It was only by chance Escondita, Texas was the birthplace of underground novelist Salvador Bass. What is now the Salvador Bass museum was once just a Texaco gas station on a long stretch of desert highway.
In his early years the creator of the Bathtub Surrealim movement could be seen wearing old man’s clothes, selling his books out of a suitcase at gas stations, car washes, rest stops, and yard sales across southwest Texas.
In his latter years he was a highly sought-after recluse who only talked to a handful of people he trusted.
This group included, at various times, myself, a reporter named Chris Pharaoh and Jimmy Constantino, a former used book salesman who became Salvador’s manager, publisher and friend.
I stayed with Salvador and his wife for a weekend to interview him for his biography and found much of it already written.
Left for Dead in Escondita was Salvador’s early life
I’m not saying everything he wrote actually happened but he certainly experienced it.
All I could do was try to gain insight on how Salvador’s unconventional upbringing contributed to his curious creative process.
I promised not to disclose the location of his ranch but I can tell you it is much like the ranch where he grew up.
He writes every morning in a bathtub facing a window, overlooking a pond. He watches his wife Agatha work the pigs and goats and writes things significant to him.
He said in one of his few published interviews, “Make sure every word matters. If something is worth describing it should be significant.”
Sometimes he walks to town and, although people know him there, they respect his privacy. He’s not as reclusive as people think. He goes to book club meetings at the library and the supermarket.
I discovered the work of Salvador Bass by chance shortly after taking a teaching job at Alamosa State. While thrift store shopping for my new apartment, I came across a dog-eared copy of Left for Dead in Escondita. I was sold by the cover alone with its ‘80 graphic of a West Texas highway disappearing into the desert mountains. The road was lined with cacti with a Texaco gas station in the horizon.
On the back in large, bold capital letters the words: HAVE YOU SEEN MY FATHER?
The blurb describes Bass's debut novel, as the story of a man who hires a metaphysical detective in search of his father. What follows is a road trip across the highways of the west Texas desert and the mind. Will Salvador find out his father, and if he does, will the man tell him why he was Left for Dead in Escondita?
Salvador told me, during our interview, he didn’t like that blurb and obviously it was written by someone who never read the book.
Below the blurb was a black and white photo of Bass taken in his early twenties on a hike in the desert. His floppy felt hat, walking stick and baggy clothes made him look like a mystical seeker to his readers.
The book, printed with a first edition of 2,000 copies, was not a bestseller. It made its way into homes after the copies turned up in thrift stores to join staples such as Cosmos by Carl Sagan, The Joy of Cooking and Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care.
The unusual circumstances which placed the copies in the hands of fans across the state amazed Salvador. Be he could not even imagine how technology would help spread his work worldwide and eventually make him a cult figure.
His style still confounds critics: Is it a fictional account or third-person autobiography? Is he a genius or fraud?
Bass is like a psychologist who won’t tell you why characters act a certain way but will show you through their actions and speech.
What follows is a narrative based on interviews with Bass while visiting the secluded farm where he lives with his wife Agatha.
Rodge Farlowe, Professor Department of English
Alamosa State University
Salvador’s father was a trucker and his mother was a waitress. They met as he was passing through the West Texas college town of Alamosa. She worked in one of the grease pit restaurants just off campus.
She served him at the bar. He ordered black coffee and she noticed his blue eyes, sandy blond hair and a short but scruffy mustache. He needed a shave but, unlike most other truck drivers, was well-dressed in a plaid shirt, jeans and new cowboy boots.
“Married,” she thought.
He left a $5 bill and smiled as he left.
That night she dreamed about his blue eyes squinting as he smiled, and thought about him until he showed up a week later.
This time he came in an hour before closing time. He ordered black coffee again but this time he got a refill.
“When you get off?” He said. “Want to grab a Beer?”
“I have to close,” she said.
“How bout I grab a six pack and meet you when you get off,” he said.
“Never have been, he said.
“How old are you?”
“27 he said.”
