On our 2004 cross-country road trip, Nikhil was eager to go to New Mexico, where we had lived before he was born, to visit places and people we loved and had imbued with great romance in our stories to him.
After one night East of the Mississippi spent in a cheap hotel in Collinsville, Illinois (Horseradish Capital of the World) and another camping in the Guadeloupe Mountains National Park (home of the largest flowering yucca in the world); after the St. Louis Gateway Arch, Carlsbad Caverns, Sitting Bull Falls, and the first two of many glorious chiles rellenos dinners, we were headed for the Gila Wilderness, where Andrew and I had hiked and camped three times over the past thirty-odd years—most recently, twenty-two years before.
It was already twilight as, less than 72 hours after our departure from home, we were beginning the steep climb out of Silver City, the old Camry (whose air-conditioning had failed the day after we set out) straining with the load and its temperature gauge running alarmingly high. As dusk deepened, we began to realize that, even if the car didn’t overheat, we would be lucky to make it to the Gila in time to set up camp before dark.
Just as it was pitch-dark outside, a figure materialized on the road in front of us. Drawing closer, we saw in the headlights a lone woman frantically flagging us down. Of course we stopped and moved several bags and bundles to make room for her in the back with Nikhil. She scanned the area fearfully, immediately raising the anxiety index in the vehicle. She was clearly under the influence, of drink or drugs, we couldn’t tell, and it was also impossible to tell whether or not the story she told us was true. Apparently she had been at a Friday night campfire at the nearby campground with her boyfriend, when something had caused him to up and leave. It seemed that her greatest fear was not that he might leave her alone in the woods all night, but that he might return. She was desperate to get back to her place down in Silver City: could we drive her there?
We all knew that we wouldn’t have the heart not to fulfill her request, and yet we were reluctant and somehow filled with dread; reluctant because, with the car already on the brink of breakdown, this backtrack would further delay our getting safely up to the Gila, and dread-filled because we felt sure that we weren’t getting the full story, and we didn’t trust this woman, whose account of the circumstances of the evening kept changing by the minute. Nevertheless, we made a U-turn and headed back downhill toward Silver City, as our new passenger, between fervent protestations of lifelong gratitude to us, proceeded to spill out a long, garbled version of her life story, which involved major dysfunction on a number of counts and increased our unease by the minute.
She also told us about a debate raging in town. Apparently the outlaw known as Billy the Kid had been raised in Silver City, although it was not known where, or whether the woman who raised him was his mother or his aunt. Someone was now claiming to own the house once occupied by Billy the Kid’s mother/aunt and wanted to make a tourist attraction—and their fortune—out of it. These tales, tall or otherwise, did nothing to settle our qualms; instead, they raised even more doubts as to whether our passenger was in fact the damsel in distress she claimed to be.
As we approached the outskirts of the city, our hitchhiker warned us not to take the main road (“to avoid the police”) and began directing us toward her place by a circuitous route through back streets. Now that she had told us her story, her new refrain was that she wanted to repay us for our kindness by inviting us in “for a bite to eat or a shower.” Anxious as we were to get back on our way, we kept demurring politely, but she didn’t seem to take the hint. I was on the verge of agreeing to stop in—just for a minute, to use her bathroom—when Nikhil caught my eye and gave a sharp shake of his head. I got it, and when we finally reached the trailer, we made our apologies and hightailed it out of there as fast as we possibly could.
Breathing a collective sigh of relief, we speculated about the truth of the woman’s predicament and what ours might have been had we complied with her repeated requests to “stop in.” It might all have been a set-up, with her male accomplice lying in wait to rob us and steal the car as soon as we stepped into the trailer; we might have inadvertently fallen afoul of the Silver City police and spent the night in jail; or she might just have been a troubled young woman with a violent boyfriend, stranded in the dark on a Friday night, miles from home.
When at last we arrived at the Gila it was almost midnight, and we didn’t pitch our tents for fear of disturbing rattlesnakes and tarantulas, but bedded down in the car instead. Andrew and I woke in the small hours to a moonless night ablaze with stars, the Milky Way brighter and deeper and more dazzlingly multidimensional than we had ever seen. We roused Nikhil and all stood outside looking up at the sky for a long time, filled with awe. Nikhil turned to us and said, feelingly, “Mom and Dad, thank you for bringing me here.”
The light of morning revealed the ground carpeted with the same velvety sage-green horehound that we had found there more than thirty years before. We had forgotten all about it, but here it still was, untouched, flourishing in the clear desert air. Gratitude for the preservation of the wilderness!