There is almost always a choice of routes to take. I’ve opted out of making a final decision. Whatever happens after we set off will be Jimmy’s fault. The interstate, a U.S. route, a state route, a county road, a farm road – his choice.
Traveling from Deming in southern New Mexico to Bisbee, Arizona, Jimmy took the scenic route, a pale pencil mark of a road in the road atlas, and he regretted it almost immediately as our teeth juddered in our heads and the trailer bobbed manically behind us on the rough road surface.
Struggling steadily uphill, we emerged onto a high plateau of desert where a huge azure sky formed a canopy to distant golden mountains. We were adventurers on a high sea of desert and we had this pristine landscape to ourselves. We settled into a companionable mutual admiration of our surroundings until hunger distracted us.
The narrow verge offered no place to stop but a picnic area was marked on the map just over the Arizona state line. We cruised until it came into view and . . . there was a car. Our desolate picnic stop was marred by evidence of humanity when we hadn’t seen another car for at least an hour.
The driver’s door of the car was hanging open, legs were dangling out of the passenger window and the hood was up. Something at the back of my brain struck me as odd that in 79 miles of deserted road this car was able to break down at the picnic area. And the lounging legs seemed a little nonchalant for potentially being stranded in the desert.
The paved picnic area was spacious so as Jimmy pulled off the road I dismissed my concerns and I began routing around on the back seat for the picnic bag, bottles of water, potato chips, a useless cell phone.
I had hopped into the trailer to retrieve some crackers when I heard, “Sir. Excuse me, sir. Do you have any water? We have overheated,” in Mexican-accented English.
“We’ve only got drinking water,” Jimmy replied.
Not wanting to seem uncharitable I didn’t care to waste our meager supply of bottled water into a possibly empty and leaking radiator. “I think there’s a little water in the tank. I’ll see if I can fill the kettle,” which I did and handed it out the door. I now saw a slender dark-skinned lad of about 22 with Jimmy and they walked across to a silver sedan where another lad stood. They were both dressed in jeans and checked, collared shirts and both spoke good English – just a couple of Mexican/American young men driving an American car – nothing unusual as we were no more than 25 miles from the Mexican border.
As I busied myself with setting up our lunch on the picnic table a faint unease settled over me. I heard the lads querying Jimmy about a Border Patrol checkpoint we had been waved through earlier in the day and the distances between there and the town of Douglas in the opposite direction. Didn’t they know which way they wanted to go?
Checking my phone, it was still searching for service so it was useless. I began calculating the distances between the trio at the silver car bent over the engine, myself, our car and trailer – both unlocked, my handbag, my keys and considered sprinting to . . . . . . where? What did I think I was going to do? Lunge for the car and scream, “Run!?” Uncertainty tinged with fear prickled through my body.
Jimmy loped back to the picnic table at this point, empty kettle in hand, and as he sat down beside me I tried to dismiss my misgivings. After a top up of cool water in their engine the boys had settled into their earlier relaxed poses.
Staring across at the boys who seemed to be out for an afternoon’s nap in the desert I asked, “Was the engine very hot?”
“No. It didn’t seem hot at all.”
“I don’t like this. Something’s not right. I think we should go.” Jimmy snatched a sandwich from me as I began to repack the picnic. He was ravenous and had more hours of driving ahead of him.
Just then the Border Patrol pulled up – a car and a van – in their distinctive livery of white with a bold green stripe. “Look at that Patrol car. They’ve hidden themselves behind our trailer.” Once the Patrol car was in place, the van did a swift u-turn and parked on the opposite side of the road. They were prepared for a pursuit in either direction. Fear should have kicked in, but curiosity got the better of me and anyway we weren’t in crossfire range.
Things were looking up now. An American citizen and a green card holder, passports at the ready in the glove compartment, we felt safe in the company of the Border Patrol so as I unpacked our picnic again, we watched the drama before us.
No one moved for a few minutes, as though the Border Patrol had just stopped for an afternoon break. Then a tall, dark, handsome Border Patrolman, in his uniform of green combat dress, his hips swinging with a black belt full of paraphernalia – revolver in a holster, radio, cell phone, night stick, hand grenade, no, not a hand grenade – now strolled casually over to the lads who no longer looked relaxed. “You guys haven’t gotten very far.”
“No. We’ve broken down.”
“What’s the problem?”
“The engine has overheated. We’re waiting for it to cool down.”
Which of course was not the truth but the rest of the conversation was lost as I attacked my salad of cucumber, celery and other noisy food that always makes Jimmy want to abandon me at mealtime so he didn’t hear any more either. The Patrolman strolled back across the road to his three colleagues and everybody just stayed put.
We ate lunch, the Border Patrol waited and the boys tried to pretend that none of us were there.
“Nope! No water!” the Patrolman shouted across to the boys after a few more minutes. Which couldn’t be the truth either. Border Patrol in the desert with no water?
Eventually the boys in the silver car sat up, slammed their doors, started the engine and pulled off slowly in the direction we would be going, calling out clearly to the group, “It’s cooled down now. We’ll just take it easy, not drive too fast,” and they coasted out of sight.
Happily the end of the show coincided with the last bite of our lunch so we prepared to leave. As we got to our car, the same man who had spoken to the boys approached us, “Have these guys been here long?”
“They were here when we got here.”
“How long have you been here?”
“About 20 minutes.”
“Was the hood popped when you got here?”
“Yes. They asked us for water too.”
“These cats are playing a game with us,” he said grinning, although I don’t think he found it amusing. “They’ve been cruising up and down this road all day.”
We came to the conclusion that the boys in the silver car were making a pick up – drugs? illegals? – when we became part of their plot. The hood was popped as a ready excuse and they even drew us in when they asked us for the water that they clearly didn’t need.
We set off no more than five minutes behind the silver car on the winding desert road that led only to Douglas, 40 miles away, with no turn offs and no more picnic areas, clear views in all directions for miles. Keeping up a steady 50 miles per hour we never saw them again.
How exciting it all was in hindsight.