August 12, 2012 |
11. Hand from a Boxcar
Labored puffing outside the boxcar’s open door, the rasp of long, rapid footsteps on ballast. A hobo hangs from the door’s latch and can’t pull himself in, can’t let loose or will be minced by the rolling wheels. I reach down my hand and he grasps it firmly.
Washington is apple country and in season a northbound hobo is likely an apple knocker- picker. I'm on a southbound boxcar and there's a crunch, crunch, outside the moving door. It doesn't make sense and maybe I've gone soft in the head. I just chased and hopped aboard two minutes ago. Listen. A bo sleeps with his boots on and his ear near the track, can roll his bed in a minute, trot alongside his ride, toss in the roll and then raise himself. My rule of thumb after having tripped and fallen dangerously close to 3-foot cookie cutter wheels is to catch a freight on the fly only if I can run as fast as it.
Crunch!!…crunch…crunch!! The steps are further spaced as the train accelerates. A burlap sack sails through the door and bangs the far wall. Suddenly there is a scrape on the wooden floor next to me and a foot disappears out the door. Again a shoed foot enters the door, scuffs the deck and exits. A hobo is trying to catch at 20 mph.
I peek out the door and there hangs a bo on the latch. He's graying, strong and in tattered clothes, no doubt an apple knocker in trouble. The metal latch of a boxcar hangs like a 2-foot stem and bo's in days of old would grab it on steam trains and swing aboard. It required sharp timing and I've never seen the technique utilized on modern faster moving diesels freights.
A pace is reached at which it becomes perilous to let go the latch and face the ballast, and that's the fate of my peer. His strides are fifty feet long, his lungs heaving and his foot thrusts into the door shortening. In seconds he could grease the rail. He doesn't realize my presence and to pop my mug out the door might frighten him, so I make a decision.
From his perspective, a hand descends from the sky. The skin is tanned, fingers willowy and it beckons. I feel a meaty grasp as his takes mine in a death-lock. The train picks up speed.
I've traveled most the gridiron west of the Mississippi, camped the jungles. Been around the world in a boxcar, I tell folks, since that's the estimated rail mileage in some 300 rides. Though I'm just a boxcar tourist out for summer scenery and adventure, it's ironed the body.
Now a man is dangling like a scarecrow from the side of a fast freight, attached only by my hand. He's my size and I pull hard, but it's a tug-of-war as the rail joints click by. Seated, I skid along the floor toward the edge and waiting space. Then my trouser seat meets an oil spot and suddenly I slide at once.
BAM. My foot hits the door frame and braces for the final pull. Tenaciously I lift. He has blue eyes, like mine. With a heave he's in the boxcar and safe.
There are a number of unwritten rules of the steel road. First, don't steal anyone's boots. Second, look after yourself first. Third, if you're okay then give a hand to peers. Fourth, no need to speak of the obvious. Fifth, partings come easily.
The fellow crawls panting to a far corner, dragging the burlap, then sits on it in silence. We jiggle along for miles without a word. The sun sinks and still nothing, as the train passes from Washington to Oregon. Somewhere in California the freight stops and he slides out the door, shaking my hand.
I've never picked an apple, but I've picked a hobo.
12. Out of the Blue
At high noon on a clear summer day a mile above the Arizona desert a single engine Cesena drones, suddenly stalls and goes into a nose dive.
To my left my racquetball partner pilot operates the pedals and levers like a mad drummer as the G-force turns his face into a squirrel. The destination is the gamblers capital Las Vegas for a professional stop but in my heart I don’t think we´ll make the service line.
For the first time in my colorblind life I see external red, a splotch on the white desert floor. Engine out in silence except the rustle of wind over wings, and we plummet. Racquetballs, paper cups, pencils and papers fly in our faces and I am so trained that by sheer force of will the balls could fly into the cups and the pens write our fate.
My buddy´s hands and feet shake on the controls and in the flash of a tremendous exertion the flesh and steel bodies act as one. The plane flips on its back and free falls upside down toward the earth. Now the debris rains from the floor as I duck in the seatbelt to keep from hitting my head on the ceiling.
