i made the boy, dammit! my fault! he’s MINE!

Couple of rows up from me on a crowded plane, a plum-faced baby squalls, demon-possessed. Its rubbery arms flail like an octopus under a sashimi knife. The parents avoid eye contact from everyone on the plane, including each other. But the red tips of their ears tell a different story, and I know, because I’ve Been There. Some animals kill their young. I just nod to myself and remember. My kids are terrific travelers.

But it wasn’t always that way. Oh, no.

Mid-June, many years ago now. Moving day. We were at DFW airport, ready to fly to northern California, the Bay Area, our new home. The weather was typical Dallas summer: hot as habaneros, dry as a saucer of toasted dust. A three and a half hour plane ride to 72 degree daytime highs sounded just fine.

The older son and I were reading the fifth Harry Potter book together. Order of the Phoenix had just gone on sale that day, and the airport was a surreal blue sea of identical book jackets. There were more Harry Potter hardcovers at the airport than Bibles at a north Dallas Baptodome. Young or old, pre-teen, pilot or priest: every nose was buried deep in a copy of that book, and apart from the rustling of paper leaves it was dead silent.

Aboard the plane, my wife, our toddler and my mother were sitting together some rows up ahead of me, with our cat tucked under the seat in a kitty travel bag. I had it easy. I sat  with our seven-year-old, our heads pulled together as I quietly read Harry Potter to him. The continued cries of a toddler somewhere up ahead were successfully ignored in favor of Hogwarts. That is, until my mother suddenly appeared in the aisle.

“I think your wife would like me to trade places with you. Now.” I bent sideways into the aisle and saw Marci’s fuzzy hair sticking up over the back of her seat like Bride of Frankenstein. Was that the foot of our 18-month old son sticking up through her tangle like a fleshy hair pick? Uh oh. I got up and gave my mom my seat.

As I walked up the aisle past enough copies of Order of the Phoenix to fill a small bookstore, the wailing grew louder. Marci’s panicked face turned toward me. “I can’t get him to stop crying!”

Clearly, our youngling just needed to move around. I took crying little Geran for a walk through the plane. Nothing doing. He let his stumpy little legs go limp and screamed as I dragged him through the aisle.

I tried bouncing Geran on my knee. Giving him some milk. Tickling him. Talking soothingly. These had about the same effect as a mosquito standing at the mouth of a Howitzer would have on the trajectory of the shell. He kept crying nonstop. I don’t think he peed the entire flight—any liquid we poured into him came streaming out of his eyes and nose.

Meanwhile, Kishka the cat remained quiet under Marci’s seat, stoned on kitty sedatives. “How’s the cat?” I asked Marci, raising my voice above the level of Geran’s hollering.

“She hasn’t made a sound,” she said. “Been asleep the whole flight.”

“Do you think we could…?”

“No!” My wife gave a small laugh, just this side of hysteria, as Geran’s crying intensified. “I wish we could. No, we couldn’t possibly. Could we?” That’s how desperate we were at this point, sitting there avoiding eye contact with everyone else on the plane and contemplating giving cat sedatives to our toddler.

We were saved from potentially poisoning our child by the mere fact of having used up the last of the cat sedatives at the start of the flight. And the flight attendants refused to fill Geran’s baby bottle with red wine. So we gave up. We put the squirming, squalling little guy on the floor beneath his seat with a selection of small toys, hoping he would amuse himself into quieting down.

“Look, Geran! A toy! A little motorcycle! A plastic hamburger! Look, it’s My Little Pony! A rattle—want a rattle? How about a rubber duck? Take the damn duck, already!”

He was only 18 months old at this point, and pre-verbal. So visualize the next two-point-five seconds in slow motion Instant Replay:

Geran launches his chubby body off the floor and into his seat like a tiny pommel horse Olympian. Momentum plus piston-legs pole-vault him up the back of his chair. It’s the wind-up: he pinwheels his right arm in mid-air, and in a shot worthy of the World Series, hurls a plastic toy motorcycle with incredible force over the back of the seat. The small two-wheeled projectile cuts through the air with a blurred yellow wake. The toy smacks into the forehead of the middle-aged Asian woman sitting just behind us, knocking her senseless, cross-eyed, and thankfully too dazed to bring a lawsuit.

“That’s it!” I cried, grabbing my son by the back of his cotton one-piece. “You have lost all privileges as a human being!” I flipped him around, overpowering his surprisingly muscular contortions, and manhandled him into his car seat, where I buckled his five-point harness and cinced him in so tight it was amazing he could even draw breath.

