I have a habit of following my intuition. It works well for me most times. Problem is, I start to have unrealistic expectations of the ol’ strong feeling, and want to use it more like a dousing rod than a coin flip. And so this is how I found myself stumbling among jumbled rocks in the dark at the rest stop in southern AZ, a big wet thunderstorm soaking my pack, soaking my wool jacket, and I am too intent to stop and put my emergency trash bag over everything (why do I carry it, anyway, why do I ALWAYS carry it, if not for this?) because I just know that there is a dry spot, there is a cave, there is a dry spot somehwere. I look out at the sloping boulders and my mind does some sort of shady math, prints out a slip with a drawing of a cave on it. There has to be one, somewhere.
Stranger things have happened. I was caught in a downpour once at two-am just got off the train in North Carolina and found an unlocked supply shed behind a burger joint that was being renovated. I slept there. In every fence, a hole- and in every sleeping dragon of jumbled rocks a cave, right?
The darkness thwarted me. If it was only light, I thought. If it was only light. There were cacti too, strange hostile desert plants, and in general I found myself not trusting the ground beneath my feet, and the unfamiliar alien vegetation- some of them shooting ten feet into the sky, some of them flat and blackened as if they’d been struck by lightening. Would I be struck by lightening? Where there giant spiders? Scorpions? The desert, after all, was no backyard sandbox. And now it was so dark…
I gave up and huddled under a tree in the rain. The tree had no leaves, only thorns. I unclipped my bivy sack from the side of my pack and unzipped it, pulling it over myself and my pack like a sort of tent. As the rain fell, I could feel the fabric getting damp where it rested on my head. I pulled my boots in as close to me as I could, and watched the water trying to infiltrate the grooves of my ridgerest. Pulling out my phone, I frantically texted Sam, my fingers working over the damp keys.
Can has stuck in the rain in Arizona, at a rest area! At night! What’s next?! Can has mountain lion?!! 😦 😦 😦
In a moment Sam, always the faithful friend, texted me back, even though it was after midnight.
Oh Noes! No can has mountain lion!
The water was starting to soak through my “gore-tex” bivy in wide patches. The whole thing felt damp. I texted Sam again.
Bivy sac can has leaks! 😦 😦 😦
He wrote back-
I’m sorry! I never tested it!
It’s ok, I wrote back. It was still free!
The water began to run down my ridgerest in little rivulets, searching for a route to the sea. I could only escape via text messaging for so long.
Sighing, I shrugged off the bivy sac and, leaving it to cover my pack, set off on foot again to find a bit of dry ground. The boulder-dragon was behind a tall barbed-wire fence, which I’d found a good-sized hole in. I walked the perimeter of this fence, skirting the tumbled rocks, trying to will a stroke of luck to fall from the sky. I passed it twice before I noticed it- a van-sized boulder that tipped a bit on one side, away from the wind, and left a six-foot stretch of dry sand beneath its modest ledge. It didn’t seem like much, but it had been raining for a good hour now, and the patch of ground was still dry, so I figured it must be fairly secure. Gathering up my things, I picked my way through the mess of sand and rocks to the magic dry spot, just big enough for my sleeping bag. Exhausted, I set up my damp nest, and crawled inside of it, pulling off my shoes (soaked) and leaning them against the stone wall, changing into my fleece pants (! ! !) and draping my jeans (also soaked) over the rock. As I warmed inside my bag the rain tapered off and a few cold stars broke through the cloud cover. It might have blown over, but it might have not. It didn’t matter. Six feet of dry ground, that was all I needed. Six feet, six feet. I was a simple creature, really. I could live anywhere, really.
The best thanksgiving is the one where you remember to buy hot sauce to go with your cold can of beans. In the morning, when I woke up, the sun was out, albeit coldly, and the water still ran in little trickles down the rock. Maybe it always would. Were deserts ever dry? I didn’t think so. Deserts were just as cold and wet as everywhere else. Cold and wet- my mortal enemies. Waiting for me where I least expected them.
But it was, after all, beautiful here, now that I could see it in the daylight. Flat desert stretching on to forever, a stage for the shadows to dance on, with peaked mountains in the distance like anthills, gathering clouds.
