Monday, March 10, 2014

Pocket Gophertopia



I hadn’t seen but a dozen cars on the highways since crossing Monarch Pass. The portion of Colorado I’d been traversing was very lightly populated, and on the cusp of spring the roads were too treacherous for most tourists. It was beginning to sink in that I’d ridden south a bit early as blizzards and avalanche rubble were serious dampers to the fun of a motorcycle cruise across a continental divide. The pass itself had been walloped the day before I’d reached it, and had only been opened a few hours in advance of my tires splashing through its slush.

The timing was not all my choice. I was recently divorced, my mother and brother had recently passed, my father had recently moved 1500 miles from me and I was about to start a new career style job that would eliminate the possibility of vacation time for a few years. I wanted to offer a few weeks to help my dad settle into Arizona life, and to absorb what I could of his spirit before I was left without for a long time to come. It was April or never, and though a bike might be dangerous en route from Minnesota to damn near Mexico I was fully prepared to die for the chance at a magnificent, mind altering adventure.

After a night in Ridgeway Colorado I inquired as to the conditions ahead of me. The next pass was closed, it was suggested I back up a few hundred miles and cross on an interstate where the altitude was less a factor. “There is one option” the store clerk told me, “but I wouldn’t do it on a motorcycle.” “Perfect” I figured, since he didn’t look like much of a rider anyway. If I was going to die I wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, and hopefully have a local quote in my obit saying “Why I told the damn fool to go the other, boring, non life affirming way!” Once gassed, layered against chill and well fed I hit the two lane that runs a gauntlet through canyon country, following the Dolores River past the ski mountain town of Telluride and on toward the New Mexico border.

Again, not a car came into view for miles at a time. It was a winding snake I was on, rushing water to my left and bull nosed granite and shale to my right. I was feeling particularly cocky that morning, pushing my Harley fake to the edge of my comfort range, ratcheting the speed upward only to stomp the brakes after rounding a corner that had been hiding a stray boulder sitting in the middle of the road, one obviously resting before making its way to the river for a little swim.

And then I spotted her in my mirrors. At first it was just a sports car, a Mazda RX7, red, freshly waxed and without a single bug on its windshield. I had to think it was some obnoxious teenage boy who’d been given the keys to daddy’s car and told to go buy smokes and a six pack. Or it may be a self important junior exec, out to prove his manhood to himself by using a few hundred horses as proxy cojones. (Men are trained to think this way, every approaching mystery is likely a challenge, the next hunter/gatherer you see could be your last)

She passed me and waved. She was charismatically beautiful, which wasn’t important certainly, but did pique my interest. Suddenly my past filled my present; I felt as if I’d spent the last 20 years in prison, devoid of female companionship. I just wanted one more look, one more smile, one more acknowledgment that I existed by someone of the gender I appreciated most. After 4 days of pounding the roads completely alone I could pretend I was in the company of another. I knew right away that I was also feeling the effects of my recent abandonment by most of the people I dearly loved, and for that I laughed aloud. It wouldn’t do to seem as if I were stalking, but it would be fun to “tag along” with the racing mystery driver, so I decided to try and keep up, and back off the moment the woman appeared nervous. I wanted nothing really, just the symbolism that we were tackling the road together. And my idea had practical merit really; if there were anything in the roadway ahead I’d know it well in advance of my splaying my broken body across it, so long as I kept the car within my periphery.

I pressed ahead, not so close that I’d make either of us sweat the distance but not so far that I’d lose sight of the car. She waved to her mirror and pumped her brakes a few times and I locked in as if I were a knotted rag tail on a red paper kite. For dozens of miles we weaved as did the river. The slope was minor but the turns were dramatic, and more than once she’d flickered her brake lights to warn me of nearby road rubble lying in wait to do mischief. In retrospect I’m not so sure that had we not played our little game I’d have made it through that canyon without at least finding a short route to the water’s edge if not to heaven itself. There were numerous slides to contend with, and alone I would probably have been moving far too fast, once too often.

It was over soon enough. At the mountain’s backside turnoff for Telluride she whipped to the left with one last wave, and slid into the shadow of the snow covered monster. I was disappointed for a moment, but elated that I’d had a little fun interspersed with what often was nothing more than drudgery. I rode with her image for at least a few more miles before it winked out and the road was again mine alone.

At the end of the canyon lay a small town where I bought sugar replenishment and suffered a few smokes. I’d made great time, and yet I had a long way to go for what was left of the day. To run out of daylight in the prairies of Kansas was one thing, but to find darkness in the mountains on two wheels when it could just as likely snow as not would be bad juju, so I decided to try and make extra speed when I could. Until that point I had stayed close to speed limits posted; I was in no real rush and besides, the faster I went the colder I got. But it was warming up fast on the western side of the peaks, enough to shed a few coats.

I found myself on a high desert plain, nothing but sage and low cactus in sight and a road that stretched to the horizon without so much as a bump along the way. I checked my map once again and figured the likelihood that a copper would be driving all the way out here was slim, so I started to push harder and harder, eventually topping out my engine’s capacity. I really have no idea how fast I was going, I’m neither a speed demon nor a braggart, it doesn’t make me proud to be especially stupid and I don’t consider being out of control a feat of daring. That said, I was probably doing 120 mph or so, and surprisingly comfortable at that speed. All I could see ahead of me was a ribbon of tar and the waving smear of heat induced illusion rising from the blackness. Then, I spotted the first critter.

