Late Covid American Sojourn: Day 2

Yesterday was a bit more epic than we expected: nearly 14 hours, stretched out due to some misdirection and a worthwhile but longer-than-we-thought detour to the white sands of New Mexico.

We rolled out of Gary and Laurie’s Patagonia acres about 9am, 15 miles north of the border. Andrea got some breakfast burritos at the general store in Sonoita, and we rolled through the soft, dun-colored hills dotted with mesquite and scrub oak, dipping into washes and climbing back up, past ranches dotted with brick farmhouses. The land reminded us of the hills of West Marin, in California, and the wine country around Paso Robles. It’s really some of the gentlest, softest, most inviting country I know.

The land flattened and dulled as we hit Benson and the I-10 freeway. To pass the time we listened to Barack Obama narrate his story in A Promised Land: The enduring optimism and independence of his mom; how he met Michelle; the seed of his political ambitions,; the advice he got to run for president from the lions of the U.S. Senate, including Harry Reid and Ted Kennedy. For me, Obama’s voice, even if it strayed into a little too much description of various political advisers, served as a reassurance that we are moving, however haltingly, into a more humane time — a time when we will begin gradually to take care of each other again. Even as we protected ourselves with disinfectant and masks, we took comfort that a pivot toward normalcy, whatever that will be, is nearly upon us. Vaccine, stimulus, protections against eviction, consequences for insurrection, a recommitment to things as basic as a global climate accord.

We crossed into the Land of Enchantment, turning north, climbing a pass through the Organ Mountains, their jagged peaks like crooked teeth, then plunging down into a vast bowl stretching out toward Alamogordo and White Sands National Monument. North of there, 75 years ago, a brilliant light flashed, the ground shook, and, for the first time, a mushroom cloud rose seven miles high, changing history. Our destination was immeasurably gentler — the white gypsum dunes, some bare, some dotted with yucca, and most dotted with other travelers, many of whom had rented sleds to slide down the soft sand hills. We walked a boardwalk, then descended to the sands, our tracks following countless others.

By the time we got back on the road, the sun was dipping toward those jagged-toothed mountains. We rejoined I-10. At dusk we reached El Paso. To the south, Ciudad Juárez spread out, vast and twinkling beyond the Rio Grande; so close, it seemed we could call out the window and talk to a friend in Mexico.

By the time we turned off toward Marfa, the night was black, but for a waxing crescent moon. The road was straight as a taut string, and nearly empty. We took it at 80 mph, anticipating the barbecue and Lone Star beer we’d picked up in Van Horn.

At 9:30, 650 miles after we’d left Patagonia, we reached the little town of Marfa, rolling to a stop and emerging under a black sky studded with cosmic jewels.

Marfa, Texas, January 19

Late Covid American Sojourn: Day 1

Late Covid American Sojourn: Day 3

For all current installments of Late Covid American Sojourn, click here.

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Sandy Tolan

Author of “Children of the Stone: The Power of Music in a Hard Land” and “The Lemon Tree.” He is professor of journalism at USC’s Annenberg School.