Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To Catch a Falling Star

Sheriff Ted Brownbear stepped from his cruiser and peered up at the ring of pvc. It was as tall as Bill and Sakaway's house and appeared to be a hundred plastic pipe elbows glued together to make a giant circle. Bill's grandson Johnny was teetering on an extension ladder, leaning out over the roof's peak, stringing copper wire and leather strap to various predrilled holes. Then as Ted watched, the boy climbed down, slipped the two leads through a pair of lower holes and started up the ladder again, dragging the materials behind him.

"Your neighbors want to know if you're crazy and I should haul you off to the asylum John Eagletalon. What should I tell them then?"

Johnny laughed. "Tell them they're old and will strain their eyes peering from their windows! Or tell them to mind their own business."

"Now John" Ted continued; "you must admit this thing looks a little strange, are you makin' a space ship radio antenna maybe? Are they comin' to take you home?"

Both men laughed at that, and John hooked his wire over the ladder top and climbed down.  

"I'm building a dream catcher if you must know."  

The sheriff smiled. "It's supposed to be a little thing that hangs in the window boy, did your grandad put you up to this?"  

"Here's the thing" John said as he stepped in next to the cop and lowered his voice; "I've been having some real nightmares lately; ever since I’ve been back from Afghanistan. I've been chased by massive spirits, gods maybe... even Kokopeli took a whack at me with his flute one night. Well, you can't stop a god with a spider sized dreamcatcher now can ya?"

Ted thought a moment as he looked at the circle and back again. Johnny was crazy alright, but it was a good crazy, a unique crazy, a storyteller's crazy. 

"Go on then and build the thing, I'll tell the neighbors to pull their shades if they don't like it."

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Adrift on the Sea of Tyranny

 For the Musemuggers prompt Prison Cell

For at least a week I’ve laid here on a concrete floor in the bowels of a jail whose name and location is lost to me. The same dim light taunts me hour after hour, its misty flicker bores through my eyelids when I try to sleep, and makes my skin appear jaundiced when I am awake and trying see that I do indeed exist, that I am indeed flesh and blood and all this isn’t just a nightmare. There are no bars, no openings save a slot cut out of the bottom of the steel door where some sort of molded cereal bar and plasma bag filled with water are slipped into my room at random times.

There is a muffled hiss I’ve yet to pinpoint beyond its obvious position above me. I can only imagine it’s a leaky steam pipe as there is a constant drip in one corner of my cell, and the liquid I had the bad judgment to taste one day when my lips were cracked and bleeding and I couldn’t stop coughing had a rusty tang to it.

I’ve done nothing; nothing that I can imagine anyway. I’m not perfect by any stretch, surely I’ve made some people angry in my time on earth but to my knowledge I’ve not broken any laws. There did seem to be a lot of people milling about as I walked from the ad agency to my car, and I gather they had some collective beef with someone or something as the tone of the crowd was a bit ill-tempered; but I’d written it off to a sporting event I’d not known about. Maybe the Wolves had played and got hammered as is their custom, or maybe it was a concert I wasn’t privy to, one sporting impassioned lyric; one that might rile a gathering into more of a mob.

I didn’t even see the officers coming. One minute I was reaching for the door handle of my Camero, and the next I was spread-eagled on the ground and cuffed behind my back with a mysterious but painful lump growing atop the right rear portion of my skull, lightning bolts emanating from its underside.

I have to believe I’m not in the United States at the moment. While I am not a student of American prisons my guess would be that constant individual screaming created by agonizing torture would not be the norm. I have never heard men make the sounds they do here, announcing their hopelessness at over a hundred decibels, groaning from deep within the soul as if bile escaping the most protected organs, oozing into a black hole of despair. I have not yet been forced to emit that howl, though I do weep regularly; something I had not done between childhood and having been taken prisoner but something I’ve now become quite proficient at while clutching my gut and pressing my knees to my nose.

Yes. I’m afraid. I’ve tried to hold onto the notion that this is all some mistake, that perhaps I’m the victim of mistaken identity or even cosmetic stereotype. I’m quite large and rather unkempt and sadly between genetics and plain neglect I’ve lost a few visible teeth I’ve not been able to afford to replace; I have been teased that I appear a hillbilly sometimes. So if taken to the extreme by someone profiling for some reason I might have been seen as “trailer trash” which would equate to “living in poverty” which would make anyone “depressed” which occasionally makes people “rageful” and even “disaffected” and so candidates for “radical propagandists” and likely future “terrorists”. Sure. Sounds paranoid, reaching, not at all likely. But consider… I am here. What’s paranoid exactly?

I must sleep. It’s been a long time since I’ve rested fully, though impossible to tell how long. I believe though that I am hallucinating as I’ve “seen” rats in my periphery. Surely there would be no rats here, there is nothing to eat; unless of course they are sizing me up as a prepared meal in progress.

Maybe it is all a dream. Maybe. Maybe.

Lissa's Last Grimmgig

Jakob pleaded as Wilhelm stewed.

“Have we not paid you enough for your time lass? Are you not wealthy beyond even the most avaricious king? Are you not married to not one but two princes?”

Lissa rolled her eyes and set a firm pout into her lips.

“I can’t deny it’s been great fun to work for you gentlemen, but…"

“But what exactly?” Wilhelm was deeply hurt that his favorite role player was balking.

“My last gig was a bit frightening, that witch damn near cooked me! And that Hansel was a snotty little git! Talk about geeky...”

“But that’s why we need you dear, you are so clever under stress. Who would have thought to have the woman check the oven temperature so you could push her inside? You are brilliant! Please! This one last story and we’ll never ask you again” Willie begged.

“Alright look” Lissa scolded. “In Rapunzel I had to drag that horrid hair around night and day, and in Cinderella I had to scrub floors. I still have the scars on my knees dammit! Couldn’t you have just cut to the chase and started the story at the pumpkin coach ride?”

“This one’s so much easier my dear” said Jake with his trademark grin dissolving most of Lissa’s angst. “You should have a loving, huggy gramma fawn over you if everything works out right, you get to eat sugary treats from a basket and spend an afternoon sitting on the edge of a nice comfy feather bed having a nice conversation.”

Well, that didn’t sound so bad she thought. Bon bons and floofy pillows. What could be the harm.

“Ok Grimms, you’ve got me for one more story. So what do I have to do this time?”

Jakob pulled a long red robe from his steamer trunk. “Wear this dear, and pull the hood up. I know it’s a bit warm but it’s essential to the story you see.”

The trio stepped outside where Willie pointed toward a newly hewn trail through the wood. “That way to gramma’s house dear” he said. “And don’t mind the wolf lass, he may ask a few questions but he’ll not bite… right away.”

Lissa frowned and began walking toward the dark forest, pulling the woolen hood over her red hair.
“I knew there’d be a catch” she thought in a grumpy voice. “These guys don’t know when to lay off the violence. Wolf eh? I’ll kick his ass!”

Thursday, February 23, 2012


Sunday had passed into Monday as the full moon reached the top of its arc and started down the other side of the sky. I'd been napping behind my computer, too sick with fever to do anything constructive, but too stiff to walk to the house and slip into my bed again. Every 20 minutes or so I'd raised my head and clicked my email button, watching with blurred vision as my outlook express cycled through to the "you got nothing sucker" banner.

It was quiet in my studio, only the occasional thump of my forehead into the desk breaking the silence. And then, there was a scratch at the door.

It was deadly cold outside, at least in the 20s below zero. Anything that was alive and non polar must have been hanging onto existence by a thread. Out of curiosity I swung the interior door open and flicked on the outside light. Looking up at me through my glass storm door, licking the frost off its chin was a raccoon sized black cat. "C'mon man lemme in" he said.

