In the town of Dayville, OR, there is a Wendy’s. I was returning to my car in the parking lot of that very Wendy’s when a man called out to me, Hey look, it’s a study in Jettas!!
He was pointing at my car, a Jetta (borrowed), and his car, also a Jetta, which he had parked next to mine. He then proceeded to launch into a detailed and through analysis of the superiority of his Jetta compared to mine. Had “my” Jetta actually been mine, I might have been annoyed by his approach. As it was, I figured if some random dude wanted to sputter on about improved gas mileage and better turning radii, who was I to argue?
As he talked I sized him up: he was a shorter man in his late 50’s or early 60’s. He wore overalls hitched atop a wide-necked tie-dyed shirt. His skin was very pale and what remained of his hair was wispy and red. Freckles dotted his nose and his eyes were a distant and pale blue. He reminded me of an Irish Paul Giamatti after too many meals at Wendy’s. I liked him immediately.
He stopped his banter about the cars. In his hands were a stack of papers. He removed one and handed it toward me.
Would you like a map? he asked. I make them myself. They’re free.
I took the map. It was an 18×24 sheet of waxy paper, folded in thirds, the map portion a white background scratched with blue and red roads, its back covered in advertisements from local companies: Squeeze-In Restaurant and Deck, It’s A Dirty Shame Saloon, Leathers Fuel & Repair,Â Dreamers Lodge, The Thicket Lodge and Cafe.
(Sometimes—and this was one of those times—I love you so much, America!)
I looked at the man’s shirt. Among all the hippie swirls I read the words, Harley Davidson.
You ride? I asked him.
To him, this was as offensive as asking if the pope shits in the woods or a bear wears a funny hat. He glared at me dramatically.
Of course I ride! he barked. That’s why I make these maps—for bikers.
I looked closer at the map, which revealed all the small highways and forest service roads that wouldn’t otherwise show up on a more generalized map. A note indicated that all the advertisers on the back were biker friendly. I dug it.
He asked if I rode and I told him about my bike. He told me that he used to have that very bike, but had sold it to buy a better model. He then explained, again in pointed and extended detail, why his new bike was superior to mine.
I got the feeling he wanted me to argue with him about this, not necessarily to fight as much as I think such competitive one-up-man-ship is how he goes about conversations. I liked him and wanted to comply, but the truth is that I didn’t really care whose bike was better than the other. Instead, I let him prattle on and just smiled and smiled as he did.
And prattle he did. I began to wonder if his conversation skills were capable of violating several laws of thermodynamics and never ending—in other words, achieving perpetual motion. My grandfather used to talk this way, as did an ex-girlfriend, and I’ve often wondered if we could solve our impending energy crises through thoughtfully channeling such resources to humankind’s betterment.
On and on he went. The sun burned a line overhead, glaciers retreated, and parts of Florida began to disappear under water (say what you want about the causes and effects of global warming: at least we’ll get rid of that shithole-state).
I took advantage of a pause in his rambling to ask, What’s your name, friend?
The man looked at me and extended his hand very formally.
Hutch, he said. I’m Hutch.
No way, I thought. There is simply no fucking way is your name is Hutch!
I didn’t think he was lying, I was simply awed. Seriously—who names their kid after a storage chest?! But as you can see I was in no mood for arguments, and I took him at face value. Hutch it was.
A couple hours later I pulled out of the Painted Hills parking lot and unfolded the map Hutch had given me. I wanted to head northwest and three options presented themselves: circle way down and around clockwise, circle way up and around counter-clockwise, or take the straight shot—Goaner Road, a dotted blue line whose explanation read, “Road may not be passable when wet”.
Goaner Road did not appear on the state map I had. It did not appear on Google maps either, but that was irrelevant because I was far enough away from everything not to have cell service. I weighed my options. I wanted an adventure. I got it.
