From a day in the seventies to a night at twenty-nine.
I must find my unmarked piece of land and pitch camp there.
I’m parked outside a now-closed auto shop after getting a tire replaced.
The sooner I start the better at this point.
No, I don’t have satellite coordinates.
I saw the route to the parcel once about four months ago.
Flew into the state, saw the land once in the daytime, flew out, called friend, & we bought the land. A lot has changed in between now and then.
Point being, I’m not completely sure how to get there. That’s just how it is.
Back four months ago, we drove alongside cliffs and past farms that all looked the same.
Red desert, junipers, and distant mountains. Chunky red rocks.
Beep, beep, beep, goes my truck with its one new tire a little bigger than the other three.
I’ve got one map with a disclaimer about its own inaccuracy.
The map shows an entrance one exit back down the highway. I turn on the audio book about the moon landings I’ve been listening to and start driving.
Weighing options as I drive.
The astronauts are on the launchpad in my audiobook.
Should I sleep in the truck and try to find my land by sunrise?
Around here, that’s how you wake up with a shotgun in your face.
They’re nice people, the locals. They just don’t like trespassers.
Drive 45 minutes back to a motel?
I’m already over budget. And I’m this close to my land.
With rising hills of smooth desert and the thistly shadows of juniper trees under the moonlight on either side of me, I truck farther.
In the darkness ahead of me, a white ranch sign looms.
Through that gate, somewhere on 40 thousand acres, is my 40-acre piece.
It is even darker on the other side of the gate.
Far past the reach of any streetlight or porch light’s glow.
The paved road has ended. I grab the lever to engage the four wheel drive.
Truck through the gate.
The whole truck vibrates, shakes, and rattles like a machine gun. Everything jumps off the seats. Slides off the dash. The mirrors shake.
Is the four wheel drive failing?
I open the door to look at the truck. The shaking is not mechanical. The dirt road itself has washboard paving.
Rock-hard ribs that seem like they could rattle the truck to pieces.
No way out but through.
Rattling & rumbling down the road. Let all my supplies tumble to the floor. I’ll get them later.
Headlights from another vehicle. It’s cruising at about 40.
White Toyota truck. I flash him down.
Ask him to confirm my location on the map.
He says the exit entrance I just found isn’t the one marked on the map.
He shows me our location, miles upon miles away from where I had guessed.
At the pace the roads allow, it should take over an hour.
I follow the other trucker for a few minutes.
My windshield is completely blocked by clouds of dust filled with yellow headlight glow. Blackness beyond that.
We come to a fork in the road.
Guide must go left while I go right.
We honk goodbyes and set off our separate ways.
My fork in the road dives downhill into a narrow, single-vehicle-sized path. Thickets and weeds crowd the edges of the path.
Chunky red rocks under the tire. Red rocks shaped like gigantic molars and eyeteeth – possibly ready to chew my tires to pieces and leave me here somewhere in the middle of 40,000 acres of nothing.
There’s a sign on a ranch fence, that’s good.
TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT. SURVIVORS WILL BE SHOT AGAIN.
Nevermind, it’s not a good sign.
The moon landing audiobook talks about an incident in which, mid-flight, the Apollo vessel started firing its Abort Mission beeper alarm. A solder ball floating in zero G completed the abort mission circuit.
And my own truck, not long after that paragraph in the book, starts beeping again.
Nothing I can do about that. Working my way over piles of red rock. Rock-rocking and bump-bumping along in the cab. High beams shine on dust and darkness. Vast, blackness in the desert night.
There are mountain cats out there. Coyotes.
Beep beep beep.
Houston, disregard that abort mission signal. We’re landing tonight.
Beep beep beep.
Shut up you stupid truck! Just get me there.
Just kidding, Rhodie. Love you. You know I’ll get you anything you need.
Beep beep beep.
Rocking and rolling over chunks of boulders. Big empty, darkness out of all windows.
Am I still on the right track? I must be.
But look – there are no signposts marking anybody’s land out of the windows, and the acres I’m driving past must have been divided and sold.
