Trains, walls, sandworms and home is wherever we park it

Reflections of the Sonoran Desert sunset at Gilbert Ray Campground outside Tucson, AZ (Photo by John Kelly Green)
Reflections of the Sonoran Desert sunset at Gilbert Ray Campground outside Tucson, AZ (Photo by John Kelly Green)

You see a lot of things when you are on the road. You drive for hours, stopping for gas, the bathroom, or a meal, and in between there’s the long ribbon of highway stretching out ahead. Sometimes you marvel at the big things. Clouds sailing like ships across a sea-blue sky. Massive wind-carved sandstone boulders scattered on mountainsides. The surprising descent onto a flat plain edged by distant dark mountains and punctuated by swirls of sandy clouds kicked up by trucks and cars on gravel roads. Sometimes we notice the smaller things — vultures, hawks and crows circling overhead, a fuzzy black tarantula crossing Oklahoma or Texas backroads (Why? To get to the other side, of course) and, once, a family of coyotes out for a roadside stroll in Arizona.

On Tuesday, Oct. 15, we started a three-day, nearly 900-mile sprint from Los Angeles to the City of Truth or Consequences, NM. We took Interstate 10 East and jumped onto California 86 to head south along the Salton Sea before taking I-8  to Arizona. We passed through Salton City with its billboards advertising unimproved lots for around $2,900 and improved lots for $3,400. Some flat-roofed buildings along the stretch of open land toward the shrinking accidental lake were being used and others were abandoned, hand-painted signs of former businesses fading and peeling in the hot sun. Somewhere along the way — where, I’m not sure — I noticed a great blue heron standing stock still along an irrigation channel, eyes scanning for its next meal amid the flowing blue water.

Near sunset on that Tuesday, the beautiful Imperial sand dunes glowed gold, offset by dark shadows cast by wind-ravaged edges. To the south, we caught a glimpse of the US-Mexico border wall, snaking black along the dunes. It looked like a sandworm slithering up and down through sandy waves on the arid planet Arrakis from the novel Dune. Later I read that the wall sits atop the sand. Buttresses that look like caterpillar legs keep it stable but the entire structure can be shifted, if necessary, to accommodate the ever-moving sand.

Imperial Dunes, U.S.-Mexico border wall and Border Patrol, Arizona (Photo by John Kelly Green)
Imperial Dunes, U.S.-Mexico border wall and Border Patrol, Arizona (Photo by John Kelly Green)

Before the sun completely set, we reached our destination — a property owned by a nice couple who split their year between Alberta, British Columbia, and Yuma, AZ, and let us stay overnight. (We had electric and water hookup — better than many campgrounds!) The next morning, we thanked them for their hospitality and headed out for a hearty Cracker Barrel breakfast that would sustain us on our 237-mile jaunt to Tucson. Soon after we were on I-8, we saw a military helicopter and a jet circling over the highway and two tractor trailers hauling sand-colored tanks up the off-ramp. Luckily, their exit was one before ours.

Back on the road on Wednesday, we noticed the first group of photographers with tripods at a train crossing to the south of I-8; a west-bound freight train blew its whistle in greeting as it went by. Later, we saw a school bus parked along another stretch of track with kids and teachers milling about. Everyone was looking to the west.

Further along, we saw stopped trains, long linked rail cars on side tracks. At one location, several cars held stacked long square-ended metal bars (structural components for a fence, perhaps?) and half a dozen or so sand-colored camouflaged tanks. For the border wall? Maybe.

Soon after, we stopped for gas at the Love’s station near Gila Bend and saw more people peering down the tracks.

What was going on with all the photographers and gawkers? J. asked at the Love’s and found out everyone was waiting for an old steam train to come along. It was the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad. In celebration, Union Pacific was sending a Big Boy 4014 steam locomotive on a  journey that passed through Arizona — in fact, it had been in LA when we were there and was roughly following our eastward route. We reluctantly traveled on. We had to get to Tucson.

We joined back up with I-10 and the landscape around the road opened onto wider terrain that got rockier, drier and more hilly along the way. Cholla cactus, palo verde trees, smoke trees, organ pipe cactus and probably still-green tumbleweed bushes dotted the route. We felt like we were home when we finally arrived at Gilbert Ray Campground located in the rolling Sonoran Desert outside Tucson. At sunset, J. took a few (stunning, as usual) pictures and I strolled around. Looking back at our campsite, I saw some tourists taking photographs of our Airstream against the crimson sky. They wandered away after a few minutes, happy with their shots.

Sunset at Gilbert Ray Campground, Sonoran Desert, outside Tucson, AZ (Photo by John Kelly Green)
Sunset at Gilbert Ray Campground, Sonoran Desert, outside Tucson, AZ (Photo by John Kelly Green)

On Thursday, we got a relatively early meal at the Coyote Pause Café at Cat Mountain Station (our favorite!) and dashed the last 300 miles to the town of Truth or Consequences, NM. In addition to our usual stop breaks, we also went to the Texas Canyon Rest Stop, where I went back to the trailer and made J. some strong coffee — the jasmine tea from the café wasn’t caffeinated enough. The rest stop has to be the most gorgeous rest stop anywhere — it’s at a pass in the mountain punctuated by huge boulders, carved smooth by wind and erosion, perched on top of each other. They seem steady enough, but you never know.

Defying gravity at the Texas Canyon Rest Stop. (Photo by John Kelly Green)

Further along the way, we climbed higher and higher, over mountains and into flat valleys and up again, finally getting to the 4,585-foot-high Continental Divide, 20 miles from Lordsburg, NM. After that, there are some downhills but you’re mostly up on a 4,000-plus-foot plateau for the rest of the journey to I-25 and the Rio Grande rift. I especially love driving through the town of Hatch where I adore the smell of the green chilies roasting. J. thought it smelled like pot. It was chilies. I swear.

On Thursday, Oct. 17, we finally reached Elephant Butte Lake State Park, where we spend a lot of time in the colder months. After three days of travel and repeated hitching and unhitching, settling in becomes very quick and welcome. J. handles detaching the Yukon and I rearrange the inside of the trailer so that we can live normally. When we are towing the Airstream, I put a lot of stuff on anti-skid pads on the floor. Saves a lot of problems later.

Outside the trailer, the sand comes up to our site’s asphalt pad and desert plants surround our site. A tiny rabbit looks at us for a few moments until we move and scare it away. Quail scuttle from under one bush to another. The wind blows around the curves of the Airstream, rocking it slightly. We can crank down the stabilizer pads but it’s late and we’re pretty beat.

There’s so much I can’t capture in writing about our journey because the observations are fleeting and when I’m driving, I can’t write them down. I am trying to keep a notebook near the front seat, for frantically taking notes when I have a free moment, but that’s a recent idea and not yet a habit. I would love to capture the names of creeks, rivers, and washes, mountains and hills, towns and cities, but they are gone from my brain soon after we pass them, like sand filtering through my fingers. I think, “Oh, that would make a great name for a character or a place in a novel” but the thought is gone as I notice something new along the open road.

Maura C. Ciccarelli

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