A wandering traveler stops to rest for the night when an unforgettable man appears. Follow their fictional misadventure, inspired by conversations with friends.
1 | CA Man
We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. That is where CA man lives. Or, at least, that's what we would remember.
We'd been driving for hours. Our last stop was somewhere just east of the Nevada border. The sun scorched the hood of our cross-country champion: a 1997 Toyota Tacoma with a camper shell. The camper seemed to put too much pressure on the engine for the past few hundred miles and it didn’t want to keep going. I couldn’t blame it. Finally, the car cooled enough to start up again and we headed west.
Fuck it, I said. Next chance we have, we're stopping.
So, we did. Not a mile later, we came up on Shady Lane RV Camp. It was tucked away off Old Highway 58, between a road and the middle of bumfuck nowhere. I wondered how anything stayed open out there.
Look at that, I said. It's fate. Let's get some sleep.
We spent two miles or so staring at nothing but bleak, desolate rock. The sun seemed to be the only thing alive out there and it was an intolerable bitch. It emanated so much heat that waves of humidity rose from the ashen yellow-divided blacktop only to be interrupted by our sad Toyota.
Our destination seemed sketchy, but we needed to sleep and the next best choice was the side of the road with no air conditioning. Even at night, the desert was way too hot for that. Dry, heavy heat rippled through everything, not just above the asphalt.
Around sunset, we settled in and grabbed a couple beers to head to the roof. That's when I realized two things. First, I was definitely tripping on those shrooms I took when we broke down. Second, we were being watched.
I tried to focus on the heat waves, which was a mistake. I bent over to heave my nausea away when a long shadow approached me. His feet were bare and covered in the dirt he'd walked through for at least three days. The rest of him was just as dirty, all the way up to his wife beater with a torn seam. Rusty disheveled hair sat on his head and I wondered whether it was the drugs that made it like look that way or the reflection of twilight bouncing off the camper’s windows.
A moment later, everything went dark. We must have had a good time, though, because we woke up with nothing more than a hangover and the debris from a raging party. I could hardly open my eyes the next morning.
Who the fuck was that guy?
I don’t know, he was f*****g weird though.
Did he steal anything?
We combed the camper for missing cash and, well nothing else that wasn’t locked away was valuable, so it was hard to tell exactly what we thought would be missing.
Do you remember his name?
I don’t think he told us. He just handed me a beer and I drank it, I said. Do you think he drugged us?
No, you drugged yourself.
I supposed that was true. He didn’t take anything, I said, confirming all our cash and other crap was still in the camper.
Well, that’s wild. What a start to our time in Cali!
You can say that again. Let’s call him California Man. Do you think they’re all like that here?
I thought everyone here looked like a surfer.
2 | Mad Mike
Hey, isn’t that CA Man? I asked, pointing to a man walking on the road a few miles from the RV camp. Did he just wander the desert at all times of the day? How on earth was he still barefoot?
After a half-hearted debate, we decided not to stop. Not for CA Man at least. Although, we did stop for the Flat Earth Research Rocket we saw a few miles later. Who wouldn’t?
A large crowd was gathering. Discovery Channel was there, among a few other camera crews. Somehow, we’d stumbled on a pretty important event that I’d never heard of before in my life.
Why is the Discovery Channel featuring a rocket used for flat earth research?
Of course, it didn’t take long for CA Man to arrive. He looked less out of place among the local crowd than he had with no one else around. Somehow, he seemed to fit, surrounded with other men and women who wore coveralls and faded Wrangler jeans. I’d never seen so many wife beaters and plain white tees in one place before.
You could tell who was from out of town and who wasn’t, even without CA Man giving away the local crowd. They all seemed much more comfortable with the way their skin sizzled in the desert sun. They were also the only crew to bring coolers with Coors and Bud.
Then he saw us. We made eye contact and I tried to look away, but it was too late. CA Man was headed my way, beers in hand.
