A Fine Morning
It was cold and damp on the beach. You could hear the surf crashing at some distance, vaguely over there, behind a thick veil of grey. The morning sun had yet to rise above the coastal ridge. The Pacific Ocean a horizontal slab of endless grey behind the fog, greyer still in the shadow of the Humboldt coastal range. The town of Mendocino is on the bluff above us; clapboard Victorians in the throes of artistic revival. Mendocino was the town for a quick getaway, good food, good music, and dozens of quaint bed and breakfasts for those driving north on Highway 1. A perfect day’s distance from the Bay Area, it was the ideal weekend destination.
My partner and I had spent several days hitchhiking in order to experience the North Coast. The bed and breakfasts were out of our budget so we had decided to camp at the nearby state park. Unfortunately they were completely full and catered to vehicle-based clients. Sleeping on the beach seemed the next best option even if it was frowned upon. The locals often built campfires on the beach in the middle of the piles of driftwood, and gathered around the flames telling stories, playing music into the early morning hours. The fact that we fell asleep there was just an accident, not intentional camping.
Laying there in the damp sand, hearing and feeling the constant pounding of wave after wave had kept us awake most of the night, and now we were captured in a half conscious state, kept there by the metronome of the surf.
Through half opened eyes I could see the black starless night had given way to gunmetal grey. I had vague thoughts of stirring the embers in the fire pit in order to heat some morning tea, but it would mean unzipping my sleeping bag, something unthinkable at the moment.
One last glance at the sky and then I snuggled in the sand, improving upon the impression I had made, smoothing out the last lump, then I heard it. At least I thought I heard it, because no sooner than it was there, then it wasn’t. I wasn’t even sure I knew what it was, or where it came from. All I knew is that for a brief moment it stood in stark contrast to the muffled damp clash of waves upon sand. Then nothing.
Animal, bird, sounds from the road above us? Nothing seemed to fit, and without a repeated event I couldn’t even begin to identify the source. Then, faintly it came again. It was a long ways off, the sound carried by the wind and muted by the fog. It was a cry. A tearful rending of the heart… Or perhaps the last death screams of a small animal. Or maybe a red-tailed hawk hunting in the early dawn, missing his mark and shrieking his anger. No, it was far more plaintive than that.
By now the sound was connected, continuous, but pulsing with the gusts of wind blown fog, and it seemed to come from behind and above. I had unzipped my sleeping bag and I was standing in my stocking feet using the warm bag as a large slipper. I had turned toward the road and the rising ridge behind it. The sun was just below the horizon and the fog that had climbed to the ridge was being shredded at the top by the wind. The very wind that was now carrying the sound down to the beach. Bagpipes- bagpipes playing a mournful Scottish dirge.
I still couldn’t see the source but the song was now very strong with a clear melody. Someone with a very large CD player? Just then I could see a head and shoulders, arms carrying the bladder of a very real bagpipe, and soon the full figure could be seen, standing silhouetted against the morning dawn. Listening to the notes, watching the fog dissipate around this kilted figure, was one of the most compelling images I had ever seen. That’s right, not only bagpipes but a full Scottish battle tartan, pinned on the shoulder, tucked around the waist. He played there on the ridge for a good solid five minutes.
We gathered our wits, stoked the fire, and made a strong Irish tea while the music played. Then he strolled down the hill, crossed the road and joined us for breakfast. It was a fine meal.
Basic Food Groups
Hitchhiking for us was similar to backpacking, we tried to be self-sufficient, and we tried to carry all the necessities, a change of clothes, personal toiletries, sleeping bag and a supply of food. Dehydrated backpacking food was still years off so we simply packed the most nutritious food possible. We had something called ‘space sticks’, developed by NASA. It looked like a playdough piece of chalk. And tasted like a playdough piece of chalk. There were also packets of powder labeled ‘Instant Breakfast’. It had all the necessary vitamins, and mixed with warm water it seemed nutritious. We used it instead of milk with our oatmeal. It wasn’t half bad. For dinner we had brown rice with sardines or salami. The rice took forever to cook.
For utensils we used chopsticks. At first I was not very good at this. Watching my more skilled partner eat nonstop was inspirational. And considering that we ate from a communal bowl it became very important for me to get at least as skillful or get used to being hungry.
The main thing for us was to create the moment for the meal. At breakfast we struggled to become awake, grunted while making fire, sipped hot tea till consciousness. Then we spoke about our night’s dreams, or plans for the day, smalltalk to establish civility. Our lunch was usually a hasty affair, gifts from strangers, corn snatched from a local field, or sometimes a tin of sardines. The evening meal was the main focus. Food gathered during the day was sorted and assigned to the appropriate meal. The peeling, cleaning, and preparing done as a group effort, with the events of the day retold with analysis. Amazing how we often saw the same event so differently. The fire readied with coals just right and flames not too high. Often the fire would have given our campsite away so we cooked before dark and kept the smoke to a minimum.
I remember the ceremony, the importance of making it a moment. It was usually the best part of the day.
Mystery Spot and Raccoons
The idea was to go to Big Sur for four or five days. I had read lots of Henry Miller so I knew there was a history of alternative lifestyles, converted barns, artists and writers deep in the woods, high on the cliffs above the ocean. We should go there.
Within a short while we were in Pacifica, south of San Francisco where Highway 1 would lead us to Big Sur. The rides were often short but friendly. And we didn’t have to wait long for the next one. Near Santa Cruz we were left of by a billboard that was very familiar. For years I would travel with my family on weekend camping trips. We mostly went north and northeast, driving the logging roads looking for the right spot to camp. Often we came upon similar gypsies, with boxes tied to their roofs, bicycles lashed to the trunks, and sometimes, sometimes, they would have decals on their windows. Decals from the amazing places that they have found, tattoos of their memories to be read by fellow travelers. I envied their decals because my father never collected them.
Once we had stopped at ‘The Trees of Mystery.” It was a fabulous place, worthy of several decals, but I knew we would leave the place with nothing to show that we had been there. When we got back to our car we were shocked to find that an employee had wired a placard to our front bumper. It simply said “Trees of Mystery, Klamath, CA”. My father just nodded and left it on all that summer. I was thrilled and I always looked carefully at the oncoming traffic to see if I could spot someone else who had shared our experience. And I did spot quite a few, probably more because we had one, but I was also intrigued by the presence of another placard.
Every once in a while I would see a bright yellow sign with a black ball and the words “Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz, CA.” I wasn’t sure where Santa Cruz was, but I thought we must certainly stop there, because a car with Trees of Mystery on the front bumper and Mystery Spot on the rear bumper was a car to be reckoned with. And now ten years later we were standing in front of a billboard that told us the Mystery Spot was three miles up this road.
It was near the end of the day and a three-mile hike didn’t seem much, so we went up the steep road. It was a very long three miles and by the time we arrived the place was closed and no one was around. The mystery to the Mystery Spot was in the buildings that you could walk through. Weird angles created the illusion that you were taller at one end and shorter at the other. There were dozens of strange optical illusions that we encountered because we simply jumped the small fence and walked around. A few buildings were locked, and of course the gift shop was closed. No decals available. After fifteen or twenty minutes we got the idea of the place and decided to get back down to the highway. it was also getting very dark with no moon. Perhaps it was just the dark, but we both started to feel pretty creepy. The buildings were twisted and misshapen, coupled with the dark we decided to run. Running down a dark road was not the most intelligent thing to do. After several hundred yards, and dozens of near collisions with trees, poles, and guard barriers, we stopped and collected ourselves. We had no flashlight (a clear planning mistake), we had a candle that blew out immediately and only lit our hands, and the dark was super intense for at least two more miles.
However, instead of matches we had several magnesium firesticks. We would shave small bits off with a knife, then scrape sparks to ignite the bits with tender to create the fire. Since both of us had firesticks and both of us had knives, we descended the road striking sparks that looked like old-fashioned flashes for cameras. All we had to do was ration our sticks until we hit the main road. Every step further from the park eased our spirits and the sparks almost created cheer. Someone at a distance must have wondered about the splashes of light coming down from the Mystery Spot. But then again, maybe not.
The next day we were in Pfeiffer-Big Sur State Park looking at the available camping spots. Attempting to rough it by going off-road was not too appealing, the dense brush and undergrowth made it very difficult. We found a decent campsite and settled in with our ground cloths and sleeping bags as we went tentless. We had not seen the artistic side of Big Sur, only a few disdainful looks from the local shopkeepers. Apparently there have been some problems in the recent past, something about lazy good-for-nothing shoplifters. Hmmm.
It was growing dark and perhaps we would find something interesting in the morning. After a decent evening meal we had a small fire, talked some, then stretched out to go to sleep. After about fifteen minutes I felt someone grabbing at my feet. I gave a little kick and told my friend to cut it out. He responded from the other side, “What are you talking about?” A little freaked out, I grabbed my firestick and flashed a quick spark. About ten feet away there was the biggest raccoon that I had ever seen. And he had friends, dozens of them. We were entirely surrounded by masked bandits.
We discussed that now that they knew we weren’t trash bags, and, that we had the power of fire, that they would certainly move on to other campsites in their nocturnal search for food. Yeah, that sounded reasonable. So we moved closer together in the darkness and tried to go back to sleep. I may have had my eyes shut because it was so dark that it didn’t matter, but my ears were wide open. I could hear the faint crunching of leaves all around me. And the crunching was getting closer. Soon I felt some more tugging and the crunching was getting closer to my head. I popped up and immediately flashed the area. The raccoons were caught frozen in the light, and it seemed as if their numbers had increased with several big ones within arms reach. After yelling a little, the flash revealed that they retreated a few yards but still very close. We decided to get up and start the fire.
The raccoons did not approach the fire. We could see their glittering eyes just beyond the small ring of light, so, as long as we stoked the flames they stayed back. Unfortunately that meant that they would approach us from the back. So we made a small fire on the other side of our bags. Within the hour we had a small ring of campfires completely surrounding us. It took all our effort to keep feeding the half dozen fires. When we could lay down we still saw dozens of glittering eyes pacing back and forth, just beyond the light. Throwing pine cones and twigs only seemed to make them angry. We were under siege and the final attack would come when the last branch burned to ash.
After several hours of stoking the fires we fell asleep, hoping that the flames would somehow burn on to morning. I’m certain that they did not, I suspect that they died out and the final assault hit us somewhere about 3:00 am. We were probably groped, prodded, and mauled, but we were so exhausted that we never woke up. When we did open our eyes it was morning, and we were surrounded by ash piles from the fires and no evidence that the raccoons were ever there. I did feel a little violated but perhaps that was just a dream.
We determined that we would pack up and leave that very morning. Another night under siege was not something that we were going to tolerate.
A Wagon Full of Hair
As we walked to the road we talked about the night of raccoons and wondered if we had hallucinated the whole experience. Sadly it was all true, so we decided to end our stay and put out our thumbs for the rides home. It was about 9:00 in the morning. Not many cars on the road and we could hear them coming for a few minutes before we could see them. At about 9:30 we heard a car coming from the other direction so we casually looked at the vehicle as it passed. It was a ten year old station wagon, weaving slightly, and it appeared to be full of hair, or at least hairy heads. There were probably four people in the front seat, four or five people in the rear seat, and another four or five people in the back boot. The driver noticed us and waved. It was a rolling party headed to some distant bacchanal. We were immediately thankful that they were going in the wrong direction, and thankful again that there was no room with all that hair. There is a science to hitchhiking with safety, and it would have been violating several rules to even consider getting into that car.
