TUCUMCARI, N.M.—After leaving Oklahoma City, we drove nearly 400 miles west on U.S. 66 to Tucumcari, N.M. Our plan was to turn north there and drive on back roads—what William Least Heat Moon called America’s “blue highways”—into Colorado, our ultimate destination.
Tucumcari is the only town of any size between Amarillo, Texas, and Albuquerque, N.M., so it’s where we stopped for the night. I was not hopeful we would find much here, but the city has made a career of serving as a way-station for travelers, and it makes the most of its location on America’s Mother Road. Some of its diners are intentionally retro, a throwback to the 1960s, and the town hosts several festivals a year that celebrate America’s automobile heritage. Upon our hotel manager’s recommendation, we had an excellent dinner at Del’s, run by two sisters who own three restaurants in town. Several years ago they were named Restaurateurs of the Year by a regional trade magazine. All of which is to say you never know what surprises you might find on the open road.
I learned that lesson again the next morning. After leaving Tucumcari, we would turn north and drive for at least two hours without seeing another gas station. I don’t mean we wouldn’t see many. We wouldn’t see any. So I thought it prudent to start that stretch of road with a full tank of gas.
It turns out we weren’t the only ones on a road trip that weekend.
A black Volvo pulled up at the pump next to us. The car had Tennessee license plates. Tennessee is one of the few states that display counties on license plates, and I noticed that the Volvo came from Davidson County. I also noticed three white oval stickers. Two of them said “IRAQ” in large letters, and in much smaller letters: “I SERVED.” The third sticker said, “AFG.”
The man who got out of the car was large, well over 6 feet tall and 220 pounds, at least. He was dressed casually to the point of being unkempt—sweatpants and a T-shirt, with unlaced boots. But as he moved around to the rear of his car, closer to me, I could see that he was more disheveled than shabby. The sweatpants, though casual, were stylish, with a designer label. The shirt was made of one of those high-tech fabrics that athletes wear and cost a fortune. It fit his sculpted body carefully. He opened his trunk and pulled out a pair of black high-top Nikes that probably carried a $200 price tag. He pulled off his boots one at a time, balancing on first one foot and then the other as he changed into the sneakers. He then reached into the trunk again and pulled out a large prescription pill bottle. He palmed the child-proof lid and poured a pill into his other hand, immediately slapping it into his mouth and swallowing without water.
I didn't immediately notice that his arms were covered with tattoos, the largest of which said in an elaborate script, “VERITAS.” Truth.
“Are you from Nashville?” I asked. He didn’t appear startled by my question. He had been watching me watching him. I remembered I had read somewhere that hyper-vigilance was one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Yeah,” he said. “A long way.”
“We were there three days ago,” I said.
“So you know,” he said. “I drove as far as I could and had to stop. Couldn’t focus anymore.” It was more than a thousand miles from Nashville to Tucumcari. Had he driven it non-stop, by himself? I didn’t ask, but it would explain his disheveled look, and his comment about not being able to focus.
Sensing a story, and encouraged by his willingness to talk, I ventured another question: “Where are you headed?”
“Vegas,” he said. “A buddy of mine shot himself.” That was not the story I was expecting. “A guy I had been, you know, sort of mentoring. It’s funny. We had talked just a week ago, and I could tell something was up. But I had my kids that weekend. I told him I could shuffle things around, but he told me not to, so I didn’t think things were that bad. Then a couple of days later his mother called. I could tell right away that something was wrong.” He stopped talking and tears welled up in his eyes. He clenched his jaw in an unsuccessful attempt to keep his lips from quivering.
I took a step closer to him and held out my hand. He reached out his massive arm, the one with the VERITAS tattoo, and folded his hand around mine. I noticed then that I could barely talk either. All I was able to squeeze out was a whispered, wholly inadequate, “I’m sorry.”
Right about then, on the other side of my car, the automatic shutoff on the gas pump filling my tank loudly clicked off. It startled both of us and we let our hands drop.
“Safe travels,” he said softly.
Anyway, as I said, it turns out we were not the only ones in Tucumcari on a road trip that weekend.