ONWARDS WAYWARD BOATMEN
Cataract Canyon, Utah’s Canyonlands, 1979
This country is well hidden, not yet discovered. The Colorado and Green Rivers, architects of much of the landscape, flow brown and muddy through a vast and impenetrable labyrinth of cliff and sky. Improbable snowcapped mountain oases attract the eye at scattered points along the otherwise stark horizon. Phantoms everywhere. Miners and Indians and outlaws. The whole rest of the world could end, or not, and you’d never know. It’s that far away. People ask me when am I coming back to the “real” world. I shake my head. “This,” I reply, “is the real world.” Someone once said to Ed Abbey, curmudgeonly ranger-cum-author at nearby Arches National Monument, that it would be good country with more water. He replied that with more water, it’d be Cleveland. Or something like that.
I come from California, a novice boatman searching for longer river trips where I can spend more time floating, getting to know the territory, forming bonds with clients and colleagues and the spirit of this vast and incomprehensible land.
We are on our way to what will by my first season in “Cat,” on what will be my very first night of thousands in the desert, at an impromptu camp in a turnout beside a dusty mesquite tree near the old pickup. My fellows snore away on their ground cloths on the gravel. I wake in the middle of the star-blasted, moonless desert night to a loud buzzing noise circling relentlessly around my head. I try to move, but my limbs are paralyzed. Bzzz…bzzzz…bzzzz... I’m sweating, scared. I am way out of place. Maybe I really don’t belong here. A presence of the supernatural sort approaches, never quite forming. She tells the buzzing phantom It’s okay, let him go. I’ll take care of him. He will not offend our blessed desert. I will guide him. The buzzing vanishes, and I can move again. I lie awake until the red dawn, smelling the dust and listening to the silence.
One hundred miles of river. The first fifty-two miles of muddy water gently drifts past alcoves of ancient Anasazi Indian granaries and rock art, soaring buff and vermillion cliffs, and riverside garments of green: willow, cottonwood, horsetail, and the invasive tamarisk. The following fourteen of it contains the only remaining rapids after those bastards built Glen Canyon Dam. The lower thirty miles of whitewater were buried under a placid lake so the silt would stop filling up Lake Mead so fast. So now it fills Lake Powell instead. Eighty-two miles of flat water makes the job harder. Not only must you get your boat downstream against the relentless wind in overwhelming heat, you must learn to read and avoid the sandbars. You must also hone and wield entertainment and social skills, shielding against the boredom and disappointment of vacationers expecting whitewater. Boatmen are entertaining by nature—the social skills part takes some liquid refreshment. The head office manager back in California doesn’t even know where this place is. Colorado? Idaho? She sells it to the odd client, or more typically, the ones she can’t fit onto one of our Grand Canyon trips.
To be honest, I think southern Utah is more stunning, more enchanting than that Wonder to the south. The few rapids here are bigger and more challenging, the hiking utterly matchless. The overwhelming nature of the place collapses and isolates all the day-to-day bullshit, steers you somewhere sacred. It takes some time to convince the clients of these facts. It is not of our doing. We merely facilitate. A convection-oven-hot desert hike to some glorious arch or evocative cave art or hidden waterfall is, for us boatmen, a benediction; for some of them—a punishment. A select few do eventually get it, revelation smacking them over the head as the river reflects a sky exploding in crimson and mercury, the sun thankfully descending behind the massif bordering camp, or maybe during the last night on some vast sandy beach, burnt gold river sliding easily by, stars so close you feel like you’re in outer space. We do six- and seven-day trips, hike our brains out, explore. Bending our minds into and ultimately through the incredible heat, until finally we weld ourselves to it.
At the end of June, one of our trips gets cut in half—some clients canceling. We have a rotation system, taking turns at the bottom of the list, first to get cut if the roster shrinks. This time around, it’s me. I join the boyos for their pre-trip dinner in Moab, after which the area manager, Suzanne, drives them off towards Mineral Bottom put-in (where I should be heading), and I return alone to the Melody Home, our beat-up trailer home-cum-boating office on the dust-blown outskirts of this sober Mormon town. Next morning, still a little bleary eyed, the sun not yet over the horizon enough to make things start to sizzle, Suzanne returns in a mad rush, gathering food, tossing it helter-skelter into her Toyota Land Cruiser. The car is old, cranky, and just off the blocks from an overhaul by Stanley Bufford, her ex, also from Alabama. One of the Bufford Boys. They aint from ’round here. Surrounded by sad evening primrose and a lonely sand verbena, long deprived of it’s beguiling desert perfume, it has been baking in the sun so long the metal has warped. Numerous oil leaks drip into the local red dust below, creating a patchwork of ruby-colored sandpaper, the sweet-oil fragrance as pungent as a horse barn. It would not be out of place cast in Mad Max.
