Sitting in the small café in Vaughn in the middle of December 1997, a warm bowl of chile on the table before me, I waited for an epiphany that wasn’t coming. My brother sat across from me, studying the slices of roast beef on his plate, unsure how much trust to grant the unseen cook. I stirred my chile with my spoon, looking out the window at the small central New Mexico town. This place meant something to my family. It was a part of our history, and disproportionately small for the amount of attention it still received. I had come to Vaughn to understand the town and the role it played in our lives, but I wasn’t breaking through. I’d expected some sudden revelation, but all that had come to me so far was “A good bowl of chile can be eaten with a fork.”
What my family should remember about moving from cold Vermont to warm New Mexico is this: Dad telling us we were moving to a city called, of all things, Truth or Consequences, then rolling into that city two months later in our blue Ford Econoline van, just as the Fourth of July fireworks were zoning the sky into neighborhoods of red, white, and blue; the air smelling of sparklers and heat and desert, scents that eagerly introduced themselves to our inexperienced East Coast noses. Or checking in at Travelers Lodge, cabin 10, my dad unpacking as the TV news relayed the latest from the Watergate hearings, my brother and I standing outside and watching the sky change colors. Or Mom, no doubt thinking our great cross-country leap of faith was full of more Consequence than Truth, slipping quietly into the bathroom to cry.
But over time, the memories of that journey have somehow rearranged themselves in our heads. When we look back, it isn’t the fireworks that first come to mind, or the smells, or our first glimpses of that town with the funny name. Memories have a pecking order all their own, and those images have been relegated to second place.
First place, it seems, has been reserved for our breakdown in Vaughn.
Each member of my family recalls something different from our breakdown. Mom remembers the rancher who stopped alongside our disabled van on the highway out in the vast, open plains, telling us that the town of Vaughn was “just up a ways,” and promising to have a tow truck come pick us up if we waited in the 90-degree heat. (Air conditioning was not a standard feature in vans sold in Vermont.) We sat as still as possible, not moving or talking, afraid that any disturbance of the air would push the heat around unnecessarily. My brother remembers the one-armed mechanic who came shortly thereafter, towing the van, and us along with it, into town. I remember bugging my mother for a penny in the garage so I could get a gum ball. The garage was noisy with metal upon metal sounds, and the air felt oily, and I got a black gum ball, my least favorite flavor. My father remembers the mechanic saying, “Your gas needs air,” and fixing the van by simply loosening the gas cap.
Our Vaughn experience lasted an hour at the most, but it was our first real interaction with New Mexico. Unfortunately, the experience was a negative one, and a bad feeling transferred onto the town and stuck. We survived, of course, and the intervening 25 years changed our lives significantly for the better. My parents ran the Montgomery Ward store in T or C, giving my brother and me a comfortable middle-class upbringing, and for years we looked back at our initial fear of this new place and laughed. If we’d only known then how well things would turn out for us. But our happy opinion of our home didn’t extend to Vaughn. It took only a passing mention of Vaughn on the evening news, or an article in the paper, to make us all cringe and ask, “Remember the time...?”
Vaughn teased us occasionally through the years. My brother was trapped there in a snowstorm once coming home from college in Portales. My parents often had to tell impatient Montgomery Ward customers that the delivery truck bringing their catalog order had been delayed en route from Vaughn, the town being somehow a hot spot for vehicle breakdowns. Later, when my mother became a police dispatcher, she received reports on accidents and hazardous road conditions from Vaughn. I thought of the town whenever I tasted a black gum ball. Vaughn hovered in our peripheral vision, raising its hand to remind us of the role it had played in our odyssey.
Why was Vaughn so insistent on sticking in our heads, when it evoked only negative feelings in us? I wanted to know. I wanted to find Vaughn.
So here we were. My brother and I had driven from one end of town to the other a few times that morning, looking. The highway makes an arc through town, like a comma in the road, encouraging you to pause briefly before rushing on. We saw a shop that might have been the very one that fixed our van that day 25 years ago. We saw motels and the train depot, once the site of one of Fred Harvey’s namesake eateries. They were reminders that Vaughn, from its birth as a watering spot along early cattle trails to its role as a division point of two separate railroads, had welcomed its share of weary travelers over many years. It seemed like a nice enough place—which didn’t make any sense. This was not the Vaughn that had worked its way into family legend as our terrible antagonist. I looked out the café window, through the strands of green and silver garland and the sprayed-on snow misspelling felix navidad. I was missing something.
We paid for our meal and left. But I had one last stop to make. I drove across the street to an empty lot that had intrigued me earlier. The foundations of an old building snaked around the edge of the grounds, a few walls and rooms still intact. From its hard U shape, the structure looked like it might once have been a motel. An old sign marked the driveway entrance: two metal posts rising about 15 feet from a weed-covered cement base, the left post canting at a slight angle to cross the other, then becoming an arrow that pointed the way to the building. Soldered between the posts were two square metal frames, which had once formed the face of the sign, the top frame a faded green, and the bottom a mixture of pink paint and gray metal. Rusted sockets that had once held neon tubing spelled a word in each frame, still legible.
I stepped out of the car to take some photographs while my brother stayed inside, accustomed to my fascination with insignificant things. The December air was chilly, a sharp contrast to that hot July day so many years before. I could see that the Ideal Motel’s come-on-in arsenal had once included a gas station in the courtyard, a nice way for the motel to tell its customers, “I know this is just a one-night stand. No hard feelings.” The sign proved photogenic. Its paint had faded, but not its spirit—still flagging down motorists with its now irrelevant boast.
Looking at the sign was like looking at an old calendar, full of reminders significant only in the past tense. You could look at this sign and see only a relic of what had once been. Or you could just as easily see something entirely different. The sign was persistent, even hopeful, continuing to fulfill its mission long after its lights had gone dark and the motel it advertised had shut down. Posts now rusting, its arrow now pointing to an empty lot, the sign still managed somehow to convey optimism, not irony.
In that faded optimism I suddenly found Vaughn.
Vaughn stuck to our memories because we had done it a disservice. We were looking at this town, unfairly, in the negative, seeing only the rusted reminder of what it meant to us, and not the hope that existed here. To us, Vaughn was “the place we broke down.” The truth is, Vaughn was the place that helped us when we broke down. What if Vaughn hadn’t come to our rescue back then? What would have happened to us in that heat?
Vaughn was not the terrible place where my brother was stranded for three days in a snowstorm—it was the place he was lucky enough to drive into, that offered him food and drinks and a comfortable warm blanket, keeping him safe from the deadly winter storm. It wasn’t a hot spot for truck breakdowns—it was the friendly spot in the road where motorists in trouble could find their salvation. This little town “just up a ways” was the Clara Barton of Highway 60.
We had misjudged Vaughn. Knowing we would eventually come around, Vaughn had decided to stick with us until we realized our mistake. The proof of that was staring at me now, in faded green and pink and rusted metal.
“Took you long enough,” the Ideal Motel seemed to say.
That beautiful sign was unable to give up its past, but I could give up mine, and I vowed I would. Vaughn and I were going to be good friends.