April 2, 1985. Late, as usual, finally on the road at 10:00. It's spring now but 80 miles down the road, damn snow flurries glaze Pennsylvania Turnpike foothills. Along the way, a giant truck crashes down an embankment, plows through a field, catches fire. Billows of black smoke provide momentary excitement. Guessing the components of supper at Grandmother's House provides even more.
3rd. Indianapolis to Agate, Colorado. The excitement continues in spades at the Colby Kansas drive-in. Two bucks buys you a steerburger, a mug o' tap water, plus a genuine midAmerica floor show, as gleaming musclebound cars circle the lighted eatery, like moths without mufflers, diving into the first vacant parking stall. Too much!, instead I opt for the road, head west to a wide spot on the interstate called, like it says, Agate, roll out the ol' sleeping bag, replace the moths with me.
4th. Surprise, it got cold. Windshield frosted over. Me, too. Zoom through a still sleeping Denver, up and over the Rockies, no problem for once. Approaching Vail, I shrug off absolute zero visibility, potholes big enough to conceal elk, and slow down when the cops send out radar greetings. Later, it's more high speed to Utah, where Route 128, my fave scenery-rich road, is closed, washed out. What the hell, on to Zion, all the way on the other side of the state. Reach Kolob Arch trailhead by six, but nine cars've beaten me to it. What the hell, back down the circuitous road to the main campground. Another surprise, it's pre-Easter weekend and the joint is aswarm with noisy visitors. Chagrined, I tent up, cook down, cool out. Later, the moon rises bright, glowing, nearly full, a cosmic sedative over the big big rocks of Zion. Yeah, what the hell.
5th. The moon's also loud, makes a sound snooze problematic. Up and packed early, I beat everyone else to Angels Landing trailhead. The trail, says a brochure, is "strenuous, not for those who fear heights." Yeah, sure. It's wide, easy switchbacks for the first two miles, and then--holy potato! All of a sudden I'm clinging to a rocky outcropping a thousand feet above the Virgin River en route to a less acrophobia-inducing purchase atop the Landing where, coos the brochure, can be had an "excellent view of the Canyon." Scary, too. Snow on the summit, but I'm quite warm now. Downhill's not so bad, but noontime Las Vegas, a mere 2½ hours away, is. Time passes, so do more miles. By rush hour I'm another time zone farther west, back, in fact, in Garden Grove, California, which I left barely 14 weeks ago. Well let's quit wasting time and get to Disneyland!
6th-27th. I'm stuck in a friend's print shop doing menial labor, just for the heck of it, only getting out a few times for rehabilitation: a Dodgers game and a new music concert in the Little Tokyo section of Los Angeles, getting on the good side of the dog that ate my wallet some months ago. At least there's food. Vietnamese, Mongolian, take-out sushi--they go well with all the take-out videos my hosts provide.
28th. Air show. Outside, no hat, sunburn, Blue Angels, aircraft acrobatics. A imaginary invasion staged by an air-ground task force (your tax dollars at work). Thousands of potent Commie-neutralizing weapons on display, lovingly caressed by proud ol' vets (more of your tax dollars at work). By mistake, a stunt pilot parks his plane in the base chapel. At the end of the show a team of precision jet fliers attempt to honor the guy by skywriting his name. They misspell it.
May 4th. Cinco da Mayo eve. I venture into Little Mexico, another Los Angeles environ, play touristo, eat authentic ethnic food, get authentic ethnic heartburn. A Latino rock and roll band entertains, suddenly segues into a Stroh's Beer commercial, a major sponsor. Artistic integrity, eh?
5th. Disneyland! At last! Ordinarily, I'd be as happy as a salamander in a pile of coal, but admission's way up, the Jungle Cruise is down, and my tape recorder is busted. And where are the friggin Mouseketeers?
10th. Aloha many gringos! Having been promised a muy bien Latin American camping adventure and having driven many miles south of the border past the scenic drainage of the Colorado River through desert and mountains and a sea of impoverished Mexicanos to the Gulf de California, I'm just a bit miffed to be staying in an RV park with electric outlets in the picnic tables next to a travel trailer from Idaho that blares disco music over its sound system and six SoCal traveling companions, including one rammy kid and three stentorian snorers in a mildewy tent. But after retreating to the nearby beach and letting the waves and fire ants lull me to sleep, things seem almost tolerable. Of course, that could just be the tequila dulling the ol' senses. Yes, it's San Felipe, a ramshackle fishing village which somehow manages miles of sunny beachfront for the wealthy Americanos. The currency is pure Monopoly. Still, it buys fish tacos and Japanese knick-knacks.
