Leaving the Main Road

Gary and I recently went on a dune-buggy ride in the desert. We were planning to be in the area for a few days, and Gary located a low-tech brochure at the visitors’ center advertising rides for $25. I’m being kind when I say “low-tech” for the brochure appeared to have been produced at home on a black-and-white printer. The paper quality was somewhere on the scale between the cheapest cardstock and regular printer paper. After the ride, I wondered if someone from the “Explore the Desert” dune-buggy tour company had dropped by the visitors’ center on the sly and jammed a few of these notices in an empty brochure slot. If that were the case, no one working at the center had noticed them among the brochures for Knotts Berry Farm, Magic Mountain and a host of other Southern California activities. They just sat in wait like one of the many rattlers lying under the area’s rocks waiting for unwary prey.

I’ll be honest that my senses were dull from the two margarita lunch when I had agreed to go on this tour, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary when Gary phoned them up to find out what they were offering. The best thing was that the rate was far better than some of the other desert tours, which advertised prices as high as $150 per person. We went the economic route, which I’ve said many times over the years is quite often not the best road to take.

When Gary got off the phone, he said it sounded like the woman answering his questions had a lot of dogs in the background and maybe some crying children. I assumed she worked at home and struggled to make ends meet. Perhaps her husband had lost a job and, in the entrepreneurial spirit, had decided that giving tours of the desert in a dune-buggy—his most accessible resource—was how he could afford to feed a family and a pack of hungry dogs. I voiced no concern, and we didn’t seem to have any worries even when she gave odd directions such as, “Turn off the ten, go over the bridge, and at the T, make a sharp left. Cross a bridge, go to a banged up stop sign—it’s got a few bullet holes. Turn left, right and left again. This will bring you to the highway. Make one more left and drive ’til you see two big school buses painted bright green. That’s us!”

We left early, but continued to drive and drive from the hotel. We barely found the place in time for our 1:00 appointment. A family of three fair-skinned blonds was re-applying sunscreen and getting into their car. Looking at the place, I assumed they had chickened out, but the guy leaning against the fence, taking a final drag of what must’ve been a longed-for cigarette, told us he had just finished up with them and said that we were next.

“We’re just waiting on three more people to join us,” he said. “In the meantime, feel free to look around. There’s lots of interesting things to look at. You can go in the bus over there.” He gestured to indicate that one was open to the public while the other was kept as a private residence. I wondered where the crying children and barking dogs were kept. “There’s some art inside that might interest you.”

The bus contained a lot of “sculpture” completed by Dewayne’s brother. Dewayne was to be our driver, and his brother appeared to have produced a lot of “art” while on meth. It was that type of product. Wire hangers welded to nuts and bolts, then welded to screws and nails and various sundries finally welded to coffee cans or old vegetable tins. The end result was a six-shelf menagerie of real and mythical creatures in their most abstract forms. I can’t provide more detail because I took a cursory glance, spun on my heel and walked out of the place lest some hidden door slam, trapping me inside to be fleeced, raped or cannibalized.

The waiting room at "Explore the Desert" dune-buggy tour company.

The waiting room at “Explore the Desert” dune-buggy tour company.

We walked outside and back toward Dewayne. I hadn’t paid attention at first, but as he explained the fee schedule, I noticed his teeth. What can I say other than the obvious: the Desert Dune-buggy Consortium does not offer a dental plan. His mouth was a jagged mess! I pulled Gary aside and said we’d found out what happened to Winter Warlock from the Rankin/Bass Christmas special.

I jumped to what I felt was the obvious conclusion and screamed in my head, “Dear God, he’s a meth-addict. Run for the car!” What else could I assume with those teeth and that “art” on the bus? However, I remained calm and surveyed the situation. His skin was not picked over. It was difficult to tell since his weathered face told the story of a harsh life in a dry climate. And his laidback nature bespoke a fondness for marijuana more than something that gets you moving in all directions like meth. He also weighed over 280 pounds, so had he been addicted to meth, he had been in recovery long enough to gain 200 pounds. Still, those teeth were a horror story. Perhaps he had not taken drugs, but had eschewed bottle openers all his life in favor of using his teeth as nature intended.