I mean, they weren’t even going to stick a SOLD sign on my spot? No satellite coordinates, no sign, and of course, no address?
Which scrap of this desert is mine?
Beep beep beep.
Be quiet, you’re fine.
Just sign the title deed, and then cool, you’re on your own?
Over more chunks of boulder. The road turns back into washboard ribs.
I truck onward, weighing options. Rattle & rumble.
Beep beep. Maybe I could camp anywhere and search by daylight.
Beep beep. Maybe I should turn back. No, come too far.
Beep beep. SHUT UP, TRUCK! LET ME THINK!
Off in the distance, two green signs. Like street signs.
Wait a minute.
If that’s an intersection, it will tell me exactly where I am on the map.
Please be what I need you to be.
I get closer to the two reflective green rectangles visible through the cloud of red desert dust.
Yes, here in the dirt roads, desert, and mountains, one intersection is marked.
I find the intersection on the laminated paper map. The map shows eight quarter-mile by quarter-mile squares lying next to the road in between my current location and my parcel.
I could backtrack. Spitball two miles of distance without markers. Get close enough for a camping spot.
I turn the truck around.
Rumble nice and slow, trying to do distance arithmetic in my head.
To cover two miles at fifteen miles an hour, I’d need to drive how many minutes – ?
Wait. A second sign. It’s black characters written on a triangular chunk of red rock.
But it’s got a number on it. The number of the parcel next to mine.
A quarter mile farther. There’s a little branch on the ground. Invisible when driving from the opposite direction. But there’s a wooden board with the numbers of my parcel burnt into it.
I leap out of the truck. It’s still running. I kiss the wooden sign. Dust on my lips. Arms up to the clean, clear night sky.
“Rhodie, we’re home!”
Beep, beep, beep.
Pull onto the parcel.
Kill the engine.
Quiet like they had two hundred years ago. Four hundred years ago. Farther back than that, too.
Alone in the ancient quiet under the Arizona sky.
The temperature dropped like a rock in a pond.
Cold, stiff fingers grab lantern & tent.
Big wash of light on the grey-green thistles and red rocks.
Kicking rocks away for a little soft ground under my tent.
Watching for rattlesnakes & scorpions.
Miles from help alone in the ancient quiet.
Where is the wind? Not even wind is here to make the place feel alive.
Whip around and glance back.
Animal eye glint across the road. Chest height. Something big.
Maglite on. It’s a cow. Just a cow.
Back to the tent. Poking poles into their polyester sleeves and metal rings. Clipping plastic hooks.
Rainfly over. Chuck my sleeping bag & pad into the assembled tent.
Pull on sweats, hoodie, hat, gloves, sleeping bag liner, sleeping bag.
I am now a big nylon caterpillar slip-sliding inside a polyester tent.
The temperature will be below freezing in four hours.
I can hear my audiobook about the moon landings chattering away. The hum of the engine.
The thump-thump of the wheels running over tar bumps in the pavement.
I’ve been on the road for ten hours.
Left from Ohio. Now that I’m in Kansas, the sun is setting.
The light is blinding.
There was a gentle roll to the landscape back in Indiana and then Illinois. Dead grass and green trees on either side of the road.
To be honest, they basically looked the same.
Over the giant metal girder bridge over the Mississippi River into Missouri.
Past green signs for Mark Twain National Forest.
And now hours of Kansas with its eternal tracks of farmland.
Dark lines mark the expanse of earth on either side of the highway.
I’m driving west and sun is setting.
The sun sets for hours on end in Kansas. There’s nothing in its way.
The sun visor is worthless. Sunglasses are useless against the blaze.
End to end, the horizon is all the colors you would see in a fireplace.
A fireplace the size of the sky.
Hurts to look at. Must truck straight into it for just under three hours more.
Though the road is so straight you could probably clamp your eyes, hold the wheel in place and do OK. Or wedge the steering wheel in one position with a folded jacket and nap. Elon Musk, I found you a budget cutter.
