CHAPTER 25

Hunger Strikes


New Mexico. As we approached its border, the state greeted us with two episodes—one so old that it was becoming a nuisance, the other a "first ever" in our thousands of miles of travel.
Episode Number One came in the form of another vicious rainstorm, which drove us into a culvert for shelter until the thirsty desert had drunk its fill and the runoff started. A torrent of flood water drove us back out into the storm.
That, believe it or not, was luck! Within five minutes a Dodge car skidded to a stop.
"Hello, boys. I'm going to Lordsburg."
Muddy and wet, with beads of water dripping from the brims of our hats until we could scarcely see, we bundled into the back seat.
"There's the state line," our host said almost immediately. "That makes your 18th state."
Through the still dripping beads of rain water Win and I looked in amazement at him, then at each other.
"Why, you...you are...Mr. Jacobs," Win stammered.
Wiping the rain from my face, I took over where Win left off. "You carried us into Tombstone. Then picked us up again out of Bisbee."
"Three lifts, and we didn't even recognize you," blurted Win apologetically.
"This has never happened before," I exclaimed. "Three lifts from one person."
"I can't blame you for not spotting my car. Back in Bisbee it was clean. Now it's just one mess of mud."     Then Mr. Jacobs added, "I hardly knew you, either. Back in Bisbee you were pretty clean, too." Before we could reply, he continued again. "You told me Arizona was the 17th state on your list. I sure didn't think I'd be carrying you into your 18th."
Mr. Jacobs carried us all the way to Lordsburg. He didn't even get stuck once; didn't have a puncture or a blowout. There was no way to repay this triple-time host except to emphasize to him, once again, that he was one of a kind in our 18 states of travel so far.
East of Lordsburg, one type of desert storm took over for another. There had been no rain here. This was a blizzard of sand. The wind was whipping it until it filled the air. In places, deep sand almost obliterated the trail.
New Mexico seemed to be favoring us with trios. A third ride with one host. Three types of storms—rain, wind, and sand. And now, in late afternoon, a third change came over the landscape.
We dropped into the fertile irrigated valley of the Rio Grande and desert gave way to waving fields of hay and grain. At pretty Mesilla Park, near the home of the New Mexico Agricultural College, we struck the paved road which led to El Paso, forty-five miles distant. A fast ride in a car full of Mexican-Americans soon put us in our 19th state, our trail crossing the Texas line fifteen miles out of El Paso. After three hours in the library writing diary and letters, we rolled up in our blankets behind a huge scoop shovel in the heart of the city.
El Paso had the name of being one of the toughest towns on the border. It certainly seemed lively enough. We were browsing around the Mexican quarter planning on eventually crossing the International Bridge into Juarez, when a Mexican sitting in front of a store spoke up.
"Don't you want to leave your baggage here while you go across the border?" he asked. The hesitation on our part was quite obvious, so he spoke again. "I'm the man who brought you into town last night." All hesitation evaporated. We had been looking for a place to leave our packs, coats, and hats, for we wished to appear as little like soldiers as possible. Here was the chance.
A toll of two cents was charged to cross the International Bridge. The Mexican official with whom we did business at Juarez, Chihuahua, was a pleasant young fellow who spoke Spanish, but who could swear beautifully in English. Ten minutes were spent in trying to prove we were only Boy Scouts and not U.S. doughboys.
Juarez, in the daytime, was a typical Mexican town—far different from Tijuana. It was only at night and on Sundays that the American element swarmed over and took the throttle.
On our return across the border the American immigration insisted we go down with the immigrants and take a steam bath to rid ourselves of disease. We were equally insistent that we shouldn't, for we had had a bath less than two months before. Reason won and we were allowed to pass unbathed. Picking up our packs, we thanked our new El Paso friend for guarding our possessions during our brief visit to Mexico.
After leaving El Paso we headed north toward the center of New Mexico and before dark were picked up by a drunk who was driving through to Hot Springs, a hundred miles to the north. He demanded that we show him our recommendations before letting us in, but as he couldn't read we read them for him and made them plenty flowery enough.
