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Highway 61 Revisited

ISSUE:  Summer 2003

Summer was flooding the city highways
bathing sycamores below the savage tenements,
leafage flushed green, almost obscuring
the plastic grocery bags snagged in branch tops
flapping in the roadside wind, in the whine
of semis and buses and cars and vans
plastic shreds fluttering, prayer flags of the poor
as rackety apartment ACs hummed an AUM chorus
in the June cement heat, and I sped by, heading out
once more for the heart of the heart of the country
rolling down Highway 61, heading West and South,
lighting out again, away from fanfare and drumbeats,
the couples holding hands in their slow motion leaps
from the skyscraper windows billowing smoke.

In Midwestern farmlands rustling wheatcrowns,
spreading out with alfalfa and sorghum, sprouting corn,
I thought I was lost, in the crickets and songbirds,
but tire whine and bumper glare kept me on course
and when I picked up the soldier mugged in the bus station,
teeth kicked in, wallet taken, hitching back to base in Waco
to his tank repair unit readying for another Iraqi war
I knew I was on the right road, running like a lifeline
across the palm of America.

In Texas, I heard voices.
In the dead-ugly creosote basin of Midland-Odessa
where—all across the hot mesquite horizon—oil jockeys
pumped crude from the sandy wastes, and a billboard
boasted “Home of President and Mrs. George W. Bush.”
I had a powerful urge to pee and pulled off the highway.
Taking my whiz at an Exxon, then gassing up again,
I looked around when I heard a voice calling “Help me.”
Calling softly, “can you help me?” I looked around
and saw an elderly man in a battered Honda, door open,
big shoes planted on the greasy cement, looking at me.
“What do you need?” I asked, thinking maybe a few bucks,
but he wanted me to lift his legs into his little car.
Wooden legs, I could feel, heavy as cinder blocks.
“Where you headed?” I asked, as he turned the key,
but he just pointed his finger like a gun, said
that way, down Highway 61.”

That was enough for me.
I turned onto a less traveled blacktop running south
past volcanic peaks to Mexico and The Big Bend.
From my windshield to the horizon, dust-devils
swirled over the greasewood and yucca spikes,
whipping up little tornadoes of dust and grit
around the odd horse or pronghorns grazing with cattle
behind hundreds of miles of barbed-wire fences—a dry land,
old haunt of raiding Apaches, Comanches, Pancho Villa.

But tonight is the summer solstice and I am with friends
in this high desert border town rumbled by freight trains.
Outside the moon has risen over the Sierra Madres,
shining on burros shuffling through willows, below cottonwoods
along the Rio Grande, glistening on the backs of thumb-size
toads in the stone pans where water seeps in the canyons,
shining on the humble folk wading into Texas,
shining on the Border Patrols, on the DEA blimp,
shining on the bright empty ribbon of Highway 61,
loud with strange cries echoing across America.


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