"No flashflood tonight" he thought to himself. "I'm twenty feet up out of the wash, and there's been no precipitation since last week's unseasonal snowstorm, which looks like it's melted off already." There was just enough room at the top of the road to turn the truck around so it faced west, where the sun would set. He got out and took the wingnuts off of the plywood sheet that covered the front half of the truckbed. Out came the tent. First things first. Always get the tent up before dark.
Holding the hammer, he looked around the side of the road away from the cliff for a tent site; a spot between the sage and creosote bushes large enough in which to lay his six foot three down, relatively flat, free of big rocks, and hopefully level. Of course, there was no spot fulfilling all four conditions, so he settled for the best compromise; long, but narrow, slightly humped up in the middle, and sloping off down the fan. He bent down and removed four or five rocks which were big enough to be felt through his Thermarest self-inflating mattress, and spread out the big blue groundcloth. The blue tarp was one of his oldest camping objects. It was thick nylon cloth. They said it was too heavy for packing, but he liked the feel and the thought of it, doubled, between the fragile tent floor and the sharp rocks of the desert. Not for him the gossamer groundcloth of the Sierra camper, who could choose between pineneedle duff and soft dirt for his tent site. Why, he had cut a hole in the blue tarp, stuck his head through and worn it as a poncho one wet Christmas in the Grand Canyon. It had protected the load in the truckbed from the dust and the snow before he had constructed the plywood cover. Now he lay it between the bushes and stretched out on it, to see if the spot was really flat enough and to decide in which direction to point his feet.
Next came the tent, the two pole halfdome design of which he was fond. Once the poles were threaded it stood up by itself. He positioned it squarely on the blue groundcloth and threw a tent stake toward each corner. The stakes, too, were big. Desert Stakes, he called them; big spikes like a carpenter's common nail, only half an inch thick and nearly a foot long. Again, not for him the Sierra camper's tent stake, chosen for light weight, sometimes plastic (!), at best heavy gage wire which folded in half when it struck the first rock. He had innumerable of these wire stakes, which he collected every year from sites along the Tonto trail in the Grand Canyon. Unwary campers drove them into the three inch "soil" of the Tonto plateau, and sure enough, the stakes folded like hairpins when they hit the stone layer concealed beneath. "The Tonto Bend" he called the resulting characteristic shape. Nope, the desert was different. On his first camp in Death Valley (car camping it was, in the VW Rabbit at the Texas Springs Campground across from the ranch. What a trip!) he had borrowed Scott's tent. Pitching it was a learning experience. The ground was so hard that the little wire stakes folded up without even penetrating the surface. He finally got the tent staked out with screwdrivers from the tool kit! The phillips drivers worked fairly well, but the hammer blows drove the plastic handle of the big straightblade all the way down onto the shaft, shortening the tool by three or four inches. After the tent was pitched, he found that the foot was pointed uphill and that all the blood rushed to his head, a feeling so uncomfortable that it prevented sleep. Rather than deal with the staking process again, he had reversed his sleeping bag in the tent. At the end meant for his feet, the ceiling of the tent was only a foot and a half from the floor, and he slept with the mosquito net roof claustrophobicly touching his nose. The next morning it took a prybar to remove the big screwdriver from the ground. Yes, it had been a learning experience.
He drove the desert pegs in with the hammer, a ball peen with a sixteen inch handle. It was old. Both the wood of the handle and the steel head were dark with the patina of age. It had belonged to the brother of Mary Carberry, his nextdoor neighbor. He had known this brother only as Buster, though he must have had a real name. Buster had lived at the end of a long dirt road out of Healdsburg until he got too old to take care of himself. Mary had the room in the basement refurbished and, Christian martyr that she is, had forgone the rest and freedom she had so obviously enjoyed in the six months since her husband, Bill, had died, to take intensive care of Buster and his pal, Sam the Dog. Many was the evening when he would go over to visit; Mary, feet out on the couch (an attitude she began to assume after Bill had died), Buster, in the chair Mary used to sit in, and Sam the Dog asleep at his master's feet. Buster didn't talk much, but he had learned that Buster was alert and heard everything. His eyes were still bright and penetrating. Days, Buster would sit in a chair, in front of the garage door, Sam the Dog at his feet, enjoying the sun in silence. Now, Buster, too, was dead and Mary was left with Sam the Dog, a very old and very shortlegged hound who refused to be left alone.
