Gliding along the freeway, yellow fields of sagebrush and salt flats pulled steadily towards us, craggy arid mountains carving up horizon in every direction, mournful Banhart singing through the stereo rattling the backseat speaker cones with his bass notes, white sweaty dust-streaked stray-hair-holding mobius-twisted headband resting on the dash, swaths of brown upon clothing and door handles and parking brake and glovebox, power towers standing akimbo beside aqueduct gorges, empty railroad tracks running parallel past farm-sprinkled oases of green, fingers splintered and dirt-encrusted and cut and peeling, perfumed with hair- and torso-trapped smoke and combusted brushleaves and brushbark and dust patinas, stomachs churning through chewn-up morsels of egg and hash browns and corned beef hash or chicken-fried steak with gravy blanket and butterjammed rye toast or syrup-slathered “pamcakes,” passing billboard celebrating Pershing General Hospital prompting my “If you added one letter to that you’d get ‘Perishing General Hospital'” eliciting his “Yeah, I was just thinking the same thing,” forceful intestinal bubbles bursting themselves into boxers jeans and seat sans olfactory fanfare, black peaks with legbones in dozens pouring out to the sides, eclipsing slow-lane tractor-trailer hordes, we’re going home.
Three days prior, before going the opposite direction, I’d been sitting 45 minutes past the end of my shift in the break room watching the 49ers on TV while waiting for a ride that was sitting 2 miles away until the driver turned on his mobile phone and enabled the establishment of a locational misunderstanding. Afterward arrived the 170-thousand-plus-miles white – but red-fendered courtesy of the junkyard – early-’90s Saturn sedan and into it I brought an engorged black backpack and a rolled blue sleeping sack and myself. We were loaded for the trip but we needed toilet paper and so we stopped and bought it. We didn’t need it at all, we didn’t use it once, but it seemed like we needed it. To the driver. I wouldn’t have. If you know your excretory system well enough there’s nothing to wipe, usually. But I guess I blew my nose a couple of times with it.
As the driver navigated to the east of the city, he bade me unfold a map of Winnemucca county to examine our upcoming whereabouts. I crinkled it out with all expected loud noises and read about rockhounding and fishing & gaming and looked at the cities along the route. You need no hunting license for jackrabbits, he explained. They’re a nuisance. He told me the general area to which we were traveling, he told me where he stayed the last time, alone. We were seeking the desert, isolated open fields only accessible by hidden networks of underused dirt roads indicated on the map by thin red capillaries branching out from Interstate 80.
The eastbound Bay Bridge flow was clogged; the radio explained that the 49ers just won their first game this season against the Raiders, and now spectator vehicles showed themselves. He asked me what I’d been up to.
I told him that lately apart from work and doing stuff with the girlfriend like operagoing and playseeing and videogaming and the solitary pinches of writing only pinches because the computer is also a ready vessel for information access which is what I’d been enjoyably randomly journeying through more often than usual. Felinish I’d been following dangling threads tied to peripheral threads which suggest other threads dangling nearby and so I’d pawed, felt torn between options on all sides, leapt, unraveled, chased, appreciating perhaps the novelty of each chase and link-synaptic brain race more than the objects of that chase. But I talked more about the objects.
There was some story I’d read on Harvard’s newspaper website in which a man in his thirties, working at a bookstore in the Cambridge area, walked onto the Harvard campus with a .22 rifle and killed himself with it in front of a walking tour. It was somehow discovered that he’d left behind a 1900-page suicide note posted online which was more like an exhaustively researched and referenced thesis for a wide array of sociological, historical and scientific claims possibly pertaining to his reasoning for committing suicide, beginning with a quite reasonable description of the human bias for life over non-life.
I told him about reading Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, apparently failing to interest him in the slightest no matter how many times I said “really good.”
I asked him what he’d been up to and he said “Not much.”
We talked about the news. I was in awe of the massive strikes for social benefits in France. I don’t remember what the driver mentioned but I’d definitely known about it because part of the compulsive data-mining involved a daily perusal of the BBC’s web page.
Soon we had run out of a month’s worth of catching up to do and silence came to take its inexorable place. We filled it with black metal, overdriven guitars and blastbeats by Arckanum, and as the freeway car sea diffused I revolving-doored between consensual awareness, envisioning the double-bass-pedaled snare-drum-smashing percussionist and viewing the freeway, and voids of microsleep only noticed upon departing jolts.
I started awake off the freeway in Vacaville, rolling down a frontage road housing rectangular commerce facilities with familiar names in lighted signs surrounding grey asphalt with white slanted lines and automobiles of varying similarity to ours. Our first stop was the sporting goods emporium, where the driver bought an extra box of hollow point .22 rifle rounds and a little metal whistle, which hearsay said was useful for smoking jackrabbits out of their hiding spots. Then at the supermarket we procured a cornucopia of fruit (fiber to go with jackrabbit meat) as well as a loaf of sourdough bread and a quarter pound of pastrami for car-trip dinner. I confessed to an increased self-consciousness about my hirsute appearance in a small town. The driver dug into a sandwich; I sat back and returned to the revolving door.
The driver put an American Spirit between his teeth and asked, “Cigarette?” I said no. When I questioned his motive he said “It’s something to do.” I told him about the plays I’d been reading with the (acting student) girlfriend, how there’s almost always a character smoking a cigarette. Of the relatively few stage directions within the script, short things like (lights a cigarette) or (takes a drag) are often the most frequent. It’s a prop that provides character.
I told him about my maternal grandfather, deceased, who vehemently opposed smoking, wearing gaudy circular pins proclaiming “Smoking Stinks” and coughing exaggeratedly in front of his offenders. “Did he have any other causes?” asked the driver, and I told him about my grandfather’s advocacy of mass transit and disdain for the personal automobile – he wrote a book about the latter, although yes he did own a car which I within the past year noticeably dented because of a hellaciously cramped parking garage.
The driver said that he forgot bottles. For shooting. Glass bottles are the best, they visibly react and destruct due to the material’s fragility whereas the aluminum beer and soda cans make for uninteresting targets. Holes appear, a somewhat impressive dent at best. The driver joked that we should stop and collect some bottles, bum-like, but I latched onto the stop idea, making it serious, wanting the bathroom.