It was now about 11:30 and we had about four cars pass us in three hours. Not a lot of traffic, perhaps the raccoons had stolen all their keys. I had a vision of a raccoon den completely decorated with keys from Chevys, Fords, VWs hung all about, tinkling like dozens of wind chimes. Bloody raccoons!
It was now about five hours in the same spot. Usually we walked in the direction of our travel but we knew that this was the only spot for miles where there was a turn off for the driver. We were stuck there and we began talking about going back for a second night of raccoon hell. About 3:30 pm we heard one more vehicle coming in the right direction. Hopefully, we waited for the car to appear, and soon it came around the corner. It was the hairy station wagon. We looked at each other blankly. It was the same car but now there were only two people in the front seat. We were frozen to the road, our heads swiveled as the wagon passed us, and then we saw the brake lights.
After all, it was either this or face the raccoons. We choose the wagon. The driver was dressed in black leather and his lady friend the same. Both were wearing dark sunglasses so we couldn’t really connect eye to eye, but we jumped in the back seat as fast as we could. We had a little difficulty getting our feet on the floorboards. There were several layers of empty beer bottles between our feet and the floor, our knees almost up to our chins. They were so packed that they didn’t roll but every corner created little clink sounds, with more clinks coming from the back boot. Highway 1 is a road noted for many curves so the music of empty beer bottles was constant.
They didn’t say much, only asked where we were going. We said SF and he said fine, that’s where they were going. Okay, I guess that means we could be home tonight. Sleep in my own bed with no fear of tiny groping hands. Good!
We had been in the car about five minutes when we noticed that we were making pretty good time. He kept the same speed up hills, around curves; it was like it was a defect in the accelerator. When he came up to a slower car he never slowed, he just passed. He passed on the straight away, he passed on the curve, he even passed going up hill. We began thinking that we might not survive all the way to the city. Perhaps we would get out in Santa Cruz.
Suddenly he was breaking, proving that the brakes did work. He had turned off into a local refreshment stand, jumped out of the car, and was back with ice cream sundaes for everybody. We tossed some gravel getting back on the road, but now everyone had an ice cream. We enjoyed the generosity but then I noticed that he was now driving with one hand, the other gripping the ice cream. In a few minutes his girlfriend slipped down to take a nap, laying her head in his lap. The speed was constant and the passing was getting more and more frequent. My ice cream was now dripping on my hand because I was too distracted by what was happening on the road. All the windows were open so the wind sometimes gusted through, the bottles were clinking, the ice cream was dripping, there was quite a lot going on. Suddenly, a bug, or a piece of dirt, lodged in the driver’s right eye. I could see the sunglasses shoved up on his forehead, and his left fist digging in his right eye socket, his right hand still gripping his ice cream, yet somehow he was still turning the steering wheel, passing a slow bus going up hill. Steering by his knees? Getting help from his sleeping girlfriend? We didn’t know but we had to get out of the car. We got his attention and he had no problem pulling over to let us out. We thanked him for the ride and the ice cream and he drove off, his girlfriend still in his lap, his fist still rolling in his eye, and then he was gone.
We had made very good time and the next few rides brought us closer to Monterey. The sun was getting low in the sky when the green pickup pulled over for us. It was a very classic 1950 GMC pickup with two people in the front and three people in the bed. There was just enough room for two more. As the truck pulled into traffic we noted how safe and steady the ride was, we could relax, we looked around and enjoyed the view. The sun was just behind a row of Monterey pines, acting as a natural strobe light. There was a young man faintly strumming a guitar, and little girl with curly blonde hair and cookie encrusted cheeks. At least I think it was a girl. And there was the mother, dressed in tie-dyed clothes, beads around the neck, flowing blonde hair bound by the paisley headband. And she had a Chiquita Banana sticker placed between her eyes. It was a beautiful ride into the downtown Monterey Safeway parking lot.
It was only a few minutes later that we had our next ride. Two guys in a two door Corvair. Well, okay, we could fit. I liked it better when we have our own doors, but we squeezed in the back seat and headed to Highway 101. They were going to SF and we thought that again, we might be home that night. After a few minutes the questions began. “Did we have any money for gas?” Uh, no. That’s why we’re hitchhiking. “Did we have any money at home, once we got there?” Uh, sure. “Do you guys want to buy this car, its pretty cool?!” Uh, sure, maybe. “Do you know any girls that like to party? We are thinking about getting a stable and pimping in SF.” Uh, sure, maybe. “By the way, the car is good but we don’t have the pink slip with us. We could mail it to you.” “Uh, that would be okay.”
How could we get out of this, we were trapped in the rear seat with two escaped convicts in a stolen car, headed to SF to pimp our girlfriends after selling us the stolen car. It didn’t look good. After a few miles the gas gauge showed empty and the driver asked one more time if we had any money. I think we convinced him that we were broke, but he pulled into the next gas station saying that he was going to sell the spare tire. Both of them got out to haggle with the attendant. The spare tire wouldn’t get them to SF but if they sold all the tires in exchange with four used tires then the attendant would be happy to give them a full tank. While they were arguing we had slipped out the back seat and had slowly edged our way to the road. Across the street we saw a slow freight train heading north and we ran for it, yelling our thanks but we just had to get to SF as soon as possible. We saw that they had started to catch up to us but stopped at the driveway, watching their connection to future prostitutes disappear down the train tracks.
The next few minutes were crucial. The train was picking up speed and we were getting tired. I had almost committed myself by tossing my satchel into an empty box car. Swinging it around my head, I realized that the very act of throwing the bag was robbing me of the necessary strength to jump on. Besides, my friend was several steps behind with no boxcar for him. I slowed to a walk and watched our getaway train get away. As the caboose passed us we could see a brakeman shaking his head at us through the dust as the train rolled on. We were alone on the tracks, several blocks off the main road and night was falling. We knew it was too dangerous to go back to the highway, the convicts with bald tires would soon spot us. All we could do was to put some miles between us, walking the tracks in the dark. It was very difficult walking, the railroad ties were spaced for a shorter person, so that every third or fourth step created a jarring skip to maintain footing.
Walking in the gravel was noisy and hard going, so the best alternative was tightrope walking on the steel rails. That initially meant falling off about every fifteen yards. After several hours we could almost fall asleep while staying on the rail. We could join the circus, or maybe get a job with the railroad. It was a unique skill.
The hike was very quiet, we were trying to stay unnoticed, careful at the street crossings, looking for a parked Corvair. We were fifteen to twenty miles down the track before we felt comfortable enough to lie down to sleep.
It was like a giant celestial radio tuned between stations. An incredible buzz, a drone that ebbed and flowed, but never disappeared. A constant mantra produced by millions of beating wings. Every now and then a single individual hum would separate from the mass and skim close. All I could think about were Stuka dive bombers, while I cowered under my rain poncho. The air had a faint rubbery taste and was slowly being depleted of oxygen.
“You’re using up all the air,” I whispered, as if I could be heard with the ever present droning.
“I am not, besides, I have to breathe the same as you. Did you hear that? I think one got underneath. Listen…” my partner said, as he began thrashing at the poncho, causing it to bounce several times off my face.
“Hey, watch it, you’re going to let more of them in,” I warned. Outside, the bloodthirsty mob hummed even louder, stirred on by the momentary movement. Our only hope was to lay quiet, still as two corpses under a rubberized shroud.
It had only been two days since we left California, heading east by our own wits, and the kindness of strangers. It was 1968, and we were hitchhiking to discover America, or maybe, for America to discover us. My road partner, Clay, was a good looking young man, with clear blue eyes, and a drooping handlebar mustache, with carefully waxed and uplifted ends. We had spent a week or so traveling together in the spring and had enjoyed each other’s company so much that a longer trip was planned for the summer. I’m not sure we even had a defined destination, just heading east, perhaps New York, perhaps not. We were free for the whole of the summer so we had little concern for timing, direction or destination.
After a slow start, our growing concern was that we were becoming a little too successful in hitching rides. The last ride picked us up just outside of Reno, and wanted to take us all the way to Salt Lake City. As we sped through the desert we began to realize that things were moving a little too quickly, and we would leave Nevada behind before we could experience what she had to offer. Of course, the other factor was that the ride itself was in a MGB sportscar, with two guys already sitting in the proper seats. I was in the boot, wedged behind the seats, Clay was curled on the back shelf, looking like an overlarge Cheshire cat, grinning with his drooping mustache. I wouldn’t have thought it possible but the four of us managed to stay within the confines of the car, although just barely.
“Tell you what, this will be fine right here, we just want to spend a day or so in the desert before leaving Nevada. Thanks for the lift though. See ya,” I said, even though I knew we never would. Persuading them to stop in what looked like the middle of nowhere was no easy task. We untied our packs from the luggage rack and the MGB roared off to Salt Lake. Clay and I headed off at right angles to the highway, straight towards the Black Rock Desert. The Humboldt River was somewhere ahead, in the falling light I could just make out a patch of green in stark contrast to the dry desert.
We made our camp not far from the tule lined river, the highway was three or four miles behind us, far enough that no sound reached us, not even from the eighteen wheelers. As the sun set, and the sky went from blue to pink, and then blue purple, we ate our evening meal, and talked of our day’s adventure. It became a sort of ritual that lasted the whole of our summer. We would go over the day, retelling events from our own perspective, and as it turns out, we rarely saw the same thing, even when we were standing next to each other. One thing neither one of us saw, was the danger of our present campsite.
This pleasant little area, tucked away in a little depression by the slow moving Humboldt River, became Ground Zero for the largest air attack in mosquito history. The onset was quick and deadly. In the middle of our evening discussion, groups of four or five began diving on us; we soon found that we didn’t have enough hands to swat effectively. While our attention was on our necks or face, another group had landed on our arms or thighs. Only a minute or so had passed from the first faint buzz, and now a full-fledged attack was in progress. Even in the star light you could see the carcasses beginning to mound up at our feet. Wounded survivors were looping crazily towards the ground, still hoping for one last chance at a piece of exposed flesh.
Giving up attempts to fend off the swarm, we tried to cover ourselves with heavier clothing. This failed on two counts, 1) this was still the desert and we were overheating, and 2) this particular breed of mosquito had, through evolution I suppose, developed a blood sucking hypodermic capable of penetrating a half an inch of cowhide. Under the circumstances, the wise thing to do was retreat under our ponchos.
We lay still in the desert, listening to millions upon millions of creatures whose only desires were to suck our blood. I had begun to take the attack personally, then I realized what choice was there? What other life was around here? How much blood did a scorpion or sagebrush have? We were probably the only living thing that had any blood within ten miles. Eleven miles away there had been a small herd of cattle, but now each one was only an empty leather bag filled with bones, sucked dry of any fluid by the beasts flying above us. At least, I so imagined.