And yet, he managed.

Oh, how that child could draw breath, like Superman blowing out a raging fire in a Metropolis office tower. Geran let loose with a banshee screech of such staggering intensity it blew the hair off my forearms and caused the plane to lurch. And he didn’t stop. His face turned so red I thought his head would pop off. He wailed so loudly and constantly he must have been drawing air in through his butt in a constant loop, like an air-raid siren warning that we were under attack.

As far away as ten aisles in front of us, frowning women and men turned in their seats and stared back to glare at the Bad Parents. Marci sank down and put her hand over her face in shame, but I just couldn’t take it anymore. I unbuckled my seatbelt, stood up and raised my hands in surrender, crying out to the plane for all to hear:

“It’s my fault! I’m the bad father! I made him! I admit it! He’s mine, you hear me? He’s MINE!”

I sat down, exhausted. Row after row of knowing parents and experienced travelers nodded their heads in satisfaction and returned to their newly-minted hardbacks of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Not another word was said. Within minutes, Geran wore himself out and passed out in his safety seat, to sleep peacefully for the rest of the flight.

And when we landed in San Francisco, he awoke and smiled, and cooed and burbled and waved joyfully to everyone as I held him up to my shoulder. He blew bubble kisses to all as we passed up the aisle, and when we reached the flight attendant at the front of the plane, she cooed at him, and said, “My, what a happy little boy! Why, he’s just an angel! An angel!”

And he was.

 

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the memory of persistence, part two

Someday I’ll write My Lesion Of Honor. In the meantime, file this one under More Stories About Surgery.

As I recall, our firstborn was a few years old, and very curious. That is to say, he was filled with curiosity, in addition to being strange and unusual. The two of us were outdoors at a family Sukkot celebration, and the then-little guy was asking questions like, “Where is God?”

And I was answering in your standard “God is everywhere” form, because that’s what you do. Benny would point to various places and ask if that’s where God was, and I’d say, “You betcha. God’s there, too. Yes, God is behind those bushes. Yep, those bushes, too. And in that car. Sky? Sure thing. In the building? Sure.”

He pointed to his head. “Is God in here?”

“Uh, yeah. God’s in there as well.” Apparently my answers were incomplete, as he later concluded that if God was everywhere, God may as well be nowhere, and in that case why was I making him go to Sunday school? Anyway, about this time I started feeling pain in my abdomen, which intensified to the point at which I was smiling at friends through my gritted teeth and heading to the car. I rationalized it away as an allergy to questions about God. Either that, or God was also in my abdomen and really, really wanted out.

When we got home, I remember Marci opening the door for us. I remember the look on her face as she saw me get out of the car slowly, as bent over as a pipe cleaner in a hurricane. She was instantly concerned. “Are you okay?”

“No.” Notice the monosyllable there? It’s not particularly characteristic of me.

“Do you need to go to the hospital?”

Now, I should point out that this is not something that Marci normally says, and of course its not something that I would normally answer in the affirmative. So it’s quite revealing of my level of discomfort when I answered, “I might.”

While I moaned in bed she was able to reach the good Dr. B, who asked me several questions and made the quite correct diagnosis of acute appendicitis. Shortly thereafter I was in the operating room, having my appendix out laparoscopically, which means that the doctor stuck three oversized soda straws into my belly and sucked the inflamed organ out without having to slice me open. This is, of course, much preferable to the old method, which was to cut the patient in half laterally with a band saw, remove the swollen appendix with a Hoover vacuum and a pair of tin snips, stuff the wound with straw and then collect the deceased’s insurance.

So the appendix was retrieved just before it burst open like a microwaved hot dog. We had the useless and swollen sac bronzed, and now I use it as a bludgeon against opponents twice my age and half my size. Or: we buried it in the back yard and it grew into a tree that blooms clusters of Addendums every spring. Actually, I donated it to the Masai, who turned it into a coin purse and sold it to the Smithsonian as a cultural artifact.

The surgery was on Monday morning. I spent a few days unable to straighten from the fetal position, rigid and semi-colonic (in the punctuation sense. Not sure what other sense semi-colonic could be, other than nonsense). Then I took off Friday with Marci, Sharon and Ben to go camping in the Ouachita Mountains between Oklahoma and Arkansas.

