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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.