Heading south on the two-lane between Needles, California and Quartzite, Arizona, pulling my little camper trailer and listening to a fading radio station, I see a figure. Someone walking along the edge of the road. Not hitchhiking, carrying nothing, wearing a hoodie. Where the heck are they going, I think. Where did they come from? What’s the backstory? I am miles and miles from anything remotely town-like. Haven’t seen a side road or any sign of a house in a long time. Dry, forbidding desert to the rim of vision – creosote, ocotillo, distant barren mountains. I pass by, glance in the rear view. A man walking, head down, on his way somewhere.
It puts me in mind of the coyote I saw along the upper end of Topock Gorge of the Colorado River the day before. I was paddling the river in a solo canoe, had it to myself. It is a section of water that can be crammed with fishing boats, jet skis, weekend warriors, but not this day. Just me and the faint current and the tortured, jutting, volcanic rock. And there alongside, a coyote quietly padding along shore, paying me no mind, on its way somewhere. Or the beaver I saw earlier, rippling the water near shore under an elevated gas pipeline, doing whatever it is beavers do of a morning. Or the osprey perched on the high span of a highway bridge, studying the slow opaque river far below.
I am no different, beetling along under the winter sun, on my way to the next bit of water that beckons to my canoe hull, angling for places to park for the night. No different, except that I am buffered by my vehicle from the exposure to weather and whims of nature, by a jug of water and cooler full of food and phone close at hand. By the credit card in my back pocket, a piece of plastic loaded with way more information than I care to know, with the power to access fuel and shelter and food and whatever else I might desire. And beyond that, trailing along invisibly like another thing I tow, by money in bank accounts, a safety net of family and friends I can call in a bind, by the blind fortune of my place and time and station of birth.
A couple of days earlier I stopped in the old mining town, now tourist trap, of Oatman, Arizona, along storied Rt. 66, the ‘Mother Road’ as bikers call it. There among the daily drama of main street shoot-outs, rock shops, curio stands crammed with t-shirts and belts and jewelry and worthless trinkets, wild burros roam. They have their way on the streets, wander in and out of stores, get handouts of food, put their heads brazenly into car windows. They reminded me of the homeless stationed at a Wal-Mart, flying their signs – Anything Helps, God Bless. Every night the burros wander back into the desert, wild again, finding their shelter, their water holes, their arid pastures, like the homeless packing up and heading for the highway underpass.
On my way back up Topock Gorge the previous day, paddling to the boat ramp I launched from in the morning, I looked for a likely beach to stop and enjoy a final snack and a cup of tea from my thermos. I headed for a strip of sand, but noticed something dark and out of place. Plastic bag? Pile of garbage? Then it moved, straightened a leg. A man lying there, out of nowhere. I paddled closer. He lifted his head, looked down the length of his outstretched body at me. We studied each other, said nothing. I paddled by, looking for another spot. He put his head back down.
Today I am headed south, toward the border, where the fortunes of birth and circumstance come into sharp, fraught focus, where making ones way through the complicated thicket of life on one side is punctuated by conflict and threat and fear and overwhelming unknowns. Or, on the other, by days sheltered in RV parks, backed by credit and the near certainty that tomorrow will be much like today. All of it determined by an arbitrary line drawn on a political map.