“Wha??” you say. And well you migh. Makes no sense, but there you have it. Surgery on Monday, tent camping on Friday. To be fair, my companions had to do the heavy lifting and set up the gear, but by Sunday we were hiking through the wooded hills of western Arkansas. I was no longer comma-shaped, and, if not upright as an inverted Mexican exclamation point, at least I stood straighter than a parenthesis.

 

http://www.dsbenson.com

the memory of persistence, part one

In a few weeks I’ll head into a surgery that the invisible web gods describe as like having an enraged trio of feral polecats clawing through your nethers. Who wouldn’t look forward to that? Not to worry anybody—it’s not super serious, just apparently painful. A week and two days later, I’m supposed to take Geran for his first overnight camping trip with the Cub Scouts–a trip I took his older brother on several times. The camp is about two hours from San Francisco, up in the mountains. The last 30 minutes of the drive is a winding track of swiss-cheese dirt that’s more pothole than road, a bumpier ride than this year’s stock market.

It’ll be potentially interesting to see if I can make the trip. Interesting for other people, that is. For me, it’ll be more like the old proverb about the chicken and the pig. The chicken gives its eggs, so the chicken is interested in breakfast. But the pig—now, the pig is committed.

So I’m thinking about Persistence. At some point as you get older, you just Get Up And Do. As my pal Yoda says, “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Once, before the advent of children, Ben and Sharon had planned a camping trip to Caprock Canyons with Marci and me. It was to be the Nth trip there for the good doctor and me, but the first for the womenfolk. And the first time for Sharon to get hammertoe–as I recall, she ended up losing most of her toenails that trip to badly fitted shoes, so that’s Persistence on her part for sure. You can’t have a comfortable hike and end up with black and blue toenails, but she sacrificed her toenails for the greater good.

Sadly, Marci came down with a bad cold two days before the trip, and Ben and Sharon decided to go it alone. As you know from other stories, Caprock is a good five hour drive from Dallas, where we all lived at the time. Ben and Sharon called us to say goodbye on a Friday morning as they left Dallas and headed off to the wilderness.

Late that night, well after our friends would have arrived, hiked in and set up camp, Marci and I were readying for bed. She blew her nose and said, “I fink I’b feelig a bid bedder.” 

“Really? How much bedder?” 

“I duddo. Sub. Mebbe bedder enough to go hikig by toborrow.”

Well, then! I ignored that little voice that said she was crazy (because if I listened to invisible little voices, then I would be crazy) and let her go on to bed early while I hurriedly shoved our gear together—packs, water bottles, stove, food, tent. Back then we were more ready for camping than we are these days, and the gear was easily accessible from the closet under the stairs. At 4 AM, we were up, and sure enough, Marci felt well enough to go. I was really surprised, but she was committed. So I put our backpacks and hiking boots into the car, and we started down the pitch-black highway.

At that dark hour, there was no one on the road, and back then, once you left Dallas you were really gone, baby, gone. Miles of flat, boring nothingness that all look the same, day or night. Nowadays, all of that prairie has been replaced with miles of flat, boring strip malls that all look the same, day or night. But then, it was the open road, 90 miles an hour, nobody around. The five hour drive took us three and a half, and we reached the ranger station as the sun was just beginning to warm the surrounding dirt farms.

A hitch. Ben and Sharon weren’t expecting us, of course, and hadn’t left a note as to where they’d be. The ranger wasn’t sure where they were camping, and there are multiple places throughout the park. But as Ben and I had been there many times before, I was pretty certain where he’d take Sharon. There’s one spot in the park where you can hike in an easy mile to a primitive (no facilities) campsite, which has the advantage of being away from everything without being a huge schlep. Also, that was the only place in the park that gave you equal access to both the Upper Canyon and Lower Canyon trail. So that’s where Marci and I headed first.

Sure enough, we found Ben’s car at the trailhead, and parked beside it. Hiking boots, sunscreen and hats later, we were headed up the trail. It was still early morning, about 9 AM. “We need to move pretty quickly,” I said. “Once they leave the campsite, they’ll be hard to catch.”

“Do you think they’ll get going early?”

“Nah, I doubt it. We’ll probably find them having breakfast.” The weather was beautiful. Blue skies, and the sun just heading over the hills as we headed into the middle canyon. That first mile winds through dead, sun-blasted escarpments that look more like the lower canyon than the upper, but still possessing a rocky, desert beauty. And sure enough, a mile into the hike we spotted a lone tent that we figured must be Ben and Sharon’s. We hurried on up and called out to them.

