Driving across northern New Mexico, I fiddle with the truck radio, looking for just the right vacation soundtrack. I stumble across Johnny Cash's cover of "Riders in the Sky," a four-minute ghost story about the fate that awaits bad cowboys: "Cause they've got to ride forever on that range up in the sky/On horses snorting fire/As they ride on, hear their cry." I'm deep in country-music territory, a land of rough characters, tough luck, and bad breaks, where art often imitates life, and vice versa.
Pulling into the middle of Las Vegas, New Mexico, in my rented Ford Ranger pickup, I am immediately introduced to the town's motorcycle posse, a group of twenty or so Harley riders circling the plaza like a modern-day Wild Bunch. These aren't accountants on a motorcycle trip. The plaza in Las Vegas is where a United States Army general in 1846 formally declared New Mexico American territory. These guys look as though they might be getting ready to take it back, and on the Fourth of July no less.
I head for a saloon, to wait out the revolution. "I'm sorry, we're all out of those," explains a waitress in the Plaza Hotel's bar when I order a bottle of a particular Santa Fe microbrew. Really? She reconsiders. "Well," she says, looking around the room, "I guess you look okay. I'll be right back." A few minutes later she reappears, carrying a bottle low against her black apron. She slides it surreptitiously across the table. "It's just that, you know," she stammers, "we don't like to hand out bottles on the Fourth." And this is the nicest place for a hundred miles.
The crowd, though, does appear unpredictable: lots of single men in small groups, half-talking, half-arguing over drinks while a Chicano house band covers Sixties rock and surf tunes. Whining guitar leads only add to the edge. Locals forced to drink bad beer from tin cans eye my longneck with envy. I down my beer and beat a hasty retreat to my pickup, where Willie Nelson waits for me, offering solace and words of wisdom: "The night life ain't a good life/But it's my life."
I picked up a copy of the red-headed stranger's greatest hits earlier in the trip and, so far, he's been good company, providing sometimes humorous, sometimes sardonic commentary to go along with the sometimes beautiful, sometimes monotonous landscape. Track 13 on this particular collection, "Half a Man," just may be the greatest ode to misplaced love ever waxed: "If I'd only had one arm to hold you/Better yet, if I'd had none at all/I'd more closely resemble the half a man that you've made of me." Now that's classic country.
Only problem, of course, is that kind of music makes a body thirsty. For something stronger than beer. Pulling out the guidebook, I decide to make a stop at Silva's Saloon, a watering hole just north of Albuquerque, in the desert hamlet of Bernalillo. According to my source, customers may have to knock to get in, since the place is sometimes locked to keep out "ruffians." Fine, so long as they use real glasses.
"Here, try this," says Felix Silva, offering me the house specialty, a margarita on the rocks. "If you don't like it," he adds, "I'll drink it." This is a man who stands behind his product. "My father opened this place in 1933," he says, pointing to a photo taken around that time showing horses lined up outside the establishment's front door. "This was a frontier town."
And, indeed, Silva's is a time capsule. The walls are covered with vintage posters, advertisements, and 60 years' worth of customer photos. Unopened 70-year-old bottles of booze line the shelves on one side of the bar. A row of Elvis Presley dolls and whiskey decanters in the King's likeness sit on the top shelf on the other side, closest to the door. It's rumored the last song Elvis ever sang was the Fred Rose country ballad "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." He sang it, the story goes, on the final night of his life, sitting behind his piano at home, barely loud enough for anyone else in the house to hear. True or not, it sounds right.
"Oh, it was terrible," says Patty, a woman in her seventies sitting all the way at the end of the bar, one of only three other customers in the joint. Patty, after too many Marlboros a day for too many years, is hooked up to a portable oxygen tank. "His mother told me not to trust him, but I did." From the way Patty emphasizes the word, one suspects Momma knew best. "I gave him a place to stay. So what happens? I come home one day and my TV's gone, my VCR's gone, and he's cleaned out all my liquor, those little airplane bottles I keep." A couple of the other patrons shake their heads in sympathy. Silva, laughing, can't help needling his long-time customer: "And got you pregnant, too, didn't he?"
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Patty, adjusting the plastic tubes that run under her nose, shoots the saloonkeeper a look. "You know what Evelyn would say to you, don't you?" she asks him. Silva laughs.
"Yeah. I don't like that word coming from anybody else," he says. "But when it came out of her mouth, it was poetry."
Evelyn, who was called to the big roundup in the sky last year, was one of the establishment's best and most colorful customers. Silva points to a photo of her and Patty celebrating a Saint Patrick's Day at the saloon. Gesturing directly overhead to the various hats that hang from the rafters, Silva finds Evelyn's green stovepipe. "It used to be mine," says Patty, "but I thought I'd go first, so I gave it to her." She and Silva stare up at the hat.
"You know, Evelyn once went on a pilgrimage with her mother to Rome," recalls Silva, looking, perhaps, to inject a lighter mood. "They got to the Vatican at exactly the time the pope stands at his window. Everybody except Evelyn started heading toward the Vatican, so her mother asks, Don't you want to see the pope?' and Evelyn says, Ah, fuck the pope, I'm going to get a drink.'" Silva and Patty both smile. Some country songs are just waiting to be written.