But no, you can’t really do that. Gentle corrections must always be made on this road that looks straight as a Roman column.
Squinting through purple-green after images. Watery, sun-tired eyes. Watching for cows.
Squint through the sun till your eyebrows & cheeks cramp up.
Blind. Still driving.
And when I can’t see what Kansas looks like anymore, I notice what it smells like.
Often, cow droppings.
But it is better when I pass a wheat farm.
“In wheat, Kansas can beat the world,” as the quote goes.
The Wheat State, it got named that.
Oceans of blonde wheat on either side of the road.
Why wrestle for originality?
Those, on either side of the road, are the amber waves of grain.
Now America the Beautiful is stuck in my head.
I sing it alone in the car. Keeps me awake.
The wheat farms often have a bakery.
The bakeries fill the whole evening with the aroma of baked bread.
To drive west through Kansas in the evening is to squint through a blinding but beautiful sunset, and smell baked bread.
Hours later, sun tears running down my cheeks, I pull up to the house of a childhood friend.
He was the host of countless penny poker nights & basketball games. Pool parties.
We do tequila shots.
I show off Rhodie, the truck.
Friend compliments the squarish body & old-truck-smell of the ’94 vehicle. It was manufactured in the final years before every vehicle on the road was shaped like a muffin.
It’s a workhorse. A couple new parts & it’s trekking across the nation. Haul supplies to a lodge-building project out in the middle of nowhere.
Friend brings out leftover loaded mac n’ cheese to eat. It’s a blessing.
Craft beers & catching up after.
I’m behind schedule. I’ve got hours left to drive.
Night & morning.
We have a Tex-Mex Kansas breakfast. Hot coffee and burritos loaded with scrambled eggs, bacon, salsa, & guac.
I started trucking when the work day ended. Made it into Ohio after midnight.
Billy & his wife, who I have not met yet are asleep.
But they left the door unlocked for me. I have instructions for getting to the guest room.
Wow, I get to wake up and see family (& new family) I haven’t seen in years.
I let myself into the condo in the complex. Head on the pillow, memories of Billy’s visits back in the day arrive before sleep does.
Yes, back in the days of dueling with telescoping lightsabers, Billy was always the Sith lord with the red blade.
When the game wasn’t Star Wars, it was Robin Hood on logs that fell over the brook back behind my family’s old house.
When it wasn’t Robin Hood, the game was any war from the American Revolution to Vietnam. Though come to think of it, I don’t think we ever played Korean war games in plastic helmets out in the woods.
I don’t know if any kids play make-believe Korean War.
The condo is empty when I wake up. Billy & Mrs. are at work.
A make-yourself-at-home note on the counter from Billy makes it clear, once and for all, that I slept in the correct condo last night.
A day of naps and listening to music. Glad not to be driving.
Then Billy & Sarah are back from work. Hugs, catch-ups & dinner time ensue.
The next day, I need to grab some hole-free workboots from town.
Billy recommends Menards.
“How does their theme song go?” Billy asks.
They’re not in my region. I don’t know.
“Anything you want at Menards,” Billy sings.
And I offer, to the tune of My Favorite Things:
“Whistles, and pencils, and new playing cards, these are my favorite things at Menards.”
It’s a hit. We riff on lyrics in loud baritones, sung in no scale Eastern, Western, avante garde, or otherwise. It’s cacophany.
“When the Israelites were promised the promised land!
They marched to Menards hand in hand!”
We can’t get enough of these songs.
“Boys are so stupid,” says Sarah from the backseat, after the final verse.
Impeccable comic timing. It sends Billy & I into fits of laughter.
But despite the promises, Menards doesn’t have the workboots I need. We try two more stores before I get them.
We decide to test them with a hike down by the river.
Down by the current we skip rocks.
More dumb jokes about Menards.
Kinda stuff we did a decade and a half ago.
The goofing around groove is easy to find again.
Next we’re back at his condo. He’s got a pond view. We bundle up, pour whiskeys, and sit in camp chairs next to his duck pond.
