by Ray Isle
It was 1987, and I was an outsider. After all, didn't I have the requisites? Check it out. I'd moved that year to Austin, Texas, a fine place for would-be outsiders. I'd found an appropriately shitty job, working as a "reservationist" on the 800-number for Sheraton Hotels. And I had the other crucial outsider qualifications: The Membership in a Bad Band. The Miserable Hole To Live In. And, crucially, The Substantially-More-Put-Together Girlfriend. Patrizia. Student of law. Beautiful, smart, German. And understanding. So far.
Despite all this, I felt overcome by the squalor and pointlessness of my life. Sure, I was an outsider. My fellow reservationists, mostly Air Force wives from Bergstrom Air Force base, could vouch for that: "You're in a band called The Stumps? That's gross." "Who'd want to listen to a band called The Stumps?" Well, no one, except maybe Waxface Jeff, our roadie; but that might have been an act since we were also his biggest customers for the lousy pot he sold out of the house we all lived in.
I was beginning to catch on. Being an outsider meant being no one. And given that Patrizia was about to graduate from law school and start making $80,000 a year, my no-one-hood boded ill. Our love was about to have oxygen injected into its veins by the assassin of financial incompatibility. Things, it seemed, were about to suck.
So, a Friday afternoon in late July. I am sitting in my sound-baffled nook, inventing for a lawyer from Detroit the sublime glories of the Sheraton Bora-Bora.
"The beach? The beach is fucking gorgeous. White sand, acres of it. You climb down these curving wooden stairs from the hotel-which is on this cliff you've got to see to believe. The water? The water is beyond real. It's unearthly. Better than Yves Klein's 'Universal Blue.'"
"What?" The guy's a litigator. "Fucking" he understands; Yves Klein, no. "Listen, I don't give a shit about this Klein guy. All I know is I need a room. Two weeks, check out the fourteenth. Make it a suite."
Sipping black coffee, staring out darkened windows at the supra-luminant natural world, I watch Patrizia cleave rapidly away through azure, expense-account waters. I see clouds like Egyptian cotton pillowcases, sand like silk. And if I lean over slightly, I can even see myself. On the shore. In a little blue uniform. Raking up the monkey shit.
"OK, this is what I want," the litigator says. "I want a mini-bar, I want a king-size bed, I want-"
I disconnect him. Hey, I'm an outsider, aren't I? Clearly it is time to get out.
"Guadalupe Mountains?" Patrizia was puzzled. Whenever she was puzzled, she looked stern. "What are the Guadalupe Mountains? This is Texas. There are no mountains."
I explained. National Park. Just east of El Paso. Guadalupe mountain itself, highest point in Texas. Arid. Hostile. Rocky. Cactus. Mesquite. Gila monsters. Rattlesnakes. Bobcats-
"I have advanced torts," Patrizia said, sternly.
"Gosh, Zipa, you ought to get something for that."
Patrizia laughed, so lightly that it wasn't entirely clear whether she was laughing at all. What was clear were the white, sharp tips of her perfect teeth. "Funny," she observed, without a trace of amusement. She hated being called Zipa.
She said, "This is one of those male things, isn't it."
"This is not a 'male thing.'"
"No, it's a male thing." She added with certainty, "You should go alone."
Well, good. After about five seconds of thinking about it, I realized Patrizia was right. This was a male thing. High time, too! No more of this namby-pamby camping-trip b.s. Screw that. Camping trips were for families and tourists. I could already feel myself puffing up with maleness, like one of those colorful Amazon toads. No sir: if you are twenty-two, disaffected, and not in the company of your girlfriend, one thing you do not do is go on a camping trip. What you do is engage the wilderness one on one. You test yourself. You see what you're made of. It's a pre-Jesus activity, a been to the edge and survived trip. It's starving yourself in a pit while eating hallucinogenic mushrooms (though not the kind our guitarist, Dave, had harvested two weeks back off some particularly promising cow shit in a field near Bastrop. On ingestion they had made him go blind for eleven hours. Proof once again that the Road to Enlightenment is not without its potholes.) It's being Richard Harris in that movie "A Man Called Horse," where Comanches haul you up in the air by means of sticks stuck through your chest muscles, though I really wasn't keen on anything quite that extreme. In any case, you hunt down personal epiphany and wrest it from the bloody jaws of the unthinking wilderness. That's the general gist of the thing.
"You're right," I told Patrizia. "This is something I need to do. Alone."
"Of course I'm right."
"I'll miss making love under the stars, though."
"Making love under stars is itchy. If you come back, we can make love in the bed."
Something was bothering me, though. "If I come back? What the hell's that supposed to mean?"
Patrizia shrugged. "You never know."