For hours we traveled through the irrigated valleys of the great Elephant Butte project.
Our drunken driver, who kept himself awake by taking an occasional eye-opener, pushed the car through the night at a rapid rate. Once in a while he would see a bridge coming down the road toward him and would attempt to turn out to let it pass, or at least that is what we surmised from the near accidents that packed every hour.
At midnight our driver dropped us on the banks of the Rio Grande del Norte near Hot Springs, New Mexico. Every hair of our heads was in its original place and still of the same color. Despite the fact that we had left El Paso in late afternoon we had made 135 miles for the day.
Next morning our departure was delayed. Oversleeping was one reason. Taking far too long to cook and eat a hearty breakfast was another. Then we had spent time talking with the invalids who had come to partake of the famous waters at the hot springs. Thinking supplies would be available at the Elephant Butte Dam—our next objective—we left with only a handful of rice and two boiled eggs.
A local resident told us that the shortest way to reach the dam was to leave the road and cut across the mountains several miles till we saw the lake. Taking a look at our compass for direction, we struck out, running through valley depressions or climbing over rock masses. At times we had to help each other, but generally could climb swiftly alone, using both hands and feet in the ascents. A last steep slope and our struggle was well rewarded.
A sweeping view of the dam, the great impounded lake, the immense island buttes, all opened before us. In the immediate foreground was the monster old butte in the form of an artificial island from which the dam received its name.
Slipping, sliding, running, jumping, we worked our way down the mountainside to the great pile of concrete masonry which we crossed to the eastern side. Camp was made in a concealed niche in the rocks. There was little need for concealment, however. Not a soul nor a habitation was anywhere to be seen; not even a place to
stock up on provisions.
Our breakfast had been hearty so, although we were hungry after the strenuous exercise, it seemed wisest to preserve the two eggs and few grains of rice until a future meal.
The sun was just pouring its liquid rays down the mountain when we arose next morning. A fearful wind was already lashing the lake into frothy swells as we headed out on the branch trail which would lead us to the main Socorro road.
Ever since entering New Mexico the wind had blown a steady, enervating gale. According to the old timers it would continue to blow all spring. The nastiest gale Michigan ever had would be called a gentle zephyr here. In this country people neglected to put windows in the west sides of their houses, and long brace poles met the ground on the east sides. All that was needed for a quick trip into the next county was a strong umbrella and a jump into space.
When we attempted to eat the two lonely eggs in our packs there was little pleasure in crunching and grinding the silica-covered fodder. So much for the wind. It was here we learned to swear.
The day wore on but still no ride, no ranch house, no supply station. The two boiled eggs plus a peck of dirt was all we had eaten since the previous morning at Hot Springs. The half bowl of sugarless, milkless, half-cooked rice made our next meal. Our stomachs rebelled and returned the rice to the desert, but we felt stronger anyway and stumbled on until dark.
Water was at a premium. We hadn't had a drink since morning. Walk as we might, no friendly rancher's light broke the vast expanse of desert, so as the moon began to show its silvery light we lay down in the sagebrush and tried to sleep.
It was our custom on retiring to remove our shoes and loosen our belts. This night we removed our shoes but drew our belts a notch tighter and looked at the sky for inspiration. The largest shooting star we have ever seen streamed across the sky, leaving a comet-like tail behind it. Our empty stomachs were forgotten, the gnawing uneasiness left us, and we dropped into slumber.
Breakfast the next morning consisted of running swollen tongues over bleeding lips. At times, the day before, when the wind had become too strong to walk against, we had attempted to read from our New Testament, and had succeeded in finishing Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. That reading had revealed some passages to the effect that man should not live by bread alone, and that as the birds of the air were fed and cared for, man should not worry about his sustenance. This seemed very appropriate and afforded a little consolation.
