No Close Encounters of Any Kind

He tells me he’s driving a transport van instead of a truck because the Border Patrol is now sending pretty much everyone it apprehends right back to Mexico, as quickly as possible. “Expel” is the Trump Administration’s choice of verb. It has taken the pandemic as an opportunity to effectively seal off the border to asylum seekers; unprecedentedly, even unaccompanied children haven’t been spared. “Asylum is cancelled,” is how the agent interprets and articulates this. The policy is a violation of the Refugee Act of 1980.

At a certain point in the pandemic, finding synonyms for empty feels beside the point

Photograph by the author.

There’s a “You Can’t Close America” rally at the Texas State Capitol, not far from where I live. Twelve days later, the governor will lift his stay-at-home order. I take an alternate route to avoid the protesters. I’m out trying to find Soylent and crackers and gloves for fueling. I don’t want to be doing this, preparing to drive across the desert in a pandemic. My boyfriend and I are in the process of separating, a casualty of quarantine or an inevitability hastened by it. I’ve hardly left my neighborhood in over a month, and to be alone feels right. To trade stasis for headlong movement does not. I’ll be spending the next few weeks in Phoenix, where I grew up, one thousand miles away. Fifteen hours not counting stops. I’m not taking much: enough books, one suitcase, important reporting notepads, and my dog Laszlo.

It’s raining when Laszlo and I leave Austin the next morning. The goal is to make it to El Paso before dark, about nine hours. Digitized signs over the highway warn: NO CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF ANY KIND. There are few vehicles. The rain stops once Hill Country begins: ranch gates, bluebonnets, live oaks, ashe junipers. Signs abound for fresh peaches, but the farm stands are empty. We enter Blanco County, home of Lyndon B. Johnson. I spot TRUMP 2020 and VOTE REPUBLICAN, PROTECT YOUR FREEDOM. We cross the Pedernales. Fredericksburg, a kitschy town never not teeming with tourists, is empty. (At a certain point in the pandemic, finding synonyms for empty feels beside the point.) There’s a sign protesting the pipeline that will run through Hill Country to deliver natural gas from West Texas to the Gulf Coast—MOVE THE PIPELINE, it says, which is different from stop. I see a Confederate-flag decal on a pick-up truck. A group of men in flip-flops and swim trunks buy six-packs of Lone Stars at a gas station. A car hauls a motorboat. Laszlo barks.

We pass a grassy hill with the word SMILE spelled out on it in white. The live oaks disappear as the hills become plains. Highway 290 meets Interstate 10, which will take us all the way to Phoenix. We stop for fuel at an ALON gas station in Junction—lapsus oculi, I keep seeing ALONE. I’ve never driven to West Texas by myself. There’s PRAYING FOR THOSE WHO ARE SICK outside a flooring store across Main Street. Back on I-10, exits for places once enjoyed together rush by: Marathon, Big Bend, Alpine, Marfa, Balmorhea, Guadalupe Mountains. We cross the Pecos. The plains become desert. There’s an 18-wheeler with YOLO in cursive on its side, a sign that says WITH GOD ALL THINGS ARE POSSIBLE, and an advertisement for a Basic Faith-Based Motel. In the distance, I see a man standing too close to the side of the road. It’s a scarecrow, I realize, in a hoodie sweatshirt.

I start Rachel Cusk’s Outline on Audible. I stop listening after the first chapter only because I want to discuss it with the man I left behind, which makes me feel miserable. I listen on repeat to a voice memo I recorded of one song at a Kamasi Washington concert before everything stopped, the last crowd. We enter Mountain Time and the desert seems to soften.

We reach El Paso at seven. The view of Ciudad Juárez from the highway is a childhood memory, the letters spelling out CD JUAREZ LA BIBLIA ES LA VERDAD LEELA in white on the taupe slope above the city. The Franklins opposite the Sierra de Juárez, mountains poised across the border from each other. I prefer this desert, the Chihuahuan, to the Sonoran, where I’m from. The sky is more expansive here, but the palette is subtler. It looks less like a postcard.

The streets of downtown El Paso are deserted. I apologize to the man working the hotel front desk for being out here, out of lockdown. He’s wearing gloves but no mask and tells me he is grateful for the business. He says there are ten other guests here now, which is the most they’ve had since this all started. He gives me half a bottle of wine for free. There are three people—unmasked men who seem to be friends or brothers—in the lobby when I arrive, but I’ll see no other guests. At ten-thirty, the dog needs to pee and we walk a few blocks to find a patch of earth. A masked man who appears to be homeless crosses Texas Avenue. There’s a brightly lit corner store with glass windows and a handsome display of wedding dresses, a Hopper scene with mannequins in chiffon instead of diners. When we return, a man in a suit whom I’ve not yet seen is spraying different sections of the lobby with what must be cleaning solution. He opens the door for us but doesn’t speak.