Mary had let him look through the leavings of Buster's belongings, the stuff that none of the relatives wanted. In doing so, he gained new respect for the departed, for the collected stuff spoke clearly of a Spartan outdoor life in the cabin up at Healdsburg. He took for his own the three burner Coleman gasoline stove on which Buster had done all his cooking,still in working order, needing only a little cleanup. He cleaned the Japanese war rifle, a World War II relic, also in excellent condition. It was a copy of the .303 Springfield, known to all rifle-firing Americans since World War I. Mary had asked for it back when he was finished and had given it to her new son-in-law as a wedding present. He had contributed to the groom xerox copies of the applicable pages from a US army manual for the care and operation of captured Japanese infantry weapons, which he just happened to own. He declined the little pump action .22 rifle, for it was too rusty, and it looked too lightweight to be safe. He took the five hundred rounds of .22 ammunition (of undetermined age, but real Winchesters, and probably still good). And last, he chose the hammer. He had a lot of hammers, all of them found objects. He had never had to buy one. They just came to him like magic. He thought of the hammer as his totem object, like Ish in George Stewart's novel about the plague. The antique eight pound sledge he found one night in Berkeley, lying in the middle of Oxford Street. The curiously shaped iron head he found along side of the poison oak fence while climbing up the big hill behind the old School for the Deaf at the top of Dwight Way. He put it on a long handle and used it to drill boltholes during rockclimbs. Old Bill nextdoor, Mary's late husband, had dredged through his memories and identified it as an ice hammer, once carried by icemen as they delivered blocks of the stuff in the pre-refrigerator days. Sure enough, its queer shape was perfectly adapted to the cracking of the big blocks of ice he made in the freezer. It was part of the pre-camping trip ritual, the early morning hammering of ice into chips to fill the ice chest.
It was darkling. A wind was coming up from the west and low, scattered clouds were beginning to form, their shadow giving an eeriy cast to the darkness. When he finished driving the tent pegs with Buster's old ballpeen hammer there came upon him the remoteness of the spot, the sense that he was alone against the wilderness. He felt The Fear, just for a moment. He wondered about the cosmic implications of being out here with things that belonged to someone who was dead. Would his possession of such a thing mean that the dead man was here, now, with him? Standing there with a dead man's hammer in his hand, he saw Buster Bowers at his side. He looked out across the wash and saw the land peopled by the spirits of the generations who had come there before him; peopled thinly, for this land had never supported many, even when the basin had filled with the big lake during the Ice Age, but peopled nevertheless; Indians, lots of Indians, stretching back thousands of years, a small party of white families, goading famished oxen quickly toward the pass to the south, where some cottonwoods meant water, and up on the mountainside a single-blanket, jackass prospector. And as he looked at these ghosts, the fear left him, for he knew he was not alone, but one of many, and not against the wilderness, but in nature, part of it; if he maintained right thought and right action, at one with it. As the greatgrandson of Mr. Stewart's Ish had put it: "Things are as they are, and I am part of them."
Well, the spirit might be at rest, but the flesh was hungry. Time to eat! He lowered the tailgate and pulled out the black plastic garbage bag that protected the deflated air mattress from the road dust, the pillar of cloud that had followed the truck by day. He took the bedroll from the bag and carried it to the tent. He opened the valve and rolled it out on the tent floor, tossing the stuff sack into the back corner of the tent. Returning to the truck he gently gathered the huge bulk of the sleeping bag, not stuffed, but only folded double and put loosely into a very large plastic garbage bag, with another bag pulled on from the reverse direction, over the opening of the first. He plumped the bagged up thing once on the tailgate, to shake the dust off, and whipped off the bags one after another, being carefull to minimize the inevitable transfer of dust from the plastic bags and from the truck onto the sleeping bag. He gathered the sleeping bag in both arms and laid it in the tent, full length on the now inflated mattress. The tailgate of the truck cleared for the night, he set up on it the little gas stove. It gave forth the clear blue flame immediately, and the square aluminum water boiler went right into it. He went back up to the cab, and pulled his daypack from behind the seat. It contained everything he would need if he had to abandon the truck and take a hike for his life; water bottle, a day's dried food, first aid kit, metallized mylar "spaceblanket", pyrotechnics (flares, smokebombs, the firestarters that look like huge matches, tinder, all the waterproof matches in the world), snakebite kit, the wool cap his mother had made for him, a skimask, gloves, extra sox, selfinflating pillow, sun hat, sunscreen, harmonica and a whistle. From the clothes box in the back of the truck he added tomorrow's change of clothes and from the cab he got tonight's reading material, a volume of Tennyson. Of all his books this was the one he had owned the longest. His high school girlfriend had given it to him, way back when, in '67. As he did everytime he saw the book, he wondered what and where she was, if she had yet acquired knowledge of, or a taste for the civilized, the refined sentiments of which Lord Alfred sang, and what would she think of the place in which her gift now found itself, and, of course, what would she think of him? Did she ever think of him?
