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Chicago to Laredo in a Rusting Dodge Van: 16 People, 1,200 Miles, 36 Hours, 59 Bucks.

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Saturday, September 19, 2 PM. Posters at Pilsen's Villarreal travel agency advertise the good life: Eastern Airlines pictures depicting Walt Disney World and Mickey Mouse; Las Vegas, a land of glitzy casinos and hotels; Guadalajara, a woman spinning in a swirling dance, the reds and purples of her shawl setting the air ablaze.

Or how about Bonaire Antillean Airlines for a ticket to luxurious adventure? Scuba divers, fresh fish caught from picturesque fishing boats, colorful houses, a bikinied blond walking alone along a white sand beach.

And then there's Jamaica, with a yuppie couple at a poolside cabana. He takes an orange slice from a well-stocked liquor cart and puts it in her drink as she reclines in a plush chair.

The people waiting in the travel agency office right now aren't inquiring about these glamour destinations. Their trip is advertised by a barely visible sign on the office door: "Camionetas [buses] a Laredo . . . $59.00."

"It's a long trip, maybe 25 hours," says a young clerk with braces on his teeth and a blue T-shirt that reads "Lead me not into temptation. I can find it myself." "And we only go to Laredo, Texas, not across the border into Mexico," he tells me, in a tone questioning whether a gringo really wanted to crowd into a microbus with 15 or so other people for a nonstop 1,200-mile journey.

I assure him that yes, I want to take the camioneta, then set my bag next to some of the others. It's quite a pile, including four huge boxes each wrapped in silver gray refrigerator tape and bound by rope; shocking pink and shocking purple handbags; a set of suitcases of a color that those who had deluxe Crayola sets would recognize as Indian red; and an elongated box containing a metal folding picnic table.

A handful of kids in varying degrees of squiggliness occupy some of the seats in the travel office, serving as a warning that I should not expect too much sleep on this trip. Adults, on the other hand, stare straight ahead and speak not at all. Most carry a look of dread, the type of expression seen on people waiting in the doctor's office or the welfare office. I also sit quietly, beginning a Robert Ludlum novel.

One family, I find out, is going to San Luis Potosi on an extended vacation. The father, a sheet metal worker in Melrose Park, is a short, wiry, 30ish man wearing a silk shirt, gray slacks, and sunglasses. Three young kids, two boys about five years old and a girl about seven, are decked out in their Sunday best. The mother, as large as the other four put together, wears a bright print dress.

Another family huddles at the opposite end of the room. This one consists of a curly-haired mother wearing a blue jacket, a stocky girl in her early teens, a ten-year-old girl with a pigtail and a pink sweater, and a boy about six years old wearing a red shirt.

Two solitary men also buy tickets. One, with a leather jacket and a walrus mustache, takes long, bored puffs on a cigarette. The other is a ranchero, or at least dresses the part, from his cowboy hat to his pearl-buttoned shirt to his blue jeans to his cowboy boots. He looks as if he stepped out of a Mexican Marlboro commercial.

"Where are you going? To Mexico City?" a slender, middle-aged woman with short black hair asks me in Spanish.

"San Miguel de Allende, para visitar amigos," I say to her.

"My husband and I are going to Cuernavaca," she says. "We run a little import business up here. Down there we also own a service, introducing newcomers to the town and helping them with laundry, maids, and so forth. But I want to open a school--one that teaches Spanish, Mexican history and culture. But there's so much red tape . . ."

Her conversation is cut short by a round-faced man with a salt-and-pepper mustache wearing a cream-colored shirt. "We're ready. Let's start loading," he shouts. The round-faced man is the driver, and he's wearing a Saint Christopher medal. Even though Christopher, formerly the patron of travelers, was kicked out of the sainthood several years ago, that medal is still somehow comforting.

I wasn't expecting a luxury vehicle to transport us to Laredo, and the camioneta lives down to my expectations. It's a dark green Dodge van showing the first signs of rust. Two huge spare tires, each balder than the other, rest atop a luggage rack. Passengers help the driver load the baggage onto the rack, then wrap a black tarp around it.

