To: Road Trip Gang
Subject: Death Valley Road Trip
This is an RTF-formatted email. God knows if it'll arrive that way.
Now, I know this account is wildly inaccurate, and I really don't care. I had to whip out something, and this is what it was. My memory is fading, so the facts that aren't dim and hazy I made up completely. For example, I think I added an extra day near Scotty's Castle. I don't recall whether we actually spent the night or pushed straight on to Vegas. And there are tons of little things I left out, like the plateless car that didn't pull over for the cop on I-5, Doug's friend in Vegas, the girl who tried to help the homeless, cursed the Vegas police force, and described demonstrating at the weapons research lab where my dad used to work.
These incidents are all as worthy of being in here as anything I written, but they're not. Feel free to call my attention to things I missed, but don't expect or be tortured by the fear of seeing a rewrite. I just think it's important to get any version of this reality down, no matter how skewed, so future anthropologists can see the trials faced by civilizations of our era.
Doug, thanks for the term, "special registration [and license] situation" which, if I remember correctly, I lifted wholecloth from "Chapters 6-7, Annotated." That seemed to drive the point home faster than anything I could think to say.
Enjoy, or don't.
To: Road Trip Gang
Subject: Death Valley Road Trip, Annotated in Blue
I Know What You Did Last Winter
-- by You, with blue additions by Doug and pretty pictures by Al
A savage journey into the
heart of the American Nightmare
It was dark. Real dark. Like night.
I was lying out under the stars, looking up at them. So yeah, I guess it was night. I was in a hole in Death Valley, like a shallow grave, cuddling a bottle of peppermint schnapps. I'd dug the hole with Al's folding army shovel, per his instructions. We all had. All of us except Al.
"I'll finish mine later," Al said, after poking around in the dirt a bit. "For now, I'd better go out in my [heated] 4x4 and round up some firewood."
"I'd better go with you," Doug said, and before Ken or I could say anything the two had taken off in our only four-wheel-drive vehicle, with the two-way radio and all the maps. We were alone with the stars and our holes in the ground. And the schnapps.
Originally, the holes were to shelter us from the icy mountain winds. "It'll be great," said Al. "You dig it so your head is pointing toward the fire, and that way the heat gets into the trench. But your sleeping bag is down out of the wind. Aren't you glad you brought along a survivalist?" But though the shallow graves did seem to take a few degrees off the subzero windchill, we were mostly grateful for the protection they gave us from the acrid black smoke that billowed from the tar-laden "logs" Al and Doug found, which looked suspiciously like railroad ties.
They'd arrived with the non-EPA certified logs just in time. I'd been nursing the kindling with dried scrub I'd dug up around the campsite using Al's shovel, until its handle snapped. As Al piled on the first black log, he failed to notice that familiar shovel handle was now feeding the main body of the waning blaze.
"Looks like I got here just in time," he said.
"Actually, I think the frostbite started setting in half an hour ago." I warmed my hands on Al's burning shovel handle for comfort.
This had all been Al's idea. He'd talked the other three of us into our desert quest.
"I take photos out there all the time," he'd told us. "When I read this article in Esquire Magazine, I recognized the place it was describing. I know where it is!"
The article was all about Charles Manson. At one point, it described Manson's Death Valley hideout. Some of the people who went missing out there have never turned up.
"I've been there!" squeaked Al, pointing at the article over the phone. "I've been right by that place!"
As with most pointless quests, we allowed ourselves to be pulled into this one mostly from a lack of imagination for inventing excuses not to go. Doug flew from New York to San Francisco, where I picked him up and drove to Southern California. We made one stop along the way. Outside of Coalinga, a 21-year-old AC/DC-blasting CHP officer flipped a U-turn across the median to discuss the extreme speed policy of the three car caravan I'd fallen into.
After some deep conversation about my special license and registration situation, we negotiated our way back onto the road in no time with Doug at the helm, by special request of Coalinga's Finest. On paper, Doug is a qualified driver. In real life, he sprayed dirt all over the CHP car while trying to grasp the concept of a stickshift. We spent the rest of the drive to Southern California discussing the extreme degree of safety the officer had imparted to the other I-5 drivers by forcing Doug out on the road amongst them.
In Southern California, we connected with Al, the survivalist, and Ken of the Weak Bladder. The four of us had all been DJs at our college radio station, where Doug and I spent the first night, me sleeping on the couch in the lobby, him on top of the file cabinets that held the classical music collection. We had reassembled to realize Al's dream of spending a night in Charles Manson's house.
The next dawn saw us asleep, preparing to embark on our journey to the heart of darkness. So did the next noon. At rush hour, we were on the freeway. By then, Doug had a fair inkling of my views on the rapidly deteriorating state of law enforcement in America.
