Putting the Land to Bed

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Rumbling in the truck up to the land once more.

The hum-beep of the truck.

Blackness on vast plains out the window.

Specs of snow circle and float.

Dusty is back in Cali. I’m on my own.

Pull off the exit for the off-gridder’s town. Gas up at the one pump.

The snow is getting heavier.

Pavement becomes dirt road. Dirt road turns into washboards.

No more gentle creep over the washboards.

Push through the rattling to 30mph and the tires find a way to float over the grooves.

Soon I’m back on my land. The future ranch.

Kill the engine. Alone in the hollow sound of wind in a big place.

The snow gets heavier.

Headlamp glows in showers of white snowflakes dancing in the wind like imps.

Hope my sleeping gear is warm enough for tonight.

Tent up again, working with cold fingers.

One ground mat down. One sleeping bag over that.

A second sleeping bag with an insert and fleece blanket for me.

Bundle up in sweatpants, hoodie, gloves, hat.

Sometimes a train whistle blows. Sometimes coyotes yip and howl.

But most of the time, it’s the type of quiet so deep it makes your breath seem loud.

Grab my guitar. Play myself some tunes.

It gives me something to think about beyond all the imaginary ghostly, ghoulish, possibilities drooling in the darkness outside of the tent.

Strum the guitar for a bit, then sleep.

Morning comes.

A camp morning with knit cap rolled down over face like a bag. Twisted in the fleece & nylon of the bedroll.

Work my way out of the tent. Knock workboots together to banish inner creepy crawlies.

The boots are empty.

Out with a plastic camp table. Metal stove on top of that.

Two bottles of water into an aluminum kettle. Ground coffee in the metal basket while it goes.

Legal pad while the coffee percolates.

To do:

  1. Begin clearing brush
  2. Drain two-stroke gas from chainsaw into the two-stroke gas can
  3. Drain generator gas into its own can
  4. Camouflage the shipping container itself
  5. Lock up container & post signs
  6. Grab first trash pile & ride out

Black coffee bubbles into the see-through knob on top of the pot. That’s how you know it’s ready. I flick the burner off. The blue flame dies.

Grab a rag for a potholder & fill my tin mug.

Drinking coffee, pacing in the snow.

Finish the cup & now warm, awake.

On to lopping dead limbs off of junipers.

Gathering them into a thistly pile.

Dragging them all into one place.

Dragging dead logs to this pile, too.

Won’t need the generator or chainsaw anymore. Drain the two types of gas into their respective buckets.

The chainsaw noise rips through the still air. Same routine with the generator.

Now I grab big blankets of camouflage. Like double king-sized bedsheets of ghillie suit.  

Chuck four folded sheets of camo up on top the container. Metal container roof clangs as each bundle lands.

Chuck zip ties up there. Two bundles of rope.

Then grab the metal posts and climb up onto the container myself.

Slick metal underfoot. Gentle snow in air. My camo, rope, & zip ties lie in bundles are waiting for me on the roof of the container.

Knot the four sheets of camo. Grab the rope and lash to one corner of the container.

Walk the line down to the other end. Drape the massive blanket of camo over the side of the container.

You can see a gentle, hazy shape that is the southern rim of the Grand Canyon from up here.

Back to work.

Tighten up the lashings. The wind is getting stronger.

Hop down. Secure the lower corners of the camo sheet.

Lock up, post signs, and good to go.

I truck to the first pile of trash. Back the bed next to it.

Load in a broken toilet, a bureau, plates, broken buckets with holes, & maybe one hundred green glass bottles.

Close the bed. Get in the truck.

Roll out.

Goodbye, land. See you next time.

To be continued

The 6am Club (Not Billionaires)

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There was some book, The 5 AM Club.

It’s about these guys who meet a tycoon on a private island to wake up at 5 AM.

But if you sleep in just one hour to 6am, there’s a diner already open before sunrise in a quiet town of off-gridders way out in the middle of nowhere in Arizona.

Dusty and I are outside the town’s one gas station.

We are meeting a driver who will deliver a shipping container out onto our land. The container will be a box for our campsite and tools.

Every shop in town was supposed to be closed at this hour.

But the town’s one, single, solitary diner has lit up its OPEN sign.

Red lettering, blue oval around it. All in neon. You know how they look.

Outside, it is pitch black and ice cold.

The thought of waiting in a diner after a night of camping out in this weather sounds like salvation.

But only if it is really open.

I mean, did they leave the light on by accident?

I pull the diner door.

Coffee is on. You can hear it dripping into the pot.

Three guys in cowboy hats have their hands wrapped around mugs. They are nodding and chatting.

One could easily be a new Marlboro Man.

Right kind of sharp hat, jacket, & jaw.

“This place open?” I ask one of them.