What the hell, why not? I said.
So it began again. By the time my buzz kicked in, someone was finally announcing the start of something. I’d forgotten why we were there in the first place. I was having a blast partying with CA Man’s friends. So far, I’d hit the beer bong three times and shotgunned four beers. It was the start to a beautiful… morning? It was still before noon. How was it still before noon?
The sun dipped behind a puffy cotton candy-looking cloud, providing just enough shade for me to look up at the cobalt sky. It was hard to believe a guy named Mad Mike was about to launch himself up there on a homemade rocket, for flat earth research of all things. Right, the rocket!
I turned away from the crowd and looked toward the launchpad just in time. A plume of smoke carried the rocket into the sky as a parachute shot out from the back and was severed by the heat. The torched chute floated softly to the ground from a few hundred feet in the air and Mad Mike continued sailing above the clouds I'd just been imagining eating like a happy fat kid.
He had a backup parachute, right?
The crowd was silent as Mike reentered the scene through a fluff of cotton another 100 yards away from where he’d disappeared, plummeting into a yucca tree before he became a crater in the earth. I looked around, hoping that this was a joke, just part of the stunt.
Suddenly sober, I realized CA Man was crying. I wondered if he was a flat earther, too.
3 | Hitchhiker
I need to stop taking drugs every time I get bored, I said. Did that actually just happen?
We were speeding away from The Crater of Mad Mike, looking for the next place to devour any kind of alcohol and substance absorbing foods. What the fuck just happened?
He just... died, I said, still stunned.
Whatever fast food joint we found next, I didn't care enough to remember. I had tunnel vision for burgers. Trying to process the fact that I just witnessed a man's death, I ate four double cheese burgers with bacon and barbeque sauce, nothing else because why ruin a good pile of meat by adding vegetables?
I wiped the grease from my face and dropped the napkin into a crinkled brown bag with the rest of my shame, and leaned back in my seat with a heavy sigh. The entire pound of beef I'd just consumed settled like a fine replacement for the brick of anxiety caused by my sudden fear of death.
Where to next?
I pulled out the paper map of California I'd picked up at the last Valero before Barstow and pinned it to a tree in front of my parking space. After looking around for innocent eyes, I unfolded my Kershaw and threw it into the paper.
Mariposa? Well it can't be too bad. It looks like Yosemite is just past it.
I unpinned the map from the tree and tucked it into my pocket. Back at the Tacoma, CA Man trudged our direction from the road, like a lost puppy, backpack in hand, black steel toed boots finally on his massive feet. He wanted to come with us.
Somehow, the charm of a single highway in the middle of nowhere was beginning to fade. There was only one direction we could have possibly been headed for so many miles, too many miles. It was impossible for CA Man to not catch up.
I searched my peripherals for any physical route of escape, then realized that it might look strange to run away from a grown man I just watched cry not thirty minutes ago. Did we ever find out if he believed the earth was flat? My mind raced for any kind of exit from this situation, but it always landed at the same conclusion. There was nowhere else to go.
It was hard to not consider letting him hitch a ride.
4 | Escape
CA Man hadn’t said a word since we left Kramer Junction, an intersection so significantly in the middle of nowhere that its original three roadside stands and two gas stations had bloomed into a town, if you could call it that. By the time he’d clamored into the back of the truck cab, we were able to scour Google Maps and found that we still truly had only one option at that moment. We had to keep going and take this random, possibly flat earther, with us.
In the rearview mirror, The Crater of Mad Mike loomed ominously like a real life roadrunner reminder that bad decisions cost lives, most likely your own. To the south, there was nothing but one red traffic line after another. We could have continued north if the knife had just landed a few inches to the right of Mariposa, but from here until above that random little town, there were mostly nothing but disconnected routes, and I wanted to get rid of CA Man as soon as possible.
West it was.
I tried to remember the next major city that might have a train station or airport to dump him at.