Sure, I should have noticed he spoke to me, since even in
Minnesota cats don't usually talk. But like I said, I was sick and a little woozy and it seemed like a reasonable request since it was terribly cold; so I opened the door.

The moment I'd given him room he burst inside and across the top of my pool table, ripping its cover to the floor while scrambling to get to the computer desk. Leaping from one counter to another the animal pounced onto my corded electronic laser mouse and with one swipe of his long, sharp claws, ripped through the tiny cord and dragged the device to the floor.

The sound was incredible, my eardrums popped twice in the barrage of ultra high frequency as the beast shrieked his gleeful anger and tore at the plastic with all four paws. He and his gray pray flopped about my floor like dying salmon in the bottom of a rowboat, and yet with all the power he could muster he never disassembled his target. I just watched at distance, not that I was pleased with having my property ransacked; I was more worried about what might happen to my face if I bent over and said "Bad Kitty, drop that right now!"

He seemed to lose his breath, he slowed and finally stopped, laying on his side and gently picking at the plastic as if he were suddenly overcome by depression.

"It's a computer mouse you moron; it's not to eat" I stated with an added grunt of disgust.

"I, I'm sorry" he mewed, "I saw you playing with it through the window and, well, I just wanted a little taste. It's so cold; I'm so hungry... forgive me?"

He was a cat; I was powerless.

"Well, if you keep...”

"Hey! Is that microwave popcorn?" He yowled as he again leaped to my pool table, tearing its uncovered fabric to shreds on his way to the box of Orville Redenbacher "Real Butter".

It was going to be a long night.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Dinner for one, Breakfast for two

She dug her nails into my arm for the third time, oblivious to the pain she was causing me. I represented my gender I suppose; I deserved a flaying for being a sperm carrier as her personally selected sperm carrier wasn't present. In fact, he was only present when depositing said sperm was an option; the birth of his daughter would be an inconvenience so he'd decided to stay away and find an alternate repository for the time being.

"God, I'm starving" she said once she'd huffed and puffed and blown the room to shambles.

"Have my Snickers" I said, "but hurry up with it. I'm sure the doc's would throw me out if they knew I was feeding you candy during your contractions."

"Shuttup and gimme that" she said as she snatched the brown wrapper from my hand.

I stroked her hair as she damn near swallowed the gooey confection. She deserved better than this, and so did I. She deserved more than a friend at her bedside, and I deserved recognition for always being there; but neither of us was lucky enough to ever get our way.

"Promise me something" she groaned as her next attack began and her nails found purchase in my flesh.

"Anything kid."

"Bring me a cheese danish for breakfast."

"And for the baby?"

"She'll have her own dairy for God's sake, just bring me the danish!"

"Whatever your little heart desires" I pledged, as I watched rivulets of blood run into my palm and then drip to the floor.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

High Price to Pay (Just a day in the life)

It's a good thing Linda's not as jaded as I. She can be entertained.

The supper club was a manly man's affair; all dark wood and dusky paints, low lighting and many bottles of wine and spirits standing atop any available shelf like appendage. I believe we were first in the door, though second to be seated as Linda does so love to use the restroom in a public place. Cloth nappies, goblets, flutes and highballs adorned the leather clad booth, alongside various utensils that made clear this was no pancake house we'd strolled into.

There was a time, way, way back when I was a master of commerce and taken on the road as the local's resident business theater audio engineer that I would eat fancily schmancily on a regular basis. Meals of many names were served me, things Dianne, and stuffs Foster; place names like Chateaubriand and even sound effect foods like ratatouille (Imagine a cartoon machine gun spitting out tobacco juice). On the dole we called it. Expense account sounded so droll, and we were creatives for God's sake; we had to be slightly askew in every word and deed. While we were relatively conscientious we would occasionally break the bank and have ourselves a 100 dollar dinner for two, in spite of the fact that neither of us drank alcohol. I suppose if I were to total it up I'd have had a hundred fifty vastly overpriced but delicious meals a year for a decade or so. In fact I even got into the habit of taking people to those eateries on my own pocketbook as for a blessedly brief time in my life I believed my own hype and played the social strata game to suit.

In the end, as I had with most music, I burned out on excellent foodstuffs, and longed for nothing more elegant than watery oatmeal and peanut butter toast. I have to imagine the loss of half my income could in part account for my decision; it does tend to make a menu sporting 35-50 dollar entrées appear as if a list of items that taken together might make a lovely down payment on a house. And so when my boss, cleaning out his wallet one day while waiting for the time clock to clank 4PM, tossed me a supper club gift card he'd never used because the venue was just too highbrow for him, my first thought was of having to wear something other than sweat pants and t-shirt in order to use it, and not of how delicious the meal might be. I carried the plastic cash for 6 months, mentioning it only once to my lovely in passing, along with the whine about the change in clothing that would be necessary. And then, Valentine's Day arrived.

Now it's not as if we'd not commemorated the day and reaffirmed our deep as the big blue sea devotion to one another already. Card: check. Poem: check. Self created haute cuisine celebratory meal: check. Yet, the little woman wanted one more show of fealty to her charms. She wanted... the supper club. She'd called to verify the worth of the gift card, she'd looked up the menu on line and she'd convinced herself that she just couldn't live without our spending an hour or two under the dim lights, supping on ambrosiatic victuals du jour.

Of course I complied, it is my duty to cater to all things Linda. I did pout a bit, and wallowed in a pool of dread while pondering the possibility that one of the two or three pairs of actual slacks that I own might still fit me after a dozen set-aside years. But as time went on and she became more and more enamored by the concept of fine dining, I resigned myself to making the evening as pleasurable as could be. As it turned out, one pair of slacks did fit, but only after putting every ounce of muscle I had in both my massive arms to the task, pinching the button into place just a whisker before my muscles began to quiver like Jell-o and my mind screamed for mercy. Of course, I'd forgotten to tuck in my shirt and so I had to go through the entire process again, this time almost giving in and relying on the old pants fastened by length of twine and long coat worn over them all evening trick.

At last we arrived at said establishment where the lady seemed in her glory. Even the water poured table side seemed a richer color, texture and thickness to her than that ordinary liquid we drank at home. This was the sign of a cheap date if ever there was one. She had planned on ordering "frikadeller", Danish recipe meatballs on a lovely bed of red cabbage, a treat from "the old country" her grandmother called home. But there was an issue. Frikadeller it seemed was an appetizer, and though one could have an appetizer for dinner, one would normally order an entrée so as to get one's money's worth while having one's hunger sated. It was a dilemma. Neither of us had more than a handful of dollars to spend beyond the card, so while you'd think in a club one would always have an appetizer along with dinner, followed by a dessert and perhaps an after meal libation, we were on the poverty plan. I did offer to hock my boots and the ice scraper from my truck in order to pay for her Danish delight, this being a dinner to prove my adoration and all, but she declined, and reminded me that I probably make better meatballs than they could, and that she makes better red cabbage. Sometimes pretty much everything in life is a challenge. Sometimes, it's like sliding down a mountain of butter; quick and easy... and tasty too.

She went for the Chicken Oscar, Oscar of course being a Scandinavian name and therefore likely related to the frikadeller making it a reasonable substitute. I had the Burgundy tips, which made me think of all the poor Burgundians running around Burgundy with their fingers shortened by one knuckle; an insight I kept to myself as Linda's romantic mood could be broken with too many "Me-isms". The Oscar was lovely (though not at all pickled as one would think), a beauteous combination of crabmeat, asparagus and Bearnaise atop a quite juicy chicken chestual appendange. My tips were also fine, an aromatic wine sauce on fingertips devoid of their distracting fingernails. A popover and salad completed the tour, golden water for her and coffee for me. Oddly enough there were leftovers, but only of the lettuce variety, or variety lettuce variety if you will pardon my verbosity, as the entrées were gobbled right up (to quote Goldilocks).