Inside, the van contains a bucket seat for the driver and another to his right, then four rows of plush seats that might have been lifted intact from a 1950s Pullman car. A sign on the front passenger side reads "Maybe--and that's final!" A cassette player is mounted directly above the driver, and a box containing dozens of tapes rests on the dashboard to the driver's right.

Passengers file in and seat themselves in an order that remains virtually unchanged throughout the trip. Businessman, Businesswoman, and Ranchero sit in the front row, Blue Jacket, Teenage Girl, Pigtail, and Little Boy in the second, me and Leather Jacket in the third, the Three Little Potosinos, Silk Shirt, and Print Dress in the rear. The driver asks, "Are you all comfortable, or are you like sardines?" Ranchero answers, "We're going to Mexico, not on a luxury cruise!" They are speaking Spanish, of course; the only English on this trip will be the occasional remark made to me.

We leave five or ten minutes after the scheduled three o'clock departure time, prompt by Mexican standards. One block into our ride, the driver pops a tape into the cassette player. Out comes norteno music, with its accordion, guitar, and singers that are sometimes off-key and sometimes off-color. I harbor no illusions that the player will be silent at any time during the remainder of the trip.

The "nonstop" voyage makes it all the way to Cermak and Whipple--a little more than two miles--before coming to a halt. At this point a middle-aged man wearing a Cleveland Indians cap--the type with the ridiculous smiling Indian on it--flags down the van. The driver gets out and he and Baseball Cap joke about each other's love life for a good hour before they climb in. Baseball Cap sits next to the driver.

Blue Jacket has come prepared. She opens up a large cooler and takes out bologna sandwiches, passing them to her kids and to any other passengers who show an interest. Then she opens a bag of Rodeo Bill potato chips and offers them. Print Dress, not to be outdone, opens her family's cooler. Out come some cheese puffs for general distribution. "You want a soda? Take it," she says to me, shoving a can of lemon-lime pop at me before I have time to answer.

Meanwhile, the cassette player sings, "Oh, Mama, even though I try to be real macho, I end up muy borracho, and every night I cry."

5 PM. I'm only at the second murder of the Ludlum book, and already the van has a problem. We're on the Stevenson Expressway, somewhere near Bolingbrook, and the van is stopped. The front left tire is flatter than--well, name your own comical comparison.

It's bad enough that neither of the spare tires is very safe, but the jack also refuses to work. Now the driver begins uttering a string of curses, most of which involve Holy Mothers partaking in activities not commonly associated with Holy Mothers. Businessman and Leather Jacket step outside to offer unsolicited advice. Print Dress orders Silk Shirt to go outside and help. He joins the other men, but there appears to be little that he can do.

Finally, Leather Jacket has an idea. He races across the busy expressway to a nearby sawhorse, grabs a sandbag, and carries it to the van. Then he rushes to a ditch, rummages around for a few minutes, and returns with a portion of a railroad tie and two football-size boulders. By shoving these objects under the car, he is able to boost the fender enough to remove the flat tire.

Inside the car, out pops more food. This time a box of Ritz crackers makes the rounds, courtesy of Print Dress.

7:15 PM. At about the seventh murder of the Ludlum novel, we make our first rest stop, at a combination gas station and convenience mart. Just about everybody loads up on grub. Many buy coffee--as if there's any real reason to stay awake. Teenage Girl brings cartons of milk for the family cooler. Businesswoman and her husband, a short man with curly hair and wire-rim glasses, buy fudge cookies to go with their coffee. The Potosinos invest in a huge hero sandwich and a batch of fruit pies. I, too, pick up a snack--a bag of Fritos.

It soon becomes obvious that much of the money I might have saved by not taking other forms of transportation will be invested in junk food.

We get back on the road. It's a pretty ride, really. Browned cornstalks, their work through for the season, dominate acres and miles of fields. They share the space with groves of trees, their dark green leaves only beginning to change color, and small marshes surrounded by cattails. Other objects provide striking contrast to these muted tones--white houses with their bright red barns, black cattle, golden yellow sunflowers.

