Back in the ’80s, I had been living in ‘Otis’ (short for ‘Odysseus the Van of your Dreams’, my 1967 Chevy Sportvan) for about 3 years, traveling all over the US looking for good canoeable whitewater and the Meaning of Life. Usually, they came together, so I was emphasizing the whitewater.
I was also sort of escaping my roots in small-town Maine, so when I met up with an outfitter in West Texas who wanted to hire me as a full-time Guide back in Maine, I was desperately seeking a message from God telling me what to do, either way.
As the boatmen were sitting around the Odessa, Texas Holiday Inn, making detailed plans for how to shuttle the gear and people all back to Eastern Maine, I mentioned how I really wanted to do just ‘one more’ western river before I headed back into the boonies, but needed some sort of ‘message from God’. Just then, a man I had never met walked into the hotel room, and announced that he was headed out to New Mexico and wondered if a boatman with a canoe wanted to paddle with him down the Gila for 4 days. The other guides all looked around with strange expressions on their faces, so I quickly introduced myself and offered to do the deed if my new boss could spare me for a week. Not only could he spare me, but he even offered to give me $100 towards gas to explore this river for future potential commercial outfitting! Wow! Talk about messages from God! I couldn’t stop gushing!
The next a.m., I made plans to meet with this guy (I’ll call him Joel) at the hotel lobby at 8 a.m., and we would drive our rigs together out to New Mexico.
Well, 8 a.m. and no Joel. 8:30 and no Joel. 8:45 and no Joel…
Frustrated, I went out to the parking lot, and there was Joel…standing in the middle of several workers who were trying to build a small decorative wall, with his walkman on full blast, just staring at the work in progress. He was oblivious to how much he was completely in their way, and just lost in his music. I tapped on his shoulder, consciously deciding to try to be civil, and said “Hey, I’m ready…let’s go.”
“OK, great! I was wondering why you were late…no matter. Let’s meet at City of the Rocks.”
“Fine, my van’s out back and I just gotta get some gas….”
But too late. He was already headed out to his car and starting it up. I hoofed it over to Otis The Van in the back lot, and by the time I got to the front, there was no sign of Joel. So I zipped into the gas station and told the attendant to fill er up. As he pumped, I pulled out my Rand McNally’s and started scouring the West Texas page for ‘City of the Rocks’. I expected it to be some pull off maybe a few miles out of town, but no sign of it. I looked closer…..Odessa….Pecos….West Bumfuck….El Paso…no ‘City of the Rocks’. I looked at the New Mexico page….Silver City….Gila….there it was! City of the Rocks State Park in New Mexico, almost 700 miles away!! Oh my GOD!!
About Otis: dependable as he was, he also had over 200,000 miles on him and needed a bit of babying to do his duty. I never would drive over 65 mph, because the gas mileage used to go down exponentially at high speeds. At 50, he got about 24 mpg, but at 65 he got about 20, at 70 it dropped to about 15, and at 80 it went to 8. So the concept of driving 700 miles in one day was beyond consideration. I had planned on making two leisurely days of it, but Joel was already on his way and had no clue!
I roared onto the highway, figuring that if I hurried I could catch him before he got too far away. I was pushing old Otis close to the max, about 85 mph, with my binoculars to my face scouring the road miles up ahead for Joel. After about 20 minutes, I saw him so I pushed Otis harder yet. I was just starting to get within headlight-flashing range, when a red light on my dashboard lit up: ‘Check Engine’. Oh NO!
About Otis: some highschooler had owned him before me and had apparently had visions of a hardwood dashboard. He had ripped out all the instrumentation to put a decorative board on the dash, rethunk the idea and put all the gauges back, leaving a few disconnected wires and a few gaping holes in the dash. Well, I happened to know for a fact that this particular ‘Check Engine’ light was NOT CONNECTED to anything! But there it was, shining as red as red can be…in fact, now it was FLASHING at me!!
