Near Death in the Gila National Forest

Don Lubov

© Copyright 2020 by Don Lubov


Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash.
                                 Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash

So, here I am, waiting by the roadside for my first hitch. The weather is beautiful, and I’m feeling good. Good here means a mixture of fear and excitement. I’ve got 35 pounds of food and gear, and I’m ready to go. Hold on to your hat, that semi is slowing down.
With the hiss of air brakes, the big rig comes to a smooth stop. I climb up the steps and find myself looking into the blackest face I’ve ever seen. His eyes glisten like snowflakes in a moonless night.
Welcome, boy. Throw your gear in the back. You been waitin’ long? My name’s Edward, and this here rig’s Emma. We’re ‘long- haulers. Where ya headed?”
My name’s Don, and I’m headed west…just west. I haven’t been waiting long for a ride. But, you are my first.”
Well, boy, this calls for a celebration. Emma’s bustin’ your cherry. I don’t drink when I drive, but I can offer you some free advice.”
 “I don’t drink alcohol anyway, so no loss there. But, I’m up for any advice that’ll make my journey easier.”
 Whenever you’re in a diner or a rest stop, you go up to the counter and ask for a bowl of hot water. This means you ain’t got much money, and you gonna pour some ketsup from the counter into the hot water and make yourself some tomato soup. They’ll probably give you a full meal in exchange for you washin’ dishes in the back. You don’t mind washin’ dishes, do you?”
Hell no. That’s a deal I can live with. Thanks for the tip.
Another thing. You know why I picked you up? You was smilin’. Keep smilin’, and keep as clean as you can. You got all that, boy?”
Yes. I got it all. Thanks, Edward.  
Edward was my first hitch, but many followed. Everybody was friendly, and all were eager to hear my story. They knew theirs, and sharing stories killed the boredom of the road.
Camping near major roads taught me some important lessons—Make camp before dark. Unless you want company, don’t sleep in hay stacks…field mice and snakes like them. Stand near the entrance to major roads…people, especially truckers, are already slowed down. Stand alone. Drivers who’ll pick up one hitcher are not likely to pick up two or more.
Three days into my journey I, and 50,000 others, rolled into a one-horse town for a 7-day rock concert in the woods. Before I even got to the festival grounds, a beat up pickup truck pulled up to me as I walked along the road. A ‘good-old-boy’ hung out the window and shouted to me:
Hey, hippie, get a haircut.”
The truck sported a faded rebel flag and a gun rack with two rifles nestled in it. Not too far ahead of me, were two girls in tank tops and bell bottoms. they couldn’t have been more than 14 or 15 years old. The rebel welcome wagon saluted them with the following offer:
You gals gonna gimme some o’ that poontang?
Without waiting for an answer, Billie-Bob and Tommy-Ray sped off in a cloud of dust…a whoopin’ & a hollerin’.
It was hot and humid when I arrived at the festival grounds. I found a patch of wet grass, and set up my camp.
Hey dude. You want some marijuana? Maybe some pills?”
Thanks, but no thanks. I’m doin’ fine.”
Suit yourself, man. This is the best shit around.”
Something’s wrong here. I’m supposed to be partying with the crowd…staying high, and digging the social scene. God, what’s wrong? I don’t want this anymore. What the hell is happening? I gotta get out of here, soon.
 I don’t get it. Like Woodstock, this is supposed to be fun. It isn’t. Time to leave.
I left the festival after only three days.  
Route 10, hot and humid, I head west, and catch a ride with two university instructors on their way home to Lake Charles, Louisiana.
What’s your name, and where are you going?”
My name’s Don, and I’m headed west.”
I’m Buddy and this is my wife, Jana…Just west? How far?
I don’t know, but thanks for the ride. I’ve been teaching art at a university in North Carolina, and decided it’s time to examine my life and follow my heart to wherever. 
Wow. That’s pretty amazing…to just pick up and, ‘hit the road.’ I take it you’re not married.”
No, no wife. No kids. And, as of last month, no job. I suppose while I’m still in my 20’s, it’s a good time to do this.”