They weren’t inside. We’d missed them. Damn early risers! “I was afraid of that,” I told Marci. We looked around, but there was no sign to tell us when they’d left. It could have been only moments. But the tent was clearly Ben’s—I recognized his stuff—so we opened the flap and ditched our backpacks inside, keeping only a day pack with our lunches, snacks, water filter and bottles of water.

We started up the trail, now lighter and moving quickly. After about 10 minutes we came upon two men hiking the opposite way. I asked them if they’d passed a man and woman. “Yep, must have been about twenty minutes ago or so.”

“Uh oh,” I told Marci, frowning as we left the men behind. “Ben and Sharon will be getting near the split soon.”

“What split?”

“Well, the trail will end at a T. If you go left, it’s the Upper Canyon. If you go right, it’s the Lower Canyon. If we don’t catch them before then, we won’t know which way they’re heading.” Marci was doing okay with the hike, but she couldn’t go any faster. I gave her the day pack, kissed her and took off running. The plan was for her to come along as quickly as she could, and I’d try to sprint forward to the T and catch Ben and Sharon before it was too late.

I was winded pretty quickly, but kept running for quite a while. I must have been nearing the end of the trail, when suddenly I rounded a corner and saw two people up ahead in the distance. I ignored the stitch in my side, redoubled my speed and staggered forward until I was within hailing distance, then called out to them as loudly as my breathless voice could manage.

Two more surprised people, you’ve never seen. I had caught up with Ben and Sharon only a few hundred yards from where the trails diverge. They couldn’t believe we came after them, or that we’d found them! Soon, Marci came around the bend and joined us, and the four of us hiked the Upper Canyon loop–a beautiful 10-mile trail climbing winding canyon walls, past a fern grotto where we could filter and refill our water bottles, and then down an 800 foot precipice back to the canyon floor before returning to our camp site.

“Now that’s friendship,” Sharon said that night, as the stars came out all around.

That’s persistence.

 

To be continued.

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knuck, knuck

“Knock knock.”

“Who’s there?”

“Y’see? That’s what I mean. You say ‘knock knock’ to Americans, they always say ‘Who’s there?’ If you say ‘knock knock’ to somebody from Japan or somewhere, they’ll just get confused.” My brother Greg was telling us his knock-knock theory. This was some years back. Greg, Ben K and I were skiing in Utah, and we were in the lift line at the Park Cities ski area, killing time until it was our turn to ride the lift to the top of the mountain.

I didn’t think much of his theory. Not that I doubted Greg’s claim, of course. Just didn’t seem to have a point other than making fun of people. Not that I’m opposed to making fun of people–I just prefer to know them first rather than lumping them together based on geography. And then once I know them, I’m happy to make fun of them.

Greg continued, “Dave and I have this running joke where I say ‘Knock knock’ and he pretends to be a guy from China or Japan and says ‘knuck knuck’ back and we do this back and forth.”

“Uh huh,” I said, imagining Greg and Dave doing this over and over until everyone within earshot had been driven mad. It wasn’t hard. Greg has always been a master of chaos, and has left a drooling trail of confused and gibbering people in his wake for years. My brother used to be insane. Now that he’s all grown up ‘n’ stuff, he’s just funny. I don’t know what’s wrong with Dave, but as he can keep up with my brother there must be something loose in his head. Dave’s funny, too.

“Knock knock.” Greg shuffled forward in the lift line, his skis cutting slightly into the snow.

I refused to play along, and answered, “Who’s there?” Ben and I shuffled forward to even up our row.

“Knock knock,” Greg said again.  This time, I didn’t reply. “Ok, forget it. You’re no fun.” Shuffle, shuffle. Now the three of us were nearing the front of the long lift line. It was a quad. To our right a line of single skiers merged in with ours, so that the lift operators could keep the four-person lift operating at peak capacity. Ben, Greg and I shuffled forward, and a man moved hesitantly out from the single skier line.

“C’mon in,” Ben called out. “Join us.”

The four of us moved forward and were swept up into the air by the swiftly-moving lift. We put the footrest down and relaxed, removing our goggles and gloves. I turned and said hello to our new companion. The man smiled and returned the greeting.

My brother leaned forward to see across me. “Where you from?” he asked.

“I am from Japan.”

“Oh,” said Greg. “Here on business?”

