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  • Will Martin

Five Dead in the Desert

There was something about the twisting, black smoke rising in such desolation that made me feel small. We were somewhere between Santa Rosa and Clines Corners on I40 West, and we had seen the smoke for miles as we crossed the parched landscape of the New Mexico grassland. The light reflecting off of the scrub and coarse, bisque-colored earth beamed below the endless sky above, and I had to squint to see through the road-dust to make out the gentle hills of bone-dry grama, galleta, and Little Bluestem rising and falling away to the horizon and the column of crow-black smoke.

The radio crackled and wavered the way it does when you are adrift between places--half where you once were, and half where you’re going--but my ears were full of wind from the open windows.

I closed my eyes and let the rushing air whip my hair up and away and stream across my scalp in rivulets of pleasure that made the skin of my neck prickle


We could see for miles in every direction.

Ahead of us on the eastbound lanes, cars and trucks stretched to the horizon. A hundred points of light glinted from their pale windshields like a string of stars that blinked and danced as they shone through the heat and exhaust that roiled above the ash-colored asphalt.

Smoke hung at the head of the train of cars.

The sun was above us when we reached the wreck, and the fire that had engulfed the broken vehicles roared beneath the shadow cast by its own smoke. Bystanders huddled together in groups along the empty lanes; some held their faces; one collapsed onto the road; but we kept moving.

What happened had been a simple thing. A car from the westbound lanes had crossed the grassy median and careened into the path of a tractor trailer. It had wedged itself beneath the cab of the truck and caught fire. The truck seemed to hover above the blaze; the flames reaching up and around it to kiss its doors and windows again and again.

We continued west along I40. No one felt like talking.

The voices on the radio spoke in tongues--broken English and staccato Spanish, Bible-study and baseball statistics—they cried out from the fuzz of the AM frequency, and they all cried out at once.

“We’ll have better luck closer to Albuquerque,” the driver said, as the radio’s face went dark.

Again, my attention drifted to the grass and scrub, and to the pockets of cholla and prickly pear that grew in rambling clumps along the roadside. The cacti bristled with spikes and long daggers—a warning to weary travelers not to tarry long in this resentful place.

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