The first exit we took had no proximal facilities. The next had a man and woman sign. The driver had thought this was funny since childhood; it pointed to something other than urination. For him the handicapped icon evoked the toilet seat. These facilities weren’t proximal either. We followed a dark rural road for miles until finding some pumps by the side of the road.
The gas station attendant gave me a key attached to a long black pole. I sat, squatted, waited, clenched; it was a number 2 false alarm. The driver went next. I don’t know what number.
We returned to 80 East. Satisfied that I wasn’t going to be forcing too much into my intestines I slaked my hunger with a pastrami on sourdough of my own. No condiments. Dry.
At a Chevron station miles further along the way we stopped for gas. I went to the bathroom and it was the same kind of false alarm. Upon emerging I found from the driver that the pumps weren’t working. A couple blocks away we stopped at a Flying J; he filled up and I got out of the car to stretch, brush off breadcrumbs and take dessert with a banana from a plastic bag in the backseat. I continued revolving.
Love’s gas station, one of those big long trucker-friendly places, was the next locale of awakening. It was quite late, 9pm or so, and the driver wanted a plan on where we’d head into the desert from the freeway. We opened the map and looked at the capillaries. Large chunks of the map were covered with transparent red-and-white checkerboards, which indicated private property, the driver said. We could camp anywhere else. After several minutes of the taciturn equivalent of hemming & hawing interspersed with suggestions and qualifications we settled on an particular capillary heading south betwixt two towns on the interstate. I tapped into one of the plastic gallon water jugs from the trunk. The map advised one gallon per person per day; I’d thought that was probably quite excessive.
I activated Beach House’s Devotion. The distant simple guitar lines with the simple synth patterns and the simple drum machine patterns and the simple female vocal melodies sadly underlay the darkened nothing scenery we transversed. The girlfriend sent me a string of text through my cell phone, wishing luck and telling me to text once a day to make sure I was OK. As I thumbed in a reply I noticed I felt quite sentimental about it; I really liked being in the relationship and talking to her while I was away.
Hundreds of thousands more feet down the road I noticed the little red pointer on the gas gauge was rather close to the white line with the E at the end of it. I didn’t say anything, because the driver was assuredly paying as close attention to it as I was. We passed several promising exits, however, without stopping. Not long afterward we neared what looked to be, potentially, portentially, the last exit for some time. Having become increasingly internally agitated, I could not maintain the silence. I was fairly nonchalant in my breakage.
“You gonna get some gas?”
“Nah,” he said. “We can wait until Winnemucca [which is about 27 miles away]. I’ve calculated how long it takes once it hits empty until I’m actually out.”
Pressed, he said he favored Chevron as his parents did because they’d heard from a mechanic that it had stuff in it that was good for the car. “Oh, Techron [just like in the commercials]?” “Yup.”
By the side of the freeway we saw our first jackrabbit, roadkilled. Promising.
The gas light lit up soon after that. Either that or I asked him and found out it wasn’t working. Something ominous. We were in a long stretch without any non-car-generated lights visible anywhere. Pretty soon after that the car began shaking and sputtering as if having a road orgasm that cars could conceivably have upon ejaculating all of their gasoline. A big collective uh-oh permeated the chassis-space. The car stopped, the driver guiding it onto the right shoulder.
He turned the key back and forth perfunctorily a few times and each ignition attempt produced another quavering tremor quickly ceasing. I’d told him so but did not tell him that I’d told him so for to do so seemed unhelpful. To his credit he did not apologize once either. Immediately he went to work.
There was one of those red plastic spare gas buckets in the trunk which sounded through sloshings as though it had roughly the same amount of liquid within as the perennial jug of juice or milk in the refrigerator that the last person wanted to avoid having to throw out thereby allowing the eventual next user the dubious privilege of a useless quarter-glass or eighth-bowl-of-cereal and having to wash the container and dispose of it properly and if not simply suffering with that lot having to open the new one that pours too quickly and splashes or pours too slowly and slides down the bottom and cleaning up that mess. He had trouble getting it out of the spout through the white ribbed hose and into the car. That was because there wasn’t really much gas in it.
Not content to accept this, he either emptied the open jug of water or took an already empty jug lying in the backseat and cut it in half with a large knife, therefrom fashioning a funnel by rolling a plastic swath into a cone and stuffing it into his gas tank. He detached the ribbed hose and poured down into the funnel from the hole. Not much if any gas obliged the maneuver. We got no further than further quaking.
If we walked it was 15 miles or so in each direction. Same distance if we pushed the car. Uphill. I considered thumbing for assistance but didn’t voice the idea. The driver resigned to calling his insurance provider and obtaining their roadside assistance service.
I waited and listened as the ring sounded and a man answered. The driver laid it all out rather precisely. When asked if he was out of fuel, he answered as only one who has recently taken quantum physics can: “I’d say there’s about a 90% chance that it’s the gas.” Someone was dispatched to help us.
The driver looked at our location via cell-phone GPS and determined that we were west of a landmark, a certain highway, of which he had told the dispatcher we were east. He spent ten more minutes holding and talking until the point was established.
The driver and I played a game while we were waiting for the savior in which we had to find objects within the car beginning with each letter of the alphabet. Luckily he’d brought gum with xylitol in it. We played a game in which a person’s name is spoken and the next player must find another person’s name whose given name begins with the first letter of the previous name’s surname.
Every few minutes the dispatchee called the driver with questions and updates. “You’re west of Winnemucca, right?” “So you’re west of that highway, right?” “I’ll be there in about thirty minutes.” “Which side of the freeway are you on?”
About an hour and half after we did, a pickup truck pulled off the shoulder behind us. The truck was decked out with metal cabinetry upon its flanks but was far from the shining company tow vehicles pulling away city cars. The savior was lean and young and grizzled and wore a hoodie with camouflage pants and a baseball cap.
“They’ve got you working late, huh?” said the driver, more amicably than I could recall seeing him with a stranger.
“Yup, 24/7 call.”
“So when does your shift end?”
“It doesn’t end. I’m it.”
“Oh, that sucks.”