He stared off into space again for a while, and was called back by the clatter of the lid on the boiler. Steam sprayed from under it. He took the pack, clothes and book over to the tent. The mosquitos were buzzing around, looking for what they could get in the way of an evening meal before it got too cold to fly. He unzipped the net door along its bottom, just far enough to slip the stuff under and into the front corner of the tent. Back again to the truck. He was starting to beat the little path of footprints, from tent to truck, from cab to tailgate.
From the food box he got his stainless steel cup, the stainless interlocking knife, fork and spoon set, a cardboard cup of freeze dried rations and a bottle of Roumanian Pinot Noir. He had replaced all his aluminum cooking gear with stainless steel, out of fear of Alzheimer's disease. He had looked long and hard in the camping shops for just the right drinking cup. The stainless sierra cup, though a classic design, was too wide and shallow. It slopped over too easily and the large surface area cooled the tea before he could finish it. It had been designed a century ago, when the technology of metal stamping had not allowed a deep shape with a straight wall to be drawn. After a two years' search, he had found a stainless steel cup the size and shape of a normal coffee mug; eight fluid ounces, straight sided, made by Coleman as part of their Peak One line. It was perfect. The knife, spoon and fork set was a relic of his Boy Scout days, one of the few things of that episode that had been worth preserving.
He put everything except the ration pack in the cab, laid this morning's Chronicle on the floor in front of the driver's seat, and carried the cardboard cup back to the tailgate (more footprints in the same circle) where the water boiled. As he carefully peeled the paper lid back from the rim of the cup, just enough to pour in the hot water, he noted the date he had written on the top with a big blue marker: "15 MAR 91". Not too old yet. He had kept freeze dried stuff up to a year, and it had still tasted good when he finally ate it. And what was tonight's flavor? Asparagus with parmesan cheese. Not bad. He turned the knob on the stove to "off", gently, so as not to shred the little rubber "O"ring valve seal. He gripped the boiler with the clamp/handle and poured the steaming water into the opening of the ration pack. When it was full, he sealed the paper lid down on the cup and started the timer of his watch, which was already set for six minutes. Back to the cab, the hot cardboard cup balanced gingerly in hand. He set the cup down on the folded newspaper and, finally, climbed into the cab to eat and rest. In front of the windshield the sun was dropping behind the mountain crest. This moment, when little by little the disk disappeared below the horizon, was not just dramatic but scientificly interesting, too, for it was one of the few realtime demonstrations of the rotation of the earth. One could actually see the world turning, slowly, like watching the minute hand of the clock move. In school he had found that if you watched the clock patiently enough, you could see the the big hand move. The sun "moves" a little faster than the clock and the visuals are much more interesting.
He opened the storage compartment under the armrest and fumbled about, finally producing the swiss army knife. He peeled the plastic off the top of the wine bottle and very carefully turned in the knife's corkscrew. It went in hard, indicating that the cork was tightly compressed. The bottling machinery (probably all the other machinery, too) they used in all the Balkan countries was old, old, old. Roumanian, Hungarian, Yugoslav, Bulgarian; the bottle shapes were old, and they were thick walled. No doubt the corking gear was antiquated, too. He put the bottle between his feet (being careful not to upset the rehydrating ration cup, which was still on the floor), put one hand around the bottle's neck and shoulder, the other on the knife/corkscrew, braced himself and pulled firmly. Nothing happened. "Damned socialist corks" he muttered to himself. At least no air could have leaked past this cork into the bottle during the long journey from Roumania. He switched grips, putting his right hand around the top of the neck, under the knife handle. He squeezed with a motion similar to a rock climber's fist jam. The meaty part of his hand, around the thumb and forefinger, was pushed hard against the underside of the handle, and the cork raised, ever so little. Ah, so! Another squeeze and it was halfway up. He relaxed his hands and with the cork still in the bottle, turned the corkscrew out and folded it back into the knife. Now he pulled the cork by hand and poured some into the stainless steel cup. He replaced the cork and propped the bottle slantwise against the transmission hump between the seats.