Time passed very slowly, I don’t think we slept that night. I know that when the first light of dawn crept over the horizon, we, likewise, crept out from under our ponchos. The mosquito cloud descended upon us and we packed, and swatted, and dressed, and swatted, and finally we fled as no defeated army had ever fled. The sound of feet thumping on desert sand, canteens clanking, and packframes creaking with stress, filled the morning air. It was then that I looked over at Clay, running some ten yards beside me, and saw that a portion of the cloud still followed him, two or three yards to his rear. The morning sun had by now done an excellent job of highlighting the hoard. And I suppose our running through the bushes alerted every mosquito in the area, who simply turned on their heat seeking radar and joined the attack. The cloud had taken on a gestalt quality, millions of mosquitoes creating a single powerful entity.
“Clay, they’re still behind you. Cut to the left,” I yelled. I figured that if he didn’t lose them they would follow us all morning, and we might not have enough blood in us to get to the highway. Clay was doing some nice open field running when he signaled to me that I had my own cloud to worry about. “Great,” as I glanced back, “Two entities.” I could see a dense swirling mass, two or three feet behind me. We knew that we couldn’t out run them, so we both stopped, and turned to face the onslaught. Within seconds, hundreds landed and began to bore through our clothing. Swat, swat, smack. Minutes passed. Arms windmilling, casualties mounting, a quarter of the cloud piled at our feet. “Run awaay,” we both yelled. We started again for the highway, criss-crossing in front of each other, hoping to confuse our clouds, or at the least cause some deadly midair collisions.
Every 50 or 60 yards we would stop, spin around, wreck havoc with hand slaps, and swats, resulting in another quarter of the cloud missing in action.
There was almost a symphony being played in the desert air. Two pairs of feet pounding out a rhythm on the dry sand, with the scratching of clothes on sagebrush as an accent. Of course the was the random crater of two packs bouncing when they were never supposed to bounce. And finally there was the double handed slapping to an entirely different measure. It was a epic cacophony.
Over and over this deadly little play was acted out, until finally the cloud diminished, the casualties finally outnumbering the replacements. By the time we reached the road, not one mosquito was with us.
I have no idea what those early morning travelers thought as they looked towards the river that June morning. They saw two young men, running madly through the sagebrush, turning towards the sun every fifty yards, beating themselves about their heads and shoulders, striking their breasts and thighs, then running criss-cross to repeat the pattern all over again. A morning wakeup ritual? Flagellating sun worshippers? Or just desert madness brought on by chewing loco weed?
No…just two young men experiencing the Nevada desert. Safe in their air-conditioned cars, the passing travelers probably didn’t understand. I know they didn’t stop to ask for an explanation.
Sleeping on the Edge
The Grand Tetons may be the most beautiful mountains in the world. Rising out of rolling meadowland, crystal lakes directly in front, they are certainly among the most photographed peaks in the West. We had been camped at Jenny Lake campground for a day or two, riding in with a couple of guys in a Volkswagen bus. My partner Clay had spotted the bus in a gas station in Ogden, Utah.
“That’s our ride,” he said.
“Now, just what makes you think that,” I replied rather tiredly. We had spent most of the morning walking through Ogden with no one stopping to our outstretched thumbs.
“Look at the roof,” Clay wisely noted. The roof of the Volkswagen bus was unremarkable except for a small hooded vent. Well, it wasn’t really a vent, it was a smokestack, a chimney, a black iron stove pipe. We walked up close to inspect this 1964 MicroBus with the peaked chimney, and looked inside to find an honest to goodness potbellied stove. Clay was right; people with pot bellied stoves in their vehicles were generally the kind of people that gave us rides. We waited to introduce ourselves to the owners.
Within minutes we were cruising north towards the Tetons with two interesting grad students. Nice people, the only quirk being that every hour or so we would stop while one of them would run out and rub some rocks. At least that was what it looked like to me, it seems that he was a geology major and the world was his laboratory. I even joined him a few times. “Igneous, not very old,” he would say as he opened the loupe carried on a thong around his neck. Later, we asked about the pot-bellied stove.
“Well, it’s great in the morning, heats the bus up nicely. Can’t drive with it burning though. Sparks and smoke spewing all over the countryside. Fills the bus up with smoke too,” the geologist answered. I had this pleasant vision of a steam driven Volkswagen camper, the perfect alternative transportation.
We left the comfort and company of the Volkswagen at Jenny Lake campground, as we prepared to investigate the Grand Tetons. We picked Jenny Lake partly because we had heard of a great climbing school there, and the fact that the pot bellied stove folks went off in another direction, looking for rocks to rub.
The climbing school was there, but quite expensive, and on a reservation only basis. So we did what most young college students were doing at the time. We listened to half a lecture, assumed we knew the rest, then started up the face of the center peak. It wasn’t an intentional climb. It started out as a walk to the other side of the lake, then we just wanted to head up a creek a little ways, in order to get a better view of the countryside. Soon, we were three quarters of the way up the face of the mountain. The creek had long given way to a crevasse in the mountainside that provided for much of the handholds that were used in the ascent.
Once, I had followed a slightly different path up the crevasse, when to my horror, I discovered that it was a dead end. Not only that, but I could not go backward to retrace my steps. I had gone on a one-way path, and the way had terminated.
I had listened to the lecture as it covered the important skill of three fixed, one free. Meaning that only one hand or one foot may search for new handholds at any given time. Good points, but this still doesn’t create handholds where they don’t exist. After ten or fifteen minutes, I began to shake as entire muscle groups began to rebel. I was safe enough where I was, I just couldn’t hold on much longer. Soon I wouldn’t have the strength to stand, so I decided to jump. I jumped straight up, with no expectations, and no knowledge. I don’t know if the hand holds were instantaneously created, or if they were there all along. All I know is that I placed everything in the hopes of handholds being there, and they were.
A few feet later on Clay and I both stopped, recognizing the danger that we were in, we found a ledge to rest on before heading back to camp. I sat there on that narrow ledge, and thought about mortality, this dance of life and death. For a moment my entire future swayed in the balance. Generations were to be unborn, relationships never entered into. I looked out over the valley that seemed to stretch forever and thought about the slim hold we all have on our lives, then I fell asleep.
I don’t know how long I dozed, but I opened my eyes refreshed and instantaneously alert. Although I was careful, I was a little surprised that I managed to stay on the ledge while sleeping. I moved my leg in order to reduce a muscle knot from the earlier climb, when suddenly my partner, Clay, flattened me. He had seen my movements and had still assumed I was asleep. His flying body press nearly knocked both of us off the ledge and it took a few more minutes to recover from the effort. It was a lifesaving move from a watchful and caring friend. My life has been lucky that way, and I have always been grateful for the friendly, flying bodypresses, even the unnecessary ones.
The Firehole Camp
After leaving the Tetons, my partner and I headed due north, intending to spend some time in Yellowstone before heading east and entering the wilds of Chicago/New York. Our ride planned to drop us off at the “Old Faithful” campground, pretty much in the lower middle of Yellowstone National Park. We knew that we needed to stay in the organized campground, at least until we got our backcountry permits from the rangers.
One of the true wonders of the world, Yellowstone stands apart from places of mere scenic beauty. Yellowstone has power and might, and subtle terror. I had never been there and I was very curious. John Colter had been the first of the mountain men to stumble into Yellowstone. Chasing beaver into the headwaters of the Missouri, Colter walked through a land of boiling mud pots, geysers, and rumbling sulfuric vents. In a culture of tall tales and out rights lies, Colter was not believed by his fellow mountain men until they too, had witnessed the bizarre countryside. Fortunately, I had television, and I was quite prepared for Old Faithful- star of nature shows and umpteen cartoons with Bugs, Daffy, and Elmer Fudd. It’s frightening how much ‘experience’ I’ve gotten through the tube. But television did not have the smell of the air, nor the feel of the ground.
We walked through loop after loop of campsites- everything site full of tent trailers, vans, buses, and campers. Near the Firehole River there was a special series of campsites dedicated to tents only, but it appeared full as well. On our second walk through, just in case we missed something, we spotted a single bright green backpackers tent, no car, no campstools, and no gear. Basically, no camp, except for the pitched tent. As we wondered about the possibility of camping on the edge of this deserted site, a fellow with a yellow dog walked up to the table, sat down and waved us to come over. Obviously the owner of the tent.
“Hullo, pull up a bench. You look tired,” he said slowly.
“Hm, yeah, well thanks. We have been walking a bit. Have you been here long?” Clay asked while pointedly looking around.
“Coupla weeks, but thinking about moving on soon. Do you need a campsite?”
Clay immediately turned on his award winning smile, his mustache rising a few inches. “Brother, it is exactly what we need. This is John and I’m Clay, were up from San Francisco,” Clay said with a laugh.
“M’name is Tom, hitched here from Minnesota. This here is Tom, the Yellow Dog. You can call him Tom for short,” he said.
“Your dog is Tom? I though your name was Tom?” I asked.
“It is,” he said quietly.
“Isn’t that a bit confusing?” I said, after a few seconds pause. As soon as I said it I knew that this was a question that had several well-rehearsed answers. A man names his dog after himself, it doesn’t take very long to learn that people will not let that go unremarked. Tom probably had at least a dozen sharp responses, appropriate to the person asking, and the circumstances.
“Oh, I don’t know. Tom (the dog) hasn’t said much about having a problem with it. And I can pretty much tell when someone is talking to me, instead of him,” Tom (the man) said, without a trace a humor in his reply.
I was let off easy. I had already imagined a few responses that were somewhat stronger.
Tom was clearly a very complex individual. He was somewhat older than Clay or I, somewhere near thirty, maybe thirty-five. He had a full beard, reddish blonde hair (thinning), and wore a wide brimmed hat, low on his forehead. Wearing his hat that low forced him to sort of crane his neck to look at us. It was then that I noticed his glasses. He had the thickest pair of green tinted lenses that I have ever seen, or imagined. They weren’t lenses, they were the bottoms of discarded 7-Up bottles. The shear weight of glass had caused the nosepads on the frames to press down deep into the flesh until they had hit bone. But the most noticeable thing was how they acted as magnifiers for the irises of Tom’s eyes. When Tom looked directly at you, the pupils of his eyes appeared to be the size of a nickel. And if you said something interesting, they grew to about a quarter’s size. It was extremely disarming.
“Yeah, I hitched here from Minnesota. Can’t drive, I’m legally blind. Spent last year as a ranger on Isle Royale, got laid off, and thought I would like to see the other great parks. What brings you up to the mountains? Everyone I meet is hitching to California. You boys are going the wrong way,” Tom said.
“Well, I don’t know, so far ‘wrong’ appears pretty nice. Besides, we’re from California. Been there,” said Clay, as the grin continued.
The rest of the evening was spent in trading road stories, drinking strong coffee, and having a good time. Tom played the harmonica a little , we sang songs, humming the words we didn’t know. Tom (the dog) looked baleful. After a while, we realized that we were humming more than singing, so we crawled into our sleeping bags and called it a night.