Five a.m., a sleepy goodbye kiss from Patrizia still on my lips. I am packing the back of my 1977 Ford Fairlane station wagon with the rudiments of survival. Tent, lantern, sleeping bag, pillow, ground sheet, foam liner, another pillow, backpack, flashlight, rope, camp stove, propane canisters, walkman, one hundred and thirty cassette tapes in two faux-leather cases, paperback copies of Moby Dick, Desert Solitaire, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a quarter ounce of Waxface's best skunkweed, rolling papers, canned tamales, canned chili, canned beef stew, a canned plum pudding complete with hard sauce (my mother had given it to me for Christmas), cigarettes, jar of instant coffee, styrofoam cooler, beer, more beer, a fifth of Famous Grouse blended scotch whiskey, bottled water, magnesium flares, topographical maps, spf55 sunscreen, one hundred and twenty dollars in traveler's checks, running shoes, hiking boots, moleskin, insect repellent, oranges, a snakebite kit, several aluminum pots, a can opener, two ten pound dumb-bells, and a guitar.
Presently Patrizia joins me in the driveway, holding a cup of coffee.
"These are all necessities."
"I did not say anything."
"You were doing that saying something without saying anything thing."
She sips her coffee again. "Have fun," she suggests. "If you kill anything, be sure to bring me back its head."
It was in the hundreds as I rambled up the access road to Dog Canyon campground, the Fairlane bottoming out every fifty feet. I'd decided to skip the south end of the park. Enough of this candy-ass forest shit, I wanted aridity, sterility, the rattlesnake slipping through the eye-socket of the cow skull, the sun like God's disapproval. Baking salt flats. Million year drought.
I had my shirt unbuttoned. I was wearing sunglasses, smoking a Camel. The wind was ruthless. Squinting against it, I felt weathered and tough, Clint Eastwood in hightops and shorts. There was no one around. The hot, desolate, wind cracked past empty picnic tables. I parked and got out.
The silence was immense.
Sheraton Hotels had never even heard of this place.
An hour later, I was sitting on the picnic table of the site I'd selected, reading Moby Dick and batting the persistent desert gnats away from my eyes, nose, and ears. Abruptly the silence, the immense silence, my silence, was rent by a rumbling. A wedge of large men wearing leather and denim roared into the campground on Harleys. Jokers, their jackets said. Fort Worth Chapter. Here was I, holding my book, wearing a baseball cap, sunscreen smeared on my nose like Crisco. If I'd had a jacket like theirs it would have read "lightweight" or maybe "panty-boy" and been embroidered by my mother.
I decided to keep reading, to show my nonchalance. The Jokers disappeared to the far end of the campground. About fifteen minutes later one of them sauntered up. He looked like a thirty-year-old version of a kid named Randy Ray I'd gone to junior high with. Motorcycle boots, no shirt, jeans impacted with grease, long red hair in a ponytail, pockmarked skin, gray teeth. A stomach you could crack nuts on. Randy Ray had sat down next to me at lunch once, and rather out of the blue informed me in his bolted-down rural Texas accent that the "best thing about them souvenir bats they give away at Astros games?" was that you could "wrap yourself some bicycle chain around the big end, get some duct tape on there, make yourself a real good nigger-knocker that way." Then he'd whipped out a butterfly knife, removed my sandwich from my hands, whacked off half of it, said, "Thanks, dickweed," and walked off.
This adult version of Randy Ray flipped a glassine envelope onto the table next to me. "You want to buy some crank, man? Good shit."
Hey, I was a Stump, man. I knew how to be cool.
"Not today. Thanks anyway." I handed the envelope back to him.
He studied me for a moment. Then he palmed the speed and checked out my campsite. Nylon tent, backpack leaning against the car, styrofoam cooler, guitar, dumbbells.
"What are you doing-camping?"
The amused, boot-to-the-head twist he'd given the word camping didn't make me optimistic. "Yes I am," I said.
He smiled. I recognized that smile: Bruce Lee smiles just the same way in Enter the Dragon right as he's crushing some poor fool's trachea with his foot.
Randy Ray said, "Come on over and party with us later, man. If you're up for it. We're gonna get fucked up."
E.L., the manager of the Guadalupe Salt Flats KOA Kampground, thirty minutes away on highway 90, turned out to be a very sweet old guy. He even reduced my campground fee by five dollars after I explained that, no, I did not need an electrical hookup for my "recreational vehicle."
The following morning I drove to the forested end of the park. I was relieved, even as I felt irked with myself for feeling that relief. But here was normality. The gravel road wound through stands of piñon pine and gray oak. Pale clouds scudded through the hot sky. Birds sang. The air smelled rosiny and fresh. Ahead, the brown-painted cinderblocks of a ranger station rose, inviting, a battered drinking fountain by the door. The U.S. flag fluttered overhead.
"Hey, how you doing, buddy?" the ranger called when I went in. He was a little too friendly for my tastes.
I was doing fine, I muttered, and went through the business of registering for a campsite.
