From monsoon-type storms all night to 108-degrees by mid-morning. That is the life of a desert tramp, who for the most part had no idea where he was on any map.
Before each night, I’d lay out a stick or look for a point-of-reference to help me maintain my direction of travel. Since the sun came up in the east and set in the west, I felt sure I was always on track when it came to direction.
When it rained or there were no discernible fixed point on the horizon, I would stand and look to see where my shadow lay. The problem came down to not knowing exactly which state I was in – though in the end it didn’t really matter much.
After spending several nights under a plastic tarp, traveling one way or another, setting up and tearing down my camp, I began heading in a westerly direction. I was crossing a desert-scape with hills, dunes and rough scrub that left me disoriented most of the time.
Having stumbled across a highway, I decided that it would be the perfect orientation point, if I kept it to my left. That’s when I saw a windmill in the distance, so I veered to the north and headed for those whirling blades, as I figured their might be water nearby.
I was right.
As I broke over a crest of dirt, I saw slightly to the left and in front of me not only the windmill but a large body of muddy water. There were several birds, ducks, geese, and a gray heron, on the far side, using the muddy body and to be honest, I could hardly wait to join them from my side of the pond.
It was obvious that this body of water was part of a ranch or farm. The clay-lined pond had large rocks all around it, and save for a tiny squeak and click, the windmill appeared to be in good working order.
It also appeared to be slightly deeper in the middle than the outer edges and I was eager to dip my head in it and cool off. Unfortunately, there was no shade to be found in the area other than random brush.
As I drew closer, I encountered a four-strand barbed-wire fence, and having been raised around farms and ranches, I refused to trespass by climbing over or even under any kind of fencing. I didn’t fancy getting shot for trespassing.
Instead, I walked along the fence line with the hope of finding an opening. I also kept my eye on the windmill which was becoming increasingly smaller and smaller and farther behind me.
Feeling a bit hopeless because I could no longer see the blades of the spinning fan, it relieved me to find a man working along an open stretch of fence a few hundred feet ahead of me. He was ‘restringing wire’ that had either been torn down by off-roaders or a stampede of cattle.
I opted for the off-road vehicles.
The man doing the labor was older than me, I figured perhaps about 70, and seemed very limber. He looked at me with suspicion as I waved to him.
As he stepped back, I saw his hand move to his hip, where I noted the pistol he had on. I stopped and held up my hands, “I’d like to strike a deal with you.”
“What?” he gruffed at me.
“Can I help you with the fence for a chance to take a dip in the pond back there?”
“Why?” he asked, “You know how to string wire?”
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“Okay, you gotta deal — but if you screw it up…”
I dropped my rucksack and picked up the wire-stretcher and began working without another word.
For the next two-hours I steadily hung wire between the thick posts, letting the man rest. He sat in his old John Deere Gator, under a patio umbrella he’d rigged himself, watching my effort.
It took another hour to close the gap and drive home the final fence staple. By then I was extremely sweaty and looking forward to a long dip in the muddy water – as bargained.
“My name’s Hector Martinez,” he said as he climbed from the vehicle, “You can call me, ‘Heck.’
As I grabbed his hand to shake, I told him my name and for the first time he smiled at me. His teeth gleamed white against his darkened and weather-rough skin.
“You know how to bust your ass. So I been thinking –if you want, you can come up to the house where my wife is making supper, you can take a long hot shower in the bunk house out back, have dinner with us, drink some beers and sleep under a roof or you can stick to your original plan. Up to you.”
“I like your idea better.”
With two-hours remaining before supper, I used my time to wash up by taking a lengthy shower, shaving my facial growth, clipping my toe and finger nails and drinking cold water from the tap. I got redressed and headed towards the back door after I heard a woman’s voice call out, “Suppers on!”
As walked from the bunk house, which was actually a large glorified shed, towards the main house, the woman took one look as my filthy clothes and prevented me from coming inside. I figured that one of two things was going to happen; either I wasn’t getting supper or I was eating out on the back deck.
So it was a surprise when Heck came out from someplace inside the house and handed me a clean shirt and some well-worn jeans. He rolled his eyes and smiled as he handed them to me.
