Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Tweakers and Acid Zombies

The ex-con glares over the fence that surrounds his compound. A tall, lean man, he wears a torn shirt and a kilt. Leather snake-leggings cover his legs from his ankles to his knees, and he stands with the wide stance of a man exuding supreme confidence. I eye the machete in the sheath against his chest, take in the tattoos on his face, put him somewhere in his sixties. I nod over my shoulder, toward the emptiness behind me. The landscape is a collection of sandy washes and scrubby bushes, all but inhabitable except for rattlesnakes, coyotes, and lizards.
A bombing range isn't far away

“I've been sleeping out there for a couple of weeks,” I say. “Different places each night.”

“Yeah, so what?”

His lips open wide, a grimace that exposes a lone tooth in his upper gum. I stand as tall as I can, chin up, determined not to wilt under the force of his personality. It pushes against me, a strong wind probing for weakness. I glare right back at him.

“Just being neighborly.” I am determined not to wilt under the obvious attempt at intimidation. “Thought you might like to know who was living out there, that's all.”

We face off for a long minute, then I shrug and smile. I never was any good at a head-butting contest. He relaxes, and it's like we got something over with, although I'm not sure what. Q_____ motions over his shoulder toward his mud hut. “Got some coffee on. A little strong, pot's been on the fire all morning.”

I enter his compound and walk between the trees toward the doorway, pass two honking geese and a crate filled with lettuce and tomatoes. Inside, in semi-darkness, a chained wolf curls under a table. My host and I sit on straw bales and drink burned coffee, soon discover we both love going on long adventures. He tells me about his cocaine dealing days, adds that he bought a boat from the profits and sailed Australia's coastline. He fought any local who wanted to fight—$50.00 purse—didn't need the money, just liked to fight. Q_____ offers a pipe packed with weed and I turn it down.

“Did a lot of heroin and meth in my lifetime,” he says, putting the unlit pipe on a chair. “Got busted for selling pot and spent time in the state pen. Get a regular check every month because the doctors say I've got dementia.”

He stretches out on a mattress on the floor. We're quiet for a while, then he suggests I move into the trees next to his compound. “The kid moved out a couple days ago,” he adds. “Nobody living there at the moment.”

“Those trees, you consider them yours?” I drain my coffee and balance the cup on my knee. My nerves jangle from the caffeine overdose.

“Everybody who lives out here is a squatter. Those trees are mine because I say they're mine.”

I recall Sherry Rose saying whoever lives near Q_____ has to work for him, and I'm not about to gather wood in exchange for sleeping on squatter's dirt. If he wants me to work for him, I'll leave. If he doesn't, maybe I'll stay until it's time to restart Ride between the Stars.

“Come on,” Q_____ says. “I'll show you the site.”

I push my bike along the canal road, through the blistering heat, enter a cool grove about forty yards in diameter. Salt cedars, trunks gnarled and misshapen, loom overhead, and the earth beneath is strewn with empty cans. I toe a fork that sticks up out of the sand. Q_____'s compound is to the north, and Sherry Rose lives in the grove to the south. Do I really want to camp between a crazy woman and a demented ex-con?

I glance up at the trees, revel in the cool air, sigh and offload my panniers. In the desert, shade is the ultimate seductress.

The next couple of weeks I spend most of my time writing. Every four days I cycle into Slab City to the solar-powered Internet Cafe,where I charge my batteries. I have a standing invitation to stop in and drink coffee at Q_____'s in the morning. Sometimes I go and sometimes I don't. Occasionally I watch Sherry Rose trudge down the canal road with an armload of firewood for the Lord of the Manor. He has not asked me to work in exchange for sleeping in “his” trees, and I suspect he never will. Q_____, ever the ex-con, is conditioned to sense and exploit weakness. That's what he did to survive in the pen, and that's what he does to survive in the desert. He can push the crazy woman into working for him and he can't push me. So, he leaves me alone and badgers her into doing his bidding.
Home for a few weeks

One evening I stop for a visit, when he is well into his fifth glass of wine, sit on a bale close to the door. Three of us share the muddy light; me, Q_____, and Juan. Juan lives in Niland, a nearby town. He's a Mexican Indian, so soft spoken he's hard to hear, and black hair falls down his shoulder blades like silk curtains. A small man, he's as meek as a beatdown dog. He comes for the booze and weed, doesn't say much when I try to draw him out.

