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True Stories by Steve Keely
Hobo Memoirs


Summer ‘04

‘You can’t escape!’ My neighbor, TJ, whistles through the last two teeth. ‘Sand Valley is locked in.’

‘I don’t’ understand…there’s been no rain.’

‘It don’t matter!’

Scorpion’s Crotch is my 10-acre spread in a hot basin called Sand Valley adjacent to others like it. They are divided by 1000’ mountain sprouting Ocotillo. Dry washes claw their foothills, break them in spots – between Scorpion’s Crotch and the Cocoa Mt. Bombing Range – in biannual cloudbursts. Cloudburst! Dream of the desert… The thirsty washes brim and fugitive streams cleave the access track into Sand Valley. We marooned ten represent a desiccated Gilligan’s Island crew. We kill time for County maintenance to clean the road like we wait for Jesus. Or, more likely, if T.J. has gas and is chipper, he clears the track with his ’47 scraper for the breakout.

Yet there has been no rain to block us in.

An earlier resolution in ’Baptism by Sun’ offered a personal vow to weather one summer to gain Valley residence status. That bet ends October 1, 2004, days away.

It sweltered all summer. There was no customary cloudburst, and mortals dropped like dried cacti. One hot September day, TJ threw back his head and howled, ‘Kilroy was here!’ after his cat, chicken and turkey succumbed, and he watched me turn white. You recall in the follow-up story ‘Sun Dog’ that good neighbor Old Pete turned toes up that day. Laura, TJ’s wife, thinking I was next, went for a cold drink.

Soon the late September nights give a hint of chill as my term’s end, October 1, approaches. This is the story from inside the trap since we lost contact.

The Visits

July 1, 2004 is the first summer night in the Valley. I swing open the White Ford door - not outside the basin for TJ has just informed there’s no escape - but step onto sandy Scorpion’s Crotch. A giant, black hand walks in the moonlight - tarantula – performing useful chores like the ‘Addam’s Family’ Thing. I don’t pick it up; there’ll be more. A blanket of stars precedes the coyotes’ call by the time my head is in and out a dozen books. I’m trapped, but convince myself that this is the Good Life with literature, a year’s cache of water and food, and an outdoor couch for sleep.

It’s funny how one falls into a comfortable routine when the heat’s on. The best things in life, goes the saw, are nearest and more so in the desert. Sun on your face, heartbeat, sweat drops, and sand underfoot. Once a week an errant vehicle jiggles by my place, but I duck. Months fly.

When you need more, the neighbor is a mile down the road. However, this bowl of misanthropes requires a pretext to call. TJ drives up today as I clean the yard. ‘Barefoot!’ He yells like the Drill Instructor he’d been. It triggered something inside. ‘Don’t go barefoot in the yard!’ He paled and shook his head side-to-side like a sheep with ear mites. ‘Baaad!’ and he almost walked into the fence.

‘I got some horse tradin’ to do,’ he recovered quickly. What little green in the Valley goes for parts and gas, so we barter. He wants to swap trailer wheels. ‘Mine for yours if you pull the wheels, an’ I’ll throw in a dozen ammo cans.’ That’s rusty hell, but an hour later I enter his cut-down VW with the trailer wheels and we rattle off to pick up my end.

Wife Laura appears like a bright segment from a circle of chickens, dogs and cats, ‘Hi, George. What’s up?’ They call me that because someone else is Bo. ‘Your husband’s nose looks like it rolled off a buffalo nickel. He drove up and my bare feet must have made his erection. He bleated ‘Baad’ like a sheep and walked into the fence. Broke his nose!’ She winks, ‘I know that about him all the time.’

The compound, critter smelly and raucous, urges me out. ‘You’re nuts,’ they offer with a ride that I snort off, ‘It’s a day for a poet or a walker.’ She fills my daypack with potatoes. “Maybe that’ll last ya till the road opens.’ Her husband promises to drop the rest off at sundown. A three-hour path winds along the hills dividing the Bombing Range and basin and is cooler. I pick up WWII shells where General George Patton’s troops practiced and put them under my hat.

Nearing my place, a red helicopter rises two miles in the south from Military Corner, circles twice over Freedom Village, once above Scorpion’s Crotch, and zips three miles north to loop the Quick’s homestead. There are four desert salvage laws: From abandoned homesteads is legal; From the Range for recyclable metal is illegal but common; Military material is tolerated if one isn’t caught or greedy; From a neighbor is grievously punished.

‘That red copter was Navy Intelligence,’ TJ reports the following afternoon in dropping the wheels and cans. ‘Oxymorons! Lookin’ for greedy thieves.’ The 30mm ammo tins will be new homes to discs, food, and bolts. ‘They sell for $5 on the Net,’ I say, and he leaves in a huff.

Weeks later, a chance event provides an excuse for a second visit to Freedom Village. My vision is funny these days, thought it the 120’s temps, but trace the cause to a barrel for the morning face wash. A clever system of slanted roofs and hoses catches and carries rain to the barrel. Itchy eyed, I climb the roof and spot bird poop all over. Back inside the trailer, I dab the red lids with alcohol and hop madly for the uncorked water jug. I tip it on my face - stings like heck. Surely they’ll like this story.

‘And then,’ I complete the sketch at Freedom Village, ‘I peeped into the gallon jug. Red ants!... Rafts of bridging dozens. Now I see better,’ and when I clout my head to prove it, Laura sniffs, ‘The time you drank the dissolved mouse was better.’ ‘I agree,’ says TJ. ‘Swallered all but the paws and tail, an’ ya couldn’t vomit.’

‘I’m here for a hand,’ I switch the topic. ‘I need a set of steps for my burrow.’ ‘There’s a stairway at the dead mortician’s cabin leading to the second story,’ offers Laura.

‘Damn,’ intones TJ as we strike the open desert in his Star Wars Buggy. ‘Ain’t been near his place in forty years.’ In the late ‘60’s, he’d landed as a peach-faced recruit at the Cocoa Mt. Gunnery Range a few miles over our shoulders. ‘I set down in this Valley, shook my sorry head and cried, ‘What am I doin’ in this hell hole!’ But ya know… it grew on me.’ The Bug squeezes between a sagging cabin and a 60’s Chevy mired to the fenders in sand.

‘Bob was an original resident and real cut-up. Had an L.A. doll out for weekend romps, but I never saw her.’ He brightens. ‘But I recall somethin’ good,’ and he waves a bony hand over photos of naked girls ‘she lacked’ and peeling at the corners on the Chevy dash. We gawk some, then look up. There’s no trace of a road anywhere.

A major era of Sand Valley history began in the 1960’s when old man Shofeld purchased half the basin with the dream of a fortune in Jojoba. The soil and climate were ideal for the tall, waxy-leaved bush with beans that burn well in diesel motors. Tests demonstrated that Jojoba fueled motors spewed fewer pollutants with better mileage and ran longer than on regular diesel. The entrepreneur foresaw the 1973 fuel crisis, though now Jojoba grows wild and fertilized by his ashes. The crisis was solved by other alternatives. Shofeld rebounded by dealing 10-40 acre parcels to dozens of immigrants on a promise the old man kept as long as he lived of ‘good roads an’ good water for good people’. Most arrivals were like me – Scorpion’s Crotch is a former Shofeld hold – who wished a Good Life by their own definition without interference. Many in those days scrapped the Range for homestead materials and for bomb fins as recyclables. The mortician and a few others used the Valley solely as a winter retreat. All but a few of the pioneers have passed on.

‘Looky here,’ he points to a concrete footing engraved ‘Bob and Lily. 1974.’ ‘Bet she was a live one!’ The cabin is two tiers with broken stained glass windows and a white picket fence with few more teeth than my partner’s mouth. A small wash has meandered through the living room. ‘It’s a cryin’ shame!’ he yowls as I round a corner to the staircase, a 10’-long heavy wooden affair. We hump and lay it across the Bug back. The key’s turned and we angle across the hardpan to my place.

TJ fills every quiet moment like a reverse shell shock that he waters with coffee and cigarettes. ‘George,’ he starts. I watch the working stubbled jaw, ciggie in the corner, and face lined by three tours of Viet Nam plus eight years in the Justice Department fighting the drug wars in South America, Africa and USA.

