Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Redneck farm boys, if they love one thing, they love their trucks. And that is an interesting psychological phenomenon, considering the hard use to which those trucks are regularly put, both on road and off. My current hunting/fishing truck, the inestimable Rojito, has seen a fair amount of such hard use, but it has always been my contention that an honest working 4×4 wears its rock chips and branch scrapes with pride.
But there were times, especially in our younger years, where we got a little carried away. And, to be fair, sometimes when we were old enough to know better, as well. Which takes me to:
Somewhere south of Tucson:
It had been raining all day.
It doesn’t rain much in Arizona, especially down on the border south of the hamlet of Arivaca where some friends and I had spent several days hunting javelina. But in February, when stink-pig season is open, it sometimes rains rather a lot, and that is what happened to us on this trip. I had driven myself and two of my buddies down from Colorado in my ’92 Bronco, the Dark Horse (yes, I name my trucks) only a few days before. We had been enjoying a pleasant, shirt-sleeve temperature hunt for those few days, and already had several small desert almost-pigs hanging in camp. And then the rain moved in.
We woke up about midnight to hear a downpour on the canvas roof of my pop-up tent trailer. “Hope this blows over,” I heard my buddy Carl mutter. His brother Dick just rolled over and resumed snoring. Dick had already tagged a pig, and so was not too concerned about the weather. Carl and I had yet to score.
When the morning dawned gray, drizzly and cold, we decided to take a day off from hunting. We went down to Nogales, crossed the border on foot for some souvenir shopping, a cheap lunch, and a few beers. Late afternoon found us in the local watering hole in Arivaca, gassing with the locals. There we stayed until about nine that evening, not thinking about what the rain would be doing to the creek we had to cross on the way back to camp.
Finally, we bid the colorful desert folks a fond farewell and remounted the Dark Horse. It was just as well that we only had to traverse desert tracks and not actual roads to get back to camp, as all three of use were a little the worse for wear, but the trip through the dark, dripping landscape went without incident until we came to the creek.
The ford lay just beyond a bend in the trail, down a small slope, where in the morning, bound for Nogales, we had crossed a rocky dry run with only a little trickle of water. But now, after a day of rain, the creek had grown into a heaving, rushing torrent of dark, muddy water, moving at an incredible clip, threatening at any moment to overflow its banks.
“Well,” said Carl, “what now? Looks like we’re sleeping in the truck.”
“Oh, hell no,” I replied. The brothers looked at me expectantly.
By Way of Background:
While I started my (legal) driving career in a car, I have been a truck guy most of my life. Prior to obtaining the coveted driver’s license at sixteen I regularly drove my Dad’s pickup and his big dump truck around on chores. I was driving tractors at ten, as soon as I was big enough to reach the pedals. Like lots of small-town and rural kids, I was driving agricultural machinery and earth moving equipment at twelve or thirteen.
While that first vehicle was a car, most of my friends and most of their Dads drive trucks. I have described my friend Jon’s infamous Dodge van, but there are a few other examples that loom large in my memory, and one of these memories belongs to a local guy names Mark Mallek.
Mark was big even for our local brand of cornfed farm boys. He stood six foot seven, and weighed about two hundred and sixty pounds, almost all muscle. Mark was a friendly, gregarious young fellow; you just kind of automatically liked him, and for those few that did not, his size put him firmly on the “don’t mess with” list. And, for a vehicle that suited his size, Mark drove a 1966 one-ton International pickup, which he called the Behemoth.
The Behemoth, and its driver, were the subject of several local legends. I was present for one of them, when one late night after the bars closed my pal Dave and I squeezed into the cab of the Behemoth alongside Mark to do a little off-road tooling in an area along the Cedar River known as the Pits.
The Pits were something of a local legend themselves. A large tract of sandy bottomlands along the Cedar was owned by a local concrete maker; this area was prone to flooding every spring, which replenished the supply of sand that was one of the primary ingredients for the Redi-Mix cement that was the company’s primary product. Even though the wooded tract of bottomland was dotted by deep holes where sand was extracted, which gave the area its nickname, the company that owned it did not begrudge local youths access to the area for purposes of fishing, off-roading, keg parties or whatever else entered our heads. Mind you, this is a situation that almost certainly would not obtain today.
Only a week earlier, on another rollicking, post-bar trip through those same Pits in that same truck, we had shot between two trees that were close enough together to rip both side mirrors off the doors. When Mark got the Behemoth stopped, he collapsed in laughter, explaining “you know, we were completely out of control when we went between those trees!”
But on this night, we were traveling more sedately, having not yet gone into the Pits proper. To enter the Pits, one had to go down a gravel road, under an old overpass locally known as the Tunnel of Darkness, across a high embankment where the Illinois Central tracks ran, and then down into the Pits. A bit fuzzy from drink, the three of us, and so Mark was driving so as not to attract attention.
At least, until we got to the tracks.
The railroad embankment here was high enough that many a happy Sunday afternoon was spent jumping trucks over what was, effectively, a ramp that Evel Knievel (or maybe Super Dave Osborne) would have envied. Many a truck was wrecked, many an axle broken on that road. On this night, though, as we were lost in conversation, Mark approached the tracks slowly, cresting the rise, his front tires bumped on the tracks… And then we heard it.