I’ve seen Suzanne like this before. Whatever it is she’s planning, there will be no stopping her. She grabs an army surplus rocket box sitting in the red dirt and goatheads and tosses it effortlessly in the vehicle, jumps in, starts up the motor. I love the way she moves in her flowered skirt and plastic sandals: a focused whirligig. Groggily, I ask what’s up as I step barefooted outside, directly onto one of the goatheads, and yelp. While I hop and pull the tiny, spiny grass seed out of my heel, she tells me, “Wayell. Those guides f’got a day’s worth of food.” Ah… the rocket box…. “An’ I got to drive it way out theah.” She waves her arm in a generally way-out-there direction. This means catching them on the White Rim Trail along the Green River, down there below Mineral Bottom put-in, in the midst of Labyrinth and Stillwater Canyons. “They sayed they’d go slow and wait for me to caitch up.”
It’s an hour and a half drive to get to the put-in. I offer to join her. Nothing better to do.
Suzanne is suited to this environment. Not necessarily her body—she’s a fair-skinned Alabaman with flaming red hair and countless freckles. It’s her spirit that fits. She wears Navajo-style print skirts and white frilly blouses and sacred silver and turquoise bracelets. She speaks with a heavy southern accent, which I adore, but which embarrasses her. She’s tough, resilient, superb and unlikely at all times, best under fire. Her tiny hands are strong and leathery. She, like the desert, surrounds you with heat and energy and offerings, and if you are able to see straight through the rippling air and ignore the mirages, she makes you stronger. I remember her as I first saw her, a legend among boating legends during the early days in California, me in my kayak down there at water level surfing a wave on the doomed Stanislaus River, she bearing down upon me in her raft, red hair flying, teeth flashing in a great smile, arm muscles in firm control of oars doing her bidding, deliberately just missing running me over, and laughing her infectious laugh.
We drive through town, veer off the highway onto the dirt and up into the desert wilderness towards Dead Horse Point, past temples and mesas and towers of ancient, multicolored, rock-hard sand. Sand which has risen from molten mantle to highest mountain, erosion settling things down to a nice, warm coastal beach, which eventually migrates to Utah for a bit of sun, taking its sweet time. We turn off the asphalt towards Mineral. The trail is one that was used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Hole In The Wall Gang. We pass an old adobe cabin with two-foot thick walls, sitting cool and hidden amongst the cactus and dunes. The windows look out strategically over the surrounding low points. Suzy drives down the switchbacks cut into vertical sandstone cliffs a thousand feet high, then down still more to the willow and tamarisk bordering the Green River. Here we turn left, south, downriver, along the four-wheel drive track called the White Rim Trail. This route follows the river, more or less, for over forty miles towards the confluence with the Colorado, then up along the Colorado arm and back to Moab. Sounds simple enough, but in this country, nothing is as simple as it seems. Switchbacking up cliffs, wading through deep sandy ravines, impassable gorges can come out of nowhere and separate you from the life-giving river. Or the rest of creation. Or perhaps your own inconsequential existence. Rattlesnakes and cactus needles and scorpions and fire ants. And heat—relentless heat, searing heat, tormenting heat. Red dust and quicksand. Isolation and impenetrable country tick, tick, tick into your soul like grains of sand through an hourglass. We groan downstream in second gear.
As we approach the final little hill before the meeting point, Suzy obliquely asks me if I might want to just continue on down the White Rim Trail after we’ve accomplished our mission, instead of, say, turning back towards cold beer and air conditioning. Neither she nor I have actually done the trail, though we’ve glimpsed isolated bits of it from below as we floated by in our rafts. I ask her if she thinks her old beater will make it. Her disdain is womanly, defiant, thickly Southern. “Of caw-rse!”
I miss the cue. “Ok. Let’s go for it.”