Clay and I had pitched our tent next to the picnic table. We were using the table to support one end of our structure. It really wasn’t a tent proper, we had two Army shelter halves that buttoned together to form a pup tent that was wide open on one end. It kept the direct rain off and reduced the chill factor somewhat. We generally crawled in and slept with our heads at the tapered closed off end. That night was colder than it had been for awhile. I remember being half-awake in that state when you are conscious of your discomfort but not awake enough to do anything about it. I seemed to hear footsteps approaching the tent.
“You boys awake,” a voice said. The voice seemed familiar, could be Tom, could be a crazed ax murderer, stalking sleeping hitchhikers.
Suddenly, a wet, cold, slimy, fishtail was slapping my face. Then the rest of the fish began to bounce off my head, the inside of the tent, Clay’s head, the tent again, then back to me. It was like that rapid-fire action you get in pinball, bouncing off the rail, dribbling a fish off your face, adding up points by the second. I couldn’t process the information. I was desperately trying to come out of a dream state, but the conscious world didn’t make any more sense than my dream world. I mean, this was a fish that was flopping in my face! Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer to understand the dynamics; I tumbled out the open end of the tent, still wrapped in my sleeping bag, only to find Tom standing there with a fishing pole. A second or two later, Clay crawled out of the tent with the biggest cut-throat trout I had ever seen. Tom’s gift became a fine breakfast, and sealed our friendship’s future.
The week passed with Tom deciding to stay on. In fact, every day brought in a new member to the camp. There was Fred, he spoke Brooklyn, and was afraid of the bears so he slept in the bathrooms. There was Eric, a law student from Connecticut. There was Candyman from Detroit. Each contributed to our little social circle and before too long our campsite became the place to visit for the younger workers at the various concessions at the park.
Clay and I soon found that most, if not all, of the younger park workers knew about our camp. Things were so comfortable at Firehole camp, that we delayed moving on ourselves. New York could wait a few weeks. We spent the daylight hours visiting the natural phenomena, meeting people, and generally acting as if we were on vacation. In the early evening we would relax in the Old Faithful Hotel lobby, watching tourists, reading newspapers, then we would stroll back to camp, build a fire and entertain our guests.
One night, I left the hotel rather late, and cut round the back side, attempting a short cut. It had snowed a few days before, there was at least six inches on the ground, drifting deeper in spots. Snow has an eerie sound deadening quality, and all I could hear was the crunching of my boots as I made my way across the snow covered softball diamond. I wasn’t too far across before I became aware of an echo to my crunching. I walked, I crunched, pause, crunched. I stopped and the crunching stopped. I continued to walk and the crunching, pause, crunch continued. I knew about the sound deadening phenomena concerning falling snow, but I didn’t remember anything about echoes. Another odd thing was that I could also hear an echo of my labored breathing. Except that right at that moment I was holding my breath!
I turned slowly around and stared into blackness. I couldn’t see a thing. I had been walking in starlight. It was pretty dark, even with the faint glow of the hotel’s windows, but now, when I turned, I couldn’t see a thing. It seemed as if even the stars on the horizon had disappeared. It was just a great expanse of blackness, something like a black hole. Sniff! With an odor!!
I spent the longest time trying to focus on something, but I couldn’t tell if I was looking at something a half mile away or considerably closer. Suddenly there appeared two gushing jets of steam. Chest high and shooting straight down to the snow. Smelling like damp, moldy sweatsocks, the steam seemed to be coming from something just inches away. The thought came to me that they looked quite a bit like the steam coming from a cartoon bull’s nostrils. Waait a minuute…
Charley, the bison, lived behind the softball field. The far away dark cloud that covered the horizon, was actually 4,000 pounds of buffalo, approximately a foot and a half away. A mountain of meat, behind two very sharp horns. I backed up. Charley moved forward. I stopped, he stopped. Quick, think of something. Can they climb trees? In my panic I had actually asked myself if a buffalo could climb a tree. For a brief moment I envisioned a half of a dozen buffaloes perched on a large branch. On second thought, why would he have to climb? If he wanted something in a tree, he would just knock it over.
I came back from my wandering imagination only to be confronted with the still, very real, steaming buffalo, just inches in front of me. Charley’s head was now dropping and swinging from side to side. I took the initiative to back away while Charley swung his massive head, in order to sweep away the snow. It was then that I realized that Charley was following me so he could eat in my footsteps. I was making it easier for him to get at the softball field grass that was buried under six inches of snow. Instead of stalking me, I was just being used as a meal ticket. Pondering my usefulness to the bison, I decided that once Charley had a full stomach, that he might then put aside my role as assistant, and instead consider me a trespasser. “See ya Charley,” as I backed completely off the diamond, while he munched his cud. I didn’t wait to discover if bison are territorial.
Later, I could relate the tale around the campfire, the only change being that Charley’s horns were longer and sharper. I suppose Charley was as tame as the family dog, but I had my doubts. There had been more than one case of a buffalo goring a tourist. I had seen dozens of instances where cars had pulled off the road, everyone jumping out to see the bear, the elk, or the buffalo. It was almost like the tourists thought of Yellowstone as a large petty zoo. The bears would sit up, wave their paws, and tourists would toss them their leftover lunches.
One time I did see an older man retreat into his car as the bear got a little too close. For some reason, the gentleman thought that power windows would keep him safe. Fortunately, the bear smelled the picnic basket locked in the trunk and left the passengers alone. The bear then inserted one or two claws neatly in the crack of the closed and locked trunk, then simply flipped the trunk lid into the roadside bushes. Lunch is served!
I always gave the wild animals a clear berth. I didn’t have the luxury of believing myself safe in a car, I was on foot most of the time during my encounters. One morning I crawled out of my tent only to bump into the chocolate instant breakfast encrusted snout of a very large brown bear. He was perfectly displayed on my picnic table, arms and legs draped over the edges, almost like a furry tablecloth. I froze, all I could hear was this outrageous laughter. Then I noticed the glazed eyes and measured breathing of the bear. Apparently the bear had been caught snacking in my food satchel, then he was shot with a hypodermic by the park rangers. Friends of mine, friends with a wicked sense of humor.
It was on one of my solitary short jaunts into the Central Plateau area of Yellowstone that my luck in the petting zoo ran out. It was a small trail, not well used, heading to a lake that I had heard was quite pretty. The lodgepole pine forest surrounding the lake was very dense, but the ground was level and easy going. As the trail twisted through the stand, it almost seemed as if there were corners, that once turned, provided a whole new vista. I can’t describe it any better, “corners in the forest.” It’s the only explanation of how I happened to get within a few feet of the moose. I turned the corner in the forest and almost bumped into him. In another time or place we would have exchanged apologies and gone our way. But not this time or place. The moose never had a second thought, he wanted very much to turn me into pulp with the consistency of butterscotch pudding. Something that he could dig out of his hooves later that night. Moose toe jam.
I don’t think I ever considered how big a moose was. I could very nearly walk underneath him without stooping. When you see those quaint pictures of moose standing up to their knees in water, no one tells you that the river is six feet deep. This particular moose seemed even taller, perhaps it was because he was jumping up and down, pounding his front feet on my shadow, making a tremendous snorting sound. I was trying to back up, trying to find that corner that I had turned, but my eyes never left the moose. I did notice that he didn’t have his rack of antlers, so I wasn’t going to be gored, just stomped.
I was backpedaling as fast as I could, trying to put as many trees between us as possible. It might have been better if I had actually turned and ran, not because I would have been any faster, if I had turned, I wouldn’t have seen how easily the moose uprooted whole trees in order to get closer to me. The challenge was now finding large enough trees to stop him. He hadn’t gained on me, but I hadn’t gained on him either. By chance, I stumbled backwards into a thicker stand of larger lodgepoles, and the moose was forced away from his straight line attack. I could still see fully grown trees toppling, but they were off to my left and I was getting further and further away. Then suddenly, I turned a “corner in the forest”, and I couldn’t see him anymore. I could still hear the cracking of trees and muffled snorts of rage. I can still hear them vaguely today.
It was hard not to collect animal stories while in Yellowstone. One morning I took a short hitchhike to Lake Hotel to see a friend. Standing alongside the road, showing the outstretched thumb, but enjoying the morning air. The best part of hitchhiking is the forced pauses between rides. This was going to be my second, or third ride, and I was being patient and content. About twenty yards down the road, I saw a group of Stellar Jays flying around, arguing with bird body language, jetting, swooping, flaring and making a lot of noise. I was beginning to wonder if I shouldn’t walk down to see what they were fighting about, when things changed. They came to me. In less than a minute, I was a very active member of an intense bird argument. I couldn’t keep an accurate count, but there had to be at least four birds flying circles around me, actually brushing my face at times with their wings, in wild swooping dives. They’re flapping at me, I’m flapping at them, and all the while the cars are zooming by.
I was starting to wonder if Hitchcock was redoing a movie, when disaster struck. A single Jay had begun a steep looping dive, coming straight at my chest then curling low, around to the back side, heading across the road. At that very moment a speeding car passed me. I knew before I had turned around that the car had hit the bird. Finally I turned, and sure enough the bird was square in the middle of the road, head down, tail feathers up. Another car was coming. I gauged the speed of the car, the distance to the bird and I was off. Running at full speed in three steps, I scooped the bird without slowing, and made the other side just as the car passed.
Still wondering why I had risked my life for what was certainly roadkill, I recrossed the highway to my spot. Now I was hitchhiking with a large dead bird in my hand. Funny how the littlest things attract drivers to stop.
I had three rides almost immediately. Each one asked why I was hitchhiking with a dead bird. Feeling a little dumbfounded, I answered something different each time. “…trying to find a good burial spot.” “…well, you know that a bird in the hand is worth…,” and finally, “It isn’t dead, it’s just asleep.” Imagine my surprise when the bird woke up. It fixed me with one glaring eye, than the battle started. It took everything I had to pin his wings and dodge his snapping beak. He had some wing damage and apparently was knocked unconscious for a time. Now that he was awake, he wanted to continue the argument. There didn’t seem to be very many choices. I couldn’t let him fly around the Winnebago motorhome (our current ride). And I was having a hard time keeping the bird calm. All I could do was hold on and wince at the beak biting. The driver watched with some interest as the bird began to gnaw on my thumb.
“Where’re you going with that?” he motioned towards the bird.
“I dunno, I suppose I’ll try to find a ranger and get it to the animal hospital or vet clinic. I think his wing is broken,” I replied, as I could feel the broken wing bone. His wing? Could be her wing, how do you tell?
“I don’t think they take care of the smaller animals. Bear, deer and moose may get some kind of health coverage, but I think that birds are out of luck. Unless you’re a bald eagle and you’re protected. I think the ranger is going to laugh a bit, and tell you put the bird in a dumpster or simply let it go.”
I thought about what he said, and I reluctantly agreed that the birds in Yellowstone do not have medical coverage. So, what to do about the bird? I ended up placing it in a thornbush, protected from the prowling hunters of the night, but within reach of food and water. It was the least I could do. He/she seemed to understand that the protection was necessary. I knew that the wing would never heal, and the swooping, diving arguments, were a thing of the past for this creature. It was a sad moment. I have often wondered what finally happened.
The Bone Dance
Life in and around the camp had become a little too citified, so Clay and I decided to head out on a couple of extended day hikes. On one of these trips, we had probably gone about four or five miles into the interior of Yellowstone, when we came upon a gigantic dead tree, toppled over in the middle of a grassy, verdant meadow. The gray tree lay in stark contrast to the green of the meadow, ringed by the darker green of the pines several hundred yards away. When this one was alive it must have been an impressive sight, standing alone, lord of the meadow. It was an impressive sight now, dry as bone, gray as bone, with huge branches still reaching out from the fallen trunk. Clay leaned against a branch, it snapped off, shattering into a dozen pieces. Looking at the pieces on the ground reminded me of something. They looked like the backbone of a dinosaur, loose stegosaurus vertebrae, scattered on the meadow’s carpet.
In circling the tree, I came across a curious collection of real bones. We decided that it must have been a bison or elk that had died there during a hard winter. No flesh, just bones, like the tree.
Suddenly Clay started tucking rib bones in his belt, eventually making himself a bone skirt. He looked a little like a New Guinea native. The rib bones had a nice curve that gave the skirt a little flare. Then I began collecting bones, tucking them in my belt. Pretty soon our shirts were off, our shorts were off, we were dressed only in our bones, our belts, and our hiking boots. Dressed as we were, it was only natural that we should perform, “the Bone Dance.”
We had each taken a tremendous thigh bone from the pile, and armed with this we descended upon the tree. Coupled with grunts and shouts, we counted coup on the old dead tree. Spinning in circles, weaving cross-steps, then advancing with a shout, we struck the upright branches and they fell- shivered into hundreds of pieces. Crack, went bone of animal upon bone of plant. Crack! Branch by branch they fell, backbone by backbone- while we hollered in our bloodlust, and danced. Viking berserkers, running amok, tribal shamans, exerting power and influence.
In the end, the tree lost. The branches were all shattered, strewn about our battlefield. Not one spine was left intact. Our hands ached, our bone clubs had cracked. Completely exhausted, we replaced the bones in the bone pile, put our clothes back on and observed the truth. The piles of broken branches would disappear by next winter, the tree was becoming soil, the bones were becoming soil. Nature was at work here, our impact was momentary and fleeting. The real victor was the meadow.
On our next day trip we decided to go upstream, following the Firehole River. Our plan was to hike upstream on the opposite shore, then cross over (if the river would allow us), then come back towards the campground. On the campground side of the river there were well defined trails for the fisherman and day hikers. On the opposite shore there was little or no obvious trail, but we forged ahead anyway. Can’t get lost, we could always hear the river and follow it back.
The small path really was only a faint suggestion and we strayed quite a bit from the specific, although we continued in the general direction. The first thing I noticed was that the lodgepole forest that we were venturing in, was going through a subtle change. Usually the ratio of perfectly straight trees to gnomic twisted dwarfs is about 5,000 to 1. 5000 beautiful specimens to one pathetic mutant. I’m not sure where I got those numbers, but they seemed accurate to me at the time.
The point was, that the quality of tree life was definitely getting more and more bizarre. Finally, I remarked to Clay that the lodgeploes had disappeared completely. In their place were these sickly mutations. Trees grew at all angles, then they changed direction in midgrowth. Hikers have a natural tendency to use the trees to estimate the slope of the mountain, that wasn’t possible here, instead, we were confused and somewhat dizzy. We began to think that the soil probably had too much sulfur in it.
It was then that we noticed how damp the soil was, a little further on it became even damper. A sharp rotting odor drifted by, and we pushed ahead to see if we could get next to the river. It was at that point, that dry ground completely disappeared. What was before us was a maze of fallen trees, semi-floating in a scummy swamp. Walking on logs that crossed other logs, we picked our way across the swamp. It really was amazing that we managed to follow the successful pattern. Just on the other side of the log maze, the trees opened up, creating a small clearing on a knoll just above the Firehole River.
What was unique about this clearing were the two hot pools of spring water. The smaller one, about four feet across, had water that was near boiling, perfect for cooking, and sulfur free. The other pool was quite a bit larger, and the water was just about spa temperature, although I really didn’t trust it enough to get in. I could just see myself being ejected in a towering geyser eruption. All in all, it was a very nice spot, and probably free from snow, and quite warm in the winter.
Clay had wandered a few feet further from the spa pool, and had found something surprising. “What is this? Have you ever seen something like it?” At first, I didn’t see what he was talking about. “What? Where? What are you talking about?” I said, spinning around trying to see whatever he was trying to make me see.
“This…these rocks, and those rocks there. Look at the pattern,” Clay gestured all around us.
Then I saw what he was saying. We were standing in the middle of a large rock drawing. There was first a square, made of small, hand sized, rocks, probably thirty feet to a side. Within the square was a circle, made with the same size rocks. Within the circle was a triangle; only the triangle was made with small stones. And finally, inside the triangle was a cross, except that the crossing piece was a good deal lower than most religious representations. I don’t know, maybe it was a pentagram, without the penta.
One thing we noticed was that these rocks had been there a long time. Most of them were several inches in the ground. Whoever had done this, had designed it years and years ago. Maybe it was a Park ranger marking, a reference point for map making. Maybe it was a benchmark visible by airplane. Didn’t look like any map symbol that I had ever seen. It didn’t seem to point north, or even to the sunrise. Clay was still going through the various options of what this might mean, when I made another discovery.
Looking at one of the larger rocks, I noticed that it hadn’t settled in the dirt like the others. I went over to inspect the rock more closely and picked it up. There was grass growing underneath it, pressed down by the rock, but considering that the grass was still green, it hadn’t been under the rock for very long. This was an old site, but it was being maintained. We found a few more rocks that had apparently been moved into place within the last few weeks, possibly days. Clay and I looked at each other, and at just about the same time we came to the conclusion that we needed to get out of there. Something was not right with the place. The eerie grove of trees coming in, the tree swamp maze, the two pools and the rock pictograph, none of it made sense.
We quickly retraced our steps, and made it back to the highway by the fishing bridge. We were still talking about the strange rock design, when we decided to share what we found with our local ranger. At first he didn’t seem to believe us. No, there wasn’t any aerial benchmarks. Rangers didn’t need to make rock designs to find their way home. Then suddenly, he stopped talking, thought a moment, then asked us to take him to the spot, if we had time the following day. We said, “Sure!”
The next morning we guided the ranger to our mystery spot. All the way there, the ranger kept looking for trail sign. A lot of the ground was pretty hard, until coming upon the swamp, so a fixed trail was hard to spot. Clay and I had thought we were blazing a trail, but the ranger assured us that we were following a faint, but used, trail. At the log maze we now began to see what the ranger had been seeing. People had been walking on these logs. Branches were broken off, and the bark had been scuffed.
When we broke out into the clearing the ranger spent a little time noting the pools, and writing in his logbook. After awhile, he looked at the rock designs, checked the grass growing underneath the ones we had found, and then he said that we should go.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything quite like it. But it may help to clear up another mystery, one that has been bothering me for quite sometime,” the ranger said, as we picked our way back across the log maze.
“A few days before Halloween I always find two or three cars, vans, parked near the fishing bridge. The road here is open until sometime in November, when the snow seals the park off. The park is closed in October though, so no one should be parked here at all. We have never found the people though. The cars are parked, we ticket them, and then the next day they are gone. And we aren’t sure when the drivers come back. But it only happens on Halloween.” Whoops, we all stopped on our own log, and looked at each other, and then at the bizarre forest around us.
“Guys, it’s a mystery,” the ranger intoned, and then he turned and quickly made his way back to the highway. Clay and I followed very closely behind him.
There are very few spots on this earth where sulfur is in the air, with natural boiling pots of mud and water. “Double, double, toil and trouble…” I suppose if someone needed that kind of an environment, the choices are Iceland, or maybe Yellowstone. “Eye of newt, toe of frog, tongue of bat…” I only know that I never plan to be near the Firehole River on Halloween.
Our camp began to develop a structure, almost a commune like quality. Work parties were formed to prepare food, clean up the grounds, and wash the dishes. It wasn’t assigned by anyone, it just happened. Every evening some new talent was discovered, people sang, acted, danced. It was truly remarkable. It lasted about two weeks.
Eventually more people showed. People came and sat and watched. They ate food but did not contribute. They listened to the stories but did not tell their own. They moved in, but did not walk lightly on the land. Finally, there were more of them than us.
It came to the point that a number of the original members of the camp held an informal meeting. There was about six of us, and we talked for some time about the direction things were going. Mostly we recognized how wonderful things had been, and we were desperately trying to regain what was lost. We thought about enforcing some simple rules, standards for the camp. We talked about how we could enforce the rules. We talked about being selective in admitting new “citizens.” We talked about what standards we were going to apply in order to make the selection. We talked for two or three hours.
In the end, we came to a joint resolution that some collectives were natural occurrences, blossoming for a time, and then dying a natural death. Trying to extend the phenomena beyond its natural life was like putting make-up on a corpse. We had an experienced being part of a brief social organism, and if it changed into something we didn’t like, and then we could always move on.
I went wandering up towards Mammoth Hot Springs, Clay headed towards Lake and Canyon. Old Tom and some others decided to hike across the central plateau. Clay and I had agreed to meet in a few days near Yellowstone Lake, but the other members of our merry band were simply departing for places unknown. It was a difficult good-bye. When Clay and I rejoined, we had a long conversation about our experiences. During my hike to Mammoth I suddenly felt the desire to get back to California. Clay felt the desire to ride a freight train through Montana. With some regrets, we went our different paths.
About two weeks after our departure, I passed through our old campground. I was then a single traveler, heading for California and looking for a warm campfire and a place to stay. There wasn’t anyone left that I remembered. It was dreary, unkempt and thoroughly uninviting. I stayed in the cabin of a concession worker. We had some wine and toasted the few weeks that had been. I left in the morning.
Becoming a POW
Being on the road as a single traveler had few benefits. Mostly it was lonely. There was also the safety factor.
A few days after leaving Yellowstone, a county sheriff picked me up. I had very little money so the charge was vagrancy. Actually, I wasn’t really charged. I was just handcuffed to a chair all night, then driven to the county line the next morning with the admonition not to return. Have a nice day.
I probably could have fallen asleep in the chair except that a sharp rap from a nightstick kept me alert and ramrod straight in the chair. Apparently this deputy sheriff had the graveyard shift and was not about to take a nap, so neither did I. I also have a brand new interpretation of the term “nightstick”.
The county line did not occur anywhere near a town so I just walked down the road, trying to put as much distance between myself and the “nightstick” behind me. Hitch hiking as a single was oddly more difficult. There’s something suspicious about one person on the road. My rides were few and short. Later that afternoon, I was dropped off at a small turnout. Another hitchhiker stood about two hundred yards down the road. In hitchhiking etiquette it would be improper to stay uproad from an established traveler. In other words, if I remained where I was dropped off, then I would have first shot at the next ride. The unwritten rules of the road required me to walk down the highway, past the fellow hitchhiker, and take a position behind him. It was hot and getting late in the afternoon, and I hadn’t slept in two days, so I just sat for a few moments. Then I moved down the road.