Darkness sets in almost immediately after sunset. Outside it's black now, interrupted only by the occasional white beams of a car's headlights and the blinking red lights from the towers of dozens of small-town radio stations. It's too dark to read anymore. I've lost count of the number of murders.

9:30 PM. We make another stop, this time for gas in some truck stop near Bloomington. You can see the southern influence beginning to show; a semi parked nearby sports a huge rebel flag.

The driver pumps gas, adds oil and STP, and checks the tires. Other men, especially the unattached ones, stand around as if partaking in a macho ritual, doing nothing but giving silent support. Eventually, all go inside to use the facilities or buy more junk food.

I glance at the postcard rack, in part to see what kind of civic treasures the local fathers deem worthy of advertising to tourists. Here's one--an extremely plain Farm Bureau building.

What a stupid postcard! I ask myself, Why in the world would anybody buy a postcard of the Bloomington Farm Bureau building? Two seconds later I buy it.

"Mister, can you help me? Will you win this for me?" Pigtail asks. She sees an arcade game, the type where a claw has to grab a prize, and has her heart set on a stuffed animal.

The girl gives me a quarter, and I give it a go. No luck. Then I pull out a couple of my own quarters. The claw brushes against the stuffed toy, but the animal remains inside its glass "cage."

Businessman and Businesswoman appeared settled in for a long night's sleep, but they finally leave the van. Instead of buying more junk food, they head for the truck stop's restaurant and eat a leisurely meal. We end up waiting for them.

Sunday, September 20, 2 AM. Everyone is asleep now, except the driver and me. The driver nods his head in rhythm as the cassette player sings out, "My heart is broken, my woman left me, and even my dog bites me."

It's easy to tell the family units; they're all leaning on each other. Blue Jacket and her family are huddled together. So are Businessman and Businesswoman, and even the five people going to San Luis Potosi.

We stop somewhere in Missouri, across the interstate from the Mule Tradin' Post. I'm the only one besides the driver who gets out of the van. While the driver pumps gas, I examine a gift store specializing in Spuds MacKenzie memorabilia, then buy a candy bar.

6 AM. We're in the Ozarks. Even if the hills themselves don't leave much of an impression, the word "Ozark" on every available billboard and barn gives a clue to the location.

How about Ozark Ike's Catfish Pond? Or the Ozark Inn, where diners can eat "country ham"? And Ozark Village, with its gifts, T-shirts, moccasins, fireworks--the kind of place that kids love to pester their parents to visit?

Businessman shows no interest at all in the Ozarks. From the dawn's first light, he began reading a book on witchcraft. He'll read it the rest of the way to the border.

7 AM. A place called the Safari Inn, somewhere inside the African republic of Oklahoma, is the latest pit stop. Most passengers grab a quick cup of coffee. Businessman and Businesswoman stop for a complete breakfast.

Ranchero has made this trip many times before, and is not enchanted with the driver. "Usually this trip takes about 25 hours. But this time it will take about 30; he makes too many stops," Ranchero comments.

"I'm going to Reynosa, to visit my family," he continues. "It's about a three-hour bus ride from Laredo. My wife and I live in Chicago. I work there as a landscaper. My wife's Mexican, but from Chicago. She doesn't like crossing the border. She says, 'It's a whole different world over there.'"

AM. The three kids behind me are wide awake, even though their parents are dead asleep. Little Boy sucks a milk bottle and looks back longingly from the seat in front of me. He wishes he could join them.

They split the territory, the little girl looking out the left window, the boys out the right. One of the boys spots a dozen trucks lying idle. "Mira! Maquina!" he screams. They point to animals: "Caballo" (horse) or "Chivo" (goat), shouting the names as they see them. They're having a great time.

One of the beasts off to the left lets drop a few horse apples. The little girl shouts "Caballo merde!" and her brothers squeal in delight. Isn't this trip fun?

Little Boy burps his milk. He tries to spit out the window. Instead, his discarded milk ends up on his face--and mine.