‘There ain’t no sanctity of life!’ he clutches the wheel. ‘If one man kills another, he deserves to die. If someone rapes a child, take him outside the court and shoot him. Drug dealers should be nailed to the courthouse wall. If you shoot a thief in your doorway, make damn sure he falls into your house.’ The Bug churns sand for fifteen minutes to my property line.

‘Thanks,’ I look up the stairs. ‘Now I got a way out of this hole.’ ‘That’s fine, George. Call anytime.’ He drives off and I work the stairs into place. The burrow now admits sunshine, air and me. I hardly glance through the periscope on writing days.

The Routine

‘What goes on out there?’ people ask.

The Range rages but a few hours per week. The neighbors stop by infrequently… You start to feel alone. Time stands still in Sand Valley while outside the world is trapped in an on-going history. We can’t escape and it can’t invade till the County or TJ clears the access track.

Each day’s plan is prepared walking barefoot in the sandy yard and chewing shredded wheat with a dozen squirrels in tow. The Right Formula is my key to every endeavor from school, athletics, business, and writing to desert living. The secret out here is to alternate outdoor projects and writing in order to dip in-and-out of the sun. There’s a trip to the propane frig every thirty minutes for a daily total of three gallons of fluid (water, soymilk, tomato juice, Kern’s fruit juices, Hansen’s sodas and Gatorade). Day’s end brings a sunset walk, supper and a good book before the pillow.

Projects unwind like knots in dry string. The isolation gives focus on priority tasks and the time to knock ‘em off: Bury the DC electric wires, repair the fence, dig a water catch, two hour blocks of writing. In addition, I unbox and shelve books on the loft library that will weight the semi-van during wind gusts. Four hundred titles fall onto one of three shelves: Read soon, Read later, and Have read – Give Way. A 1902 edition of ‘The Works of Robert Louis Stevenson’ in a leather cover reveals a surprising inscription, ‘Merry Christmas to Ivy’s mother (my great grandmother), from Rolla Calloway.’ Under the loft, it takes a month to organize the ‘Catman’ autobiographical materials - journals, stories and articles - into folders that stack flat to 40’ that I look over with a Cheshire smile.

The sun strikes four solar panels to power the home including a laptop computer and upside-down monitor. Like desert autos, I bought three of one year’s model – Compaq – at Ebay to own spares and parts so there’s no need after a breakdown to drive 90 minutes to town. I pop open a fresh Compaq to find a file left by the former owner: ‘Same as it ever was.’

One morning I rise to no chipmunks.
Diamondbacks are the largest western rattlesnakes and run 4-5’ long in this Valley with heavy tan bodies lined by dark diamonds that taper to white rattles. Ma Quick, who lives up the hill, says one day one crawled in Boy Quick’s crib; he’s now a man who chops off their heads and wears a long rattle necklace. Young rattlesnakes are more likely to deliver a full load of venom but their teeth are smaller, and if you ever listen to an adult hyperventilate like billows close up and spot the fangs, you’ll prefer the young. I’ve encountered about twenty adults in the Valley but none has been aggressive. I typically sit six feet away –beyond striking distance – till they stop rattling and crawl off.
I type these very words this morning when after a period my eye catches a black-and-white barber pole tail projecting from the trailer step. It’s a Coontail Rattler (Western Diamondback)! My bare footprints lay about it. It’s a 12”-long juvenile as thin as a marker with chocolate diamonds except for an enormous blip at mid-section where he’s swallowed a mouse. The skull and hind-legs of the hours-old meal poke comically but nearly through the skin. The teeny tail vibrates but there has been no shed hence no rattles; still the venom is potent. I fetch boots, two sticks, and a coffee can. I place it gently in the can with cover and transport him to the exposed roots of an Ironwood a half-mile away where he sticks out his tongue and waddles into the roots. I think I could have trained him to do a couple tricks and to chase the sheriff away. Diamondbacks give birth in late summer to up to 25 babies, and I return home expecting further company and shaking my head, ‘Baaad!’