"Isn't it great, the power I have?" -- Officer Jeff Coach, California Highway Patrol
Ken of the Weak Bladder rode with me. (I took the wheel once more, since we had made good our escape from Macon County.) Doug opted for Al's 4x4. I listened to Ken of the Weak Bladder's morose ramblings, with frequent interruptions, for the next four hours. By the time we stopped for supplies, the sun was setting and I could recite by memory most of the memos surrounding Ken of the Weak Bladder's recent sudden departure from his job at Symantec.
"Want to go with us?" Al asked the girl at the grocery store, as she rang up my cactus. Doug had packed a (non-flammable) broom to clean up the Manson place a bit, in case anyone visited it after us. I decided it would be nice to leave a houseplant behind; a cactus seemed the most practical choice.
For some reason, that clerk actually wanted to go with us. But it was sundown, and we were trying to get an early jump on the day. We abandoned her once she told us we'd have to wait two hours for her shift to end. As she was getting off work, we were already up in the mountains, pulled over on the "roadside."
"We want to turn right here," said Al, pointing to a dirt mound.
"I'm not sure my car will like that," I said.
"Just stick close to me," said Al. "Wait a minute while I switch on the four-wheel drive." Al and Doug took off up and over the hill, spraying the windshield of my father's old LeSabre with gravel as they went. I looked at Ken. "You really want to try this?" I asked. Ken looked at me. "Mind if I make a little pit stop first?"
We went about a half-hour into the night. Not only were there no streetlights, there were no towns on the horizon, no lights from airliners high overhead, no sign of anything else out here on the desert with us except the red taillights of Al's 4x4 bouncing along a quarter-mile ahead of us.
The LeSabre has a ground clearance of about eight inches when the tires are full. I estimated the largest rocks in the road at this point only stuck up about six inches. At first I was hanging back a bit to avoid traveling right in the plume of dust Al was kicking up as he went. Soon I realized he and Doug were getting farther ahead of us. I looked over at Ken. "Should we be going any faster?" he asked, trying not to look concerned.
The red taillights disappeared over the hill. Now it was just me, Ken and Ken's weak bladder, alone in the little pool of light our headlights threw in front of us. We came over the crest of the hill, expecting to see Al and Doug ahead of us. But there was nothing. We had left the girl at Von's in Hesperia two hours behind us, and in front of us, Al and Doug had disappeared.
They had the food.
"Well, what do you want to do?" I asked Ken, as I slowed the car to a crawl. The road was still good. "Try turning off your lights," he suggested. I did. We sat there for a moment. Nothing. I turned off the engine, hoping to hear them idling somewhere off the road ahead, waiting to surprise us. Nothing. I turned to Ken again. "This is fun, right?" I asked. "Long as we're here," he said, "mind if I step out of the car for a minute?"
After he zipped up, I turned on the engine again and headed down from the crest of the hill, following the straight dirt road through the sagebrush. Then I had an idea. If they were waiting off the road for us to go by, I could find them by circling around, pointing my headlights in every direction. I looked over at Ken as I veered off to the right, through the sage, and I thought I caught a little extra white in his eye, in the light reflected from the dashboard. "You know, Charles Manson went insane up here in the desert," he suggested helpfully. "Don't worry, I know what I'm doing," I muttered.
It was slow going, pushing through the tumbleweed and sage. Suddenly there was a thump, and Doug was on the hood, breathless. I slammed on the brakes, and Ken and I jumped out of the car. Doug was in paroxysms of laughter, between wheezing. He's not exactly Jesse Owens, and we were at high altitude. "You should have [wheeze] ha-ho-ho-ho [wheeze] you should have [wheeze] seen [wheeze] ho-ho-ha-ha-ha [wheeze] the looks [wheeze] on your faces . . . " Oddly enough, Ken and I weren't laughing.
Al showed up just as fast, and was just as amused until he saw how unamused we were. "Maybe this would be a good spot to stop for dinner," he suggested, trying to warm the chill. "Yeah," I offered, "and maybe this would be a good spot for you and Doug to take out the maps and show us where we really are."
(Episode with the train lights goes here.)
That was the night we dug the holes and slept outside, in the freezing desert. Except for Al. When he'd found his broken shovel, he turned melancholy. Not too melancholy to drink my peppermint schnapps -- just melancholy enough to sleep it off in the sealed and upholstered confines of his truck, while we curled outside in the dirt. Somehow it didn't bother me as much as it might have during the night when the wind turned and started blowing all the smoke in through the truck's rear window.
The next dawn saw us asleep, preparing to embark on our journey to the heart of darkness. The merciless sunrise didn't let us sleep until noon.