There he sat in the outback of Nevada, watching the sunset colors and sipping the juice of Pinot grapes from Roumania. All the "socialist" countries of the mediterranian make good wine, crisp and soft, never spoiling in transit or storage, and cheap, cheap, cheap. Probably the workers are not paid. Even in America grape pickers are not well treated. And it isn't just "communist" dictatorships, either. Chilean wine is excellent, and cheap, too. "Worker's Blood," he and Charlie used to call it. He wondered if all this would end with the breakup of the Balkan governments and the free-market profitization of their state-owned monopolies.
The little bell in his watch went off, saying that the freeze-dried rations were now rehydrated, but he ignored it, for the sunset colors were now at their climax. Glorious, glorious. The pink effect on the bottom of the low cloud deck, seen against the velvet blue of the sky beyond was exquisite. He was tempted to get out the camera and take another of many sunset pictures, but he decided not to break the spell. Often the act of taking a picture spoiled his memory of moments of such beauty. The resultant photoprint could be shown to others, but the intervention of the camera robbed him of his own otherwise acute, detailed visual and emotional memory of the scene.
As the dark replaced the day, he picked up the steaming cup of dehydrated rations and settled into the evening routine. This evening was to be another in a recurring pattern of evenings that he knew to be among the most pleasant evenings of his life. The activities for the next two hours would, by themselves, seem mundane, trivial, perhaps even silly, but the synthesis of the things he would do would yield to him an inner peace he could not find in his daily routine in the city. With the spoon he mixed the watery liquid of the asparagus soup, little pools of oil and pieces of vegatable matter, into the particles of couscous pasta beneath. He took a spoonful and thought about how all food, even the most humble, tastes good when you are tired and hungry, and when there is no store or restaurant to which you can resort for something more to your liking. He sipped some more wine, turned the ignition key to the "accessory" position and turned on the radio. He put it on FM and pushed the scan button. As the numbers on the display flashed upwards, he pulled a business card from the bottom of the tollbooth change compartment of the armrest and propped it in front of the bright green display of the dashboard clock. In the dark of night like this, the light from the clock was by far the brightest thing in sight, and it distracted him from the view out the windshield.
The radio scanned all the way through the FM band and started around the dial again. The antenna was too far below the mountain peaks in this narrow basin to pick up any line-of-sight transmissions. You never knew, though. Atmospheric conditions often allow unusual reception patterns. Last Labour Day, in a thunderstorm near Devil's Hole, down by Las Vegas, he had actually recieved North Dakota, and Manitoba, in the daylight, and both on the FM! He ate some more soup and switched the radio to AM. He pushed the scan button again and this time the frequency display advanced only two increments and stopped, rewarding him with a scratchy buzzing that sounded vaguely of The Temptations singing "My Girl". He pushed scan, and the dial went up two more frequencies, stopping at a scratchy howling version of Johnny Cash rendering "I Walk the Line". So he ate soup and drank his stainless steel cup of Roumanian wine, thought his thoughts and scanned around the AM dial to hear what he could hear. He heard KSL in Salt Lake City. The Tabernancle choir was backing up the aged spokesman of the Church, who was giving a homily on the need for family prayer. He picked up Boise. The Idaho weatherperson announced freezing temperatures and light snow, clearing in the early morning. On KGO back in the City he heard a description of a truck jacknifing and the resultant terminal backup on US 101 south of the airport, and KNX reported TMC (Too Many Cars) on the LA freeway. He let the dial linger for a while on the LA comedy station. He listened for twenty minutes to Dennis Day trading jokes with Jack Benny, while he finished his soup and poked around in the cab for something else to eat. He found a box of peppered water crackers from New Zealand. He opened the ice chest, which was wedged in behind the rider's seat, and pulled out the block of cheese and a bottle of soda water. He had been out long enough that the Calistoga water was all gone. They didn't seem to sell it outside of Central California. Out here it was Arrowhead, which came in smaller bottles and had more of the taste concentrate in it, flavoring it to the point of tartness. Jack Benny gave way to some mindless Ma and Pa Kettle act from the thirties, and saying "Not on my radio" he pushed the scan button. This time it settled on 660, and out came the pure, hokey country music of KITS ("Hit Kickin' Country") out of Window Rock, Arizona. He liked this station, for it was located on the Navajo Indians' reservation. The commercials were often in navajo (which sounded like a glib combination of Slavic and Spanish). It announced forthcoming tribal events and carried the news of the "big res". And it played to the truckdrivers on Interstate 40, the old route 66. The country mix was better than most stations', for it