So, I could only slow down, ease on over to the driving lane and, surprise..it stopped flashing. Huh? I got it back up to 80, and the light came back on. I slowed down and it went off. Talk about messages from God! Magically working dash gauges!
I watched Joel disappear on over the hill. No other option but to resign myself to the fact that I would have to drive at 70 mph for the rest of the day and burn up my $100 in gas money (meant to get me all the way back to Maine) just getting to New Mexico.
About 10 hours later, I arrived in City of the Rocks. Just a small loop of road around some boulders with a dozen or so campsites there. I drove the loop: no Joel. Picking the site immediately at the gate so that he would see me, I parked, dug out the last of my food (some stale bread and peanut butter), and climbed up on a rock to await my bow paddler.
About an hour later, I saw his car approach the gate, so I settled back, took a few deep breaths and put on my best Supercool, waiting to say ‘Hey Joel, what took you so long?’ I read a chapter, then another…after 15 minutes, when he never came up to my site, I hopped down and walked the loop. I saw some folks and asked if they saw a little Subaru go through a few minutes ago.
“You must be Myron! Some guy named Joel was just looking for you! He said he had stopped at some nice restaurant for dinner.”
I went to the gate, and the gatekeeper said “Oh, Joel said he was headed up to put-in and he’d meet you there tomorrow a.m.”
Grrrrrrrrrrrrr. I went to bed.
The next AM, I drove into the park, looking for the put-in. I still had to do a food shop, something I planned on doing with Joel, and review equipment for the paddle. When I finally got to put-in (after a lot of stuff that I’m skipping to save the agony of remembering), there is Joel sitting all by himself beside the river. “Where ya been? We got a ways to go today and got to get on the river. I’ve already left my car in the ranger’s lot for the shuttle. Lets go!”
“But Joel, I don’t have food and I haven’t arranged my own shuttle or anything!”
“No problem! I got food and you can hitchhike back for your shuttle. Look, if you want to go, we gotta get going now!”
So, against every ounce of my common sense, I parked Otis out in the trees, put a note in the back, threw together my paddling rig, and we put on.
About Otis: one of his idiosyncrasies was that the locks did not really work. I could LOCK him up all right, but if you just kicked the door a few times, the springs in the locks would pop up and you could get inside. I always had to trust the world at large, but just in case, I never parked in very remote places. So the note I put in the back said :
“If you are reading this, then you are inside my van, and probably contemplating, or in the process of, ripping me off. Please, stop and reconsider. I am just a regular guy out for a canoe trip. I don’t own much, and what I have, I need and am generally unable to replace. If there is anything of mine you are eyeing that you desperately *need*, please take it with my blessings. If you are in trouble and need clothes or whatever, then help yourself. But if you are just out to score whatever you can get from this apparently unguarded vehicle, please have some human decency and empathy and do not rob me.”
To make a long story manageable, suffice it to say that I had a MISERABLE trip. Joel was the worst bow paddler I had ever met. He would randomly throw cross-draws just above strainers to test me, and could not choose a safe or manageable line to save his life. He would aim at barbed wire fences, and duck at the last minute to see if I was paying attention or was going to get clotheslined. I couldn’t get him to just stop paddling, and I grew more and more angry as the trip progressed. He was absolutely dangerous to paddle with, and eventually (and I am not proud of this), at one point deep in the Gila Wilderness area, I finally snapped. I had had enough of him… I pulled over at a trailhead, threw his pack out onto the shore, demanded that he get the HELL out of my canoe, and he could walk out of this freaking wilderness area on his own!!! He hopped out, said “Cool! There’s a great hot spring up this trail about 5 miles! See ya!” and. snapping a quick photo of me, walked on out of my life, almost for forever.
When I got to the take-out later that day, I had on me two peanut butter sandwiches (when Joel said he had food, he meant for HIM, not for me), and a quart of water. The takeout road was a 10 mile dirt road out to the highway, then a 175 mile hitchhike back to put-in. I dragged the canoe out into an arroyo, buried it with brush and cacti, and with a glance at the sky, started the hike out to the main road. It was screaming hot (over 110 degrees) so my measly quart of water was gone in about 1 mile. No cars were coming by, so I was just walking and melting…feet starting to blister, head throbbing, waves of heat rising above the road.
