January 24, 2016 – Sun, 60 degrees
Miles Today: 18
Miles to Date: 10,771
States to Date: 28
For me, El Paso is ripe in memory. I’ve been here four or five times, all during 1977-1978 when I was a VISTA Volunteer 300 miles northeast of here in Levelland, TX. Since I finished my service year I’ve never returned to any of places that marked that unique period of my life. On this trip I plan to visit them all. El Paso is the first place I’ve reached along my route.
Levelland, Texas is conveniently located five hours from anywhere: Dallas, Albuquerque or El Paso. Since a five-hour drive in Texas is nothing and weekends in Levelland were quiet, the core of our VISTA group struck out somewhere most every month. Leanne was a curvaceous blonde from South Dakota who fell for the dark-eyed local, Jerry. He was already married which made things messy, but eventually Leanne and Jerry got married, until that too got messy. My Texas pal was Adela, a rail thin brunette from Maryland. We never let marrying enter the picture, and are solid friends to this day. For a year, the four of us were constant companions. El Paso was out favorite weekend getaway.
We stayed in cheap motels or with other VISTA’s. By day crossed the footbridge to Juarez, at night we ate Mexican food and discoed. I usually drove Betsy, my1969 Ford Fairlane. Once Jerry convinced me to take Betsy into Mexico so we could eat at a place he knew beyond downtown Juarez. The food was incredibly good. The tear-up job the customs agents and their dogs did on a car driven by a mutton-chop sideburned Yankee with cheeky Mexican shotgun and two leggy girls in tie-dyed skirts in the back trying to reenter the United States was incredibly thorough. They were astonished not to find drugs. I was astonished they just walked away after their inspection and made us put the car back together.
Perhaps my biggest rite of passage in El Paso occurred on a training trip I made there by myself. I stayed with another VISTA, a local Mexican-American who smelled like licorice. He took me to a local performance of Hello Dolly that had maybe three women in the audience. Afterward, we returned to his apartment in one of the moldy brick buildings near downtown. He told me his boyfriend was coming over. I set the sheets on the sofa and was conveniently in the bathroom when boyfriend arrived and they disappeared into my host’s room. I tired to sleep. They were vigorous and noisy. The more I tried to block them out, the more anxious I became. I had never heard two men have sex. I had spent so much energy denying such a possibility. I started to sweat. Eventually, I got up and dressed.
I escaped to El Paso’s night streets. The square grid of blacktop laid over the city’s hills calmed my torment. I’ve always enforced Cartesian order upon irregularity. I walked the streets for hours; until my pulse stopped racing; until the dawn light. I slipped back in the apartment hoping they were finished, wishing they were not, and pretended to sleep.
It took another fifteen years, a marriage and two children to bring some peace to the conflicts that flared in me that night. Now, thirty-eight years later, I’m back in El Paso, riding that same grid of streets, unable to reconstruct the particulars of that time. So much has changed. The downtown core is cleaner, the surrounding streets shabbier, the highways more insistent, the strip development more generic. I stop by the Anson, briefly the tallest concrete building in the world. I visit the digital wall at the El Paso Museum of History. Fortunately, none of the touch options pops with images of the night Paul Fallon freaked out over a pair of gay guys. But that’s what it seems like; a piece of history. That someone could be so uncomfortable in his gay skin.
I slept well in El Paso, as I do every night during this physically taxing journey. But my El Paso dawn dreams were the same as everywhere else. I do not conjure the men, purposefully too many to recount, who’ve crossed my path these past twenty years. Instead, I wake every morning to a dream of my former wife, the girl who put a claim on my heart before I ever set foot in this border town. I dream of what I willed myself to be, however inappropriate, rather than what I am. The shame branded on our youthful souls is permanent.
Thanks Paul, what a rich, honest, descriptive piece that was. Your trip and reflections amaze me. Whatever it is, I stop what I’m doing when I see your posts come into my email inbox, always a treat to read and for some reason they relax me. Thanks again, enjoy!
Thank you Barbara.
I spent quite a bit of time writing that piece, and even longer deciding whether I should post it to the world. Ultimately I decided to put it out there. We are all damaged and incomplete. If we acknowledge that, to ourselves and to others; it is easier for us to bear; easier for others to offer compassion; and easier for us all to reconcile our demons.
More cheerful visions of West Texas are on the horizon.
I’m almost tearing up reading your vivid recollections of 77-78 in Levelland. Three VISTA volunteers and Jerry- driving in your old Ford…. i remember it well – the car search at Juarez border – us laughing – the guards not so amused. Your other visits and experiences in El Paso are not so clear in my memory, but I recall our responses and emotions.
Looking forward to your recollections and current pictures of our West Texas town. Lots of sentiment there….
your “rail-thin brunette” friend 🙂
You are the best. You did so much to make that year a banner one in my life.
It was a banner year, for sure. I got pretty sentimental reading this piece, and looked up Leanne on Facebook. Found her… shared greetings…told her about you, and gave her your email. She is a grandmother x6 Never dreamt I would in touch again. Bless you Paul
Thank you for putting me back in touch with LeAnne! She is still in Slaton. I hope to see her when I pedal there in June.