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Christmas on the Highway

Do you know how far it is from San Antonio to Los Angeles? A long way, and most of the road lies in Texas. We headed west on Interstate 10 on Monday afternoon, December 22. We wanted to be in Pasadena, California, on Christmas day.

I-10 actually runs north out of San Antonio, through the ‘hill country' past Comfort, Kerrville, and Fredricksburg. We made it only as far as Junction before we paused for the night. Junction is aptly named. It lies where three highways cross, near the banks of the North Llano River. We stayed at a KOA Kampground. KOA Kampgrounds are the camping equivalent of McDonald's. Because they adhere to nationwide franchise rules, you can always count on being able to hook up to water and power even after the office is closed. These days, we rarely stop until after dark, and KOAs are an easy way to reduce the adventure factor of life on the road. Call us boring, but after a six or seven hundred-mile day, a "Kampground" is attractive, even if the founders couldn't spell.

In the morning, we picked up I-10 again and followed it as it flattened out into the vast expanse of west Texas. Big Bend and the Rio Grande lay to our left, but we couldn't afford a two hundred- mile detour to the Chisos Mountains. The sign pointing toward Marfa was the most appealing. Marfa is a tiny town with famous mystery lights. At night, they gleam along the horizon where no human construct could be emitting them. I'd like to see the Marfa lights. I say that every time I speed by on the ribbon of pavement to the north.

We stopped overnight in Van Horn. Even after a day of driving, we were still in Texas. Van Horn is a well-known truckers layover, and our CB radio was abuzz with discussions about road conditions and Christmas. Truckers dream of being home for Christmas. Many don't get anywhere near.

Wednesday was Christmas Eve. Interstate 10 was crawling with trucks, cars and Greyhound buses. We stopped for breakfast at the only establishment available, which was a McDonald's on the west side of town. It was doing a booming business, largely because it was also a Greyhound bus stop, and Christmas Eve is a big day for bus travelers. We joined a line that extended out the door. By the time we got to the front, breakfast was no longer being served. I ended up with a leftover sausage sandwich, and Mark had a cheeseburger. The manager served us. "Will you be open tomorrow too?" I asked. "Oh, yeah," she said. "I'll be here at 4 a.m. If Greyhound runs, we're open. Greyhound always runs." Another bus pulled in as we departed. Midmorning, we reached El Paso and crossed into New Mexico.

I have a collection of favorite views in North America. The road north of Banff in Alberta offers many of them. Another is the view from the end of Marin Boulevard in Jersey City, New Jersey, where you can see the Manhattan skyline and the Statue of Liberty all at once. Now we were heading for yet another great American vista, the Organ Mountains east of Las Cruces, New Mexico. They rise sharply from the plane and form a deeply serrated crest over the city. The golden peaks were dusted with snow as we passed, and the ridge was hiding in a cloud. Whoever dubbed New Mexico the "Land of Enchantment" may well have been rolling along I-10 when the idea occurred.

In Deming, New Mexico, we stopped to buy food in a grocery store. As we left, Mark noticed a man standing on the edge of the road. In one hand, he carried a little bundle tied in a blanket. In the other he held a pair of cowboy boots in a plastic shopping bag. "I wonder if he needs a ride," said Mark, but we were already gone.

The weather turned colder as we crossed New Mexico and arrived at the Arizona border. The CB radio was buzzing with news about snow storms on Interstate 40. "The road out of Albuquerque is closed," said one driver. We, however, were on Interstate 10. It never snows on Interstate 10, right?

The snow began while we were refueling in Willcox, Arizona. The CB radio buzzed once more with weather discussions. Then a loud, clear voice broke through. "Anybody headed for Phoenix? I got a guy here who needs a ride, and I'm out of hours. He wants to get home in time for Christmas." We were headed for Phoenix. We planned to spend the night there. I picked up the radio.

A few minutes later, a tall man in a ten-gallon hat and cowboy boots appeared at our door. Beside him was the man we'd seen in Deming. "This is Oscar," said the truck driver. "His car broke down in Deming, and he wants to get home for Christmas. He doesn't speak much English, but he's legal. He's got his papers."

"I speak a little Spanish," I said. "Feliz Navidad, Oscar. We'll get you to Phoenix. Come on in." I stowed his bedroll and his boots, and we settled down for the drive across Arizona.

The snow fell harder. It began to pile up on the ground and stick to tumbleweeds and creosote bushes. It was getting dark, and the window defroster couldn't compete with the cold. "I can't see," said Mark. "I think I'm going to have to stop."

"Hold on," I said. I made my way to the back and extracted an extension cord from a storage compartment. I plugged it in, turned on the generator and attached my hair dryer to it. I leaned over Mark's shoulder and blew hot air across the windshield. "Voila!" I said. "Super defroster."

The snow ended short of Tucson, but a spectacular lightning storm appeared to take its place. Panoramic strikes lit up the desert for miles. By the time we arrived on the outskirts of Phoenix, all was quiet.

"Donde vive?" I asked Oscar. "Where do you live? We'll take you home." We got off the highway in Tempe and Oscar directed us to a small street ablaze with Christmas lights. We pulled into the parking lot of an apartment building. It was nine o'clock. Oscar was home for Christmas.

"He needs money to fix his car," said Mark. "What have you got?" I had $80 in my pocket. I had put it there to buy Mark a Christmas present. I pulled it out. "I've got twenty or so," said Mark. We handed it all to Oscar. "It won't fix a transmission," we said, "But maybe it will help."

"Gracias," said Oscar as he picked up his bedroll and boots. "Feliz Navidad!"

We drove on in the night. It was clear now, and Phoenix glittered like scattered necklaces in the darkness. "Oscar told me the trucker insisted on picking him up in Deming," I said. "He wasn't hitchhiking, but the trucker pulled up, pointed at him and asked if he needed a ride. Oscar couldn't believe he was talking to him."

"We saw Oscar in Deming, too," said Mark, "And we didn't stop."

"I know," I said. "And the trucker made sure he got a ride all the way to Phoenix."

We were silent a moment.

"Oscar got your Christmas present," I said.

"Not really," said Mark. "Tonight's my present, and it's one I won't soon forget."

Pasadena, California
December 28, 1997

Click here to read "Who Could Forget the Alamo?"

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