“Yes, I am here on business trip,” agreed the gentleman. His accent was strong but he spoke clearly, though he left out the occasional word. His command of English was quite a bit superior to our Japanese.

“Is this your first time in Utah?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “I ski here one time before.”

“That’s great,” said Greg. “Nice that you get a little time off. I bet there’s not much snow skiing in Japan.”

“Yes, yes,” agreed the man, laughing. “Skiing is much better here.”

Greg leaned a little more forward. “I got a joke for you,” he said. The man from Japan looked a little surprised at this. “Knock knock,” said Greg.

The man from Japan smiled at Greg, but didn’t say anything for a few seconds. He hesitated but then finally replied, “Knuck knuck.”

“Knock knock,” said Greg again.

“Knuck knuck,” said the man from Japan. He looked extremely confused.

“Never mind,” said Greg. “It’s not a very good joke.”

 

www.dsbenson.com

we’re pretending to be poor people!

By the time I was 15, my family could afford nicer vacations than the rock hunting expeditions of my early childhood. Oh, there’s nothing wrong with hunting rocks. I have very fond memories of rock hunting. And the thing is, they’re easy to catch.

So in the summer of my 15th year, our parents took us to Hawaii. There’s nothing that makes you feel more luxurious than splurging on a vacation in Hawaii. Especially when you grow up landlocked in Texas and your parents are footing the bill.

We stayed in Honolulu next to Waikiki beach the first night, and weren’t impressed by a strip that at the time was a mixture of characterless 70’s highrises and old cinderblock motels redecorated like Tiki huts. (Today the old cinderblocks are mostly gone, but sadly the highrises have spawned). Frankly, Honolulu looked like Dallas with a beach. Once we got over the jet lag, we were glad to get over to Maui. Now, there’s an island for a vacation that will  impress young kids. On Maui, we stayed at a fancy resort during the Sonny Bono Celebrity Tennis Tournament. This was back when Sonny Bono was a bona fide ex-television celebrity has-been. Before he settled down and became a senator. Before he went snow skiing and made his final mark in a fatal tree-hugging accident, forever being memorialized as the reason parents tell their children to put on a helmet when they go skiing.

We saw and talked to all sorts of semi-famous celebrities. Second string television news anchors. Actors in movies that you won’t see these days late at night on the cheapest of cable stations. Overly thin men and women with white pants and bleach blonde hair. Cathy Lee Crosby, one time tennis pro and star of must-forget That’s Incredible, was there, tennis racket in hand. My brother Greg talked to George Hamilton about his most recent film while the rest of us marveled at George’s bomber jacket-like tan, a tan so dark it was its own shadow. We all went on a snorkel/scuba boat with Lloyd Bridges, star of Sea Hunt, and some very attractive young women in his entourage.

We were off the tiny crescent islet of Molokini, in water 20-40 feet deep. Greg and Dad were back on the boat, but Mom and I were among a dozen or so of us in a group that had been led away from the boat into deeper water by a guide in a kayak. After we’d been bobbing on the sea for quite a while, a heavyset man snorkeling next to me looked up at our guide in his kayak and said, “Hey! Isn’t that a shark down there?”

I looked underneath my dangling feet to see, framed in the ‘V’ of my then-skinny legs, a shark of roughly my size. It looked distinctly unfriendly. Our snorkel guide bent over from his kayak and peered into the water. “Ok, everybody,” he said, “I don’t want to panic anyone but that’s a Tiger shark. I want everyone to get back to the boat as quickly as possible.”

Everyone immediately froze into action, if you can imagine such a thing. “Oh, and whatever you do, DON’T SPLASH!” the guide added, further confounding the paddlers.

I peered again into the water and saw the tiger shark lazily passing a few feet below my flippered toes, as if browsing a buffet line. I was in the middle of the group, well away from the boat, roughly in the hot entree section. Now, I distinctly recall not panicking, but I’ll tell you this: I took one large breath, depressed the air release button on the little black pecker attached to my life preserver, and swam all the way back to the boat underwater in a single breath. I was back on deck before my mother, slowly paddling at the back of the snorkeling group, had even heard the commotion!

So Maui was plush and fancy fancy and everything a beach vacation should be. We went to a Luau and pigged out (literally—a whole pig was roasted in a pit on the beach). We played at the resort, we took tours, Mom got a massage; we drank blue drinks and made fun of a woman with a thick drawl and Really Big Hair. I stole a brief kiss from a girl at the Luau, which she returned in the moonlight shadow of a palm tree as music played and people danced. It was great.