“You’re married,” I tell him. “That makes you older & wiser than me, regardless of our actual ages.”
We clink glasses. Sip the whiskey.
“I love marriage,” Catholic Billy muses. “It makes me think about what it would be like to be a monk.”
I swallow Tullamore D.E.W. and laugh.
“No, as in what they actually give up when they do that. I used to think, ‘how hard could being a monk be?’ Now I know.”
On the condo bookshelf, among volumes of G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, is a framed card.
The card reads:
“There is only one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint.”
Could this really be the Billy who once broke into a distillery with then-fellow hellions to steal a barrel of whiskey?
This couldn’t be the same Billy who once teamed up with his friends to run metal wires across the train tracks and fasten them to fences on either side. They hoped that the great metal engine would catch the wires and uproot the fence.
They had visions of metal posts and chainlink fence-ends plowing great V-shaped tracks into the Maryland earth, making grooves running for miles, metal sparking and screaming all the way.
A whole town down the line monkey-wrenched by late tankards of milk, gas, and oil. But the train snapped through the wires and bouldered onward unfazed. The anti-climax bummed out the jokers & smokers bunkered in the hedges, Billy among them.
That was back in the mullet & Marlboro days. This is now.
Military school & marriage. It will modify a man.
We talk about life late into the night. Grab our guitars and jam.
Trucking the final ten miles to my first stop on the way out west.
I’ve been driving since just after 5pm.
I’m charging towards a wall of milky fog.
The fog is slithering all over the road.
It’s rising up my windshield as I drive farther.
Yellow diamond-shaped signs with ‘Deer X-ing’ are posted every few miles on this road.
I hit a high wall of fog. Now I’m driving blind. High beams make it worse.
I ease off the gas even though I just want to plow through these last ten miles and get some sleep.
But there could be a deer standing in this stewy, soggy fog.
There could be anything in here.
Mind phantoms dance in the fog.
Shapes that look like an animal or a human face with a giant forehead. Big teeth.
It’s like picking shapes out of storm clouds.
The green glowing numbers on my speedometer flicker.
Every light on my truck dies.
I’m bowling blind through the night. Release the accelerator completely.
The lights return.
Then the needle on the speedometer jumps from 40mph to 60mph.
But my pedal pressure is the same as it has always been. The RPMs are the same. They are not whining louder.
Though the fog makes it hard to tell, I am driving the same speed.
The needle quivers and dives down to zero miles per hour.
But I’m still going at a speed that feels like 40mph.
Now the speedometer licks up to 40 but then crashes to zero. Whips across the entire dial to point at 100mph.
All lies. My speed is not changing. The needle is possessed.
The truck is old.
She’s mechanically sound, but she has emotional problems.
Just under ten more miles to Warren.
I got sick of hearing my music and wanted some quiet.
Running in silence. Deaf to the engine hum after these hours.
Rhodie, the truck, starts beeping.
I slap the dash. The beeping stops. The engine starts hiccuping and coughing. It makes the ride bumpy.
If I break down, I can pull the bike out of the bed and get to town.
And then…what? Nothing will be open. Still. I can bike somewhere. I can do something. Or I can pull over, pull my sleeping bag out of the back, and nap in the cab till dawn.
Let some cop rap on the window with his flashlight. Demand to search the truck.
Rhodie, get it together.
We are this close to town. Get me a few miles more and tomorrow, I will buy you everything you want and anything you need. Fluid top off, new spark plugs, spa day, you name it.
The lights flicker again.
Those clunking sounds in the engine jolt the driver’s seat.
Little farther, please.
I pull off the road, cross a bridge, and drive through a brick downtown.
My Airbnb is only point eight miles away.
I park in a garage across the street as instructed by the host. Grab the two most important bags from the bed. Pull the bike out too. Pull a tarp over the landscaping supplies and food. They’re not as attractive to thieves as the bike would be.
Two backpacks and one guitar on my back, I bike to the Airbnb.
The first floor door is unlocked. That’s weird.
