The Journey East
 
I didnít sleep much at all that night. The bugle calls at 10 and 10:30 woke me up, and then there was the wind. It just howled down from the mountains, shaking the trees around me. Between midnight and 4 AM, the wind just hammered the base. Satori rocked back and forth like Iíd never experienced before. It honestly felt like it was going to tip over. The winds had to have been gusting at 60 MPH or more. I kept thinking, If there was a tornado, would they sound sirens? It was a hellacious night. The winds finally stopped shaking the car enough for me to fall asleepÖ until the bugle sounded again at 6 AM. I lay there in the back of Satori, staring at the roof, until the Sun came up at 7.

It was Monday morning, March 30th. In the pre-dawn twilight, a platoon of soldiers was out doing their morning run. I opened Satori's side door, and found it was still pretty breezy out. I put on my shoes, no socks, and hit the porta potties. My pants were noticibly looser. In the middle of the awakening base, it was still pretty quiet. There were only a handful of RV's and vehicles left from the Death March. I didn't know how long we'd be allowed to stay there. I figured since the MP's hadn't come to get me yet, I was still okay. There was still some water in one of my bottles, so I used it to wash my hair. The advantage of having short hair is that you don't have to worry so much about combing it.

About 7:30, I pulled Satori out of camp. I didn't know the way out, but fortunately one of the RV's was leaving, so I just followed him. I stopped at Missile Park, the collection of vehicles near the base entrance, to look around. I pulled out of the base, took the on-ramp to Highway 70 and pointed myself back towards Alamogordo. Ahead, all northbound traffic was redirected over to a big structure with a wide overhang. It looked like a truck stop. It turned out to be a Border Patrol checkpoint. They asked me if I was a U.S. citizen and looked in all my windows before sending me on my way. I guess they were looking for illegal immigrants. I found a radio station from Las Cruces. Part of the weather report included warnings of times Air Force jets would be making sonic booms.
I stopped at the White Sands visitor center and got a crushed penny. I had meant to go through White Sands, but I think I'd had enough desert for one weekend. I made a note to come back and hit the road. I got to Alamogordo about 8:37. There's a neat museum in town, but it wasn't open, so I kept going. Just north of town, I turned east on Highway 82 towards Cloudcroft. Immediately, the road climbed into some dramatic mountains. Traffic slowed to 40 MPH. It was slow going uphill into the mountains of the Lincoln National Forest. Right after 9 I went through a tunnel, and passed the town of High Rolls (elevation 6,750 feet). I was deep in the forest when I went through Mountain Park, and the road just kept climbing. I got to Cloudcroft at 9:21. I had meant to treat myself to a big breakfast in Cloudcroft, but I didn't see anyplace to eat. I figured there'd be something down the road.
The road started a long, lazy descent eastwards. I passed narrow grazing lands and sleepy little communities tucked away in mountain passes. There was almost no traffic. It was a bright, cheerful morning under a cloudless sky. At the Chaves County line, I left the Lincoln National Forest behind me. The narrow canyons I'd been following all morning widened out into broad valleys. Cattle grazed in lush, green fields. Just past the junction for Highway 24, the ground was scorched from a recent fire. Blackened trees and grass spread out for about 40 acres alongside the road. Trees became few and far between east of there as the land turned into a dry prairie. I could see down the road for miles. I found a radio station from El Paso, I think. The weather report included a high wind warning. Behind me to the west, I couldn't even see the mountains any more. At 10:30, I crossed over into Eddy County. What looked like a town appeared on the horizon. It was Hope, New Mexico, but there wasn't much to it. The Hope Store had boarded-up windows. Twenty miles down the road, and 89 miles from Cloudcroft, I arrived in Artesia, the "city of champions." I decided to finally get my breakfast. Artesia has a Wal-Mart and a K-Mart, almost within sight of each other. The downtown area has many statues and a classic old movie theater.