And I had the hot sauce. Oh boy did I ever. A little tin can, fifty-five cents worth at the El Paso walmart. I looked at the can as I wrenched it open with the can opener on my leatherman. The can was bright yellow, with a picture of a pepper. Delicious. I pulled out my bag of corn tortillas, soft and pliable with additives, and the can of refried beans. Trucks rumbled to life and pulled out of the rest area as I put together my breakfast, taking my time and enjoying each stiff taco, dropping small pieces of food on the sandy floor. Finally I was full and packed everything away, grimacing as I pulled on my stiff, still-wet jeans. Below me elderly couples paced around the lot, tiny dogs flying like kites on strings. A cold wind was blowing and I put on all my sweaters (my jacket was still wet), my hat, and my scarf, and ducked through the hole in the fence. Dropping my pack at one of the concrete tables, I pulled the lids off the trashcans one by one, looking for a big enough piece of cardboard. The human beings around me hardly looked up, stiff and shuffling. I found a big box, crumpled in half, and I smoothed it, cutting off on of the sides. A few people watched curiously as I colored my sign, my face mostly hidden in the hat and scarf. It was thanksgiving. Fucking thanksgiving. And my pants were soaked. And a cold wind was blowing. I felt like feeling sorry for myself. Maybe that would get me a ride. Maybe if I started crying…
OREGON is what my signed said, in letters as big as I could make them. Satisfied, I propped it against my pack, and sat, hunched, on the picnic table, ignoring the passing people. I opened Twilight and tried to focus, the tips of my fingers cold where they held the pages.
A breeze picked up, and my sign blew over. I righted it, and it blew over again. Now I REALLY felt like crying. No matter! I could cry into my oversized, fake-fur lined hat all I wanted, and no-one would be the wiser. I sniffled back a few tears, sending hateful emotional text-messages to the people getting out of their cars. Just go and have your turkey, I glared. See if I care. Eat lots of pie. I’m fine. I’ve got this nice book and this nice cardboard sign. I’ll just sit here all day and get pneumonia, don’t worry about me.
Mostly Twilight is what saved me. I disappeared inside of it, and thanksgiving was gone. Vampires, vampires, vampires! Hetero-normative high school drama! Thinly-veiled BDSM!
Suddenly it was three in the afternoon, and a man was trying to reach me inside my hat.
“You need a ride? You need a ride?”
He was a truck driver. There were two of them.
“You need a ride? I’m not a creep! You can ride with us to Phoenix! This is a christian truck!”
“This is a christian truck” are the magic words. Whether or not the truck is, in fact, actually christian, it’s the driver’s way of letting you know that he doesn’t think that you’re a prostitute. All I want to hear.
“I do need a ride!” I said, feeling a bit stiff. I had gone a bit numb from sitting all day on that concrete table.
I climbed up into the truck and sat in the passenger seat. The man who’d invited me was sitting on the bunk in back. The other man was driving. The driver man spoke no English but smiled at me warmly, and I loosened my scarf a bit. I started to talk by way of introduction, but the heat pouring from the vents in front of me had melted my vocal cords, and it all came out a bit slurry. No matter, the man on the bunk had plenty talking for the three of us.
“Where you coming from?” he asked. I gave him a vague and wandering version of my itinerary. “Tennessee, huh?” he asked. “You ever been to Dollywood?”
“No, have you?”
“No. But I been to parties at Loretta Lynn’s place. You know she throws huge parties? She has a big place. I used to go to parties there all the time. They love me. You know, they love to talk to me.”
The man talked quickly and with a bit of a lisp. He seemed excited to have me in the truck. Company! Truck driving is lonely business. Every now and then he tossed directions at the driver, in Spanish. To the left! To the right! He was training the driver, he said, to drive a truck. This was his truck. The driver smiled at me again, warmly.
“Do you get paid extra to work on thanksgiving?” I asked the man on the bunk.
“Yeah, we get extra,” he said- excited, and then resigned, as if he’d really rather be eating with family. As if no amount of money, in the end, made it worthwhile. The way most truckers talk about their jobs. (“It’s a great job! Get to travel all the time!” pause. “Sure do miss my wife…”)
The man wanted to know what books I read.
“I love books.” he said. “I love to read.” I started to tell him but then just let him talk. I know my place. I was the therapist, and this truck was his couch. “I need inspiration.” he said.
“You’re bored!” I guessed. His eyes lit up.
“Yes!” He shrieked. “I’m bored.”
I wrote down the names of a few books people like to read, short simple books people find inspiring. Keep it simple.
“Get these books.” I said.
“What are they about?” He asked.
“Oh, you know, inspiration. People really like them. Follow your dreams and all that stuff.” He watched me, expectantly. “Well, basically they say that you should do the thing you really want to do, even if it means taking lots of risks and being poor and stuff. Because what else really is there?” His eyes were glowing like little coals in the back of the truck. He had been waiting all his life for this. Or something. “You know,” I said, “like me…” I took a drink of my water. “writing is what I love to do. So I make it my first priority. Even though right now I’m hitch-hiking because I’m broke, because I don’t like to work full-time because it keeps me from writing and it’s been too long since I worked last.” He was nodding enthusiastically. “If you don’t do the thing you want to do,” I added, “you’re no good to anybody. You just harbor all this anger and resentment inside yourself, and you’re sort of a drag on the world, your own personal bummersville. So really, you have nothing to lose.”
“Yes!” He cried, excited. Whoever said there was such a thing as a free ride? I thought. I pay my way with pep talks. The driver man smiled at me and nodded, as if he agreed completely with what I had said. He proly understood English perfectly, was just too shy to try and speak it.
“My girlfriend, she’s a writer.” Said the man on the bunk.
