27 may 1999  

it's out there

hello?All the elements of a story are there – two guys on the road, a goal, obstacles, character, weather, location, location, location. But for some reason there’s a disconnect. Like the Mojave itself, the story seems flat, shapeless from every angle. Almost a week later, I still can't get a handle on the damn thing. Why did I go out to the middle of the desert to hang up a phone? Can't say, really. I’ve tried to forge an alloy out of some ideas, struggled to come up with a phrase that will support the weight of reason and still shine with adventure, but I can't. Brain cloud.

Like the trip, the desert is not deep. It's all right there on the surface. There are no signs, no hint of language anywhere, just sensory input. In the middle of it all sits the phone booth -- a word machine, muted by malfunction.

Did we expect it to tell us something? Is there poetry in this broken box abandoned on the desert floor? I dunno.

Maybe we did it to prove to ourselves that we haven’t succumbed completely to a malignant adulthood, that our common sense has not metastasized.

Maybe at the core of a man lies a thorn of rebellion and we needed a good scoff, a dare, a sneer that says "Back off, world. Today there will be no mowing."

Or maybe we did it mostly because it was fun and it got us close to Vegas. But hell, being close to Vegas is like making eyes at a pretty girl through binoculars. Not entirely effective. Anyway, as luck would have it, we had Sunday open. So the gist of the whole shebang is that we went out to the desert to hang up a phone and make it work again. Turns out it was broke the whole time. Dang.

As I mentioned before, we did a lot of talking. Jobs and women and booze and betting are great subjects on a long drive. It might be a guy thing, or a gene thing, or in my case a vagabond loser thing, but at different points in our lives Chuck and I have each pulled up stakes and moved far away to start life anew. Once, when I was a young fella, I followed love. You know how the story goes, guys; a batted eyelash here, a strap falls delicately off a shoulder there and boom, you're hooked, buh-bye. Adventure stories always send me into a dreamy state of recollection, and I was so far gone into my own past that I failed to get the full earful of what Chuck's adventure had been. I seem to remember him telling me that he moved to Reno where he shot a man just to watch him die, but I may be wrong. You'll have to ask him.

In between the palaver, we pulled into the Denny's in Barstow and ordered lots of food slathered in gravy. We bit into chicken fried steak without one hint of warning about what it was going to do to our arteries or our middles. We didn't care. We were fugitives from the law of averages.

So what happens when two middle-aged fugitives stop at a Denny's without their spouses? Okay, now, I'm not going to apologize for this. You have to understand that we're men, and there's a certain animal instinct that bubbles to the surface in a situation like this, I mean, Chuck and I are a couple of red-blooded American males, you know? You guessed it. We talked about our kids.

Yeah, we bad.

We riffed on preschool behavior, on bedtime rituals, on how to raise kids, and on Dave Van. You can't put two journal-writing fathers on the road for hours and hours and not have the subject of Dave Van come up. And we're just as sorry as we can be about that.

We got him out of our systems and moved on to really sink our teeth into online journals and their authors. We left bite marks in a few, and decided that the good ones would be allowed to continue. The talk moved on to music and pie and movies and moustaches. And women again and booze again and hey, how 'bout them frogs, them snails, them puppydog tails.

Chuck and I were lucky we didn't get fried by the lighting that showed up as we were about to turn off the highway and head up the dirt road. Once we were off pavement, Chuck got out and locked up the hubs. Gotta lock up yer hubs, men, if yer agoin' four-wheelin'. Arrr.

Bounce. Drift. Miles of bounce dip bounce drift bounce. We followed the map almost perfectly and then, just past a couple of rises, we saw It.

Wow. Just like on the internet. We looked closely at the telephone. It was not off the hook.


Major damper. What was it, a broken wire? A flipped switch somewhere in The West? We couldn't know. We took pictures, kicked at the dirt, cleaned up a little, took more pictures.

And we did it all quietly. There's a hush out there, a silence that wraps itself around you and insists that you listen. The sounds of wind and thunder and shoes on gravel take over, reminding a man of his size amid the vast expanse of sagebrush and time.

I can't say it was a failure. We wanted to take calls though, and get the full flavor of that metacybertelephonic experience that seems so improbable. Double dang.

Oh well. Next time.


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