I have to admit it was a grand event; I told stories, she giggled, I flirted with the waitress, she giggled, I showed the maitre d' my checkbook balance, he giggled, a fine time was had by all. Still, I only hope I won't have to wear an actual pair of slacks for another decade or so. It's a little frightening at my age to conform, even for my true love.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Nightmare Disruption

She came every day, usually in the early afternoon. She'd say nothing, in fact sometimes I'd not even notice her until she left. She'd sit on the step just outside my control room door while I mixed music to spoken word at a hundred twenty decibels. I'd have thought it odd I'm sure, but I was lost in my own world. What moments weren't absorbed by my work were chewed and swallowed by obsessing my lost list of tragedy.

That year my wife had left me, my mother and brother had died, my father had attempted suicide never having come to grips with losing his legs and my job had become untenable forcing me to give notice. I was far too busy dying inside to pay attention to a stray girl who'd wander into my studio for a post lunch nap.

One day she stepped into my space and leaned into a countertop that framed my effects equipment. She was tiny, under five foot and thin as a pencil. Her face belied her age, but without it she'd have seemed no more than ten, and like a girl child she crossed her arms on the formica and set her head into them, just looking toward me with brown eyes the size of the moon. I was in the middle of a mix and I was on a roll, I couldn't stop really; so I smiled and continued on for the rest of the six minutes I needed, and somehow, even with another person in my periphery I was still able to bring my spare thoughts to my sad hopelessness.

The silence, once finished, was crushing. After a good subwoofer/tweeter pounding the ears take some time to recover and I closed my eyes for a few minutes, letting the reverberations of my work travel through my bones to ground as if audial lightning seeking the earth.

"I love what you do" she said; "how you do it... I come here sad, and listening to you work makes me happy."

I'd not heard her before; her voice tinkled like a wind chime, her words hung in the air as if crystalline rain. I couldn't help but pay attention.

"Thanks for not asking me to leave, for just letting me be here with you. You do make people happy you know."

And then she left as she'd come; quietly, without fanfare, almost imperceptibly. For the first time in what seemed forever, I'd taken my focus off my travails, and set it on another; perhaps an angel of mercy. I'd not simply painfully wallowed, but had given pleasure, however inadvertently. And for my gift, my nightmare had been set aside for just a moment, that I could share a breath with one who was not yet jaded beyond hope; one who reminded me there was more to life, than myself.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Morals Schmorals

 (Written originally in 2005)

I just watched The Matrix on dvd for the first time and it reminded me of a shuda, wuda, cuda that I sometimes think about.

In 1983 I was roading a slide and sound show I'd produced, in Southern California. It was your standard capitalistic media extravaganza, using metaphors to explain what would otherwise seem brash and greedy, to surround speeches that talked of nothing but brashness and greed.

I'd owned my recording studio for 4 years by then and had developed a "calling card" skill, one that identified my work uniquely. I used library music (that music written specifically for commercials and such) like others scored their own. I was a master at making prerecorded junk sound as if John Williams had penned each note to the exquisitely boring verbiage.

I also was quite adept at creating my own sound effects from whole cloth, and this particular show was a crowning glory at that point in my career.

Often a writer in that venue will use historical references to give extra importance to mundane commerce; comparing the scientists who brought us post it notes to Copernicus in an offhand, metaphorical way for example.

Why, I don't remember; but this was the story of the battle between the Monitor and Merrimac...no doubt some tale of the struggle between two like brands to see who comes out ahead or such claptrap. The part that matters is that I recreated the fight between two ironclad steamships on open water with cheering crowds of opposing soldiers on opposite shorelines...and I did a fine job if I say so. It's a skill that really only matters in film, but as I was originally trained in that media, I put it to use when I could because it was damn fun.

The show was attended by, among others, stockholders of the company; and one of those just happened to be a film company mogul of sorts. He was quite impressed at my mix and sought me out backstage after the day’s events. I actually had dinner with him as my client was preoccupied and my crew was resetting for the next day’s schedule.

When I entered dj school, it never occurred to me I'd wind up doing audio for a living. It was an accident really; a pleasurable twist of fate. So each day was another adventure and I took them as they came with no plans, no design and no expectations. I will admit to harboring a desire to work in the feature film business, but I wanted a bazillion dollars as well...so I didn't think about my "dreams" much beyond their being boredom filler.

Suddenly I was being interviewed so I discovered, for a job in da movies. The guy turned out to be a studio exec who wanted to latch onto me before I left town in two days hence, and once chatting me up for a few hours, he cut right to the chase with a monetary offer that was fairly generous on its face.

Of course there's a rub; there always is in my world.

The company he represented was one that made porn films, one attached to a distributor called Excaliber Films at the time.

Now, I have nothing against your average porn; I've been known to imbibe. But I did have two problems as I sat stunned with visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.

One has to do with location. I have a hard time seeing myself paying the price to live in an LA environment; or Chicago or New York for that matter. I've lived for some time on both coasts as well as a few interior states and in the end I always come back to Minnesota. I guess it's a God's country thing that I never grew out of.

But too, I don't like crowds, I get nasty in heavy traffic and a huge metropolitan area offers me nothing that I can't get in a far more quiet and peaceful area as long as I'll compromise.

The other problem has to do with perception. I'm not so sure why and no doubt it's hypocritical, but I have far less moral problem "using" porn than I would have "making" it. I'd have a tough time looking my 2.5 kids/3 car garage/paraprofessional neighbors in the eye if my sole source of income was gleaned from the proper collection of animal audio.

He gave me a day to think it over. I didn't need it and I'm now almost sorry to say that while I was wholly flattered, I turned him down.

Cuda...certainly. I had nothing holding me here, I was an independent vendor working with a number of firms. I was easily replaceable in the scheme of the marketing business.

Wuda...if I were a normal human being I would have taken the offer in a flash. Screw morals and besides, perhaps being sensitive to self-righteous blather about sex is one of my many problems in the first place that taking a job in the industry might have cured.

Shuda...I'm a lousy fortune teller. That said, my ex industry is a "right place at the right time/who ya know" vocation. If there were any possibility of my "breaking into" the movies as a tech, it would only have been by my working in at least a fringe market in a city that produces major film projects. In the 80's that was pretty much LA, Chi and New Yawk.

I have plenty in my past I can tag on myself as unforgivable grievances, so I avoid using my career as a whipping post. All in all I did well, had fun, made good cash and won a few dozen awards.

But "what if" sometimes can't be ignored as I sit here unemployed, knowing my next job will be as a mule or perhaps a clerk, and that my longing looks over my shoulder do little but add to my angst.

Who knows...had I taken the job I might be forever known as the guy who invented the sound of "bullet time". He's out there somewhere. No one really knows who he is but his peers, but I'm sure he couldn't care less about the fame. He/she's got my job, and a damn fine job it mighta been.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Longest Swim

The sky hung low like a quilt of weathered-gray diapers plumped by heavenly runoff. It was though warm for April 16th; fifties as I recall. Here in the tundra that would qualify as a sunbathing day.

Lake Calhoun stretched before me, black as onyx, still, as if it had died and was only waiting to be buried. There were still a few bergs floating near shore, each surrounded by coffee colored foam, looking like dirty amoeba with glassine nuclei. It was not exactly a perfect day for a swim, but by that point, I had no choice really. I had made my decision and I was a boy of my word.

I’d been coming to Thomas beach for years, alone usually. Had it been a matter of having the idea to go and then walking the 8 blocks from my house to the water’s edge I may likely have never seen the beach at all. Such is the depth of my laziness. But as it was I had a paper route, a morning and evening covering the same territory, both ending right across the street from the smallish sandy peninsula. And as I was loath to spend any more time than was necessary at home, and as I had no friends to speak of who had space where I might hide out, I regularly ended my route by finding a spot near the water and spending the day lollygagging until my afternoon duties.

