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The Middle-Aged Hiker

Chapter Two

How to Break In an Automobile



The car's new, barely six weeks old, and I know how to break it in. Just drive in one direction till you run out of room. But which way? Left, right, straight ahead, other? On impulse, I choose left. That happens to be west. And the road just happens to run all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

October 1, 1983. Out to Ohio, 500 miles, no sweat. I used to sweat, but no more. This car has an air conditioner! Better yet, a sweat-suppressing radar detector. I visit some friends in remote Glenmont, population six.

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2nd. Road test #1: On a rutted dirt road in rural Ohio, I careen down a hill and over an invisible ditch, KA-WHANG! Ahh, I seem to have broken in the air dam. Later, I'm attacked by a goat, the same one that tried to push me over a ravine last year. What did I ever do to goats? No, besides that, I mean. In case of emergency outdoor adventure, I have brought along a tent. I field test this tent on the living room floor, however:
	Hickory dickory dent
 	A mouse ran in the tent
 	The clock struck twelve
 	A cat sneaked in, pounced, had a squeaky dinner
	And I had a heck of a time getting any shuteye.
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3rd. In Columbus, I visit an art exhibition of a professor pal. In the guest book I write: "The stuff successfully juxtaposes neoclassic form with avant-garde texture but is way overpriced. But now, for a limited time, art connoisseurs can purchase it and similar works below cost from Discount Art Wholesalers of Hong Kong. Yes, why pay $2,500 in a gallery with velour on the walls when you can have the same piece handsomely framed for only $59.95!" Odd, I haven't heard from him since.

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4th. I'm in Kansas. Much of the state looks a lot like the rest of the state. I follow a sign to Prairie Dog Town, a battered quonset hut just off the interstate. A strange animal sound blares from the outdoor loudspeaker. Is it the five-legged calf? The world's largest groundhog? Curiosity draws me inside, where a curio shop sells souvenir cow pies (We Mail Anywhere!). But the five-legged calf is on sabbatical and the "world's largest groundhog" is just a pony in a furry fright wig. Not bad, though.

I follow another sign towards "Castle Rock." The pavement ends. I drive on, hoping for a glimpse of the Rock, but all I see is dust, much of which is pouring through the open window. Better sense prevails--but only after an hour's worth of worse sense--and I give up and head for Denver, where some other friends welcome me with a hot meal: porridge.

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5th. Didn't get much sleep. My friends gave me a futon, an oriental mattress stuffed with straw and weevils. The only way to get comfortable is to not sleep on it. Also I had to share the room with two antsy guard dogs and a cage of hyperactive canaries.

I decide to visit another chum in the neighborhood. Instead of stopping by to chat, I wait outside his house till he's inside, then sneak up and tape a While You Were Out note to the front door. Now west again, following that road to the left, up and over the Rocky Mountains, Beethoven thundering from the cassette player, down the other side, and on into Utah.

If you like rocks and canyons, this is a good state. There're plenty of fine vistas along the interstate; nevertheless, I get off and head for Capitol Reef National Park, a weird land of petrified hills. Imagine a rock garden cultivated by Salvador Dali. I follow a road in my atlas, except it isn't road. Last year my cat vomited on Texas and the stain soaked through to Utah. I'm driving on the stain. Soon both stain and road peter out and I wind up backing up two miles in a driving rainstorm, the first of many adventures.

And here's the second. Around midnight I get lost on another narrow path, a rocky road with marshmallows the size of boulders strewn about. Swerving around the biggest ones, I happen upon a precipice. No, wait--it's the road down the mountain. Straight down. If I were in control of my senses I'd go back to the road the cat made but I'm not, so down I go. Later, wide awake, I pull over in, I think, Arizona.

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6th. But not for long. Hungry for adventure, I'm back on the road. Just before dawn I'm wandering the glittery streets of Las Vegas. Not much traffic at this hour, but there's enough neon to illuminate Nebraska. Four more hours of westness brings me to Garden Grove. And that's in California!

Ahh, California, where there's a shopping mall on every street corner, where people get in their cars to go upstairs, where restaurants are the only places to get a real home-cooked meal, and where a dog just ate my wallet. California! It's not just an adventure, it's a job! Yeah, I knew there was a reason I took the road to the left. Some old chums are marrying after living in an otherwise connubial fashion for 15 years. They want me to snap wedding pictures ... no doubt to keep me from performing Comfort Me, Ye Yak, which I'd written especially for the occasion. The two former friends get hitched without a hitch, then split for Mexico, leaving me to tend the three rabbits, the turtle, the fish, the cat, and the two dogs, one of which, like I said, ate my wallet. Part of my wallet. Left a couple quarters.

Garden Grove is one of a hundred cities and towns located in exactly the same spot in southern California. It would be a horrible place except (1) there's an excellent ice cream parlor nearby and (2) Disneyland is a scant 15 minutes down the road, 45 minutes if you obey the speed limit.

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12th. My foot hurts. See, this part of the country is mostly rain-free, so much of the neighborhood shrubbery is equipped with built-in sprinklers. They hide underground during the day, but at night pop up and spew borrowed artesian water every which way. After a five minute rest, they do it again. During those five minutes, it's quite possible for a person unfamiliar with the system to go dashing through the grass and meet one of these immovable objects head on.

