On the road with Cactus Jack

Cactus Jack is an odd-looking character. He sits at the base of my truck's radio antenna, which is skewering upward through him like a shish kabob. He is green, fitting for a cactus, and has on a red cowboy hat and red sunglasses. Around his neck and the base of his face, much like the Lone Ranger, sits a red, white and blue bandana. Cactus Jack is not a big man 8 inches tall. His arms are permanently bent backward. I guess that is due to me blazing across the Navajo Nation in Northeast Arizona.

I had been looking for Cactus Jack for several years. Cindy, my deceased wife, and I had discussed my quest while she was still alive. Although a simple man, he always seems to be having a good time. He kind of reminded me of Edward Abbey a man on a continual quest for nature and beauty and the good things in life, and a bit of a rebel. I found him when I stopped in a huge, sleazy truck stop on I-40 in Arizona, before a northerly turn would take me through the Navajo Nation. I approached a greasy haired kid at the counter and asked, "Do you sell Cactus Jack guys you know, the funky deals that fit over the antenna on your truck?" He lifted his right arm and pointed to several vertical rows of Cactus Jacks in various colors combinations. "Ah, I have found the Holy Grail!!" I exclaimed excitedly. At this point, he thought I was way too excited for someone who had just found some rubber cactus deals in a truck stop, and pretended to get busy. I pulled several down, checked out their wardrobes and figured the one with the red, white, and blue bandana and the red cowboy hat and sunglasses would not only be patriotic but go with my red truck. I had found my Cactus Jack.

I roamed excitedly out to the parking lot, the fumes from idling 18-wheelers mixing with the smell of hot asphalt. The temperature showed 104 degrees. I pulled him out of the bag, slid him over my bug covered antenna, slid down the bright red hat and capped it off with the little O ring that had been crammed in the corner of the bag to prevent the hat from flying off. I looked around to see if any of the truckers had watched my ceremony. Luckily, I was alone.

I wheeled out of the truck stop and onto I-40 for several miles. Cactus Jack's arms were blowing wildly in the wind, but he seemed to be really enjoying himself. My destination was Canyon De Chelly, an immense, spectacular canyon filled with Anasazi ruins. Cindy had done a whirlwind afternoon there some years ago on a trip from Phoenix. We had talked about going there together sometime. We always had a list of trips on the agenda, with several dates locked in for the upcoming months. This was one of those trips we never had a chance to do together one of a thousand.

I passed a flash flood sign that seemed like an oxymoron, kind of like the icy road signs I see around Durango in the summer, as the smoke of a distant forest fire wafts to the heavens. There was a hitchhiker on the shoulder of the road. His face was tanned with the leathery appearance of an old Western saddle. I wondered how he ended up in the middle of the Navajo Reservation looking for a ride. As my mind drifted, I was snapped back into reality by a tumbleweed crashing across the desert. The sign on the side of the road said "Many Farms." I wondered how there could be many, let alone one. These people live a long way from everywhere, and food could become as scarce as a trout in "Dry Wash" another parched arroyo I had just passed.

Cactus Jack has another advantage on me since he has no need for food or drink. This allows him to spend even more time on the hood of my truck looking longingly into the distance of a sketchy county road running through the heart of the reservation.

When I drive a road like this, I tend to spend more time looking away from the road than at the road. Cindy would get on me about this. Truth is, she enjoyed the landscapes that we drove or hiked through as much as I did, and we could just listen to some good tunes and cruise through scenic country for hours. Conversation at times was not important the landscape rolling out in front of the truck was the center of attention.

Across my other shoulder, a dust devil ripped at the parched, cracked landscape and sent a towering funnel cloud up into the hazy sky. I assumed the big, red sunglasses that hugged Cactus Jack's face would protect his beady little eyes from the dust swirling around him.

A bent road sign signaled a turn off for Rough Rock, and Canyon De Chelly soon after that. Long story short, I gathered the information that I needed at the visitor center for my upcoming journey. I had a nice chat with a cute, young, tanned gal behind the counter. Her park service uniform was creaseless. She seemed to know the area well, and I wondered if she knew how lucky she was to be stationed there. This would be a job she would look back for the rest of her life. I wheeled back out onto the lonely county road, potholes bouncing my truck around, as Cactus Jack thrashed wildly.

The desert and the canyon country were a huge part of the life that Cindy and I shared. The many hikes we had done, the many camp sites we had occupied, the red rocks at sunset, the white cliffs nearby, the canyon wrens chirping in the morning, the occasional hummingbird flirting by, the cactus blooming in the spring, the water found in the most precious of spots like gold to a prospector all added up to the total experience we shared so many times. The canyon and desert are so beautiful and rejuvenating and invigorating. They can feel lonely and desolate one minute, full of life the next. I wished that Cindy would have known Cactus Jack, but then again I have a lot of thoughts that I wish Cindy would have been part of today, or yesterday, or tomorrow, or the day after that.

As I reflect on my trip with Cactus Jack, I can't help but think how his arms seem to be permanently bent backward. At times during the last several months since Cindy's accident I, too, have felt like my arms were bent backward, blowing madly in the wind. However, unlike Cactus Jack, whose little green arms appear to be forever bent in a contorted, funky direction, I can straighten mine out. I can raise them to the heavens and move them forward, much like I need to do and am doing. Although I have felt like Cactus Jack at times, and continue to, I must go on. I need to remain on a continual quest for nature and beauty and the good things in life. Cindy would have liked Cactus Jack. I see a little bit of her in him.

-Jerry Harms



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