I sat in the shade of a bush at noon, and took a bite of my peanut butter sandwich for strength. Bad mistake: never eat stale peanut butter when you are cottonmouthed-famished-dehydrated-hallucinogenic lost in a desert without water. It was like a mouthful of wet cement and mud. Desperately, I even chased a lizard around for a few minutes with the intention of biting off his head and drinking his blood! Nevermind the details, this is all completely true: I was a badly hurting unit.
Eventually, about a mile or so from the road, I came upon a trailer. I knocked on the door, and explained my predicament to the terrified girl who hid behind the chain-lock and deadbolt. I must have been convincing, because she made me stand at the far end of the driveway as she slid a glass of water and some band-aids onto the front porch. I guzzled the water, bandaged my feet, and made it out to the highway in time to get a few fortuitous rides back to put-in.
Arriving just at dusk, I noticed a old pickup truck parked nearby with three scruffy-looking good ol’ boys lying on a lumpy blanket. I nodded ‘Hi’, and they just watched me walk by with curious looks on their faces. I realized that I was probably the messiest, sunburnedest, dirtiest thing they had ever seen! I grabbed a towel from in the back of Otis, jumped into the cool river and washed up. Ahhhhhhhhh, you can imagine how nice THAT felt. When I got back to the van, they were gone.
I started the drive out to the highway, but instantly noticed that my front end was WAY out of whack. I crawled under and saw that somehow my tie-rod end had fallen right off. I lay there, wondering where in the heck I was gonna find a tie rod end for a 1967 Chevy Van out in the middle of the Gila Wilderness area. Just then, a pair of cowboy boots came around the front of the van, and said “Need some help?”
“Not unless you got a right side tie-rod end for a 1967 Chevy Sportvan 90 in your pocket.”
“Isn’t that the same part as in a 1966 Chevyvan? I got me one of those…”
I climbed out, and met Dave, owner of “Dave’s Steering and Suspension Shop”, who was not only driving his company pickup truck, but had the RIGHT PART and helped me install it over a few beers he had with him!! Talk about messages from God!!
After a few hours, I was back on the highway with my recovered canoe on the roof. I picked up a hitchhiker and we started talking about great experiences on the road. I mentioned my love of my old Kelty backpack, and he said ‘Let me see it!’
“It’s in back, right next to the toolbox.”
“No backpack here.”
“Sure, just under the sleeping bag…..”
“Nope. No sleeping bag either. And did you mention a toolbox..?”
I locked the brakes up, pulled over, and jumped into the back. Everything was gone. I didn’t notice before cause it was getting dark, but everything was taken except for my guitar and some larger odds and ends. The image of them good ol’ boys sitting on a LUMPY blanket came to mind…
The thieves were in the process of ripping me off when I had returned from the river! No wonder they were looking at me so curiously, and were gone when I got back from my swim! They were sitting ON MY STUFF under their blanket!
On the table in the back was the note I had written. Scrawled under my message was the reply: “Ha ha ha. Jerkwad.”
I thought; how nice of him to sign his name.
I drove the rest of the way back to Maine without incident, thinking of the mixed messages I was getting from God. Very strange.
When I arrived at base camp, there was a postcard waiting for me from Joel! It was the picture of me standing on the shore of the Gila, hands on hips, angry look on my face. On the back was the message: To the best stern paddler I know. Joel.
The other guides said “That Joel’s a character, isn’t he.”
“What? You KNOW him?” I asked, incredulously.
“Oh sure. He’s a real nutcase. We wanted to warn you but you kept on talking about this ‘messages from God’ stuff and we didn’t know what to say.”
As I stood there, totally slack-jawed, I noticed the sun reflecting off of my rearview mirror, shining through one of holes in my dashboard, and lighting up the back of the instrument panel. The little window it was shining on was being lighted up bright red: