Ironically, just days before my rollover in the river bottom (video and story here), I had written a short story about another near-death experience involving another motorized means of transportation.
The recent writing made my Nebraska experience all the more eerie and all the more fascinating. Now I had recent visuals and sounds in my head to make the memory I’d written all the more vivid.
The story is called: Three Fools, a Giant, and the Road
The leftover green hunk of Korean War metal has no business in the desert. And I have no business driving it.
The two and a half ton army surplus truck is two and a half times my age. Some fool thought it was a good idea to strap a giant plastic tank on the back of the bulky green giant and use it to haul water. Some other fool figured it would be perfect for dragging water over a stubborn track called Bloody Basin Road. And a third fool handed me the keys.
Bloody Basin Road lies remote and baked to a crisp in the Arizona sun. Most people would look at Bloody Basin and say it’s a dirt road. I disagree. I say it’s paved. And by paved, I mean a century and a half of monsoon rains have washed all the dirt from between the rocks. It’s a six-foot wide shale and basalt path with potholes where the dirt used be. Not a dirt road.
Bloody Basin doesn’t like trespassers. It’s the kind of road that sits on its front porch with a shotgun in its lap; who looks too old to care but if you disrespect him he’ll pull the gun to his shoulder and fire off a few rounds at your feet yelling, ‘Dance, monkey, dance!’ Bloody Basin has a mean streak. You want to date his daughter, you better learn the lead waltz.
It’s a misunderstood road, really. The sheer cliffs, and narrow passes, and steep grades. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone. It just wants respect.
But if you tread lightly and learn the rhythm of it’s cruel music and dodge and turn in all the right places, Bloody Basin Road will let you get where you want to go. It’s a misunderstood road, really. The sheer cliffs, and narrow passes, and steep grades. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone. It just wants respect. But Bloody Basin doesn’t know its own strength. Lack of companionship has twisted the road into an antisocial mess. Sometimes there are accidents.
So due to the wisdom of three fools, I hoist myself up into the cab of the old giant. I give the green metal dash a reassuring pat. Chalky paint comes off on my fingers. Perfect. I push the key in and turn it half way. It’s a diesel so you have to wait for the glow plugs before it’ll fire.
The cab is like the sophisticated apartment of a bachelor friend who is a architect. It’s minimal. It’s functional. And it’s completely unfit for human habitation. You go over there and you can’t figure out the strange brain puzzle on his coffee table and then he tells you that’s a fancy drink coaster. And you’re sitting on some kind of sustainable sofa that wouldn’t pass for lawn furniture in most places. Everything’s unfamiliar and your mind retreats into itself in a desperate search for meaning. You start having thoughts like: Gee, this bamboo mat smells funny. I wonder if pandas like bamboo because they’re attracted to the smell. I wonder if bamboo knows it’s standing out there in the woods wearing panda perfume. Your bachelor friend’s sophisticated apartment totally messes with your head.
The cab of the truck feels like that. Hard seat without a stitch of padding. Manual windshield wipers. A massive steering wheel that serves two functions: A lever to wrench the front tires left and right and your only way to keep your seat once the bucking starts. The only nod to creature comforts is the climate control system — a handy lever on the door allows you to roll the window up or down to suit your needs. Pandas aren’t the only things that eat bamboo. Some people put it in soup. Bamboo could never seduce me. No matter how sexy it tries to smell. The mind retreats from discomfort.
Glow plug’s probably ready. No way to tell for sure, because there aren’t any dash lights. I wipe my sweaty, chalky fingers on my jeans. I’d like to stop my mind’s weird bamboo fantasy so I throw all my weight onto the clutch and twist the key.
The giant gives two sleepy coughs then roars awake. The old road with the gun on his lap interprets the noise as a challenge. A signal of disrespect. The giant and the road renew their feud. And due to the wisdom of three fools, I’m pitting these enemies against each other for my own gain. And I keep thinking about sex and bamboo.
The 2.5 ton truck doesn’t know how to handle the road. It pulls too fast on the downhills and sputters too loudly on the ups. And it doesn’t understand the meaning of a clutch. We mist work together if we want to best the road. I stand up in my seat and jam the pedal to the floor but the gears still grind. The weight of the 4,500 gallons of water strapped to the bed taxes the breaks on the downs and the diesel on the ups.
The giant doesn’t get how dangerous it is for me to upshift on a hill with the gears sticking and the potholes throwing me all over the cab like a bundle of rags. The Korean War surplus giant is an old dog. I can’t teach it how to dance.
Bloody Basin Road loves every minute. Dance, monkeys. Dance.
What looks like a soft landing at this height would be death and the first sparks of a brush fire.
Worst of all, I can’t see. The road is narrow where it was cut from the mountain. On the right, shale jabs with dagger-sharp edges at the tires. On the left, a cliff. From 30 feet above, sage and mesquite lie like dusty Sirens. What looks like a soft landing at this height would be death and the first sparks of a brush fire. I need to hug the right and get inches from the rocks. There is no room for mistake. Bloody Basin demands we perform a delicate waltz, but the giant lumbers and shakes. And it’s got blind spots the size of two sexy bamboo sofas. Again with the bamboo.
I’m blind and the truck is dumb. We’re slamming down into the potholes and bunny hopping out. Knuckles white on the wheel. I’m half standing in my seat leaning my weight first on the clutch and then on the break as I downshift the diesel.
We roll too fast down the crest of a hill. Finally, I stop thinking about bamboo and pandas and sexy sofas. My mind gets grabbed by the scruff of the neck and pulled clawing into the glare of the present. We’re going down. Too fast. Too heavy. A rock lifts the left front tire and turns it. I feel the sinking weightlessness; the final ride gravity permits so you taste freedom for a slow and blissful moment before it grabs your floating body by the ankles whips you down for a fatal blow. A final sleep on a bed of sage.
The truck will roll. The cab will crumple. The water will quench the prickly pear and catclaw and the blood will paint the sand of the dry wash red. Nature will drink and friends will, too. We will all burn.
But don’t blame the road. It doesn’t know its strength. Accidents happen. It only wants respect. Blame the fools. Blame the giant. Pity the one forced to profit from the war of old enemies. Pity me. Blame the fools. Don’t blame the road. It’s stronger than it knows.
All this will happen. The truck will roll. The cab will crumple. The water and the blood will nourish the sand of the dry wash and we will burn.
But not today. I know how to dance.
I turn the wheel left; toward the danger to avoid the danger. Only a dancer knows that move. My shoulder hits the crank of the climate control system and makes my arm tingle. My hat flies off my head and out the window. The truck rolls to the bottom of the wash and learns the meaning of the break pedal.
I pull the gearshift into neutral and sit and stare at the long green hood of the truck. I rake my fingers across the dash. Chalky paint covers my fingers and the texture gives me goosebumps. We were going too fast. Now the dust of our deadly dance swirls past us and out into in the sun. If the diesel weren’t so loud, I could hear my heart. I can feel it. That’s enough. A deep breath in. Another. The dust smells good. Smells like life.
I pull the emergency break lever. Such a well-designed lever. So perfectly placed. It fits the hand so nicely. I swing the door open and hop down to get my hat. My boots hit the ground with just the right amount of force. Gravity lets me off with a warning. The fools seem smart. The giant learns to break. The wash and the prickly pear and catclaw won’t drink. Neither will friends. We will not burn.
The road loves every minute.
It doesn’t know its strength.