Got the Truck Home. Just Barely.

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Getting Rhodie roadworthy

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Like I said, bought an F-150.

It’s a ’94, just like me.

It’s dark blue and rusty, also just like me. (Kidding).

A mechanically savvy friend agreed to drive me to the northern Vermont town where I bought it to pick it up.

Brilliant leaf change and reddish, craggy angles of rock wall all along the 89.

About 72 degrees, and not a cloud in sight this particular time of year.

That’s the good thing about Vermont, even if the taxes make you want to hang yourself and there are statistically more bureaucrats than normal people.

Yes, some of the young newcomers there want you to live on chlorophyl and charcoal and drive a sail-powered Prius, but the land itself is gorgeous.

I kid, they’re good people, the Vermonters, especially the old school farmers.

What scenery on the drive. Rolly-polly hills. Apple-red, pumpkin-orange and goldenrod leaves overhead.

Can’t wait to see it passing by out of the window of the new truck.

New, now there’s a wrong description if there ever was one.

Rust holes pock the lower part of the blue bed. Rust encrusts the undercarriage. If you lift up the rubber mat under the driver’s feet, you can see clear through to the pavement below. If the brakes go, at least you could use the Flintstone option.

Why buy a truck in such morbid condition? Other than affordability?

There’s a cliche about certain women, that they look at a chatty, coke-head wino and think, “I can save him.”

Even knowing nothing (yet) about mechanics I look at this battered truck and think something similar: I can save her.

We are here. There’s my blue ride where I left her.

The auto-savvy guy strolls up to the truck.

This is the first time he is seeing it.

He’s been advising on the truck hunt from a distance, but I forked over the cash for this one on my own.

Wonder how I did.

He chuckles at the degree of rust.

He asks me to turn the engine on. I slide into cabin, with its cloth seats, elderly rubber, and old truck smell, and fire up the engine.

Whine, rattle and roar.

“Holy moly, that is the worst sound I ever heard come out of a truck in my life. Shut it off.”

A twist of the key, and peace returns to the Vermont afternoon.

Well, it could be worse.

Savvy guy opens the hood. He pops the belt off of the wheels in there. Spins the wheels. The rattling is all coming from the alternator.

And wouldn’t you know it, as soon as he says that, the guy who sold it to me, an old-school Vermont guy, a walrus-mustache biker with a leg in a brace, hobbles into his shop and comes out with a brand new alternator.

Just like that.

He plunks it down on the edge of the hood and says it is included in the price of the truck, no extra. That was pretty cool of him, I thought.

Unclear what the standard etiquette is when you buy a truck for cash, but that seemed pretty cool.

The bolts on the old alternator love their home. They won’t evacuate. We soak them down with PB Blaster.

Out comes the old part. Its wires need to be snipped, poked into the new part’s metal tubes, and the tubes crimped. Out comes a pen knife and the copper wires get their oxygenated crust scraped off.

My friend lays a wrench down on the edge of the truck’s open hood to create a hard surface he can use to hammer the tubes into a flat crimp. He brings the hammer down.

Orange sparks fly up. The wrench slid under the blow. It completed a circuit running from the positive battery terminal to the edge of the truck. After some adjustment, my friend tries again. The tubes are crimped and the new part is connected to the wires. Now it’s time to get it bolted in place.

Getting the belt back on is a two-man job.

I scoot under the truck to hook the belt over a wheel from there.

Then I’m back up to crank back on this wrench that lifts the set of wheels the belt runs on to make them reachable. The wrench is just too short.

My friend grabs a piece of pipe from his truck, and saws it off with an electric grinder. Orange sparks rocket off the metal and onto his jeans. The grinding rips through the quiet air, and echos off the barns. He hammers the wrench into the end of the pipe. Now it’s a lever that will work.

I crank on the better lever and savvy guy shoves the belt into place over the wheels. I fire up the ignition.


Dead battery.

That was fast. It sparked a second ago.

Trip to town and back for a new battery.

Last thing is fixing a flat tire.

We grab an air tank from the truck and fill the tire.

We’ve got about 25 minutes to a town where we can fill up the nearly empty gas tank.

I am driving the new truck while my friend follows .

The truck is rattling and rumble-bumping along.

It likes to lurch way to the right.

Driving takes constant correction on the steering wheel.

It sounds better with the new alternator in.

Hey, here’s a Shell. Perfect. I pull in.