So you have no place to stay?”
No. I just camp near whatever road I’m traveling on.”
Well, tonight, you can bunk with us. Jana and I teach at the local university. We instructors have to stick together.”
Thanks. It’s great to have a place to stay, and some good conversation with colleagues.”
Here we are. Home sweet home. Put your stuff in the guest room over there, and join us for dinner.”
Great. I wish I could contribute to the meal, but I have nothing with me right now.”
That’s quite alright. Tell us your story…your teaching, and how you got on the road.”
After hearing of my art career, my lack of a new teaching contract, and my decision to hike across the U.S., if that’s what it took, Buddy and Jana suggested I come with them to a gathering of friends.
Where are we going? This seems to be the middle of nowhere…just backroads and swamp.”
It is kinda of out of the way, but well worth it, said Buddy. You’ll love it, said Jana?”
After about 45 minutes of totally unfamiliar territory, we pulled up to a rustic looking building, on stilts. The minute we got out of the car, I could hear music and singing.
You know what ‘coonies’ are, Don?”
Can’t say as I do, Buddy”
Coonies is short for ‘Coon-Assed-Cajuns. Get ready to meet a crowd of coonies.”
Howdy Buddy. Howdy Jana. Who’s that with you?”
Howdy Abel. This here’s Don. He’s our guest.”
Any friend of yours is welcome here. You know that. Howdy Don. Welcome to our happy place. Grab yourself a beer, and enjoy the music. Buddy and Jana is good people. Any friend of theirs is welcome here, anytime.”
Thanks, Abel.”
I didn’t want to offend anyone, so I grabbed a beer, and nursed it. It wasn’t long before I picked up on the song lyrics. I hoped the shock on my face didn’t show. They were the nastiest, most racist, songs I’d ever heard.
Where the hell am I, and what have I gotten myself into? I gotta get out of here, but where is here?
What do you think, Don? Isn’t this a great bunch of people?”
It certainly is different. They do seem to be enjoying themselves…dancing, and singing, and drinking.”
It’ll be getting dark soon. Let’s say goodbye, and head for home. Don, you must be tired from being on the road.”
That’s for sure. I’m beat. Let’s go.”
Bye Abel. Thanks for the beer.”
The next morning, after a restful sleep, and a hearty breakfast, Buddy and Jana clear the table and announce they’re going to share something special with me.
Don, now that you’ve stayed with us and met our friends, we want to share our pride and joy with you. This is part of our gun collection. Buddy, show Don your favorite.”
Don, this here’s my favorite gun. It’s a pump, shotgun my daddy gave me for my birthday. Isn’t it a beauty? Here, I know you want to hold it.”
It’s quite the weapon, I stammered. It’s heavier than I thought it would be. The etching on it is beautiful.”
I knew you’d like it. Jana, now you show Don your special piece.”
Here she is, Don. This is my Beretta. It fits in your hand like a glove. Here, you hold it. What do you think?”
You’re right, Jana. It fits like it was made to be held.”
Don, now that you’ve seen our prized guns, and visited with our friends, we have an offer for you. Abel called early this morning. These flyers were circulated around town last night.  
I read the flyer, and my heart fluttered. I felt woozy. My legs were like rubber. To cover my condition, I sat down. In bold type, the flyer announced, that there was going to be a ‘nigger-lynching’ that night…to bring your own ‘nigger’.
Buddy, Jana, Is this for real? Is this really going to happen?”
Oh, it’s for real and it’s going to happen. The only question is whether you are going to join us. Abel and the others are inviting you to join us, tonight. But, you have to decided now. If you’re not going to be with us, you have to leave right away, without knowing more about tonight’s festivities.”
Abel’s invitation is so sudden and unusual; I just have to decline. Thanks for your hospitality. I’ll just get my pack and be on my way. Be well, and thanks again. ‘Bye.”
I was never so eager to leave a place in my life.
Could that invitation have been real? God, I hope not. It’s 1971, how can this still be going on? I better hurry up and get out of here. Damn, that was scary. Maybe I’d better think this hiking/hitching trip through  

It took a week to get across Texas. Of course, I visited the most famous places. Have you ever heard of Muleshoe, TX? It’s just east of Clovis, New Mexico. 

Whatever you call it— God, Spirit or universal force— I’ve found something wonderful. Or, has something wonderful found me? Was my journey west just a metaphor for a spiritual quest? How come I wasn't conscious of looking for such an awakening? Why was it such a surprise? What am I supposed to do now? Is my trip over now or is it just beginning?

Something is different about me now. I’m still backpacking, and I’m still on a physical journey west. I feel lighter— freer and no longer alone. I haven't felt lonely very often on this trip, but now I feel even less alone and not at all lonely. Now that my spiritual journey has just taken a giant leap forward, I suspect that it, too, is now part of my overall trip.

I seem connected to almost everyone I meet on this trip. Perhaps that is what enlightenment is—a realization that all life is connected. It can’t be a coincidence that I’ve gotten to this very spot. Right here, right now. I’ve hitchhiked, camped and worked one day at a time.      

Camping in the Gila National Forest gives me time to reflect on recent events. I feel I have a purpose now, although I’m not quite sure what it is.

How ironic. Spiritually, I’m recently found and now physically, I’m completely lost in this place. This area is rocky and rugged. Now my life depends on me getting out of here soon.    I head south. The faster I try to leave; the more lost I get. I’m hot, sweaty, dirty and tired. My diet of about five hundred calories per day isn’t enough to keep me going for long.

Panic is beginning to set in. Exhausted, I collapse by the side of an old, dirt road. I can’t go another step. I just sit there, too tired to move…too tired to even deal with my thirst and hunger. I haven't eaten anything since yesterday. 

I feel like a marionette whose strings have just been cut . . .all of them at once. I’m a worn-out, painful heap of a human. I slump there for thirty minutes before summoning the strength to take a drink.

The water is warm, but surprisingly refreshing. After my drink, I’m ready for what might be my last meal. It consists of one can of warm peaches. The peaches are spooned out with great care. I cut each piece into smaller pieces. I savor every morsel. This small and otherwise simple can of peaches is my wilderness banquet. I eat slowly, attentive to each and every bite. When the last bite is swallowed, I drink the thick, syrupy juice they were packed in for desert. I may well be at the end of my rope but, dammit, I'll dine before I dangle. God, those peaches taste great.

I’m lost, exhausted and out of food and water. My physical condition demands that I accept my situation...Before I take my last breath, I must accept death. Although there’s time for brief reflection, there’s no time for regret. There’s only enough time to cozy up to death. The fact that I might die, soon, right here, in this spot, on this day (whatever day this is), is a distinct possibility.

I haven't quite made it to the west coast. However, I have completed about three-quarters of my trip. I've toured Amish country, attended a rock festival, been invited to a lynching, visited Mexico, survived the Texas desert and had a spiritual awakening. So far, it’s been a rather successful journey. If death is imminent, I'd best prepare myself for it.

The rock formations around me, the sparse stand of trees, the big sky and the horses all make this a tranquil, beautiful place to make my final goodbye. I prefer this to some filthy urban back alley. Yes, this is an acceptable place to die. Yet, aren’t I salvageable? Especially after my awakening, aren’t I worth reclaiming?

 I’m half asleep and can feel myself getting weaker. My breaths are shallow and brief. The end must surely be near. It’s too bad my parents will never hear from me again. They’ll never know what happened to me. That’s got to be tough for a parent.  There will be no remains. Bear, mountain lion and other nature’s creatures will see to that. I’ll just be labeled another missing person who was last seen at a wilderness supply store in the Gila.

I close my eyes. So tired, so weak, so sleepy.

It’s then that I hear it...the faint sound of a truck. It’s slowly coming down the road. It takes all my remaining strength to stand up and wave for it to stop.

The truck finally stops and the driver waves for me to approach. I try to lift my pack, but I don't have the strength. Seeing my predicament, the driver exits his truck.  

He appears to be in his mid-sixties, with a weeklong growth of facial hair, almost shoulder-length gray hair, old work boots and faded bib overalls. His face and hands are lined and brown from the sun. Together, we throw my pack over the tailgate and into the truck. He then helps me into the passenger side of the truck.   

"Howdy. My name’s J.R. O’Conner. You sure look like hell."

"I believe I do." I croak. "I know I feel like hell."

"This old logging road is how I get to town for supplies. Once a month, I drive to town for gas, food, magazines, tools if I need 'em, batteries and one bottle of Old Charter whiskey. That bottle has to last me for 30 days, until my next trip to town. You’re one lucky S.O.B. Today's my once-a-month trip."