Over the years I became quite a swimmer, perhaps even good enough to compete though I never gave that a thought beyond racing a few acquaintances for bragging rights. I was pretty proud of my ability. I dearly wanted to be proud of something. As close to perfect as my schoolwork was, teachers always saw it as coming up short. In the vernacular of the day, chicks didn’t dig me and guys thought I was weird or… un-cool. And I was no prize to my parents either. Self esteem was in short supply, I had to take it where I found it and swimming provided a little flotsam to keep my ego afloat.

But it wasn’t enough, I just wasn’t good enough. I was certainly no Johnny Weissmuller. Hell Tarzan could kick my butt in a race, though underwater it might be closer. I needed to do something that made me special. Number one if possible, but at least a rare commodity. And it didn’t have to be something that anyone else knew about. The pride was not in the sharing, it was in the knowing. So one winter’s day I figured it out. I would be the first swimmer in the water, maybe in all of Minnesota (though I’d never be able to prove that) but at least in Lake Calhoun.

Every day for the last week of ice out I’d scoured the horizon in search of spoil sports who would ruin my plans. School was still in session then, so I only had a few hours in the morning, and then the hour or so before sunset beyond my afternoon route to check for potential title usurpers. I couldn’t be positive naturally, but I was pretty sure no one had touched that water since it had de-solidified.

It was a lucky break that the city park crews had driven in the pilings and framed the diving platform during that same week. I’d need a place to go. The dock was perhaps a hundred yards from the shore. That seemed like a reasonable marker by which I could claim my superiority. After all some moron might have fallen in the lake after tripping on a blade of grass in a drunken stupor before I’d taken my test and claimed the right to “first in the water”. There had to be some actual swimming involved; some distance to cover for the legend to mean anything.

And then finally the Saturday came and here I was, standing on the last of the brown sand before the ocean of thick, dark liquid that is not yet ice but not quite water. I was pumped. I could do this. Hell, I’d been in early every year for the last few, only, I had never actually been numero uno. It was going to be cold, but so what. If there was anything I could take it was pain. Suffering was my middle name, I could grit my teeth with the best of ‘em.

I was in jean shorts, with underwear naturally. I’d tried it without once or twice, but the last time I’d done it I noticed someone pointing at me and laughing, and it seemed my you know had sneaked out of my wherewithal and, well, I never wanted to have people pointing at me again. I debated leaving my t-shirt on, but then I remembered the film I saw in Mrs. Roseacre’s health class where we learned to never wear clothes in the water, and to wait an hour before swimming after every meal.

So I backed up a dozen paces and aimed myself for the dock. I knew I’d need to eat up as much ground as possible before my entire body was immersed, so I needed a run and jump start.

Sure, there was a moment’s hesitation. It would be cold and really, who the hell wants to be cold by choice? I’m sure I had an internal argument that might have actually raged for a few hours in narcissist time, crying to myself about not wanting to do it, berating myself for being such a chicken, pleading with myself to call it off, demanding from myself a little honor.

I’ve always had this trigger thing, as if my life were a rubber band that was stretched between an index finger and thumb, and the thumb keeps folding forward as that noiseless internal conversation takes place and my life keeps slipping over the skin little by little until it reaches the knuckle and then over the knuckle and then even when I’m not ready for it…. sproing! Away goes the life shooting into the distance and I’m off on another freaking cliff jumping adventure without a parachute.

I roared as I charged the black hole. I saw it in plenty of Kung Fu movies. Being loud is a good thing. Makes you strong like bull. I do have long legs and at one time could even stretch them out hurdler style. I was at least 15 yards into the water before I had to simply point my hands in prayer and take the last flying leap.

On a normal day, jumping into a lake has a peculiar effect on men. It has to do with the testicles. You see, without getting too graphic, there’s a storage facility for the testes, and when they feel the need, they grab the edge of that hatch and yank themselves inside as quickly as possible. It’s not something a man can control. If it were, being kicked in the crotch would have no effect unless we were blindsided and not able to blurt out the mental command calling the dogs into the doghouse. But this was not a normal day in either case. What I described is average for a water temperature in the 50s and 60s. A mild discomfort, a general swimsuit area shrinkage and mellow retreat, and all is well.

This was water that was probably well below 32 degrees, but just too damned mean to freeze. At the moment of impact I didn’t notice, as one torture is pretty much like another. But after a few strokes on my way to the dock, I found my testicles rapping on my Adam’s apple, trying to find a way to the top of my head which was the only part of me still uncovered by molten permafrost. I received an immediate headache sent as a lightning bolt from places beyond the diapered sky. The pounding sound was disorienting, and for a minute or so I seriously considered turning back.

It’s an interesting feeling to be doing something quite physical and yet be falling asleep. My extremities were getting to be very heavy, my head so convoluted that keeping a single thought intact was becoming near impossible. Somehow I forced every ounce of will from my guts and used it to fuel my struggling engine. It wasn’t strength by that point. I’d lost that yards earlier. I finally rapped my knuckles on a piling and stopped before I’d whapped my numbed head into the same post. Then I weakly scrambled up the ladder and flopped onto the few boards spanning the dock frame.

Usually I find it’s a curse to have a metabolism that generates the kind of heat that could keep an egg incubated while ten feet away. On this day though, it was obviously a blessing. Had my body not rebounded the fifty degree air temperature would have done nothing to bring me back to life and I may have simply taken the long nap out there on the two by sixes. But soon I was adequately charged physically. That though, didn’t help my mental state in the slightest. I was scared. I wasn’t sure I could make it back. Oh I did have an option. I could jump up and down and scream bloody murder until some passer by heard me and rushed to some stranger’s house to call the police. Then the cops would have to get a boat from storage and by the time they got there the news crews would be lined up to take video of the stupid kid that thought he had to be the first one in the water even though it would likely kill him. And then for the rest of my life I’d be known as “that stupid kid with no self esteem” and every time I walked down a hallway someone would punch me just for good measure.

Ok, so that option was out. I had no choice but to swim. Unless of course I hung out long enough that a passer by would notice me and without my approval race to call the police and once they came I could demand that I could swim into shore but of course they’d demand that I stay right there until they picked me up with a boat, and naturally I’d have to do what they said ‘cuz they were cops after all. That might work. Except for the fact that after my body’s initial burst of steam I was beginning to lose my insulation and the tiniest amount of shivering had begun.

If you remember the trigger scenario you’ll be able to visualize the next scene. The band is very slowly working it’s way past the first ridge of the knuckle, as I whined and moaned about how cold it was gonna be and how I might die, followed by words of encouragement from my inner nutcase optimist. And then when you least expect it, spring, off I go, diving into the water as broadly as I could so as to glide as long as possible before the testicles were forced to travel once more.

Obviously I made it or I wouldn’t be telling this story, though perhaps that incident froze my brain and accounts for some of my “issues”. I lay on the beach, covered by my light jacket for at least a half hour, staring at the sky, assuming it’d rain any moment as that would put the perfect exclamation point on a perfectly stupid day. But it didn’t rain, and I did warm to the point of being ambulatory, so I finally mounted my bicycle and headed for home.

No one had seen me, as far as I could tell; so there would be no one to bear witness to my record breaking action. But I knew. I was the first. At something. I was the first. I knew. And that’s all that mattered.