More precisely, foot on.

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14th. Well, enough of this SoCal lifestyle, let's try some NoCal. I drive to San Francisco, where I tried unsuccessfully to mix electronic music and very bad poetry nine years ago under the unappreciated auspices of the Palace Monkeys Poets Band. I drop in unannounced on some friends, who're glad to see me as long as I don't slip into any iambic pentameter. Instead, I slip away into the foggy night, similarly unannounced. Left again, which is now north. A man-made brush fire obliterates the sky and smells like a gigantic loaf of burnt whole wheat toast. I head inland, in search of Burnt Lava Flow near Mount Shasta. I can't find it. Days pass. Well, one day passes. Actually, I'm not sure. My digital wristwatch is still on eastern time and, because of the five-year battery, I can't reset it till 1987.

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16th. Adventure #3. It's 5:45 in the morning. Foggy. I'm in Oregon, not far from the coast. The nearest town is called Drain. Did I mention that it was foggy? Real foggy. The road is narrow and winding. Oh, plenty of room for normal traffic, but to me normal traffic doesn't include a mammoth 500 pound deer hurtling out of the woods and charging the headlights. Thus do I open deer hunting season two weeks early, simultaneously turning the front of the car into an avant-garde metal sculpture. What a great way to build character!

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17th. I'm on San Juan Island, a slug-infested isle a couple miles from British Columbia, watching the sun for some unfathomable reason rise in the south while chickens fall from the sky and sap bubbles out of the cold water tap. The University of Washington has an outpost here where lonely scientists study the reaction of sea urchins to different colors of kelp, your tax dollars at work. A family of hungry killer whales followed me from the mainland and is now circling the island. How will I escape? Do you think karate will do any good? Hey, how much character-building do I need?

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20th. Disguised as a tourist with a bent car, I escape on the once-a-day ferry. Back on the mainland, I head for Mount Saint Helens. Quicker than you can say "Look out! LAVAaaaa!", the landscape changes from fertile forests to eerie desolation. The nearby Toutle River is choked with broken trees, the hills scarred with fire burn. Suddenly the road turns to slippery gravel. I react a split second too slowly and fishtail almost but not quite into the river. I stop at a tourist trap to See The Destruction Up Close! There is a lot of dust. Postcards, too, some of which feature views of New York City. I buy one of Central Park with one of the quarters that the dog didn't eat.

Racing down the Oregon coast now, I stop at Fogarty Creek State Park. Under the brilliant harvest moon, I climb down to the rocky Pacific shoreline and watch the ocean consume a flotilla of shooting stars.

Besides breaking in the car, which I'm doing at a prodigious rate, this trip has an alternate purpose: to locate the funniest state in the nation. I originally thought it was Nevada, but recently I've had a change of heart. There isn't any. There are only regional communities of sullen and sneering faultfinders who delight in conning gullible Americans out of their natural comedic tendencies. Not that I've personally lost my sense of humor, you understand.

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21st. South again, along a foggy, unguardrailed, serpentine road stocked with deer. I pass more state parks: Devil's Punch Bowl, Devil's Elbow, Devil's Pay Toilet, Devil's This, Devil's That. Sure are a lot of allusions to hell around here. On to NoCal, to LowCal, to SoCal ... and promptly back to hell.

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22nd. Smog in Los Angeles. The TV weather guy warned not to breathe the air today so I went down to the local supermarket and bought a gill.

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24th. To Grand Canyon. I feel like a tourist. I want to see the Canyon and I want to see it now! Trouble is, it's dark. Better find some shelter. There's no room at the youth hostel and lodge rooms are prohibitively stodgy, full of expensive people. That leaves the campground, a haven for cheapos like me. And I do, after all, have a tent. Six bucks and I'm in, with a parking space and a hunk of sod on which to set up the tent.

Pitch the tent, let's give me credit where it's due. I open the sleeping bag, crawl in and relax, contentedly smelling Canyon scents: the breeze whooshing through the trees, the pine from the towering ponderosas, the diesel exhaust from the Winnebago next door.

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25th. Dawn, the gentle autumnal zephyr which soothed me to sleep has turned into a gale, the summerlike temperature has nosedived, and I'm looking for a parka and galoshes. I get up to watch the sunrise, so does everyone else. Impressive but cold. Someone says it's lots warmer down by the river. Where? Down there? Are there any shortcuts? Besides the obvious goodbye-cruel-world-yahoo one, that is? No, only the trail. I make an executive decision--this from an inveterate non-executive--I'll hike down!

Say, how about riding a mule to the bottom! No experience necessary, just a hundred fifty bucks. What? For a mule that isn't even named Klondike? Like I said, this is a hiking adventure. Okay, I'd better assemble stuff to take, things that'll make me look like a real sourdough hiker person. Let's see, I'll take the bandages, the water purification tablets, some month-old granola, two packets of freeze-dried ice cream chips, a can of chocolate chip cake, extra clothes, and an ocarina. Oh and my camera, too. A sign warns of thieves lurking on the rim so I take my tape recorder, too. I understand that the heaviest item you're supposed to carry is water, but I don't have room for any. Experienced hikers prepare for these rim-to-river canyon jaunts for months. I've spent 15 minutes. Who do you suppose will win?