The Hikes

A desert forest corridor passes Scorpion’s Crotch as the major drainage from the Coco Mt. Gunnery Range into Sand Valley. I walk it daily for exercise with ankle weights that double as snake socks. Military copters and jets enter low the bombing range above me. The pilots’ view of the forest is as sunken, white sand sidewalks each fringed green by Smoke Tree, Ironwood and Palo Verde. These washes, noisy with water only in rare cloudbursts, interweave, lose altitude, and tumble history twenty miles southeast clean to the Colorado River. Tens of thousands of soldiers shot an estimated one million bullets on the 1940’s Gunnery Range when General Patton called it the Desert Training Center for GI’s to adjust to the harsh climate before shipping to the Sahara. If only 1% of the spent shells have tumbled from the higher basin Range along the wash to Sand Valley, it’s little wonder I find a fresh one on each walk.

A tarantula steps lively in a sandy wash on a morning walk. I kneel like Mr. Muffet and he wheels toward me. The venom would be relatively mild but the fangs sharp. I plant a hand in the path that he touches with two front feet. He rears nervously to unsheathe ½’’ fangs with all eight eyes on me, I suppose. We part ways.

Eurypelma californicum in this basin have 5” bodies including long, hairy legs that can do pushups on a Starbuck’s lip. The tarantula chases prey. The males migrate and mate in the fall. Incubation takes two months and 500-1000 young pop out. Males are black, comely and gangly; females are brown and stubbier.

It’s long miles on long legs in the name of libido. The male doesn’t survive after the summer session. The female eats him after mating, or he’s taken by another predator. My first girlfriend was nicknamed Clutch and after months of dating I found out why. The sex was fantastic. ‘Thank you,’ I spurt like a hick after the first time. ‘Don’t ever thank me for that!,’ She bit hard. That’s world evolution too.

I’ve heard that at any moment there’s a spider within 12” of you, and further that everyone swallows one in a lifetime. I saw my first tarantula a number of years ago while jogging with Leonard Alvori in California’s Black Canyon. He leaped up and almost bowled me off a cliff shouting, ‘They jump six feet!’ It was Eurypelma californicum - the big desert tarantula. I dashed to camp for an empty milk crate and that was the grand opening of a Tarantula Hotel. Eventually Terry, Theodore, Thomas… and Harold crawled around individual rooms like truck drivers’ hands eating crickets. Harold looked real but was rubber and mounted on a spring that released and he flew up and out the Hotel. “Harold is particularly interesting because…’ and he sprang into the mark’s shoulder or lodged in long hair. You can’t pay enough for a good scare like that. Hash marks on the Hotel wall counted into the hundreds until the house I lived in burned to the ground taking the Hotel.

The delicate balance of justice tips in the desert. Tarantula Hawks (Pepsis) are everywhere in the air. Each flies like a lumbering hummingbird but is truly a giant (3’’) metallic-blue wasp with orange wings. One ignores me but is hell on tarantulas. She will find one, flip it on the back, sting between the legs, and drag it alive but paralyzed to a hole. Everything I’ve read states that the spider remains comatose for life. She lays a single egg on its abdomen, and the larva eats straight out of Edgar Allen Poe. The spider’s insides vanish along with any thought of a congenial god. Once grown, the Pepsis makes a lovely albeit flight-challenged drunk after consuming fermented fruit. You can throw a pillowcase over a Tarantula Hawk in the desert or buy her dead and framed on the Net for $100.

One day, I glance over my shoulder with a restless thought, ‘Something tracks me.’ I want to believe that man reacts thoughtfully rather than mechanically during every waking hour. That we have or can achieve conscious awareness and active reflexes. Yet intuition turned me – I know no other explanation. I spin to behold a large wolf at fifty yards leering at me. His pink and long tongue may be trailing me to water.

Later Laura would confirm, ‘Yep. It’s a wolf! Several years ago the BLM released eight Mexican Gray Wolves to get ‘em to populate the Valley. It didn’t happen cuz they got hungry an’ took people’s pets. Mr. Johnson lost his favorite cat so he shot the wolf when it came back, and took the pelt to the BLM. They fined and threw him in jail. Now folks just shoot and keep their mouths shut. One wolf carried off my chicken an’ I shot him in the nuts. Bled a trail, that’s all. He’ll never populate our Valley. Did the one that sneaked on you have nuts?’