I recheck the pilot, a dentist, physician and anesthesiologist who appears unconsciousness with eyes popping out the sockets like goggles from the same G´s that pop mine. The plane free falls for twenty seconds, and then suddenly the cough of the engine, it catches, and the controls shift and the plane turns right-side up.
We fly directly forward as if nothing happened except at 1000´ lower.
The pilot glances over at me and utters, ´Everyone should face his death before it happens.´
A few years after the won tournament, the pilot in the same Cesena crashes head first at terminal velocity with propeller churning into the San Francisco bay and the cause remains a mystery to this day.
13. Bone Dry
Given last year´s last record summer daily highs of 120F or greater in the shade that dropped chickens, dogs, the great-great blind grandson of Secretariat, and killed 20% of the humans in Sand Valley, Ca., I made two little moves. Neighbor Fred had fallen out of bed with heatstroke and died of a heart attack in what California paramedics call a ´trailer wedge´ between the bed and close wall, Big Jon evaporated one day into the desert and is rumored to have buried his head unsuccessfully in the sand, and the good Reverend two months after passing to his hereafter frankly drew our noses at four miles distant. So first, I dug a cool ten-foot burrow lined with blankets and a solar panel atop to communicate with the outside world. And second, the following hot August since experiments must be conducted under the most realistic conditions I explore a pedestrian route out of Sand Valley to the nearest whistle stop Palo Verde.
I take off in reverse from Palo Verde one bright morn at 80F with a gallon jug of water in each hand, loaf of raisin bread, compass and penlight. The 30 miles overland route as the vulture flies covers animal trails, sand tracks, arroyos, and bushwhacking the Sonora. A bird mile is 1.5 walking miles in the desert. The water is rationed to the last drop on the ring of hills beneath a pink sunset where I cannot spot the trailer. I take an educated bearing toward the ring center and start downhill. Stars twinkle one-by-one into being and creatures emerge from hole homes to scamper the boulevard arroyos. My rule is that under a full moon you may see western diamondbacks and sidewinders, under a half-moon you miss the sidewinders, and under tonight´s new moon they see you first.
The night grows fascinating. A sidewinder rattles ´Hello´ on raised ‘black pavement’ above the washes where I shine the penlight only. Up and down the washes I climb for hours wishing to urinate to wet a dry tongue that threatens to clog my airway and suffocate. A stone sucked for an hour depletes the last saliva and the mouth dries like a mouse curled up and died. I collapse in oxygen debt with a wrist pulse race to 100 and little twitches take the limbs, before it occurs to me to distill water in the mouth from the air. The ambient air of about 110F is higher with more moisture than the oral cavity at 98.6F, so via a temperature gradient of fitted breathing, every fifteen minutes or so a dollop of thick saliva grows to swallow once, get up and walk for fifteen minutes, and repeat the routine. I don’t want to sleep for fear of a desert crib death.
The moon arcs and drops below the horizon, and it´s starlight reckoning until the North Star falls behind a mountain, and then the penlight batteries fail. The fear of rattlesnakes overcomes a death sleep, so I recline in a wash under an Ironwood and after distilling a swallow of saliva let myself doze. A kit fox sniffs my boot and alerts me, won´t leave for five minutes. Later a four-point buck snorts and stares down into my surprised eyes, pawing the sand. Inspired, I rise on hind legs and wander the dark in a cramped, heated shuffle for water before sunrise or I may die.
One hope centers in a rock cistern of a Louis L´Amour short story ´The Strong Shall Live´. Following an hour march up a rocky slope kit fox, deer, coyote and bird tracks circle a pothole of water from last week´s storm. I slurp a pint on all fours, pollywogs and all, and in thirty minutes feel stronger. I fill a gallon jug and descend drinking a pint every fifteen minutes until the jug empties at sunrise that reveals a familiar outcrop to point the way home. The best adventures often come from bad decisions, and the quicker we can laugh off our own folly the better we will be to face the next.
