Desert Music: 1969
Francis J. Mastrogiovanni

Looking toward El Paso, Texas a few hours from the East. At dusk it is little more than micro lights strobing for enough kilowatts to illuminate its presence at the end of the desert. Next to a "last gas for 100 miles" sign I topped off my VW beetle with gas for under $3.00, the old days, and torqued it up to 65 mph, desert- flat cruising speed, 5th gear. No hills or bumps, the 1800 cc engine sung. FM radio country. Line of sight.
FM radio broadcasted nothing but country and western music. Southwest: where it seamed classical music meant Woodie Guthrie. No jazz on radio between Chicago and the LA basin. Is that possible? Nothing but christian programs on AM, which came in laced with static and crosstalk. The desert air too clean, the topography too bare and unassuming for AM radio signals, absorbed I guess by cactus and sidewinders.

I was excited when I left the Texas panhandle on US 62, crossing into Hobbes, a small town tucked into the SW corner of New Mexico, to enter Rocky Mountain Time. Leaving one time zone for another charged my imagination for some reason, as if going forward in time, though artificial, was one last remaining freedom. Then South Southwest to Carlsbad over the Antelope Ridge still on US 62, crossing back into Texas and Central Time again to a desert expanse rimmed by the Guadalupe Mountains. In a few minutes, on the West side of Salt Flat, Texas, you begin to see El Paso at night. Still out of focus, but after reaching Cornudas, a more definitive outline of the city begins to emerge at slow zoom, then by the Hueco Mountains an occasional gas station, motel and truck stop, a suggestive prelude.
Maneuvering to avoid dead snakes and small dog sized animals on the road, life flattened out of them by the indifference of speeding cars and trucks, I choose to slow down after a while, pulling into a rest stop. I buy some coffee and survey assorted cactus in pots for sale in the nearby gift shop. Didn't know there were so many types. Back in the car scanning the FM band of the German AM-FM radio standard to VWs in the 1960s, I finally pickup listenable music, a rock station out of Las Cruces, but after a few minutes shut the radio off, opting to listen to the engine, the vacuous dark, the crisp desert air, a knotted viscera that welcomes and warns.

First published: February 1997