12th. Four niños pass through the campsite early carrying shell mobiles which produce a splendid tintinnabulation. What? They're wind chimes? Oh. In town, I wander through two teensy food stores, a tavern, a strange TV den, two bakeries, three ice cream shops, a couple of touristo souvenir shoppes, a movie theater which is showing some Brazilian feature starring LingLing the Panda ... and about 20 more taverns. About the TV den: While in San Felipe, I determined to seek out the bottom rung of Carlos Fuentes' hierarchical society. I found it on the main street in the heart of the city in a small one-story house past which the gringos walked and window-shopped without ever actually seeing it. The front door was open so I walked in. The room was dimly illuminated by old, motel-style floor lamps and a soft glare from a television in the corner. A dozen Latinos lounged around on battered sofas and chairs, smoking and staring dully at the flickering picture on the screen. It was a game show, Mexican-produced to be sure, but with more than a nod towards those electrically-charged fiascos churned out by Hollywood. The air was dense with aromatic clouds of smoke, and the familiar tingling it engendered in my nostrils convinced me that now would be a particularly inappropriate time to identify myself as a narcotics agent. The program switched to a soccer match. No one seemed to notice, not even me. A powerful drug was at work here, reducing these sturdy, south-of-the-border señors to torpid TV voyeurs. But it wasn't the drug I expected. Imagine my surprise when I realized that these guys weren't high on the hemp, but rather wasted on ... the water! They actually drank it! This was no opium den, it was a water shed!
13th. All right all right, I'll sit on the beach and redden my flesh and drink the coco-loco. There. Satisfied? Nighttime, back on the sand, I'm the only show around. All the little ant and fly and mosquito denizens come to dance.
Hitchhiker Training in New Mexico
14th. Proudly carrying my new Mexican acquisitions--a hat (too small), five Baja donuts (too stale), a muslin shirt with an orange sun emblazoned on the front (too big), a red ceramic mask (too weird, even for me), plus the sobering knowledge that if I ever have to ask for more than a fish taco in a Spanish-speaking country I'm out of luck--I bid a fond aloha to San Felipe and follow the other Angelenos across the peninsula to Enseñada and a lobster lunch, oink oink.
15th. Back in Garden Grove, I immediately set out for San Diego, whence I've just come. Why? You figure it out. I drive to a friend's house, bake a chocolate confection while cats loll on the stove burners, helping, and giant cockroaches scamper across the floor looking for food scraps. Or babies.
16th. Now where? Grand Canyon? Of course! In southernmost Arizona the cops stop me, looking for illegal aliens. My German accent does not endear me to them. At crowded Grand Canyon Village, I sneak my tent into Mather Campground, then head for Bright Angel Lodge Restaurant for a wine relaxer, or two. Perhaps more; I lose track. At the Grand Canyon Knick Knack Shoppe I discover my Mexican hat for sale. Surprise, it's cheaper here.
17th. I pack up early and skip out of the campground without paying, no surprise. By 7:00 I'm queued up at the Backcountry Office for a hiking permit. I opt for the Hermit Trail loop, a 17 mile route famous for turning fit knees to gelatin.
What to take? Wracked with indecision--or a hangover--I decide on extra duds in lieu of stove fuel and the tent. The way a loop trail works is, you start at one end, come out at another, and hope like heck for a ride at either end to complete the loop. Luck is with me as two rube Marine recruits, heading for boot camp with a trunkful of artillery, pick me up. Fortunately, they also put me down. Coincidentally, down is the general direction of the Hermit trail. But if this is a trail, I'm a toaster. Imagine clambering over an upside down igloo filled with land mines. Thrice the trail--or igloo--is obscured by rockslides. Then a thunderstorm blows in. I huddle under my hat, keep part of my forehead dry. By this time my feet are making the sound puppies do when nailed by sledgehammers. I didn't bring enough water to make it to the campsite, so when I reach a side trail I detour four miles in the wrong direction to get to a spring. Plenty of water here, all right, but it's kinda icky. And where's my high-tech water purifier I purchased at significantly more than nominal cost for this very purpose? Left behind in the frigging car to make room for a lousy pair of jodhpurs, thank you very much. I stumble into a rock wall. The camera, hanging around my neck, is jolted open, exposing 30 scenery-rich ex-photos to bright Arizona sun. Later--much later--I stagger into Monument Creek, home for the evening. Hmm, pretty picturesque. I soothe my feet in the pleasantly gurgly creek, then crank up the stove for dinner: Mandarin Orange Chicken in-a-bag. At an inappropriate moment--12 seconds--the stove runs out of fuel. So I wonder how much nutrient is in the sand here?