I needed food but I didn't want just fast food, I wanted a meal. Going down a side street, I spotted a little place called the Chaos Cafe. I went in and ordered lunch with a Dr. Pepper. The soda pop came from a trough in the middle of the room, filled with ice. They brought me my soda and a glass of water, and halfway through my bacon cheeseburger they gave me a brownie. It was my first big meal in days. It was a laid-back place. The bathrooms were labeled "shirts" and "skirts."
Heading out of town, I passed a lot of oilfield equipment. East of town were huge acres of crops, dotted with "cow coolers." That's what my Dad used to call the bobbing oil pumps; when I was a kid, he told me the action fanned the nearby cows, keeping them cool. Hey, I was a kid, what did I know? Large dust clouds appeared on the horizon. The air was thick with the smell of oil. Just after noon, large waves of dust blew across the highway in exactly the same way snow blew across just days before.
The farmland fell behind me, and the land turned to rugged sandhills. The turnoff for Hobbs appeared before I expected it. I turned off Highway 82 and onto Highway 529 towards Hobbs, hoping I was going the right way. It was another lonely 2-lane road. Sandy grasslands spread out in all directions. Dust devils danced in the road before me. Parched grass was everywhere. The horizon was obscured with a haze of dust. The wind slammed down on the countryside. I had forgotten how consistent the wind could be. In the distance, smoke from an apparent grass fire mixed with the dust in the air. The road turned into Highway 180, which took me right into Hobbs. Fifteen miles from Hobbs, I came to a "T" intersection. I turned east; going west would've taken me to Carlsbad. On the radio, a listener won a contest prize: a free dinner. "And," the DJ added, "you get to get out of the wind for a while!" Right before 1 PM I made it to Hobbs. I made a pit stop at the Town & Country store. The car rocked back and forth in the wind. I got a Dr. Pepper, even though the store was stocked with Kist Cola.
Going through town, I was surprised to find the Lamplighter Motel! Way back when I was a first grader, Dad used to take me on week-long trips with him out to the oil fields where he worked. We used to stay at the Hobbs Lamplighter when he was doing jobs in the area. The town had become much more developed. I remembered the Lamplighter being on the edge of town, with nothing beyond the curve in the road, but I passed a lot more before leaving Hobbs. It was five miles to the state line. As I crossed into Texas, 1:16 PM became 2:16. Speed limit on Texas roads was 70 MPH (65 at night). Plowed fields stretched as far as I could see. Long irrigation machines worked their way across the furrowed acres. Thick dust storms roared to the north. I dodged a tumbleweed as it bounced across the median. The air was thick with the smell of dust and oil. At a farm house, a ragged American flag looked exhausted as it flapped in the stiff breeze.
I got to Seminole at 2:42 Texas time. Texas likes to make their roads as straight east-west and north-south as you can get, and Highway 180 was no exception. A cloud of dust blew across the road. About an hour east of Hobbs, a Texas State trooper passed me in a big hurry. At 3:19 I made it to Lamesa, "home of the Tornadoes." The Sun beat down relentlessly through the clouds of dust. It was very hot out. Crossing Highway 87, the sign for Big Spring took me by surprise. It was the first time I'd seen a sign pointing towards the town where I was born in, well, decades. There just wasn't time for a side trip, nor was I emotionally prepared to go back to my hometown. Maybe some other trip. Near Key, Texas, the road went down an escarpment. A silver pickup passed me. As soon as I crossed into Borden County, the pavement dramatically changed in character. The land became more rugged. The sky was hazy with dust. A dry ridge lurked to the north. I passed a big mountain before entering Gail, Texas, the county seat of Borden County, "home of the coyotes."
There's not a lot to Gail beyond an intersection or two. The county courthouse even looked empty. Beyond, cattle grazed in fields littered with gnarled mesquite trees. The town of Mesquite, Texas was not far away. At 4:07, the ghosts of my childhood returned again as I passed the turnoff for Lake Thomas. When Dad had a motorboat, we'd spend a day out on the water at Lake Thomas. The pavement of the road changed again as I pulled into Scurry County.
 