The truck has two gas tanks, one in the middle of the body and one in the rear. The condition of each tank is unclear. The switch that toggles between them is set to the back.

I put seven gallons in the back and seven gallons in the front. As soon as the pump is back in its holster, we hear trickling.

I look under the bed. Rivulets of gasoline are trickling all over the pavement out of the front tank.

I pull it up near the grass next to the shop.

We figure we have get it home, even though it is dripping gas from one of its tanks.

My job is to watch the rearview mirror as I drive in case the truck makes a spark and a fire starts.

The plan is pull off to the right, scoot out of the passenger door should that situation happen.

Well, I’m watching the speedometer, the road, my sideview because there’s no rearview and then just before our exit, almost there, almost there-


Tire blows.

I pull off to the side of the road and scoot out.

Soon, I’m riding home with my friend and Googling the tire type for a ’94 F-150.

All the shops are closed because it is Sunday night.

I guess I’m doomed to a fine from the cops for an abandoned vehicle.

Or maybe not.

Wouldn’t you know it, my friend has a trailer’s tire with the exact right lug pattern.

Yes, it will be so skinny compared to the other tires it will practically look like we jammed a bike tire on a truck.

But for one more exit?

Twelve more minutes of driving home?

It should work.

Back home, we grab jacks, blocks, the tire, and head back.

After the roadside tire change, I ease the truck home watching the mirrors and dials with intense paranoia.

After everything, there’s the truck in the front yard, leaking gasoline into a five gallon bucket. Got it home. Just barely.

Tomorrow the real work begins.

To be continued

Something’s Been Bugging Me

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It’s not like it used to be.

Or so I’ve heard, I wasn’t there for it.

You used to have an even shot of common-sensing your way through auto repairs decades before I was ever born. In fact, the first check engine light was called an Idiot Light. As in, “something’s wrong. Gee, think so, idiot?”

Now a car runs on computers. That check engine like flicks orange, it can mean any number of countless problems. You open the hood, and there’s a big tangle of wires. Plastic veneer covers the key components you need to reach. Nothing looks wrong. Nothing looks accessible with typical screwdrivers or wrenches either. Sleek unassailable surfaces greet you.

Replacing a Headlight

But let’s pull back and talk about a simpler light. A headlight. Replacing a lightbulb is so easy that if you want to make a joke about how dumb somebody is, you ask how many of them it takes to change a lightbulb.

Surely you twist the old one out and twist the new bulb in before the cops pull you over.



A guy I know, a guy who knows more about cars than anybody wanted to replace the headlight on his girlfriend’s Volkswagen. He’s a guy who can restore and modify a 60s truck from the frame up. The headlight fix is almost, ALMOST beneath him.

He popped the hood and saw an absolutely unreachable socket behind the burnt out bulb. He opened the repair manual, and saw you had to remove the entire front end to reach the bulbs. It was a thirteen-step job per the manufacturer.

Who cares?

Well, now you can’t fix the issue for the price of a dollar fifty bulb. Now you can’t keep bulbs in your glove box and pop new ones in when they die. In fact, the manufacturer would like it very much if you took time out of your weekend or workday to bring the car in just to change a headlight.

Why is it Like this Now?

By the time you’ve researched and developed a car, paid engineers, designers, emissions counselors, marketers, shippers, manufacturers, regulation consultants, regulatory fees, crash test costs, and things you can’t imagine go into making a vehicle, your margin is slim.

This is even true on a car that’s $32,000 five years used. A great deal of money gets made in repairs. How do you squeeze a little more money out of your product? You design a car that needs plenty of repairs. Something that doesn’t threaten life and limb like a faulty brake but still gets you pulled over like a headlight makes a profitable problem to maximize.

The Less the Customer Can Do, the Better

That’s fine if you’re the car company, but now I’m the absolutely egg-faced chump bringing a car into shop for nothing but a burnt out lightbulb.

It’s other little things. Cars ride lower on average. They want it so you HAVE to lift it with a jack. You can’t just scoot under there. Does it bottom out more often? Good. That’s more repairs.

Want to change spark plugs? Change the oil? You need the proprietary wrenches. Is the wrench for sale? Is it worth your time and money to do all that arithmetic comparing buying new wrenches to bringing the vehicle into shop?

I’ll tell you right now, I didn’t grow up fixing cars.

