Excerpt from my non-fiction memoir, AVOIDING THE POTHOLES: ROAD STORIES IN A CHANGING AMERICA
“How could you be so stupid?”
I was talking aloud to myself, as I looked out over the mesa. A hot
wind was blowing bits of sand and dust into my eyes. I squinted and raised my hands to protect my face. Suddenly the words thrust me back into memory, some thirty plus years, to a time when my dad had said those same words to me. In all my childhood, my father had seldom spoken harshly, so there was reason for the memory to be prominent.
I had been granted use of my father’s Chrysler on a Friday night, for three hours. When I arrived home, fifty six hours later, I probably gave the impression that my eyes were spinning in different directions. The car was fine, but I was pretty bent.
My dad, normally a calm man, was disappointed, frightened and furious. He asked me what I had been doing for the last two and a half days. Rather than be honest, I shrugged and used a sulky whine reserved for adolescent males.
“Uhhh, I don’t know,” I said, fidgeting and not meeting his eyes. Ordinarily, when in trouble, I could improvise convincing deceptions. I knew this was pretty weak, but I had no idea how to confess to my dad that psychotropic drugs were involved, and that my friend and I had just finished burying a bust of Beethoven in his mother’s rose garden. We had spent a prolonged LSD weekend in his parents’ big empty house. All through the night, whenever we gazed at the the composer’s frowning lips and fiery eyes we felt scolded, accused. He looked completely and convincingly alive. He was making it impossible for us to enjoy ourselves.
“What’s wrong with you, Ludwig?” I implored, several times. “Will you cut it out? You look really pissed off.” He replied in German, which was just as well. Finally, we dug a hole, took the bust off the mantelpiece and put Beethoven under two feet of fertilizer. After that, we felt much better.
“Don’t tell me you don’t know,” dad riposted. “You KNOW… you just can’t tell me without making yourself look like a fool.” He was pretty right about that. It was the mid sixties and my dad was up to date on things. Without having to be told in explicit detail, just by inspecting me closely, he surmised what I had been doing and said, simply, “How could you be so stupid?”
I was sixteen then, fifty two years old now, and I was as disappointed with myself as my father had been with me all those years ago.
And, again, I answered weakly.
“I just didn’t know,” I replied to this dad-voice of memory, “I didn’t think it through, I thought it would be easy. I thought we could do this, one- two- three.”
The “thing” that I thought we could do, one- two- three, was go camping
in Utah in the middle of July. The temperature was well over a hundred,
there wasn’t a spot of shade, we were isolated and in trouble.
Okay, I was stupid. I had led myself, and my wife, down
a certain famous creek without a method of propulsion.
We were absolutely the worst campers in the world. We were camping
at the wrong time, in the wrong place, with the wrong equipment. We were dog sick. Our heads were aching, our joints felt like someone had poured hot glue into every ligament.
Aside from the suffocating heat, there was the question of altitude.
We were at eighty five hundred feet, which can be a shock for people who live a couple miles from the Pacific Ocean.
We had arrived late the previous afternoon. We had set up our tent
in the middle of the slick-rock desert near Moab, Utah. We had eaten, and
watched the sun set over the buttes, the rocks and the vast sandy wastes. Then we reveled in the beautiful star-lit night. We had done it, we had arrived!
By ten the next morning we were completely miserable.
We drove from the west coast, pushing hard across Nevada, traversing Utah’s Great Basin. We traveled on a mix of coffee and adrenaline, eating hideous truck stop food. Our car’s air conditioner insulated us from the desert reality outside. We had no clue what awaited us.
Then it hit us like a hammer. Heat exhaustion, altitude, bad food, long hours of driving. It was a deadly combination.
At that moment we felt helpless. Outside the tent, there was choking dust, a torrid wind, and smoke from Colorado forest fires. Add to these miseries the existence of ten billion tiny white gnats, enough to get into every crack and orifice. We had arrived during some kind of hatching phenomenon. The bugs were frenzied with pheromones, they gathered in great opaque clouds, which drifted towards our tent until we were lost in a storm of little white insects.
In three days they would simply disappear.