I start down, make good time. It is, after all, downhill. I do not, however, walk carefully, and by the time I reach the picturesque halfway mark--Indian Gardens, a tree-lined oasis four and a half miles from the top--my feet are sore and blistered. The temperature has risen to 80 and I no longer need the parka. I eat the ice cream chips, which don't resemble ice cream as much as they do plaster of paris. Luckily, I like plaster of paris. I walk an extra mile and a half to Plateau Point which overlooks the Colorado River. Swell. That goes for the view as well as for what my feet have begun to do. Also they feel numb. I stub my toe. Well, I sure as hell felt that, but now I can't walk particularly efficiently.

I start back up. Hip-hop, hip-hop, rest. Hop, hip-hop, rest. The temperature rises some more. My spirits sag commensurately. Any truth to the rumor that what goes down must come back up? Perhaps 15 minutes isn't quite enough time to get in the proper canyoneering frame of mind.

Hip, rest, hop, rest. Hop, rest, rest, rest. But finally I make it, and swear to be in better shape next time. Mostly I just swear. Then I drive back to SoCal, where real ice cream soothes me some more. If only I could walk!

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27th. Still can't walk in proper human fashion.

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30th. Limping painfully now, but that's good enough for Disneyland!

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November 1st. I drive in the rain to Yosemite National Park. En route, I'm finally able to locate that hunk of goat cheese I dropped in the car some weeks ago. Lodged under the seat, it has begun to reproduce and get ornery. I'm in Yosemite two hours before I figure out the road system, by which time it's dark and I have to set up the tent by flashlight. Too bad about the dead batteries.

The park is an official bear habitat, and you're supposed to keep all food out of the tent so peckish ursine visitors don't come knocking at the flap for a midnight snack. Makes sense to me, so I lay out the Grand Canyon leftovers around the tent. Maybe I can catch one! This would be a pretty nice place to camp, except the racket from all the waterfalls makes snoozing problematic.

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2nd. No bears showed up, but some ants stopped by. It's a bright and sunny morning and I hike to Mirror Lake, which is gradually evolving into Mirror Meadow--plenty of mirror but not enough water. Plenty scenic, too. Most of the touristos I run into are Tyrollean, a sign of the times, I guess. I wander around some more, make the requisite stroll down a tree-lined trail, snap a couple pictures, then I'm outta here.

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5th. Back in southern California, I attend a barbecue in Tarzana, great name for this jungle community on the Los Angeles outskirts. While folks sit languidly around the pool sipping margaritas, I'm inside washing dishes and rearranging the furniture. But all good times must come to an end, so I drive off into the night, looking for another road to follow.

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8th. I take the road to the right. That's east. By dusk I'm in Zion National Park in western Utah, dodging more deer. Perhaps they're attracted to the fur lodged in the front bumper. Somewhere smack dab in the middle of scenery, I pull over. Out comes the tent, out comes the sleeping bag, out comes the rest of the camping knick-knacks ... and that gives me just enough room to stretch out in the car with my legs pinned under the steering wheel.

Wrong Turn in Utah Wrong Turn in Utah

9th. Aha, it got cold. If only there'd been room for the tent in the car, or vice versa. I drive to Arches National Park in eastern Utah, a magnificent land of, like it says, arches, great hunks of rock eroded by the wind. More than 200 of 'em. Too many to see in an hour, I'll wait for the movie.

Arches Park No. 1 Arches Park

No I won't, I'll come back later. Meantime, I follow the sun in my rear view mirror. Outside of Moab, I venture onto Route 128, a marvelous road which follows the convolutions of the Colorado River canyon. I pass a road sign: Wash Floods During Rain. The pavement ends and a red clay trail leads down to a wash with real water coursing through it. More pavement, more hairpin curves around towering canyon walls, more wet washes. And another sign: Eight Foot Wide Bridge 15 Miles Ahead. Sure enough, after rounding a particularly perilous curve, there it is, the old, wooden, rickety Dewey Bridge. It's the only span across the Colorado in these parts, and an excellent barrier to Winnebagos. But that's the last of the adventures. An hour later, back on Interstate 70, a pallor falls over the drive.

Arches Park No. 2 Arches Park Pal

10th. Wait, another adventure! It's called Kansas! Yes, just getting from one side to the other without help from a controlled substance is indeed an adventure. And let's not forget Missouri, or Illinois, or Indiana ... mental adventures all. Ohio's a bit better because you have to watch out for the cops.

Arches Park No. 3 More Arches Park

13th. Still in Ohio, I bid a fairly fond farewell to everything west of the Alleghenies, with the exception of the goat and the dog who ate my wallet, and begin the home stretch. Three minutes before ten in the evening, after a 12,363-mile adventure, I emerge from a considerably broken-in car. Not tired. Hungry.


The Middle-Aged Hiker is Copyright ©1993-97,2002 by Dennis Báthory-Kitsz and David Gunn. All rights reserved.