That said, is is the story of my first project truck.

It’s a blue 1994 Ford F-150. It has 84 thousand miles, and that mileage is probably real given the decent condition of the upholstery and pedals.

If the dial had been reset, the upholstery would have been chafed to ratty rags by the long-term friction of the driver’s body. It’s got a manual four-wheel drive with a big joystick to engage it. Not one of those dinky plastic buttons they’re doing now.

I’ve got help from somebody great with vehicles, an engineer who grew up taking every machine you can think apart and putting it back together.

The to-do list:

  • Replace rear left spring shackle
  • Replace muffler
  • Bypass smog pump
  • Fresh tires
  • Oil change
  • Transmission fluid

I’m sure the list will only grow, but I’m looking forward to learning. There’s an ugly history with the auto giants of the world and the average American who would like to fix his own car. See, back in the day, the auto giants were lobbying to make it illegal to work on your own car. Illegal. Home repairs were eating the profit margin.

Ever seen that meme floating around about how Republicans were the party that lobbied against mandatory seatbelts? Reasonable laws like that were the headlining door keys to mandates that brought the cost of a brand new truck from $3,200 to $65,000.

A few red-faced red staters railed against this march of progress. The auto companies said, “just take out a six-year loan instead of three.”

What could possibly go wrong?

Yeah, the ballooned price of a vehicle loses the spotlight to student debt and the housing crisis but it’s there, and it’s not going to get any better.

What were your lofty aspirations when you were a kid? Forget astronaut, let’s just say you just want to do things for yourself because you like to. To that aim, I say, “good luck.” Big forces are machinating against you. On the other hand, if the role of spectator and consumer is all you’ll ever need, there’s a comfortable, comfortable future ahead of you.

When they couldn’t ram that no home repairs law through, the giants realized they could get the same effect through the power of technology. Now a new Toyota Corolla has more lines of computer code coursing through it than a supersonic fighter jet.

Devil’s Dues

The engines are more efficient. A computerized engine can detect humidity, altitude, O2 levels, and countless other factors to optimize engine efficiency in a way a purely mechanical engine never could. Hooray. Our air isn’t as bad as China’s, where there are no emission’s laws. Again, hooray. Clean air is good, truly. I write that without irony, for people who need that clarified.

Still, it’s good to be able to do things for yourself. The more people like that there are, the better off everybody is. Having the option of doing a fix yourself will get you farther if you break down somewhere without cellphone service. I drive through places with no cell phone service often.

A headlight should not be something you need to bring the car to a mechanic for.

The Journey Starts

I got an OBD that pairs with my phone. That’s the scanner that your cop shop will plug in to read the error code. I used it to diagnose and replace my mass air flow sensor. First fix I ever did myself. That was on a Kia Sportage I don’t own anymore.

Now I’m going to repair this F-150 and drive it across country.

To be continued


Odd Jobs & After Hours | What’s Your Book About?

I’m publishing a book titled Odd Jobs & After Hours soon. It should be available in paperback by March 1. The e-book edition will follow that shortly. Still figuring out if it should become an audio book.

The title is exactly what the book is about.

It’s a collection of the type of stories you run into in between leaving home and getting your feet under you. Scary rented rooms, evil bosses, psycho roommates, after-midnight shifts, rugby games, squatters, poachers, and more.

It’s written. I’m dealing with all of the final details. After that, it will be very easy to grab a copy on Amazon.

For now, here is the intro page of Odd Jobs & After Hours.

“Feel the heat of molten metal.

Hear the clang of hammer and anvil.

Be bowled over and skid across a muddy rugby pitch.

Taste the kiss of the sea.

Work odd jobs & after hours in the big city.

Get thrown out the apartment window.

Join the all-night, coked-up film crew.

Meet the vegan poacher woman, the psycho roommate with a hatchet, and the world’s greatest salesman before he explodes. Bloody your hands with the worst of it.

These stories are a tin mug dipped into the river of life to draw up one cupful you can’t catch again. It’s like every portion and none other at the same time.

It’s a hot day, and I pass the mug to you.”

Unknown Destination

Death, baby! Death.

That’s what’s was on my mind here in the unmanly station of second seat on a moped hurtling down a rolling Colombian highway, somewhere in Medellín.

But beyond the mild seating indignity is the discomforting presence of twelve chainlink fence posts sitting in the truck bed to the front left of us.