The next morning, after about ten hours of sleep, I hobble out to the road. I decide I survived for some purpose. Logically, I shouldn’t have lived. I limp about, dragging my pack behind me. I’m anxious to get on with my journey and to find out my purpose.

I sit in the hot sun for hours waiting for a ride. Finally, a car stops. If I can make it to the Interstate, I feel I can continue my trip west.

Please stop. I need this ride. Please, please stop.

Screeeech! A filthy, nine-passenger, station wagon stops so quickly it’s engulfed in its dust cloud.

You were goin’ so fast; I thought you were gonna blow right past me.”

Not a chance, boy.”

Well, whatcha waitin’ on? Ya comin’ or not?”

The car is so loaded down with cases of beer; the tailpipe almost touches the ground. The driver and pit crew are juiced and ready to ride. Ma and Pa Budweiser and their son Sixpack are anxiously guzzling beer at a furious pace.

Just set yourself down next to the beer. You can put your pack on top o’ that case next to you.”

Here ya go, Pa, chug this,” says Ma.

Pa chugs his new beer and heaves the empty out the window. Ma chugs a few herself. Her empties also make a hasty exit.

Not to be outdone by his seasoned parents, Sixpack shouts “Ye- ha!” as he chugs and tosses his empties. The floor of the wagon is sticky with beer that never quite made it out the windows.   

Here ya go, boy. Have a brew.”

Thanks, but no thanks. 10 a.m.’s a bit early for me to start drinkin’.”

Suit yourself. That just leaves more for us.”

The goal of all this seems to be the most beer consumed, in the shortest amount of time, at the highest rate of speed, with the radio as loud as it can be.  

Ye-ha!” says Sixpack, as we carom up one side of the narrow, meandering road and down the other. The battle between inertia and thrust is ongoing. It keeps us teetering on the brink of rolling over.   

Have yerself a beer.”
“No thanks.” I reiterate. The family Budweiser isn’t much for conversation. All concentration is focused on consuming beer and discarding the cans.  

It’s a good thing nobody’s comin’ from the opposite direction,” I say.

Nobody seems to care. Our insane and erratic pace continues, mile after mile, for at least thirty minutes.

We’re all gonna die! A horrible death...upside down in a ditch with vast amounts of blood-filled pools of beer.

We’re bouncing around like Ping-Pong balls in a lottery machine. I don’t know how much more I can take of this.

 Aren’t they ever going to run out of beer?

You done good, son.”
“You too, Pa.”
“I gotcha both beat.” shouts Ma.

I’m all for family togetherness, but this is just plain bizarre...and dangerous. We’re hitting speeds of 55 and 60 miles per hour. The car is off the gravel road as much as it’s on it. Dust totally obscures our rear view and the heat is oppressive.

I can’t believe it. I survived 2,500 miles of wilderness and adventure only to die sober in a Beerwagon. After about 45 minutes of this hair-raising ride, we come to a screeching halt at the interstate. Thank God.

I’m six hours baking in the sun when I hear the unmistakable sound of a Harley in the distance. As the sound grows louder, a lone rider appears. Soon I can make out a chopper, glistening in the setting sun. The biker slows and stops right in front of me.

"You want a ride?"

I put on my pack, walk around to the rear of the bike and prepare to mount up. I see he’s flying his colors. There it is: "Hell's Angels, M.C.", Los Angeles chapter. It’s too late to change my mind. I get on, my hands on my thighs, and lean as far forward as I dare, to balance my pack and to keep it from pulling me off the bike. 

We blow by Needles and Blythe, roaring through the hot, pitch- black Arizona night.

I’ve lost myself, and found myself, in 1971. Where to now? To do what? I was eager to discover my purpose. Still a loner, but never again to feel lonely. Ready to serve, but how? Not the same person who left the east coast some 4,500 miles ago. Leaner, tanner and, hopefully, a little wiser. Now I feel a part of something greater than myself.

In time, all will be revealed. For now, I’m ready, willing and able to serve. California, here I come. Screaming into L.A., on the back of a “hard-tail”, piloted by a silent warrior. It’s dark when we arrive. I’ve made it to California.

I write prose and poetry, fiction and nonfiction. I've written for Yahoo, Beliefnet, and Kinja. I have 7 books currently in print on Amazon.

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