Headed to Bakersfield? I asked, nearly begging the universe for the answer to be Yes. The smell of his stale sweat was stifling.
No, he said gruffly.
Clearly, he didn’t want to tell me where he was headed just as much as I didn’t want to tell him where I came from. That was fine with me.
We’d just passed a long semi truck with a logo that said, SMITH, In God We Trust, when CA Man reached across the cab to pull us off Highway 58. After fishtailing a few times, we slammed to a stop at the end of an offramp.
What the f**k? I yelled.
I’m not goin’ to Bakersfield, he said, staring straight at a sign pointing ahead and to the left for Mojave and to the right for Bishop.
So, then, where are you going? I asked.
We’re goin’ right, he answered.
Had we just been kidnapped?
I started laughing. Why the f**k was I laughing? There was a giant man sitting across from me with his arms folded like a four year old who didn’t want to go see the doctor for a shot. Still, somehow, I was terrified to disobey him.
What’s to the right? I asked.
CA Man shrugged.
I opened my phone to search the area. One bar. Not promising. The map in my pocket turned out to be just as useless. There was nothing in that direction for miles.
Alright, aimlessly wandering to Not Bakersfield, it is, I said, finally turning right.
I should have done more drugs. There was literally nothing out there, and I mean nothing. It was entirely the opposite of what I had in mind when I started out that morning. In fact, that morning, if we’d just kept driving past Mad Mike and his damn Flat Earth Research Rocket, none of this would have happened.
When we passed a sign for California City, I saw a total of two buildings nearby. Wherever California City was hiding, it didn’t feel worth stopping to check out. There had to be somewhere to ditch him. I begged the road for a place to escape, suddenly afraid he could hear everything I was thinking.
So, do you believe the earth is flat, too? I asked, breaking the silence.
You were upset, I started explaining my assumption.
Stop here, he nearly shouted.
Out in the brittle, baked desert sand, between bushes that would eventually become tumbleweeds,
5 | The Rod
No, no, no, no, I cried, cranking the engine. It turned over, but a heinous knocking sound pounded from inside the hood like a mad man trying to get out of his cage.
What do we do now? We can’t stay with this guy.
We have no choice, I replied. I think we just threw a rod. This engine won’t take us anywhere.
In my sideview mirror, CA Man was still standing, shoulders slumped, in shock, between a tumbleweed and the edge of the asphalt. His face contorted first from confusion to betrayal, and then finally he hit anger in a full sprint toward the Tacoma.
Oh shit, I said.
By the time he’d reached the door, I was already fumbling to get out of it, half way through a heartfelt attempt at pretending it was a practical joke. Then, CA Man’s fist connected with the bridge of my nose and I hit the ground as my view faded to black.
While I was unconscious. somehow, he’d transported us from the side of the road to what I could only assume was an underground bunker on another planet. In the opposite corner of an astonishingly large room, CA Man was muttering, deep in conversation with a small, rat-like person, trash bag still in hand, his black backpack now slung loosely over his shoulder. I surveyed the riveted, rusty grey walls around us. This wasn’t another planet at all. We’d been taken inside the trash-hut.
Um, I said, unsure of how else to get their attention.
They turned toward us and silence hung in the air with CA Man's body odor, until, true to his nature, he handed me a beer. I cracked it open and noticed he was barefoot again, apparently not planning on leaving any time soon. So, we slid into the night, starting to mourn the loss of our chariot with our strange new companion and his skittery sidekick.
I asked him if he’d brought my bag, which he simply answered by handing me some shrooms.
Where’s the bag, though? I asked. He nodded at the other side of the room, where I could see a tiny lump in the corner. Did he find the hidden compartment? I’d have to look later.
Where's the truck?
Gettin' a motor.
That's expensive. Won't that take a few days?
It's taken care of, he replied.