I soon went through Snyder, Texas, where I drove around the courthouse square. There's an unusual statue of a white buffalo on the square, which surrounds the granite crypt of the Scurry County courthouse. The courthouse looks like it was based on the old Atari logo. Towering wind generators dominated the skyline as I headed east out of town. Down the road, Fisher County started out as pretty farm country, then quickly turned into miles of fields full of cactus and mesquite. Rugged grazing land followed. The Snyder radio station said it was 80 degrees out. I got to Roby, Texas (population 673) right at 5 PM. It was a few miles out of town that I made a side trip. I turned off 180, and went under an overpass onto Highway 57. I was on a pilgrimage to a place I'd never been before. Eleven miles down the road, I came to the little town of Hamlin, Texas ("home of the Pied Pipers"). It's a small town, yet surprisingly dynamic and full of local pride. Acting on directions from my big brother, I pulled down a side street and found a boxy little house. It was the first home my parents moved into when they settled down to have a family. I have no memories of Hamlin; my family moved to Big Spring before I was born... but finding that humble little house, I felt like I was looking at a living page of history, like looking back through time... but time was not on my side. The Sun was getting lower in the sky, and I had to move on.

I figured I had just over two hours of sunlight left. I headed east on Highway 92, past plowed fields dotted with oil wells. Just before 6, I passed Tuxedo, Texas ("Once a town, now a farming community") and waved to a farmer driving a tractor beside the road. I turned north on Highway 277, an easy, 4-lane road. It looked like I could take 277 all the way to Wichita Falls. There was a fierce crosswind, but it didn't matter which direction the wind was coming from; you still got knocked around. Just after 6:30, I went through Munday, Texas, and I had to smile. (My cat's name is Munday.) It was 67 miles to Wichita Falls. At the Baylor County line, 277 turns into a 2-lane road. I passed bicyclists struggling against the wind. Around Seymor, 277 splits into a 4-lane road again. Tumbleweeds danced near the Brazos River as I pulled over for some gas. I was still 26 miles short of Wichita Falls when the Sun dipped below the horizon. I made it to Wichita Falls as dusk settled over the Texas plains. Once in Wichita Falls, I followed 277 until it hooked up with Highway 281. I headed south, watching a  brooding thunderhead in the eastern sky pulse with lightning. I stayed south on 281 until I saw the signs for Lake Arrowhead State Park. (I had trouble finding it because I had been mis-pronouncing it as "Arrowhead Lake.") I drove through the empty front gate and pulled into the first empty campground I could find. There were six campsites in the area I found, and I was completely alone. I had been on the road almost 12 hours. I called home, sent text messages to friends, and settled down for the night. A beautiful crescent Moon hung low in the west. Above, diamond stars twinkled in the bosom of the Milky Way. I hadn't seen the Milky Way since Burning Man. In the east, the thunderstorm lumbered away from me, leaving flashes of lightning in its wake. The air turned icy. I climbed inside Satori, curled up in my sleeping bags and quickly went to sleep.

I woke shortly before dawn Tuesday morning. I figure I'd slept for 7 hours-- the best night's sleep I'd had in days. The night had been nowhere near as cold or as windy as the rest of the trip. The eastern sky slowly brightened to a baby blue, and then a pale yellow before the Sun finally poked up over the horizon. I chugged a can of V-8, then drove Satori deeper into the park. I found the showers not far down the access road. The hot water took a minute to kick in, but it was great to be clean again. In the daylight, I saw the showers were surrounded by campsites, next to a working oil rig. I'm not sure I could've slept next to the racket it made. Fishermen were already out on the lake.

I drove to the front gate to pay my camping fee. The Ranger said I was actually in an electric hook-up area, which charged more, but since I didn't plug anything in he only charged me $12 for the night. As I left, I said, "Nice place you got here." The Ranger laughed and replied, "Bring you a fishin' pole next time!" I drove back to Highway 281, past the Texoma Coyboy Church, and headed back through Wichita Falls.

It was a bright, cheerful day, with a few high clouds to the west. Taking Interstate 44, I crossed the Red River back into Oklahoma, and between there and Oklahoma City I ended up paying tolls three times! No wonder truck drivers avoid Oklahoma. When I got to Oklahoma City, I guess I was tolled-out, because when I got to the exit for the Turner Turnpike I skipped it and went on up to Edmond, where I got on the old Route 66. I stopped at Pop's in Arcadia for some soda. They had Dublin Dr. Pepper! I followed the old Route 66 all the way back to Tulsa. The Deep Fork River was very red when I crossed it. In Chandler, the temperature was 51 degrees. Stroud had a winery right in the middle of town. I got to Kellyville at 1:30, and pulled into Broken Arrow right at 2 PM. I rolled into the driveway at 2:23. I had driven 1,719 miles in 5 days. It was good to be home. After I cleaned up, I weighed myself on the bathroom scales. After five days of sporatic meals, fitful sleep and 26 miles of hiking, my weight had not changed at all. Who says God doesn't have a sense of humor?

My reasons for doing the Death March are complex. It's not a coincidence that my route took me down so many roads that were familiar to my Dad. I planned it that way so that I could see those country roads as he saw them. My parents were foremost on my thoughts as I walked those long dusty miles.
 

It's about Duty. Dad was 30 years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. He had a career, a life, but he enlisted in the army and served "four days shy of four years" in the European Theater. Mom had a prosperous career as a doctor, but after she and Dad married, she set it all aside to care for her family. I don't think there's anything they wouldn't have done for each other. 

It's about Sacrifice. Working to provide for his family, Dad traveled all over west Texas and put up with blinding dust storms, scorching summer heat and bitter winter storms. Dad's job took him through every small town in Texas; he could tell you where every one was, how to get there, and where to get the best cup of coffee. He endured the harsh routine of his job for decades-- but he persevered and put three kids through college. Mom worked hard keeping the house in order, while also keeping busy with social and environmental causes. Together, they managed to raise a family that respects and loves each other, never fights with each other, and always drops what they're doing to help each other. In the early 21st Century, that's quite an accomplishment. 

It's about Honor. Dad passed away in 1999. We lost Mom in February, 2009. The world will never see their like again. Any part of me that's good, honest and decent exists because of them. It was in their honor that I did the Bataan Memorial Death March. 

Mom, Dad, this was for you. I love you. 
 
The Journey West
The March
The Journey East
All original content copyright 2009 by Tim Frayser
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