18th. By 7 a.m. the temperature's already 62, much better. I stand up and suddenly things aren't nearly so much better. My feet are good for conversation pieces, nothing more, so I start to talk to 'em. They say they're hungry. Me too, but most of my chow requires cooking, strike one; and the water requires purifying, strike two. To get out of scenic Monument Creek, you head up. And up and up. Lots of rocks in the way, too. I limp a lot, but finally make it, then it's a mere, oh, 20 miles along the shadeless Tonto Trail to Horn Creek, my intended campsite. But the accommodations are a bit sparse so, banged-up feet notwithstanding, I press on another mile and change to Indian Gardens, a tap water sanctuary. Meantime, though, I'm awfully thirsty--also miserably sun- and windburned and achy all over--so I scoop up some fuzzy water from the creek, pausing only to knock tadpoles out of the water bottle. I pass dozens of beautifully flowering cacti, great potential photographs, but the only film in my camera is a film of sand. At Indian Gardens, wind and rain appear like magic. No, not magic. Magic is when something happens which you don't expect. And ever since I left the tent up in the damned car, I've expected rain. Hell, why not snow? (Shhhhhh!) I mention my Horn Creek water supply to a park ranger, who apprises me of the nuisance of giardia cysts invariably prevalent in such streams. Later, after both night and rain have fallen in bunches, I scrunch under a picnic table, for I'm illegal here, and discovery may lead to penalties worse than giardiasis. I manage to hide successfully from the rangercop, but not from the rain, which eventually saturates every part of me, even the little spot on my forehead under my hat. Strike three.
19th. Having already showered, I figure it's time to get out of here, "out" being a euphemism for 4½ uphill miles, a few feet of which are in the shade. I meet an exuberant troop of Girl Scouts coming down, laughing, skipping, singing merry Girl Scout songs. I silently wish a social disease on the lot of them. The Big Uphill brings out the worst in me every time; nevertheless, in just over three hours, I'm back on the rim, lingering over a tuna salad sandwich and can of grape juice in Babbitt's Deli-Lunchroom, nearly reconstituted. Me, not the grape juice. I wipe the calluses off my feet, get back in the car and head in the general direction of Mexico, stopping in Tucson for a piña colada and a couple of carrots, a reputed giardiasis deterrent. Inspired again, I follow the road east into the night, finally lurching to another stop at Alkali Flats, exactly two-thirds in and one-third out of Arizona.
20th. The front third of the car's in New Mexico, so I get the rest of the car in, continue eastward till a state cop gives chase and flags me down. He claims he's looking for a suspicious person in a small black car. How many of us are there, I wonder aloud in my German accent. Next stop, Texas, an amazingly long stretch of Central Time Zone, through which I drive and drive till I reach Oklahoma, where a tornado drops out of the sky and plays havoc with my sense of calm. Later, in Tulsa, I get lost on what must surely be America's most ineptly designed road system. No, worse than lost. Marooned. Marooned in Oklahoma! The instant I reach Missouri, the Moth State, a thousand miles from Alkali Flats, I fall asleep. Fortunately, I've already begun to pull over.
21st. I forget.
22nd. In Ohio, I broadcast insults over my CB radio to a convoy of simpleton truck drivers, who try in earnest to run me off the road. At a fork in the road I momentarily slip away, but then make a wrong turn at the next intersection and meet one of 'em at a cul-de-sac. I frantically back up, turn around and screech down an alley. But another truck blocks this escape route. Almost blocks, there's about a bicycle's width worth of room. Behind me, the Kiwanis Club Welcome Wagon--not!--approaches, so I think positively and hammer down. Hurtling over the curb, I pass within a nano-inch of the truck cab and a telephone pole, then speed away, safe at last.
23rd. Back finally to New Jersey, stopping along the way to pick up $500 worth of sky mines from Mohawk Fireworks for Roxbury Vermont's Fourth of July show. I'm not worried about transporting these babies across state lines without a permit--a nasty Federal offense--but I am concerned about getting reimbursed. After eight sedate hours, I step from the cushioned driving compartment of faithful blackcar at a quarter to nine, 10,300 miles and seven weeks later, ready to go again.
The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.