One early March I set the left boot on the Pacific Crest Trail at the Mexican border. This path runs the Sierra Nevadas for 2600 miles through California, Oregon and Washington to touch the Canadian border. The aim to hike border-to-border in one season requires starting in spring and risking snow in the Sierras. Mountain trail miles translate to bird miles at a 6:1 ratio and mid-June finds me tramping the first snowflakes outside Tahoe.
The trail has been fantastic for three months. There was a western diamondback the size of a Louisville Slugger every other day, lightning storm on a peak with a pot for a pillow, lost cowboy aboard a snow mired horse to dig out, many waterless and foodless days, and run-in with a green sheriff with an itchy trigger finger in a crossroad town who was called by a TV citizen who identified me from America´s Most Wanted as a serial killer. He saw me buy and eat Puss ´N Boots Liver and Chicken because I needed a stake, and the Sheriff ran me off with a tip to watch out for big cats, although there were only bears on trail.
I meet one hiker every other day on the PCT staggering under towering backpacks who refuse to believe I´m a through hiker lightly carrying a fanny pack. The custom waist pack is wreathed by four one-quart water bottles with a down sleeping bag slung beneath, tube tent, maps torn from an early guidebook and can opener. The gross weight sans supplies of eight pounds enables me to outdistance the classic mountain strategy of toting a 50lb pack eight mountain miles a day instead of my flying along the trail at 30 miles a day to connect extended supply and water points. My gear and the weather hold out until a June climb up Tahoe into a freak snowstorm blocks the sunset. A pine at ten paces disappears and the trail vanishes under a snow carpet. The horizon dissolves and without reference points for the compass and I am lost.
I know how To Build a Fire from Jack London´s short story, and the lost cowboy advised me of a snowstorm where he curled up like a C note with a hot cup of coffee in a blanket and waited it out. So on stumbling over a fallen tree I roll with it and make a pine bough bed and overhang. However, popsicle fingers fumble matches into the wet kindling, and as the blizzards rages the weight of snow collapses the boughs and awakens me sputtering white. The sole recourse is a prayer position in the snowstorm with sleet melting off the body and freezes into an exclamation point.
At first light I unfold into a world of white and drape the ice crisped sleeping bag over a shoulder, and aim along an easterly flank to face the sun and thread the mountains. For hours no signs protrude the fresh foot of snow, but in late afternoon a distant hum of cars draws me to a road where I hitchhike out to that hot cup of coffee.
A decade later I return to Tahoe to continue the Pacific Crest Trail and now ultra-light packing that I independently invented is the rage with trailside lodge caretakers shunning me as a weekend warrior under a 20lb knapsack, until I tell them through a crooked grin of the whiteout.
15. Mexico Scrap
A lifelong passion for hard times and scrap led me to a sunrise hunt in San Felipe Baja. A Mexican partner and I slalom a banged-up pickup past a hundred scrappers puffing behind wheelbarrows and shopping carts half-empty with knickknacks. A three-mile thick dump ring around San Felipe is picked clean by the penniless men and women except for sifted nails and bolts n fire cinders dug out on warm knees. They look up with ashen faces and would injure or steal to get what we will find.
The jalopy brims with a sunset load of two refrigerators, stove, washer, two auto gas tanks, brass fixtures, lawn chair frames, four 12v batteries, engine parts, nuts, nails and bolts, and a pail of copper wire. It waddles low on the springs through the night sifters fallen on hard times in the big dump ring, and back into town to my partner´s house. He advises me to defend the booty against thieves, waves goodnight, and goes drinking.
The spare trailer sits on an arroyo near the old cemetery where a 1972 cloudburst filled this very arroyo and floated several corpses down Main Street past the window into the ocean. I tumble into an exhausted sleep from the day´s work until… In the window, nose pressed flat, eyes ranging over my modest pad, a black face opens and shuts its mouth. I spring from bed to window, bang the glass and shout, ´Get out of here!´ The lockless trailer door creaks opens and the intruder, showing teeth, barges in rasping ´Hsst!´
I shoulder him, at once wondering at a boldness that would permit a Mexican into an alien American trailer. He either has a knife, or a cohort waiting outside. I grab his wrists to prevent reaching for the pocket, and slam him against a 2×3-foot mirror that swings open on hinges projecting dingy streetlight on his eye-popped face. He looks 25, 5'8", crew cut with black moustache, and muscled.