If you like this story, grab my book Odd Jobs & After Hours for stories you won’t find online.

The posts in the truck bed are a mere arm’s reach away, as Colombian roads are much narrower than I-95, and the vehicles are smaller than the Ford F-150 by a long shot. The hollow ends of the fence posts are dark as gun barrels; they seem capable of lance-like flight at a sudden stop. This helmet with its scratchy visor simply isn’t enough.

Cars and trucks merge on and off the highway with all the order of popcorn kernels on a red burner rocketing upward to burst and bloom.

Now Colombia’s mountains are a joy to see, a delight to hike, and no doubt a thrill to motorbike through, but second seat gives you no control over your fate, it’s more of an act of surrender to each steep tilt and turn.

Why then, am I here? I was promised a monumental and world-famous piece of Colombian history, something I would never forget seeing. My friend and guide at the hostel, Andy, told me about it, but he didn’t tell me exactly what it was or where we were going. Who can say no to a mystery? Off we went.

We finally shoot off an exit and roll onto commercial streets, followed by a short road with little development on either side of it.

Surprisingly, we then pull into the parking lot of a church and park there. Where are we going? Confession?

We walk around to the back of the church to a cemetery.

“Now you will come face to face with a man who shaped this nation.”

We walk over well kept grass, then a border of black marble with white patterning, then a bed of white polished stones till we finally come to a black headstone with cursive gold lettering.

“Pablo Emilio Escobar Gaviria.”

Here they are, six feet below. The bones of a guy who drowned Colombia in blood. The wealthiest criminal in history.

Now here I am, a Gringo whose mental image of Escobar is the Netflix actor more often than his historical face, but our fellow visitor to the grave feels much closer to Pablo.

The other visitor is a bald, heavier guy in an old collared nightclubbing shirt, jeans, and black dress shoes. He is keying himself up, tipping forward on the balls of his feet, trying to absorb the atmosphere around the grave.

He speaks suddenly, his story bursting out of him like shaken up soda. Must be something about my appearance, because he knew to use English.

“I am Escobar’s blood,” he says. “I am his nephew.”

Andy the guide and I nod, and give him a little space.

“Yo brother, this guy’s trash,” Andy mutters to me. “Every bastard in Colombia calls himself the son of Escobar.”

Maybe he’s Pablo’s blood and maybe he isn’t, but pacing and prowling around the white stones on Pablo’s grave, the so-called nephew is surely hunting for a haunting, the type of haunting that will bring him, perhaps, a little respect.

Nephew baldy seems to think Pablo is Scarface or Don Corleone, the type of gangster he can admire on the far side of a flatscreen.

And admittedly, it is hard to process that here lies the grinning coke warlord who murdered nearly the entire Colombian police force in a single night and bombed randomly targeted pharmacies. After all, if Pablo couldn’t have the whole world, no Colombian could have baby formula. It’s difficult to believe it was all real, and not too long ago.

But if Escobar’s tomb by day is chilling and suspect, consider the following scene by night.


Same church, same graveyard, bright moonlight shining on the same white pebbles, and black marble border. But around midnight, a gathering begins. Do you hear the chainlink fence rattling? Figures in hoodies are clambering over it. There’s a low murmur of hoarse voices. Pablo’s acolytes are assembling for a street seance. Andy is hanging back eagerly yet uneasily, as am I.

The guys in hoodies walk up to Pablo’s grave, and unzip their backpacks. Out come clinking, tubular glass objects. A flick of a lighter, and orange firelight show some of the objects to be Virgin Mary and Lazarus candles, and others to be 40 malts. One incense stick in a sandalwood board with a curled end. Flame for wicks, for the incense tip, and a blunt which they pass to the left in their circle.

Now silly with liquor and screwy with weed, they sit in dark communion with Pablo’s bones. With enough chemical distortion, it seems believable that Escobar’s ectoplasm will ooze out between these white polished stones. He will give you a Mercedes and me a speedboat, and we will all live in penthouses. He will be our father, he will once more be El Patron. We have nothing and he had everything, and for that magic trick, we will ignore his every wrong.

Like for nephew baldy, Pablo is something of a folk hero to them. But if you ask most Colombians, under these polished white stones are the white coals of Hell.

Well, burn all the candles and blunts you want, it doesn’t look like any ghosts are coming out tonight. But what does manifest is sidelong looks, and a cold, weighty sense that Andy and I do not belong here.