As I got closer to my fellow traveler I took stock of his gear and demeanor. As I was sizing him up, he was sizing me. A few years older than me, light rucksack, a worn and somewhat haggard look. I probably looked the same. We nodded to each other, distrusted each other, and said nothing. I went down the road a little ways, went up a small embankment, and found a shady spot to wait for my turn at a ride. I dozed off about three minutes after I sat down. The previous evening’s experience in a straight back chair was long behind me.
It was a very sound sleep, the kind a sleep that requires a tug or two to wake you up. That was exactly what was happening. Someone was tugging me, or more accurately, someone was tugging on my pack strap that was still firmly held in my hand. The next thing I knew I was standing. It was as if the act of raising my eyelids also propelled my body to an upright position. I was standing and looking at my fellow hitchhiker. He had one strap of my pack in his left hand and a knife in his right hand.
“Give me the pack,” he said quietly. I’m not sure why he said it so quietly; there wasn’t anyone or anything for miles around. Perhaps he was still intent on not waking me. Maybe he was embarrassed to be caught. Anyway, I offered my opinion that my pack was my pack and I wasn’t about to give it up to anyone.
“Fuck you,” I said. I would have said more, but I found that in some cases a well-placed explicative is packed with meaning. Resorting to crude language is not particularly my style, but I was ticked off. We began to tussle for my pack. He jerked, I jerked, and the pack remained in joint custody.
Finally, in desperation, I tried to disable him with a groin kick. This particular move is widely thought to be one of the more effective offensive gestures. I have my doubts. In my experience, any threat to the male crotch causes a response that is somehow faster than nerve signals. I’m sure that my companion did not think about his defensive move, he just moved. Unfortunately, in the process of avoiding the crotch kick, his right hand came in contact with my kicking leg. His right hand had been holding a knife; it was now not in his hand, but instead, it was buried hilt deep in my left inside thigh.
Profound silence and shock. I stared at the knife. I stared at him. He stared at the knife; he stared at me. Both of our mouths opened wide. He stammered, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to…” I gasped, “You stabbed me…” “I didn’t mean to…”, he repeated.
Then he turned and ran. I stood there, like a fence post, with a large pocketknife stuck in my leg. I have always felt lucky to be born in a time went the most common assault is from a bullet. A bullet is clean, it’s hot and cauterizes most of the smaller blood vessels, most of all, it either passes through the body, or it is neatly tucked inside. An arrow or a spear, on the other hand, is buried inside and remains outside at the same time. The same is true for a knife. I didn’t like this one bit. Feeling a little faint and sick to my stomach, I reached down and pulled out the knife, pressing forcefully on the wound. Nice pocketknife. Made by Case, three blades, and a can opener.
I sat down, still pressing the wound, while I watched my assailant run down the highway. A few minutes later he disappeared around a curve, then I dropped my pants to inspect the wound. There was very little blood and the wound was completely closed. It seemed that the only outcome of my adventure was that I now owned a new pocketknife.
The next day I was another hundred miles down the road, my leg a little sore, but working fine. Towards noon I was again left off at a spot where there was another hitchhiker. After briefly debating the wisdom of following road etiquette, I picked up my things to move past the hiker. As I got closer, it seemed to me that the figure was vaguely familiar. In fact, it seemed to me that there was mutual recognition. It was my friend Eric, the law student from Connecticut.
“John, what are you doing way out here?” Eric asked with a big grin.
“Getting stabbed,” I replied. It’s not easy for me to let go of some experiences.
It had been at almost two weeks since we had last seen each other so we spent a little time catching up. Eric had been bored, lonely and cold. I had been lonely, deprived of sleep and stabbed. I won.
It wasn’t hard to decide to travel together. Eric was heading to California, and so was I. We didn’t have quite the same close relationship that Clay and I shared, but he was a good guy. I liked him, and he remembered the good times in Yellowstone. Ten minutes later Eric and I got our first ride together.
Normally, I am very particular about what car I get into. I had developed a skill at judging the relative merits of entering a strange vehicle, driven by strange people. Apparently I misplaced my judgment because the ride that Eric and I had accepted was of no merit whatsoever.
The driver was in his late sixties, very drunk, and very demanding. His vehicle was a 1954 Pontiac, gray green, lots a blue smoke, and no muffler. Eric and I sat on the front bench seat next to the driver. At first, we couldn’t tell there was anything wrong. I least I don’t think I would knowingly put myself at risk with a crazed drunk driver.
Bill introduced himself and asked if we would help him with the driving. Coming from the East Coast, Eric didn’t have a license, but I did so I volunteered.
“No, no, I don’t need help driving, I need help driving,” Bill said, slurring his words for the first time. “I need help with the engine, and the dials, you know, the gauges.” Eric and I looked at each other, knowing now that we had made a serious miscalculation. “The gauges, the gauges, right there!”
At least I thought he said “gauges,” it sounded more like “Ganges.” Unless he was a Hindu, I guessed at “gauges”.
“Do you mean like, the water temperature?” I asked.
“Yeah, and the oil pressure. Very important that the oil pressure stays up, you just read me the numbers, and I’ll take it from there.” “Oh, yeah. Someone has to keep my cigarette lit, here’s a lighter.”
Eric took the lighter and for the first time I saw the cigarette that had been in the corner of his mouth. It had obviously been there for years, the same cigarette, permanently attached, bouncing with every slurred syllable. The single most important idea was now to find some way to get out of the car. It was hard to get Bill’s attention because if he wasn’t demanding gauge information, or cigarette lighting, he was then in a deep alcoholic stupor. He was stupefied and driving at sixty-five miles an hour. We also had to notify him of any speed changes.
For some reason, Bill had asked a question in German. I think we had both told him our last names, so maybe he assumed a language ability. As it turns out, Eric spoke fluent German and he thought that Bill would be pleased that he was understood. Besides it was the only time in the last hour that we had been able to get through to him. Unfortunately, the fact that Eric spoke German solidified his belief that we were escaped German prisoners of war. Eric and I looked at each other.
“Do you mean like Nazis? You think we are Nazis?” I asked.
“No, no. I know that most of you weren’t in the party. I mean you gotta do what you gotta do. If your country says fight, you fight. But you gotta understand that you lost and that’s that. Oil! What’s my temperature?
“The MPs will get you and you’ll be back in the camp before night. Light! Oil! What’s my temp?”
“That’s okay, we want to turn ourselves in. You know, the war is over.”
“Yep, just like that, the war’s over and everybody is supposed to forget everything. Fine, okay, get out. You’ll see it don’t work that way.”
Bill slowed to a stop and we got out. All I could see was his profile and the barely lit end of his cigarette. I know he faced demons. Demons from the bottle, demons from the past… We connected for just a little time and yet I was assuming so much. I would have liked to hear the full story locked behind the stupor. At the same time I couldn’t risk another mile in his speeding, highly monitored, vehicle. We shut the door and the Pontiac took off in a cloud of blue-tinged poison gas.
Beards, Blondes and Badges
Eric and I had been traveling together for a few days, and it seemed that each day brought a new level of stress. Every ride became progressively stranger, even bizarre, and our communication with each other became sharper, and eventually harsh. We had just spent the last three days backtracking over a thousand miles, because the road we were traveling simply ended. Not that the asphalt didn’t continue, it was just that the rides simply stopped. At least for us.
Hitchhikers develop a sixth sense about the viability of any particular road. It’s a combination of analyzing the kinds of vehicles that use the road, and, of course, the types of people that are driving the vehicles. Vehicles on small country roads- families heading to their farms- don’t usually pick up hitchhikers. Through careful analysis, and the fact that we were stuck in the same spot for two days, we paused to rethink our plans of passing through southern Oregon. With considerable grumbling, we turned around and backtracked through most of Idaho and down through north-central Nevada.
The first ride out of our dead end came in the form of an old laundry truck. I had often seen industrial laundry trucks with their spacious boxes, laundry bags piled high on the roof, tied to a small, three rung, iron parapet. This particular laundry truck was converted into a camper and driven by two burly, longhaired, bearded young men. They were just the personality profile that might rescue us. More importantly, they were headed in the right direction, away from southern Oregon. Eric and I thought we might be able to ride in the box, but the signals from the beards were clearly negative. The box was lined with bright Indian fabrics, lots of foam mattresses, beanbag chairs, and two wonderfully beautiful, and blonde girlfriends. Lots of room, and yet no room. We looked again at the bleak southern Oregon landscape that we had come to know so well.
In desperation, we asked about the roof, and the beards said okay. Moments later we were speeding our way through Idaho, lashed to an iron rail, feeling more like a hood ornament than a passenger. I had ridden motorcycles without windshields but this was much different. There was at least three times the expected airflow. The truck’s front grill and cab windshield was displacing road dirt, various flying insects, and super heated desert air directly into our faces. It was like laying in a blast furnace and being peppered with toasted locust hors d’oeuvres.
Three or four hundred miles later, we crawled down; wind blown, drained, and dry as the desert air. Our truck, with the beards and the blondes, went bouncing down a side road while Eric and I tried to pick the bugs out of our hair. This wasn’t southern Oregon, but it wasn’t much better. By late afternoon it was clear that the rides were not coming, and that it might be better to simply take a break. The side road that our laundry truck had taken was close by and we could see that it crossed a single lane, wooden trestle bridge. I saw the bridge, and I thought “creek” or “stream”, and possibly “shade.” We immediately voted for an afternoon siesta and cleanup break.
After a short hike, we crawled beneath the bridge to find a ledge above a cold running creek. It was the ideal spot, cool, refreshing and instantly comfortable. Eric dropped his pack, laid out his bag and was asleep in three minutes. I managed to do the same in four minutes because I took my shoes off first. I’m not sure how many minutes passed, but I was vaguely aware of cars crossing the bridge, rattling the planks, raining fine particles of brown earth upon us. Eventually I heard one car cross very slowly, and it seemed to me that I could hear an emergency brake being set. Then I dozed off again.
It was a nice dream, probably very cool, and it didn’t include the polished tip of a cowboy boot that was now lightly tapping me awake. I slowly opened my eyes and scanned the few inches in front of me. Black cowboy boot, high gloss polish, and khaki pant leg with a double yellow stripe going up the leg. I followed the yellow stripe up the pant leg until it got to the leather thong tied around the leg. The thong was part of the leather holster that contained the Colt 45 Peacemaker (with pearl handles), the thong allowed the pistol to be quickly pulled out, a ‘quick draw rig.’ I continued following the holster up towards the belt and the belt buckle. It was polished silver and the surface was pointed in my direction, I could vaguely see my own reflection. Continuing upward I had a feeling of what I would see once I got past the xx-large pressed khaki shirt. Yep, the mirrored sunglasses. And the star on his left pocket. He was also chewing gum, and spinning a white Stetson hat in his left hand. I just knew we were going to spend the rest of our natural lives in the county work farm.
“Ya’ll hitchhikin, ” he drawled.
