My wife and I were driving south on Highway 54 from Alamogordo to El Paso. We’d spent the afternoon at White Sands and my brain was still scorched from the glare. I worried that I might even have done some permanent damage to my eyes. The sand is made of gypsum – whatever that is – and is as bright as newfallen snow. Brighter, actually. It’s quite unbelievable that anything can be so bright. Looking at that sand is like staring at the sun. The underside of my chin was burned from the sun bouncing up off the white sand. It’s a good name for the National Park, White Sands, though we thought the place a bit disappointing at first. The sand was a little discoloured, not quite white. Then, as we drove further, the sand started to creep on to the road and it became whiter and soon everything was white, even the road, and then there was no road, just this bright whiteness. We parked the car and walked into it, into the whiteness. It was hard to believe that such a place existed. The sky was pristine blue but the thing that must, that really must be emphasized, is the whiteness of the sand which could not have been any whiter. There was no shade to speak of but we sat and sheltered as best we could, huddled together under a sarong.
I said, ‘Life like a dome of many-coloured glass stains the white radiance of eternity.’
‘It’s like being dead here, isn’t it?’ said Jessica.
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘There’s no life. Hence the white radiance. Unstained.’
We would like to have stayed longer in that unstained wilderness but we had to get to El Paso that night. We walked back to the car and drove out of the park. Ideally one would spend at least a day at the aptly named White Sands but there was nothing we could do about it. Not that that made leaving any easier. It’s no good just having a glimpse of a desert, but if it’s a choice between a glimpse and nothing at all I would always settle for a glimpse. Frustrating though that is.
Jessica was driving. It was early evening. We were about sixty miles south of Alamogordo and the light was fading. A freight train was running parallel to the road, also heading south.
‘Hitch-hiker!’ I said, pointing. ‘Shall we pick him up?’
‘Shall we?’ My wife was slowing down. We could see him more clearly now, a black guy, in his late twenties, clean and not looking like a maniac or someone who smelled bad. We slowed to a crawl and took a good look at him. He looked fine. I lowered my window, the passenger window. He had a nice smile.
‘Where ya going?’ he said.
‘El Paso,’ I said.
‘That’d be great for me.’
‘Sure. Get in.’
He opened the door and climbed into the back seat. Our eyes met in the mirror. Jessica said, ‘Hi.’
‘’Preciate it,’ he said.
‘You’re welcome.’ Jessica accelerated and soon we were back up to seventy and drawing level once again with the long freight train to our left.
‘Where’ve you come from?’ I asked, twisting round in my seat. I could see now that he was perhaps older than I had initially thought. He had deep lines in his face but his eyes were kind and his smile was still nice.
‘Albuquerque,’ he said. I was slightly surprised. The logical way to have got to El Paso from Albuquerque would have been to go straight down I-25. ‘Where you from?’ he asked.
‘London,’ I said. ‘England.’
‘The Kingdom,’ he said.
‘Right.’ I was facing straight ahead again because I worried that twisting around in my seat would give me a cricked neck, to which I am prone.
‘I thought so,’ he said. ‘I love your accent.’
‘What about you?’
‘That’s where my mother’s from,’ said Jessica. ‘El Dorado.’
‘I’m from Little Rock,’ he said.
‘Like Pharoah Sanders,’ I said. It was a pointless thing to have said but I have this need to show off, to show that I know things; in this instance to show that I knew about jazz, about black jazz musicians. The guy, evidently, was not a jazz fan. He nodded but said nothing and we prepared to settle into the occasionally interrupted silence that tends to work best in these situations. We had established where we were all from and a pleasant atmosphere filled the car.
Less than a minute later, this pleasant atmosphere was changed absolutely by a sign:
do not pick up hitch-hikers
detention facilities in area
I had seen the sign. Jessica had seen the sign. Our hitch-hiker had seen the sign. We had all seen the sign and the sign had changed our relationship totally. What struck me was the plural: not a detention facility but detention facilities. Several of them. The notice – and I took some heart from the fact that the sign described itself as a ‘notice’ rather than a ‘warning’ – did not specify how many, but there were, evidently, more than one. I did not glance at Jessica. She did not glance at me. There was no need because at some level everyone was glancing at everyone else. As well as not glancing, no one said a word. I have always believed in the notion of the vibe: good vibes, bad vibes. After we saw the sign the vibe in the car – which had been a good vibe – changed completely and became a very bad vibe. This was a physical fact. Somehow the actual molecules in the car underwent a chemical change. The car was not the same place it had been just a minute earlier. And the sky had grown darker – that was another factor.