat.
“Well, it’s a problem for me,” I said. “I’ve still got a long way to go, and I'm not handing over my weapons. They’re crazy if they think I’m going into a foreign country alone and unarmed.”
Catherine and I talked it over and we agreed that I would have to find a way around the checkpoint. The terrain here wasn’t as flat as it had been out west, but it was still flat enough that I would have to travel several miles out of my way, with no certainty that I would hit on a good place to cross. With no real choice but to try, I turned north and rode what seemed like a long way before finding a dry riverbed that went east.
Empty arroyos always have the potential for danger. Just because there’s no rain where you are doesn’t mean rain or a burst dam someplace else might not send a wall of water through at any time. No one with any sense spends much time in a dry river bed, unless they know the area and its weather well. But in this case it seemed like my best option for staying hidden from view. I went several miles along the river bed, nervous and acutely aware that this was not my land and I was almost as ignorant as one of Catherine’s children. But luck was with me, and when I finally felt certain I was in Oklahoma, I found a spot where Flecha and I could climb out. And then we turned south, back toward the interstate.
By now it was dusk and I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to find Catherine. We had agreed to meet five miles beyond the border, but the river bed had wound around to where I didn’t have a clear sense of how far I had traveled. I also had no way of knowing how long it had taken her to get through the checkpoint. She could still be back in Texas, for all I knew.
As the sun went down and shadows lengthened, I began to wonder if I should give up looking and try to find her in the morning. But then I saw her wagon at the side of the road, two camp fires in front of it and a lantern burning on the wagon seat. I had been starting to think maybe it was just as well to be on my own again, but seeing the care she had taken to make a signal for me, I couldn’t help but feel grateful that I wasn't alone out here.
We had a nice meal tonight of potatoes from a sack in Catherine’s wagon and boiled strips of beef jerky from my packs. I still had the peppermints from my first day at the carnival, and we each had one after supper to celebrate having arrived safely in the United States.
The United States! Tonight as I’m sitting here by the fire, I can’t help thinking what strange ways my life has turned. I was born a citizen of this country, but I can’t remember a time when the federal government wasn’t my enemy. And now here I am, seeking out this place all on my own. I’ve never been here before, and yet I’m home.
◄ Previous Entry
Next Entry ►