I walk the bike up three flights of stairs.
My Airbnb’s room is unlocked, too. I call into the room to see if the unlocked door is because the host or last last guest is still inside. Or if someone broke into this Airbnb.
No answer. Tiny kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom all empty. All closets empty. There’s a key on a red piece of yarn on the table. I lock the door, and go to bed.
I find a note on a chair I didn’t see last night explaining the unlocked doors. Honor system.
The place is very clearn. The bedroom and kitchen are squished into one room. The closet-sized bathroom with a plastic cubicle for a shower crammed into it. It looks retrofitted. Like the apartment didn’t always have a shower.
Showered and shaved, I’m walking on the same street I drove down last night with brick buildings on either side. I pass a stone statue. The bridge over the river I drove across. I want to check the bed of the truck for missing items.
A woman in a parka and gloves is walking past me. She says good morning and smiles. I say it back, surprised. Two more people do this.
In the parking garage, nothing is missing from the truck bed.
This town. No litter. Nobody sleeping behind dumpsters. No locks on the Airbnb. Every stranger says hello.
Clearly, they don’t know about evil in Warren, Pennsylvania.
I need to do one more day of work before my vacation begins. I work from my laptop on a cafe all day. It has a few tables and big leather chairs with a coffee table near a gas fireplace.
“I don’t recognize you,” the barista says when I order an Americano and breakfast burrito.
She is surprised to see someone new. I’m surprised she expects to recognize her customers.
I explain the truck. The journey west. The land. She beams.
Halfway through the workday, I step out to buy a phone charger.
When I come back, the manager makes eye contact with me.
“How’s your road trip going?” she asks. “How’s the truck?”
I ask how she knows about those things.
“Word gets around fast here,” she says.
The coffee shop empties out. I’m still working.
“Are you closing?” I ask the manager.
She is wiping tables down with a rag.
“Oh, we closed ten minutes ago, but you looked so busy we let you stay. I just can’t let you back in once you leave.”
I thank her. Finish work. Bag up the laptop and cables. Say goodbye.
It’s time to check the truck’s fluid levels.
Test a couple of theories about what caused last night’s moodiness in drive performance.
I come back to the parking garage with my bags.
A yellow parking ticket is tucked under the wiper blade of the truck. Thirty-five dollars. Payable by mail or online.
Yes, it’s taken a loop of trips to AutoZone, Walmart, Tire Warehouse and Home Depot with a stop at Rawlings (for variety), but the truck has new tires and new shocks.
It took two trips to buy a special tool to disconnect the fuel lines from the old fuel tank.
The first tool snapped in half upon use. Bought the more expensive one the second time.
It took hours of wrestling with wrenches and cutting fingers on metal edges but the hole-pocked old tank is out and the new, gleaming one is in place.
The truck is almost ready to make the 2,000 mile drive out west.
The mission: Get this work truck to 40 acres of land I own out west with a friend.
We’re building a lodge out there.
This F150 has to bring supplies from town to the land.
After this trek, it will only have to make short supply runs.
Asking this truck to make this cross country journey is like saying to a pro fighter: do one last championship fight then you can open a gym, put out an online course, and dink around with some exhibition matches.
I still don’t have a spare tire. Maybe I should figure that out before I leave.
Tonight, I’m testing my tent and sleeping bag in what will be a 48 degree weather.
The tent is a simple two-man deal from Walmart.
The bag is rated for 30-40 degrees and I snagged an insert to bring it 20 degrees lower.
Should be cozy.
Still, I’d rather discover you shouldn’t bargain hunt for outdoor sleeping gear sooner than later.
After all, this polyester stretched over aluminum will be my lodging for a full week or more.
Back on foam pad and sleeping bag in between me and the nearly frozen ground, I go over the to-do list for the upcoming trip.
Find a spare tire
2. Pick up propane & camping food
3. Pick up landscaping tools and big measuring tapes
4. Have a pro mechanic give the truck a final check over
Bunch of other things I can’t think of at the moment.