He went and bought a sixer of Bud bottles and waited in the parking lot for her to get off.
He drank two beers by the time she came outside.
“Live in your truck?” She said.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “It’s not so bad, sometimes I get a room after a long haul.”
“What are you hauling?” She said.
“Windows,” he said. “Out of San Antone, headed out to El Paso.”
She chugged a beer. He offered her another.
“I need to head home,” she said. “I have to work a double tomorrow.”
“Live alone?” He said. “I mean you got a boyfriend?”
“No I live with my friend,” she said. “She works here too. We moved out here to go to school.”
“Think your boss would mind if I park here for the night?” He said. “I try not to drink and drive.”
“Sure,” she said. “We have truckers park here all the time. Thanks for the beer.”
“Anytime,” he said. Thanks for the company.”
She drove off in the car she and her roommate shared, her head in a light buzz. She glanced in her rearview mirror.
The next morning he was gone.
Over a month passed before she saw him again, and she was having a bad day when she did. Her roommate kept her up until 2 a.m. Drinking and arguing with her boyfriend.
The truck driver walked in during the dinner rush. He smiled from across the room and sat down at the bar. She brought him a cup of coffee and rolled her eyes.
Some drunk college boys were giving her a hard time and she dropped a dish and cut herself picking it up.
She took the dish to the kitchen, threw it in the trash, washed her hands and walked back to the bar.
She filled up the trucker’s coffee.
“Do you want to get out of here?” He said.
Without saying a word, she hung up her apron, gathered her tips, took his hand and pulled him out door.
They went to her apartment where her roommate was still passed out drunk and grabbed her things.
Her possessions were few, an old bible with a few loose family photos tucked between the pages, a laundry basket full of clothes. She packed her perfume and makeup into a shoebox.
She left her key on the kitchen counter and locked the door behind her
Life on the road was a beautiful adventure. It wasn’t just the feeling of freedom and exploration, but that someone in the world cared for her.
Both her parents were dead and her only brother was in jail. She was a woman without roots and, for first time, it didn't bother her.
She cleaned the empty coffee cups and newspapers from the sleeper and bought a truck stop Mexican blanket and a vanilla air freshener.
They stopped at a thrift store and she bought a few cassette tapes for the truck, he liked George and she liked Tammy, and a stack of paperbacks.
She had a trouble reading but she found she annoyed him if she talked too much. She liked mysteries because, even if they were made up, they were still plausible.
They lived on the road as he drove his routes.
He made her hide when he dropped off a load because he said he wasn’t supposed to have anyone else living in the truck.
He would drop her off at the laundromat while his truck was unloaded and she found she needed books here too. She saw women reading romance novels but that didn't appeal to her as was in the middle of an unexpected romance.
Once the truck was unloaded and he was payed, they would get a room and take showers and go out on the town.
Sometimes if he dropped off the whole trailer they would park at campgrounds along the highway. She liked the RV parks because some had swimming pools.
The next time they went to a thrift store she bought an electric skillet and coffee pot so she could make breakfast at the campsites.
She got pregnant with Salvador after three months on the road. This changed things because now after a big payday he still wanted to go to bars and she couldn't drink. He went anyway and came in drunk. She did laundry or read but was not happy.
They stopped at parks less and he was in a hurry to get back on the road. She asked him how she was going to raise a baby in a truck and suggested a small apartment along his route, somewhere in the middle like near Esconditia?
Escondita was nothing more than a Texaco gas station on Highway 10, about halfway between San Antonio and El Paso.
“There’s nothing there dear,” he said “But next time we pass through we’ll stop and take a look.”
The next time they passed through Escondita, however, she was in labor and it was literally the only place with electrify and running water for 20 miles in both directions. They pulled into the Texaco and she go the key and went to the restroom behind the store. He paid for $50 in diesel, and pumped as he put her belongings on the ground.
The gas station clerk saw a basket of clothes topped with an electric skillet and percolator as the man pulled away and got back on the road.