But while I'm at it, I can offer some reading material for those who (like me) aren't doing anything special for the night -- a long overdue story! That's right -- the average reader might think that I forgot about my aging meme in which I promised to write things based on reader input, but I'm finally getting off my butt and doing something about it!
... "Yay!" I hear you shout. "Ambitious Cat stories!" And, indeed, there is shiny new TTU content so close as to be almost tasteable! But at this point, careful readers of my journal might now be remembering my previous head fake, and wondering whether all this lead-in has a similar intent.
Dammit, careful readers! You are too clever for me. But if you'll stop gloating for a few seconds, I'll give you the never before revealed story of last summer's Dramatic Brush With Death --
-- No, this doesn't count. I merely promised to tell the story. That's not at all the same thing as revealing it. Would you shut up for a moment, clever readers? Because here we go ... with
> "Have you ever felt the terror of death grip you?"
Contrary to popular belief, staring your imminent death in the face is a very grounding experience.
The popular notion of "your life flashing before your eyes"? Total bunk. I'll grant its utility as a literary device, sure -- but outside of the world of fiction, nobody's brain uses impending doom as an excuse for autobiography. The brain's response to imminent danger is to actually try to solve the problem. As unromantic as it is, people's real final thoughts are things like "I'll be safe from that bear up this tree." Or "I hope pulling back on this stick works like it does in the movies." Or "Where's the air? Which direction do I swim to reach the surface?"
In my case, it was "If I find a way to brace myself properly, I might not get thrown out until the truck crashes."
Then a jolt, a shudder, an uproar of dust as the passenger-side wheels drifted off the road. And a mental footnote: "I'm glad I've been taking pictures; it might help the investigators figure out who the guy in the back was."
It started in Onyx on a day much like today -- hot beyond human comprehension. I was still in southern California, several days shy of Kennedy Meadows; the solstice was two days behind me (and hence I was still hiking in the desert ... in summer).
I had spent the day hiking downhill with Trippin' Ant, hustling toward the aptly named Walker Pass (mile 651) at the southern tip of the Sierra. With the Mojave Desert to our right, withered brown hills to our left, no shade in sight, and a cloudless sky above us, the urgency to reach civilization before the worst of the heat set in was palpable. On top of this, the previous day I had walked 26 dry, dusty miles to McIver Cabin, and ran out of water along the way after reaching an empty water cache; I'd lost most of the morning to dehydration recovery at the cabin's spring.
By the time we reached the pass -- and a deserted dustbowl of a campground -- we felt as though we were in a pressure cooker. I considered crawling underneath some picnic tables for shade and then pressing on, but Ant needed to hitchhike into town for a resupply package, and the thought of a detour for a cold soda was too big a lure. I joined him on the road, holding out an improvised "HIKER TO TOWN" hitchhiking sign, and we ultimately managed (after a great deal of tense, hot waiting) to score a ride to Onyx in some Friday afternoon recreational traffic.
As previously mentioned, once we got down into Onyx -- a one-stoplight town without the stoplight -- that was pretty much it until dusk. It was over 100 degrees in the shade. It's impossible to move at that temperature, let alone hike in the sunshine. In an effort to keep my brain from frying like an egg in a pan, I gulped down ice cream bar after ice cream bar from the convenience store of the gas station that was the town's sole business establishment. Gradually, mercifully, the sun settled toward the horizon and my brain unlocked.
Trippin' Ant and his trail partner (who I might be misremembering as Ben) decided to keep hitching down the road toward the next City. Where there would be a hotel room, and restaurants. I decided that losing momentum in this heat would be too dangerous toward my chances of continuing my hike, and started hitching back in the other direction -- toward Trail.
Except that, of the few cars hurtling down the highway through the dusk haze, virtually every single one of them was headed toward City.
As the light began fading, I started getting desperate -- hitchhiking at night on a deserted road would be a futile endeavor. (And walking back to Walker Pass would be another 17 non-trail miles -- even more futile.) So when a vehicle going my way finally stopped for gas ... I approached the pickup truck; ignored the two men's bare, deeply-tanned chests, sprawling tattoos, and faded jeans; explained my situation; and offered them cash for a lift (a time-honored back-to-trail hitchhiking technique when you've gotta get going ASAP).
Now, please realize that I met a lot of fine individuals during my hike. People, plural, are a lot more good-hearted than most people give them credit for. Some of the most friendly have been the sort that us coast-dwelling Starbucks-sippers would dismissively label as "rednecks." So it's not only wrong, but sometimes foolhardy, to stereotype others based on appearance.
Roseately Cervixed Male #1, a local man who happened to be the driver, gave me a wide smile, exposing gaps that must have inspired God in his design of the Grand Canyon. "Sure!" he drawled. "We kin take yuh to Walker Pass."
My eyes flicked over to the bed of the pickup truck -- where two garbage dumps had clandestinely met one evening, shared a night of passionate lovemaking, and left behind an overflowing nest of young and ravenous spawn. It's not only wrong, but sometimes foolhardy, to stereotype others based on appearance, I reminded myself. "Thank you!" I said. "Uh ... though I kind of wish I'd thought to ask someone with enough room for me."
Roseately Cervixed Male #2 leaned down and squinted, making certain that the miscellaneous junk piles did not exceed the OSHA-mandated "Higher Than The Truck Bed's Sides" limit of 63.1%. "Aw, heck, thar's room for yuh in the back," he said. "We'll just move the beer to the front seat."