“Yup.” He got a red metal gas tank from one of his truck cabinets. “So you guys want a fill-up or just to get to the next station?”
“Just the next station.”
“OK, it’s [indistinguishable] bucks a gallon.” I was to the right side of the car, the two of them were to the left rear corner. It was gusty and cold.
“OK, I’ll get [indistinguishable] gallon[s].”
The savior filled the tank. “So it’s nine bucks.”
The driver looked back over to me. I looked through my wallet, found a ten, gave it to the savior. I didn’t get any change. I thought he might as well keep a tip. The driver asked if I would get change. The savior said no, no change. We said thanks and goodnight, and he left and then we did.
We found the city and filled up. The previous capillary plan was untenable due to darkness; we checked the map again and decided to take an off-road highway nearby, just away from the overpass. There was a T with ranch names in both directions. We took the left. There was pavement at first and then shortly all was dirt. It was smooth and we drove over it with scant bumping.
Jackrabbits were in ready supply. As the headlights illuminated new stretches of sagebrush, ears popped up and heads swiveled and legs leapt into our oncoming path and nicked time in last-second escapes abetted by the driver’s brakes. To each side were barbed-wire fences demarcating the vast properties of farms and ranches, most with admonitions to not trespass and stern orange proclamations of privacy.
We were looking for side roads leading off to open yet isolated territory. The first we tried dead-ended into a ranch surrounded by cars. We took every fork to the left. Saw jackrabbits and jackrabbits. Saw a sign indicating “Pumpernickel Loop.” Found a numbered marker ensuring we were on the off-road highway we’d expected. Passed a few unpromising side roads.
Then we found the one. It rose above a little slope to the left and we were able to park on the other side, sheltered from the main road. It was around 2:30am. We got out. Dark, silent. Some of the earth ahead seemed to be a cleaner sheen, as if reflective, prompting my surmisal of a body of water.
I looked up and met there the most awe-dropping jaw-dropping babblingly ineffable starscape I can remember seeing. If you wanted to have an outdoor planetarium to identify every known object in the night sky this is where it would be. All so bright, so clear, so whole, so dense and so stupefying. The driver looked up and admired as well.
He asked if I wanted to set up the tent or sleep in the car. I chose the latter. I flossed, brushed outside, washing bristles and maw with conservative splashes of bottled water. Reentering the car I found him fully reclined in the driver’s seat, inside his sleeping bag, head perched atop a pillow. I sans pillow followed suit in my own seat and retained full clothing suit to mitigate the intense desert cold pressing in from inches away. I was on my right side and soon slept.
He was up first, brushing his teeth outside as I opened my eyes to yellow-blue daylight. I slowly rose and broke fast with a red-yellow apple from the backseat as I entered the outdoors. The sky was clear save a few thin cloudstreaks. I took my first picture.
It wasn’t the desert I’d expected. No cacti for one thing, for another too much sagebrush giving it that feel of fertility. Still it was dry, temperately bipolar and dusty and open and empty and still. A black cowherd grazed in the distance. The driver explained that the ranchers just let them roam free, off property, for extended periods until they are otherwise needed. We weren’t going to shoot any cattle.
The driver popped his trunk. Inside lay several more half-gallon jugs of water, a tent bag, a wooden toolbox and an elongated brown leather case, containing one half of this trip’s raison d’etre, the half we were able to bring with us. He removed the case and a bullet box and closed the trunk.
He’d gotten the rifle from an ex-boss and ex-target-shooter, whom the driver had variously described during his tenure of employment at the man’s furniture factory and store as mildly deranged, frequently irrational, tequila-enthusiastic, druglike-frenzied yet with no substances and many other such scents of batshit though despite it all provider of a decent workplace. Like the case out of which the driver unzipped it it was elongated and brown (strap the only leather), with a serious black scope mounted atop the barrel and black ball-knobbed breech (the loading and unloading zone) sticking out to the right side.
The land housed a wholesale confectionery of cow pies, heaped and swirled and everywhere. The driver aimed at one, standing not more than a few yards away. “No chance you’ll miss that,” I said, but he rebuffed the notion. The scope has to be calibrated, he said. His first shot seemed to hit, jolting the shitpile a bit, but he had aimed off. His other shots went long, and when the weapon passed to me the story did not change.
We needed a large object in breadth and height to see how far off the shots were from the center of the scope’s plus-sign-reticular target. Nothing in the scene presented itself. The driver thought of his glovebox trove of maps and produced one of Santa Rosa, his late hometown. He attempted to prop it up on the desert floor with the sagebrush sticks littered everywhere but this proved ineffective. I suggested we lay it out upon the sharp slope just past our parking spot, and there he took it, securing it with rocks and using a central rock as the target.
I stood at the base of the slope as the shooter, he beside me with binoculars as the viewer, but steady aiming while standing was difficult to the point that I could not confidently pull the trigger; the scope never stopped dancing across and around the rock. Frustrated I took to lying prone, with the gun anchored on the earth. Eventually the confidence arose to fire, and from there it only took a handful of shots and a couple of small adjustments of the scope by the driver to secure the scope’s accuracy. He told me the process had taken him several hours the last time he’d tried. With several bullet holes in Santa Rosa now I asked how many bail bonds facilities he thought we’d hit.
We left the map and turned to other targets. The initial cow pie became a sitting duck. He shot at distant rocks. I fired on metal posts far across the main road we’d arrived on. We each emptied a magazine – eight yellow-metal bullets pressed into a thin black-metal springloaded case and breech-bidden into the chamber – before handing over the rifle to each other. There was a great satisfaction to be had in striking an aimed-upon object, perhaps related to the the marksman’s stance as director of concentrated, single-minded and visibly effective power far beyond his physical personage. Through sheer poise and stoic acuity of the senses the shooter can funnel forces into environmental manipulations; it is a sort of actualization of the meditational fantasies of spiritual disciplines.
Even so the fun began to ebb in time for the driver’s need to depart. He had a phone call to receive and in our current location had no service with which to receive it. We packed up the rifle, got in the car and took to the road, driving back in the direction of Winnemucca, kicking up a trailing fog of dust, the driver glancing every few seconds at the indicator bars on the screen of his phone.
