The sun blistered the asphalt, and glancing down the road, it appeared as though the black rock might be boiling. The yellow-dotted lines atop the rock waved to-and-fro and disappeared into the horizon where the cacti blended in with some distant hill that wished it were more mountain than cinder cone jutting from the dirt. It would have to learn to accept that it was no mountain. The empty road missed the sweet sound of engine roar, as the wind teased it with the possibility that some purring car might be approaching from the distance. Yet, it was only a tease. The road, like the mountain, would have to accept that it would no longer caress the hustle-and-bustle of man or machine. Once upon a time, the soft rubber of wheel-after-wheel had pressed against this route, and the towns that had flourished settled into an uncomfortable silence. More than likely, such noises from the “past” were those that drifted on the winds from Interstate 40, the newly-paved stretch of road that had recently send Route 66 into lonely despair, declaring this desert land a land of ghosts, of memories slowly fading.
One lone service station – Roy’s Cafe and Gas – began serving no one, it seemed. Yet, it remained an empty oasis, waiting in hopes that it was not a mirage. Like a sanctuary with emptying pews, Roy’s never faltered to serve the dying congregation of the Eastern Mojave, despite the constant questions that arose. Who will come? Who will drink the waters of a spring destined to be dry? Who will preach to stale air and empty pews when even God stops listening?
…or so it seemed, that bleak summer of 1977, when the last service worker handed in his two-week notice and drove off toward the Interstate, toward a future, carrying the wind with him. That August night lay quiet, the air as dry as the desert dirt, and the next morning, Roy’s Cafe and Gas began collecting dust and rusting away, while tumbleweeds were all that graced the roads.
With silence and with sadness, years would pass.
Years would pass, yet while the rest of the world dimmed the night sky till not a star could be seen with naked eyes, old rusted, dusty Roy’s became a diamond in the ruff, where stars, like diamonds upon thousands, glittered from above, and those who rediscovered the old route, be it by luck or blessing, met a treasure from the past face-to-face, and it was there that I met her – not at night but in the glaring of the sun-shone day. In the most unlikely place, it seems, I saw those dazzling eyes – the treasure, hers (and one I longed to share).
I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about her on first glance that sent chills through my spine on this one hundred two degree afternoon. It is amazing, though, what curiosity can do to a man. Perhaps it was, ironically, what she did to my confidence. Her sweet glance and upright smile was enough to make me question my own existence, as though some power of hers overtook me, and I felt the presence of immortals, or – at least – remained convinced that she must be some part of this mirage town. Too perfect, too lovely, though real or not, I decided to believe out of hope in possibilities, and with my treasure map in hand, I approached my lone companion.
“What brings you to Amboy?” The first words out of my mouth – not too eloquent and still confused, as to whether or not this, indeed, was the lone, black dot titled “Amboy” on the map I carried.
She just smiled that smile that made something deep within me ache and cringe, “I could ask you the same thing, cowboy.”
“Cowboy,” I thought to myself – a fitting epithet for anyone traveling in these parts of the Mojave. The hood of her maroon Chevy was up, and the truck was rusted enough that I questioned whether or not it belonged to her or if it was merely part of this town and its past, too. Still, she (and the truck) seemed real enough, and I wasn’t yet thirsty enough to be delusional and hallucinating. Dirt covered her buttocks and the right leg of a pair of straight-leg jeans, suggesting she’d been crawling in the dirt, perhaps at work on her truck. Her hair was wavy, and the wind bounced it around, about her face, leaving me with only short glances into her eyes. To me, this seemed to be a good thing; I already felt lost enough, that to glance too long into those pearls of eyes, I might have never found my way home. The wind fit her perfectly, and I felt as though she had carried it and all of life with it back into this town in ways it had never known even in its forgotten days of “hustle-and-bustle.”
“You look lost,” she spoke again, and I felt she read me like the sorry prose I was.
I hesitated in my response, “I…got off the Interstate… ’bout fifteen miles back hoping to find a gas exit. I really need to fill my tank.” She had no idea how fulfilling I believed she could be, though. I had been empty for much longer than “ten miles back,” but it wasn’t my Ford Taurus that really needed filling.
“Well, unless you can make it to Twentynine Palms, which is about forty miles up the road, you may be out of luck, or…” she paused, “I have plenty of gas. We might can siphon some of mine, if that’ll help you.”
“No thanks, I think I’ll be okay….”
We stared at one another intently and with silence, as though we both awaited the other to speak first, scared of what might be said next and both hopeful that a few, certain words might lead us in a similar direction. It’s a funny thing how it is with love – always found in places unexpected. This old town, or what was left of it in Roy’s Cafe and Gas, drew us close, as if we were the only two people remaining on the earth, and both of us seemed to fancy that scenario, despite how ridiculous of a dream it might have been. Overlooking her knowledge of this area and those tight jeans I’d come to admire in our short time in Amboy, she was very clearly hiding how lost she also was in this dusty tumbleweed world, and she was much better at hiding it than I. Still, lost we were – I couldn’t help thinking we were only lost without each other. There was a solution here.
Instead of speaking, I broke our intent stare by opening my map and staring at it as intently as I had stared at her. “Well,” she said with a tinge of disappointment about her, “I should go.” She shut her hood, and climbed into her truck, and I felt more lost than before.
She turned the key. Fffd. Fffd. Fffd. Fffd.
It wouldn’t crank. There was hope yet.
She turned it again. Fffd. Fffd.
Still nothing, and a third try. Fate was on my side.
Yet, it seemed to tease me, as the truck started. Fffd. Fffd. Grrmmm, and almost immediately, she began to drive. Moving toward me at first with her window down, she peaked out, and with her mouth open, she began to slow down. Then, her lips closed, she smiled resolutely, and pressed the gas, speeding away. I watched her driving off and unable to watch her disappear into the blistering, boiling asphalt, I looked down at my map, sat against the dirty ground (my back against my Taurus), unsure of where to go, and full of regret.
Route 66. Amboy. Twentynine Palms. LA…or New York. Mexico…or Canada. Confidence…or insecurity. Lost…or found. Love…or a ghost town in the middle of nowhere California. The brown and blue of my map swirled together, and I felt sick to my stomach. What if her car hadn’t started? What if I had just spoken? What if my silly, normal map really had lead to some treasure? The wind picked up, and my “treasure” map, which was missing the “X” that supposedly marked the spot, slapped me in the face, toying with me. “The wind should have left me when she did,” I thought. Still, the map shaded me from the beaming sun, while the wind flapped it against my face, as it blew and teased me with noises from the Interstate – one of those cars, maybe hers. I understood a thing or two about life, and now I was the mirage, a part of Roy’s Cafe and Gas. From disappointment, I settled into anger – with myself and with this dirty little no man’s land. Frustrated, I tore the map of the great state of California away from my face.
And there she stood.
“The way you stare at that map, you’d think you were looking for a treasure,” she teased.
“I think I found what I was looking for,” I spoke without hesitation and joyous that she had returned as unexpectedly as having been here to begin with. I stood up and stepped closer to her smiling, and reaching out, I brushed my hand briefly across her wrist. She smiled and looked away, toward the sky.
“There’s Venus,” she pointed to the Morning Star, as our afternoon had been closing in for some time, “you know, they say the stars out here are like diamonds?”
I smiled, looked deeply into her captivating eyes, and finally spoke with more certainty than ever about where I…where we were headed, taking her hand in mind – this stranger who completed me so unexpectedly – “I’ve got nowhere to go but here.”