I stuffed a few things into my beat-up backpack. Socks, t-shirts, my sleeping bag. I felt nervous to go, but I couldn’t articulate why, exactly. The trip was just a quick Labor Day Weekend jaunt to Taos, New Mexico, where I’d been dozens of times. I’d spent many nights in the Forest Service campground where my girlfriend and I were planning to stay. I knew where to find the strongest coffee in town, the best breakfast burritos. Even so, I felt a sense of hesitation that bordered on terror as I packed, like something shadowy was prowling around outside my door. Whatever it was hadn’t figured out how to get inside yet, but it would sooner or later. This weird hesitation made me seriously consider calling off the trip and staying home to watch TV and order pizza. But no. As a seasoned traveler, I couldn’t allow myself to do such a thing. And for the sake of my mental health, I badly needed to get some miles under my wheels.
I never used to be scared to travel. Maybe, if I’d known what was good for me, I might have been. Being out in the world, on the road, has given me more than my fair share of frightening experiences. There was that ill-advised overnight bus ride from San Salvador to San Pedro Sula, and the time the secret police grilled me in Havana. Once, in the rural Uruguayan city of Treinta y Tres, I came home to find my front door dead-bolted from the inside, the burglars still in there, loading my stuff into their backpacks. People have pointed guns at me. I’ve been robbed, scammed, and propositioned for bribes. I’ve been too drunk or high in the bad part of town more times than I want to admit.
I’ve felt fear while traveling, but I’ve never been scared to take that first step out the door. That’s what keeps most people home, isn’t it? They’re afraid that something bad will happen out there, and the apprehension keeps them from having the experiences and opportunities they fantasize about. They just stay home and keep feeling jealous about other people’s pictures on social media.
Such worry had never occurred to me. Not until now, anyway. And certainly not while I was traveling within the borders of my own country. After all, I spoke the language, was familiar with the customs, and always knew that I could at least get a Subway sandwich.
What was wrong with me, I wondered as we hit the road. Was I finally getting old? Or had something else changed?
Of course something else had changed.
It was September 2020, and I lived in the United States of America. The government had severely mismanaged a deadly pandemic. Cases were still rising, long after other developed countries seemed to largely have everything under control. And, as if that wasn’t enough, the air was thick and toxic from wildfire smoke. Plus, there seemed to be the ever-impending threat of Civil War. The police kept killing people. Groups of leftists gathered to protest this brutality, and armed street fascists crawled out of the woodwork to oppose them, to “back the blue.” There had been assaults and fistfights and shootings. I was sure it was only a matter of time until someone threw a pipe bomb or did something even worse.
I have a complicated relationship with America, and the last thing I wanted was to be murdered by someone who saw me as the enemy.
These thoughts went through my mind as we stopped for gas in Walsenburg, Colorado. This, too, was a small town with which I was intimately acquainted. For a year, I lived in the high mountains between here and an even smaller town called Westcliffe. I’d driven up and down Interstate 25 more times than I could count. I’d probably spent more hours in this particular gas station’s parking lot than I had in some apartments I’d rented.
Because of the holiday weekend, the place was packed. Lines of cars waited at every pump, and there were probably two- or three-dozen people inside, waiting their turn to pay for fountain drinks or beef jerky or whatever. Maybe two-thirds of them wore facemasks. The other 33 percent seemed staunchly opposed to the practice. One couple (no masks) had on matching t-shirts that read, “The Governor is an Idiot.” I assumed they were referring to Jared Polis, who had issued a statewide mask mandate in mid-July.
Gathered outside the store was a group of bikers, leaning on their Harleys and talking. They looked cool at first, I thought, like punks maybe, but when I walked past them, I realized just how wrong I was. I could see, plastered on the back of one of their helmets, a sticker that showed an image of brass knuckles. Framed inside each of the four finger holes was a number. Together, they read “1488.” The fourteen stood for the fourteen-word slogan coined by the white supremacist David Lane: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” And the 88 was code for “Heil Hitler.” H is the eighth letter of the alphabet. They weren’t punks; they were Neo-Nazis, right here, right out in the open.
I was rattled for the rest of the drive. My little truck climbed up and over La Veta Pass and cut south at Fort Garland, under the shadow of Mt. Blanca. From there, we passed through what I consider to be some of the most beautiful country in the world, through the tiny towns of San Luis and Costilla, and finally into the dry forests outside of Questa, New Mexico.
In a campsite overlooking the Rio Grande Gorge, we set up our tent and strung a couple hammocks between juniper trees. Despite the natural beauty, despite the warm familiarity of the landscape, my nerves didn’t start to ease until the sun went down and the stars came out. Still, I worried. What if I’d never be able to travel again?
Or, maybe worse: What if the next time I traveled was to flee the country for good?
Nathaniel Kennon Perkins lives and works in Boulder, CO. He is the author of the novel Wallop (House of Vlad, 2020), the short story collection The Way Cities Feel to Us Now (Maudlin House, 2019), and the previous novel Cactus (Trident Press, 2018). His creative work and journalism have appeared in Triquarterly, American West, Berfrois, the Tico Times, the High Country News, and Keep This Bag Away From Children, among other places. Visit his website at www.nathanielkennonperkins.com and find him on Twitter and Instagram at @nkperkins.