After several more miles of winding back down the now-illuminated Pumpernickel Loop my phone spasmed twice to show I had a text message and shortly after that the driver braked hard on a straight stretch. We had bars.
The girlfriend had sent the text message. It was along the lines of inquiry into whether or not we’d arrived safely. I told her about the gas fiasco and arriving late, and that our kill count was still zero.
The driver had an audio message from a government office through which he was to schedule appointments for different immunization shots for his upcoming – at the time of this writing, two days away – departure for South America. Venezuelan jungle, in lieu of the Santa Rosa home and the San Francisco apartment, and adventure and independent-study anthropological research instead of the State University and the furniture job.
He returned the call while I scoured the area, seeking and finding scattered beer bottles and energy drink cans by their glitter in the sun, snapping camera shots of the scene around and stages of the scene to be. I prepared a line of the emptied beverage containers in a somewhat flat and open part of the sagebrush field to the west side of the road. The leftmost bottle I had refilled with warm urine fresh from the tap. The shooting post was a wooden marker cautioning would-be metal detectors about the electrical wires buried beneath. Standing, I fired on a large can of Monster, apparently right on, but witnessed no change. I went for a white bottle next and it shattered, and that was satisfying.
His conversation seemed to last an inordinately long time for agreeing on specific dates and times. When he joined me we settled into a routine where one man shot out a full magazine while the other viewed close up with binoculars, offering color commentary (“Oh, nice,” laughter etc.) and helpful advice on missed shots, after which commenced a walking inspection of the targets.
He demonstrated the ease with which the rifle steadied itself when rested upon its leather strap and the post, and our accuracy began to approximate 100%. Shards of glass flew, cans fell over and bent inward at the seam between the top and the body, and the pee splattered too quickly to notice except as a large puddle suddenly visible around the bottle carcass. We found more bottles and containers, added empty bullet boxes, stacked broken bottle-tops on cheese-grater-like aluminum husks and stood up a penny in the dirt which try my best I could not hit and which he did not try to. We upped the difficulty and shot from the car parked down and across the road, bracing the stock on the roof, yanking breechblock and ejecting cartridges to tinkle across its surface, still making contact on most attempts.
We saw other automobiles, at last. A couple of tractor-trailers lumbered past, and I lowered and hid the rifle behind the car. Later an SUV approached and halted, a cap-wearing, wizened, sun-dried and near-red-necked middle-aged man at the wheel.
“You guys alright?” he said, friendlily countenanced and drawling a tad.
“Yeah, we’re fine.”
“OK, just making sure. Get lotsa flat tires out here, with no one around. Can be a real hassle.” He paused. “Well, carry on then.” We thanked him and he drove away.
Fun started flagging as the minutes at our range passed. We decided to head back toward camp and look out for dinner. We hadn’t seen any jackrabbits today. He’d said the noise of us driving should be enough to startle them out of their hidden sunlit sleep.
We’d almost returned to camp without a sighting when, to the right, on a small oasis of yellow grass upon a plateau of sagebrush, I espied movement of a small body. “Whoa!” I said.
“What?” said the driver, not slowing. “You saw something?”
“I… think so. It looked like a small thing sitting on two legs.”
He snorted and drove back a ways and followed some tire tracks leading up from the road. We parked as the path terminated in a field of sagebrush. He took out the rifle, the whistle, and I took the binoculars.
I had half hoped that we wouldn’t find anything during the trip. Partly I didn’t know what to do with the expected volumes of blood. The blood I work with comes in sealed plastic bags and I touch it with gloves and a lab coat in a building with an abundance of flowing sinks. Here I feared I would not be able to wash it off my hands. Partly I thought the trip might be more fun without worrying about the cleaning and the cooking. And maybe I didn’t want to see myself, or the driver, as a killer.
We walked away from the car through the brush, hoping at least in action to smoke out a target. He carried the rifle with both hands and held the whistle in his mouth. It did not take long before he shouted out his discovery of a bolting jackrabbit. He followed hotly but lost it quickly. I hesitantly swept out to the side in search of any movement. He blew the whistle, to no avail.
We’d crossed a long way to the north, and I ran up against a barb wire fence dividing us from private property. I found several large pits in the ground, filled to the brim with mounds of rusted-over tin cans, like cookout spots for those who’d maybe sought like us and failed. He in the distance to the southwest called out “Hey!” again and I saw him running in pursuit. I closed the gap between us, seeing nothing, treading cautiously and quietly to his obvious tromping.
Minutes later, heading back southward, we both saw a jackrabbit’s long ears and legs dart across an open patch, but it was far too fast for the driver to draw a bead. We couldn’t be sure that it was the same one the whole time; there may have been several. We crossed the patch and returned to the sagebrush, I to the driver’s east.
“Oh!” he shouted, raising pitch, slowly raising his rifle and pointing it almost straight down into a brush plant. I looked and saw the animal there, gray-white body huddled clenched and quavering, wide eye to my side of its head twitching, well aware of our presence. I couldn’t believe it was just standing there; it felt wrong. I almost felt like the driver shouldn’t take the shot, that it was too easy, too anticlimactic, and the thing didn’t stand a chance. But he took it and shot it right in the head.
The jackrabbit flew berserk. It grasped at its fleeting will to live with a shocking violence, an instant switch to pure rage directed at none but its own forces of mobility. Lying on its side, it kicked itself in well-defined circles with its powerful hind legs. Its torso jerked madly as if possessed or as if what was possessed was bursting out. It did, very literally, backflips in the air, two in a row. We both stared stunned as the convulsions continued unabated.
Finally the driver asked, “What should we do?”
“End it,” I said, very firmly. It felt obvious. He fired again into the head and it stopped.
The silence after that was deep but it was external only. My insides had exploded into a confusion of voices and unidentifiable but frantic emotions.
He picked it up by the hind feet and headed back for the car. I followed as every argument against meat-eating and the killing of animals incoherently played itself out within my head. Acquaintances, friends, renowned thinkers and writers sounded off, but rather than their words I sensed perhaps echoes of the feelings I’d had when I’d thought about how they would think of me as an omnivorous violator of their values, now distilled and concentrated into a dully overpowering throb of guilt.