"Tell you what, I'll put you over there by the creek," he said. "That's real nice. One thing, you might want to keep an eye out for the turkey." He nodded, checking slowly over the form I'd filled out. "See, there's this flock of wild Mexican turkeys livin around here, you might want to keep an eye out for the gander. Kinda thinks the campground's his kingdom." He chuckled, evidently amused by the turkey's territorial delusions.
"A turkey," I said.
With the same nonchalance I'd attempted yesterday, I observed, "Well. It can't be any worse than a motorcycle gang."
"Are they up at the canyon again? Goddamn, those guys are worse than fire ants."
Nothing is more irritating to false nonchalance than real nonchalance. Nevertheless, as I was leaving it occurred to me to ask, "So-what are you supposed to do if this turkey decides it's feeling aggressive?"
The ranger laughed uproariously. I was more irritated. We both waited for him to catch his breath. Finally he did.
"Oh, just make a lot of noise. Yell at him. Shoo him off! That old boy'll get scared, he'll figure out what's what."
Noon. I am pounding the stakes of my tent into the hard-packed West Texas dirt. Shirt off, sweating bare-backed in the sun. Testosterone pumping through the every fiber of my body. This is it, maleness, solitude, cojones grandes. I feel strong. I feel powerful. Then I hear the gobbling.
It occurred to me, briefly, to pay attention to it. But really, who gave a shit if there were a hundred turkeys roosting in this campground? My run-in with the Jokers had left me analytical and cold, and not very willing to back down. I had come out here to go mano a mano with the brutal truth of nature, after all, not to spend my time worrying about fat birds so mindless that if you leave them standing outside in the rain they drown.
The gobbling ululated again, causing me to whack my last tent stake into a pretzel shape. "Damn," I said and looked up. At the top of the dusty rise behind my camp, a large turkey had appeared. It was bronze in color, wings tipped in white. It held its ruddy, wattled neck and head high. It looked something like a rotund vulture, but lower to the ground.
I tossed the useless tent stake aside and stood up, wiping the sweat off my face.
The turkey paused at the crest. In a sort of Napoleonic moment, it took in the camp, and saw me. Its head cocked to attention. Then it gave a particularly strident gobble, and trotted down the slope.
My thoughts can be transliterated, roughly, as these: It's a turkey. Give me a fucking break.
I picked up an aluminum pot and my heavy-duty can opener. Make noise? OK. You got it. I was going to scare the bejesus out of this bird.
So as the turkey came down the hill I went up to meet it, banging on my pot and yelling, "Shoo! Shoo! Hyah!" and that was when I learned my first lesson in Turkey Behavior 101. What I learned is that turkeys don't give a shit when you make noise. Maybe they don't have ears. I still don't know. I do know that as soon as I got near it, banging away and hollering, amused and very pleased with myself, the turkey leaped into the air. It battered me with its wings, and raked at my face with enormous black claws.
"Jesus Christ!" I said, and ran.
As soon as I got about ten feet between us I turned and started banging on the pot again, harder this time. "Hah! Shoo! Get out of here!" I yelled.
This time the turkey tried to tear my face off.
"Jesus Christ!" I yelled, again, and ran.
We went through this three or four times. Then I punched a hole in the bottom of my pot with the heavy end of the can opener. "Uh oh," I said. The turkey quickly launched a brutal counter-assault, buffeting me and gobbling and trying to crawl up my chest. I flung the pot aside and dashed to my car, thinking for some reason as I did, Good Lord, what if I get hepatitis from this thing?
Therapy can sort out why I feel turkeys might be a source of hepatitis. In the meantime, let's hold me suspended in air, as the car door slams shut, and consider some of the facts of this situation:
This is late July on the Texas-New Mexico border. Now, the average temperature in late July along the Texas-New Mexico border is something like ninety-eight, ninety-nine degrees, Fahrenheit, but this day in particular happens to be about one hundred and five. Even the flies have passed out. The car I have just vaulted into is a dark blue Ford Fairlane station wagon, circa 1979, with dark blue vinyl seats. It has been sitting in the direct sun, windows sealed, for something like four hours. And I am wearing shorts, and no shirt.
Soon after entering my recreational vehicle, I realized a moment of extreme lucidity. This was followed by pain. I made a horrible noise, something like a shrill gobble, in fact, and then proceeded to levitate, a skill I had not known I possessed until that moment.
Outside the turkey took up position on top of my picnic table and started eating my Doritos.