Halfway up the next rise, the Toyota stalls. Fate is offering us an opportunity to bolt. We politely, unwisely refuse. Suzy turns the key to restart the car, carelessly saying “Oh, Jeffy, I just forgot to downshift.” It doesn’t restart. Dead as a doornail. She rolls it back down the short hill and pops the clutch. Nada. We look at each other, the silence immediate and close, disembark. Like rats fleeing a sinking ship. I find myself running downstream in my cotton Chinese slippers—having imprudently left them on from this morning, post goathead—and am instantly and acutely impressed by the flawless isolation. Topping the rise I scan downstream for the boats tied up at the pre-appointed spot. Dugald and the crew were going to take the passengers on a short hike to kill time while they waited for Suzy. I crest the hill just in time to see them pulling out of the thick tamarisk, lazily floating the current downstream and away.
We’re twenty miles from anything, dead in our tracks, and it’s getting hot. Not hot like when you have to stop playing baseball and get a Coke—hot like when you start to stagger and hallucinate and collapse, heart quivering, blood coagulating in your veins. I wave Suzanne’s colorful Pendleton blanket—a gift to her from her grandmother—high over my head like a football banner, yelling and whistling and trying to get the attention of the specks disappearing in the distance. I cannot say what inspired me to grab it. A motor sounds, a boat turns upstream. Good ol’ Dugald comes to the rescue with a couple of passengers to help push.
Dugald Sinclair Alistair Bremner the Third, “Doog,” is handsome, funny, a great kayaker and musician. Savvy and quick, with a self-deprecating, compact wit and charming Scottish smile. He can see what’s up before it leaves the ground. We give him the rocket box, they push the Toyota, the engine sputters to life.
While they’re readying the boat to continue downstream and catch the others, Suzanne asks me, “Ah you still game foah the White Rim, Jeffy?” Smiling, coy and sly.
In a not-too-distant future, mountain bikes and four-wheelers will travel that road in an endless parade all year long. Countless open canoes will ply the flatwater, only to be met by a motorboat at the confluence downstream, then hauled back to trendy outdoor sports Mecca Moab in two swift hours. In that future, you will have to struggle for silence and solitude. At the moment, however, negotiating this track is an extreme undertaking at the end of the earth. I never saw one car in three years of running this river.
Trying hard not to sound patronizing, I ask if she thinks the car can do it. Hands-on-hips indignation is her response, as any fool can see it was just a momentary problem that is now overcome. Stupid me. OK, I’m all over it. Dugald is shaking his head, looking at me dubiously, one eyebrow raised. People do this a lot to me. I shrug my shoulders—my typical response. Dugald floats away, wordless, brow furrowed in a failed search for reason. Suzanne and I drive off, happy as clams.
Up and down, around and over, the hours rattle by. The indifferent landscape jolts by the open top. The heat ascends. We go up, up, up over a thousand-foot ridge, pausing at the apex. I gaze down the steep descent, and my thoughts escape my lips.
“Okay. This is our turn-back point. If we go on, and somethin’ happens to the Cruiser, we aint gonna get back up this hill. It’s over twenty-five miles from here to the nearest traveled road—the one to Dead Horse Point…” My voice trails off. Suzy scowls in reply and revs the engine. We lurch down the slope, me gripping the overheated metal dash and doorframe in a pointless attempt to keep my neck from snapping.
Minutes later, at the next ravine, we rebound over a lip into the sandy wash, and the engine dies once more. Something smells funny. At long last, my brain resettles in its case, begins to function. I get out and pop the hood, exposing the toxic smoking hulk of the battery. The rusty, corroded baling wire tie-down has broken, leaving the battery sitting on the hot engine, two cells melted away, toxic water dripping into the thirsty sand. My spirit sinks along with it.
I salvage what I can of the baling wire and use it to retie what’s left of the battery to its proper seat, then refill the remaining cells with our half-gallon canteen and pray to the Gods. I wipe my brow. Suzy turns the key, and the engine starts—barely. Only thing is, now it won’t idle. Suzy has to keep gunning the engine to keep it alive. She can’t do the brake, the gas, and the clutch all at the same time, so I have a new job: I am to give it gas with my left foot—reaching from the passenger seat over the gear shaft—while Suzy works the other two pedals. I glance back, and decide confidently that there couldn’t be any steeper slopes going forward than the one we’d have to try if we turned around. So now in total agreement—onwards.