As fast as possible, I rushed to change and return as I’d caught the scent of food, wafting from the open door. My stomach growled as I wiped my feet and followed Heck to the dinner table.
It was hard not to eat too fast, being a famished as I was, and Mrs. Martinez’s cooking didn’t help matters much as it was superb. As I ate, I noticed that neither spoke while eating and I followed the same pattern.
Finally, Heck broke the silence, “What branch?”
“What branch did you serve in?” he repeated
“Air Force, then Marines.”
“I was too young for ‘Nam.”
“You didn’t miss much.” His comment came laced with pain and memories, but I didn’t press for details.
“Eat up and eat as fast as your face’ll move. Plenty more where that came from. Then we’ll have a couple of cold one’s and watch the sun set.”
“Thank you,” I replied.
Within a few minutes, I’d eaten so much that I thought I was going to be burst if I took one more bite. By leaning back, both Heck and Mrs. Martinez figured that I’d finished and they got up and she began to clear the table.
“Here, let me help,” I offered.
“No!” came the stern warning from Mrs. Martinez as I began washing the pans and plates.
Heck looked at me, smiled, walked across the kitchen to the refrigerator and withdrew four beers, two of which he handed to me. I followed him to the back door and outside, where I found two lawn chairs already set up and facing the west sky.
Following a few minutes of silence and after we pulled the caps from the beer and each sucked a few suds down, Heck asked, “So, why’re you running, son, and from what? Ain’t the law, I know that much.”
I coughed on a swallow of beer and looked over at the older man, who had somehow transformed himself from a iron-hard ranch foreman into a father-like figure.
“Don’t really know,” I answered.
“Life can be like that. Did some running myself. Got it out of my system though. Came home, went to work for my old man on this ranch. You gotta place to return to?”
“Don’t know that either.”
“Well, at any rate, you know how to string wire and that’s something. If you’re not in a hurry to get lost again, I got some work needing to be done. Can get you some fresh duds, food, camping gear, whatever. Choice is yours.”
He offered me the second beer, so I quickly swallowed down the rest of my first bottle. “Used to be a pretty good living – gotten harder with the boys working in the city,” Heck started.
Heck stared off into the distance, “I took over from my dad and thought at least one of my sons would take over from me. But they all got themselves fine educations, great paying jobs, families of their own. Can’t blame them.”
“You ever talk to them about this?” I asked as I began to feel the alcohol coursing through my blood stream.
“Yeah, a time or two,” he halfheartedly smiled.
“Sorry,” I said, letting our silence linger between us, allowing myself to enjoy the affect of my beer-buzz.
We continued to sit, making small talk, until the sun disappeared and the night enveloped us, save for the small yellow bulb that glared behind us, attracting swarms of noisy flying bugs. We also drank another beer each, courtesy of Mrs. Martinez and her ability to sense our need.
Between the two of us, we busted our ass’, fixing the gears on the windmill, eliminated the slight grinding sound that told they were wearing down. Not only did we patch up more fence line, we also patched up the side of an aging barn and even vaccinated the remaining head of cattle that ran on Heck’s land.
As we worked, Heck began to open up about his life experiences, his family history, his many disappointments, his joys and so did I. It was comforting to hear his voice and to know, though we of different generations, we weren’t that much different.
Unfortunately, we didn’t do anything from the back of a horse, but rather the Gator, which did make the work a little more comfortable. Twice though, we did saddle up, riding out after dinner, so he could show me his land and share his childhood memories filled with hard work and happy times
After five-days, I knew it was time to go, return to the road and continue on towards whatever lay ahead. Heck drove me to the town of Lakeside and in the parking lot of a Walmart, with a handshake and a one-hundred dollar bill, told me, “If you ever find yourself down this way again, stop in for visit. I’m sure I can find some work for you.”
After watching him drive away, the I turned and went into the store, where I bought a pair of Wrangler jeans, a short sleeve pocket tee-shirt, socks, underwear, rice, beans and a gallon jug of water. The $10.27 I had left over, helped pay for some of the groceries the woman and her two kids in line behind me had in their cart.