I tell you all of these details, and I’ve left out many, just to give you some sense of the scale of this vacation. We really went in style, and spared no expense. Quite a lovely time.

So it was with that pampered mindset, near the end of this vacation, that we traveled to a park at the top of a high mountain in a very remote part of the beautiful island of Kauai. Mom had heard that the view at dawn from the cliffs a thousand feet above the crashing surf was so spectacular that the photo opportunities simply could not be missed. Months earlier, she had rented a cabin at the park, with full amenities, and just down the road from a grocer where we could get food for the evening.

The drive up the winding and rutted road took longer than expected, and when we got to the park, it was deserted. The “grocery store” nearby didn’t exist, having long ago gone native and been taken over by the jungle. The cabin was beyond rustic—it was a wreck. There were two small rooms off a dining area. Two dim light bulbs dangled from wires in the roof: one dribbled light across the wooden kitchen table, and one hung over the bed in my parents’ room. The room my brother and I shared was illuminated by whatever wan light could push its way through the dirty windowpanes.

As the sun set in our new surroundings, hordes of wild chickens began to copulate outside, making a noise that doesn’t bear description but was quite memorable. Coyotes make a frightening sound late at night in the wilderness, but get enough copulating chickens and it’ll be plenty disturbing on several levels, I tell you. Forget about getting any rest on the saggy and mildewed mattress and just stay awake swatting mosquitoes.

So there we were as even the sun deserted us, with only the remnants of our picnic lunch to eat for dinner: peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cold cuts, some leftover potato chips, and a couple of cans of Coke. After complaints had turned to blame had turned to acrimony, the four of us sat in sullen silence in the twilight around the small wooden dinner table. Suddenly, out of the gloom rang the high and clear voice of my little brother:

“I know what we’re doing! We’re pretending to be POOR PEOPLE!”

With all due respect to poor people, we found that so funny that the experience was instantly transformed, and the cabin with its leaky, rusty shower once again became charming and rustic. Or at least that’s how my memory now paints it, so many years later.

Oh, and by the way: we got up the next morning in the early pre-dawn. The chickens had finally finished with their noisy courtship mambo and were quietly taking—excuse me, I can’t help myself—a pregnant pause. And when we staggered sleepily outside into the cool and heavily damp morning air, to walk the long and steep path up to the edge of the thousand-foot overlook, to get the picture of a lifetime that would make the experience all worthwhile, the fog was so thick that we couldn’t see ten feet!

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the flea-bitten flatlands of hell

I rose to check the weather for our trip in the dim hours between dawn and Captain Kangaroo. It was Sunday morning of Memorial Day weekend, 1994, and Ben K was on his way over to pick me up for two calm and restorative days of backwoods hiking in Arkansas. A quick glance at the Whether Channel (to determine whether or not we’d be heading out) stopped my last-minute packing. Excited reporters showed video of intense and angry storms that were sweeping southeast through Oklahoma, straight toward our intended stomping grounds in Ouachita State Park. I had visions of being swept through the mountains by a tidal wave of Arkansas flotsam, beer cans and spent shotgun shells as I fell back into—lawd, forgive me—my uneasy chair.

Upon doctor Ben’s arrival we made a snap (i.e. hasty) decision to drop the plans for driving northeast and instead head west for parts unknown. So I kissed Marci goodbye, and both Ben and I repeated after her in the traditional Oath of Stupidity: “I promise not to do anything stupid like I did last time. We tossed the gear in Ben’s 4Runner, grabbed a Texas Parks map, put pedal to the plastic and headed for the highway. We knew only this: we were headed away from the storms, and we’d figure out the specifics en route.

“Fort Stinkin’ Desert, here we come!” As Ben drove us west by northwest, I surveyed the possible state parks that lay near our route. We settled on Caprock Canyons, a good six-hour drive, and the only park on our map that mentioned primitive camping.

Ben was hopeful. “Should be dry as a bone by mid-day,” he declared, defying the weather gods as we fled the splattering rain and gathering storm clouds of Dallas. Sure enough, as morning gave up the ghost, the beautiful grasses and wildflowers of our tiny highway yielded to scrub trees and the cracked, burnt orange desert soil of west Texas. The sun and the mercury soared in the cloudless sky, and dust devils churned the black plowed fields to our left and right. This part of Texas is apparently big business for dust cultivation and dirt farming.