“Yeah, uh…Yessir,” I replied as I got into a non-threatening sitting position.
“Ya’ll know it’s against the law to hitchhike in this county?”
“No sir,” Eric was saying nothing but his blink rate had gone up considerable.
“Do you have enough money for bus fare?”
“Did you know that there’s a law against vagrancy? Did you know that this here is private property that you’re camping on?”
“No sir,” I didn’t think that explaining the difference between camping and taking a siesta would matter at this point.
“Where are you fellas heading?” he asked after a few seconds pause.
“Home, home to California…sir.”
“Do you have some ID? Just take it out of the wallet if you don’t mind.”
“Yessir, you know we didn’t think anyone would mind, I mean we just tried to get out of the sun, and there didn’t seem to be any rides so we just thought that we would rest a little, and then we were going to head out, and you know, just walk down the road if we have to, I mean to get a ride further down the road so…” I was trying to apply a reasonable stream of consciousness but it quickly turned to fear inspired babble.
“Hold on, hold on. Why don’t you just settle a bit, while I go up to the car to check on any outstanding warrants. You boys just stay put for now.” Taking out his handcuffs, he snapped them on first to my wrist, and then Eric’s. It was very smoothly done, something that he had a lot of practice doing. And then he slowly backed away towards the path leading to the roadway. It was then that I noticed his right hand never strayed too far from the ‘quick draw rig.’ I wondered just how fast he had to be in this part of the county.
Eric looked at me and shook his head. Looking down at the cuffs, I suddenly had the rushing fear that perhaps Eric had done something dastardly in his past. What do I know about him? I’ve only known him a few weeks at best. Now I was going to be arrested as an accomplice of a serial murderer/robber/thief. Just great!! When I looked again at Eric I could see that the same thought was going through his mind as well.
“Hey, I’m innocent…” “So am I…”
But the suspicion remained, and we said nothing more. For a moment I thought about running down the creek, hiding in the tules along side the banks. It was a brief replay of the classic Sidney Poiters and Tony Curtis movie, The Defiant Ones. No, I don’t think so. I’m sure that the dogs would on our scent within the hour. Eric began hyperventilating. Then the sheriff returned.
“Yep, you boys appear to be clean. Ya’ll gather your gear and head on up to the car. Hear, wait a minute, let me take those cuffs off.” We were packed before he could put the cuffs back on his belt. Except for my shoes. I didn’t want to keep him waiting, so I just carried my shoes. The sheriff looked at me, then at my shoes. At least I think he looked at me. Hard to tell with the mirrored glasses.
We got to the car and we were ushered into the back seat. It seemed to me that he had forgotten to handcuff us again, but I wasn’t about to remind him. Then he drove off, heading for the main road. Along the way he mentioned that old lady Richardson had seen us going over the fence and under the bridge. She was a cranky sort and always complaining about something or another. Then he told us that he was taking us further down the highway, where a busier junction might be better for us. I would have said more than the thank you, except that I was so emotional drained that it was all I could do.
“Here ya go. Ya’ll keeping heading down this road. Keep safe and get yourself back home. And boys, don’t let me find you in this county come morning,” he grinned.
Eric and I struggled out of the car and headed for the junction. Eric still hadn’t said a word, but smiled as the sheriff passed. I waved, still holding my shoes, and standing in my stocking feet on the shoulder of the highway. It seemed to both of us that we needed to put this hitchhiking thing into express mode, and get on down the road.
No Man’s Land has always had an impact on me. Reading about World War I and the ground between the trenches, brought up vivid images of a dark, desolate terrain, populated by transients, moving like ghosts on the Scottish moors. The area between Sparks and Reno, Nevada, at 2:00 in the morning, has that same No Man’s Land quality. There was nothing to see except shadows, the only reality being the repeating spotlights on the road, lit by streetlights stretching far into the distance. Walking silently, in single file, we entered the desolation that led to the biggest little city in the world, Reno.
Eric and I were barely speaking, not that we were angry with each other; it was just that we had no room for communication. We had shriveled up, lost our vital fluids in the heat of the desert. Spiritually shrunken, physically desiccated, yet still walking, still moving forward. The universe reduced to moving from one streetlamp to another. All I knew, all I could see, was contained in the bright circles of light, thirty feet across, illuminating a deserted street. To either side there were shadows of some other reality. Uncertain and unimportant, they faded in the distance. My goal was the next spot of light, and then the next beyond that.
Pressing forward, head down, glancing up, and sometimes back, checking to see if Eric was still there a few yards behind me. Feeling the load of my pack, sensing as time passes that the weight increases. Shifting the straps from abused flesh. This ritual went on for some miles, then, suddenly, she was there. Up ahead, in the future, two spotlights away, I could see the figure of a woman standing, waiting. I slowed but continued walking forward, disappearing from the light, moving forward and reappearing in the next light, closer each time to the future woman. Then the future became the present, and we shared the same harsh halogen light.
She was wearing a black dress of sequins, light bouncing from her shoulders, breasts and thighs, sparkling… and fingering a long strand of turquoise beads. Her face, heavy in make-up, framed by black, teased, shoulder length hair- was smiling, but sadly. She was probably forty years old. Older, with tracks of the world on her face. As I approached her, I instinctively nodded my head, and I could see her bright red lips forming words- words I couldn’t hear, although I should have been able. She blinked and smiled again; I noticed that she was holding a shoe by its strap. It was missing the heel. Heel-less shoe swinging, turquoise beads swinging, thousands of bright micro lights flashing, and wordless lips moving. Then I left the light, and headed into the darkness between the spots. At the next streetlight I looked back, and there in my past, now captured by the halogen circle, I could see Eric sharing the spot with the sequins dress, and then he too, moved forward. For the next few minutes I looked back periodically to see if I had really seen what I thought I had seen. Four streetlights back I saw a sparkling figure disappear from one spot, but then never appear in the next spot down. I waited, but nothing showed. Eric came next to me, and he looked back as well. We both waited. He managed to ask where she had gone, but I just shook my head and turned away.
Another few blocks there was an empty lot, covered in tall grass. I thought that if we went to the back wall, we could lay undiscovered, and maybe even fall asleep. There was a narrow trail in the tall grass, I lay my sleeping bag directly on it, well covered from the road. Eric placed his bag in the same trail, and we lay there head to head in a footpath, not speaking for some time. Then Eric asked a question.
“Did you hear what she said?” I thought about it for some seconds. Remembering the lips forming words. Bright red, moving shapes, parting, closing, then opening again, but no sound. Why hadn’t I heard?
“She said, ‘I hope you have better luck than I.’”
I lay on my back, looking at the stars above Reno, Nevada, listening to Eric’s words, and listening to the soundless words of a vanished spirit. I thought about events and the meanings that we place upon them, and I thought about compassion and empathy. I answered Eric, that yes, I had finally heard.
The Bed, the Raccoon, and the Draft
“…It will run like a striped ape.” It was a vision of madness and security. Cradled safely in the arms of a fleeing primate, conflicts were meaningless, troubles all but disappeared. All left behind by the incredible speed of my striped friend.
It was the middle of August 1970 and I was tired of hitchhiking. For the last two months I had been traveling through the Grand Tetons, Yellowstone Park and Glacier National Park. At home there was a letter for me from Uncle Sam. It was near the bitter end of the Vietnam War, long after the fresh idealism of the first Peace March, after the Tet Offense, and just after the killings at Kent State. Part of me rationalized that if I stayed high in the Rocky Mountains, then perhaps I could avoid the entire conflict. My thoughts were very linear, if I was drafted, I would be sent to Vietnam. If I were sent to Vietnam, I would die. If I died, then…then…then I’d be dead. This was a powerful motivation to stay even higher in the mountains. But that wasn’t very realistic. The reality was that the war wasn’t going to go away, and neither could I.
The mountains were refreshing, a balm to a troubled spirit. After revisiting old haunts and favorite meadows, I planned my re-entry to civilization. A road partner of mine, from my last venture into the mountains, had moved to Salt Lake City. I thought I would visit with him for a few days before heading back to California. He had a deferment and while he was safe, he sensed my unease. We talked about Canada. We talked about pretending to be insane. We talked about showing up at the induction center in drag, arm-in-arm, in full make-up. The longer I talked, the more reluctant I was to consider hitching across the salt flats of Utah and alkali deserts of Nevada. To hitch across the desert, and then to be drafted once I got across, really made the whole effort pointless.
My friend suggested that we look in the newspaper classifieds for a car cheap enough to justify the gas expense. Once bought, I could simply drive the junker to California, and upon arriving, sell it for scrap. It seemed like a good idea.
The paper had hundreds of selections, most were too expensive, the others were soulless little imports, but one stood out in particular. The ad ran, “1947 Willys wagon, runs, burns some oil, $35.00.” What a remarkable find, an outstanding vehicle, one with some character, and one that was exactly the right price!
After calling to make sure the car was available, and that there wasn’t a price typo, my friend and I went to the owner’s home to take a test drive. It was a bargain center! The owner was selling the entire contents of his garage and basement. Everywhere I looked there was a piece of treasure that seemed placed there just for my discovery and eventual purchase. I was hitchhiking because I owned a dead 1959 English Ford Escort; it had a cracked engine head. The poor beast was stored in California awaiting my return and attention. And right there in a Salt Lake City suburb, was a complete English Ford Escort engine, with a $15.00 price tag on it. I couldn’t believe it, what a find! And that wasn’t all; leaning against the side fence was a double brass bed. It was a gleaming 1930’s Art Deco masterpiece with a $10.00 sticker. It became more obvious by the minute that I was going to buy the vehicle just so that I could haul away my other purchases. It was becoming something like a possession based feeding frenzy. I was worried I might not have enough money left for the car.
Eventually, I asked to see the Willys, as it didn’t appear to be displayed with the rest of the inventory. The owner took me to a side yard, and there she sat. It looked like something that a tribe of Bedouins had owned. Sandblasted, weather-beaten, it sat on tires that weren’t quite round; it looked every bit like a desert rat. The paint was three or four shades of oxidized lizard green and it looked like they couldn’t stretch it far enough to cover the entire vehicle. She had been sitting for about three years and had last been used to haul motorcycles into the desert. Beyond a little oil burning, she ran fine. There was a spotlight on the roof with the control handle inside, spring loaded hood latches, quarter inch steel fenders, and an indestructible look. I fell in love. I spent slightly less than $100 dollars for everything.
The next couple of days were spent making sure that the Willys’ brakes were relined, the rusted floorboards patched, and the electrical system repaired. A neighbor saw me working on the Willys and offered his help. He had repaired hundreds of jeeps in the Army, and in his opinion he thought my Willys would do fine in the cross-desert trip to California. “Give it a little oil, a little water, and it will run like a striped ape.” His vision of a striped ape running across the desert gave me strange confidence and comfort. For days afterward I would think on the phrase, particularly with his pronunciation, “steeped ape.’