It went on as the driver selected the trunk of his car as the flat surface he needed for cleaning the kill. I watched and spoke and assisted when required but as a shell of myself. The driver voiced no discomfort and went about the procedure matter-of-factly, with no hesitation. He washed the trunk with water and then snapped and removed the head, tossing it to the side of the car. I took a picture.
“Don’t take that,” he said, with a tone of amused disgust. But I wanted to show everything.
Next were the feet, then the skin, slit open with a large kitchen knife. The blood flowed. Yellow spots, fecal matter stained on the rear, accompanied. The driver turned to the organs, we both named which was which: lungs, heart, liver, intestines, bladder, and so on. We could see the clean and orderly discrete balls of waste lining the intestines for their entire length. He saved the heart and the liver and tossed aside the rest.
He chopped and twisted the carcass into separate pieces for the eating; then it was four legs and a breast, and it went into a metal bucket. We washed the car, the knife, the meat or the dead animal if you like, again and again, scrubbing the caked skin and red stains off of the trunk and the rear fender, off of our hands, pouring jug after jug of water onto ourselves and the car, reddening the driver’s bar of soap and depleting his roll of paper towels. I had an orange from the backseat; the driver didn’t want anything.
“How are you feeling?” the driver asked as we finished.
“Alright,” I said. I sort of explained the feelings-mess I was having, which was starting to recede. He said the same, though it was difficult to tell what he was thinking. I’d known him for many years; it was characteristic. At least he admitted to feeling something.
The bucket went in the backseat and we drove back down and across the road to camp. After sweeping a flat area next to the car clear of cow pies we set up the tent. The poles weren’t the correct poles, so they had to be partially folded to fit into the pouches at the corners, and the tent sagged considerably. We threw in our sleeping bags and took a break by throwing rocks into our local lake. My first skip attempt led to at least ten separate ripple epicenters.
As the driver continued washing his hands I began to collect wood, in ample supply in our environs. Dead sagebrush plants had left dry and light yet large sticks littered on the ground. I deposited staggering armload after slow-moving armload onto the earth next to the space we’d designated for the firepit. Cows in different herds of different sizes encroached on us in different directions, and in the process of collection I stepped blindly into one of their fresh creations.
Not long after that the driver went in search of large stones to compose the pit, and a long leap across the creek feeding into the lake fell short. He submerged his right pants leg almost to the knee and was left much worse off than my foot-coating. The creek was suffused with mud and now his shoe and his leg was. He spent much of the rest of my wood-gathering stint cleaning himself off. I paused only to photograph a strangely colored insect, wandering cows, including one loner salivating and bellowing indignantly to itself, and the low-hanging sun.
The woodpile grew to a clearly sufficient level, with appropriately diverse sizes for stages of the fire, and the driver set to building it. He converged a little pile of straw-like pieces of grass. He tried using his flint but soon went for his lighter instead and it caught. Gradually we added larger and larger sticks, the pile grew high and the heat intensified to ore-refinery levels. We kept our distance.
To the side the driver had constructed a semicircle of stones to serve as a stove. The gap permitted the stick-shoving of hot coals from the seething mass of flames into the circle while the top was narrow enough to hold overhead the bucket of meat, now filled with water and generous helpings of salt-and-pepper solute. The organs we skewered upon the driver’s two-pronged marshmallow roasters; he took the liver and I took the heart. We could barely approach the fire even to hold the skewers, as our fingers recoiled burning from the orange dance. The sun set.
When the small heart felt firm to the touch and looked dark I tried a bite. It had decent tenderness and juice to it but chewed like rubber and tasted like nothing except some hypothetical sheerly base-level meat-sustenance flavor. His liver was much the same but tasted a little off, sour, like it had some leftover excretory remnants within. I ate it anyway. So far unsatisfying.
He asked if I wanted a cigarette and this time I said OK. I lit it in the fire. It was my first. The effects were subtle, a slight feeling of calming and perceptive shift probably influenced by the unusual physical ritual of it along with the substantial chemical.
After the meat-bucket had been boiling for several minutes we skewered pieces out of the water and held them over the flames. Cooking them twice helps soften the meat and insure that the nasty diseases of wild hares (which is what jackrabbits are – not rabbits) are eliminated. We each began with a leg and sat largely silent until they were browned and solid.
The driver asked if I wanted salt and pepper, and that sounded good to me. I took the minisilo cylinder of pepper and went to drop a few dainty sprinkles but ended up deluging the foreleg in black. I took a bite and blew off the roof of all palatine expectations. The meat was firm and thin and smoky and crispy and the pepper endowed it with a wondrous tasteworld. The driver concurred. I gave thanks to him for his hunt and his labors, to the hare for sacrificing itself to us, and lastly to the producers of salt and pepper. I found that the driver had only thought to bring it on the advice of his mother, so thanks to her too.
We tore through the remainder of our pieces with more healthy dashes of seasoning and eagerly procured our next out of the bucket. I took the final two legs while he had the two torso pieces he’d butchered apart. As we waited to eat during long intermittences of roasting by skewer, I decided to fill the contemplative air – to which an eventual second cigarette each contributed – with personal questions.
I asked how he’d felt about the hunt. He said he’d felt a little uncomfortable, weird about the killing – “Yeah, it’s not everyday you see something you just shot in the head doing fucking backflips,” I said – but that he’d been eating meat his entire life and felt OK about it in the end.
Essentially I felt the same way. I’d still had my same reasons for eating meat, my same internal responses to the arguments opposed that had gone through my mind so fervidly, and eventually they’d won out as the fog lifted from the battlefield. I do not view forms of life hierarchically based on the similarity of their behavior to mine and consider it ultimately equivalent to kill an animal and uproot a vegetable.
Yet, I told the driver, the calm detached way in which we prepared the carcass made me think of a serial killer taking apart his victims. In a sense the figure was humanized, for me, by our identification with the similar process, showing the acts as more of a total dissociation from peers rather than an evil lust for the grotesque.
“What were your most and least favorite parts about living in San Francisco?” I asked. The fire’s heat brushed aside the lapping gusts of chill wind.