Laszlo wakes me up a few times in the night. The window in our room looks out to a Wells Fargo, and in the morning he barks at the people lined up outside the ATM, all standing six feet apart at intervals marked by red tape. I feed the dog in the parking lot. The man now working the front desk comes out to ask me about my stay. He’s taken off his mask and gloves and we stand twelve feet apart. He points out the tall Deco building down the block where, the rumor goes, Elizabeth Taylor stayed when she got a divorce in Juárez. He’s an owner of this hotel and everyone he knows, he says, is either begging him to stay home or begging him to come to work. He tells me he’s emotionally exhausted and that he drank too much last night. He speaks of the twenty-nine Covid-19 deaths so far in Juárez, thirteen of them workers in maquiladoras. The border has been closed to nonessential travel since March 21; today is April 20. Laszlo sunbathes between us. It’s the first real face-to-face conversation that I, a journalist, have had with a stranger in several weeks.

We leave. There’s a sign for the Rio Grande, which stops being the US-Mexico border at the edge of El Paso, the end of Texas. We cross the river. People like to say that everything in Texas is bigger, but driving west on Interstate 10 through New Mexico, the signs are huge: WESTERN SKYS RV PARK; OUR JEWELRY LOOKS GOOD WITH EVERYTHING OR NOTHING AT ALL; PISTACHI-OHH!. One sign will keep reappearing every 50 miles or so, all the way into Arizona, a yellow one that says, or asks, THE THING? in a font intended to look spooky.

In Las Cruces, a sign warns PRISON FACILITIES IN THIS AREA: PLEASE DO NOT PICK UP HITCHHIKERS. Ten minutes later, we pass a hitchhiker. We refuel at a Love’s, where I notice an impossibly large flowering yucca and several tanker trucks, the biggest marked Halliburton. Truckers are wearing masks and I wonder which ones are hauling oil and where. In a few hours, when the markets close, I’ll get a news alert that West Texas Intermediate has hit minus $37.63 a barrel, the first time on record that U.S. oil prices have dropped below zero.

We slow down at the Border Patrol checkpoint. I ready my bandana mask and roll down my window. Only one lane is open for cars, and mine is the only one in it. Two agents wave me through without asking any questions, a first. Commercial trucks go through a separate part of the inspection station; there are a couple of tractor-trailers stopped and another is approaching. Usually there would be more—I-10 is the southernmost cross-country highway in the nation, running from Jacksonville to Santa Monica. Truckers I know have been telling me that freight is slowing way down, that companies are laying off drivers: essentials only.

I need some cold water for the dog, who is panting. We stop at the Akela Flats Trading Post. The exterior is flat stucco painted in bright detail to look like an old western town: O’lopry Hotel, Produce, Saloon, Dentist. The cashier says there’s been no business. There are display boxes of jewelry made in the Navajo Nation, several hours north, where the coronavirus has already killed forty-five people. Its death count will more than double over the next three weeks. I buy myself a $30 lapis ring, a bag of salt and vinegar chips, and Laszlo’s water. I start to wonder why I’m telling strangers why I’m driving across the desert. I’m not that open of a book; I just feel that movement in a pandemic necessitates an explanation. The cashier tells me my dog is welcome to come inside; I tell her he’s too anxious. A man wearing something just shy of a cowboy hat tells the cashier “Drive recklessly and don’t get caught!” as he walks out. The cashier tells me to buy myself an amethyst here on my way back to Texas.

A beat-up truck wears the bumper sticker IF YOU CAN READ THIS YOU’RE IN RANGE. I talk over the phone with friends; for them to hear me I have to shout. Laszlo and I speed through pistachio groves. I haven’t seen highway patrol or police since El Paso. There are salt flats here. To stumble upon a salt flat is a rare, beautiful thing—a field of eggshell-colored sand interrupting a landscape in which it looks like it doesn’t belong. The flats are bisected by the Interstate; one half is flooded. GUSTY WINDS MAY EXIST, yellow signs warn, DUST STORMS MAY OCCUR. The dog is whining to pee and I turn off I-10 toward the flooded side of the flats. A tan sedan turns before me. It stops in the middle of the road. I wait. I honk. After fifteen seconds, it moves.