After the return hike, I pour an ice water puddle on a board and sit bare-bottomed sipping Gatorade from a 50 mm brass goblet. Refill. It’s a WWII tank shell stamped ‘1943’ on the bottom. Refill. 6”-long and 1 1/2” diameter, it holds one shot. Refill. General George Patton may have fired it himself. Refill. I salute them sixty years later.

The Nights
A red sunset. I putter as the light wanes, and don a weighted vest cooked up from a life jacket with sandbags replacing the foam. An hour after a hike, pasta slides down for the fourth straight week and I sip at a dwindling drinking water stock.

Books are best friends in the wilderness. I climb a ladder to the loft library where a stovepipe from beneath the semi-van shunts cooled air up into an 8’square foot reading room where a captain’s chain beneath a 12V light is my seat for the next two hours. Chapter-by-chapter the night cools to comfort. I read mainly for information, rarely for pleasure, and secondarily for inspiration. Two titles during the past week have inspired me in opposite directions after the Valley getaway: Leonard Clarke’s ‘The Marching Wind’, a wild 1948 Tibetian search for Anne Machin, the world’s tallest peak, the author avows; and Neeli Cherkovski’s rollicking biography of ‘Charles Bukowski’. Nightly the two authors shuttle me between adventure and journalism.

Tonight there’s a visitor, the world’s greatest predator after the big cats, a 3’’ praying mantis. Drawn by the light it knows will bring supper, It jumps from the captain’s chair to my shoulder. I adjust the light to better inspect him. He rotates his triangle head 160-degrees to peer at my face with big eyes. Adult males often fly to porch lights in late fall and some farmers even buy them as pest controllers. They feed on crickets, moths, grasshoppers, flies, occasional hummingbirds and, tonight, a moth. The strategy is to lay in wait like a stick. The front legs offer a prayer until the prey nears and – I blink – he sprints down my arm and grabs a moth on my wrist. I drop the book and readjust the light. Popeye front legs unfold spikes that skewer and hold high at arms length the 2’’ moth. I lift a magnifying lens that’s always near. A ten minute hideous feast begins as the Mantid bites the head off the moth and chews until the thrashing victim dies. He progresses daintily, and with clear relish, holding and eating down the body like a hot dog. At the end, four wings and six legs blow off my wrist. The Mantid prays there until I jiggle it off. You can buy them on the Net for $20 or linger under a light.

A waterbed I’ve dragged around the country for thirty years seems incongruent but does store 1000-gallons of emergency water in the desert. It’s sits high on a five-foot platform above the desert floor of snakes and scorpions. The mattress retains the day’s heat for a warm, secure sleep. Tonight in a dreamless state I don’t hear a wind gust and the wire break and the hinges creek… Down crashes a wood 100-lb. cover. I indent like a flat man in a swimming pool leapt on by a fat lady, and chuckle with a bruised nose. Baaad!.

I remember the fateful night three months ago that sprung the trap in Sand Valley. I sat in the captain’s chair as usual reading Leonard Clarke’s ‘The Marching Wind’. The wind howled but my nose stuck in the book where the same was occurring in Tibet. A midnight strobe flashed into the trailer window and I leaped to the door. Outside, Scorpion’s Crotch had seemingly elevated into black clouds. With a leap I could touch them. The trailer groaned at the tie-stakes, lightning lit the semi-van repeatedly, and the iron 15’ spiral staircase is the Valley lightning rod. I ran away in the black and white-white-white with lightning bursts every few seconds.

Yet there was no rain. I gazed skyward at the meteorological event. Thick black clouds with fighting lightning rolled from the west only to evaporate continuously on the hot mountains ringing the Valley. A quiet hole arose within the circle pricked by stars while around it fumed. I paused in a wash full of tall, dense Ironwoods for breath, and then jogged up and out. Ozone made me dizzy. Thirty minutes later, I staggered back to the trailer and resumed Clarke’s ‘The Marching Wind’ that overshadowed my midnight.

‘You can’t escape!’ TJ broadcast the morning after the storm. I hadn’t understood. ‘It didn’t rain in the Valley,’ he pressed, ‘But the road is cross-cut up to pieces. Everybody is trapped!’