CA Man reassured me that not only would the truck be done by some time the following day, but that I'd also owe nothing for it. He apparently knew a guy, whatever that meant. I didn't want to imagine who he'd been able to persuade to replace my motor so quickly on such short notice in the middle of nowhere. I was curious about how he paid for it, but I wasn’t about to argue.
Now maybe you won't try to ditch me, he said, sipping his beer.
Did he just threaten us? I thought.
His friend snickered and CA Man scowled at him. I tried to smile back, but I still wasn't sure if we'd been kidnapped or not. It didn’t really matter, I supposed. There was only one option for now. I chugged the first beer and it was replaced by another before I even thought to ask.
After some time, I was aware of the walls rippling with our voices. They were breathing. I giggled. CA Man looked at me and I fell over in a fit of laughter. Why was I laughing? Somehow this question made me laugh even harder. Then it hit me.
Wait, where the fuck did these beers come from? I asked. How are they cold? I'm still not sure what I was suspicious of, but it perplexed me into paranoia.
Now it was their turn to laugh. Apparently, I’d missed a major detail when I was knocked out cold.
6 | High Roy
Never seen anything like that before, I said, watching the ranger chide 1.0 in the distance.
Gonna stare at him all day? asked CA Man, sneaking up behind us.
Give me a heart attack, why don’t you? I jumped.
You scare too easily.
Up ahead on the shoreline, the pig was circling back around with the backpack still in his mouth. 1.0 was muttering in German, paying more attention to the pig than to the woman trying to get him to put on pants.
Never once did the ranger look down. Though, you could see a tiny smirk curling in the corners of her mouth, growing larger with each passing second.
Gonna get my bag from the truck. Gimme the keys, CA Man said.
Let you have my truck keys? Hell no.
You have to trust me sometime, he smirked.
Down inside my stomach, something nasty turned. The hollow glint in his eyes told me that would never happen.
Finally, 1.0 was done being scolded like a child and back to chasing his pet pig all over the shore. Roy seemed amused by taunting his owner with whatever was in the backpack and continued to lead him in figure eights until he caught sight of us.
If you’ve never been in front of a pig running full bore, well, it’s kind of f*****g terrifying. All two hundred pounds of pork were forcefully galloping toward us with no sign of intent to stop. Frantically looking left and right, I realized I would probably die in a true fight or flight situation, because I took the worst path: I froze.
At the very last second, the gigantic potbelly came to an abrupt halt and I swear he was smiling at me. Was he mocking me?
Hi Roy, I said.
1.0 came running after him, out of breath, pants, thank GOD, finally on. He apologized for his strange introduction and began to tell us how his machine, which I finally understood was his laptop after a few minutes of rambling, was inside his backpack. 1.0 continued explaining his career in something that had the word privacy in it, which struck me as hilarious considering his nudity when we met.
In the corner of my eye, I noticed Roy had run off again. He was headed toward the group with the rocket on the edge of the shore. The pig was almost as social as CA Man.
A tall man with grey hair and a wild beard bent over to light the fuse just as Roy approached with 1.0’s backpack still in his mouth. One of the rocket launcher’s friends chased Roy around the launch pad in a circle and a half until the pig managed to loop the arm of the backpack over the rocket. Both men took a step back. The two women they were with screamed at the men to help the poor pig and then at Roy to let the backpack go. Neither did either of those things.
The spark racing through the fuse quickly reached its destination. Pig, backpack, and rocket were launched into the air. Poor Roy squealed through his clamped jaw. If only he would have let go of the backpack.
High Roy, I thought.
It was like watching Mad Mike sail through the clouds all over again. Except, when Roy popped back through the other side, a parachute deployed from the back of his rocket. Still shrieking through impossibly strongly clenched teeth, the pig landed gently in the water, two hundred yards or so from the shoreline.
My machine! 1.0 screeched.
Microdosing Hunter S Thompson
This is like microdosing Hunter S Thompson. Not enough to really get hyped up, but enough to raise the energy and make me laugh out loud. Devilishly short!