At one point we pulled the car to the edge of a field to pick some cotton, just to see what it was like. I don’t recommend it. The reason cotton balls are so soft and white is that they remove the thorns, comb through the dirt, and bleach out all of my blood! 

For a long time during the drive there wasn’t much to look at. Highways in north-central Texas are a poor place for sightseeing unless you’ve been suffering from a lack of horizons. After hours of endless Nothing, we were on the lookout for Anything. In Turkey, Texas, a bustling one mile metropolis (if you round up), we settled for…Something.

Bob Wills, the late “King of Western Swing” and leader of the Texas Playboys, is memorialized in Turkey by a statue that from a distance resembles a thin grain silo, or spare parts from pre-NASA attempts at putting spiders in orbit, or one of those Rocket popsicles from our childhood for which we had risked our lives chasing the Ice Cream Man. At the side of the main street in Turkey, the statue’s tall octagonal granite base is surmounted, possibly in an afterthought, by a thin shaft of tin capped with a stunted viola that was probably intended to be a violin. Etched in the polished stone of the base are the immortal accomplishments of Bob Wills, and as they are immortal, I shan’t repeat them here. I will now create a sense of suspense, and leave you to travel to Turkey, Texas and see for yourself.

And while you’re at it, visit the Bob Wills Museum in room 103 of the old high school. If the museum is closed, you can while away an hour looking at class pictures going back to the early 1900’s. Let’s just say that Turkey in the early 20th century was not a net exporter of Hollywood-style paragons of beauty. But if you’re looking for big ears and buck teeth, look no further than the old black and whites on the walls of Turkey High.

Ben and I arrived at the Caprock park station in the early afternoon. The ranger, a dried up coughing hag we subsequently named Beulah, suggested we hike the old train track trail into the canyons. The trail wasn’t in the park, but was on a narrow strip of park land, part of a “rails to trails” conversion. Since hiking the rail trail was the same advice I’d been given over the phone by another park ranger we later named El Diablo, we turned the truck around. We headed away from the ranger station toward the trailhead several miles outside the park, down a dusty dirt road that scraped its way through flat and scrubby ranch land.

We slathered ourselves with sunscreen, filled five canteens from the water jug in the truck, donned hats, boots and bandannas, and hauled our packs onto our backs. Stepping onto the trail, a now tie-less railroad from the 1800’s, we looked down the mounded black strip of crushed volcanic rock. It stretched absolutely straight through the flat desert to a perfect vanishing point on the far horizon, like an illustration from an art primer on How To Draw Perspective.

Smarter hikers would have reconsidered at that point. But Ben and I began walking, crunching across the pumice plain like stomping through piles of Cheerios and bone shards. The map showed that we would have to walk four and a half miles before reaching a long train tunnel, gateway to the promised canyon lands beyond. Within minutes we were soaked in sweat, the surprisingly humid heat murderously intensified by the black rock of the trail. Generous portions of liver-killing insecticide helped keep the hordes of blackflies at bay. Nevertheless, we can both attest the blackflies were indeed of a biting variety, and apparently drawn irresistibly to sweaty young men in much the same way that young women are not.

Hours, miles and canteens later, Ben stopped, looked at me and in a dry croak I’d not heard before, rasped, “Doug, I believe we are in Hell.” By this time, our locale had long been renamed “Craprock Canyons.” But as the sweat-soaked map had promised, we eventually came to a series of heat-blasted low hills that sat like buttocks in the sand, and a bend in the dusty trail that led us toward a cliff face, and the gaping maw of a black tunnel stretching far into darkness. With no sight of Cerberus, three-headed canine guardian of the underworld, we staggered into the tunnel and into deepening shadows. The temperature dropped to subterranean levels and we could smell the pungent guano that indicated we were not alone.

As the rock-walled train tunnel grew darker, the ground became soft beneath our feet and we could hear squeaks and the whisper of tiny wings in the roof high above. Brave fools or lazy adventurers, we had neglected to dig out our flashlights in the delirious glee of being temporarily free of the heat. As the sound of the bats grew louder, the tunnel grew darker. Our lights were buried in our packs, our feet buried in guano, and all buried in a tunnel deep beneath the mountain. The weight of the rock felt as heavy as our packs, and we were keenly aware of being in a deep, old tunnel that was no longer used, and probably ill maintained.