It's not only wrong, but sometimes foolhardy ... I reminded myself again, trying to remember the rest of the phrase. "Great!" I said brightly.
Now, I've already posted this picture above. But I'd like to urge you take a second look at it. This is me, having wedged my backpack into the truck bed and thrown myself as deep into the junk as possible. This is me taking a picture from chest level. This is me being unable to lie far enough down in the truck bed to hide from a passing cop ... if I had been so lucky as to be noticed by one.
This picture is me, approximately 0.6 seconds after leaving the gas station, wedging myself against trash piles for dear life because there's nothing to cling to, eyes bugging out of my head under the influence of acceleration approaching sonic-boom territory.
Well, in hindsight, it might have been the driver's booze-fueled whoop rather than a sonic boom. But I think I've blocked those memories.
At any rate, we hit the highway and started speeding down the road. I can guarantee that "speeding" is a literal as well as figurative description. It's hard to know just how fast you're going when you're on your back in the bed of a pickup truck, but I think we were tearing the yellow painted lines right out of the asphalt, like in those old Roadrunner cartoons.
Under normal conditions, it wouldn't have been that bad of a road. The paving was fairly recent, and the first few miles of it were straight and flat. But at our speeds, every tiny bump rattled junk piles and threatened to send me skyward. I developed a strategy of bracing my feet against the tailgate and my arms against the cab, trying to hold myself in like a keystone on an arch.
The first few seconds were a solid wall of adrenaline and sweaty panic. But those quickly cleared, to be replaced with a sort of calm acceptance of the futility of struggle. One bad swerve, or one really nasty pothole, and I was out of there -- and the Roseately Cervixed Males in the cab showed no signs of changing their driving behavior. All I could do was wedge myself in as best as possible and save my strength for whatever vehicular mishap was undoubtedly ahead. After all, the road would get twistier and more treacherous as we went on toward the pass.
And so it was: When the truck drifted off the shoulder of the road accompanied by a cloud of dust and a ruckus of gravel, I didn't even flinch. All I did was glance sideways at the camera with which I had recorded a few videos of our flight, and evenly think the line about photo documentation and investigators.
It wasn't even morbid, or ironic. It was just matter-of-fact, a moment of self-reassurance that I'd done my best to leave some answers behind after my passing.
A few seconds later, the cloud of dust was receding in the distance, and the truck was drifting toward the center of the road. It turns out we had just cut a tight corner too closely. Probably at double the posted speed limit.
I readjusted my wedge position, trying to brace against the sides as well as the front of the bed. The tight curves sent mounds of stuff to groaning and shifting around me -- but anything that sent them flying would probably also flip the truck, so there really wasn't anything new to fear.
Somehow, we reached the top of the pass.
The truck veered across the road, sliding to a full-brake halt in the dirt lot right by the northern trailhead. The Good Old Boys let out a whoop at having finally conquered their long-sought land speed record. I lay there calmly, waiting for the sonic boom to catch up to us before daring to sit up.
By my watch, we had covered 17 miles of largely twisty mountain road in 11 minutes.
I gathered all my gear -- the backpack off to my side; the camera hooked around my wrist; and the map pouch I'd been lying on -- and slid over the side onto stable ground. Roseately Cervixed Male #1 leaned out of his window, a triumphant smile on his face. "That was fuckin' awesome, huh?" he asked.
They're still here, and it's hard to outrun two tons of pickup truck, my brain screamed in warning.
"Fuck yeah!" I answered, faking enthusiasm with a skill not seen since my high school drama production days. I high-fived him and cheerfully wished them a good drive.
Then he peeled off into the sunset.
I took internal stock, and braced myself -- waiting for the shock to wear off and the gibbering to start. Oddly, the calm persisted. The experience had put me completely beyond fear.
I did notice, however, an odd wetness in my crotch.
Well, I can't say I'm surprised, I thought to myself, rearranging my clothes and gear for a closer look at my shorts. Then I noticed that the map bag I had been lying on was soaking wet, too. Wow -- I must have had a lot stored up.
Then -- Oh hell! The maps!
I frantically tore apart the map bag, yanking out soggy paper and the water and sugary snacks I kept within instant reach. I'd had the foresight to mostly wrap the maps in plastic bags, so the map damage, while significant, was recoverable. The two rolls of Spree were a loss, and their partial dissolution had left the bottom of my bag stained in bright, ugly colors.
I quickly discovered the true nature of my loss of bladder control. It hadn't been me at all. The culprit was a one-liter Platypus water bag that I'd stored in my map bag; it had a tube and bite valve, and all of the truck's bouncing around (plus my weight) had caused several cups of water to squirt out inside the bag. My pants had gotten soaked after departing the truck, when I'd reattached the map bag to my backpack's belt.
I would spend the next half-hour of twilight and early darkness in spreading out wet paper over groundcloths, bushes, and trail, trying to dry each page out individually before they stuck together in an unrecoverable mess.
That night, I ended up hiking until 2:15 AM. Partially, this was due to drying out all my maps, and the late start it gave me. Partially, this was just common sense: the more distance I could cover in the cool and dark, the less I'd have to move during the searing, record-breaking heat of the day.
But mostly, I suspect, I was just trying to get the hell as far away from the Redneck Bros. as I could.
* Post title: literary reference.