My Ford Explorer that could was packed to the brim when I picked up Handsome. Handsome, who I gave that nickname in a purely heterosexual way many years earlier because he reminded me of Jon Voight in Midnight Cowboy, managed to fit a few more bags in the back and off we went. Away from Los Angeles and its mountains and gridlock and mythology.
I was headed to Miami. Handsome and I would part ways in New Orleans where he would by rail, bus, or thumb get to South Carolina. It had been eleven years since I’d driven from coast to coast and it seemed a good idea to have someone else in the car.
We made it to Palm Springs before we took our first break. We had a football we’d toss back and forth at every pit stop. Handsome mocked me when I locked the car door even though we were spitting distance from the vehicle. I reminded him, “Not everything you own is in that car.” It was kind of jarring when I put it in those words. Thirty two years on this planet and all my earthly possessions could now fit in the back of an SUV.
That thought reminded me of a friend in college who was moving from Tallahassee to Gainesville. He put everything in the back of a U-haul truck and drove the hundred plus miles when he smelled something burning. He pulled over to see the truck was on fire. In his rush to put out the flame he forgot to shut the door and his passenger, a loyal golden retriever, ran out of the truck and got run over on the expressway. When he told me this story I had no response but to laugh. To which he rightly chastised me, “You think it’s funny? You think any of these clothes I’m wearing are mine? They’re not. Everything I owned burned.” If a similar fate awaited us I trusted my passenger would not run into the middle of the road.
After a night in Phoenix where I caught up with some cousins we decided to take the scenic road. Instead of taking I-10 through Tucson, we went on Highway 60 to Highway 70 which was named affectionately the Old West Highway. This was the scenery that inspired a thousand Road Runner cartoons. You had the cacti, which Handsome told me took fifty years to grow every prickly arm. You had the giant mountains with the treacherous cliffs that bedeviled coyotes. You had the sandy brush and the rock formations that were more bizarre than one knows what to do with. We pulled over several times. once we trespassed through what seemed like an old cowboy poke. There were fences and a thirty foot tall weather vane. it looked like it could have been from the 1870s, but the fresh dung on the ground meant it was probably used much more recently.
At a certain point we saw signs reading Miami. We were not able to make it to my destination in one day. This was Miami, Arizona, a city which billed itself the copper capital. As we drove through the ugly town I noticed a foul odor. “This place smells terrible.”
“Must be the copper mines.” Handsome said.
That made sense. The Miami I was from never exposed me to much copper, but the scent didn’t seem like it came from the Earth. It was more reminiscent of my hometown’s sewage leaks. About thirty miles later the stench came back. “God damn, these copper mines.”
“Yeah, these copper mines are terrible.” Handsome said before cracking up and I realized the only minerals that were being dug up came out of his bowels. I opened the windows and drove for the next twenty miles with my head out of the car.