Rocking Horse Road (9-final)

It’s funny how a person will interpret experience to suit their needs in a time of stress. The last 45 miles of Saturday’s ride were grueling to be kind, yet each time I reached a place of anger or hopelessness, I automatically thought of the kid in the McDonalds window making faces at me. I had been in near total solitude for four days, save short spurts of conversation with waitresses and motel clerks, and the day at hand was testing my faith in my ability to cope with physical misery and intellectual chaos; and then here was someone who made contact, albeit a child, but a human being nevertheless. His innocence, the lightness in his smile stole an enormous load from my shoulders at the exact moment I needed to be acknowledged. I was no longer a machine, but flesh and blood, and perfectly capable of making faces back rather than furrowing my brow and concentrating on the very, very serious task at hand. It probably sounds silly, but his spirit lifted mine, and gave me the will to continue as long as I did. But that was Saturday, and this, was another day.

It was Sunday morning and with apologies to God, I snatched the remote and tuned to CNN that I might wake up slowly, unpounded by the fists of "Temple Television's" moneychangers.

It had taken at least an hour to calm down enough to undress, my clothes stuck to me by icy sweat that even the 15 minutes in the Super Eight Motel office under a high wattage  heat lamp didn't fix. Once inside my room I'd sat on the edge of the bed in full regalia for a complete showing of  Starsky and Hutch, too exhausted to move, too hypothermic to change the channel, too hypnotized to laugh at the fact that I'd watched the episode in prime time in its original form 20 years before.

Then, the peel began. Choppers, half-gloves, cotton gloves, rainsuit, canvas jacket, flannel shirt, sweatshirt, t-shirt, bibs, jeans, polypants, galoshes, cowboy boots, skating socks, polysox....I left my silver headdress feather necklace on as it'd brought me luck to that point, and I thought falling in the shower after successfully riding through a blizzard would be an ultimate embarrassment.

I'm not sure how long I actually showered, but I'm betting there was a song written about the day Wall South Dakota had nary a drop of hot water left to its name. And still I was cold. I'd spent the night shivering, fetal positioned in the center of a king sized bed, the cheap, paper thin comforter pulled under me so tight I'm sure it appeared as if I'd been robbed and the thieves had duck taped me into a blanket to effect a safe getaway.

The storm had passed, the sun was bright and the atmosphere cheery, at least for those inclined to be bright and cheery in 20 degree temperatures. Once I'd done the daily necessaries, including another 110 degree, 40 minute shower that peeled a few layers of skin from my back, I took a hike to a local cafe to infuse my blood with black coffee for the ride home.

As I putzed through breakfast I began the mental ritual of toughening up, a sort of mano i mano game played between the conscious and subconscious that hopefully results in believing the lie that one is immune to pain and discomfort. And then I paid the bill and slowly walked back to the motel, pulling on as many cigarettes as I could get down in the time I had left as there would be no smoking for at least a hundred forty miles.

All the warm and dry clothes I had left found their way onto my frame. I just wanted to get this over with as quickly as I could so layers had to make up for rest stops soon to be ignored. At the point just before a good push might drop me onto my back where I’d lay suspended like a turtle, unable to roll over and stand up again, I quit layering and pulled on the rain suit that would need to stop below zero wind chill in its tracks; then started the bike to let it warm as I packed up.

The few blocks to the one open gas station gave me insight into what the day would be like. Number twenty six  rolled across the face of the local bank as I cruised town, a black polyester man with a black full face helm on a black motorcycle set against the crisp whiteness of six to eight foot drifts of new fallen yet already hardened snow. I’d have been frightening to children had any been outdoors and not locked within the walls of a heavenly commune. But as it was just me and the gas station attendant, I filled up and hung around for one last smoke after all, inside, where the heat was. Again, as I toked the last few puffs I fought the good fight within, telling myself that I was about to cruise the beaches of Costa del Sol in my dune buggy for a few hours, warning myself to drink plenty of liquids or risk heat stroke.

Actually the last part kind of ruined the vision as plenty of liquids would only make me need to urinate, and with 5 pairs of pants on, that was the last thing I needed.

I walked as if Clint Eastwood to a gunfight, straddled my mule without so much as using my hands and with two flicks of fingers well encased in thinsulate and wool, set the engine to churning, taking just a moment to wriggle my now extraordinarily huge ass into the frosted leather seat. I kicked into first gear and set my right foot onto the highway bar for maximum visual effect, and then waved to the clerk inside, pretending that there was actually one human being on the entire skin of the earth that gave a rat’s ass what position I was in, and would take the time to wish me well. I thought I saw him make the sign of the cross, but it was likely just my visor frosting up.

It’s interesting how cold works in real life, as opposed to science. In Minnesota we’d frequently debate the effects of wind-chill on inanimate objects, partly to give pompous east and west coasters something to make fun of us with, as if the fact that we talk about the weather at all means we don’t have anything else to say. But mostly the discussion was due to the unlikelihood of starting a car that’s been outdoors all night in a below zero storm, and meteorologists denial that the wind has anything to do with it.

We poor people know that it’s because television guys can afford two year leases and three stall garages, and haven’t seen a piece of crap car since college...so their anecdotal science is biased in favor of the rich, as everything is in America. If you have a junker and live in town, meaning your garage is full of the crap your wife wouldn’t let you store in the basement so there’s no room for your vehicle, the chance your car will start in time for you to go to work on any winter morning is directly proportional to the temperature combined with the wind; well, and your bosses level of anger over you being late.

The debate was never about whether the wind had an effect, but in what way. One theory was that an engine block would cool more rapidly and so, more thoroughly if a 30 knot wind was whipping across the hood. The other was more logical and more likely the truth. It said if it was so cold that having to use jumper cables would be an incredibly painful exercise, then Murphy’s Law would demand the car turn one crank and then die, leaving the driver to his shouted vulgarity of choice, only to be drowned out by the happy howling wind in any case.

It’s different on a human body of course, skin not having the tinsel strength of aluminum and fiberglass. Once covered, a human can take extreme cold and the wind is not a factor so they say. But it is, I’m here to argue. Because the wind is like sand, it finds every hole, every crease, every crooked tooth on every zipper and it seeps slowly toward its eventual target, the will to persevere in the face of death by hypothermia. Within a few dozen miles on Interstate 90 I’d reached the stage I like to call “who gives a shit” cold, in honor of the response given when asked the question, how cold do you think it really is? There’s cold, then real cold, then damn cold, and finally, who gives a shit cold; and yes, I’d found my way there in a hurry.

It occurred to me to get off the main drag as on a Sunday after a blizzard the only likely speed trappers in the state would be looking for travelers, so once I’d reached the turnoff for Pierre, I jumped on it and rode quickly through the capital. East of the city there was little more than a few scattered towns with less than a thousand people in them, and by the looks of it everyone had decided to stay home. I’d never seen less traveled roads. So I cranked it up a notch, grit my teeth, laid my chest on the gas tank and went for glory.

Most of South Dakota I passed through within a few mph of 100. I figured if I’d been stopped by a copper, they’d sit me in the back seat while they scolded me and wrote the ticket; and maybe a half hour spell of humid auto heat would be well worth the hundred bucks I’d have to pay for it. I never got to find out, no doubt Murphy had his eye on me checking his law book at every intersection I blew through.

I did however learn something about nature that I’d never before noticed. As I was trying to avoid radar and cut time both at once, I tended to take any cowpath road that kept me on a straight line toward home so long as said road was black with tar as in, already plowed. One such road found me close to the border, refueled and rested, so I was at maximum daring when I veered off state 14 onto this ribbon of darkness.

It was perfect for my purposes; houses spread miles apart, two lanes in reasonable repair with no shoulders and barely a white line to mark the edge of life as we know it. I hunkered down into the center of the strip and pushed the Shadow as hard as it’d go, the speedometer stopping at 110 where the company had put a metal fob in the path of the needle of death. I don’t know how fast I was actually going, probably 115, maybe 120... it’s a little like the who gives a shit cold I was mentioning, after a point had I fallen I’d only be a splat anyway and a few miles per hour difference wouldn’t modify the size of the splat so .....

