The signposts of America were as invisible to us as we were to the rest of America. That point was underscored when we hit Tulsa, where we swapped buses one more time. The new one was packed solid, seats filled with grunge rockers, tight-jeaned cowboys and harried moms toting armfuls of kids. But joining this typical Greyhound scene was also another group of migrants--about two dozen sleepy, dark-skinned travelers who looked just like my companions, only with numbered stickers on their chests.
As the bus pulled out, they began counting off in Spanish. "No. 7, where's No. 7?" a man shouted. "OK, numero ocho, quien es ocho?"
"Are you guys from Texas?" I asked the one closest to me.
"Tijuana," he said.
"Where are you headed?"
"Slaughterhouse," he said. It was located in Indiana, or maybe Iowa. "Hogs," he added, closing his eyes. "Seven bucks an hour."
Somewhere in eastern Oklahoma, out on the Will Rogers Turnpike, the chicken trail and the pork trail had just crossed paths.
OUR NEW HOME
A full day after we'd left Texas, our trip finally ended in Anderson, Mo., about 10 miles north of the Hudson factory in Noel. The bus doesn't go into Noel. It doesn't actually go into Anderson, either. It just pulled onto the gravel shoulder and dropped us off on Highway 71. For a while, we stood there alone, bags scattered and cars whizzing by, wondering what to do next.
Then a yellow school bus trundled up and swung open its accordion door.
"Are you here for Hudson?" called out a plump woman sitting next to the driver. "Well, hop on."
They were taking us to the Ginger Blue. "You're going to have a good time up here," said the woman, herself a South Texas migrant, as the bus careened down a narrow backwoods road. This was Ozark country, limestone bluffs and mountain streams, ramshackle trailers and Confederate flags. "It's a pretty small, little redneck town," she conceded, "kind of prejudiced against Mexicans." She started coughing, swatting her chest with each gasp. The cold factory air had made her sick.
"But don't get me wrong--it's going to be great," she said. A few minutes later, as our bus came to a stop outside the Ginger Blue, she added: "Welcome to your new home."
The Ginger Blue's best days, we quickly discovered, were long gone. Built in 1915 on the banks of the Elk River, it had once been among southwestern Missouri's premiere resorts, boasting a cozy, barn-like lodge with Jacuzzi suites and honeymoon cabins, an antique-filled bar and a dock for renting canoes.
Now, wooden beams were sagging, paint was peeling, a swarm of flies surrounded the front door. Rusted appliances were piled outside and the swimming pool was a putrid swamp. A sign still said, "Ginger Blue Gift Shop," but the gift shop was not to be found. Old mattresses and used tires were stacked in the lobby. Cobwebs clung to an unlighted chandelier. Out by the road, a sign said that the whole thing was up for sale.
"Welcome to hell," Miguel said. "I think Freddy Krueger lives around here."
In the office, a burly, red-haired man told us to divide into groups of three, then gave each group one key. I went with Roberto and Antonio to Room 201.
We opened the door. Cockroaches scattered in all directions. The smell of urine hung in the air. The air-conditioner was busted. The wall above it was burned. A smoke detector had been yanked from the ceiling. The only window--a glass door that once led to a balcony that no longer existed--was smeared with nesting bugs.
There were three bed frames, side-by-side, with soiled mattresses. But there were no chairs. There was a refrigerator with a dead cockroach inside. But there was no stove. There was a small table and one lamp with a bare bulb. But there was no TV or radio, no clock or phone, no dishes, no trash baskets, no toilet paper.
Roberto, who seemed to drift into a meditative slumber at every chance, flopped onto the middle mattress and curled up with his ski jacket.
Antonio smoked a cigarette, flicking the ashes into the dregs of a foam coffee cup. A former Pemex man who spent a quarter-century drilling oil off Mexico's Gulf Coast, Antonio Mendez Jr. was gruff and calloused, unyielding in his opinions. He was 50 now, living on a pension, but ill-suited for the inertia of retirement.
"I'm a man of action," he had said on the bus. "You show who you are by how hard you work."
He hadn't said it then, but Antonio had a more tender reason for being here. His youngest daughter would be 15 next year, the age most Mexican girls celebrate their quinceanera, the traditional coming-out gala. He wanted to make sure he'd have enough money to throw a memorable one.
As I lay on my bed, writing a letter to my wife, Antonio paced. His last words of the night became the last line of my letter.
"What a life," he sighed, turning off the light.
About This Series
The nation's surging appetite for chicken has created a new class of migrant worker, transporting thousands of laborers near the Mexican border to poultry factories in the American heartland. Jesse Katz, The Times' Houston Bureau chief, joined them on the "chicken trail."
TODAY: The journey from the Rio Grande Valley to the Ozarks.
MONDAY: Working the night shift at the poultry plant.
TUESDAY: The costs and benefits of a chicken in every pot.
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The Journey North
Encouraged by help-wanted ads promising good wages, more than 1,000 workers have made the 24-hour bus trip from the Rio Grande Valley to tiny Noel, Mo.