avoided the slicker commercial hits and played a lot more hardcore hillbilly stuff, which usually had better instrumentals and was generally more musical. Patsy Cline wound to a stop and when the announcer came on, lo and behold, the station was evidently now called KTNN, the "Voice of the Navajo Nation"! He reached under the seat and pulled out his rambo knife, a wicked-looking black thing in a monster sheath. It was a gift from his brother and at first he had been embarrassed by the size and the militarism of it. But he was a fencer, he liked knives, and after he carried it on one or two treks, he grew to like the feel of it on his hip. And it cut through vegatables like nobody's business. He started in on the block of cheese, listening to the reservation news and cutting little square pieces, laying them on the round pepper crackers and eating them, one at a time. What was this? Out in the dark, way off to the north, he saw a tiny dancing light. Headlights. Somebody else. His feeling of safety and solitude was destroyed. They were probably forty miles away, too close for comfort. Irrationally he thought "Are they coming for me?" He reached back and got the binoculars, a gift from another brother, from the shelf behind the seats. He stared through them intently and the light resolved into two headlamps, bouncing over the unpaved road. "Are they coming to me?" Too soon to tell, yet. Funny, how quickly solitude and open land changes one's sense of territorial violation. Only a very few days ago he had stood on a crowded MUNI streetcar, his elbow in someone's face and someone's shoulder in his stomach; he had sat in the backup on the Golden Gate bridge with several thousand other cars, and none of it had bothered him much. And now he surveyed this lone intruder as though it was an alien invasion.
Coming from the radio was the nervous laughing voice of the new hour's DJ. He seemed to be introducing this evening's live, in-the-studio guest, a Navajo singer named Albert Davis. The headlights in the glasses came steadly closer, perhaps only thirty miles away now. He ate another cracker and cheese, sipped more wine from the stainless cup, and watched and listened. Albert Davis was beating on a very mellow and resonant drum and singing a chant of his own composition. He went on drumming and singing for ten minutes, then spoke for a while, saying that tonight he would be doing hits from his first two albums and new stuff from his forthcoming CD. The announcer, evidently a white boy left over from the old KITS regime, didn't quite know what to think of or what to do with Mr. Davis and his un-Nashville material and performance. Between numbers he laughed uneasily and asked inane questions, which Albert Davis fielded with a friendliness that went far beyond mere courtesy. He did what he said was his favorite song, a wonderful falsetto obbligato called "Beautiful Girl of the Fire". The headlights, though still miles away, were now pointing directly at the truck and getting closer. He didn't need the binoculars to see the two seperate points of light, bouncing toward him. The radio station began to crackle and sputter, and within two more slices of cheese it had changed into a christian broadcasting station from San Luis Obispo. Damn! Civilization was encroaching from all sides. First these automotive intruders, then the indian music vanishes. Bad, bad.
Well, maybe not too bad. He recognized the announcer, an old man with a deep baritone and the vocal patterns of a midwesterner raised in the 1930's. It was the World Prison Ministry show, and the pastor was interviewing a reformed jewel thief about his conversion in the Florida State Pen. At least it was real life, "turning prisoners from crime to Christ," as the show`s slogan put it, and not some imaginary fluff about the spiritual life, or hair-splitting about the twelve meanings of the word "grace" in the epistles of Paul. The new station had completely overpowered the Navajo nation's signal and was now coming in loud and clear, so he lowered the volume. He heard the wind moan around the sides of the truck cab. It had started to blow quite strongly while he spaced out in the truck, eating and drinking and paying no attention. This could be serious. He remembered that night of the wild horses, up in the Black Rock desert when the wind blew the tent down, and the morning in Death Valley when the wind had lifted the plywood cover right off the back of the truck and he and David had watched it cartwheel down the road and disappear over the edge of the fan into the wash. Better take a look. The radio minister's sister was reading a letter from a prisoner in Mississippi, asking for a study bible and two of the life-changing books; "Twenty to Life" and "I'm Never Coming Back". Her accent and diction were purest American rural, the model for and envy of every wannabe country singer in Nashville. The clouds were moving right along in the darkness. He got the big six-volt flashlight lantern from under the shelf and pointed its beam out the window, toward the tent. The wind rippled the nylon like a flag on a high pole, and every few seconds the whole assemblage lay down almost flat on the ground as a stronger gust bowed the poles and caved in the structure. A few drops of rain spattered onto the windshied. Better get out and do something about all this. He wiggled around in the seat while getting his parka on, opened the door and stepped out into the world.