It was fun for a bit, the adventure of speed, the majesty of snow lit horizon, the flicking a middle finger at the Grim Reaper because even he would be a welcome companion in lieu of the mind numbing cold I was enduring. And then I noticed the road’s edge was turning blacker up ahead for some reason; blacker and lumpy as if the rubber truck had just passed and dropped a trail of molten rubber on each shoulder.

Slowing from 120 when a body is near frozen is a little like trying to turn the Exxon Valdez on a dime. I was into the blackness before the little electric signals had made their way from my brain to my throttle hand, and by then it was way too late to matter.

The road was lined with birds, all snuggling the last vestige of heat dumped by a slowly setting sun into exposed roadway. And as I approached the poor little things thought to get out of my way just in case I was a madman looking for trouble. Birds don’t think too fast I’m told, nor too cleverly I found out. I was going so fast that by the time they’d flapped a few inches off the ground I was in their faces, and then to escape they flew across the road, rather than away from it. I spose all that turning around just to fly the other direction would have been frightfully time consuming, so of course they just leapt straight ahead.

It was raining birds, I felt like Tippy Hedrin, my helmet was being pounded like a bohdran drum. I had bird in my lap and bird on my arms and bird caught in every nook and cranny of the bike. I was like the most powerful shotgun blast ever to hit middle South Dakota, I must have left enough birds on that highway to fill two dozen pies for Old King Cole, at 4 and 20 blackbirds each.

Sure I felt badly, I don't even hunt though I'll admit to cooking Cornish hen here and there. But it was suicide on the bird's part, not murder on mine; I was just the bullet that gave them all a ticket to their sweet chariot home.

The rest of the ride was fairly uneventful, but I was quite jumpy every time I noticed black patches near the road. Once I'd crossed the border it was all moot anyway; Minnesota Highway Patrol have no sense of humor about being passed by a motorcycle in the snowy spring, and there are too many of them roaming free to guess which roads I'd be safe on...so I slowed to within 20 mph of the limit.

They say the majority of accidents happen very near the home, so I guess in retrospect it's not surprising that the death I cheated was within 10 miles of my house after having lived through the near impossible. It was black ice at an intersection and near sunset; I didn't see it coming and it turned the bike 20 degrees left in the blink of an eye. As I felt the machine start to go over I instinctively slammed my right foot into the ground and pulled up as if it were a bicycle between my legs and not 400 pounds of steel. The forward motion almost threw my foot into the rear wheel but somehow the maneuver worked; I was upright and slowing to a stop, with only what turned out to be a torn ligament to whine about. It's a good thing in the end as I would have crossed lanes and there were two stacks of cars coming my way that surely would have made a rag doll of me before they'd finished.

Within the last moments of dusk I motored into my driveway, then my garage, and there I sat for at least an hour; smoking, breathing, thinking. It had been dangerous. I had suffered some. But it was one of the most amazing journeys I‘ve been a party to, and well worth the price of admission. It also accomplished its goal. I hadn’t thought of my ex wife for 20 some days, though it didn’t take long to get right back into the neurotic behaviors again. Still, I’d bought myself some time off, and that alone made me better for the experience.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Rocking Horse Road (8)

It’s said “knowledge is power”, and if I’m not mistaken it’s also said “a little knowledge is dangerous”. So it’s not at all surprising that I was once powerfully dangerous in the field of meteorology. Being a pilot one has to learn the most rudimentary signs that weather may be changing, and not for the better, so one doesn’t fly into a mountain while one is hoping the clouds will lift. I knew just enough to think I knew something, and so as I watched CNN that morning and interpreted the radars and front maps, I was relatively certain that my trip would be possible and there was still a slight chance I could actually come out ahead of the snowphoon. In retrospect, given the same information I might say “bullshit, I’m goin back to bed”, but this is now and that…. that was a world ruled less by logic and more by fantasy.

It was already misting as I stepped into the mud drive to strap my bags and prep for takeoff. I had already showered until my body temp was in the hundreds, so I had a little to lose without it becoming a problem, and I’d pulled on every piece of clothing I could fit over the top of the next. I felt a little robot-ty, like the one in Lost In Space that could only wildly flail its arms while shouting “Danger Will Robinson! Danger!” But movement wouldn’t be an issue if the going got rough. It would be living through being deposited under a tree after sliding off the edge of a mountain road that I’d planned for. Every ounce of cushion helps in that scenario.

Before I’d even fired up, the mist thickened. Drizzle is annoying, but the wind that had blown all night had finally stopped, so I counted my blessings wile I could. The attendant at the local self serve stared at me from his heated perch as I filled my tank, both of us only nodding in silence to acknowledge my insanity and the pleasure he must have felt knowing he had a story to tell once he'd gone home for the day.

And then, I was off. Custer seemed a reasonable destination. I wanted to be realistic so I practiced a bit of a twelve step mantra; I would take the day one town at a time. Well, that was my conscious self’s mantra in any case; the one that really matters was saying “get home before nightfall and I’ll buy you extra ice cream for dessert”.

It’s amazing that after 20 years I can still visualize portions of the trip down to the number of blades of grass between the tarmac and the forest. Perhaps each memory was spawned by a perceived trauma. More likely, an unforgettable beauty is to blame. Once out of the town of Newcastle I reached the edge of the Black Hills within minutes, and there I was swallowed by spruce as thick and as deep as one could imagine. The first part was a long, long straight road. While I kept my eyes straight ahead for obvious reasons, I swore in my periphery I could spot furry creatures digging in, trying to bury themselves in leaves and debris, hoping to survive the steamroller that was bearing down behind me.

Soon I was in the hills, curving gently, going up, going down, twisting back on my path as if the road builder was fickle about direction and his crew, absolutely obedient. And then, it started snowing.

I have to imagine everyone has had one of these moments, when the world stops and so you must stop as well so as to take in what cannot possibly be explained. I didn’t actually want to slow much less put on the brakes, but I couldn’t help myself. I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. The road was a river of molten black, twisting through a mound of emerald velveteen, and clumps of fluffy shaved ice the size of golf balls were floating to the ground as if on invisible parachutes, spinning and dancing, weaving and swaying until finally coming to rest upon one another forming endless fields of dandelion fuzz. It was hard to breathe, so I held my breath, and listened to the sound of my mind wrapping around a once in a lifetime circumstance.

Then, I lit a smoke and grimaced a moment. I was in a world of hurt. I’d ridden in snow, but seldom by choice, and never in wholly unpopulated areas. Yet it’s one of those things; what are you gonna do about it? It occurred to me just before I restarted the engine that I hadn’t as yet seen another vehicle all day. Maybe the locals knew something I didn’t.

By the time I reached the outskirts of Custer it was snowing heavily and the wind had picked up making visibility a chore. Yet for all the bad I could say about it, I hadn’t really had a problem to that point. I wasn’t particularly cold, I’d not slipped so much as an inch and the bike was purring as if it had intended to live as a snowmobile before it was issued two wheels and a sissy bar. I knew I should stop, cut it short for safety’s sake, find a motel and stay the two days I’d likely need to before the storm was well gone and the roads were cleared. And as I came to main street I let off the throttle and slowed to turn speed. But something kept me from actually turning. I’d love to say it was because I was hypothermic and couldn’t move my arm or legs, but the fact is I couldn’t stop believing that I could outrace nature, that climatic freedom was only a few hours and a slushy slog away. I grabbed the throttle and thumped back up to the speed limit, as those that had been at the stop sign waiting for me to turn, craned and gawked at my passing.

Of course I regretted my decision within a few minutes, when I noticed how deep the snow really was, the rubber of my tire disappearing at ground level. I played that game for the next hour. “I was right to go on!” “No, You were an idiot”. And so on with ever more vulgar and passionate insults hurled in both directions as the miles racked up. I slowed, and sped up repeatedly, each time I saw a motel sign; my decision changing hands every few seconds as visions of an idiot’s corpse and his bike being buried at the bottom of a valley in wait for the spring thaw and the casual hikers that would follow, played havoc with my will to continue.