Sadly, there’s no longer enough guts in our game beast to ascend even the smaller grades. Every time we get to the bottom of one, I disembark, retrieve the two full jerry cans of fuel from the back, and hump up the hill on foot carrying them; meanwhile Suzy reverses to get a running start and, lighter by 265 pounds or so, guns it to the summit. I meet her, puffing, replace the two fifty-pound cans. Onwards. Occasionally, even this tactic fails, and the Cruiser stalls halfway up the hill. Undeterred, we concoct a team effort for restarting the engine. It goes thusly: after dropping the cans, I place myself in front of the vehicle, and gesture to the right or left like a manic traffic cop while she lets the car roll fast downhill (backward, mind you), frantically hitting all three pedals with two feet, finally popping the clutch when some inner sense tells her she’s gained enough speed. This saves her the trouble of having to look over her shoulder while she’s doing all those other gyrations. She comes barreling up the hill, I leap out of the way, wipe off the dust, take up my burden, and walk to the top, sweating hard.
We get to a longer, steeper hill—the biggest yet. I turn the door handle to initiate the ritual, but Suzy, a bound and determined woman if there ever was one, guns the thing and up we go. I hold on tight. The short wheelbase rattles our bones and threatens to tear our brains out of our skulls. Halfway up, it stalls. I get out to help direct the backing-up-popping-clutch-gymnastics, but Suzy is frustrated and mad and perhaps a bit dehydrated (like me), and she starts to roll back down the hill without waiting for me to set up. A rather large rock just off the side of the track stops her progress with a crunch. I return to her side, ambling slowly, kicking the dust at my feet, not saying a word. We’re in this together. I pop the hood, and find the battery has broken its binding once again. Down to two cells. I don’t even know if that’s enough to run an engine, much less start it. Not much choice, though, and we begin to figure out a way to move the rock so we can try and roll-start it again. Luckily, there’s a shovel in the back of the Cruiser. It must be fortune blessing us, because it’s certainly not my fault. We take turns moving dirt under the searing afternoon sun for an hour, finally removing the offending rock. I beg Suzy to be patient and let me set up for the reverse. She complies, does the drill, and astoundingly the engine whimpers to life at the very bottom of the hill.
Decision time. Again. To keep the thing running now, with a third of a battery, the engine revving has to be constant and much higher. The hill in front of us is too big to get up, even without me and the jerrys. We know that our river trip is back upstream, just opposite the huge hill that forms the boundary behind us. If we can just make it back to that point, even if we can’t make it up the hill, at least we only have a few miles of walking to get to the bank across from where they’re probably camped, opposite Fort Bottom. There will be food and shelter. Treated water, decanted of mud. Scotch, compliments of Dugald. We could then simply join the trip for the week, return with them back to Moab, pick up a good vehicle and battery, come back with help, and retrieve the Cruiser. No problemo.
“I cain’t leave the office unattended for a week, Jeffy. Nobody would know where I was ay-at.”
Suzy is area manager. She takes her job very seriously.
“But Suzy—we could die out here.”
Worth a try.
She decides that if the Toyota can’t make it up the hill, we’ll walk. All the way back to Mineral Bottom. And if nobody’s there to help, we’ll hump it the thousand feet to the top of the rim and out the eleven miles to Dead Horse Point Road in the hundred and twenty-five degree heat. She in her plastic “jelly” shoes, I in my cotton slippers. We’ll drink the muddy Green River if we have to (and we will, since the canteen’s just about dry).
“We can do without food for a few hours, cain’t we Jeffy?”
We jounce and convulse back towards the big one. Afternoon melts into evening, and things cool down a bit. Probably only a hundred and ten or so now, thank God. We arrive at the base of The Hill. I get out, remove the jerry cans, start to walk. Suzy reverses to get a running start. My mind wanders for a moment, finally free of the rattling and whining engine, the mad bouncing and lurching. The cicadas scream at each other, seeking mates. The heat is heavy and molten, dragging me into the earth. My arms lengthen with the weight of the cans. Something out of place catches the farthest reaches of my consciousness, and, purely from some inner instinct, I dive off the side of the track just in time to avoid being smashed by the hurtling rusty steel containing the insane dusty redhead as they careen into the cliff, skidding sideways, then recoil perfectly off it and around the switchback bend, disappearing in a cloud of dust. I hear, rather than see, her progress, as the banging and crashing sounds fade, leaving only the sweltering desert and me. And the fuel cans. I continue my ascent from hell, toting my burden. After a while, about three quarters of the way to the summit, I huff and puff up to the wreck. She’s stalled at a turnoff in the track. The next part looks steep, but it’s only two more bends to the top.
