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The Middle of Elsewhere

the middle of elsewhere

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Truth or Terlingua

A motor home that's seen better days rumbles out of Big Bend National Park like a lost ship about to sail off the edge of the earth. The man driving grips the steering wheel while his wife pores over a torn map of West Texas balanced on her knees. Their cat, Pity Sake, yowls unceasingly, wedged beneath the bucket seat. There should be a sign: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here, the admonition on ancient maps next to a drawing of a roiling sea serpent separating the known from the unknown world. But all there is in terms of signage is a bullet-shot piece of once-green metal saying Terlingua is five miles ahead.

Rooney looks through badly tinted glass at the community of Study Butte, its convenience store, marginal motel, the forlorn laundromat dwarfed by monumental, prehistoric cliffs and ominous volcanic outcroppings. Any minute now he expects to see dinosaur scat blocking the road. "Nothing but rocks!" he cries as if the landscape itself is a personal affront, a flat joke at the end of a cherished dream.

"It's a desert, Rooney. And I think it's absolutely wonderful." Francey looks at her husband cautiously. She doesn't really have the energy to humor him now. Contradiction is easier. Still, she softens it a little. "It says in the book here that the Comanche had a legend that the Creator brought all his leftover rocks here."

He looks out on the evidence of the Comanche legend. Leftover rocks. Extras. The rest of the world had taken the best and here's the dregs. He's been looking forward to getting here for several days; he'd seen a photograph of a waterfall in the Chisos Mountains in the Lonely Planet guidebook. But when they'd pulled the motor home into Rio Grande Village RV Park two hours ago only to find all the hookups taken he felt frustrated, thwarted when the ranger told him he'd have to drive to a campground that wasn't even in the national park. Now that he's here with no waterfall in sight he's not even sure he wants to stay the night. Maybe they should turn around and go home. But where is that? Everything they own travels with them now.

"Is this still technically Big Bend? I expected something worth driving a thousand miles across Texas for," he says, his voice already lowering to a growl as if Texas itself, his native state that could easily hold half a dozen other states quite comfortably is deliberately thumbing its long, lone star nose at those who dared to drive to its edges. Especially like they just did, from Paris to Terlingua, from lush green ranchland all the way to Mars. They have yet to cross a single state line.

"It's only eight hundred and ninety-five miles," she says, "not a thousand." Correcting each other is a habit, a compulsive one, though she enjoys it, especially when she knows she's right and can back it up with footnotes. Especially since Rooney tends to make pronouncements prefaced by "it's a well-known fact," or "studies have shown." Never in doubt, often wrong, that's what he is. Still, there's times when her heart goes out to him if he can admit error instead of taking a cheap shot in blame. And she needs her heart to go out to him now, not circling around like a bird whose flock has flown south without it. A new start, that's what they'd agreed on. Not détente.

Rooney takes the turnoff to Terlingua Ghost Town, reassured to see a working bank with an ATM, a Post Office with a flag at full mast. He's almost used to the way the motor home turns after taking out a couple of stop signs on the way home from the dealership in Paris. Thank God it was used, very used. Thank God he didn't get the Prowler or Predator or whatever it was called. The Intruder. Or worse, the Swinger. The larger model. He doesn't want to be lumped in with the snowbirds driving their big rigs down the interstates of the southwest. After all, he's only fifty-one, even if AARP is flooding him with mail.

The Jamboree was the smallest thing on wheels he could find that he thought they could actually live in. He still considers himself a vagabond even though times have changed. Back in the 60's he drove a VW bus with a bad carberator out to the coast with a well-thumbed Peoples' Guide to VW's in hand. Now he's got AC, cruise control. But he drew the line there. No satellite dish. No senior citizen welder sunglasses. Not him.

"There it is," Francey says hopefully. "Big Bend Travel Park. Just like the ranger said." It's not inside the park boundary, even if it does call itself Big Bend, but at least there isn't a "campground full" sign out front.
Rooney steers slowly through the gate, looks for the office to register. There isn't one. Nor is there a campground host that he can see. Just a couple of scruffy dudes with beers and guitars sitting on stumps in front of an old aluminum Spartan trailer that looks as if it hasn't moved in years. He sidles up to them with the Jamboree, rolls down Francey's window so she can ask where to check in.

One of them, the one that stops strumming says, "Just take any old site. There's envelopes in the bar - opens at five."

A black dog trots by with pink Mardi Gras beads around its neck, a chicken leg clamped firmly in its jaws. An enormous raven squawks malevolently from a power pole.

Rooney looks around. All he can see is a squat building, if you can call it a building, more like a cobbled-together bunker than a bar. A rustic sign in front of it says "La Kiva."

From what he can see, there aren't exactly campsites. Gray power hookup boxes stick up at odd places; there's a damp spot next to one that, hopefully, indicates the presence of potable water. Funky he can handle but this place looks as if it should be condemned.

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Alison Moore
P.O. Box 40745
Austin, TX 78704
(512) 393-9457
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