We park next to a Border Patrol van. A blond agent in green, unmasked, mid-thirties, emerges. We stand about twenty feet apart. He acknowledges the dog, whose fur matches the sand. I ask him if there’s always water on this part of the flats—there’s not; this is rainwater from a month ago. He tells me he’s driving a transport van instead of a truck because the Border Patrol is now sending pretty much everyone it apprehends right back to Mexico, as quickly as possible. “Expel” is the Trump Administration’s choice of verb. It has taken the pandemic as an opportunity to effectively seal off the border to asylum seekers; unprecedentedly, even unaccompanied children haven’t been spared. “Asylum is cancelled,” is how the agent interprets and articulates this. The policy is a violation of the Refugee Act of 1980. The sedan that stopped in the middle of the road drives by slowly, windows down. The driver is an old man. The agent says scouts for smugglers have Border Patrol locations on Waze. We talk a little more about smuggling because it’s something I’ve been researching on a different part of the border; but I’m not here as a reporter and there’s broken glass too close to where the dog is standing. The atmosphere feels increasingly unreal. The agent tells me I should take the exit for Douglas and go the back way through Bisbee and Sonoita, which will add two hours to the drive to Phoenix—worth it for the views. “Sorry your boyfriend is being a dick in the pandemic,” he shouts as Laszlo and I walk away. “No,” I shout back, “it’s not like that!” We don’t go the scenic route.

A white tractor-trailer with JESUS in red caps on its side drives ahead of us across the flats. The letters roll across the monochrome. There’s an exit for a place called Road Forks. It’s hot and sunny and it looks flooded ahead but that’s a mirage. More signs for THE THING. We cross into Arizona, another hour behind because the state doesn’t observe Daylight Savings Time. Outside Tombstone, there’s an advertisement for a historical reenactment of the O.K. Corral—the man on the billboard (I think he’s supposed to be Doc Holliday) points his pistol at the Interstate. The saguaros start, arms wide, my primal landscape. As we approach Tucson, signs blink overhead: KEEP YOUR DISTANCE ON THE HIGHWAY AND IN PERSON. There’s more traffic here than feels appropriate.

I see the edge of the airplane graveyard, also known as the boneyard—a big tract of desert littered with the carcasses of military aircraft. They look like beached whales. As a kid the sight always filled me less with wonder than with sadness, like some planes got into heaven and these ones went straight to hell. There’s a quiet ruthlessness to the more desolate parts of southern Arizona, the sorts of places where a person might go to not be found, where the terrain is indifferent to human life. One time I was driving out here with my dad and we passed a cluster of a dozen or so white crosses stuck in the dirt off the side of the road; we stopped and walked over to look. Unmarked. On the same trip, we drove by an enormous biker rally in a parking lot between Tucson and Nogales; we stopped at that too, but did not walk over. The dog and I pass an abandoned planned community, an exit for Sunshine Boulevard, and a teal and white 18-wheeler whose door says Moonlight Express Transport. YOU DO YOU (a casino advertisement). RESORT-STYLE SENIOR LIVING. Florence follows Eloy, motto “The Intersection of Value, Location, & Opportunity.” There are five immigration detention centers and six prisons between the two towns.

Forty-five minutes from Phoenix, I find a rest stop with open bathrooms. The last two gas stations I tried had closed theirs. I wonder where all the people at this rest stop are going. Laszlo gets a thorn in his paw. I let him sit in the front seat for the rest of the ride. I see a MARK KELLY U.S. SENATE bumper sticker—he’s the former astronaut married to Gabby Giffords, the Congresswoman who in 2011 was shot in the head while meeting constituents at a supermarket in Tucson.

We drive into Phoenix and Camelback Mountain appears, an orange mound in middle of the city with a tiny rock that jets up on one side that people call the praying monk. It looks like a figure kneeling in prayer, palms together, head down. I appreciate the flourish. It reminds me how Phoenix’s natural landscape is as jarring as much of its built environment is bland: stucco; metallic-windowed four-story office buildings; ranch houses and the McMansions that are replacing them; an amalgamated suburbia. I turn off the Interstate. It’s rush hour and there’s no traffic. I roll down all the windows. Laszlo sticks his head out into air that is hot and dry. A car waits, windows up, at a drive-thru Covid-19 testing site at a medical clinic that shares a roof with Blossom Tree Hair Design.

We reach my parents’ neighborhood, a town within the city with street names like Starlight and Sapphire and Superstition. The telephone poles are disguised to look like saguaros and really do. Most of the oleanders are dying, their vascular systems destroyed by a bacterium whose vector is a flying insect called the smoke-tree sharpshooter. I remember a girl with whom I went to elementary through high school; she died a few years ago after ingesting oleander leaves. People are riding bikes but I don’t see anyone walking. Whether that’s because of the heat or social distancing, I’m not sure. I’ve not spent more than a few days in a row here since 2012. I have no real context for the emptiness of this place, nothing to measure it against. I tell myself I’ll return to Austin before too long. We pull into the driveway and I remember that I never noticed which exit to take to see THE THING.

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