Don't proclaim the West is dead until you've met a Mexican motorcyclist with a wooden leg

 

My dirty little secret? The one boyfriends can't tolerate, the one my mother doesn't know about, the one true friends accept but don't approve of?

When I'm upset, I drive and drink.

Well, sort of.

Though it's not what it sounds like, it's probably not the recommended way for a young woman to cope with crisis. Nevertheless, a cycle repeats itself a few times every year: I erratically drive myself to the brink of exhaustion, seek clarity in the desert, then emerge from solitude into a small-town bar. Once settled onto a stool, I can sort out my own life by filtering through other peoples' stories.

I tend to sneak away from home, sticking to dirt or gravel roads as I can find them. As though on the lam, I avoid eye contact with gas station attendants and waitresses. The windows must be open and the radio off, and more often than not, the windshield wipers, horn and A/C are broken.

Confusion after college? I'm scraping my oil pan across sandstone-colored roads near Hovenweep in Utah. Failed brush with marriage? Suddenly I'm chasing the Pecos River down eastern New Mexico and standing, dehydrated and road weary, under an early spring moon outside of Carlsbad. Upset with my environmental consulting job? I'm lying in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains, blinking at what seems to be bear scat next to my sleeping bag. News that a friend has cancer? I'm waiting in the brown desert outside Towaoc, Colo., wondering which will start drumming first, an afternoon thunderstorm or Ute Mountain Bear Dancers.

While rattling across washboard roads, I shuck off the details of my life. Passing through overgrazed desert scrubland and abandoned towns knocks anything resembling self-pity out of my head. Twisted saguaros or blossoming ocotillos work to dispel any notions of ego.

Inevitably, I drive too far for too long, and exhaustion, more than the aesthetic appeal of one place over another, forces me to spend a few days camping alone until I lumber toward something resembling peace.

Then, after a few days of solitude - of skulking around the desert or the reservation - I hit the bars. After avoiding human contact, I seek the comfort of unpredictable conversation. Time and again, sanity has crept back to me after I've sat in a smoky bar while people I'll never see again take advantage of a stranger's ear.

Do not, by the way, proclaim the West is dead until you've confirmed it in a west Texas bar with a shady woman in a tennis outfit from Juarez, three cotton farmers with cowboy hats and bow-legged shuffles, and a Mexican motorcyclist with a wooden leg.

Nowhere but in bars have I found Westerners so eager to spill their stories. These strangers, most of whom I wouldn't know and might not like, lure me back into the world I've fled with their words.

They are war veterans and ranchers whose kids stopped paying attention to them, women who've supported themselves and their children as strippers or cashiers, people who have known little more than hard work, occasional love, heartbreak and sometimes, a touch of trouble with the law.

I've learned two things: Never turn down a drink and never turn your back on a good story. Chat with the old fellows hunched along the bar and the stringy-haired women chain-smoking and playing darts, sit down with the couple at the jittery table with the stack of napkins under one table leg, ask the bartender how he's doing, and talk to the waitress who's sick of all the jukebox tunes.

My favorite stories are always the simple ones. There's the guy who moved to New Mexico as a kid and thought he'd get to ride a horse to school. A woman who joined the military in the 1950s because she wanted to travel the world. A grandfather who fought in two wars and wonders if he made a better world for his children.

I've learned, on these manic trips, that the desert twilight is more satisfying than any relationship I've ever had. That nocturnal sounds of shapeless critters around camp take precedence over fears of fiscal responsibility or career advancement. I've learned that a third-generation rancher and a 20-something environmentalist can sit down over whiskey and talk to one another like old friends. That an afternoon monsoon can make an entire bar whoop with joy. And that life is harder for some of us than others.

Then I can clean up the car, turn on the radio and head home to face that ex-boyfriend, lame job or bad news. I know that when I need it, somewhere out there, waiting for me, is a whole lot of desert and a bar full of strangers.

Laura Paskus is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado, where she is one of the paper's interns.

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