Finally, I set off, heading for the Great Salt Lake Desert, loaded to the roof line with engine parts, backpacking equipment, bric-a-brac and the double brass bed. The Willys lurched along, traveling at a top speed of about 45 miles per hour. The “not so round” tires, heated with the desert air, and began to round themselves out. The lurching became less and less as the miles went on. Only one difficulty remained, repeated about every two minutes. Every oncoming truck caused a tremendous wind shear that shuddered the Willys, raised the hood, strained the latches, and starting oscillations that continued long after the truck had passed. And of course it did burn a little oil.
Lurching, shimmying, smoking, shuddering- the miles clicked off, and the sun dropped below the horizon. Somewhere up ahead was the Sierra Nevada, California, and a mailbox with a letter from the Selective Service. All this time to consider the choices, and I still hadn’t a clue of what I was going to do. It was clear to me that any kind of military service would change my life forever, either by placing me in a life-ending situation, or simply by giving me a vastly different look at reality for two or three years.
Hitchhiking always presented me with distinctly separate choices. At any given fork of the road the entire journey changed. There was an element of trusting to the fates, but I was the one choosing the path. Beyond the fear of death, I knew that just being in the military would change me unalterably, that the system would remove my choices, and send me in directions of their choosing, even into the jungles of Viet Nam.
Just about the time I noticed the state line of Nevada, I also noticed a persistent engine knock. A persistent engine knock that got louder and louder. Nothing quite like the still night desert air to magnify sound. I had filled the engine block with heavy oil and anti-knock additives that made the oil more solid than liquid, but the knock continued. There was nothing to do but drive, listen to the engine destroy itself, and hope that it would make it across the desert before engine parts start dropping out on the highway.
At about three in the morning, in the quiet desert air, the mountains echoed with a majestic “clunk”. After hours of “tap-a-tap, tap-a-tap”, there was this one final “clunk”, and then nothing, just the sticky, honey-sound, of tires upon the pavement, as I coasted to a stop. Turning the lights out, I sat in the moonless desert, swallowed completely by the black silence of night. For over an hour I sat motionless, interrupted only by familiar shudder of passing trucks. Repairing the Willys was impossible. Hitchhiking with all that stuff was impossible. Leaving everything behind was impossible. I was caught. I now had stuff to consider. I had gone from the freedom of having nothing, to the burden of having stuff. I didn’t want to lose what I had. Eventually I came to accept that the Willys would not have liked California, and probably would be happier in a desert junkyard. It was sad, but there was a dignity to dying in the desert. I stripped her of all identification and left a note asking for her to be towed to a final resting place.
The rest of the night I spent unpacking the treasures from the back. Sometime before the sun came up I had conceived a brilliant plan. I would bury my stuff in the desert. I didn’t have to give it up; I could come back for them later. About two hundred yards due north, I scraped out a shallow pit and buried everything except the backpacking gear. Using my compass, I triangulated the position with the surrounding mountain peaks and paced out the yardage from the highway. As the sun came over the eastern horizon, I was constructing the map that I would use in a few weeks in order to reclaim my stuff. Home was only 900 miles away; maybe even my English Ford could make it. Leaving the mortally wounded Willys, I covered my tracks and walked a few hundred yards down the highway, thinking that I had done all I could.
The early morning is not the best time to catch rides, so I wasn’t surprised that none of the few cars that passed had stopped. With nothing else to do, I wondered how to come back for the buried stuff. Over and over I worked out the future scenarios, until I finally realized that I wasn’t coming back. My desert stuff would eventually become desert dust, and I would never see this place again. I just knew that a draft notice awaited me in California, and that the likelihood of me coming back here anytime soon was slim. Watching the line of cars passing without stopping, I thought it probably wouldn’t be much worse trying to hitch with the double brass bed. Although the idea was ludicrous, the more I thought about it the more I was convinced that I could just possibly do it. Fifteen minutes later I was unburying my loot and hauling it up to the highway.
I had a lot of years of experience in hitch hiking, and I knew enough not to stand beside the road with a pile of junk awaiting a ride. I deposited my excess baggage just out of sight and began to practice how I would introduce the fact that I was traveling with a full size bedroom set. I didn’t have a clue. “Thanks for stopping, oh by the way, do you think we have enough room for the bed?” “How about the distributor, fuel pump and engine block?” I thought that I was going to be on that highway for a very long time.
The first ride that stopped was polite enough until I mentioned the bed. There was a stammered “I don’t think so” and then the sound of gravel as they sped off. By chance, he did seem to have enough room, but he still drove off rather quickly. It was a few minutes before I realized that I had been gesturing to the bed that lay beneath their view. I suppose that giving a ride to a hallucinating hitchhiker was asking too much. I determined to at least show the next ride that the brass bed was very real.
An hour and fifteen minutes later, a Volkswagen pickup pulled off the highway and rolled to a stop. I began to plead my case to the thirtyish male passenger and his female companion. They seemed willing to take me all the way to San Francisco but when I got to the part where I had a brass bed in the bushes, all I got was a stony stare. The silence was broken by a sharp “yip” as a small raccoon popped his head out of the fellow’s shirt neck, just below the fellow’s bearded chin. When I continued my discussion about the feasibility of hauling the auto parts, my questions seemed directed to the raccoon as we locked our eyes in a mystified stare. It was clear that the driver wasn’t sure that it was safe to give a ride to someone with engine parts and a brass bed. The conflict was finally resolved with an agreement; it was reasonable for me to travel with a brass bed, if it was reasonable for him to have a raccoon in his shirt. Shrugging our shoulders, we loaded my stuff in the back of the pickup and headed down the highway.
About an hour later I was asked if I didn’t mind driving while the couple stretched out in the back and enjoyed the desert air. I said “Sure, I don’t mind, I’m a good driver, relax.” He said, “Hmm, you’ll have to drive with Jocko in the cab, he can’t stay in the back, we’re afraid he would jump out. He’s very friendly, although sometimes he can be a pest. Here are a couple of squirt guns to keep him in line. Just give him a shot or two and he’ll behave. Oh yeah, feel free to play the tape deck, but keep Jocko out of the cassette tapes, he’ll pull the tape right out of the shell.” I said, simply enough, “No problem!”
There is no denying the cuteness of baby raccoons, they have wonderful little tiny hands, soft fur, cute little beady eyes, but then, of course, there was the bandit’s mask. I later believed this was God’s little warning that raccoons are not to be trusted. His favorite trick was to act perfectly benign, walk on your lap, chitter in raccoonese, and then attack my fleshy underarm as I gripped the steering wheel. It turns out the Jocko was a baby raccoon from hell. Jocko was schizophrenic. A schizophrenic baby raccoon from hell with sharp teeth. Another neat trick was to wander to the back seat, standing just out of comfortable eyesight, then suddenly spring to the top of my head, scratching, biting, and just plain raising hell. To passing cars it must have looked like a possessed Davy Crockett cap from Disneyland, or perhaps a bad haircut reeking revenge on the owner for going to a second-rate barber. I know my thoughts were definitely centered on turning Jocko into abandoned road kill. I had tried the squirt guns and they did seem to work for a time. Of course, after awhile, not only did I have a berserk baby raccoon, I had a frenzied, wet, berserk baby raccoon. And did I mention schizophrenic? Then I ran out of water.
Mind you, all of this was taking place while I was driving seventy miles per hour, in an unfamiliar vehicle, with sleeping passengers in the pickup bed. Jocko seemed to sense that he was winning. He began to pace his attacks with enough time in between that I couldn’t tell when the next assault was coming. He even cuddled with me a little, to throw my suspicion off. I didn’t fall for his domestic ploy though, and I kept a wary eye on his actions.
Jocko began to wander into new territories, first he was at my feet, looking up my pants leg, then he was in the back, rooting through the bag of cassette tapes, then he was on the dashboard, reaching for the steering wheel, fixing me with a death stare that only demented baby raccoons can generate. After a few minutes I lost contact with Jocko, nowhere in sight. My first reaction was to cross my legs in case the attack came in low, but crossing my legs while driving was impossible. I could sense that Jocko was in front of me somewhere, I could hear little chittering noises, and then I realized that he had crawled behind the dashboard. There was one last chitter, a little electrical “Pop,” and then the engine lost power and I was coasting to a stop.
I had to wake the owners. They were livid that I had allowed Jocko to get behind the dash, “He could have been hurt or burned by the electrical wires. Don’t you have any sense?” they both shouted. Before I could respond with either something abject or even something closer to the truth, I heard a scream from the back seat. The woman had looked into the bag of cassettes that Jocko had been rooting in and found a destroyed cassette. I was really was upset because they did have a fine collection of music, and I should have been able to keep it out of Jocko’s hands. I asked, “What tape was it?” She said, “Tiny Tim’s greatest hits”. I was just about to comment that at least it wasn’t a classic, when it became clear that Tiny Tim was their idol and the tape was a serious loss.
The wiring was reconnected and I was banished back to the pickup bed and rode the last two hundred miles as an outcast, a pariah, unfit for human or raccoon interaction. When I finally signaled for them to stop, they didn’t even take me down the off-ramp. They stopped on the shoulder of the freeway, threw me and my junk out, and drove off into the night. So long Jocko!
With everything in a pile on the freeway, I was desperately trying to figure out how I could get all this stuff to my house, which was still about a mile and a half away. Again, a brilliant flash of insight passed over me, and I started to assemble the double brass bed. Until then it had been broken down into headboard, footboard, and the rails that connect them. When the bed was assembled, I had a nice frame that was on wheels, and plenty of room to tie on the engine parts. As I began to push this contraption down the off-ramp and out into the city streets, it occurred to me that with the engine parts lashed to the bed frame, there was an unsettling look about the whole affair. It looked like the aftermath of some horrific traffic accident, where the engine comes loose and sits in the car’s passenger seat. Except in this surrealistic instance, the vehicle was somehow involved with an Art Deco bedstead, and all that was left was now being pushed down the off-ramp. I had even hung the Willys’ license plate on the rear of the bed, I suppose just in case I was stopped. There were only a few vehicles driving about at that time of night, and most gave me the right a way. Actually, I think, “giving me a wide berth” was more descriptive. All in all, it was a pleasant stroll back to my home.
As I parked the brass bed in my driveway, I thought hard about my summer. I felt strengthened and resolved, I knew that my worst fears could work out perfectly okay. I felt that I had faced my difficulties with faith and a good heart. I felt ready to open my mail, believing that the military was going to be only a little worse than maniacal raccoons.
I was home, safe, surrounded by friends and family. I had been gone only a few months, but it seemed like years, and to my growing spirit, perhaps it was. I was becoming aware of separate roads, leading to realities that could have been, and could be still, if only I travel them. But the opportunities presented are not from me, only chosen by me. Somehow the combination of my free will, and the presented choices, bring me to this reality. This combination of free will and destiny puzzles me still. In the end, I had tried to make the most of what I was given; yet at the same time, I tried not to get in the way of the unfolding.
My experiences on the road ended with that last trip, I was unaware that this phase of my life was over. Looking back I can see how everything fits as preparation, not necessarily for the next stage, but perhaps for the one following. There have been dozens of stages since and dozens ahead now. I remain a work progressing, still sometimes stumbling from light to light, hearing and sometimes heeding, seeing and sometimes not. Futures in the making, moment to moment.