Dead And Dragged Out On The Throughway: Is this really a better way to go than by air?

by Sallie Bingham

Santa Fe to Tucson in a one-day mad dash

Jack the Pup is riding shotgun on the roommate’s lap as we head west on I-40 at nine AM, planning to reach my sister’s house in Tucson in time for dinner. The first miles across the desert, numbingly familiar by now, yield as this time we’d planned a back roads excursion south, just across the Arizona border. The map shows one of those intriguing dotted lines, a scenic highway, just what we need after hours of rumbling 18-wheelers…

To ready ourselves for adventure, we stop in Gallup at what is now our favorite eatery: Earl’s Family Restaurant. Here in Navajo Country Earl’s is shopping center, family reunion, and good staple New Mexico food: guacamole, burritos and so forth. Outside, Navajo craftspeople jam the sidewalk with their tables; inside, they patrol the aisles, silently holding out pins, bracelets, necklaces, and, in a departure from the usual, a pair of weird lamps, the ceramic bases coated with sand and then painted with iconic motifs. I’m charmed, I must buy at twenty dollars each, then wonder, too late, where in the world I’m going to put them….

We are all called to attention by the owner who wants us to congratulate one of the waiters who has just won a scholarship to law school. This is family, after all, and we all cheer.

Next we drive to the side road, or back road, a narrow ribbon running between high bluffs and shaggy pinion and juniper forests, through motley towns that offer nothing of interest, and finally, along the border of the famous Hashknife Ranch, at twenty million acres once the second largest in the country. (The largest, wouldn’t you know, is in Texas.)It was assembled in 1884 by an enterprising railroad man, Edward Keneley, who paid the federal government between forty cents and $1.50 an acre for his spread. His Aztec Land and Cattle Company was a nest of bad-acting cowboys, eighty-four of whom were finally brought to heel by an ever badder-acting overseer. (He had to fire forty of them first.) At that point the ranch was running 600 thousand cows and two thousand horses; we’ve all inherited the atmospheric results of that quantity of methane…

Driving further south, we come on the ineradicable traces of the Phelps-Dodge Mining Company that marked, and marred, so much of the Southwest during the early twentieth century decades of silver and copper mining. The company is long gone; it went when the ores gave out and left nothing but desolation behind it: old pit scars, mountains of tailings, tumble-down towns, the great American bust-and-boom cycle laid out on miles of desert.

Later, near Tucson, after we’ve wandered down endless side roads trying to find my sister’s house (it turns out it’s in a distant suburb), we grind through a flatland subdivision at the end of a dirt road, and I see what appears to be the final result of the American Dream: rows of old trailer houses, neatly maintained, each barricaded behind high wire fences and padlocked gates (a gated community of another kind) and inside those fences, horses, dogs, geese, goats, chickens and five haughty emus. Here and there a man is outside tinkering with something; the women are all away, working minimum wage jobs in towns like Flagstaff. Human enterprise has won these middle-aged white couples their version of independence: tin-canned in the desert, with their emus, their goats, their chickens and their horses, all guarded by wildly barking dogs.

I’m beginning to think I’d rather be in the air.

This is becoming a foregone conclusion. Figuring the expense of Amtrak for my next trip, to New York City, I realize I must quit: a roomette, the only alternative to sitting up for two nights, will cost me three times the price of a coach seat on a plane. So for now I’m submitting my resignation to traveling on the ground, to pick it up again (unlike most resolutions, it can be re-found) when I can get where I need to go by car.

Or maybe by emu.


Just as I sadly write that I must forsake the face of the earth for the air, President Obama obliges me by announcing a massive rail revitalization which will cost 8 billion of the 787 billion economic package. Of course that means the lion’s share of the money is going to highways and bridges. But hey, it’s a beginning.
This money will be for high speed rail like the service Europeans have been enjoying for generations; I have a hunch it won’t apply to Amtrak sleepers crawling across the plains—my favorite way of travel—but to the commuter lines on the East and West Coast. The map with the news story (from AP) does show some hopeful red lines toward the center of the country. Chicago may be linked to eleven other cities within four hundred miles: could this include my hometown, Louisville, KY, once served by the Cardinal from Chicago creeping along old tracks at twenty miles an hour? The trip took all night…. And we may even have restored service out of New Orleans though only up to Baton Rouge and Mobile; apparently the tracks linking New Orleans and El Paso, destroyed by Katrina, will remain in an abyss. And that would be my best way from New Mexico to the South. Oh, well…Texas is going to ask for a line from San Antonio to Dallas and then up to Little Rock and Tulsa, so maybe I can hitch a ride that way….

But these are relatively short-haul runs. Please, oh please, Mr. President, give some money to poor old Amtrak for their overnight coast-to-coast lines, once the pride of the country!


Sallie Binghamis a short story writer, novelist and playwright whose most recent book, a collection of short stories called "Red Car", was published in 2008 by Sarabande Books. Founder of the Kentucky Foundation for Women and the Sallie Bingham Archive for Women's Papers and History at Duke University, she is an avid skier, horseback rider and ballroom dancer; she lives in Santa Fe with the Roommate, her eldest son, his wife and their two daughters and travels only when absolutely necessary.

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