“I always get the sense that everybody’s caught up in their own world, and that they only approach you when they have some ulterior motive.” I nodded. “I’m not saying I don’t do it too. But you can’t just walk up and talk to people. Everyone’s standoffish.”
I agreed. The only people interested in starting conversations with people are street-corner canvassers and beggars, or maybe people looking to provoke you through insults. It’s very difficult to get to know anyone, and people shelter themselves from others with their highly refined and specialized tracks through life.
“And your favorite?” I asked.
“Oh.” He paused. “The women.” No further explanation.
He reciprocated the questions. My favorite part was the different neighborhoods and scenes that the city had to offer. Over the course of only a few years, I had lived and worked in, and gradually noticed a lingering sense of intimacy with, several distinct neighborhoods, parks and the ocean, random explorations around town. My least favorite was the poor quality and general unreliability of its public transportation, which had negatively impacted or ruined many plans.
I asked the same question of physics, his freshly-completed major. His least favorite part was theory, working on long proofs of a purely theoretical nature, while his favorite was working on and thinking through problems, where he knew how to set up the problem and go about solving it. He offered the scenario (“I’ll give you a dumb example”) of walking through the rain, and judging based on the angle and speed of the rainfall how fast one should walk to get the least wet. “Of course it’s impossible to actually have the necessary amount of data, but that’s how it would work.”
We’d finished the jackrabbit, but he knew I’d brought some bags of trail mix and asked after them. He asked for the cashews, almonds and dried mangos combination and I took it from my backpack in the car, taking a pear for myself as well, taking a brief stroll into the quiet darkness away from camp, looking at the stars, emptying my mind. He munched and we basked together in the warmth of the fire on opposite sides for many more comfortably silent minutes.
Ready for bed, he stood and moved to kick out the dying fire with dirt but I said I would stay out a little longer. He brought the bag of trail mix into the tent with him, “for snacking.” I sat alone a while more by the embers, their warmth slowly overtaken by the coolness of the air around, and finally kicked them out myself.
I flossed and brushed and urinated and entered the tent with loud zipping to herald myself. Shoes were the only thing I took off. I burrowed into my sleeping bag and zip-sealed myself inside. I had no mat beneath the bag and had my side pressed just about directly onto the unyielding, rocky earth below the tent. I had no pillow either. I was cold and my neck strained to lie flat. Between my head and the driver’s lay the half-emptied bag of trail mix, which I would gaze upon when my eyes inevitably opened again. I couldn’t sleep. I resolved to fashion myself a pillow.
I unzipped the bag, yet again noisily unzipped the tent door, and found my backpack in the unlocked car. I took out all of my extra clothes except the socks and took them back inside the tent, piling them at the aperture of the sleeping bag. The driver was crunching on almonds and cashews and said nothing as I returned to bed. I found success.
For an hour or so. Then, cold and with aching ilia and femurs, I’d find myself awake again, shivering for heat and squirming for soft flesh, hearing the driver’s hand fumbling into the plastic bag of trail mix and then his teeth squeaking on almonds and chomping on cashews and dried mango. Every part of this repeated itself several times throughout the night, again and again. I could not comprehend this semiconscious nocturnal appetite for trail mix. After a few awakenings I worked myself into an awkward sleeping position in which I was angled upon a single buttock so that neither the tailbone nor the sidebones were pressing into the earth, which seemed to function until sunup and a feeling of restedness.
He had already risen. He returned his drying shoes and pants, shed yesterday after the splash, to the inside of the car and washed out the meat bucket. I exited and took a banana and what little was left of last night’s “snack.” We both brushed and went for the car. We decided to leave camp set up as it was and headed south. Today I would be doing the shooting.
The flat expanses to the side of the road became towering mountains as the same happened to the road itself. The driver could not maintain his customary speeds for the cavernous bites taken out of the tire-tread path. Our going was so slow that he had to turn on the interior hot air to full blast to prevent the engine from overheating, forcing us to roll down the windows and admit the streaming billows of dust.
The mountains were flooded with sagebrush, some streaked red with weathered rock, some even touched with odd stripes of bright green amidst the yellow grass everywhere. We consulted our map again and confirmed our location on it with a fork and a number marker. We went southeast first.
We came to a metal gate blocking our progress. No trespassing, I thought, but no, the driver said, we can open it. We could and I did, sliding open the latch and pulling the gate across the road. We found no serviceable spots; all was hilly, brush-covered – no openings for clear shots. Coming upon the next fork, where the alternate path from before converged with us again, we chose to return rather than head further south, where more farms lay below in the distance. The day latened and the recent road-quality did not bode well.
We drove uphill, through more impressive mountainscapes, through gates more challenging to maneuver (wooden poles held taut by barb wire loops on each side), upon a road more smooth than the previous, though the driver bolstered his confidence to the point of speeding into surprise dips and potholes and thumping each of us into a good frightening. We found ourselves on a flat stretch with some decently-sized meadows and I told him to stop. I took the rifle, he the binoculars, and the hunt began.
It did not take much walking around before I’d startled a hare. I was not getting off the hook either. I chased it into and up the far side of a small canyon near to the road. Then commenced the stealthy slinking through the sagebrush maze, being vewy vewy quiet and swiveling my head left and right to hear and see anything out of place, the driver casing the area far to my side. I saw movement again and gave pursuit, feeling a thrill as I ran doggedly, clutching the rifle with both hands. Yet as quickly as the target was found was it lost, which remained the case as long as it was willing to run. We could follow in the general direction of its flight, but it could always find hiding if it kept moving.
As we approached another rise in the terrain, the driver yelled, “There!” In a second I’d locked onto him and his finger and what it was pointing at. The jackrabbit had stopped to look back from a small opening between sagebrush ahead of and above us. I had a clear, clean shot. I raised the rifle, steadied it with the animal in my sights and pulled the trigger.
Yet even as the one set of synapses guided my arms and index finger another set clued me in on the imminent departure of my prey and the futility of the actions of the former set. It had fled by the time the shot resounded, so again we chased.