(Insert dream sequence)

Michael was bent forward, peering through the celestial humanometer when he noted something that made him quite nervous.

“My Lord” he said; “Didn’t you say you had some sort of plans for this Ron of Elko fellow?”

“That I do” said God. “Though I’ve not yet made up my mind on exactly what I’d like him to accomplish, I do think he’d be a fine candidate for service at some later date. Why do you ask? Oh wait, I think I know” He said with a grin.

Michael sighed. Of course God knew. How could omniscience not know? Did words mean nothing? Still, Michael had to go through the motions as the Right Hand of God.

“I’m sure you’re right” Mike said, closing off his mind so God wouldn’t be able to see him mentally sticking out his imaginary tongue, which of course never worked. “He’s racing along a desert floor at nearly 150 miles an hour Lord, on two wheels if you please! If you want him alive I’d suggest we do something to slow him down a bit or you risk having to sponsor a miracle and have hundreds of thousands flock to the site where St Ron the Biker was reassembled by an unseen force after having been exploded into a million pieces in a horrible motorcycle accident!”

God smiled in His Doctor Phil way. “Ever the drama queen eh Mikey? It’s not all that serious I’m sure, he’s a very capable lad in spite of his self image; but you’re right in the end, we really should slow him down a bit. What would you do if you were me?”

“I’ve always liked lightening the best.”

God laughed. It’s a perfectly sunny day sir, he’d know something was up for sure. Try again!”

“No really” Michael insisted; “move in some clouds, a little wind, you know with a bunch of cool little sand dervishes, and then a bolt, a jolt and a downpour. I guarantee you he’ll stop in his tracks and look for shelter.”

“This is why I get the big bucks and you’re in the jump seat” God said while scruffing the Archangel’s hair. “If I make it rain it may well cause a flood which he’d never avoid in that topography. If not a flood, he’s just stubborn enough to try and race the clouds to the next town, putting him in more jeopardy than he’s already in. And lastly, if nothing else he would be soaked, probably catch a cold which would turn into pneumonia and kill him for sure. No Michael, thanks for playing but I have a better idea.”

“And what’s that Lord?”

“Pocket Gophers.”

It took a few downbeats before the scourge of Satan could recover his wits. “Huh?” he asked, his eyes growing ever larger in their sockets. “Pocket gophers?”

“You just watch and learn O favorite of mine” God said, and turned His All Powerful attentions toward the planet in question.

(End dream sequence)

I’d found a perfect rhythm in the oscillations of man and machine. One mile an hour faster and the package we were began to vibrate enough that I couldn’t see anything in less than quadruplicate. One mile an hour less and I felt as if I were crawling along at 100 some, probably never to reach my destination before another full turning of the earth and its moon. And then, the critter!!!

It was like someone with a big charcoal pencil had drawn a line across the road… ZING! and then it was gone, erased as fast as it was created. I tried to concentrate, to focus, to zoom to the nth magnification so as to see whatever it was coming in time to identify its name and source. Then another ran before me, this one left to right as if it knew I’d already seen a right to left and wanted to make sure I couldn’t anticipate. I still hadn’t really gotten a clear view of just what was streaking across my horizon so I slowed down just a smidge into cruising range, about a hundred three. Finally I was able to make my brain read the visual imagery in slo motion, and watched as tiny little feet carried a tiny little body with a tiny little nubbin tail at light speed across the big bad parking lot that stretched from one state to another.

I smiled. “How cute” I thought; “God’s sent me little pocket gophers to watch so I don’t get bored and fall asleep at the speed of sound.” I’d barely gotten the last word of that thought past my mind’s eye when the road was smothered in pocket gopher; a hundred, nay a thousand of the freakin dirt rats zipping across the highway Willie Nilly, as if some master rodent trainers named Sigfrat and Roy had been waiting along both sides of the road with miles long cages full of field mice after having spread the tarmac with cricket butter, sending the critters into a dancing frenzy.

My first thought was that of a chunk of flaming metal hurtling toward the sun, my shredding carcass attached to its back, once having smashed to the ground in a heap after having run over a dozen rats and slipping on gopher goo. Somehow I was able to slow the bike enough to catch my breath before I’d actually made purchase with one of the little angels, skidding my rear tire at least a few feet to its left in the process. I slowed to well below the speed limit for the few miles I had to go before I’d found the boundary of Pocket-Gophertopia. From there on the only things that raced across the road were lifeless; a windblown beer bottle or a piece of junk mail passing through on its way to the great compost heap in the sky.

An hour later I was within sight of Shiprock, my target for the night. Just before slipping into town I was stopped by a local gendarme, looking for a local revenue enhancement no doubt. He ticketed me for 57 in a 55, and all I could do was smile at him. He asked me before he waved me off what I’d found so funny.

“Pocket Gophers” I said.

He shook his head. If he’d only known.

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