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

They Don’t Know About Evil in Warren, PA

Warren, PA

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***

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.

With 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 guest is still inside. Or if someone broke into this Airbnb.

No answer. Tiny kitchen, bedroom, and bathroom are 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 clean. 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 in 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

Departure Day | Trucking Past Midnight

***

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None of these free stories appear in the book.

***

Good morning from the ice-block ground under this tent, here in the backyard next to the truck.

The new sleeping setup works great, thank you for asking.

Glad I tested it in the backyard before hitting the road.

Departure day is here.

If I don’t leave today, I won’t be able to meet my friend to work on the land.

He’s only got one week free.

And we have a large to-do list.

The truck, well, she’s mostly ready.

New mid-body fuel tank in place. New shocks. New alternator.

Oil change and fluid topped-off as needed.

Good crash course in auto maintenance and repair.

No spare tire.

I called three auto shops in driving distance.

Described the make, model, year, and tire size.

Nada.

Improbable for a truck this popular.

But that’s what they tell me.

Maybe I can collect a spare at my first stop.

The town of Warren, Pennsylvania.

It’s an eight hour drive to get there from here.

I should arrive well after midnight.

It’s just forty hours for the full trip.

I have to leave after 5, when the workday is over.

Grabbing last-minute supplies on lunchbreak.

Departure time arrives.

I throw the last bags and my guitar in the bed.

Fire up the truck.

Listen to that deep mechanical hum.

The engine sends jitters through the cab.

Rhodie, you weren’t meant to rust in a dirt parking lot with ‘FOR SALE’ white-soaped on your windshield.

Let’s see this big country, you & I.

I pull off the backyard with its wet green grass matted over by fallen leaves.

The tires leave two fine grooves.

It’s getting dark fast.

I’ve got a temporary license plate taped to the inside of the back window.

The permanent was scheduled to arrive before departure day, but it didn’t.

The DMV is struggling for the same reason everything else is struggling. The pandemic.

I’ll add the permanent plate when it arrives, but I can’t wait for it.

Anyway, that’s the reason for choosing quieter roads, even if they take longer.

An audiobook about the moon landings is playing.

The GPS lost service.

Who cares? This early in the journey, all I need to do is keep going west.

No cruise control, just a forty-hour ankle workout.

Soon, I’m trucking between the reddish-grey granite walls on either side of the Vermont highway.

Thick foliage grows in the dark over rolling land.

Dark shapes of tree canopies, shiny from rain, run past the windows.

It’s getting foggy.

Deer with glinting eyes peep from the shadows next to the road.

One can of Fix-a-Flat but no spare tire.

Long way to Warren.

To be continued

Guess I Asked for This

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Guess I asked for this, to be crammed under the undercarriage of this truck, cranking a wrench on a bolt while a fine mist of metal rust showers down endlessly.

Still cursing though, even though I got what I wanted.

Job one on the new truck is getting a new mid-body fuel tank in place.

We got it home without a fireball despite a drip, drip, drip of gasoline out of said tank in the final leg of the journey.

The bolts holding the old tank in there are rusty and crusty.

Soaked ’em down with PB Blaster overnight, but I still had to fight for every centimeter of thread on the bolt.

Back on a blue tarp, and the old gas tank dripping gasoline on me for about an hour. I’m completely soaked.

Highly flammable, that’s what I am on this crystal clear fall day in New Hampshire.

It’s a matter of life and death to avoid my chain-smoking housemate in this moment.

Shing – out slides the bolt. At last. One metal strap drops down from the undercarriage. Bonks me in the face.

The tank creaks and droops down.

Wires and the second metal strap hold the fuel tank in place.

The rest of the bolts might need another night in PB Blaster.

What is the truck for?

Teamed up with a friend to buy land out west.

This is going to be the work truck on the land.

I’m working on a pressing deadline. My friend has one free vacation week in which he can meet me on the land.

I’ve got to get the truck ready to trek well before then. I need it ready to drive across country one week before my friend is free.

Right now, soaked in gasoline, covered in rust dust and fingers sliced to ribbons on metal bits, that seems unlikely. I mean, this truck needs so much work.

The to do list is extensive.

The sun goes down.

I decide to slide back under and attack the bolts again.

To be continued

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.

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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.

Later

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

If you got a chuckle out of this story, grab my book for stories you will not find published online.

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.