Sitting as I was by the passenger door, I looked to my left, to the source of the horrible sound, to see the headlight of the locomotive passing over the top of the cab.
Fortunately, Mark was fast on the gas pedal. He floored it, gravel show away, and the locomotive only barely clipped the back of the truck, managing to rip the back bumper off but harming driver and passengers not at all.
While that was as close as we came to fatality in a truck, it sure was not the only time were, shall we say, a bit rash.
This One Time:
My first signs of maturity, such as it is, came when was 1) in my thirties, b) responsible for a family, and ii) supposedly learning from previous experience. Case in point, an incident on a jeep trail somewhere north of Fairplay, Colorado:
“Are you sure it’s OK to go down there?” Mrs. Animal asked.
“Sure,” I replied. “Piece of cake.”
We were seated in my ’74 Bronco, the Green Machine, on a 4×4 trail. At that moment we were perched only yards from where the trail diverged from a well-traveled Forest Service road, right before said trail descended at a rather precipitous angle through a stand of aspens. There was a small bench I could just see, maybe two hundred yards down the trail. There the trail leveled out for maybe twenty yards, after which it dropped off into a stretch of dark timber.
I wasn’t too worried. The Green Machine had good tires, good brakes, and a fair amount of engine power. I had a come-along and a high-lift jack in the event we got bogged down in mud or high-centered on a boulder. The little truck had shown great capability in the few years I had owned it; there were times I was convinced that the rugged little thing could go up and down trees. I had managed jeep trails and even ATV trails in the little green utility, sometimes pulling the side mirrors off on trees; I carried a bunch of sheet-metal screws, a screwdriver, a few big nails and a hammer in my tool box, and when a mirror was pulled off, I used the nail and hammer to pound some new mounting holes in the door and screwed the mirror back on.
That was the rugged old Ford we were in that day. Behind us, two little girls, one eleven and the other not quite a year old, waited expectantly. Even the baby was by now used to the adventures found off-road, and she shifted impatiently in her car seat while I looked down at the trail, evaluating the state of the path. I did not see any deep ruts, no big rocks that could high-center the truck.
“All right,” I said. “We’ll go on down.” I pushed in the clutch, stuck the transfer case into 4L, put the truck in first gear, and eased on forward.
Down the trail we went, winding through the aspens. At one point, Mrs. Animal had both hands braced on the dashboard, holding herself up as the truck descended almost vertically. I was fortunate to have the steering wheel to lean on; I stole a glance over my shoulder to see one girl holding herself braced against the back of Mom’s seat, while the baby was hanging from the straps in the car seat.
We got to the bench just in time to meet a white Toyota 4×4 coming up from the dark timber. The Toyota, like the Green Machine, was obviously the veteran of many a rough trail; chipped, dented, with a brush guard mounting a winch and a length of chain, and big off-road lights on the cab.
The Toyota pulled up to us and stopped. The driver leaned out, his face white as bed linen. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, indicating the trail as it descended into the dark timber.
“Do not,” he said, in a tone that would not have been out of place in a horror film, “go down there.”
We didn’t. I let the Toyota pass, then backed around and went back up the hill, to find a gentler trail. Mrs. Animal was pleased, I think, with my new-found discretion.
Back to the Story:
Then, about five years later, I found myself in a different Bronco, in a different state, facing a different obstacle – remember that flooded creek? I was facing that flooded creek.
“So, what are we doing?” Carl asked again.
I put the Dark Horse in reverse. As I backed away from the creek, Dick chimed in: “There’s no way around that creek, you know.”
“I know.” I backed off about fifty yards, put the transfer case in 4H, put the truck in Drive.
“Oh, no,” Carl said. “Tell me you aren’t…”
I floored it. The Dark Horse shot forward, into the night, down the bank, and into the water. I kept the gas pedal slammed down hard and fought with the wheel as the Dark Horse bucked and bounced and, I am sure to this day, skipped across the flood waters like a flat rock across a pond. We landed on the far bank about thirty feet downstream of the road and had to engage 4L to crawl back onto the trail.
“Well, that worked out all right,” I opined as we proceeded towards our camp.
The brothers had other opinions, and made those known to me at a considerable decibel level for the rest of the drive, but I was unfazed; I reminded them of a saying I had learned in the Army, “if it’s stupid but works, it ain’t stupid.” The brothers were not convinced.
The whole thing blew over quickly and was in fact mostly forgotten on our trip home from Arizona, during which trip Dick and I almost managed to get Carl deported; but that is a story for another day.
Moving into late middle age tends to settle a guy down some. As I approach the six-decade mark, I know that I have become a little more cautious than I was in my youth, when bumps and scrapes to my carcass didn’t seem to hamper me as much as they do these days.
But sometimes we backslide, just a little. A couple of years back, during elk season, loyal sidekick Rat and I were sitting in Rojito, contemplating a snow-covered trail that, we knew, led to some promising elk country.
“Snow looks no more than knee-deep,” Rat opined.
“Pretty steep drop-off there on the left,” I added.
“Yeah, but you wouldn’t drop off very far before those trees would catch you. Think the come-along will pull the truck back up to the road?”
“If it’s right-side up. Maybe. I’ll be careful.” I pushed in the clutch, stuck the transfer case into 4L, put the truck in first gear, and eased on forward.