I’m waiting out what passes for a blizzard in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, with two people I love more than most any in this world: my best friend and my son. When the first flakes start to fall, Karen, Alex and I settle in at a table in the back room of the Western Bar & Café, where a pellet stove glows in the corner and every inch of every wall and ceiling is covered with dollar bills marked with patrons’ names or tender messages.
Cloudcroft is a tiny town with the highest elevation in New Mexico at 8,676 feet. When Alex drove us the 90 minutes from his house in El Paso, up winding mountain roads, it was impossible not to imagine early settlers maneuvering covered wagons over the treacherous terrain. These money-covered walls began as a lumberjack practice in the late 1890s. Men got paid on Friday and by Sunday they’d spent every penny on drinks. A benevolent barkeep suggested he save a portion of their cash for food; he put a name on each small wad and attached it to the wall. Later this evolved to customers putting up dollar bills with their names and then missives that are part graffiti, part fortune cookie. “I love you, mom.” “Bill Steward: hope you’re watching all your friends.” “Love yourself—no one will love you more.”
Our chatty bartender is more tour guide than mixologist. She tells us this dive bar’s history and says that one couple comes back year after year to put up a new dollar for their anniversary: 27 so far. I spot “Wes Loves Haylee, Haylee Loves Wes” and wonder if it’s them, but there are too many professions of love on these dollars to be sure. The Western’s website declares, “Join others in contributing to our walls with your own story.” You’re given Sharpies and a stapler, but you need your own dollar.
Since it’s a slow day, the bartender is testing winter drinks made with an overstock of peppermint. I tell her about my dad’s favorite, “Rooster poop,” equal parts Schnapps and whiskey. “It tastes better than it sounds,” I pitch. I notice a familiar name burned onto a tabletop: Leinenkugel’s, along with their iconic logo. We’re 1,385 miles from home. I point it out to the bartender. “That’s where we’re from,” I say.
Two days earlier I picked up Karen in Chippewa Falls, and we headed to El Paso for an early Christmas with my son. The first day we drove 14 hours and stayed at a hotel on the Kansas-Oklahoma border. The next day: eight more hours to Alex’s.
Until this trip, I’d never listened to a podcast. Faced with a 22-hour drive, I was ready. Karen puts on “Supernatural,” and I am instantly hooked. Each 30-minute episode tells some tale of the unknown, mystical, disappeared, or alien. At first I think it’s “X-Files” meets “Twilight Zone,” but host Ashley Flowers’ soothing voice and her staff of fact checkers make you believe. We listen through Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Texas. The highway flies by.
The open road is an American tradition, from Huckleberry Finn’s “Light out for the territory” to Jack Kerouac’s “We lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.” My first road trip with Karen was to Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Memorial weekend 1989 when I was 20. We left home with a small bag of clothes and our purses; we chain-smoked Marlboro lights and ate out of gas stations.
On our recent trip my Subaru was packed with one cooler each and enough food and clothes to get us through two journeys, all carefully nestled around a snowman that my father made for Alex when he was a boy. For years Dad hot glued plastic drink cups together and rigged them up with strings of lights as gifts for his kids and grandkids, friends and neighbors. Now that he’s dead, we treasure them as folk art. I’ve saved this toddler-sized snowman for two decades. Karen and I pull into Alex’s driveway with Frosty intact — including his top hat and corncob pipe — something just short of a Christmas miracle.
On our ’89 trip, Karen drove her manual Plymouth Horizon TC3 until she got tired. Then she tried to teach me to drive a stick shift on the interstate. That went about as well as you can expect.
This trip, there is no sleeping in a rest area, each of us with our feet out an open window. No State Patrol pulling us over and me crying and getting off with a warning. No stalled engine halfway through Minnesota, no pushing Karen’s Horizon down the off ramp and coasting into a gas station, then walking a dark highway to a motel.
That trip makes our recent one seem uneventful. My sister texts me, “Who is Thelma, who is Louise?” It’s our first hour on the road. I text back: “Do you know how the movie ends?”
This trip is more like “The Leisure Seeker,” a story of an elderly couple on one last voyage in their camper. Karen and I stop every 2.5 hours for a potty break. And we take in each bit of scenery. Everything in this desert landscape dotted with junipers and mountain vistas is beautiful to us. A falling star streaks through the night sky somewhere on a long stretch of interstate.
We listen to an intriguing “Supernatural” episode on reincarnation, embraced by one billion Hindus and by tribal societies around the world including 500 indigenous tribes in North America. They believe we travel in “soul groups” — those five to 10 close-knit people in our lives who show up over and over. Your beloved might take on a new role in your next life: best friend to sister, child to neighbor. It’s a comforting thought. At the Western Bar & Café, the energy from all these stories represented on thousands of dollar bills makes it easy to see that for anyone who has so much fun in this life, we surely want it to spill over to the next.
Karen, Alex and I drink more beer and watch the snow from this strange but cozy place. Flakes hit the boardwalk and dissolve, hardly a blizzard for us Wisconsinites. Before we go, I write “Chippewa kid” on my one-dollar bill and staple it up with the rest.