The track here is rather narrow. Exceptionally narrow, actually. Just wide enough for the wheels, I’d say. Bounded by a cliff going up on the left, straight down to jagged sandstone on the right. I can see a beckoning campfire far off in the distance along the meandering river, just about where our river trip should be, near another Hole-In-The-Wall hideout. Steak night. We could be there in an hour or so, easy. I’m briefly tempted to kill Suzanne and leave her to the buzzards.
Suzy begins to empty the vehicle of every bit of weight. I shake my head, resigned, and watch. Best not to get in the way just now. Leaving a pile of junk in the dirt, she starts the vehicle rolling with one foot and silently disappears over a drop, heading back downhill. I hear the engine cough to life, fade away. I’m not sure whether it died or she went over the edge or just got too far away to hear. There’s a moment of silence, apropos, and then I hear her comin’ round the bend. I just manage to scurry out of the way, and Suzanne’s manic eyes appear above the steering wheel, glaring out of a red clay-dust mask. She looks like the trickster Hopi Mudhead Kachina God, who, upon reflection, I suppose happens to be molding this story. She rounds the curve leaning upwards into the steep part, gets halfway up, stalls. I bolt towards her, praying that reason has returned and she’ll wait for me to help guide her back down on this dangerously narrow track; but true to her nature, she begins to roll backward, gaining speed.
The right rear wheel goes over the brink. I scream,“Suzaaaaanne,” not in warning really—it’s already too late, and she’s undoubtedly going to die right before my eyes in a plummeting hulk of steel—but straight out of my burning soul. However, a miracle occurs or we’re telepathic or something because if she’d waited to turn her head around to see where she was going she would’ve catapulted off the edge, but the scream must have gone to some place deep and primal and without looking or thinking she jerks the wheel hard to the left and slams on the brakes and the front right wheel goes over the brink and then everything stops dead, tottering.
The sound of dirt cascading—grains of sand through an hourglass.
I find myself on the driver’s-side running board, leaning back, providing leverage.
Panting, more from fear than my sprint—“You okay?”
I drop my voice to a whisper. “Suzy. Slowly edge towards the door. I’ll open it. Jump out before it tips over. Okay?”
“Jeffy…open the doah so you can lean back fah-thah. That’ll give me an escape route if this don’t work.” I open my mouth to ask her what she means by this, but it’s too late—she’s already let go of the brake and is absurdly bouncing up and down in her seat, leaning into me. We roll back onto the track, right-side wheels bouncing inexplicably home to solid ground.
“NEVER EVER to do that again, please.”
Suzy smiles a smile that would make you forgive God for creating humanity. She looks so comical with her white teeth and eyes in a mask of red dust, wild red hair like Medusa gone haywire, and we’re so giddy to be alive that we both just laugh. She rolls it back down to the turnout overlooking the desert below and thankfully gives it up. We drink the last of the canteen, I relinquish any thought of food or sleep, following my revered leader wherever she’ll go, and we trudge off in the fading light towards Mineral, about twelve miles upstream.
The desert night is full of mosquitoes—smart little beasts hiding from the deadly sun and coming out only at night to feed on our coagulating blood. We slap and itch our way along, sometimes talking, sometimes silent. The new moon rises over the obsidian horizon and floats across an incomprehensible sky pulsing with stars. Just before dawn, exhausted, we lie down in a sand bank, rolled up in Grandma’s blanket, to rest.
A hushed dawn wakes us. On we trudge, hoping to take advantage of the last minutes before the Great Oppressor peeks over the cliffs. We pass the fateful little hill where we left Dugald yesterday. Only a mile or so to Mineral now. We discuss our strategy. If we see a car coming down, we know we’re ok and we’ll just go meet them. If we see a car going up and out, I’ll run and try to flag it down, hoping they pause at the brink for one last look at paradise before returning to civilization.
My feet hurt. I’m hungry and thirsty and I’m not real sure I can make it out if we don’t see anyone.
I do not share this frailty.