For hours we plodded on, keeping a close watch out behind for the cloud of dust which would mark an approaching car. The level plain suddenly terminated, and a gash about two miles across cut the trail. From the rim we looked down on what was an ancient riverbed. We sat down to rest before attempting the descent. Hunger wasn't bothering us any more—that had passed away hours ago. We were not even suffering from thirst, although we longed for water.
"Look," Win pointed. There, far below, where our trail crossed the old riverbed, was the flashing sheen of water. Our weakness momentarily disappeared, and we pushed on. We reached the bottom and our longing for water heightened through anticipation. Looking at the dry bed and then at each other, without speaking, we knew. That cruelest of all desert hoaxes, the water mirage, had played its horrible trick on us. With the remainder of our ebbing strength we made the climb out to the level plains on the other side.
A decision had to be made. We had gone forty-eight hours without food, and were now getting too weak to continue on and carry our packs at the same time. Should we discard them and try to make it to the next ranch on foot, or should we stick by them and take a chance on something or somebody showing up? Those packs were too dear. They must not be left behind. We threw ourselves down in the sagebrush at the side of the trail and prepared to wait for a car.
Nor were we in half as bad condition as I would try to make out. Hunger was a thing of the past. We no longer felt even the uneasy, restless grip on our stomachs. After the first keen disappointment had passed, our longing for water had ceased. We were really happy as we took turns sleeping, the one on guard spending most of his time reading from the Bible. One reason we carried the little New Testament was that it had more reading per pound than any other book. And more inspiration.
Two o'clock came. The hot sun boiled down. Win lay sprawled out in a heavy sleep, with one arm hung out across the dusty wheel track of the trail. He had said when he started his nap that he couldn't trust me to stay awake. If a car passed unnoticed it would wake him up when it rolled over his arm.
Two playful jackrabbits came within ten feet of me and bobbed their long ears back and forth in curiosity. I scarcely saw them. I was staring down the long trail behind us. A faint hum caught my ear. Again the sound drifted down the wind. It was the unmistakable roar of a powerful car. I shook Win to consciousness. It had not been a dream for he had heard it too. We knew the car was on the level stretch this side of the dry run, yet the shimmering heat hid it completely.
"There it is," Win called out. For an instant the hazy, dancing outline of a car, three times magnified because of the mirage conditions, had shown above the trail. It came again and this time never disappeared although the wavy outlines of the machine shortened, lengthened, and widened as though the car were made of rubber. But gradually the auto assumed normal proportions and sank to the level of the desert. It was out of the mirage.
The Essex coupe squealed to a stop. The driver, a salesman, would have had to run over us to have passed. We were determined to get a ride and we got it.
"Boys," our driver said, "I've got to be in Albuquerque by seven o'clock tonight."
Nothing could have sounded better. At that point, Albuquerque seemed like heaven. The city was 155 miles on our way. We had given up hope of ever reaching it at all.
When our host learned of our two-and-a-half days without food, he was astonished. "I'll stop in San Marcial," he said, referring to the next habitation listed on the map, fifty miles distant.
"No, please don't stop," was our plea. "We want to get to Albuquerque more than you do."
We weren't hungry; we were anxious to shake off the desert. Our decision was a lucky one. San Marcial, if it existed at all, was so small we never saw it. Our driver sped on through Socorro, where the Old National Trail came in from the west, and never stopped in his mad tear northward until, at exactly seven o'clock, we slid into New Mexico's largest city.
Our friend dropped us in front of an inviting looking restaurant. A minute later we were inside with our legs wrapped around two high stools and our elbows on the counter, eagerly awaiting our first bite of food in over two-and-a-half days. We sailed in with a vengeance. The meal was a sumptuous affair, but it only served to make us hungrier. In fact, our hunger increased with every bite. We went to a store and bought a loaf of bread, a pound of cheese, a pound of jam, and a pound of raisins. These took the edge off our appetites, then reason told us to lay off until our stomachs got back on the job again. To be truthful, we felt much worse that night with full stomachs than we had the preceding night when nearly starved. The following day, after several hours of sight-seeing in Albuquerque, our appetites and stomachs were back to normal.