It rained while I dried my sleeping bag at the truckstop laundromat, but then the rain turned off like I knew it would. The desert dripped, fresh from the shower, but the sky opened up, warmed, and promised a dry, brilliant tomorrow. I left the truckstop and pushed my way through the thorny bushes along the highway, remembering how desert sand turns to mud that clings to your boots like dogshit. I’d already scuffed the shine off these new boots, scratched a scar in the leather on one of the toes, and now, as I walked, they gathered heavy soles of grass and desert clay, the stuff mud huts are made of.
I turned away from the highway and walked, instead, out into the inky blackness of the desert. Desert is like a dollhouse with the side cut away- you can see every little thing: every burned out car, every broken bottle, every scrap of trash- going on for ever and ever. You cannot hide in the desert, I thought, and dropped my pack beneath a bare, thorny tree, out in the open. I made up my freshly laundered nest and crawled inside, grateful- ten thousand geese made new again, seventeen feet of cherished loft, and a camo-print shell to make me invisible- nothing but a crumpled tarpaulin on an endless stretch of dirt.
In the morning I woke to the sound of a four-wheeler spinning out on the road just beyond my head- it was early but I sprang up, feeling exposed, the sun bright in the empty sky. I stuffed my things away and brushed my teeth, standing under the bare limbs of the mysterious thorn-tree and spitting into the dirt, now dry. Back at the truckstop I set up camp on a large flattened rock in some gravely landscaping in front of the double doors, propping my sign (OREGON) in front of me and ducking my head into the last few chapters of my vampire romance. Passerby clutched their children close (some with quite a bit of shock in their voices) and looked straight ahead, terrified- or at the very best, uninterested.
A few hours later I shut my little paper novel, devastated. It was all over. I had finished the book. But really, I hadn’t finished it. Because the author had ended the book in the middle of the story, is why. The seventeen year-old girl was very literally about to be eaten by a bunch of vampires. At her birthday party, no less. After falling into a pile of broken crystal dishware. I guess that’s what passes for a ‘cliffhanger’ these days.
I stuffed the book away in my pack and sat up straight on my rock, staring down the quiet parking lot. The empty sky, all of a sudden, seemed to be suffocating me. There was nothing happening. Not a thing. Only my solitude, and the last dregs of patience. And it had all ceased, somehow, to be charming.
I stood up from my rock and paced in the gravel, feeling like a hermit crab in a glass aquarium. If only I could get on the internet, I could post a craigslist ad and maybe get a ride out of here. As it was, I was stuck. Folks that came here wouldn’t even look at me or my sign (OREGON!) and they were all just going to Phoenix, anyway. I needed to get past phoenix. I needed to get west, west beyond all this desert! If I could just make it to California, everything would be easier…
It was two in the afternoon. I sat back down on my rock, and eyed the finished paperback in my pack. Something akin to withdrawal rippled through me, like the best piece of pie I’d ever eaten had been taken away mid-slice. I needed something else to read, dammit, and fast! I had Annie Dillard, sure, but that was more of a kale-salad-with-fresh-basil-from-the-garden-and-homemade-goat-cheese book and less of the stale-pecan-pie-with-whip-cream-from-a-can sort of writing whose constant drip I’d quickly grown accustomed to. With no adolescent vampires to fixate on, with nothing but the empty parkinglot to stare at, with no internet for a dozen miles in any direction, my mind was starting to pace in circles, picking its scabs, biting the base of its tale until it had a bald spot.
What I needed, was a walk. And some fish oil, I thought, popping a few gel capsules into my mouth. Screw this two-horse truckstop. No rides here anyway. Shouldering my pack, I set out across the highway overpass, my anxious thoughts quickly falling away with the good old-fashioned movement of my legs. On the other side of the blowing highway (I would walk right on to it and hitch there, if it wasn’t for my pesky AZ bench warrant) was another truckstop, a mcdonalds, and a circle K. And stretching out beyond them was the cracked skin of the earth itself, naked but for a bare thorny bush or a patch of busted concrete, way way off to some low grey mountains and a smear of smog. It must be phoenix, in the distance.
I set out into the desert, walking aimlessly in an easterly direction, everything too open for me to ever get lost. After a moment I found some low shrubs and dropped my pack behind them, resting the cardboard sign on top as camouflage. I walked away with just my water bottle and then cut off to the left, toward a dirt road and an old stone building, a sort of vacant church from long ago, very Spanish looking. There was a trailer next to it, bright and new, and a wooden walkway. ARIZONA VISITOR INFORMATION, read a sign that had been zip-tied to the fence. I climbed the wooden walkway, dogshit mud falling off my boots in clumps.
The elderly women inside looked up, surprised to see me. Hundreds of pamphlets were lined up on wire racks throughout the trailer, immaculate and bright. One of the women had been taking pamphlets out of a cardboard box, the other one sat at a computer. I eyed the computer hungrily. Maybe they would let me update my blog here?
“I need information,” I said.
“Well,” said the woman at the computer, pleased. “how can I help you?”
