I wrote this on July 29th while driving with my roommate through New Mexico. We were taking my Hyundai Santa Fe to Santa Fe, crossing an item off my summer bucket list.
The broken white lines and telephone poles zip past.
New Mexico’s landscape rises and falls, grasslands and scrub brush.
The mountains are distant and we’ve not yet hit the desert.
And I think about road trips made my Papaw and Mamaw Hale, in the wide sedans we used to sail like ships across the hill country highways of Central Texas.
Papaw was Truman Preston Hale, a true Texan, a man of deep love and few words.
Tall with vice grips for hands, made strong by decades of hard work, but a mechanical mind every bit as sinewy despite only a few years of formal education.
His weathered but warm face was always crowned with a Western hat, felt in the winter and straw in those brutal Lampasas summers. A Stetson Open Road is what I remember though I don’t know that he had a preferred model.
He always looked forward to seeing us, always made a point to full his pockets with loose change, soft orange candy peanuts, chewing gum and hard butterscotch candies wrapped in cellophane.
He never went far without a coffee can for spitting tobacco juice into, and he always had a pocketknife at the ready.
Those same vice-grip hands were equally at home fishing, shelling pecans from the tree in the yard, fixing cars, hand-mixing the world’s best milkshakes with just a spoon and a tall aluminum glass, or giving a 6-year-old grandkid’s knee a squeeze on a road trip as we zipped through small towns like Hico, Evant and Adamsville.
He took my dad on road trips as a boy. They saw the Grand Canyon and who knows what else, my dad, no doubt sitting like I did – staring at the lazy gliding buzzards in those impossibly vast Southwestern skies. Maybe he gave my dad a wink and a squeeze on the knee or a tousle of his hair – my Papaw’s love language I guess.
We never talked much. But I always knew where I stood with him, nonverbally. Still, I would have loved a day inside his head, or to take a trip like this and see the land through his eyes.
I remember my last few visits with him, in a nursing home in Temple. He was moody from the pain and didn’t want to eat the bland food. A notoriously picky eater with a cast-iron stomach, I can’t count the times I saw him consume meals of just tamales and piping hot black coffee.
I tried to have the conversations there that we didn’t have before. I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember and now I teach kids how to write and tell stories, so I place an enormous value on words. But it seemed forced and he was in pain sometimes and seemed confused at others.
And we didn’t need the words anyway. We knew where the other stood, I believe. Right until the end. I would rub his silver hair on top of his head, up where the Stetson Open Road used to sit, and pray silently.
And every now and then as I’d walk by his bed, I’d feel a light tap on my knee, and when I’d turn to see him smiling, I could read every word on his face.
The road stretches on and we’re still an hour or more from Santa Fe. Dramatic clouds fill a towering sky, in every direction, as far as I can see.
My face and t-shirt smell like Old Spice aftershave. I was running low on my more expensive cologne and saw the familiar bottle in the grocery store. If it was good enough for Papaw, it will do the trick for this trip at least.
I’m in the passenger side as my good friend has driving duty and I’m still full from lunch of coffee and green chile stew.
I want to lay back and rest my eyes, so I cover my face with a Texas Rangers ball cap. Can’t help but think an Open Road would do this job better.