We struggle until he glances down at my nude body, and smiles at my lack of … shoes! I shove him out the door, and jump into Bermuda shorts. After one shoe, a thump outside and I know he is nabbing the Mag spare tire. Before the second shoe is on he vanishes into the night.
I trail the deep footsteps by penlight along the arroyo road until miraculously a police car pulls aside. ´Americano,´ I yell, ´And a moment ago a thief battled me and stole a wheel.´ ´Where is?´ asks the officer, and I point along the footprints. ´Too dark,´ asserts the officer, and leaves me to sit all night on guard the truckload with a scavenged pitchfork.
The next morning the 1200lb scrap brings a whopping $160, and my little one a few bruises.
16. King Cobra
On a deserted Sira Lanka beach a flute charmer slowly plays his 12´black king cobra out a wicker basket, its tongue flicking until it reaches my sternum. I am fatigued from the long walk in soft sand, and stroke its brow to which it nudges me affectionately like a puppy that I pet repeatedly. So, I was the first to strike and lived to walk the day.
17. Deadly Mickey
There isn´t much to this story, actually. I am slipped a Mickey or food laced with poison in a skid row room at the Los Angeles Rainbow Hotel and minutes after the person leaves descend into an abyss. It proves nothing to detail the pain and awareness. However, I am found by a housekeeper and rushed to an emergency room where a persistent fibrillator jump starts my heart 42 times before it catches and beats on its own. The doctor claims I have been brain dead for four minutes. The recovery alone makes the story warming to bystanders. There is absolute amnesia for one day, unable to remember my parents´ last name. On day two I walk into a room and cannot remember where the door is. For one month I can remember one read sentence only and gaze longingly at a book shelf. I am physically capable, and walk miles daily for three months until adding columns of numbers comes naturally. One year after the Mickey over a self-prescribed course of exercise, healthy food and good water, the recovery is complete and I adventure out again and again.
18. Six Miles of Smoke
´Railroad bulls drag hobos like you out long past lookin´ blue!’ a Grand Junction, Co. brakeman cautions gesturing grandly along the transcontinental rail toward the 6.2 mile Moffat tunnel that pierces the west flank of the Rockies. But I´m green and eager to chew up and spit out challenges, if need be, and climb aboard the only available flatcar ten stock behind six locomotives that rumble like beasts at the bit of a mile long freight.
The jiggling platform I hold down is a piggyback van mounted on a flatcar, leaning against the fat wheel, 330-degree view of life, sunshine smack in the face, thinkin´ how far, how long, and the number of ways to skin a road cat. Suddenly a mountain opens a dark mouth and swallows the piggyback at 25mph. The bore engulfs the tail of a smoke whip and reflects sparks everywhere. I yank a bandana to mask the face, choking.
Mile one into the tunnel: Smoke and noise ricochet along the shaft. Air burns. Dizzy. Mile
two: Flashbacks!- A road partner Iron Horse and I ride a boxcar into St. Louis as a white Bronco with a CB antenna keeps pace with a pistol pointing at my heart and a bull behind it yelling, ´If you have a weapon I will shoot you!´ Mile two: I slip to the rolling platform for cooler breaths but inhale only rank gas, and another memory takes hold- On a Christmas Southern Pacific from California to Texas I reach to catch a moving ladder in a rainstorm outside Yuma. The rung slips and I crash against the grain car, ricochet to the cinders and watch the cookie cutter wheels roll by my nose. Mile four: Beside myself with suffocation, I must remember or pass out. A bull tangle leads to a court date in Salt Lake City. Gizmo Kid, the founder of Linux-Care, and Colorado Casey, a gold speculator, face time in the cross-bar hotel for breaking into an automobile carrier that we didn’t enter. Gizmo, having once caught the Encyclopedia Britannica in his head, eyes the judge with his gray pate, leftover smile and a Freemason ring with a raised gavel. He flashes his honor the secret fraternal sign, and the judge pounds the gavel, ´Dismissed with Prejudice!´. Five miles: I'm a poisoned bug on a mechanical worm. Smoke balls the stomach and limbs twitch until, with the Sixth mile to go, I pass out.