“It’s closed, but we know the owner. We open her up and put the coffee on. Have yourself a cup.”

Seems like the kind of thing you can only do in a place like this.

It’s self serve. We walk behind the counter and fill mugs.

It’s incredible. Though really, it’s just diner coffee.

But we slept on the ground last night, which makes this hot coffee incredible.

And yes, just as you might imagine, this is a time and place where the real shop gets talked. Where the real deals go down. Where the after hours conversations (though we are all here before hours) get held.

We collect business cards. One guy knows offgrid electricity.

The other guy does plumbing. The third does foundations for structures.

But this only becomes known after a little, “Where y’all from? What y’all up to?”

Hours go by.

Shipping container guy arrives hours after he said he would.

We leave cash for the coffee & meet the driver to bring the container out to the land.

One last thanks & seeya around to the 6AM Club.

They say stop by anytime, they’re here every morning.

Time to work.

To be continued

Circles in the Desert

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Here I am on the end of a string.

Walking in circles.

The circles are getting bigger.

Why?

Pal Dusty & I are trying to find the head of a pin.

The pin marks the back-most boundary of our land.

I step over a shrub.

I walk through red chunks of broken boulder.

No pin yet. Its head is a little bigger than a 25-cent quarter.

It’s the exact same color as a quarter, too.

We have secured latitude and longitude now.

As well as a satellite GPS tool.

But the coordinates are missing two decimal places.

And for this estimate, we are two hundred feet away from our target.

(At least, this is merely another estimate.)

So Dusty feeds out a little more kite string. And I circle.

Horizon: sharp mountain, no mountain, smooth mountains, trees.

Back and forth across the red desert, searching for the head of this pin.

More kite string out. Wider circle.

Same, yet different shrubs, rocks, dead grass, sand underfoot.

Exact same horizon circle of sharp mountain, no mountain, smooth mountains, trees.

It’s easy work.

But dull.

Found it!

Under thick shrubs and branches so dry they look like beach wood, though of course, it is not, I see that silver metal head of a pin.

We build a brick-red cairn.

Big rock base, medium rock middle, little rock top.

Love cairns.

Dumb thing to love, but there you go.

That was the last pin we needed.

Now we know exactly where we live.

To be continued

Desert Morning | Arizona

Camp

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Rock-hard ground below me. Awake, but eyes clamped.

Half-off of the foam pad I’m sleeping on.

Slipping inside the polyester tube of a sleeping bag & on nylon tent ground.

This is the first morning after the first night of sleeping on my land.

What will that be like in ten years?

A cabin with big windows, a bed frame, and a real mattress, if all goes well.

But night number one is in this blue Walmart tent.

I unzip the tent flap.

The desert morning is crisp. Gentle wind. Peaceful.

Red sky, red chunks of rock, and hazy mountain shapes in the distance.

Often, you wake up sweating after camping out.

Not here in the desert. You get a clean, dry feeling instead.

I grab my boots. Turn them upside down. Clunk them together. Beat them against rock. No spiders, scorpions, or snakes crawl out. Clouds of dust.

Pull them on & lace up. Stretch a little.

A big jackrabbit, almost dog-like in size, scampers past my camp.

My friend will be here this afternoon.

I hop in the truck. Fire it up.

Drive the opposite way of the road I came in on because the road is better.

In the daylight, I see landmarks I saw back four months ago, the first time I was ever here.

There are natural cliffs with rocks that look like castles on top.

Nothing man-made. It just formed this way naturally.

Jagged, looming, red shapes of rock. Cacti. Juniper.

Pull into town. It’s mercifully closer in this direction.

Took the long way in last night. Lesson learned.

A place called the Ranch Cafe is open.

Black coffee. Huevos rancheros. More coffee.

Notebook & pen out. Planning & scheming to do.

To be continued

Night Landing

AZ Desert. Night.

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It’s getting dark and cold fast here in Arizona.

The temperature plummets in desert nights.

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.

Onward.

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.

Deep quiet.

Ancient quiet.

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.

Lantern on.

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.

Snort. Rustle.

Whip around and glance back.

Animal eye glint across the road. Chest height. Something big.

Panther? Coyote?

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.

Cozy enough.

The temperature will be below freezing in four hours.

Headlamp off.

Goodnight.

To be continued

No Service

AZ Sunset

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I pull my truck into the little town of off-gridders & cowboys in Arizona.

Lasso-lined wooden signs. Wooden board buildings.

Red desert with pine-green gin junipers for the landscape.

Mountain peaks make purple shapes against the red sky.

I own land with my friend out there in that distance.

This town consists of one diner, one restaurant, and three auto shops.

That’s it.

That big sunset means it will be dark soon.

My tire’s rubber intestine is completely distended.

I roll into the first of the three auto body shops.

“That is the biggest bubble in a tire I have ever seen,” says a mechanic there.

