Ralphie on the Road #5: Sleeping in the Truck

My journey east from New Mexico into the Lone Star State began on Sunday, January 13th, the feast day of Hilary of Poitiers, the 4th century “Hammer of the Arians.”

I made my way to Mass at St. Vincent de Paul Church in Silver City, a sanctuary completed in 1876, two years before the founding of the mining town.

I don’t often walk out of Mass before Communion, but I walked out of this one.

St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church, Market Street. Photo: Macon Street Books

The white pastor – the Rev. Rod Nichols, credited in a plaque with overseeing the church’s 2006 renovation – was preaching about St. John of the Cross and the dark night of the soul, a favorite subject.

He lectured in English to a mostly Hispanic congregation, and perhaps it was because of the language barrier, but it was one of the most condescending public performances I have witnessed.

Maybe the problem was me since I was the visitor and these folks seemed at ease with Father Rod’s third grade Sunday school approach.

But it pissed me off, and I left without receiving the Eucharist, which many times is the only reason I attend Mass.

I drove back to Los Pinos Circle, where I was staying with Eric Mithen, a friend who had moved west from Baltimore.

At Mithen’s yellow, Formica-topped table [bought for $50 in June 2004 at a Patterson Park flea market], I worked on an exegesis of my own dark night, a series of connected fictions called The Long Vietnam of My Soul.

And then I took the daily nap that for almost two decades has been my custom, necessity, and well-defended joy, a luxury that a yacht or Porsche cannot approach.

Rafael Alvarez on Los Pinos Circle. Photo: Macon Street Books

Unless you work night shift, there are few things more subversive or derided in American culture than sleeping in the middle of the day. I am convinced that employers would more readily endure protracted thefts from a star employee than a worker who insists on napping in the afternoon. Whether or not the time is made up for later doesn’t matter: you snooze, you lose.

In 2003, I kept a sleeping bag in my South Clinton Street office while a member of the season two writing staff of The Wire.

The bag was relied upon with such set-your-watch regularity that series creator David Simon instructed an assistant turned screenwriter named Norman Knoerlein to buy a blow-up sex doll, dress it in cheap lingerie, and hide the plaything between the covers before my siesta.

Pretty funny. But of no help when the “two hour naps” ended up on a laundry list of real and exaggerated affronts when the show and I parted ways.

Leaving The Wire immediately led me to Los Angeles–my first-ever move away from Baltimore–and that led to years of driving from one end of the country to the other.

The need for sleep in the middle of the day (my physician says I have a narrow air passage) is the reason my road trip vehicle is no longer the VW Beetle in which my son Jake and I logged 10,000 miles over the summer of 2000.

Since 2006, I have piloted a pick-up truck with a cap on the back, the carpeted bed of the white Toyota–my caballo blanco–for an easy cargo of pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, and books.

So that on these cross country jaunts–enough in this closely observed year of 2008 to count on both hands–I can pull over whenever and just about wherever I want.

On the parking lot of a McDonald’s (one with a shade tree in the summer) or interstate rest area, I close myself up in the back like John Glenn in a Gemini capsule, read for a half hour, and fall asleep without a care in the world.

And I think it is exactly this comfort which, upon editing these accounts, makes the journey of 2008 feel less compelling than the exalted road trips documented by others.

Fort Hancock, Texas

By way of example: Early in my friendship with Mithen , which was a year or so after his transformative immersion into the short stories of John Cheever, he remained agitated by adventure as mapped out by Kerouac.

Mithen was determined to make good on a long-held dream of walking across the United States. He was going to carry an American flag and practiced by walking from Highlandtown to Bolton Hill and back with a sack of rocks over his shoulders, and though I teased him about it, I admired the goal.

While reading about the select club of people who have walked from one end of United States to the other, I became intrigued with an almost-fatally overweight man named Steve Vaught. Hoping to lose a significant portion of his estimated 400 pounds, Vaught left suburban San Diego on April 10, 2005 and arrived in Manhattan 13 months later.

Vaught apparently didn’t lose as much weight as he expected, somewhere between 40 pounds according to a filmmaker who joined him on the trip and 110 pounds, as he claimed.

He did lose his wife to divorce before the walk was over, and there was controversy about whether his courage and stamina flagged at times and if he accepted rides.

Yet Vaught’s effort remains impressive; more so than the 14-year [1983-to-1997], on-again-off-again walk from Manhattan to Washington State by Art Garfunkel, who was followed by a camper in which he slept at night.

Which story would you rather read?

The most subversive thing I did in Silver City?

I ventured into the silent stacks in the library of West New Mexico University–founded in 1893 on a hill overlooking town–and slipped photocopies of Baltimore stories into dusty books on forgotten shelves.

In special collection rooms, I secreted a CD-rom of my on-going autobiography (a time line of Thanksgiving dinners going back to 1975, the last year my Italian grandmother was alive) in equally forgotten tomes; wondering, if and when it is found, the technology needed to read a CD will have survived.

And knowing that if it hasn’t, black marks scratched into drywall and white paper will endure.

How long?

“Until,” wrote Philip K. Dick, “the library was discovered and dug up — and read … [a wait] not 40 years but 2000 …”

I left Silver City at dusk after the late afternoon nap, the cooler carrying leftovers from my Sunday dinner with Mithen (who instead of losing a spouse on a cross-country walk, abandoned the idea, and took a wife instead) and a hunk of gourmet cheese from a weekend pot-luck.

Western New Mexico University

That evening I made 213 miles to Fort Hancock, Texas. The route took me south to Deming, New Mexico, east to Las Cruces and then south through El Paso before finding a suitable parking lot to pull over in Fort Hancock–a staple of the I-10 route–and zipping up in the back.

When it’s freezing outside, the bag is perfect for sleeping as long you don’t have any skin exposed. I have been woken up by the tip of an ear stinging in the cold.

McDonald’s coffee for breakfast in Fort Hancock early Monday morning, and then, after a hundred miles or so toward the fabled town of Marfa, I pulled over for a bowl of cereal.

With a pint of convenience store milk in a waxed carton, I dropped the tailgate to the Tacoma and sat by the side of the road with Corn Chex (one metal spoon for the trip, one red plastic bowl) and munched the toasty corn goodness while a mile-long freight train passed through the desert.

No one around but me in the cool morning, my feet dangling from the tailgate, chewing in rhythm with the sounds of the rolling train cars.

Would not the story be better if I was on the freight train, cold and hungry and envious as I watched some lucky guy eat a bowl of cereal?

Only if the guy on the train took the time to write it.


  1. Michele Somerville 8 years ago

    Rafael, Thanks. Fantastic …parable of the writer prophet apostle. God in everything, all travel is pilgrimage.

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  2. ElPaso 7 years ago

    FYI !!!!! The white Rev. (as you described) speaks fluent Spanish. It sounds like you got out of your bed/truck on the wrong side. Baltimore is awaiting you!

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    1. sharon brown 1 year ago

      Rod does speak fluent Spanish and has for many many years. The word of God is pure and very simple. Remember, we must go to the Lord with child like faith. Always remember the Lord loves you. If you are ever in the area again do yourself the favor and speak with Rod, he is great guy, and has always been very caring of people and that includes you.

      Best regards,
      Sharon/ Rod’s cousin

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