We see a dust cloud, turn to face each other. Of course, neither of us can tell whether it’s going down or up. I take off in a dead run. Topping the last rise, I see nothing on the rim, still can’t tell if they’ve just gone up or were coming in. Rounding the last bend hiding the put-in, I see an old Suburban and canoe trailer. Saved. I slow, thanking my lucky stars, coming up behind a shaved-bald man flipping pancakes for a gaggle of Boy Scouts. The Scouts are facing me and thus see me, but the master has his back to me. I stop inches from him, just behind his shoulder, politely awaiting acknowledgement…which does not arrive. The boys look from me to the Scoutmaster and back again. Still nothing. Something is not quite right. I clear my throat. No response. Finally I pronounce, “Excuse me, sir.” Nada. Before I can turn and take the latrine shovel and hit him over the head, one of the boys says to him, “Sir, I think there’s a man who wants to talk to you.” Finally he turns, scowling, and spits. “What do YOU want?”
Thinking fast, I tell him, “My wife and I got stuck last night and we’ve walked all night long without food or water since midday yesterday and we’d just like to ask for a ride out to Moab so we can get some help, please.”
“Sorry, there’s no room.”
My eyes drop, surreptitiously searching for a weapon. The boys chorus, “Sir, we can squeeze together there’s plenty of room, please, sir.”
I return to Suzy to tell her the good news and the bad news. I figure we could call it self-defense. She decides to turn on the charm. If that doesn’t work, then we can call it self-defense. She moves a ring from her middle finger to her left ring finger. We return to find the Scouts scurrying to pack the last of the food and kitchen gear, rushing to tie the canoes on as quickly as possible and beat it. Orders from the commandant, no doubt. One boy sneaks up to me and offers me two cold flapjacks, explaining, “Our Scoutmaster is kind of strict.” I think he’s kind of fucked up in the head, maybe lost his dick in Vietnam or something, but don’t say as much. I accept the pitiful offering, split it with Suzy. We bathe off some of the dust in the muddy river, eyeballing the frantic goings-on, half submersed in the thick but cool water. The Scoutmaster piles everyone in the Suburban and jumps into the driver’s seat as we emerge, dripping, me planning to reach into the open driver’s window and karate chop him in the neck. He exclaims, not nearly plausibly, “There’s no room, sorry!” Then he guns the engine, and as he’s about to take off, the kids roll down the rear window and wave us in. As we dive in through the opening, I observe the murderous glare in the rear view mirror. Just try and pry us out, now, buster.
We make the dozen or so miles past the watchful adobe hideout back to pavement. The fiend stops, scowls at us in the rearview mirror, says, simply, menacingly “Get. Out.” The kids recognize this finality, stay silent, eyes wide. We, knowing the territory better than he thinks, ask him where he’s going if not Moab. He says he’s turning right to Dead Horse Point and doing the White Rim Trail from this side. We know better. Not only would it be impossible in the huge Suburban with a trailer full of canoes, but there’s an ancient Toyota blocking the road. We ask him if he couldn’t in that case possibly handle our sniveling presence just to the ranger station at Dead Horse. He growls, accelerates, drops us off at the station, proceeds until just out of sight—then does a U-turn, and zooms back past us in a cloud of dust, heading for Moab. Minus two pagan interlopers. I imagine he lives with his mother.
Suzy and I glance at each other—not quite there, but still saved—and enter the ranger station to ask for a tow out. It is politely explained to us that they don’t do that anymore. They towed out too may turkeys who then proceeded to sue the Park Service for repairs for rusty dents they claimed were the ranger’s fault. They don’t even offer us a cup of coffee. We return to the front steps to ponder our next move. An off-duty ranger, leaning on the end of the map and flyer-decorated front counter (the traditional barrier between uniformed ranger and unclean public), has overheard our tale of woe. He ambles out the door and leans against the corner of the stone building, arms crossed, near enough but not too near, looking at his cowboy boots.
“Hear ya got a problem.” We turn and face him. Okay. I can do this.
“I know the territory you’re talkin’ about.” He’s got a good, solid twang going. “Got a jeep down at my place.” Looking up at us for the first time, he points his chin in the direction of the ranger residences, not far off. The toothpick in the corner of his mouth never moves.
A wordless glance at Suzy, then, “Much obliged, sir.”
“Tell ’em to call Bill when ya get back.” He turns and walks away, gravel crunching under his boots.
Delighted at finally finding a civilized human being, we make decisions fast. We’ll hitch a ride to Moab, grab the brand-new battery out of the van, pick up the bus, drive back, caravan with the ranger to Mineral, leave the bus. Then we’ll jump in with him and the battery, drive the four-wheel track downstream to the Toyota, replace the battery, drive back to Mineral in tandem with him, let him go home, finally drive the bus and Toyota back to Moab and the Melody Home. A case of his favorite beer should do the trick.