So quietly, we leave.

Midnight at an Outdoor Gym in a Foreign Land

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After a few strong shots of (what’s that powerful pre-workout called? Ah, yes. Tequila.)

Yes, after a few shots of tequila, my friends and I are at an outdoor gym in the bustling, humid downtown of Medellin called Parque Lleras. It’s midnight.

The yellow streetlights are shining through the mist, and the whole wide nighttime world is a little silly and a little whirly. We’re capping off our first night out on the town. We’ve been holed up for COVID measures for a day or two, and now we’re uncaged and running a little wild.

The city is surrounded by rainforest landscape. Overhead, big green jungle palms are luffing a little bit. There’s a creek somewhere nearby. We can hear rippling water, but we can’t really see it.

Under the palms, there are barbells, pull-up bars, and dip bars. The weights have chains on them so you can’t steal them. All the metal bars are painted yellow. We’re in our night out collared shirts, dress pants and shoes. Not exactly gym wear, but who cares?

I’ve got a deadlift bar that’s linked to a big rattling chain running to the ground. I’m yanking the bar upward. We’re all counting each other’s reps in Spanish.

Uno! Dos! Tres!

Two Colombian gym bros are pumping chained-up barbells in the corner laughing at the drunken Gringos.

Cuatro! Cinco! Seis!

Then a new friend of ours, some mobile phone millionaire who expatriated, is wandering out in the middle of the road, walking off some soreness from the squat rack.

A yellow cab whips around the corner and screeches around him.

“What? Come at me bro!” screams the millionaire, arms spread out.

And what intoxicant can make a creature of flesh and bone look at two tons of 65-mile-an-hour metal and say, “come at me bro?” It’s Colombia. Use your imagination.

All is well once more, but we just have to keep it that way. It’s clearly time to go home, to get off the street.

We say sorry and gracias to the gym bros in the corner.

They laugh and say no, no, thank you guys.

And on that note, we stumble back to the apartment.

Master the Death Touch: A Guide to Middle School Martial Arts

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Many cultures develop their own martial art.

Some are ritualized and traditional, some are field-tested and highly practical.

One collection of non-lethal yet crippling techniques is taught and practiced beginning in middle school in the US.

Its practitioners diminish, but do not disappear through the college years.

In adulthood, the artform is often all but forgotten.

This martial art is yet unnamed, but recognizable by a few consistent techniques replicated in schoolyards and above-ground pools everywhere.

The Five-Star

Technique: The assailant opens his hand with five fingers spread (hence the name Five-Star) and delivers a whip-like smack across the back of his target.

Outcome: A bright red five-finger mark and fire-hot pain. This technique takes on a particular brutality in aquatic combat. Expect a pool noodle lashing in retaliation.

Notes: What makes the Five-Star insidious is that if delivered the proper distance from mom, the telltale red mark on the victim’s back will vanish completely before any tattling can be completed. It is a crime that disposes of its own evidence.

The Wet Willie

Technique: In this maneuver, the assailant wets his index finger with saliva and uses it as a poking weapon.

Outcome: Useful as an intimidator, the Wet Willie can clear a room with a single, threatening pointed finger.

Notes: In our pathogen-conscious era, it could work on full grown adults.

If you try this, you might get arrested, or you might feel like you have the Force from Star Wars. This is not legal guidance.

The Purple Nurple

Technique: The assailant grabs and tweaks the nipple of the target.

Outcome: Revulsion and recoil in the victim.

Notes: As with all techniques, this typically a man-to-man maneuver.

Guaranteed to be obnoxious.

The Noogie

Technique: The assailant executes a headlock, then rubs the knuckles of his free hand into the scalp of the victim.

Outcome: Red face, temporary hair loss.

Notes: If the Noogie is happening to you, the raid is over, your cabin is burning, and you are being scalped.

The Sack Tap

Technique: Assailant delivers a quick flick to the crotch of the victim.

Outcome: Victim doubled over.

Notes: A brutal technique, known to end friendships but also entire bloodlines. The Sack Tap is Old Testament warfare. It is against all Geneva Conventions.

The Defecator

Technique: Assailant makes blades of his hands by joining his fingers. He approaches his target from behind. He jabs the target just above the kidneys with his fingertips.

Outcome: When the target turns, the assailant explains the maneuver is supposed to result in the target defecating himself.