11 AM. It's raining hard, and the roof starts to leak--not an overwhelming leak, but the kind of continuous drip that would be miserable for anyone sitting under it. Fortunately, no one is.

The steady raindrops act like pinpricks on the ponds that share the landscape with rolling hills, trees, and marigolds. It's hard to identify this verdant country with the dust bowl Woody Guthrie sang about in the 30s.

We approach Muskogee, Oklahoma, USA, a town that lives up to its Merle Haggard image. Motels here like to mark themselves as "American owned"--as if the Japanese are in any hurry to take over downtown Muskogee.

Signs advertise Boot Hill western clothing, the Rose nightclub, the 5 Civilized Tribes museum, and the Oklahoma Correctional Center. A billboard invites us to visit Historic Muskogee and mentions a navy submarine in the casual tone that leads one to believe that subs are logical landscape features of a town located 400 miles inland.

The adults might have been interested in all these attractions. But all are asleep except for Ranchero (now driving) and Businessman and Businesswoman, who are comparing notes on the witchcraft book.

Noon. What a scene! An overturned panel truck in the ditch to the right of the road; a U-Haul trailer on the median surrounded by suitcases, boxes, clothes, a stove, and a small bicycle; a truck with an attached trailer, and three beautifully restored Model T Fords with logos of a Texas-to-Alaska trip painted on their sides. They are joined by our van, with its tires and goods piled high on top, looking like a modern-day Mexican version of The Grapes of Wrath.

"Everyone appears to be all right, but the kids are plenty scared," said one Model T driver. "The panel truck driver sideswiped me, then tried to right himself. His trailer broke off and spilled its contents, causing the truck to skid and overturn in the ditch."

Aside from a busted windshield, the small truck appears serviceable, although it's unlikely that any tow trucks are available on a Sunday this far into the Bible Belt. It turns out that this, too, is a Chicago-to-Laredo express. The truck's driver fears that his passengers will have to wait for the company to send a replacement van all the way from Chicago.

After Blue Jacket helps an elderly woman by putting her arm in a sling, a middle-aged man wearing a cowboy hat and string tie approaches her. His card identifies him as the Reverend B.G. Ford. He's the one who owns the truck and trailer.

Reverend Ford has told the other truck's passengers that he has a mission in Laredo and will gladly haul their goods to the mission while they wait for a replacement vehicle. He makes the same offer to Blue Jacket. She shoots him a look of disdain usually reserved for snake oil vendors.

1 PM. Lunch time. We stop just outside McAlester, at a McDonald's. People now go their separate ways. The Potosinos sit at one table, Blue Jacket and her family at another, the driver and Baseball Cap at a third (so far, Baseball Cap has spoken only to the driver during the trip; I never do find out who he is or where he's going), Leather Jacket and Ranchero at another. Businessman and Businesswoman eat apart from the others, at a Pizza Inn.

The McDonald's contains the cast of characters one might expect at such an establishment on a Sunday afternoon: an Air Force officer and his corn-fed bride, stepping out of a car still soaped "Just Married"; a man in coat and tie; a handful of senior citizens; scattered groups of teenyboppers.

Near the restrooms sit three or four tables of immaculately scrubbed teenagers and one adult. A Sunday school van directly outside hints at their previous location.

This group stops all action when one teenager walks in--a shapely girl clad in bikini bottom, sweatshirt, shades, and a straw hat. A few of the squeaky-clean teenagers attempt to say hello to her. But Miss Cool has better things to do than mingle with her social inferiors. She strolls right by them and into the bathroom without acknowledging their existence. A couple of minutes later she emerges, and struts out of the restaurant without speaking a word to anyone. The squeaky-cleans, apparently used to such snubs, resume their conversations as if nothing had happened.

Businessman and Businesswoman again keep everyone waiting. Some of the others mumble their displeasure.

1:30 PM. Back on the road. Everyone is in a quiet mood--all except for Little Boy. He shouts and squeals and calls sister Pigtail a cow and a horse and a goat. Most others are polite but irritated. Mama tries to ignore him. Finally she grabs him and places him next to the window.

