Drunk Owl

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Hour thirty of driving. Day three on the road.

Packed my life inside a Toyota Corolla.

Left Florida for New England a few days ago.

Now driving on a road in New Hampshire with granite cliffs on one side and mountain views on the other.

Black mountain shapes with red radio tower lights on top in the night.

A line of brake lights flares red ahead of me.

The cars start flowing around something.

Soon I will see what they are avoiding.

Headlights shine on the paved road texture.

They shine on a hooked beak and round face.

Feathery wings spread out their full span.

There’s an owl standing on the white dotted line between lanes.

Cars and trucks give him his distance.

Owl spreads his wings full span. Bobs his beaked head like a boxer.

Come at me, come at me, to every vehicle.

What’s with the attitude, little animal?

You’re only still alive because many strangers gave you a break and a brake.

Or maybe you’re trying to end it all.

Your little owl life got too dark and hopeless.

I come to a full stop and honk at him. He bobs his head at the car.

I lay on the horn. He flies away after a long blast.

Stubborn bird.

Drive on.

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

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

Departure Day | Trucking Past Midnight

***

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***

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

Problem Solving Through New Mexico

New Mexico Dunes

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

Don’t break down.

To solve a hole under the brake pedal:

Don’t step in it.

Sketchy truck paperwork?

Don’t get pulled over.

Camping alone in rattlesnake country?

Don’t get bit.

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

Get me there, get me there.

Bargaining with the big sky.

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

Let all the little things go my way.

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

Let me get away with it.

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

Curves of rock & sand that go on forever.

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

Onward.

God must dislike such a prayer but…

Let me get away with it.

To be continued…