“There!” the driver called again, and there were the ears bouncing ahead of me, but there was no clear shot, only more pursuit. This happened several more times, following blindly, startling jackrabbit subterfuge into frenzied dashes, until I saw one dashing across the meadow close to the road again. Once I had traversed the canyon to track it down I had lost its trail completely. Dehydrated I felt compelled to return cautiously to the car several hundreds of yards back down the road, peeking into bushes but finding nothing. We drank up from our dwindling supply of half-gallon jugs and chose to try again closer to camp.
After parking next to the tent, we made for the road across from where we’d slept, where the metal poles were that I’d shot at the day before. We split up to a much greater extent, dividing to conquer, each of us patrolling our own hills. From afar I saw that he’d removed his white T-shirt and tied it around his head like a turban.
It took at least half an hour of thorough search before I had any luck. A sudden bolt to my left alerted me to the jackrabbit du jour, or rather de l’heure. I gestured to the driver that I had seen one where I was and he approached. He told me he had seen one and tried to steer it in my direction; maybe it had worked. Thus commenced the Great Rabbit Chase.
It must have taken hours. Things were much as they were earlier in the day, as they were the day before, but here the space was vast and the running was unimpeded by canyons. Long sprints, up the hill, down the hill, across the hill, to the left, to the right, back down, across the meadow, back into the sagebrush. The prey was lost, the prey appeared. One of us called out, the other called out. Multiple sightings simultaneously. Hot pursuit. Stalking then sprinting, adrenaline surging anew, rifle held firm, bodies flitting in and out of sight. Sweat beading, dripping, throat drying. Rifle raised and pointed, target lost, dropped. Across the sagebrush, up the hill, to the left. Then a wild dash across the meadow to the left. I aimed, could not lock, target out of sight already. We followed.
Here there was relatively scant sagebrush. If our prey was hiding here, we would send it running again soon. In my first patch I found nothing. In my second patch there it was, standing stock-still not more than ten feet before me, just past a small bush. Just like the day before. I raised the rifle, locked right on the head, pulled the trigger.
Nothing happened. Did I not really pull it? I checked the safety, which was off, and tried it again; no shot. I stood there and the jackrabbit stood there as I ejected the bullet, a dud, which is generally found once every fifty-sixty bullets or so, and chambered the next bullet. This one fired.
It knocked the jackrabbit flat, but I could see right away that things were just as before. Both eyes had been shot through but the angry throes still animated the body. Spring-loaded kicks and twitches I tried to end quickly with another close-range bullet to the head to no avail as the driver drew near. I tried nearly every possible angle across the head, tearing open large gashes and leaving streaks of blood, but only after the magazine-emptying sixth bullet did the shaking gradually cease. I had my first kill.
Apart from the intensity of the animal’s dying spasms and the frantic desperation of mercy shootings, the discomfiting feelings seemed to have been fully expelled the day before. I took the hare by its hind legs and we started the long silent walk back to camp. I felt neither pride nor joy at my prize; I’d done it to serve a functional need – another night of dinner, a first-hand experience to enlighten a lifetime of eating flesh – and my skill was only as good as my victim’s own sacrifice.
Low on water and frankly incredulous about having used the car in the first place, we needed to innovate a new theater for the cleaning at camp. On my suggestion we brought together a few long flat stones of even height for an operating table. I fashioned gloves from a T-shirt shredded to hold the soap the day before and fastened them with strapping tape, and followed the same steps as the driver had before, with a few hiccups.
The driver was disdainful of my gloves, and bade me cast them away as soon as they were faintly stained with feces. My hands were lightly tinged with blood beneath. I went back to removing the organs barehanded; we’d decided to discard them all for the scavengers this time. When it came time to separate the meat into pieces, the hind legs proved very difficult for me to detach, connected as they were in multiple places at unfamiliar angles. The driver scoffed and removed the final leg himself as I began to wash the other pieces.
After washing our hands thoroughly in the muddied and cow-pied waters of the lake we each set to gathering up wood again for the night’s fire. When we’d accumulated another reasonable stockpile we evaluated each other’s hunger and so determined that we should otherwise occupy the rest of the day with more target shooting.
We were out of bottles and cans, and so our only recourse was to drive back along the familiar road, where we’d seen numerous discarded containers alongside during our short trips. “Out here, it seems like everyone just goes out driving and drinking and shooting. I’d always be finding shotgun shells and bottles of beer next to each other,” the driver’d said the first night, when we’d arrived.
We established an impromptu vigilante recycling collection service. Sighting a sparkling beer cylinder I would exhort the driver to stop, he would throw on the brakes and I would throw open the passenger door and dash to and from it, tossing it to my feet. We collected a fair amount this way but in the process gave the driver the idea to head back to town and procure a six-pack of beer for ourselves.
In shooting down further along the Pumpernickel Loop we reentered the service area and I informed the girlfriend via text message: “We have each done the deed. Macabre photos will ensue.”
She replied shortly thereafter, “Please don’t kill anymore.” She’d said before I’d left that she hoped I would be a bad shot.
Off the dirt road for the first time in days, what little we could see of Winnemucca looked like shit in the daylight. Shit in this case being a freeway overpass, looming billboards, a filling station and a dumpy convenience store named “Water Hole #1,” situated immediately next to a bar of the same name and, indubitably, owners. It was the only option around.
Two men with plaid shirts, caps and close-cropped facial hair, sipped beer out of cans and stared at us from the front stoop as we parked next to some old Chevy muscle car. Another man wearing all black and with a long downturned close-cropped mustache looked back at us as he entered the bar. My self-consciousness skyrocketed.
We were two men who looked strange and unfamiliar to them and weren’t wearing particularly manly clothing and were riding in the same car and one of us had really long out-of-place hair and maybe they’d think we were gay if not just fuckin’ freaks or pansy city boys or something and they hate people like that and were going to start a scene or maybe try to beat the shit out of us. I didn’t want to go with the driver inside when he asked for fear of this bizarre-boys-traveling-together perception yet didn’t want to stay alone outside in the car for fear of confrontation. I went inside with him.
As dumpy as the dull facade looked on the outside, the inside was ten times moreso. Not a single expense had been made on decor or cleanliness, items had simply been plopped onto dull old white shelves in the middle of the room with low lighting and an overhanging aura of fetid must. We snatched up a sestet of Coors bottles, another half-gallon of water “just in case” and a bottle of A-1 no make it Bullseye barbecue sauce, as the darkly-clad man from before made a purchase at the counter. Did the driver really need to stand that close to me in front of these people and ask me so politely and like a possible homosexual partner if we needed anything else? We needed to leave, that was all.