“How far is the closest town?” I asked.
The woman got up from her desk and shuffled to the back, plucking glossy pamphlets off the racks. I wandered over to another rack, and stared, fascinated, at the pamphlet in front of me.
Jaguars in Arizona
Jaguars (Panthera onca) are once again reclaiming parts of their former habitat in the southwestern US. Motion sensing cameras have captured images of at least four jaguars that have roamed across the Mexico border into areas of New Mexico and Arizona during recent years.
There are jaguars in Arizona? I thought. How cool is that! Big cats, stalking this endless desert. Where do they hide? Where do they sleep? I put down that pamphlet and picked up another- Living with Javelina. Javelina, apparently, are a sort of hoofed beast, reminiscent of a wild pig but smaller, forming packs from two to and many as twenty, and are most active at night. Food for the jaguars? A sort of nighttime ballet, out in the dark desert? So much action, on all this cracked dirt!
The woman came back with a pamphlet she’d opened and folded back so the map part was showing. She’d drawn a blue line from where we were to the nearest town, Casa Grande, and circled where the grocery store and the wal-mart were. It was a good dozen miles away, as I’d already suspected.
“Sign our guest book?” She said. It was more of a statement than a question. I bent over it with the ballpoint pen she offered me. Carrot Quinn. Destination… Phoenix?
“You staying around here, or just passing through?” She asked me.
“Just passing through.” I said. “Thanks for the map.” Shoving it in my pocket, I pushed open the trailer door and clomped down the wooden ramp. Turning left into the desert I walked back towards where my pack was hidden, enjoying the feel of soft earth under my feet. I saw some movement to my left and looked over at a group of dogs, three of them, cutting in and out around the thorny trees. One was black, and two were brown. They kept a bit ahead of me as I walked, and soon they reached my pack, pausing as they did to smell the fabric and nudge the cardboard with their noses.
“Hey!” I shouted at them. I didn’t know how I felt about these feral desert dogs. Did someone feed them? How did they keep so healthy? Hunting Javelina? The dogs looked up at me, bored, but trotted nimbly away as soon as I neared my pack. “Hey!” I called out at them, again, but they kept moving, disappearing into the desert. Why, I thought, Would any dog want to be slave to a human, when it could live free like that, in the desert? With a pack, no less?
I wandered in the direction the dogs had gone, and there I found a concrete platform, in a glittering meadow of broken forty bottles. Across from it was an overstuffed chair, yellow, sitting alone in the shade of a thorn tree. Next to the chair a bag of dog food sat on an upended milk-crate, closed neatly with a rubber band. There was a mattress, too, half in and half out of the shade, soaked from the rain.
“Hello?” I called. Was there a hobo here, sleeping, disguised as a pile of trash? A master of feral desert dogs? An oracle? My salvation?
There was no-one. I turned and walked back toward my pack, acknowledging the folly of leaving my most precious possessions just lying around in an acre of desert that was not, as I’d first thought, uninhabited. I passed another meadow of broken glass, with another sodden mattress, this one nearly fully decomposed, just springs and some yellowed stuffing. The gleaming bottles stretched out in all directions around it, ending abruptly after a number of meters. As far as the hobo could thrown them? Is that what he did? Drink forties, throw bottles, stare at the sky? How weathered must he be!
The sun was sinking in the west. Oh, boy. Soon it’d be too dark to hitch-hike. Oh well. I’d sit out front of the truckstop for a while anyway, feel the cold creep in. Lifting my pack, I marched back toward the highway, and my cold truckstop rock of boredom.
As I waited on my backlit landscaping rock, trying in vain to focus on Annie’s elaborate flooded-stream metaphors (I had yet to get to the chapter titled Intricacy, where Annie would once again grab my attention, sucking me in and redeeming herself as my newfound Strongest Literary Inspiration), a nice man in a company polo shirt came out of the truckstop and handed me a bag of hot breakfast sandwiches.
“Here,” he said. “we have to throw these away every four hours.” He paused. “They’re still good, though. We eat them all the time!”
“Thanks!” I said, surprised. I expect people to kick me out of truckstops, not give me breakfast sandwiches! The man smiled, awkward.
“Can I get you anything else? Cup of coffee? You want a soda? I can get you a soda, on the house!”
“No thanks.” I said. “But this is awesome! Thank you so much!”
He smiled and turned, heading back into the truckstop. The plastic bag of sandwiches felt warm on my lap. There were three sandwiches inside, and a good dozen napkins. So thoughtful! One sausage biscuit, one sausage-egg pancake sandwich, one bacon egg and cheese muffin. I opened up the last one, pulling off the muffin outside and folding the innards into a corn tortilla. So far on this trip, I thought, I’ve eaten more meat than the previous three months combined. I smiled to myself. Well, it was working so far. Whatever it took to power through…
I ate two of the sandwiches out of boredom, enjoying their warm greasiness and staring at the ingredients on the packaging, fascinated. So many additives for one little sandwich! American cheese, for example, seemed to have been created solely as a way of disposing of strange industrial byproducts by tricking the general population into consuming them. I crumpled up the packaging and threw it back into the plastic bag, wiping my greasy hands on one of the napkins. I had decided to save the plain sausage biscuit for morning.
