Story and photograph by Christopher Briscoe
It's another blistering hot day, bicycling Route 66. My son Quincy, and I are getting close to Tucumcari, New Mexico. Much of the day has been pedaling on frontage roads, paralleling I-40. The freeway sits high, elevated on a broad dirt berm - a modern highway that has replaced - some say - too much of Route 66.
We've noticed a lot of small, single lane cement tunnels that go under the interstate. It's clear to see that they serve as an easy passage for small cars and farm tractors to pass underneath and get to the other side. By the look of the brown mud stain that reaches high up the tunnel walls, they also serve as an escape route for flash floods.
not sure what threat the intruders might bring.
We ride our loaded bikes down a long a narrow drive, deep into the underbelly of the freeway. Our bicycle wheels splash through a long puddle at the tunnel entrance. A thin stream of red mud coats our tires. Some of it washes off, back into the puddle. Some of it collects under the bicycle and refuses to let go. The tunnel shudders with the load of the semi-trucks that roar overhead. We find a dry patch of ground and lean our bikes against the mud-stained cement wall. I wonder how many gully-washers have purged through here, blowing out the other end like one big firehose. We look up at several empty Swallow nests - in a long row of tiny mud apartments - that run along the crease where the high wall meets the ceiling. The birds dart in and out of the tunnel, in a nervous panic, not sure what threat the intruders might bring.
A cooling breeze moves through the tunnel, gently sweeping over us. We have found the sanctuary we needed. We're cooked from the day's heat and pace back and forth, occasionally leaning into the cement wall - pressing our hands into it - trying to stretch tightening, sore muscles. I turn and push my back against the cool concrete and slowly slide down to a squat. My chapped lips sip on my plastic water bottle, anxious for the life-liquid to reach my dehydrated cells. The wall vibrates against my back from the trucks overhead. The quart of water and a snack begins to take hold. The daily momentum of dehydration slows, like a steel locomotive coming to a train station stop.
then out the tunnel with the birds
We begin our banter, not a like father and son, but like two crusty farmhands, perfecting our Okie accents, as if we are characters in The Grapes of Wrath. Soon our laughter bubbles up and bounces around the cement walls, then out the tunnel with the birds, before it drifts up into the flow of Interstate traffic.
Our conversation eases its way out of Okie Farmer and into a mixture of Father & Son and Best Buds.
We have pedaled a long way on this adventure and have been able to craft a unique relationship. It is easy for me not to miss the perfection of the moment with my son. Perhaps it's because I've never taken a moment with him for granted. Perhaps it's because I realize that I have more yesterdays than tomorrows. Maybe I was just born lucky.
Quincy and I talk about how much we enjoy the simple times on this trip - like this one - knowing that our adventure has brought us many. I wonder aloud, "Who else could have so much fun hanging out in a muddy tunnel underneath a freeway in the middle of America?"
The birds have returned and are calmed. They peek down at us from their mud homes.
When the journey is better than the destination, you know you're in good company.