Behind the counter to receive our items stood a tall portly frumpy wrinkly saggy old thin-graying-blonde woman with blue lines painted on the bottom halves of her eyelids. Also she was cheerless and evinced not a whit of that storied small-town charm and pleasantry. “We don’t take plastic,” was the first and final thing she rasped at us as the driver handed her a card to pay.
“Do you have this?” he asked me.
“Yeah,” I said, and handed her a twenty.
Around six bucks in change she handed back to the driver. As he began putting the bills into his left pocket I gave him a jocular “What the fuck” and then realized I had a sincere “What the fuck” to direct at the joyless cashier. I was obviously the one who handed her the money. I soon fed this into the fear-theory that she thought we were gay untouchables. We drove back to camp.
Back by the tent the driver uncapped a cold bottle of beer and I toted part of our collected stash to the far side of the lake to set up a shooting range of a higher level of difficulty. By the time he’d joined me to assist with the arrangement he had a freshly finished target to add. That was quick.
Again we took turns with magazines, calling out our targets and firing upon them for the binocular onlooker’s delight and suggestion. We loosened up with three beers each and cigarettes, creating a truly satisfying trifecta of pleasurable vices. “I feel like Hunter S. Thompson,” I said.
We each contributed to new pee bottles and tried harder challenges, like aiming for specific regions of the targets and shooting several in a row as fast as possible. We did not fail to impress each other with our accurate, consummate marksmanship, again anchored with the strap and a solid car roof. The light faded with the lowering sun until the bottles became indistinguishable blurs in the scope. We were both hungry and prepared for another jackrabbit dinner.
The fire-building and cooking proceeded much as it had the previous evening. The driver was the incendiary once more, we both taking the duty of stoking and feeding. I filled the meat bucket from the ebbing stock of water and added the seasonings this time; we had different cuts of meat, but it all turned out just as well as before. Conversation was less and that was fine.
Bed beckoned, and again I lingered a little longer outside before extinguishing the flames and flossing and brushing and rinsing and peeing and hitting the sleeping bag. I’d heard repeated rustlings closeby, and shone our flashlight madly about in search of the intruding beast, and after several attempts discovered it was nothing but a tiny vole darting beneath the sagebrush next to the creek. It was not nearly as cold this night, and there were no bags of nosh to rustle, and I slept uninterrupted.
I woke first in the morning and took another apple breakfast, washed the meat bucket, wandered around camp looking at the surroundings. Once he’d risen we returned to the same target shooting, adding a couple of recently emptied water jugs to our lakeside bullet recipients, doing more challenges, wanting to fully exhaust the driver’s store of ammunition. The rooftop and windshield, already strewn with spent shells from the day before, received dozens more into its collection as we fired away trying to spin the jugs and knock off bottle tops from their precarious placement atop cans and break off the bottle tops from intact bottles and knock over cans, and empty the water out of lake-filled jugs and empty more water by shooting lower. Today the calibration was hugely distorted by a strong wind, and we had to aim far to the right and below our intended point of impact; still we adjusted quite well.
On my insistence we tried one unsuccessful attempt at rock skeet. For our final shots the driver walked up close to flank the line of cans, bottles and jugs, and fired successfully through each one with a single bullet. “Well, I don’t know if it was great, but it was a decent trip,” he said.
“It was a great trip,” I said.
We broke down camp. The driver dismounted the rifle scope on his trunk but lost a piece in the dirt and dug around for it while I rolled up our sleeping bags and took everything out from inside the tent. When he resigned himself to carefully backing up the car several feet I found the piece quickly in the dirt and we returned the rifle to its case and the case to the trunk. We took down the tent and folded the poles and bagged them and put them in the trunk. We drove away for Winnemucca once more, and left the dirt road behind for the interstate. Thirsty, we ended up needing that extra jug of water after all. I texted the girlfriend that we’d be back in time for dinner and did a couple of crosswords as we drove toward breakfast.
We got off the freeway for a small freeway town just like all the others in the United States except for the gaudy Nevadan flashing neon signs rising high above every establishment. We passed up Mexican places and diners for a $2.99 ham & egg breakfast promised at a casino, where we parked and each took a “bum shower” in the men’s room, splashing and rubbing water down our visages to remove as much dust and odor possible in the space of the few seconds free before others entered the room. Past the slot machine arcade was the dining room, which had no $2.99 ham & eggs listed on the menu but a few other appealing options. The other tables were not merely peopled by the old and solitary; even young families with young rambunctious children ate next to us, near to men in cowboy hats and truckers.
After returning to 80 West I spent the next hour or so composing the first sentence of this tale.
I (lights a cigarette) roll down the window and stare at everything passing by, trying to feel it all, perceive it all, capture it all for who knows who but sure isn’t just myself, not just what’s outside there but what’s inside here, and what’s inside me. I don’t know if arty prose is any closer to ultimate truth or whatever it is that makes someone feel better and more whole but it does feel nice to work out and throw down and look at. And it should, because that’s how the stuff that prompts it feels.
The driver (taking a drag) stares straight ahead at the road, not saying much of anything, a few comments about what something in the landscape is – that’s a salt flat and so on – or thoughts on the idiocy of Christopher Columbus or recountals of a past visit to Reno, provided with free drinks at the card tables. He stops us to get more cigarettes; without American Spirits for sale we (lights a cigarette) try Marlboro No. 57s. He stops us to get gas in due time.
We play that stupid name game for the last few hours along the freeway. We agree that Deng Xiaoping is an acceptable response to Malcolm X because in Chinese names the second name is actually the first name.
We settle on a Shell station for gas and I succeed with a clean number two. I tell the attendant that the bathroom’s out of soap and he doesn’t even look at me.
We reach the city, the driver drops me off at the girlfriend’s and parks.
I shower, washing away three days of filth, and change clothes. We go out to eat with the girlfriend. I tell her the driver’s gotten me addicted to cigarettes, and I’m not serious. Trip’s over.