He’s in a trucker cap, long beard, flannel hoodie, & jeans. Sipping a Coke on his break.

I tell him I’ll buy a replacement for cash right now if he’s got it.

He says he doesn’t have it.

Time to drive to auto shop number two.

I pull up to a fenced-in auto shop number two with a closed gate. Big flapping flags advertising their services.

The guys who work there are pounding beers inside the shop.

“Closed on Sunday,” one calls.

I call back that I’ll pay a little extra if they sell me a replacement tire today.

One brings his beer can over. Looks at the tire. I tell him the size.

He doesn’t have it.

Auto shop three, save me.

Gingerly, slowly, I pull the truck to auto shop three.

Same story. They say no.

Back at the town’s one restaurant, I call the guy who helped me fix up the truck.

He recommends asking for a tire that’s a little bigger but with the same rim size.

Auto shops one and two say they don’t have that size either.

It’s 45 minutes to the nearest Walmart. I won’t make it on this bubble. It’s taken me as far as it will go.

I pull back up to auto shop three and ask for the new size.

They can do it.

The one restaurant in town closes soon.

The truck is being jacked up.

I pull my bike out of the truck bed and ride maybe ten minutes back to the restaurant.

Order a bacon blue cheeseburger & beer.

After dinner, the new tire is ready.

I bike back to auto shop three in the dark.

Pay cash. Bike in bed. Grab my map out to the land.

New tire in place, it’s time to truck out to the land.

Fire up the engine.

But the truck starts beeping like crazy.

No matter. I’ve ignored it all cross-country journey.

Shame the beep is back right now, though. Now in the last of last legs.

Time to drive out to my land.

Out where there is no service.

To be continued

Over the Panhandle, Rolling on a Bubble

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It’s probably nothing.

A small seam of rubber parting with the wheel.

I found it in the late morning in Kansas after coffee with a friend. After goodbyes.

I’m a little behind schedule, so I decide not to think about it.

The gas pump clicks. I return it to its hook. Top off the windshield wiper fluid.

Let’s put the audiobook on and roll out.

Now I need to connect my iPod to my speaker. The car’s radio is broken, so I stuck a portable speaker in the cab.

Where is it? Where’s the speaker?

I take the two boxes and two bags out of the cab.

Dig to the bottom of every pile of supplies.

Stolen.

I was robbed last night.

These old truck doors can’t lock.

I took out most of the important items last night.

But now I’m left with a broken radio & no speaker for my iPod.

No Grateful Dead, no Joe Rogan.

Eighteen hours of silence?

Tough on the brain.

I pull around the corner & stop in an auto store. Buy a similar replacement speaker.

Then it’s westward once more.

Down through Oklahoma.

Across the Texas panhandle.

You never saw a land so barren.

There are no structures, no trees.

It’s even difficult to identify plow-tracks of farmland. Yeah, this isn’t even farmable.

The distance shimmers in the heat.

I think about that seam, that little bubble in the tire.

In fact, I think about it for hours.

Pull the handle for windshield wiper fluid.

I get nothing. The glass stays dusty.

I guess fluid level wasn’t the problem. The line is broken somewhere.

Say, with no spare tire and one can of Fix-a-Flat, and nobody around, what would happen if I broke down on the panhandle?

Search the GPS for nearby gas stations.

None.

Search for nearby restaurants.

None.

An hour later, I check again. None.

Hold, tire bubble. Get me over the panhandle.

Into the lush- hahaha- no, it’s not lush- but-

Get me to New Mexico.

It would be like breaking down on the moon if that bubble burst now.

Here on the empty roads of the barren panhandle. Always empty, yet more so, now for the pandemic.

Burst, tire, if you must, but not yet.

Driving to New Mexico on a bubble.

To be continued

Driving Blind Straight into a Kansas Sunset

Kansas Sunset

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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.

Then I’m on the road again.

To be continued

Gone are the Mullet & Marlboro Days

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Gone are the mullet & Marlboro days for godbrother Billy.

The once wild man got a wife.

They had a wedding, but the planned cross-country family party was canceled for COVID.

That means this is the first time I get to meet her.

I often call Billy ‘cousin’ & vice versa.

His mom is my godmother, & vice versa.

A full day of driving out of Warren, where bad things do not happen, put me past Cincinnati in Billy’s Ohio home.

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.

Sleep comes.

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.

What changed?

Military school & marriage. It will modify a man.

We talk about life late into the night. Grab our guitars and jam.

Morning brings one more coffee together.

Then I’m trucking westward once again.

To be continued

They Don’t Know About Evil in Warren, PA

Warren, PA

These free stories are not in my book. Grab the book here.

***

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.

No explanation.

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.

Good morning.

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.

Wow.

I just became the only criminal in Warren.

Time to hit the road.

To be continued