Outside it was sharp and cold. Overhead the clouds flew wildly across the sky. He pulled the parka hood over his head, zipped the zipper and fastened the velcro closures around his wrists. Little sprinkles of rain were coming down; well, not down, but riding along on the wind at a sharp angle. One splatted on his glasses. Get to work! First, he lifted the plywood cover into place, being very careful to hold it low to the truck and parallel to the ground, so the wind didn't catch it and flip it up into the air. Next, he deepened the trail of bootprints that led over to the tent. He unzipped the mosquito net door, knelt in the portal and extracted from the tent's stuff sack a long piece of nylon cord and two tent pegs. Damn! Forgot the hammer! Zip the net, another traverse of the footpath, open the cab, get out Buster's hammer. Another set of bootprints on the path back to the tent. They were piling up fast. He circled around to the upwind side of the tent. It was jumping up and down in the breeze, the poles bending in and back as they fought the wind. He tied each end of the piece of cord to a metal ring, one of which was sewn halfway up each tent pole. He held the middle of the cord and walked away from the tent, drawing it out into a long "V" shape. As he pulled the cord taut, the swaying stopped and the tent's shape stabilized. The vertex of the "V" he staked to the ground, hammering in the pegs, two, just to be sure. He looked around him for a big rock. There, one big enough to need both hands to move it. He laid his hammer down, said a quick prayer against things that might be living under the rock, and picked it up. Ugh. Bigger than he thought. It was the size of a football and left a big hole in the ground when it came up. No snakes, though. He sat the rock down on the tentstakes, on top of the tentpole guy cord. That fixes that! The cord might part or the "D" rings to which they were tied might rip out of the tent fabric, but those stakes would not come out of the ground. Let the wind blow!
And then the coyotes began to howl, several of them, first yapping like insane dogs, then long, drawn out imitations of their elder brother, Wolf. Close, too. Nature at its best. Jack London. This was living. He turned his face to the mountains, the rain and the wind. The coyotes sang of hunger, of freedom, of survival, of wary companionship with man and of wild independance from him. These were the things that mattered. This was a moment to remember, a vision he could carry within him on the long road home, through the toll line at the bridge, through the endless sameness of the workdays. When he sat at his desk, pen poised over the mountain of UPS records, his eyes could focus on something far beyond the Seventh Street wall and his soul would hear the coyote and feel the wind. They could not hold him. He would be free.
For a time he stood transfixed, staring off into space again. The coyotes ceased their howling and, piece by piece, the night turned from the anxious path it had been taking. First, the rain stopped. When he returned to full awareness he saw in the west that the clouds were beginning to break up. Surely, a star or two could be seen through them, here and there . He bent down and picked up the hammer. The tent stood in the wind, vibrating but upright, the cloth taut like a full sail. He walked back along the trail to the truck, opened the door, took off his coat, tossed it in, on top of the ice chest, and stepped up into the cab. He sat down and shut the door. It was still warm inside. Through the windshield, out in the distance, the oncoming headlights had vanished! Where? The radio was now purring some dreadful christian/rock "music", lite, folky but slick, overdubbed, overproduced, with verbally complex and rhythmically awkward lyrics, musically busy, but gutless, a fast train to nowhere. Give me that old time religion, or at least the old time songs he remembered singing in church as a youth, singing lustily of God walking down in the cool of the day, calling Adam by his name, and not this palaver about God seen in the light of "building a heavy relationship." Well, he'd be an old curmudgon soon. But the band on the radio had a good drummer, even if he did seem to be polyrhythmic at times.