3:30 PM. "Don't mess with Texas--up to $400 fine," an antilittering warning, is the first sign you see in the Lone Star State. Then comes "Welcome to Texas." Only a matter of feet past these signs lies a tourist attraction--a roadside stand offering photos atop a live Texas longhorn. Little Boy wants to stop. His request, needless to say, is not heeded.

4:10 PM. Another rest stop, this one in Sherman, Texas. There's a stand full of baseball caps--Bud, Miller, Seagram's. One cap declares "Old fart's wife."

Ranchero looks at the soda pop selection. "It's a hard choice," he says. "I'm tired of all of them."

Outside, Leather Jacket examines the spare tire, as worn as the left one in front. He's going to Guanajuato to visit his family, and he doesn't want any delays. "I don't know about this. If we lose a tire, we're in trouble," he moans.

The driver fiddles with the van's radio, hoping to find a station with some Mexican music, or maybe a football or baseball game. No luck. All he gets is a local station airing a lost dog announcement.

He turns the cassette player back on and flips in another tape. Out comes something that roughly translates as "Sure, I'd love to be your brother-in-law, but I have to have your sister first."

5 PM. Metropolitan Dallas begins precisely at the Dallas county line. We're entering the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, a word as ugly as the thing it describes.

Miles and miles of glass towers reminiscent of the O'Hare corridor provide the first sights of Dallas. These are intermingled with gray-and-red pseudocolonial apartment buildings that give new meaning to the word tacky. I begin to wonder if Dallas really has a downtown.

We finally reach downtown Dallas, with its old brick skyscrapers surrounded by glass office buildings and hotels, and the obligatory tower with rotating restaurant on top. Everyone perks up at the sight of the big city. The little kids in back become especially excited when they see a downtown building trimmed in pink, aqua, and gold glass.

Dallas contains other sights worth noting. An arena called Sportstown offers "Wrestling Weekly." A billboard notifies us of Texas Safari (What's going on here? First the Safari Inn, now Texas Safari. Is the American southwest thinking of annexing itself to Africa?), a "scenic drive-through" with "more than 2,000 animals."

At the north end of town a gigantic figure who looks like Alfred E. Neuman stands over Ken's Mufflers. At the south end, Bud and Ben's Mufflers also has a giant statue, this one a generic dark-haired man. If I needed a new muffler, there would be no contest; would you want Alfred E. Neuman working on your car?

6:30 PM. At last we're out of the metroplex and back into the open country. After more than 24 hours on the road in a confined van we are beginning to become a bit--shall we say, ripe? I'm glad this bus isn't going to Guatemala.

Little Boy has been active all afternoon--active as in rambunctious, active as in pain in the rear end. His mama, Blue Jacket, long ago gave up trying to quiet him. His sister, Pigtail, only eggs him on.

Hey there, people up front. Can I borrow that book on witchcraft?

7 PM. We pass Waco, home of Baylor University, a very Baptist school. A friend who went there once told me that they have a huge ballroom donated to the school with the provision that no dance ever be held there.

It reminds me of the old joke. Why don't Baptists perform certain physical activities standing up? They're afraid it might lead to dancing!

Little Boy at long last has gone to sleep. Pigtail and the three little Potosinos now engage in a game. They're adding up numbers. Occasionally Pigtail asks me to translate the numbers from Spanish to English for her. Then she writes them with her finger on the seat, drawing a line under the invisible addends and totaling them up.

Often as not, Pigtail gets the wrong sum--a cause for great, giggling celebration among the three little kids. Their mama, Print Dress, beams; her kids are smarter than this big girl. Their papa, Silk Shirt, isn't saying much. But you can tell that he's proud, too.

PM. We stop just north of Austin, on a street that has a Mexican restaurant on one side and a 7-Eleven on the other. Most of the passengers go for a snack at the convenience store. Businessman opts for the restaurant. I join him.

"We've been working as importers, mainly plants for nurseries," he says between sips of beer. "But things are so rough. Last May, we had $7,000 worth of goods confiscated at the border."