About halfway to Rapid City I became worried. I had no feeling in my legs. Now that surprised me since I’d not felt the telltale excruciating pain before frostbite, so I couldn’t imagine that I’d become an amputee in waiting, yet I tried to move them and while I could feel the muscles in my thighs straining, I could barely lift a foot off the pegs. So I did what any northerner knows to do when faced with possible paralyzation due to freezing; I started to slam my fist into my calf, to see if I could still feel a pounding at the door. It worked better than I had expected; suddenly I had nerve sensitivity, and more important, I felt as if my right leg had lost 50 pounds! Because it had! Unbeknownst to me my front tire had been throwing slush upward and to the rear, coating my nylon covered legs in quickly freezing ice, and then, coating the coating, and coating the double coating and so on. Buy the time I’d figured it out I was wearing what amounted to hockey goalie pads made of salt flavored popsicle, and weighed a hundred pounds more than I had upon rising.

But I did get to Rapid City before long, pulling into town a little past noon. It was still snowing like crazy, but again the wind had died for a time and the world was simply beautiful again.

The freeway just a few miles ahead, I pondered whether to cut my losses and take shelter now, or to risk death again and try to make tracks until dark. A McDonalds raised it's arches before me and I thought to raise my body temp from 60 degrees to a more useable number before deciding my fate.

I pulled into the lot and dismounted, swaggering into the joint with legs too frozen to bend and an attitude too stiff to care. I ordered black coffee, hoping to spill and sue and become rich beyond my wildest dreams for just a moment, but then walked it to a table near the window where I might stare at my reluctant steel horse and force a quick conclusion, while burning my lips and fogging my sunglasses.

I didn't look toward anyone else in the building, averting my gaze so as to not see the fear in their eyes, or the knowing grins either. I wanted no inferred interference, no intimated opinion as to whether I should stop or go, rest or run, whether I was nuts or nearly normal but obviously disillusioned.

Having wiggled my fingers and toes into once again feeling pain, and seeing a last few drops in the bottom of my cup, I stood and stretched; my 240 pound frame covered in six layers of heavy clothing raising a few eyebrows amongst the busload of sixth graders that had just entered, cheering their school closure due to the weather and the driver that had offered them each a hot chocolate.

I waddled to my steed, setting my choppers on the gas tank while I threw one extra heavy leg over the seat and straddled as comfortably as possible. Before I donned my helmet, I took one last wistful look at the Mac and Don's, giving myself one last chance to reconsider.

In the window were perhaps 25 kids, all pressed to the glass and staring at the loopy dork who was about to vanish in a cloud of white. One stuck out over the others; a tallish boy standing a few inches behind his mates who was dramatically shaking his head left and right as if advising me of the folly of my plight.

I smiled for the first time in hours, and returned his acknowledgement with one of my own; nodding my head up and down like a seagull wandering a dead fish laden shoreline.

He pointed and then laughed aloud, moving a few others aside and barging his way to the front where he splayed his hands on the glass and pressed his nose into the clear wall, making a contorted face that would speak an opinion I might carry with me as I drove away. I waved; he answered with a finger pointed at his head, twirling about his right ear, the universal symbol for “you kwazy mister.” I laughed and started off, aiming for a gas station across the street where I filled and checked my gear for one more ride into the breach.

Imagine if you will a great room, devoid of furniture, tan colored wooden floors with a smattering of lumpy rugs strewn about and a small army of fist sized dust bunnies scattered willy nilly. Now place a half tilted recliner in the center of one wall, and have a seat. Finally, add a dog. Your choice, though more a setter size than a bischon.  And have him curl at your feet. You, are the Black Hills, and you are facing northeast. The dog is Rapid City. And the floor that seems to stretch on forever? That’s South Dakota, the state I needed to cross before reaching home sweet home.

Here was the thought pattern. Though I didn’t actually see a radar and had no idea in truth, I imagined (see: hope) that I was just within the leading edge of a monster heading due east at about 35 miles an hour. In a moment I would be on Interstate 90, heading due east at 70 miles an hour (or more if I dared). See the picture? Within a few hours I could burst through the worm hole and be on my way to Deep Space Nine without a single asteroid in my path.

Of course freeways only go due east and west on a map, and within a half hour it became obvious that I was far from the leading edge but rather in the thick of the weather. The wind came up once again, this time from the northwest, forcing me to lean 45% to my left in order to keep from being simply pushed off the road.

I have to admit to a few moments of self worship along the way. I must have passed 6 18 wheel rigs that had landed in the ditch, and another dozen that had pulled off the highway in order to wait out the worst of the blow. I honked and waved as I passed the wimps, always hoping a gust wouldn’t appear just as I’d taken my hand off the bars, to knock my egotistic ass into the next county, but as luck would have it I got full pleasure from my efforts. A few of the drivers were good sports, giving me a lovely 21 air horn salute as I sauntered by in a cloud of white.

Then, things started to get really crappy, (as opposed to mildly crappy). The bike began to sputter as I passed New Underwood; 25 miles from the next town, though I’d not seen a sign telling me so as I could only see about 5 feet in any direction. It was only luck, and my constant begging and pleading that got me to the turnoff at Wall, South Dakota (home of the famous Wall Drug). Amazingly, the moment I slowed and slid down the exit ramp, the bike quit. For the first time all day it seemed I’d made the right decision.

I have to admit to being truly angry at the time. Not only was I prematurely stopped in my 5 inch deep tracks, but I never did get the machine started again, and had to push the 500 pounds uphill in a blizzard to the nearest motel parking lot about a block away. I hadn’t paid much attention to the cold until getting off the motorcycle each time. Suddenly all my joints ached, my fingers felt numb and the only bare spot between my helmet and shoulders was burning as if branded.

But push I did, and there was room at the inn, lucky for me. It was a sad moment when I opened the door and stepped into my tacky 30 dollar shelter; I’d come so close. But I was just as strongly relieved that I’d come through an amazing experience, and lived to tell the tale. Hell or high water I knew I could make it from here. It couldn’t get any worse than that last 130 miles.

Road Map

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Rocking Horse Road (7)

No one wants to admit to mistakes, beyond those that are hopelessly self piteous and love having another nail to pound into their reputation’s coffin, and the very few who are egregiously honest and just can’t help themselves. It’s in that spirit that I will begin this story. I didn’t make a mistake really; it was an unfortunate alignment of bad luck, educated guesswork gone awry and my incredible honor that had forced me to give my father the benefit of my company for one more day and then some. Thus, I remain faultless in what follows.

I had watched CNN for its national weather forecasts every moment I was able during the entire trip, and this morning I watched with extreme interest. The storm that had been wallowing in the northern Pacific had finally come on shore and was whacking the west coast as if it were a wet, sandy towel and the residents of Oregon and Washington were bully’s bare butts…. or something like that. I took note of the front’s speed and direction, plotted my next set of directions and hit the road as quickly as I could. According to my calculations there was a good chance I’d be able to stay ahead of the monster, but only if I went as long each day as my body could stand to be attached to the seat.

I’d planned on stopping in Vernal, a small town near the border of Utah and Wyoming, for breakfast; and then burning my way north through the as yet unexplored Flaming Gorge. (Unexplored by me that is) But once having ordered my ham and eggs, from my perfect vantage at the breakfast table in northern hick town USA I could easily see it was snowing in the gorge, heavily, as in white out. I was disappointed, but thought it no real obstacle as the roads that paralleled and crossed the border nearby formed a perfect rectangle. I’d lose no time the other way, it would just be far less interesting.