Then I worried how many people knew where we were going that day. I started to panic. Who else was going on this trip? Aside from innocent tourists trying to save a little money to have an adventure, I could see three more Dewaynes showing up. It could turn out to be a tight situation with some sweatier, harrier Dewayne types looking to cut loose while I got sandwiched in the middle. The scene where Gene Wilder is kidnapped in Bonnie and Clyde came to mind.

Then again, our co-adventurers could be a family like the blonds who were gone by now, having driven away as fast as they could. You never know what to expect. The whole afternoon could turn out to be a Gilligan’s Island sort of thing: an afternoon tour that turns into a long-term survival situation. Dewayne was as big as the Skipper, but I was afraid I’d have to play Mrs. Howell. Just then, a car of three drove up. They were a couple from Wisconsin plus a cousin who had just flown in to escape the winter weather. As we buckled in, the husband asked the wife if she thought her back would be okay. “She’s on medication for an old work injury. She’s a nurse. Honey, did you take your Darvon?”

Great. Nurse Jackie was coming along for the ride. I wondered if any of the characters on Gilligan’s Island had battled addiction while stranded. Probably Ginger. The Professor most likely spent a great deal of his time playing Walter White to keep her happy.

We climbed into the dune-buggy, which Dewayne said that he and his brother had built. Great. A car built by two meth-heads out of an old VW. Spare parts had evidently been welded to coffee cans and were on sale in the gift shop for $10.00. Basically, they had stretched a VW Bug and put a roll-bar over it. You had to climb in in the most undignified way, so I thought of many people I know who wouldn’t attempt this outing based on the required effort to undertake it. Others would’ve had the sense to ask more questions and keep driving. Still, it was going to be an adventure. We were there, and I was willingly going along it.

Dewayne cranked up the motor, which was so loud I felt as though I were lounging in an actual jet engine. I had brought a bottle of sparkling water, which was a big mistake. As much bouncing that goes on, it was pointless to even open it. We tore down the highway and then off the main road. Dewayne came to an abrupt stop and asked if any of us were adventurous. A pointless question since we’d still gotten in the vehicle with him after getting a good look. Yee-haw! We went flying down trails of loose rock, sand and gravel. I thought back to drivers’ education in Oklahoma where you actually learned to drive on roads like that. The instructors told us what to do so as not to flip over. Dewayne apparently had the same regard for safety as he had for dental hygiene.

The trip was not completely terrifying. We stopped along the way to learn about the various points of local interest. Dewayne pointed to a split in the mountains and explained that it had trails that people hiked all the time. It was insurmountable to me, and then I became concerned when he pointed high up the trail to a cluster of palm trees. “That’s an oasis with an underground aquifer if you ever get stranded out here.”

What was he implying? Why would I ever be stranded in that part of the world unless he planned to dump us off? Think, think! Who know where we were going that day? I know we hadn’t told the front desk!

A view of the desert from our tour.

A view of the desert from our tour.

We finally got a chance to stop and stretch our legs. I noticed that Dewayne had to remove the steering wheel in order to get in and out of the vehicle. His belly was too large to do it otherwise. I was wary of straying too far from the dune-buggy lest he abandon us. I soon realized what was really going on. Dewayne needed a smoke break, but he disguised it as a lesson on the sights with an opportunity to take photos. While our group meandered about, Dewayne smoked as he explained local history, then he smoked as he took photographs of us with our phones, and then he smoked as he told us that “next time” we were welcome to bring liquor to make the trip more fun.

I couldn’t imagine the poor judgment it takes to add alcohol to the mix, and because I was “in my head” over the very idea, I almost failed to realize that he had said, “Next time.” We were going home.

©2014 Patrick Brown

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