I ask him about his wife's plans to open a school in Cuernavaca. "Ahh, she's dreaming, she doesn't know what she's talking about," he comments after a forkful of enchilada.

Businesswoman and the driver enter the restaurant, and conversation turns to Little Boy, who disturbed the other passengers all afternoon. I tell him I wanted to borrow the witchcraft book and use it.

"Me too," says Businessman. He takes an invisible book in both hands and raises it over his head, then bam! comes down hard on the table.

That wasn't exactly what I had in mind.

As we reenter the van Ranchero asks me, "Those enchiladas were good, huh?" in a tone that reminded me that enchilada dinners obviously were not in everyone's budget.

11 PM. New Braunfels, Texas, a town somewhere between Austin and San Antonio, comes into view. I passed through here years ago; it was a pleasant small town with a nice German restaurant. Now it has become part of suburban San Antonio, complete with unappetizing housing developments. An oil refinery works away outside of town, lighting up the black nighttime sky like a huge orange castle.

"When do we get to Texas?" Pigtail asks me. I tell her that we've been in Texas since mid-afternoon. "Oh," she says, "I thought that was Dallas we passed through."

Blue Jacket explains her family's journey. Her mother is ill in Laredo. Since Chicago public schools are on strike, including the Pilsen school her daughters attend, she decided to take the kids along. Her husband, a construction worker, can't get time off work.

"I hate Komensky School," she comments. "It's dirty and old. They're supposed to build a new school to replace it. But when they get it fixed up, the gangs will probably just mess it up again anyway."

She was born in Laredo, but came to Chicago with her family when young. Her parents retired and returned to the border town two years ago. "I'd like to move back to Laredo, but there's no work. My father moved us from there years ago. He was a contractor who charged $800 per job, but Mexicans from Mexico undercut his fees."

Later. At last, we reach Laredo. For the last two hours, from San Antonio, there has been absolutely nothing on or near the road. Interstate 35, the artery cutting through central Texas from Dallas to Waco to Austin to San Antonio to Laredo, abruptly stops.

We travel up a side street to let off Blue Jacket and her family. One loud hound dog greets the van. Several neighbor dogs join the serenade. But no humans are roused by our presence.

The driver stops and unwraps the tarp. Then Baseball Cap climbs up to hand down the family's luggage. Wouldn't you know, their bags are near the absolute bottom. Down come the Indian red suitcases. Down comes the picnic table. Finally, Teenage Girl gets her shocking purple bag, Pigtail her shocking pink one, and Blue Jacket two nondescript suitcases. When Blue Jacket goes to the door to wake her family, Leather Jacket and Baseball Cap replace the other luggage atop the van.

Five or six blocks later, we reach a vacant lot opposite a gas station. This is it, end of ride. Once again, Baseball Cap mounts the truck. This time all the goods come down.

It's a two-block walk to the international bridge and Mexico. Ranchero, Leather Jacket, and Baseball Cap head in that direction. "Jesus Christ, it's four o'clock in the morning!" complains Leather Jacket. "No it isn't, it's only three o'clock!" argues Ranchero.

The Potosinos, complete with four huge boxes, picnic table, and half a dozen suitcases, are trying to find a cab. By some miracle, they manage to hail one.

Businessman and Businesswoman, their Indian red suitcases in hand, march toward a hotel. I follow them. They check out one hotel, but decide that it's no bargain at $30 per night. Then they find an acceptable one--only $23.

I've got time to kill before the banks open; I need to cash traveler's checks. But as far as I'm concerned, it's not worth the effort to rent a hotel room for only a couple of hours. I roam back to the empty lot to see how the San Luis Potosi family was going to maneuver all that luggage.

The family must have gotten a bargain rate on miracles; all the luggage and the five-member family fit in the taxi. The camioneta driver, assured that the family is all right, leaves for his apartment. And I carry my backpack and gym bag, wandering off to find a place where I can nurse a leisurely cup of coffee at three o'clock (or is it four o'clock?) in the morning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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