After an hour of hitching on a road that sees maybe twenty cars a day, a passing tourist bus picks us up. The driver is giving his spiel to the elderly passengers, naming the landmarks. I note that he is mixing up some of the place names, and rise to correct him. Suzy, knowing me all too well, nearly jerks my arm out of its socket pulling me back down into my seat. We’re dropped off in Moab, quickly gulp down some cold tortillas and beans, fill the bus with car tools and desert extrication tools and water and food, grab the battery, fill up with fuel, and we’re off. We neglect to change our shoes.
Back at Dead Horse Point, we rejoin Bill, throwing the case of Pabst in his back seat, our offering to his humanity. At Mineral, we leave the locked bus, jump in with him, and head back to the murder scene. Engine humming, we smile and slump into our seats, gaze at the deep-blue sky, enjoying the motorized breeze. Capable hands pilot our magic carpet: nice, new springs smoothing the ruts and lumps, unworn tires cementing sand-bogs, torque evaporating ascents. Could this be another planet?
When we reach the Cruiser, we exchange the melted battery for the new one.
Which is also dead.
He looks at us, realizing too late that we’re in the grips of an ugly curse beyond mortal understanding. He jump-starts the Toyota, Suzy roars off like déjà vu all over again back down the hill, up again, and the engine dies—again. I grip her arm before she can do the back-up thing. All she has to do is take one look into my eyes and she knows that control of the situation has shifted. Mr. Ranger hooks a chain up to us and tows us over the hump. It’s all downhill from here. We thank him, and he takes off, seeing a friend ranger mooring his raft near the dirt track about a mile away and wisely choosing escape. We coast down, past him and his buddy, and towards the end of the journey at Mineral.
A couple of miles short, the Toyota, now a living-dead zombie-like creature, dies again.
I speak at the dashboard, exasperated. “What could it possibly be this time?”
“Well, it sort of felt like it does when it runs out of gay-as.”
“So, uh, you think maybe it’s run out of gas?” She shrugs. We check, fill it up with the jerry cans. The starter motor growls, engine still sucking air. Suzanne removes the air filter and pours a little tiny itsy-bitsy bit of gas into the carburetor to help it along. She turns the key, and the engine explodes into flames.
Suzy dashes out of the Cruiser and smothers the flames with Grandma’s blanket, exclaiming, “Oh! Oh my!” I watch with hands on hips. We are not looking at each other. The distributor wires are now melted, the blanket burnt. Finally accepting that something has us and won’t yet let us go, we sit back on the seats, pull out a warmish beer, chuckle about life and all that, and wait. Two hours later, the ranger pulls up and jerks to a halt beside us in the dust. He stares.
We take the chain back out, and he tows us back to the bus, too fast. Just as it comes into sight, Suzy turns to me in the back seat, jerking up and down once again, and says, “Jump out and take the bus up the switchbacks Jeffy. We’re going to keep up the momentum and tow the Toyota to the top.” Dutifully, I leap out over the side as they pick up speed for the ascent. Landing artfully, like a cat, my glance shifts and focuses onto the locked padlock on the bus door. At that precise moment, out of the meteoric dustbowl that is the departing jeep appears a disembodied, silver-braceleted hand. A shiny object flies out of it in a perfect arc through the air and lands amongst the prickly pear cactus about fifty feet away.
Ever tried to pick your way through cactus with shorts and cotton slippers, never taking your eyes off of a life-affirming pinpoint on a far-off dune? With some expletives and surprisingly little blood loss, I find the keys.
Towing the Toyota back to Moab on an exceedingly short tow chain, I only occasionally see the top of Suzanne’s flaming red hair as her head bounces up through the Toyota’s roll bars into the limited view of the rear window of the bus. I don’t stop, but I do snort a lot.
We ramble down Moab’s main street, through the single traffic light, out to the far side of town, turning at the ancient, giant cottonwood tree that gives life to our dusty industrial park. Suzanne chases me around the Melody Home, both of us cackling wildly. Riding the brakes so she wouldn’t slam into the bus, she had eaten red dust till it caked her a full inch thick, me oblivious as usual, humming to the cowboy tunes on the radio.