Notes: Ineffective by most credible accounts.

The Death Touch

Technique: Not recorded in detail by any credible source. The theory describes a nerve cluster in the foot which, if smashed with the end of a bo staff, will result in the instant death of the victim.

Outcome: Instant death.

Notes: The Death Touch is preached by the one kid with a rattail hairdo.

The one who carries a bo staff whenever he is allowed to do so.

Though mouthy, he will never demonstrate the Death Touch, despite pleas and extended sneakers from brave volunteers.

He will swear up and down he took a life at his last school, yet here he is, walking and breathing freely among you mortals.

Foolish doctors can not identify the Death Touch as the cause of death in autopsies, after all.

Now you are armed and ready for your life’s true calling; to fight with middle schoolers. Go forth; avenge yourself of the old wounds.

Vodka Shot Roulette at the Russian House of Austin

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They told me Austin was fun, and they didn’t lie.

I’ve flown in to stay with my friends Hutch and Rachel for half a week. The weather just turned cold, so we’re bundled up as we ride Birds, electrical scooters you rent with an app to take through a town. We’re zooming over smooth concrete sidewalk. Street lights light the way as their yellow bulbs zip past overhead.

If you move your hips like a surfer or snowboarder while you ride the scooter, you can sashay around divots and ledges in the sidewalk. The max speed is maybe 18mph. In the wide sidewalks of this clean, spacious city, it’s a great way to get around.

The Russian House

And where are we going? The Russian House of Austin, a restaurant with numerous depraved flavors of vodka. Infusions is the more correct way to say it, I guess. And that goes with a menu that has duck liver, wild boar dumplings, elk, borscht, and caviar from salmon, sturgeon, or beluga.

When we arrive, we’re brought into a room with a wooden banquet table, and benches to match. Overhead, there are paintings of peacocks, doilies, and masks in red and white patterns on the high ceiling. The light is warm, orange and dim. As Hutch, Rachel and I dump our coats, red-cheeked from the Bird ride, the waiter sets down three vodka shots, and a bowl of pickled beets and cabbage. There are slices of white bread on a wooden board, too.

We clink shot glasses and swallow down the vodka. It’s cold going down, but I feel warmth spreading out from my stomach soon. It brings on an appetite for the bread and pickled food.

The place is using QR code menus. I’m scanning through the options on my phone. There are maybe one hundred different vodka shot options. We start with cocktails. Mine is the Russian Rabbit, which has jalapeno, spicy pepper vodka, lemon and pomegranate juice.

“I’ve got an idea,” I say. “Let’s play vodka shot roulette. We each order the strangest vodka shot we can for the person to the left.”

Hutch and Rachel love the plan. Hutch is to my left, and he’ll be ordering for Rachel, who will order one for me. No we peruse the infusions looking for something truly suited to the recipient’s personality, like when you’re giving a gift.

Some of the infusions make me wonder how they’re possible. One is called cigar, which is both intriguing and scary. What will I get Hutch? Today was the first full day of my visit here in Austin. It started with numerous supplements, including mushroom extracts. That fact helps me make my decision.

I hope Rachel doesn’t pick anything too outrageous for me. Especially not the cigar one. I like cigars, but what if it tastes like dip juice? How do they make these shots, anyway?

I find a note from the restaurant on the menu. It says all vodka infusions are created by Chef Vladimir. The flavorings are natural. The base vodka is Kruto and Gzhelka.

The waiter comes back, fingers folded around his notebook. Have we made a decision, he asks in a Russian accent.

I order first. “Please bring this man the wild mushroom vodka shot,” I say, gesturing to Hutch. He laughs at the thought.

Hutch orders for Rachel. “Bring her cherry cayenne,” he says. Rachel has only recently discovered a taste for spicy food or drink, and she shivers at the imagined shot.

“And bring him the Cowboy,” Rachel says.

Oh no. The Cowboy is a vodka shot of beef jerky, Texas BBQ sauce, leather, charcoal, and yes, cigar.

“I thought you would order that one but I hoped you wouldn’t!”

I recently bought land in the middle of nowhere out west. The cigar, leather and charcoal shot was my obvious fate. No escaping it.

The waiter returns with a wooden board holding three shot glasses. There’s mine, reddish from the BBQ sauce. There’s a feint brown vodka for Hutch’s wild mushroom shot, and there’s a pinkish one for Rachel.