Three months passed and I learned a bit about the hourglass.

The Dinner

A bright October morning dawns and TJ drives up beaming. ‘It didn’t rain in the Valley three months ago,’ he finally continues today, ’But it poured all around it. Hundreds of little washes in higher basins joined bigger washes until… Most people didn’t know what hit us. Flashfloods! The road out was gorged up to my truck hood. Everybody got blocked!’ My smile broadens. ‘Tomorrow I grade the road. We’re free!’

The next day, while excavating the burrow ten feet under, I hear a motor. I throw some dirt out and TJ responds, ‘I got two things to say, George, wherever you are.’ First, there’s Snow White King crab waiting for you at my place. Second, I need $50 to scrape the road.’ Both are unprecedented invitations. I climb from the pit but oddly he steps back. ‘I got everybody by the short hairs,’ he barks. ‘An I’m pullin’ till people appreciate the scrapin’. ’He raises a right boot to show a rectangle where the hot gas pedal melted deep the sole. I wheedle him as we enter the vehicle to $25 since I use the road less.

The black bug bumps south for ten minutes. A ghoul in the big.side-mirror stares at me: I’m dusted white head-to-toe with webs of blood from cuts. My hair spikes out electrically. ‘Nobody can get out for water and food, if you catch my drift,’ he yells above the engine. ‘I collected money from everyone and bought King Crab. It cost $13 per pound with the shell - twice as much as steak. I can’t stand the smell, but Laura loves it an’ I love her, and she don’t want to eat alone, so here we are.’

TJ’s 40-acre rancho is more cluttered and therefore more valuable than most. A graveyard of rusting Volkswagens sits behind the living circle of trailers and tin shader. A Tijuana Taxi with black-and-green checkerboard paint is the main eye catcher. The VW craze waned in California three decades ago, so this vintage fleet came cheap and in non-running order.. The two shade-cactus mechanics have kept greasy evenings banging together a few working Road Warrior buggies. Tools are too hot to touch in day hours. A body here, a front end there, plus - a la Mr. Potato Man - a motor. These Baja Bugs are perfect rides with fat tires and rear engine traction through the desert.

‘You got water!’ Laura greets on seeing my splattered skin. Water is the local word for blood.

‘Want a soda?’ she offers. ‘Anything cold,’ I answer.

‘The Preacher’s dead.’ gulps TJ.
I saw him only once, bent and graying hair over a smile. The Valley is cross-cut by washes and trimmed by low brush atop a ring of bleaching hills. It’s a magnifying glass in the summer. One access road saws a diameter line while lesser tracks from dragged bedsprings feed to the residents’ trailers. TJ understands the area like the back of his hand, and is sought by he sheriff, border patrol, military or coroner as a guide.
‘His body rotted in the trailer for two months before someone drove near enough to get a whiff,’ clarifies TJ. ‘My God, we got to the gate and the stench gagged me! I raised my palm and said, ‘Coroner, I’ll pass,’ and about-faced. He gets paid for that sort of thing.’
‘The heat got him about the same time as Old Pete,’ estimates Laura. The sun twists your arm for years, bones to the scavengers, and tears dry fast. ‘He wasn’t a real preacher; only quoted the Bible to support thievery,’ she claims. ‘He done some good things too,’ closes T.J.

Thirty-five cats yawn and fifty chickens peck in the dust under the shader, ringed by ten napping dogs on break-away chains. ‘Here’s the crab!’ She drags a garbage bag with legs protruding and plops it on a big wood spool.

Each of the ninety-five animals was born, named, and formed a personality under the Union Jack flag that reaches from the shader to the sky. All - great and small on any number of legs - harmonize except when food hits the scene. Then the cats are trained to stare from nose distance, the dogs are tied, but the chickens and wife jump for it. There’s no grace as jets zoom overhead.

