It’s Not the Middle of Nowhere, But You Can See It From There

In May of 1998, my family and I drove from San Angelo to San Diego, CA so I could read a paper at a conference. At the heart of the essay was a question regarding exactly atcrossing historical truth actually is and who controls the distribution of history. At the risk of sounding like a Dairy Queen philosopher, I noted in the essay that in McCarthy’s world history evolves as we uncover and discover and that “Things separate from their stories have no meaning. . . . The story on the other hand can never be lost from its place in the world for it is that place. And that is what was found here. The corridor. The tale. And like all corridos it ultimately told one story only, for there is only one to tell.” Simply put, for McCarthy history is not an event; it is a narrative we construct based on a variety of needs and desires.

On our way home from San Diego, my family took a side trip through southern Arizona and southern New Mexico to visit places mentioned in McCarthy’s various novels. We ate supper and in Yuma (the ferry from Blood Meridian), where the waitresses at Jack and Rosie’s Steakhouse took turns holding our youngest son so we could eat a meal in peace. We turned south in Gila Bend onto highway 85 and traveled through Childs, Ajo, and Sells, Arizona as we made our way to Douglas so we could see where Billy crossed the border and borrowed a half dollar from John Gilchrist. From Douglas, Billy “was all day on the old road . . . to Cloverdale” and so where we. “It’s a good road,” the man at the Visitor Center told us, “if you’ve got a vehicle with some clearance. Just be sure to stay on Geronimo Trail.” Sound advice.

If you choose the road less traveled and decide the Guadalupe Canyon Road sounds fun, the road ends, literally, the man told us and no amount of clearance will get you to Cloverdale from there. The SUV had water, baby bottles, Goldfish, chocolate chip cookies, plenty of gas, and a family of mostly intrepid adventurers. Good thing. If we weren’t in the middle of nowhere, we were pretty darn close.

The drive from Douglas to Cloverdale is about fifty-five miles and, if you are a crow, it’s probably pretty quick. If you are bound to this earth when you travel, though, plan on a half day’s drive. Moving slow. Across roads that resemble images from four-wheel drive commercials where tires bounce across rocky terrain while the passenger looks down at the shear drop off. (Death grip on the door handle optional.)

We have a photo of a road sign near the Slaughter Ranch that says “PRIMITIVE ROAD CAUTION USE AT YOUR OWN RISK THIS SURFACE IS NOT REGULARLY MAINTAINED” with an ominous looking bullet hole after SURFACE.

The sign does not a lie. It’s harsh and brutal land punctuated by rolling hills of grass as you drive into the Whitmire Canyon Wilderness Study Area. You pass Outlaw Mountain and Guadalupe Mountain, and, if you are lucky, a small ranch house still inhabited in the harsh but beautiful landscape. We knew it wasn’t the Parham place, but it certainly could have been. Once you come out on County Road C002 (portions unpaved) and turn south on NM 79/NM 338 (portions still unpaved), there’s not really much left to see in Cloverdale. There’s a building that serves as a kind of hay barn and a sign you can stand near. The Animas Peaks are in the backdrop and the landscape is dotted with working ranches. As you look at them, you wonder why Billy would ever leave.

In some respects, though, this focus on the long, lonesome roads is a bit deceptive. Billy’s adventures are punctuated and, largely, defined by towns, ranches, and settlements. First and foremost of these is La Babicora, the ranch in Mexico owned by William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, an absentee landowner, serves as a pretty clear symbol of the battle between the goals of the Partido Nacionale Revolucionario and foreign capitalists. The ranch is huge, successful, and perfectly situated within the landscape. It also represents the unequal distribution of wealth and power that signal a failed revolution.

Billy’s travels are never quite complete. He finds his father’s horse, but loses his brother. He simply drifts tale to tale, following paths already established and roads already traveled. When he finally returns to American with Boyd’s bones and inters them in the Cloverdale Cemetery south of Cloverdale, he continues floating, drifting with the wind down New Mexico highway 152 through San Lorenzo and the Black Range, headed east toward El Paso, TX. He ends the novel crying, woken by the false sun of a nuclear bomb test, a perfect symbol for the hope and despair of the modern world. We master an integral part of the universe, but in doing so set the stage for possible world annihilation.

When my family and I left for San Diego back in 1998, my oldest son was three and my younger son was about six months old. Our plan to start the trip was to leave at 4 a.m. so the two boys would sleep for a big chunk of the first day. The best laid plans, as they say, often go awry and my older son, about 45 miles west of San Angelo, piped up from his car seat, telling us “This is the longest road I’ve ever been on. It goes forever!” So much for well rested kids. Or parents. Unwittingly, he captures the idea within McCarthy’s text. The roads out west do go on forever and it’s possible to drive for miles and miles without seeing anything but deer and jack rabbits, leaving you alone with your thoughts.

The Crossing, in some respects, offers us the most comprehensive look at a McCarthy character’s thoughts as we travel with Billy from Cloverdale into Mexico. He searches and he finds, but he is never filled. For McCarthy, though, Billy’s emptiness is his own flaw. Billy never recognizes that the world is not just “stone and flower and blood” (143). It’s not the road he travels that gives life meaning. In McCarthy’s world, it is the telling and “Of the telling there is no end” (143). The road goes on forever, as my son might say, and the stones matter, but they matter, in McCarthy’s novel, only insofar as we recount and witness the journey and tell the tale of the stones we step across.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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