The light behind us faded to nothingness, as if blotting out the past several hours. But just before the tunnel fell into complete darkness and forced us to grope blindly for our flashlights, we rounded a slight curve and could see the glimmerings of daylight ahead. We went toward the light, making the obligatory near-death jokes as we went. Disturbed by our voices, pigeons nesting in the rafters took flight. The beat of their wings ruffled our hair as they made strafing bomber runs past us toward the exit.

Like the travelers in Lost Horizon, Ben and I emerged into a transformed land. The trail led around ledges in the hills, and to the left the ground dropped away into rolling valleys of trees, grasses and grazing land. In the distance below us, a tiny silver ribbon of flowing water wound its way across the valley floor. We rested in the afternoon shade and refilled our canteens from a water tank provided by the park department. Hiking onward, we found the first suitable spot for our tent about a mile down the trail, on an area of flat ground at the edge of a steep valley wall. We set up the tent under a “No Trespassing” sign riddled with buckshot holes. The view down into the canyon was tremendous. With no sign of human habitation in sight, we cooked dinner over a small camp stove.

In the evening twilight, Ben and I ambled down the trail, looking at flowering cacti and watching the buzzards circle lazily overhead. We perched on the edge of a precipice, watched the sunset and harmonized twangy cowboy melodies. In the absence of romantic female accompaniment, we greeted the loveliness of the first evening stars with a belching contest, and pissed off the cliff.

When it was time to return, we got an early morning start. So did the sun and the heat. A fiery furnace blast greeted us as we exited the tunnel to continue the long march back to the truck. After walking an hour or so, the distant profiles of horsemen appeared in the shimmering heat mirage, where the ceaseless black trail vanished into the unending brown horizon. As the travelers approached, we counted four men astride four horses. Not a good sign.

The midday light blazed so bright on their hats that their faces were hard to see as they halted before us. I got right to the point and panted, “You fellas don’t happen to be the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?”

“Depends on what you’ve been smoking, I guess,” replied the one we assume was Pestilence.

Death looked down at us from his pale horse and asked where we were from. He cracked a weathered grin when we answered, “Dallas.”

“Y’all didn’t come out all this way just for this,” Death said. “You must of but had other business in these parts.” 

Yeah, that’s right. We had to come visit Quitaque to see the Sidewalk Museum that stretches across crackled and broken pavement down the full 100-foot length of Main Street. We had come for the half-pound charburger and sodden “potatoe” fries at the Restaurant With No Name that we had “surely read about in the Dallas paper.” We had passed through Turkey to see the tall tin and granite erection raised in honor of the town’s favorite son, Bob Wills, who had not been born there, did not die there, and was not buried there.

The four horsemen continued onward and Ben and I finally reached the truck, soaked our heads in the remains of our water, and motored back to the state park to let Beulah and El Diablo know what we thought of their rail trail. Sadly, neither was in attendance at the ranger station, having been replaced by a kindly Angel of Mercy. We settled for writing in the park’s log book, “A fine trail for bikes and horses. Never never never never NEVER BACKPACK this trail in the summer!!!”

Before the long trip back home, and after an exhausted debate as to whether it would be worth the gasoline, Ben and I drove deeper into the park, which we had previously skipped at the advice of the rangers. Oh, supreme twist of the triple-sided knife of fate! Oh ironic gods, bellowing a final dusty laugh at our expense! The park was beautiful beyond compare! The ground cracked open and dramatically dropped away. Majestic walls plunged deep into the earth, yielding a miniature Grand Canyon with all the colors of the desert rainbow.

We were too tired to hike the well-maintained trails to the overlooks, too weary to look over the scalloped edges of the beautiful cliffs. We left Caprock Canyons with salt-crusted skin and black and blue feet. As Ben asked in the air-conditioned Toyota as we u-turned and headed back across the flatlands towards Dallas, “Why do we always have to end up with a good story? Why not just an excellent vacation?” Of course, if I have ever enjoyed a flawless trip, it’s been forgotten long ago, drowned out by better tales of mistakes and misadventures.

And you know, Ben and I went back to Caprock early the next spring, and we ignored the rangers’ repeated advice to see the rail trail, and we hiked all around the park. And the weather was cool and perfect, and the park with its hiking paths through twisting riverbeds, majestic rocky vistas and steep canyon descents was amazing, and it was an incredible camping trip. And there’s not a damn word I can think to write about it.

 

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