I have just left Joe’s Boots and Hats in Clovis, New Mexico, where I conversed with Joe’s nephew as he fitted me for a Stetson. He grew up in Austin and moved here a few years ago to help Joe run his store. We talked about Austin and music. Joe’s nephew is a fan of both Silkworm and the American Analog Set. On the topic of road trips, he told me that he and his father had once biked the entire east coast. His favorite spots were West Virginia, Maine, and New York City.
Not long after I left Clovis, I see a large sign for “The Real Grave of Billy the Kid.” This is in Fort Sumner, New Mexico. I turn off the highway onto this narrow road that bends and curves for several miles until I reach the gravel parking lot in front of the Old Fort Sumner Museum. I walk inside and buy a soft drink and ask about the grave. The cashier tells me it’s right out back and there’s no charge for visiting the site. I thank him and exit the museum. There is another car parked next to mine now, its driver sits alone with the engine running. I walk around the corner of the building and enter the cemetery through an opening in the stone wall which surrounds it. There is a narrow gravel footpath that snakes through the small plot of land. It is dotted with both large headstones as well as small, unmarked rocks denoting graves. In the center is a large iron cage that houses the headstone shared by Tom O’Folliard, Charlie Bowdre and William H. Bonney. At the top of the headstone it describes the men as “Pals”. The two members of Billy The Kid’s posse were killed in 1880, and Bonney was laid to rest a year later. Surrounding the headstone are pennies, dimes, and quarters. I reach into my pocket for the change I just received and toss it into the cage.
After I’ve paid my respects, I explore the rest of the headstones. I read about Lucien Bonaparte Maxwell, a fur trapper who somehow became the owner of the single largest tract of land ever owned by any one person in America. As I study another headstone in another iron cage, I notice a man and two women hunched over, spraying compressed air into a lock on one of the cages. I smile and say hello, and they introduce themselves as the Sandovals.
The Sandovals are visiting from San Francisco to maintain their grandfather Isaac’s grave. He’s buried in this same little cemetery as Billy the Kid. Here he rests with Celentino and Victoria. The four of us walk between headstones and they go back and forth telling me about how the cages are here because Billy the Kid’s headstone has been stolen three times, and because they prevent visitors from chipping pieces of the headstones off to take home as mementos.
Isaac, they tell me, used to be a mail courier between this area—before it was a fort—and Roswell, New Mexico, or what is now Roswell. As we stand together looking at the headstones for two other relatives of the Sandoval Family, they tell me the story of how Isaac met Billy the Kid right before Billy’s death.
The night before William Bonney was killed here, he had dinner at a nearby camp just down the road. It just so happened that Isaac was staying at the same camp at the same time. Billy the Kid was passing through on the way to Sumner, where he had been hiding out following his escape from incarceration in Lincoln. He and some members of his posse stopped in Sumner for the night. As the story goes, Isaac and Billy had dinner together, and then on the following evening Billy was killed by Pat Garrett.
Isaac’s three grandchildren and I exit the cemetery together. They ask where I’m headed, and I tell them that I’m going up the coast and across the northern part of the country back to New Jersey. They tell me that when I’m in San Francisco I should look up an address on Lombard Street where their family once owned a glass shop. They think now it’s a coffeehouse. I thank them for all the information and stories, and we bid farewell at our respective cars. As they exit the parking lot I sit and wait, my eyes closed, trying to remember all the details of their story. I start to think about Tucson. I’ve yet to hear back from Joey Burns, Howe Gelb or Bill Elm. I’ll be in town for three or four days and as of this moment I’ve scheduled not a single interview.
Outside of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, the sky turned from deep blue to infinitely black in a matter of minutes. I saw a number of cars speeding past me in the opposite direction, and wondered why I was the only car driving into the storm. The hardest, most torrential downpour I’ve ever experienced soon befell me. The wind swept sheets of rain sideways. Visibility was five feet at best. I tried to steer into the tracks left by cars in front of me, but my treads could not find dry pavement. Every few hundred yards or so the car began to skid. Lightning lit up the sky and stabbed at the earth repeatedly. Continued blows to the skull. You could see each bolt stretch from the heavens to strike the ground with immense force.