Q_____ stirs the coals on the hearth, and they glow a dirty orange beneath the grate. He's cooked beans for supper and offers me a bowl. I eat and watch him light a pipe and pass it to Juan. An earthy scent fills the room. The wind picks up, roof tarps flapping in the breeze, and one of the mules brays out in the corral. The Lord of the Manor gestures toward the doorway.

“Get some firewood,” he says.

Juan leaves the hut. He returns with an armload of mesquite branches, stacks them next to the hearth.

“Get me more wine,” Q_____ says.

Juan goes outside and returns with a purple jug. Q_____ refills our glasses and I stare him down.

“What?” he says.

I look away and keep my mouth shut, listen to him order Juan around for the next couple of hours. Anger stirs me—a spark that becomes a fire by the time I drink my third glass of wine.

“Where's my pipe?” Q_____ says.

Juan shrugs. He doesn't know and neither do I. Q_____ scrounges through the folds in the quilt on his mattress, drags his fingers across the dirt floor. “Damn it, Juan. Look for my pipe.”

The little man falls to his knees and peers at the earthen floor. Something snaps inside me and I put down my glass. “You are not his slave. Tell him to go to hell.”

The only sound comes from the gurgle of the boiling beans. Q_____ stares me down, hatred in his gaze. I don't care; he's a bully and I'd like to drive my fist through his remaining teeth. I think he's about two seconds away from lunging at me, and I prepare myself for his charge.

“I think it's best if you go,” he says.

I'm surprised and relieved. I didn't really want to fight him, figure I would have been hurt regardless of the outcome. I glance at Juan, who hangs his head and remains silent, leave without another word.

In the morning, I pack up and cycle into Slab City. I have my pepper spray on my side and a don't fool-with-me look on my face. Least I hope it's a don't fool-with-me look. I'm leaving a bad situation for one potentially worse, and that thought is more than a little scary.

The first trailer burns three weeks into my stay. Flames lick upward and smoke whorls into the
air. Two guys run over and disconnect the propane canisters, haul them to safety. Fire engulfs the structure. The trailer is on the other side of the road from my tent site, and its owner is a white-bearded old man who keeps to himself. He's off in his truck somewhere, is in for a surprise when he returns.

A siren sounds in the direction of Niland, and a firetruck rumbles up the road. The firemen put out the flames and all that's left is a smoldering black skeleton. People gather in clusters and I hear murmurs of conversation.

“Must have pissed someone off.”

“Maybe it was electrical.”

“Glad someone disconnected the canisters. Go off like bombs.”

“I heard a neighbor threatened him over a drone.”

“He has a drone?”

“He was flying over the guy's place and he didn't like it.”

“Maybe he burnt it for the insurance.”

The old man wheels up in his pickup and our eyes meet for an instant. He walks toward what's left of his home, circles it a few times. The crowd drifts away and I head to my campsite. He leaves and goes somewhere else for the night, and the next day scavengers pick through the ashes for usable material. I doubt they find any.

Two weeks later, the Coffee Camp burns down. Rumor has it the burnout was over a meth deal. A week later someone burns out the Skate Park Camp. Rumor has it the burnout was for practice. I don't know what or whom to believe in this den of tweakers and acid zombies. I do know I'm surrounded by desperate people and I try my best not to make myself a target. Andrew, a gregarious Welshman, and one of the good guys, says I have nothing to worry about. They think I'm in great shape from riding my bike across the country and nobody wants to mess with me.

I sleep with my bike inside my tent and footsteps in the desert wake me at all hours of the night. A white dog befriends me and sleeps in my campsite. Zero is my guardian angel and I spend hours scratching and petting him. I work at getting my bike ready for the next 7,500 miles—up to Portland, Maine, and then back down to Key West—put my GoFundMe donations to good use buying parts from Amazon. The weather turns hot and I suffer while I wait for the cool down.
Battened down for 50 mph gusts

For a couple of weeks I lay low, hear the shouts and screams at night, avoid the arguments I run across during the day. Someone at the Internet Cafe opines that Slab City is a safety net for the down-and-outters with nowhere to live, and I silently disagree.

Slab City is no safety net.

This desert hellhole is a concrete floor, and when the down-and-outters hit, they hit hard. They can move horizontally, or upward if they get their life together, but the downward fall stops here. This is rock bottom for some, and that's the hard truth about this place.

The cool down comes none too soon and I leave without fanfare. I survived my winter layover and now it's time to look ahead. Maine, here I come!

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  1. Wonderful! I can't wait to read the whole thing!

    1. Thanks, Bev! The Slab City portion of this trip will take up several chapters.

  2. Good stuff, TJ. But I'm glad you're back on the road.


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