Saturday, November 21, 2009

Adventures in Lynch-land

In our early days, Tommy and I spent a lot of time beating up on rocks and digging holes. They call it “rockhounding,” and so long as you’re not leaving eyesore holes or trespassing, it’s an honest, respectable way to break a sweat.

Our first trip to Topaz, Utah was an educational one. Twenty-eight years old, and no one had ever told me about Topaz. No history teacher, no college professor. Sure, I knew that Japanese-Americans had been wrong-headedly rounded up and held in “internment camps,” but I didn’t know I had one in my back yard. It’s a desolate place, and, at the time, all that was left was a water tank, some tar paper, and a lot of old, rusted barbed wire. I understand the locals have created a museum detailing Topaz’s miserable history. I guess that’s something.

For this adventure, we loaded up my Mustang (my bad-ass Mustang, in fact) and headed toward Delta, Utah. See, Delta is where the gas station nearest Topaz resides. We wanted to fill up the tank before heading off into the big, bad desert.

We reached our campsite after dark (of course). We didn’t really know what we were looking for or where we were supposed to be for our rockhounding adventure, but it was late at night, so we decided to pitch our tent, get some dinner into us, sleep a bit, then worry about where the pretty rocks were hiding come morning.

This was terrifically educational on so many fronts. One thing we learned? There is NO firewood in the desert! Seriously! Unless you want to uproot sagebrush (which we didn’t), there’s not a danged thing to burn. Luckily, some rockhounding pros happened by and gave of their firewood stash.

Another thing we learned? Ants go to ground in the dark.
Why would that be important? Well, picture this: it’s dark. You’re tired. You look around (in the DARK) for a likely spot for a tent. You decide on a nice little hillock under the dubious shade of a twisted juniper (actually THE twisted juniper—there weren’t any others around). You pitch your tent, unroll those bags, and climb in for a nice night’s sleep. When you wake up? Well, you notice the exterior of the tent is making strange skittering noises. So thick that it’s almost a buzz.

Did you know that big, red ants wake up in the morning? And they tend toward unhappy when they find tents pitched directly atop their home? Yeah. Like I said, educational.

After de-anting the tent and moving our campsite to a less ant-y spot for breakfast, we decided to go geode hunting. A few miles on the Topaz road, then 7 miles on the old Pony Express trail, and there it (allegedly) is—a treasure trove of geodes.


While the Topaz road, a cracked length of red dust and hardpan, rode smooth as silk, the Pony Express trail’s looks were deceiving; what appeared to be a wide, level, well-graded road was actually so heavily washboarded that driving at any speed over 7 mph set up a vibration in the car so violent it shook off the side mirrors. Now, if you’ve ever driven a big ol’ muscle car, you know that 7 mph is nothing more than a microsecond’s tick between stop and GO. The car idled at 15 mph. That left me jumping back and forth between braking and downshifting in hopes of keeping the car from overheating AND the brakes from burning up. We made it, but it wasn’t even a little bit of fun.

How were the geodes? Well, the dig began with the ugly realization that, through no fault of anyone’s, we had no WATER in the 100 degree heat. I had, back at camp, called out to Tommy, “Get the water!” That’s ALMOST what he heard me say, with one crucial difference.

He heard, “I’ll get the water!”


We spent four hours or so digging holes in the blazing sun with no water. While we found some very pretty rocks with fascinating crystal inclusions, we came up utterly geodeless. We finally looked at each other and silently admitted defeat. We tossed the assorted tool-type things into the trunk and off we went.

At seven miles per hour.

By the time we hit the Topaz road, I was so dry I could no longer make spit. Unfortunately, we were down to less than a quarter tank of gas. Backtracking to camp for water would leave us without enough fuel to make it into Delta. There was that decision made for us, huh?

At this point came the black helicopters, but I think I’ll save that story for another day.

By the time we made the highway (a strong term, as the road ended a mile or two to the west), we were on fumes. I stopped the car, and Tommy hopped out and grabbed the gas can from the trunk. One gallon of gas in a car that got 15 miles to the gallon. Sixteen miles to Delta.


Tommy hopped back in and off we went, hopeful that the one gallon plus fumes would be adequate. After a couple of minutes, trouble came looking for us. Tommy squinted in the miserable heat and asked, “What’s with the road up there?”

The road ahead, you see, was--well, it was undulating.

I stopped the car dead in the middle of the nominal highway, and Tommy got out to investigate. By the time he got back to the car, I already knew. And I was horrified.

Gophers? Something like that. Hundreds upon hundreds of gopher-like creatures darting back and forth across the road. Why? Who knows why gophers do things? All I knew was that the road was covered in gophers and we needed to be on the other side.

Tommy, bless him, tried very hard to come up with a passage that didn’t involve squooshing gophers. He suggested turning around and finding a back road around the gophers. Had I not been half dead from dehydration and the car not nearly out of gas, this would have been my choice. However, when faced with dying in the desert or some dead gophers, I had to go with the latter. Tommy suggested he walk in front of the car, shooing the gophers out of the way. That might have worked to save a few gophers, but would have involved driving at 2-3 miles per hour. At 3 mph, that Mustang would have gone exactly 67 feet before running out of gas, plus the gophers shooed from the front tires would merely wind up under the rear. On a real highway, I might have opted to pull over and hitch into town for more gas. But this wasn’t a real highway, and we hadn’t seen another vehicle on a road since leaving Delta the day before. Understand that, by this time, I had stopped sweating. Walking the remaining ten miles into town just wasn’t an option.