At that point I had my epiphany. I had come to the wilderness looking for an epiphany, of course, and though this was not the epiphany I had hoped for it would have to do. What occurred to me was that even in the direst of circumstances, trapped in a car as hot as a pizza oven, nagged at by the thought that (a) you have just been outfought and even outstrategized by a bird most people consider holiday dinner, and (b) that back in the civilized world your friends are investing in mutual funds, your girlfriend is checking out Mercedes sports coupes, and you are still buying canned tamales for dinner; despite all this, the wonderful thing about nature is that poverty asks no comparisons there. Even that Detroit lawyer, sunning himself on his Sheraton beach in Bora Bora, could have his legs chewed off by a shark if he didn't watch it.
Whereupon a Range Rover drove into the campsite one down from mine. It parked, and a wiry, balding fellow of about forty got out and stood, hands on hips, observing the site he'd selected. Moments later a much younger, much taller woman with a lot more hair than he had (all blonde and rumpled up in a gosh-isn't-athletic-sex-wonderful kind of way) poured herself out of the passenger side of that forty thousand dollar vehicle. She flowed up to him, more liquid than mercury, and started nuzzling his ear. The turkey studied the two of them, then me, and in a turkey insight of startling clarity understood that epiphanies were bullshit. It returned its attention to my Doritos. The bald guy and his girlfriend opened the swing-back of the Rover and vanished inside. Within moments it began to bounce.
Sexual jealousy, I've found, often leads directly to inspiration. Crouched there, sweating, sucking in the superheated air, trying not to come in contact with any surface, I came to a conclusion. The conclusion was simple: this was ridiculous. This was sad, man. This was pitiful. This was citizenship in the country of wimps. Randy Ray would have laughed in my face, then eaten my canned plum pudding. Hell, Patrizia probably would have, too. Get real, I told myself. You're a human being. A tool-using creature. And that thing out there?
The turkey, serene in its inarguable turkeyness, not hungry for existential justification (or even anything at all, since it had now finished my Doritos), settled down for what looked like an extended roost on my picnic table. Fuck you, I thought. If I'd had a shotgun at that moment dinner that night would have been extravagant.
I had no gun. But-call it a second epiphany-it did occur to me that I had a brain.
I moved. The turkey cocked its head and gave a low warning gobble, but I was fast, scuttling from the station wagon, ape-like and low to the ground, scooping up stones from the dirt. And as the turkey launched itself from table to earth, I hit it in the ass with a rock.
Success! It seemed worried. I hurled another rock, advancing. That's right, bird, know what you're dealing with? Monkey-boy ascendant! Opposable fucking thumbs! I whipped stones at it. It ran. There's one for terraced farming, pal, and one for irrigation. How about another, for Copernicus? What about the internal combustion engine? The turkey scooted up the hill, gobbling worriedly. I grabbed more stones. I was filled with righteousness. Screw nature, man, give me civilization! Plug in the amps, kick out the jams, let's hear it for calculus and philosophical inquiry, steel-toed workboots and heavy industry, freeze-dried hiking rations and Gore-Tex, distortion and the Fender Stratocaster.
The turkey? Gobbling in outrage it topped the rise, and vanished.
"You threw rocks at a bird?"
I was on the pay phone behind the ranger station, talking long-distance to Patrizia in Austin. "You don't understand, this thing was huge!"
"You had a fight with a turkey?"
"Patrizia, listen, the thing was nuts! It was like this giant, rabid bird!"
"You were frightened by a turkey and so you threw rocks at it? This makes you proud?"
"Well, yes and no," I said. "But it was really very big. Huge, Zipa. Prehistoric."
"Good thing you were alone. I might have shrieked and needed protection."
Ah, sarcasm. How I'd missed it. Patrizia would have needed no protection. She would have snapped the turkey's neck, roasted it over an open fire, then fixed us turkey sandwiches.
Dusk hung over us both, and over the six hundred miles between us.
On my way back to the camp I nearly ran smack into the blonde girlfriend of the Range Rover pilot as she delicately stepped from the women's porto-can.
"You're the guy just one up from us, aren't you?" she said, in her melted-butter voice.
I admitted this was true. Then I asked her if she was enjoying her camping trip.
"My God, last night we partied with this motorcycle gang, the Jokers. I was freaked out of my wits. But Alan, my boyfriend, he was great with them, they loved him. It was amazing. He's in criminal defense in Dallas. He deals with guys like them all the time."
No, no pride. But even if you can't squeeze pride out of the aged lemon of life, sometimes you can still recover a few small, sour drops of victory:
I am heating my tamales for dinner when out of the dark heart of the night the primordial gobbling rises again. It bubbles up like oil, undaunted and instinctual. And down on the flatlands the balding guy waves up to me. He's looking a little desperate. His girlfriend is huddled behind their picnic table. He's dodging and feinting as the turkey advances.
He yells, "Excuse me, buddy, but do you know what we're supposed to do about this thing?"
Panty-boy. Lightweight. "Oh sure, just make a lot of noise! It'll get scared and run away."
I figure five minutes. Maybe ten. More than enough. Then, hormones humming like magic, I can head down into that violent darkness and save them.
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