Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Paddle faster, I hear banjos!

I am reminded of a story M told a few weeks ago, sitting around the dinner table at the beautifully hand-crafted home of our weekender neighbors S&L. Landlady was there, and some of M's family, and D&L, and we were getting pleasantly plastered on some really good scotch S had opened for the occasion, and the conversation had reached that point where a person might get howls of laughter by reading the phone book aloud if he did it well, and we probably should have gone home.

It was the summer of 2009. I can place it exactly because that was the summer we spent putting up M's Dome and it's sort of fixed in my memory. M, Claire and I were having lunch together under the breezy overhang of Landlady's barn. That spot gives you a good view of the neighboring ridge, along which runs the road to M's Dome, and that's how M happened to spot the black minivan.

We don't get many minivans out here and that would have drawn M's eye anyway, but this one was acting oddly. It moved forward slowly, stopped, went backward, slowly progressed again. Somebody was looking for something, on a road where nobody but us had any earthly business being in the first place. M thought it was suddenly a nice time to take a walk, and I didn't disagree.

It was a hot day and we'd been working all morning so neither of us was exactly dressed for an evening at the casino. M's a good-looking young man and never seems to sweat, so he wasn't so bad: He was dressed in his usual jeans and t-shirt, with a nice skateboard-taped wonder-nine. I was grubbier and smellier even than usual, with my usual faded camo, scraggly beard, t-shirt with the sleeves torn off, and the continent's ugliest AK47. Down the slope, across the wash, up the slope, look for the road.

When we found the (shiny, rented) minivan it was parked and empty. Tracks led off to the left, toward the cliff. We followed at our leisure and soon spotted a man and woman wandering rather aimlessly near the cliff. They were early middle age, well-dressed, and looked profoundly misplaced. The woman was carrying a purse dog of some sort and the man had - something small - on a leash. M suggested that I stay back in the junipers while he approached them. In hindsight I think he meant I should not approach them at all, but I could be wrong.

Anyway, he broke cover and approached the couple. Conversation ensued; I couldn't hear what they were saying over the shrill yapping of the two little dogs. Little Bear was still a pup at the time and unusually obedient, so he stayed with me. It wasn't much of a confrontation. The woman seemed friendly enough to M, but the man kept his distance.

I watched this for a while and figured, well, if they had absorbed M's presence it was time for them to get a load of me. When I approached the whole dynamic changed. What had been a fairly friendly encounter in the boonies quickly degenerated with a big assist from Little Bear who decided that whatever that thing on the leash was, he could take it.

I never did firmly identify the thing on the leash. If you let Andy Warhol design a pit bull terrier it would probably look a lot like this little dog. It was pugnacious and terrified and very loud. The man on the other end of the leash never said a word but clearly radiated the desire to be a million miles elsewhere in any direction. The woman was actually pretty cool about the whole thing. I slung the AK, walked up and said hi, then didn't say anything more because the dogs were making so much noise I was kind of in overload and couldn't have followed a conversation in any case.

M and the woman talked - or, well, kind of shouted - and it turns out she had bought this parcel of desert land online years ago and had never actually seen it so she had taken the opportunity of a road trip to drag her resisting husband out here. They lived in New York, and what she'd been thinking when she bought the parcel I really couldn't say but it was clear she had not consulted hubby. He wasn't getting into the spirit of the thing at all, in fact if I had to guess I'd say he was wondering if they were all going to escape unscathed.

We finally said our goodbyes and headed back into the brush. When we got back to Claire M chirped, "You know anybody looking for land? There's a parcel about to come up for sale."

But the upshot came a few weeks later. This couple hung around the nearest town for a couple days, made some acquaintances, had some further conversations in a less disturbing if still somewhat rustic setting. And it turns out that, while hubby wanted to go back to civilization right frickin' now and never again stray from pavement and bistros and Officer Friendly, the woman thought the whole thing was pretty cool. The notion that armed residents would actually respond to the presence of nosy strangers and find out for themselves what they were doing there, well, she thought that was appropriate and rather empowering. She liked the idea of living in such a place. The man thought he'd fallen into a Deliverance remake, and on the spot he devoted the rest of his life to learning to cope with the disturbing memory.

Of course having come in peace, neither of them were ever in the slightest danger - at least not from us. I do get an occasional kick out of thinking back on their widely-different perceptions of what, to us, was a perfectly normal way to greet strangers and determine their intentions.


Claire said...

LOL, I remember that well. I also ran into that couple on the road a couple of days later. And you're right, she was still full of good cheer and excitement; he still looked like a deer in the headlights. (Being from Cuba by way of Long Island, NY, he must have been experiencing just a tad bit of culture shock, but clearly he also had zero sense of adventure.)

I have to admit that, in his shoes, I'd be pretty upset if my wife bought land without telling me (though I don't know whether they were even together when she did it). But him? He was just flat out terrified. Of everything.

And yes, the Warhol dog. French bulldog. Looks tough as a pit bull, only somehow frou frou at the same time. Very weird.

I've often wondered whatever happened to those folks. BTW, she had seen the land before, but years earlier. I know a lot of people bought their parcels on line, but she bought hers while visiting the area with a girlfriend long, long before and had forgotten exactly where it was.

Given the terrain and the so-called roads out there, it's a wonder, and a testament to her navigation skills, that she ever found the place again.

Matt said...

I was up in that part of the country many years ago. I had been out hunting rabbits with my dog and was headed home on foot. I was dressed in bits of cast off work clothes, camo and flannel. My dog was brown, generic and relatively small. I was slightly armed, just a sidearm and shotgun with the breach open over my arm. As we moseyed towards my parents place we noticed a car with out of stae plates pulled over on the side of the mud road. Looks like they had pulled over to tighten up the lines holding the tarp over their luggage. I walked out of the woods line, thinking to offer assistance. Upon seeing me I hear startled cries of gun, he's got a gun! Car doors slammed, tires spun and the nice folk took off in a flurry of muddy dust with tarp corners flying. I never even got the chanvce to say howdy.

Borepatch said...

Man, that's funny.

Anonymous said...

I miss living there. Even living in the big bad city it was more fun than living in California.

You guys can have me back if you want.


John Venlet said...

Great story, Joel. Wish I could've been there for that myself.