I remember Dinosaur land in northern Utah/Colorado as being very gray. The dirt, the sky, even the plants seemed gray, as if I’d left the universe of Koda, and entered Mono-chrome. I didn’t really understand the significance of the earth I was zipping across until years later. I wish I had as I would have gladly created images of T-Rexs and Brontos to keep my mind occupied while I droned on for an hour or two. It’s quite an amazing place really. A large portion of all the dino bones on display in the world came from that region. Thousands of the critters died on that plain during a time when much of it had been a river and delta, and over the next millennia or two the earth shot upwards in waves, almost like the teeth of a saw, exposing the bones for any intrepid dino bone hunter and fortune seeker to find.

At the time, I saw none of that. Just gray for as far as the eye could see, until I slowly came upon the Rockies in the form of the Steamboat Springs and Vail area. I could see once I’d gotten close enough that it was snowing in those mountains as well, so any idea of whizzing through the heart of megalomaniac richfolkville, turning left at Denver and whipping northeast on the shortest path to bed and bath was dashed. I turned north at Craig Colorado, aiming for Casper Wyoming.

I only wish I’d shot a photo of the next scene, though I know a picture would have looked lifeless and perhaps even homely. Once out of town and into the high plains I came across an area that stretched on to the northern horizon. No trees, no steep hills, nothing to get in the way of my peripheral vision to the limit of its possibility. The ground was mostly yellowed; long dormant, medium height grasses waved in the chill wind. The road dipped into a vale as the earth dropped very slowly for a mile to a depth of about 30 feet, and then rose again over another mile, as if a giant child had been walking due west dragging an isosceles triangle behind him, its tip firmly buried in the sandstone and shale. There were reddish outcroppings of some sort of stone here and there, and clumps of shrubs and sage that broke up the perfect flatness.

To the left was wild and seemingly untouched, To the right was a fence that stretched to infinity; a three line barbed wire affair, with a cowboy boot firmly slipped upside down onto every second post. I slowed a bit, to take it all in. There was no traffic in either direction; only me and the sage. And then it began to snow, lightly. They were huge flakes, the size of my widened eyeballs, but sparsely placed, if one were to place snowflakes. My first reaction was to curse. I knew this wasn’t the ball buster that was headed my way, but if I was going to have to pound through lousy weather for a day or two, and THEN face the devil, it would be much harder to deal with.

But then my breath dissolved and I found myself slowing to a stop. I couldn’t believe the absolute majesty of what I was witnessing. I sat there for at least ten minutes, helmet off, bike running, watching a lone highway patrol snake his way across the slight depression. Once at my position he stopped and rolled down his window. “You alright?” he asked. “Better than that” I replied, and smiled. “Beautiful country” I added, and he smiled as well. “We like it” he said. After a pair of salutes, we both left the spot, traveling in opposite directions, knowing that we’d been blessed to have shared that view at that moment.

It snowed on and off for the rest of the afternoon, but the breeze was always strong enough to sweep the shaved ice into the thirsty grass and the road stayed perfectly clean and dry. I just hammered ahead as fast as I dared and didn’t have lunch until I’d reached Casper. It was already late, but I was in good shape physically. My clothes were keeping me warm, I was dry as an hourglass and the bike was loving the chill. I knew if I could make Newcastle I’d be on the fringe of the Black Hills, and one more half day’s jaunt would have me pointed due east and howling toward home. I didn’t know that I could make it that far, but I figured there were two towns between Casper and there, and both seemed on the map to be large enough to house at least one motel.

There’s a reason I try to do very little wishful thinking. One day, it will kill me, and in the meantime I will simply suffer greatly. The trail was longer than it looked; what seemed like a quick trip turned into a molasses roll, and I can’t say why exactly. Perhaps there’s a worm hole in that road; some negative universe that makes it appear that you’ve never left the path you were on but in reality you have to drive an extra, oh say, a thousand miles before finding the other end of the device and do the last few miles of the real highway in your own dimension. In any case, I pulled into Wright Wyoming at near 8 PM, and noticed that the only lights visible were coming from the convenience store, cleverly placed on the crossroads of nowhere and nowhere.

There were, as it turns out, no motels in Wright. In fact if my guess is right, there were approximately six houses in Wright, all quite close to the Kum and Go, or whatever variety the local gas and overpriced coffee station was. But it had looked like such a medium black dot on the map! I couldn’t imagine how I could have been so fooled!

I was whining to the clerk, and trying to get a few guesstimates as to how long and how precarious the next portion of my trip would be, when a few local teens bopped in to grab beers and butts. They overheard our discussion and offered me help. They were in fact going to Newcastle, and knew the roads were dangerous out here, “on accounta the animals that come up to the road to nuzzle against the warm tar on the edge of the highway.” I was relieved. It sounded like a plan. Little did I know…

The Powder River Basin which houses Thunder Basin sports one of the largest coal deposits in North America and the largest U.S. coal mine. Uranium and Bentonite are also mined here, and oil and gas deposits are pumped helter skelter across the 54 miles of the Thunder Basin National Grassland area. I’m not adding this history because it’s interesting necessarily, but only because these installations were the only light sources I would see for the next hour and change.

It was black, as coal if you’ll pardon the concept. Imagine it this way.

You’re standing in a hallway that you’ve been told is infinitely long and twelve feet wide. But you can’t know that for certain as you can’t see your hand in front of your face, until the flashlight that’s been conveniently mounted to your head flicks on and illuminates a tunnel directly in front of your eyes. You’ve seen a diagram of the hallway and know that while mostly straight, it does twist and turn now and then; and for the life of you, you can’t imagine how you’re going to recognize exactly where those twists and turns are. Now, start running, as fast as you can, straight ahead. Be aware of the furniture and suits of armor that pass in your periphery, and make sure you don’t imagine one of them accidentally placed in your path, as you don’t want to slow down for any reason.

I thought it would be easy. Just keep the taillights a few hundred yards to the fore and the boys would lead me to the promised land, taking all the risk unto themselves. There was only one issue. The boys wanted to get there real, real fast; like rocket speed fast.

I had to go 90 to catch up to a point where their lights just didn’t simply blink out on every corner, and then 85 to keep them in my sights. I was incredibly uncomfortable at that speed, in pitch black, on a road I’d never been on in daylight; but the alternative was no more comforting. Had I not been able to use my escort I would have been forced to slow to 30 or less, as my young friends had been adamant about the number of critters that would be crawling the highway at night and the reach of my high beam would only allow me to stop within a 30 mile an hour parameter. Even then I could be surprised, either lulled into glancing around at the wrong moment or simply a victim a bad timing by a wayward elk. So it was another of those decisions that end in “damned if you do and damned if you don’t.” I decided it was too cold, too damp and too late to screw around. If I crashed I wanted to make sure I was dead and save myself all those hours laying in the weeds with no hope of being saved while in excruciating pain.

Suddenly in front of me the little red lights began to swerve, left, then right, then damn near sideways before straightening out and continuing forward. I took the cue and braked hard, and just in time. As I rode through a herd of deer who had gathered on the tarmac for a conference, I could have easily reached out and scratched a half dozen fuzzy noses. But I didn’t. Because the boys were doing 85 again and I needed to catch up.

It happened 6 times before we reached the outskirts of Newcastle. I met more mule deer that night than I’d met supermarket cashiers in my lifetime; but somehow I arrived safely, though a little tightly wound. Luckily I found an open motel within the first few minutes, dropped my stuff, then met the boys at a local pub and pizza. I bought them a round but declined their offer for company. I was too exhausted to be sociable. I just wanted a full belly so as to have extra incentive to fall fast asleep. The storm was still comin’. I was still kickin’ its butt. But I would need to cut and run as early as possible, or face something I’d never encountered before; at least on two wheels.

Road Map