Goaner Road was passable because it was not wet. It was not wet because this was, effectively, a desert, and we’ve had way too little rain this year. However, Goaner Road was all of these following things: hard packed dirt, which made it dusty as could be; bumpy and rough, and likely not the road I should’ve been on in a Jetta; so vacant of humans I began to wonder if the rapture had occurred; and narrow, which was fine except for when it wound above cliffs whose sides dropped hundreds of feet to the John Day River below.
Regular readers will recall that I do not like heights. That is a nice way of saying that they scare the living shit out of me. Driving along exposed roads is no bueno para mi because eventually and inevitably my mind begins to wonder where the car will land if I step on the gas and drive off the cliff. Notice the tense there—will. It’s not simply that my mind wonders where the car would land, it’s more that some very deep parts of me really and truly want to do this. The idea is as inviting as a warm bath.
And so I kept my eyes turned away from the views and continued my bumpy course along Goaner Road. Up and around and over I climbed. It was terribly hot and I drove most of the way in first gear and never once shifted beyond second. Above the river I climbed. The ground began to turn less rocky, and soon short spruces and firs began to stubble the mountainside.
Then the car went ding! ding! ding! and a red light flashed on the dashboard.
Hutch had given many reasons for the superiority of his Jetta compared to mine, but one that he overlooked is the ongoing oil leak mine has. I stopped the car on a flat-ish piece of road. I would say that I pulled over but the road wasn’t wide enough for that. I got out and took stock of my situation:
- I was on a road that I could not find on any map except a hand drawn one given to me in a Wendy’s parking lot by a stranger named Hutch.
- I was in the middle of a mountainous desert and the car I was driving was having engine trouble.
- I had not seen even a vestigial trace of another human in over an hour.
- I did not have cell service.
- If the road’s rising climb led somewhere—which was a big If at this point—I still hadn’t crossed through a pass that might lead to respite on the other side.
I popped the hood and waited for the engine to cool. While I did I popped the trunk and opened the cooler, which I had wisely filled with ice I had borrowed from the Wendy’s earlier in the day. As a result, the Coors inside were perfectly chilled, so I rolled a cigarette and sat on the back bumper and had a Banquet.
Overhead, the sun blazed while beside me critters scrabbled noisily in the brush. Eventually the car cooled enough for me to add some oil. I started her up and continued climbing.
Six minutes later a familiar sound rang out: ding! ding! ding! and a red light flashed on the dashboard.
I went through the same routine—popped the hood, drank a beer, had a smoke, felt the grudge of time ticking slowly past—only far more anxiously than before. Eventually I got underway again.
Three minutes later a terrible sound rang out: ding! ding! ding! and a red light screamed at me from the dashboard.
Even more anxiously I went through the above routine, minus the Coors and cigarette but with the addition of a lot more cursing. Here I must confess that I was growing religious, which is what happens to me when I get worried. For friends or family who fear I’ve lost the Christian path, simply put me in a situation that scares me: I can be very practical and will find Jesus real quickly.
(I am perpetually confused and intrigued by the language of “finding” Jesus. Seems like the poor fella just keeps getting lost. Maybe for Christmas I’ll get him a GPS.)
Eventually the car began to run fine: the bell stopped dinging and the light stopped flashing and soon I was climbing and climbing until there was no more to climb, and then I began to descend. The road suddenly became scattered with cows, which, even though they’re not humans, gave me hope of this ride ending, for surely they belonged to someone.
Eventually I arrived in Ashwood, OR, a town whose name I’d been muttering as some sort of aspirational mantra, only to find that there ain’t shit in Ashwood. The only good there was that I finally managed to get off Goaner Road and onto Pony Butte Road, which had the benefit of not only sounding awesome (Come on—”Pony Butte Road”?!?!), but provided such amenities as pavement, metal signs, and even the occasional house lining its edges.
I continued west and eventually dumped out onto Highway 97. Elated, anxious, my veins pushing adrenaline and my eyes red, I turned north, stepped on the gas and drove like hell through the setting night.