‘Fire! I smell smoke!’ screams Laura. ‘I don”t smell nothin” but crab, grumbles TJ. She sprints downwind toward the Range, and I the other way toward my place. ‘It isn’t the bombing range.’ ‘It ain’t your place.’ Shortly, TJ detects smoke through the trailer window where a wastebasket burns from a discarded cigarette. ‘It don’t matter if it was yours or mine,’ he says setting the basket downwind. ‘Let’s give thanks with cigarettes for the stinkin’ crab an’ that the trailer didn’t burn down.’ They light up.

‘Is everybody ready for white King Crab from the Bering Sea?’ she rallies. ‘Just eat the scavengers to celebrate the Valley opening,’ he turns to whittle. ‘I kin tell you ain’t eaten crab by your eyes. Foller my lead,’ she coaches like Granny of the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’. ‘Crack, sniff, pull an’ eat.’ I’m all thumbs. ‘Say and do after me. If the meat’s got slime from sittin’ in the heat toss it to the critters.’ Feathers and claws fly.

‘Look who got loose!’ she grins. ‘Tuffy!’ TJ chimes turning around. It’s the most forlorn, ancient hound I’ve seen. Fleas wouldn’t bother. ‘He broke away!’ She says lifting a broken coat hanger link in the otherwise strong chain. ‘In case of an intruder,’ explains TJ. Tuffy was born seventeen years ago under the flag when the couple first drove a beat-up truck here with a sack of dog food, bag of beans, and ran out of gas. ‘He’s seen no other life,’ she whines. ‘He was king of the circle,’ he snaps. Today Tuffy smelled our breath and had bare strength to drag a ten-foot chain.

‘I love that hound,’ TJ sobs. Mange gazes fondly up at the old master. “He’s deaf, you know,’ she claims. TJ lifts a floppy ear and shouts, ‘Asshole!’ Tuffy grins. ‘See!’ she says handing me crab. ‘But listen,’ he whispers. ‘There weren’t an animal nor man that messed with young Tuffy.’ He stands and glowers at his wife, ‘He bit me in the hip an’ I lost water.’ She rolls a fist at him, ‘He got me in the hand an’ it hurt terrible.’ ‘All he’s got left is teeth,’ says TJ enviously. The dog is drawn from worms and stoops from plugged kidneys. ‘He ruled Freedom Village for years,’ asserts Laura, ‘but wouldn’t hurt a kitten.’ ‘Throw him some crab,’ orders TJ.

What happens next I’ll not soon forget. Tuffy lies down with a crab leg between his paws and cracks the shell. A kitten approaches and eats the oozing meet between the dog’s teeth. Older cats join the kitten until Laura pulls the leash so Tuffy can eat too. ‘He wouldn’t hurt a kitten!’ they wail together.

I still shake my head. I sit between two desert wonders. To my left, a black umbrella hangs by its handle over a 100-gallon water container spigot catching drops in this upside-down world. To the right is Wolfman, a life-size stuffed creation with a mask and empty whisky jug in his lap. I must look a fright.

‘You look like the Three Stooges,’ snorts TJ. ‘The Sheriff shot Wolfman last time through,’ giggles Laura. ‘This is my silver,’ he rasps running his fingers through hundreds of rounds of.38 Special bullets overflowing an ammo can, ‘But I loaned one to the sheriff.’ ‘Careful or he’ll shoot you like the sheriff did Wolfman,’ the wife warns. ‘He missed!’ And he points to a hole in the wood ten yards away. ‘Hit the shed yonder.’ I see it went through Wolfman’s temple first.

‘We should start a Dead Pool!’ gasps TJ. ‘Yeah!’ cries aging Laura. ‘Everybody chips in ten bucks.’ ‘The first out wins,’ I blurt. All stare at the empty spool.

First old Pete and then the Preacher. ‘Ah,’ sighs TJ from deep thought. ‘A single set of tracks leads into Fat Jake’s trailer… nothing goin’ out. No one has raised him in a month. Figure him a goner and may the wind blow fair.’ On that account, the summer took from the Valley three of the ten, but added myself on a bet.

It’s been a ghastly elegant celebration and farewell. I escape that afternoon for Halloween.

There are a dozen important things you can learn from desert solitude, and a special one from being trapped. Life ha no meaning except as defined by context. If all needs are satisfied, you’re free to create value. Grasp that and you soar.

For more of Steve "Bo" Keely's writings

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