April 23, 2019



by: Russ Pitts

Here comes Jack. He walked into the trees about twenty minutes ago with the little orange shovel. That’s good. He’s been complaining all week that he couldn’t shit. We’ve been eating Don’s vegetarian food, and its been doing strange things to me and Jack-the carnivores.

“Man, I just took a day-glo Dairy Queen soft-serve shit!” Jack throws me my shovel, and I eye it suspiciously. It looks clean, but you can’t be too careful. The whole first half of our trip, Don and I were plagued by Jack’s practical jokes. He’s probably the funniest guy I know, but we stopped laughing a few days ago. We’ve been up here too long. Five days ago we were laughing our asses off.

The sky is all grey except for a wide stretch of hazy orange to the east, and a bright yellow lump just over El Capitan. It looks the way it did five days ago, when we got here. We thought it was an omen. It was as if God had sent the sun to greet us. So we drove faster. We finished the last of the Bass and sang along as Delores O’Riordan belted out “Miss You”. Jack didn’t sing, though. He said the song reminded him of one of his girls. Don and I sang even louder when he told us. That was five days ago. It was my second sunrise.

The first, I saw with Juniper.

We had spent the night together, talking mostly. Being with her felt like being with truth and love all wrapped up in a beautiful girl. But I guess it was too deep, too soon. We must have talked for hours about how well we fit, how well we could love each other. Then, in five minutes, we talked ourselves out of it. She said she couldn’t love me because of her faith. I agreed because I didn’t have one. So we said good-bye, for good I guess, and we stood outside watching the sun being reborn.

Don is trying to make more coffee, but the stove won’t light. He looks old. His hands are tough and big. It seems like I’m noticing for the first time how big he is.

“Out of fuel,” I volunteer, hoping he’ll quit jacking with the damn thing.

Don just looks at me, not speaking. I look back. His eyes are dark, and I can see some kind of hate in them. Don never starts a hike without at least two cups of coffee. He’s just finished his first, and apparently last. He gets up and walks softly around the tent, staring at the bottom of his aluminum cup. I probably shouldn’t have used the stove to light my cigarette.

Still, we did allright on fuel. We almost didn’t, though. Halfway out of town, I realized that my fuel bottle had a leak, and would no longer be able to serve us in its primary capacity. In other words, it would not hold fuel. It was already ten o’clock, and the only store open was a 24-hour K-Mart. We scoured the aisles searching for something that would hold a liter of Kerosene for the stove. Finally we found something in the auto aisle. B-12 Chemtool. Carburetor cleaner. Its the most lethal chemical agent allowed on the market, and its the only thing at K-Mart that comes in a metal bottle with a screw-cap.

We carried the Chemtool to the park with us, and dumped it in the public restroom. The water started to bubble as soon as I poured it in, so I kicked the valve and started to haul ass out of there. I didn’t get far. I had locked the door to the stall, and for the life of me, I couldn’t remember how to open the lock. Its amazing how many different kinds of bathroom stall closures there are. I’ve been in hundreds of public bathrooms, but almost every other one has a lock that’s new to me. It must be a booming market. When I finally managed the lock, the toilet had finished flushing, and still hadn’t exploded. I ran out anyway, noticing as I went, that the toilet looked cleaner than anything I’d ever seen.

It looks like Don and Jack are going to hit the bong. Don is crawling into the tent with his little, green duffel bag. Jack is asleep. He’ll probably wake up when Don fires up the bong. The weed seems to be one of the main reasons they came out here. Me, I dig the scenery. Call me crazy.

Don told me before we left that he wanted to do some ‘shrooms while we were out here. He said he needed me to be Don Juan to his Carlos Casteneda. I told him no. I asked him how I could be his guide when I’m so lost myself. Besides, right now, if he started tripping and wanted to fly off of the mountain, I’d probably let him try.

I can hear the bubbling coming from the tent. They have the weed to keep them going. I have a memory. One morning, I woke up early and went for a walk down the trail. I was wearing my sandals and with my beard and my hair all messed up, I thought that I must look a lot like Jesus Christ. I walked into this dry creek bed, and just stood there for about half an hour. Just smoking and thinking about Juniper. I imagined that instead of standing in a creek bed, looking like Christ, I was standing behind her holding her soft, warm body to me, breathing her honey hair and watching the sun. Later that day, when we crossed that same creek bed, I felt her presence there. I could almost smell her hair. That’s when I figured out that you could carry things with you. No matter how far you go from what you think you are, you still have your memories. Good or bad, you can’t escape them. Since that day, I’ve been thinking of Juniper every second.

There’s someone coming up the trail. I motion to Don and he scrambles to cover the “evidence.”

“Shit. Its a Ranger,” Don has jumped out of the tent, leaving Jack to guard the equipment.

The person coming up to us is wearing green, and a gun. Definitely a Park Ranger.

“Y’all know you’re illegal?” The Ranger is pointing at Don with his chin, but Don does not answer him. I can’t tell if they’re playing some kind of manly bluffing game, or if Don didn’t hear the Ranger’s question.

“Who’s got the permit?” The Ranger looks to me, now, as if he knows that I’m the only one who’s not stoned.

“I’ve got it,” Don finally speaks up, just when I’m starting to sweat. He starts patting his pockets, then stops. He looks at me like someone has died, then he looks straight into the tent, at Jack. That’s when I realize that the permit is in the little green duffel bag with the bong.

I look at Jack. He’s asleep.