With a sick resolve, we nodded to each other, cranked up the tunes, and plowed through the gophers. Tommy’s jaw was set, eyes down. And me? I laughed. Not a “ha-ha, funny” laugh, but an, “Ohhhh, noooo, this is too horrible to be real” sort of stunned bray. And it was horrible. Horrible enough that, even today, my stomach lurches just a little when I think about it too hard.

We rolled into the one gas station we could see on the fumes of fumes. We pulled up to the pumps, and Tommy headed in for refreshments while I pumped gas. The two teenage boys who made some serious moves on me were adorable. Not so adorable was their response when I told them how old I was. Yeah, that’s right, boys. Old Lady Kris still remembers, and she still knows where you live.

Pulling under a large elm at the edge of the station's dirt lot, Tommy and I climbed on the hood of the Mustang and sucked down Gatorades like—well, like dehydrated people. After about ten minutes of lazing and sipping, we climbed down, intent upon visiting the local hardware store for second pickaxe.

Or not.

Even before I spied the tire, I knew it was flat because of the way the car was sitting. Rear driver’s side. Nail. Marvelous.

We popped open the trunk and pulled out the spare and jack. It didn’t take long to realize that whatever moron (me) had put on those fancy chromed lug nuts had over-tightened them. They weren’t budging. We tried, both separately and in tandem. We did all those things you aren’t supposed to do (like standing on the star wrench and bouncing), but no go. Tommy looked up, and, like magic, there was a TIRE STORE right across the field behind us. How convenient, huh? Almost as if by design!

Who says there aren't miracles? Yeah, that's sarcasm.

Tommy walked over to see if someone could give us a hand (a FREE hand—remember, we’re poor). I hit the bathroom, bought another few drinks, and cat-napped just a bit while waiting. I awoke to the sound of footsteps on gravel.

And nearly screamed. I’d fallen asleep in Delta, Utah, but had awoken in a David Lynch movie.

Tommy had returned with a dwarf. A wild, Gimli sort of dwarf, with beautifully tangled black hair and bright, blazing blue eyes. A deep tan, a chambray work shirt, and a nametag that proclaimed him, “SHORTY!” Oh, and a gun in his belt. Mustn’t forget the gun.

The powerful sense of unreality that washed over me was nearly overwhelming. I blinked at Tommy, he shrugged, and we got down to business. What else was there to do?

Shorty was buff. He was tough. He could have kicked both our asses without breaking a sweat. And he whipped those lug nuts off in—yes, in short order. Couldn’t help myself. Mea culpa.

After dispensing with the lug nuts, he began changing the tire. We told him that wasn’t necessary, but he insisted, saying it was what he did for a living. We were grateful . . . for a moment.

And then Shorty started talking. He started rambling about his days as a heroin runner, his run-ins with the law over certain relationships he’d had. He ranted about Los Angeles, and how beautiful it had been before the “blacks” (NOT the word he used) took over.


We were cowards, I admit it. We looked over his head at each other (not hard to do), looked back down at the gun tucked into his belt, and made that choice to keep our mouths shut rather than risk inciting rage in a racist, muscle bound, well-heeled dwarf.

After Shorty had changed the tire, he offered to patch it for ten bucks at the tire shop. We agreed, and followed along. In the shop, Shorty took up his rambling where he’d left off; the wonderful prostitutes in Vegas, his incestuous relationship with his older sister, and, finally, his years in the Navy. And that was it, my mouth was open before I even knew what was happening. I muttered incredulously, “The Navy? The NAVY? What, were you ballast?”

It’s amazing how dangerous someone that small can look. He asked what I’d said, I backpedaled and mumbled a question about back roads from Delta to Topaz. Shorty shook his head, said there were none that would be passable in my car. He then turned, quite obviously sized me up (you know the old up and down—makes you feel like you need to bathe?), and demanded of Tommy, “So, she yours?”

I quite literally choked.

Tommy feigned ignorance. Shorty, not to be distracted, persisted. “Is she yours? Are you married?” Tommy shook his head, said no, we weren’t married. Shorty smiled like a man looking to make a deal. You know, the sort of deal that involves trading time with your girlfriend for a ten dollar tire patch? Tommy, looking absolutely trapped, cleared his throat in a most manly fashion and mumbled,

“Um, I’ve, um. We’re attached.”

I left.

Tommy caught up back at the Mustang. I couldn’t explain why I was so pissed off; I wasn’t sure myself. But I was. I was angry in that grand, splattering way that soaks anyone unlucky enough to come near. Tommy tossed the patched tire into the trunk, and off we went. It took us a few miles to realize that we were both craning around to look back, making sure Shorty wasn’t zooming up behind us. Yes, that really was a concern. This was, after all, a David Lynch movie—why wouldn’t the dwarf follow us and kill us in our sleep? Probably with poison darts or hallucinogens in our baked potatoes.

We made it nine miles toward camp when we saw the gophers in the distance. Seemingly unfazed by the ugly demise of their comrades, they were still zipping back and forth across the road with manic abandon. I pulled over. I looked at Tommy. He looked at me. And we began to laugh. Wrenching, raucous, uproarious laughter. We laughed until tears were flowing down our snorting faces. Then I put the car in gear and, sniffling, we mowed over the gophers to get back to our blessedly ant-free camp, where we ate, drank, and slept the sleep of the sleepy . . . with one eye open, ever-watchful for creeping dwarves in the night.

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