The light at the end of the tunnel hold´s a sharp blast of sweet air in sunlight. I made it!
19. Lions in Camp
The Kenya Serengeti hosts the largest terrestrial mammal migration in the world that is a smorgasbord for the king of beasts. Tonight I am on the menu. The high diversity of animals relates to the diverse habitats that our 8-person safari truck has bumped about for a week ranging from grassy plains where we see hundreds of migrating zebras, thousands of antelope and tens of thousands wildebeests. Dozens of 12´ crocodiles and hulking Cape buffalo battle in shrinking puddles until the last drops. An aardvark parades as big as a Volkswagen and elephant tusks jut two-stories over the truck. Herds of wide-eyed ostriches bob heads as the English ladies break upper brows to the crush and scream of ´I got you bast…!´ in opening the meat cleaver wings of Tsetse flies on their fair skins before the clouds put them to sleep. We run into a crash of four rhinoceros who are as blind as Magoos but with strong noses for French perfume chase the girls and me to musical trees where I gallantly am the last one pushing them up on the hinnies to the lowest limb to hang like fruit. One midnight the Dutch lasses shriek ´Bo!´ on hearing Chomp at the foot of their tent, and I fling open my door to the 5´ wide smile of a grazing hippopotamus. We follow a pride of lions taking down wildebeest in a bloody lunch, and none of the others have the intellect and curiosity of the king of beasts to study our truck windows trying to figure out how to get in. This evening the unfed lions tail the fat tired, high sprung Mercedes Fire truck converted to safari vehicle up a stony hill to an open camp above the Serengeti.
It seems crazy to camp in Wild Kingdom without a shotgun, and yet we clients dutifully set the little pup tents in a neat row, mine a single as the only male. Baboons strut about as if owning the place and I open the outhouse in a malaria fit to vomit and bats flit out as a 160lb spotted Hyena laughs, ´Excuse me!´ before stepping out.
The night creatures are a worry and the malaria more so as I stagger to the tent, half zip the door and fall recumbent on the blanket. Catalepsy sets in with a muscular rigidity, fixity of posture and paralysis while remaining alert. In vet school a pharmacology instructor gave a mouse a cataleptic drug, stood him on hind legs, stuck a cigarette in his mouth and it smoked without moving as I cried.
I hear them padding and sniffing at the tent flat. Lions in Camp! A male likely longer than the 7´ pup tent rubs the canvas and roars like a freight train. Paralyzed, it is the first time in my life to faint.
If parallel universes exist, I fall into one and awaken the next morning when the guide tugs my toe and yells to rise and shine or miss the truck. Then he eyes the waxen hands, feels the fevered brow and shouts, ´Malaria!´ ordering the gaggle to dismantle the tent and heap me on the safari truck floor. It rocks a half-day to a Red Cross on a white house on a green riverbank and the women deposit me in the sole hospital bed before leaving down the track.
The graying nurse declares cerebral malaria, and adds that though out of quinine tomorrow a boat connects to a road with Nairobi bound vehicles. Overnight a leaden headache and dry heaves break blood vessels in my eyes until the following midday I squint into the sun and am piled on the boat deck. A few hours later on docking the near corpse in my clothes is loaded onto the floor of a taxi and rushed to the Nairobi General Hospital where I vaguely recall a Caucasian tropical medicine specialist diagnoses cerebral malaria and holds out a tiny white tablet saying, ´You may take this and probably live, or not and surely die.´ I nod, and after several attempts a nurse forces the pill past vomit and rubs it down my throat.