I hear a small groan start deep inside of Don’s chest, then rise up through his pipes like smoke from a manhole cover. I’m closest, so I dive in. The bag is open. I reach in and dig around. I see the bong, a little baggie of weed, and down at the very bottom I see the permit. I look at Jack, and his eyes are wide open, and he’s giggling.

I get up and hand the permit to the Ranger before I decide to slug Jack. I can still hear him giggling inside the tent, but the Ranger apparently hasn’t noticed. He asks for our names, and we give them. Jack’s head is poking out of the tent, and he is having great difficulty trying not to laugh. I can hear Don having the same trouble right beside me. They’re both looking at the Ranger’s nose. Apparently they think its moving or something.

“Kramer? Are you Jack Kramer, son?” The Ranger looks pale.

“Yes sir,” Jack’s face is one huge grin. He’s used to being recognized by the law. His father has been a Texas State Trooper for almost twenty-five years. Which makes it hard for him to get into trouble without running into one of his father’s old friends.

“Ben Kramer’s boy?”

“Yes sir.”

“Son, you’re just a shitburger! Damn!”

Don and jack can’t hold it any longer. They both erupt with laughter, almost falling to the ground. I join them, just so I don’t look out of place. The Ranger appears undaunted. He must be used to being laughed at.

“Shit, son. If you don’t straighten your ass up, someday, you’re gonna be in a world of hurt.” The ranger hitches his gunbelt as if he’d personally dealt someone a world of hurt, and was ready to do it again. “Shit. I was a trooper with your daddy for almost fifteen years, and all I ever heard about was how much of a shitburger his boy was. You hear me?”

“Yes sir.” Jack and Don are almost under control now. I guess the Ranger’s nose has stopped moving.

“Now what are y’all doing camped in the middle of the trail? The campsite is just up that bend.” He points to an off-shoot from the main trail. I’m already familiar with it. From where we are, its a straight shot down the mountain, to the car, on the main trail. When we got to this spot, it was nine o’clock, and completely dark. According to our logic; it was four tenths of a mile up to the camp site, and four tenths of a mile back. That made it almost half a mile. So we stopped and camped, which at the time seemed like a harmless idea.

I explain to the Ranger how far we have come, and he looks at us like we are stupid. Which we probably are. We had gone down the other side of the mountain the day before yesterday to get water, but we didn’t realize how long it would actually take to get down a mountain. We started back up around midday, but I could tell that it was going to get dark before we made it. I was in the lead that day, and all I wanted to do was get up the mountain. So I took off. I practically ran up that steep trail. I kept getting further and further ahead of Jack and Don, but I didn’t want to stop. I reached down inside of myself and pulled up everything that would burn. And I burned it all. For some reason, I needed to get up that mountain. In the Iliad, when one of the Greek soldiers went berserk, their head would be said to light up with flame, and they would charge through the battlefield slaughtering anything that got in their way. Some of them even took on the Gods and won. They called it their Aristeia. The special day. I took on my own God that day, and I beat it. I made it to the top just as the sun turned into molten gold on the horizon.

“Y’all see any bear sign out there?”

We tell him we hadn’t, but we had seen a fallen tree, and he looks immensely relieved. That must have been the code word. He hits us up for some more information, then he lets us go. He even gives Jack a hug.

Twenty minutes later, we are on our way down. I am having trouble walking, Jack looks dead, and Don appears to have somehow sneaked away and taken a nap. I feel like throttling him.

We stop to rest, and Don pulls out his bag of snacks. Everything of his is in little bags. He even has big bags to hold his little bags. Myself, I prefer the One Big Bag method, but to each his own.

We eat, squatting down on the trail that will lead us down the mountain and eventually home, and suddenly we all feel like singing. We start with the Cranberries, with Jack moaning accompaniment, then we work our way through what we can remember of the hits from the seventies. We finish our brief meal, Don packs away his little bags, and we start down again, singing most of the way.

One of my English professors once gave a lecture about singing as entertainment in non-industrial societies. He told us a story about his family in Arkansas. As he told it, one night the electricity went out during his family reunion. The family, having nothing else to do, started singing together. They sang for hours, and he described it as one of the most beautiful moments of his entire life. Then, after four hours, the power came back on. Immediately, the whole family turned as a whole and glued their eyes back to the set. My professor, according to him, has not watched television since that night.

I can see the car just around the next bend. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful in my life. It looks like God. The sun is glinting off of the unpolished surface, and the peeling chrome looks like gold in the glare. I run the last few feet and throw myself onto the hood. I stop myself from kissing it. The others come stumbling behind me, and I start to laugh out loud, and they join me. We sit huddled around Jack’s car for almost an hour, just laughing and smelling bad. People start to look at us like we’re the guys from Deliverance, but we don’t care. We made it.

I tell them what I was thinking of all the way down, and they shock me by telling me that they were thinking of it too. After a whole week of hummus and powdered eggs, the only thing that kept my feet moving was imagining lunch at the Pizza Hut in Fort Stockton. I just barely noticed it was there on the way through at two o’clock in the morning, but apparently we all saw it. That place sticks out like a big, red, garlic-smelling thumb covered with mozzarella.

We climb into the car, and slowly we drift into our own thoughts. The car feels cramped and stuffy, but in a strange way it feels like home. Don swears to us that for the next two days he’s not going to want to see or hear from either one of us. I understand what he means, and it doesn’t make me love him any less. I just light my last cigarette and think of Juniper.