Bored, bored… and with a protein high to boot. Dusk had come and gone, and all was dark in the empty desert. To my left was a backlit palm tree, to my right was the window to a darkened office room, through which I could see the monitor for the truckstop security camera. It was trained on the row of tables in the taco bell. No-one was watching. I should go make the rounds in the truck fueling area, I thought, and let everyone know that if they wanted to jack a hot-plate that plugged into a cigarette lighter or a king-size bag of beef jerky, now was the time.
I missed the vampires.
Finally I decided it was time for bed. Saddling up my turtle-shell, I stumbled off into the desert to sleep beneath last night’s thorn-tree. Bedded down in my cozy nest, I sent out a few fumbling text-messages before drifting off. One I sent to a friend I hadn’t talked to in forever, in a place that seemed impossibly far away- the west coast. Would I ever get there?
Currently bedded down under the stars. Did you know that there are jaguars out here? And wild, hairy pigs? And weathered homebums who sleep in moonlit desert clearings, surrounded by glittering brown bottle-glass?
The next morning I woke up and faced my fate. I was still. Stuck at a truckstop. I had a long day ahead of me of doing absolutely nothing, of getting absolutely no rides. To kick off the festivities, I ate a cold sausage patty on a stale corn tortilla. Delicious. Then I wandered back to the truckstop, brushing my teeth in the bathroom, startling anyone who happened to wander inside. I’d decided to switch tactics today, and fly my sign where the parkinglot met the road to the onramp, in hopes of higher visibility. But instead of getting a ride I sat and felt the minutes tick by at about the same rate as yesterday, only now I didn’t have any shade and the sun was driving me bonkers. Annie Dillard was no help, either. The creek was still flooded, an elaborate metaphor for a cruel and heartless universe, lots of dead things floated past…
At two in the afternoon a man in a pickup pulled up to my outpost and awkwardly rolled his window down. Did I, ah, need a ride?
“Where are you going?” I shouted at him, a bit loopy from the sun.
“Casa Grande.” He said. Could this be true? I still had my map and everything. I climbed into his truck, tossing my pack into the bed. The man was from the four corners area. I’d never been there but my mother had, and I’d seen a picture of her there with her sisters.
“I’ve always wanted to go there.” I said. The man had come to this area to visit his brother, and today he was bored, just sort of “driving around.” Which meant, he may or may not have thought that I may or may not have been a prostitute, but he was going to be polite about it either way. Good enough.
He dropped me off at the white stucco public library in Casa Grande. I felt my heart race at bit as I thought of the public computers inside. Just a few more minutes, and I would be on that sweet, sweet interweb… and not only that, but this was a fair-sized town, and there might even be someplace I could find the next book in the vampire series. I was like a junkie, reunited with my drugs. Salivating.
The computers were, of course, achingly slow. And all around me were teenagers, fresh out of class, clicking away on myspace, blasting youtube videos from their earbuds and shouting to each other across the room. I felt irritation crawl up my spine as I attempted to get my fix. Opening my email inbox, I clicked a response to one of my craigslist ads and quickly skimmed the contents, my eyes catching on the words and then stopping.
SO IF u dont have any money can u provide something else like companoinship or> just curious
And then this one, from the same email address-
ok guess ur not intrested in a ride. i know u left me ur number to call u but id like an answer on the sexual fun times since u dont have any money. just curious if u would or not thx
And then there was this one-
hi i can take u since im going to california around that time. im 34 and if u dont mind rideing with a male and yes im sure uve seen some post of mine cause i like to have fun but anyway can u send me a pic and see if this will work thx im in tombstone so
And this one-
hey i havent left yet and hope ur still reading ur emails im hopeing u understand yes im going that way and if ur intrested since u dont have any money to explore some sexual fun on the way. those was some of my ads i was running so let me know if thats ok before i call
And this one…
anyway sorry to be so forward with u but i just love to meet new people and explore not only the world but some sexual fun with someone new i am disiese free and im no scary person just like to have fun. i will wait to hear from u before i call so i know its cool wether or not uve done anything like this is fine its hopeing u have an openmind is all
And the last one even had a picture-
It was him. It was the man who’d called me at four a.m. when I was sleeping in the woods outside Dallas. They were ALL him. It looked like he’d found every craigslist ad I’d posted, and responded to them twice. Who the fuck did this guy think he was? And how many innocenter rideshare-ers had be harrassed? This time, I thought, he’s fucked with the wrong bitch.
His name, apparently, was ‘Bryan Dinwiddie’. And now I had his email address. I grinned at the computer, unable to help myself. I had realized, all of a sudden, what the perfect revenge would be for this obnoxious douchebag. It was craigslist that had brought us together, and it would be craigslist, in the end, who would administer sweet, sweet justice.