And there were the lights again! Only now they were red. Taillights! Going away. Privacy restored. Whoever they were, they had changed their minds about coming up here. There was that bad spot, where the road dropped down into the wash, then came straight up the other side. Ruts, then deep sand. Lucky they showed discretion, or he would have gotten to pull them out tomorrow morning on his way down.
The radio drummer seemed to have gone wild, pounding away on one deep, mellow note, dominating the ensemble and ignoring the script. One of the singers was following along, crooning a highflown, incomprehensable melody. As in a dream, the electric guitars, the synthetic keyboard orchestra and the facile lyrics faded and harmony was restored, on the radio, in the landscape, and in his mind. The little red lights danced in the distance to the tune of the drum. Albert Davis finished his Navajo song and was now taking callers, all of whom knew him and loved him. They had all been to dances where he sang and they had bought his albums, which he distributed out of a post office box in Ganado. One caller asked how he got started in the singing line. He said first he took up guitar, but his father told him he wasn't going to cut it, and suggested that young Albert follow his father's career in traditional Navajo performance. He started seconding at dances and when his dad died, he took over. The red light was gone now. Peace and quiet. Albert Davis was chanting something with a refrain that went "save the last dance for me". When he finished, he said that the show was over, and told the listeners they could catch him next weekend at the Yazzie family dance out behind Carson Mesa, off Navajo 18, out of Many Farms. The DJ said they still had two minutes left, and jokingly asked Mr. Davis if he could play Willie Nelson. Albert Davis said sure, he could play anything. He rang the drum and sang John Denver's "Country Road, Take Me Home" as a Navajo chant. Probably, Willie had covered it sometime in the last twenty years. The radio started to pulsate, then faded in and out several times. For a moment he heard a commercial for construction supplies in Navajo with english words like "two by four" and "rebar" sprinkled through it.
He was tired. In fact, he was dirty, too, and smelled. Some of it would come off tonight on the inside of his sleeping bag. The inside of the hood would be smeared with sunscreen and the foot with red dirt. He wanted to be clean. Tomorrow he would head on home. Maybe he would swing south, make it as far as Baker. The Golden Choya Motel, a shower, an Onassisburger (pastrami on pita bread) across the street at The Mad Greek. Or maybe north to Winnemucca. The big town, Motel Scott Shady Court ("For The Rest Of Your Life!"), a choice of two (!) pizza parlors. Or, madly, he would continue the trip, out to Ely, his favorite of the outback towns; a walk at sunset on the bluff over the town, the Deserest Inn and a sumptuous dinner (blackened fish, or cow, fresh killed, never frozen) in the circular, overstuffed, leather-upholstered booths of the back room at the Copper Queen. Play his limit of three quarters in the giant mechanical slot machine (no video gambling for him) with the handle so big it took both hands to pull it. Three quarters rarely failed to win enough of their brothers and sisters to pay for breakfast across the street at the Rainbow. And if he started from Ely and drove highway 50 all the way back, it would be a long day, but he would arrive at the Bay Bridge after rush hour and miss the traffic jam. Yes, timing was all...
Half an hour later he awoke in the driver's seat. The radio was making white noise. He turned off the ignition and put the key in his pocket. Time for bed. He got out of the truck and stopped still, mouth open, staring off into space again. The clouds were all gone. The moon was not yet up and the stars were bright in all their awful glory. The Milky Way was where God had left it, and off in the east were three of the old gods, bright Jupiter, red Mars and dusky yellow Saturn, all full and grouped together in their own triangular constellation...
He remembered getting into the tent, folding his clothes and putting them under the little self-inflating pillow, getting into the bag. He did not remember turning out the flashlight, or taking off his glasses, or laying the volume of Tennyson aside, unread. Later he got up and went groggily out for a bathroom trip. The moon was up. The galaxy was gone (though the first magnitude stars and the three planets were still there) and the landscape was illumined with a pale, haunted light. God, who was that? His heart was pounding and suddenly he was wide awake, for he had thought he was very alone and here was a figure not fifty feet away from him. And he was standing here naked, no knife, no hammer, not even his clothes. Was it one of the spirit people again, whom he had seen so clearly at sunset? He wished passionately that he had put on his glasses. Who? But the figure did not move, and as he concentrated, it resolved into the blurry image of a lone Joshua tree, manic depressive arms held away from its dreadlocked cabbage head. Yes, he would head on home tomorrow.