“Really?” I said.
“She’s a poet! She writes poetry! Mostly in Spanish.”
“Cool.” I said.
“She’s gonna make a book.” He said. “We were walking the other day, me and her and her kid, and we saw this coffee shop, and I said, why don’t we go inside? Get a cup of coffee?” I looked back at him, nodding. “And we went inside, and guess what there was?”
“What?” I asked.
“People reading poetry!” He said, grinning. “I tricked her!” He shook his head. “She saw that, she said- ‘this is pretty cool!’ She loved it! Next time, she’s gonna read her stuff!”
“And I bet there are enough Spanish speakers in El Paso,” I said, (he was from El Paso) “that she’ll have an audience for her stuff.”
“Oh yeah,” said the man. “It was a mix. People were reading poems in Spanish and English!”
“That’s great!” I said. “I hope she does it.”
We were nearing Phoenix. It was dark now, and raining again. I’d told them that I wanted dropped off at a truckstop just short of Phoenix, so as not to get stuck in a sprawling city without public transportation, everything fenced off, nowhere to sleep. They pulled off into a TA, a mess of bright lights in an expanse of darkness, phoenix still too far away to really see.
“I’ll buy you dinner,” said the man on the bunk. “I’ll buy you a shower. I’m not saying you smell- cuz you don’t- I just wanna help you out.”
“Alright.” I said, climbing out of the truck. I could use a shower. I could stand to space out under some hot water.
The three of us walked, seemingly in slow motion, into the brightly lit truck stop, the ground seeming soft and uncertain under our feet. There was a buffet in back, and the men headed there. I followed, propping my overstuffed pack with its shameless cardboard sign on one of the empty chairs. The waitress came over, pale and tired and disinterested.
“There’s free pie tonight with the buffet.” She said. “Pumpkin pie. With whip cream.”
It was a thanksgiving buffet! I’d get my turkey after all! Grinning, I grabbed a plate and headed to the bar. Iceberg lettuce, olives, cucumbers, ranch. Dried-up turkey (the food, I assumed, had been there since noon), a cylindrical sweet potato. A scoop of mashed potato, a spoonful of gravy. (No gluten! No gluten! No gluten! I thought, as if to work a magic charm.) A serving of overcooked green beans, floating in salty broth. And finally, at the end of the bar, standing alone in a metal tub- purple-red cranberry sauce, half-heartedly broken, mostly still shaped like the can. A Thanksgiving dinner, I thought, as I cut myself a slice, to trump them all.
We ate in silence. I was ecstatic. The men finished up, drank sodas, looked down at their empty plates with mixed emotions. I went back for seconds, sat down and ate more slowly, finally deflected on one last raw, ranch-soaked broccoli floret. The waitress came over and asked us if we were ready for our pie.
“Yes!” I cried. “With whipped cream!”
“A half slice.” Said the man. “I only want half a slice.” The waitress frowned, confused. “I’m already very full.” he said, making a chopping motion with his hand. “One half slice.” The waitress looked to the other man for guidance.
“Half.” He said.
“Give him my other half.” Said the first man. The waitress raised her eyebrows and walked away. I happily stabbed at the ice in my glass with the plastic straw, looked at my empty plate. Moments later the waitress appeared with our pie, obediently cut to order. I ate mine carefully, picking it off the crust.
“I have a weird wheat allergy.” I said when I caught the man looking. “I can’t eat the crust.” He looked away as if I hadn’t spoken, and then stood up.
“I’ll be right back.”
While he was gone the silent man and I finished our pie and leaned back, watching the television over the bar, where one large trucker sat chewing toothpicks and drinking coffee. It was the crack mainstream news, celebrity this and rape-and-murder that. We finally had to look away, and shift our eyes awkwardly, nothing left to eat. Finally the other man came back and handed me a slip of paper, settling into his chair for a cigarette.
“A shower.” He said.
“Thanks.” I said. “I mean it. Thanks for everything.” The man smiled.
“You go out there,” he said, “and you help someone else out.” He nodded. “You help out someone else one day, the way I helped out you.”
“Oh, I will,” I said, shouldering my pack. I left the men to their news and headed for the showers, finding my little room and locking the door behind me. I felt so full I could hardly move. But that’s what thanksgiving is all about, right? I mean apart from all the genocide. It’s about eating. It’s about having enough of everything. Like there’s no scarcity. Like you’ve just discovered a new continent, and there are more trees than could ever fall to the simple ax. Like you can walk across the river on the backs of the salmon. Like there’s enough, like there will always be enough.
I took my shower, standing for as long as I could under the hot water. Outside, I imagined, it had stopped raining. And after this shower I would get dressed, and wander off into the desert, where I would find the most perfect place to sleep. And in the morning, everything would be better. And I’d have gas station sausage for breakfast. And I’d read more of my vampire book. And maybe I would get a ride, and mabe I wouldn’t. But everything, in the end, would be fine.