In retrospect, we weren't the most conscientious campers that desert has ever seen. Though we picked up our trash and put out the fire, we left behind a terrain scarred with potholes where I'd dug up the scrub, and a charred patch of railroad tieish logs under its own hellish little ozone hole. From the air, it probably looked a lot like the Bushwood Country Club in the closing scene of "Caddyshack," after Karl's gopher assault. Nothing like a little low-impact camping.
We saddled up and headed off into the unknown, to find Charles Manson's house.
(We took a detour to see the Pinnacles. In retrospect it wasn't a particular high point of the trip--things got much spookier later. But the Pinnacles actually was why we took that long dirt road through the night. Al wanted to wake up and have everybody get their first glimpse of them in the dawn light. As it turned out, when dawn came, we were too intrigued looking at the gully Greg had come about fifty feet from driving into the night before to really spend much time oohing and aahing over the incredible rock formations. But it was a nice idea.)
(The episode where we take pictures of ourselves goes here.)
[Pic: Doug, Greg, Ken, Al, wearing coats on 82 degree salt flats and throwing "snowballs"]
(We should also probably insert a thing here about the pool hall in Trona where we found all those troglodytes hanging out in the middle of the day, while we waited for our pizza to be ready. "You from Smog City?" the one guy asked, after Greg set him up for a game of darts. We asked him why he wasn't working at the chemical factory that was the only thing in Trona. We had smelled it from our campground the night before. "Emphysema," he explained. "I'm on workman's comp.")
"We want to turn right here," said Al, pointing to a dry creek bed.
"I'm not sure my car will like that," I said.
"Uh, it gets a lot worse," said Al. "Maybe you'd better go all the way around to Scotty's Castle and see if you can find this road that comes in the back way, somewhere between the castle and Badwater."
"How hard could that be?" I said. "But just in case there's a problem, I presume there's a bar at Scotty's Castle. You can meet us there."
"Deal," said Al.
"Before we split up, would it be possible to get you and Doug to entrust us with one of your maps, just in case we lose our way?"
"You can't lose your way. It's all paved highway."
For a few more hours, Ken of the Weak Bladder awoke periodically to point out gas stations of interest. After a few U-turns and with little fanfare, we suddenly arrived at the road to Charles Manson's house. It was a washboard path of hardened mud that wound across a plain to the mountain where we'd last seen Al and Doug alive.
100 yards into the road to Manson's house, I stopped. Even at 15 miles per hour, the clatter caused by the washboards threatened to drive our teeth through our skulls. I got out to make sure no vital car parts had fallen off.
"Well, we tried."
"Yeah. Back to the bar?"
"Sounds good. Can we stop at a gas station on the way?"
A few drinks later, Doug and Al showed up with ashen faces.
"We had to edge through an area with a sheer cliff up on one side and a sheer cliff down on the other," said Doug through a martini. "The road was just wide enough for our tires. And all I could think the whole way was, 'I hope this path doesn't end, because we aren't going to survive backing up.'"
"Did you make it to Chuck's house?" I asked.
"We think so," said Al. "It was behind someone else's house. But it's a long road up to that house. We thought about it and decided that it's probably not a good idea to trespass on the property of Charles Manson's next-door neighbor late at night."
We fell silent and tended to our drinks to ward off the sobering effects of Al's latent common sense.
The next dawn saw us asleep, preparing to embark on our journey to the heart of darkness. By noon, we were in Las Vegas.
We met other friends and generally had an enjoyable time for the rest of our stay. The most notable part about Vegas was the clown at Circus Circus. We talked to him for awhile. His life story rolled sadly along, like every TV show Michael Landon ever made strung end-to-end, minus those last five minutes where all the problems get resolved.
He kept trying to keep up his clown smile, but the man was clearly about to crack. He talked in hushed tones and tried to turn away from the hidden casino cameras as he finished describing his failed entertainment career and confided in us the dogfood wages he earned as a casino clown. By the time we left him, the clown had so thoroughly depressed himself that we all agreed it was just as well nobody told him we'd just come from Charles Manson's house.
That was pretty much the end of our road trip to Manson's house. The ride home was pleasantly uneventful, except for the ride back through Coalinga, which was just uneventful. I made it home, took a shower, looked up a traffic attorney, and thought about my road companions. I especially thought of Al who, 400 miles behind, was lying back to discover that someone had put his toolbox under his futon mattress. Even before we left his house to go to the desert, I'd known he'd do something to deserve it.
It was over. But back during that cold desert night out under the stars, I'd had a moment. I looked up through the oily stench of that fire. I thought back on my life, and of all the stupid things I'd done up to that point. There are, of course, a lot of them. And it hit me right then, as it hits me right now.
Those are the things I remember best.
I don't know what that means. But I'm sure it means something.
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