June 2008: It’s already hot as we leave the hotel in the morning in Ehrenberg, Arizona, and cross the state line into California.
We’re looking for a gas station because the one next to the hotel was packed with cars and some of the pumps weren’t working, which guaranteed sweaty, irritable waits. We’d endured soul-killing heat throughout Arizona and I was too tired to fill up the night before.
The bike has enough fuel to get us into Blythe and we sail across the Colorado River bridge on I-10, getting no relief from the heat even over water. The sun is glaring. I pull into the first station, an Exxon just off the highway. It’s on the edge of agricultural fields that are baking in the heat, dry, dusty acres impossibly kept alive only by irrigation.
It’s about 105 degrees already and the air is still and dry. Even the cement of the road looks bleached. “How could anyone live here?” I wonder.
There is little relief even under the awning over the pumps. Linda gets off the bike and heads for the store. I pull the bike onto its centerstand, put my helmet on top of the gas pump, and fumble for the credit card.
While filling the tank I look around. There’s a small green metal shed with doors standing open that’s filled with old soda and beer cans. A collection point of some kind. A forlorn motel sits next door. The station itself is quiet and nearly deserted, only one other car or two.
I finish refueling and Linda returns. She stays with the bike as I go inside to use the restroom. When I come out, she’s talking with a woman who has seen the bike and wandered over, curious.
She’s deeply tanned and dressed to be looked at, sunglasses, sandals, shredded cut-offs, and a ragged shirt tied up under her breasts, leaving her belly bare. You can’t help but notice her muscular physique, like a female weightlifter, but there’s something wrong, because she looks wasted somehow, as if she’d spent a week in rehab before being kicked out. “She’s going to ask Linda for money,” I think.
But she doesn’t. Instead she’s telling Linda most of her life story, how she was a bodybuilder in California and did pretty well, but then had some sort of medical problem that required brain surgery and a plate in her head.
She and her husband stay at the motel next door after he lost his truck driving permit and they’re collecting cans and she should be taking medication but the medicine doesn’t really work for her so she drinks beer instead, calling it self-medication. Linda gently suggests this may not be a good idea, and the woman says she knows, but…
I catch movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to see a Hispanic man, a little older than me, pulling a kid’s wagon with a makeshift awning on it — four sticks and a towel stretched above. It’s piled with junk and cans and two small dogs are sitting in it, in the shade.
They have to be dying out here, I think, and the man pulls the wagon up to the hose at the station’s side and gives the dogs some water. They drink and he goes inside.
The bodybuilder is telling Linda she knows the man and that he collects cans, and she and her husband look after him. The man comes outside carrying a small bag of ice, which he puts in the wagon.
I search the pockets of my riding suit, looking for cash because I have to give this guy something, anything. And I don’t have a damn thing on me. I used up the last of my cash late last night in Ehrenberg because the truck stop’s credit card machine wasn’t working and we were buying food.
I find only four sad crumpled dollars but take them to the man. I put them in his hands and say “Vaya con Dios, señor,” the only Spanish I know, and in English he says, “in the name of Christ Jesus, amen,” and I walk back to the bike, ashamed of the four dollars, ashamed I can’t change anything for him, ashamed that I’m leaving him and his dogs in the heat.
The bodybuilder says good-bye and we climb back aboard the bike and I watch the Hispanic man leave. Where he is going I can’t imagine but later I will find him, again and again, burned into memory as he pulls the wagon and the dogs sit resigned and the ice bag melts, down the silent bone-white road, in the heat, in the sun, in the heat.