“Nostrovia,” says Hutch. We all throw the shots back.

The Cowboy gallops down in phases. First, I taste the BBQ sauce. Not too bad. Then my face shudders and my hands shake. Leather taste, like being punched with gorgeous vintage boxing gloves hits me. It’s not over, next comes a flavor like chewing beef jerky around a dead campfire. I take a breath, and there’s the cigar, yes, a little like dip juice, and a little like after you’ve puffed out cigar smoke.

We take bites of our appetizers of duck liver pate and cheburek, which is a Mongolian dish. It’s a crescent-shaped crispy dough filled with beef, pork and seasoned herbs.

I look down. I’m white knuckling the edge of the table. Hutch and Rachel aren’t much better off. The cayenne was far stronger than the cherry in Rachel’s, and the wild mushroom was rich with the earthy taste of fungus.

“Again,” I say. “Let’s do that again.”

“Reverse order,” says Rachel. Good idea. Hutch is ordering for me now, Rachel’s ordering for him, and I’m ordering for Rachel.

There are so many shots to choose from. How do I decide?

The waiter comes back, and it’s game time. “Please bring her the pineapple goat cheese,” I say.

“No!” says Rachel. “I can’t stand goat cheese.”

“Payback for the dip juice,” I say.

She orders the Nuclear for Hutch. No ingredients are given.

“It’s vodka and puddle from Chernobyl,” I say. “I bet it comes out glowing.”

Hutch orders for me. “He’ll have sea buckthorn.”

“What’s that?” I ask. “That sounds like there’s going to be a live anemone prickling around in there.”

“Hopefully!” Hutch says.

We order some entrees, too.

“Goat cheese,” says Rachel. “The worst.”

“I love goat cheese!” I say. Hutch is a fan of it too.

“It taste like a sheep’s butt. You guys like the taste of a sheep’s butt?”

“I don’t judge your weekends, why must you judge mine?” I answer. A laugh goes around the table.

The shots arrive, all a similar color this time.

We find our assigned sentences, and carry them out. A lifting of elbows, and three shots go down the hatch.

Sea buckthorn. What is it? Soy sauce and blueberry? Scratch that. It’s licorice and vinegar. No, more like seawater and cedar tree oil. Forget it. I have no idea what it is. I can’t come up with a combination to explain it. Some day, you’ll just have to try it.

Rachel is making faces from the goat cheese pineapple, and Hutch has broken into a full sweat.

“That is the single spiciest thing I ever drank in my life,” he says about the Nuclear.

Food has arrived to save us with saner flavors, and some meat and potatoes to soak it all up. Hutch has chicken tabaka, a Soviet dish with grilled chicken marinated in garlic and wine sauce, then pan fried in its own juices. Rachel has chicken kiev, a fillet pounded and rolled around cold butter, then coated with eggs and bread crumbs, and fried.

I have a bowl of wild boar dumplings, which come with cups of spicy tomato sauce and sour cream. You might imagine they’d be gamy, but they’re not at all. I like them.

After eating our fill, it’s time to explore the dessert shots. It’s a coffee vodka shot for Hutch, coffee and milk for Rachel, and caramel for me. Mine tastes like butterscotch sundae sauce with vodka.

Now we’re armed and ready to venture back out in the cold to go to the dance clubs.

Problem Solving Through New Mexico

New Mexico Dunes

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To solve trucking through empty desert with a bubble in one tire & no spare:

Don’t break down.

To solve a hole under the brake pedal:

Don’t step in it.

Sketchy truck paperwork?

Don’t get pulled over.

Camping alone in rattlesnake country?

Don’t get bit.

Relying on good luck in the last leg of the journey.

Get me there, get me there.

Bargaining with the big sky.

Remember the good (or OK) deeds I did and let me cash in on them like this: keep an angel’s palm over the bulge in my tire as I truck through this empty desert with no spare.

Let all the little things go my way.

Whether I deserve it or not. Irresponsibly planned as this trek was.

Let me get away with it.

At least till I’m surrounded by Sullivan’s & Walmart’s and not the smooth, red, dream-like lines of New Mexico’s desert.

Curves of rock & sand that go on forever.

By night, New Mexico’s desert is more like a giant geometry textbook than a landscape. Parabola dunes. Spherical moon. Clean & empty.


God must dislike such a prayer but…

Let me get away with it.

To be continued…