One of the greatest instant reliefs in medicine is quinine, so the next morning I feel stable, swallow another pill, and in the afternoon feel good, and by evening just want to flee the attendants´ hourly pulse probes, blood pressure cuffs, and pricks in my veins. The nurses and assistants think this is necessary for recovery but the doctors and administration know it is to cover the hospital liabilities.
In the wee hours, unable to rest, I rise and tiptoe past the other patients to the clothes chest, dress, out the room and slither a darkened hall to the cashier at the front door. I don a bright face, introduce myself as a visiting medical philanthropist and hand the sleepy clerk a $100 bill. Turning on a question mark, I escape into a quiet street to a hostel to self-treat with quinine, and after the eight count get up for the next round.
20. Hit and Run
The motorcycle is scarcely warm between my legs approaching the signal, rolls through green, into the intersection and out of the San Diego night an old Caddy accelerates along University Drive trying to make the light. It broadsides the sidecar hack and the attached Honda 450 tumbles over twice while I hover above it having jumped on the toe pegs to avoid the brunt of the 30mph blow. I bounce once on the street in the middle of circulation, see oncoming lights and leap just in time to take a glancing blow from another car that doesn´t stop either.
In a two second window I am the victim of two hit and runs!!
Minutes early I had downed a hot chocolate at 7-11 to brace for the cold night, nodded to two policemen on the way out, heard a dog bark, hopped on the bike and pulled into the intersection.
On hearing brakes squeal the cops rush out and one helps me to my elbows while the other sprints for the patrol car. ´I´m fine,´ I assure him, though I´m not but don’t want the trauma and bill of the Paramedics. He jumps in the police car that lays a patch. ´Justice will be done.´ quips a bearded homeless man and trundles a shopping cart by watching the high speed chase.
Unable to get to my feet on the road shoulder, I roll to a speed limit sign and scratch up the post to stand and think through a daze. The dispatcher has been radioed for about a five minutes response to leave the premise or face a third assault by big hearted bureaucrats. Unable to walk ahead because of the crush of the left leg between cycle and hack, I begin a backward shuffle for one minute to flush the adrenalin along the system, and to appraise myself medically. Possible internal abdominal injury, lungs okay, mild shock with a shallow rapid pulse, and a few abrasions. Now I can walk forward with a gimp and respiratory pain against the right ribs from the glancing blow.
The bike and sidecar have miraculously somersaulted upright, and except for broken windshields, a bent fork and flooded engine that won´t turn over, I can push it. Shaking in pain, I shove the crippled bike to my Hillcrest basement home and feel the better for having walked off murderous cramps. Doubtless the Paramedics and sheriff are surveying the broken glass and blood wondering what became of the ghost biker.
I shudder into unconsciousness on the cellar bed, and unable to get up on the second day the upstairs tenant comes knocking with food. On the third day I walk with the help of a 2×4 crutch to a corner payphone, and skid through an insurance claim despite California no-fault if I obtain a police report. I hang up, dial, and the SDPD voice on the other end intones there is no police report which makes sense because the victim escaped after the drivers. Recalling the helpful policeman’s chest nametag ended in ´…ski´, the voice replies, ´That could be any number of our officers.´ I describe him to no avail, and since there is no record of anything the sympathetic Sergeant loses patience and mumbles hoax warning of a trace on the line. Then I recall a peculiar muffled dog bark and guess it might be a Canine Unit. ´Bingo!´ the detective shouts. ´That´s officer ´Z…ski´ and hold on… he just verified and is writing a tardy police report, and despite not being to apprehend the two hit and runners, Officer Z wishes you well.´ An hour later I pick up the report, receive an insurance check, and no I didn’t get post-traumatic stress on this or any of the other survivals.
I refuse to capitalize it. It is an empty coin by psychologists to keep themselves in work. You walk in the path of death daily, doesn’t matter if you´re a jet pilot or an Avon lady, and if you crash, miscarriage, get robbed, chased by a bull, or hit by a car a couple times, just deal with it and get back on your feet, shake hands and come out fighting.
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