|Oct/Nov 2015 Spotlight|
Image courtesy of NASA and the University of Arizona
The clouds rolled in from the west. They broke over the mountains and scattered over the desert, over the giant valley through which we drove. The road was in good shape—straight, no potholes, predictable. The sun was placed about a hand's width over the mountains, on the driver's side window. Ahead of us rose a mound of sorts. This is when Dolores asked, "When you painted, did you prefer to wear cowboy boots or slippers?"
Dolores turned her head to look at me. She had blond hair piled on top of blond hair, Bridget Bardot style, and she was sporting brand new eyelash extensions (because that is what most of the women in her gym wore, and they were her girlfriends). But Dolores, being Dolores, also wore Columbia snow boots—the kind that guys who are paid to put on snow chains by the side of the road wear. In between the eyelashes and the snow boots she wore a Patagonia down sweater, light blue, with just the right amount of duct tape holding it together. And she wore jeans. And underneath her jeans Dolores had a tattoo across the small of her back that read "Ski Tart," a present from me to her on her 34th birthday.
Earlier that day, we had stopped in Mojave, at a Shell station across the main road from the parallel railroad tracks, where big yellow and black locomotives sit and wait for who knows what. I took some photos of Dolores hanging onto one of those locomotives. She had one leg on the first step leading to the cab. The other leg swung out over the tracks. Whoohoo! she seemed to be saying. Coming at ya! But what you can really see in those photos, as you can see in most of the photos I've ever taken of Dolores, are her enormous thighs, bulging through her jeans, thighs made of steel.
Afterwards we filled up the tank, used the restroom, and bought a bag of Funyuns. Dolores ate the entire bag almost right away, and for a couple of hours we drove along without saying much. Dolores had her earphones in. I preferred to listen to the steady sound of the car as it parted the desert air—the mufflered engine, the tires as they hummed over the pavement. At some point I made the decision to pull over so we could check out a cluster of abandoned buildings. A bit of desert exploration. One of the abandoned buildings had a for sale sign on it, and next to it stood the remainder of what had once been a diner. Dolores walked around the building with the for sale sign—I saw her peeking into one of its large grimy windows—while I went to inspect the diner. It must have been out of commission for decades. I stepped cautiously inside through what used to be a front door. Holes in the walls and roof let in slanting rays of sunlight. Boards and sheets of old plywood lay scattered across the bar and barstools. Real ghost town stuff. When I came back out, I could see Dolores walking backwards and holding out her hands to some lanky dude with a ponytail and a dog beside him. She was saying something to him, but I couldn't quite understand it.
When the guy saw me, he pointed his finger at our car. "You both need to get back on the road and get out of here," he said.
"Whoa," I said. I looked at Dolores and asked, "Are you all right?"
She didn't seem too rattled, just careful. "I'm fine" she said.
I asked the man if he was the owner of the building for sale.
He ignored my question. "How would you feel if I came snooping around your place? You'd probably shoot me," he said.
"No, I probably wouldn't," I said. "Besides, there's not a for sale sign on my house. For sale. People are going to check it out."
Dolores said, "Let's go." And just as we turned our backs and began to walk toward the car, the man's dog came sniffing up behind us. "Goddamnit, Bo. Get back here!" the man hollered at the dog.
I almost jumped. But I didn't.
After Dolores asked her question, I thought about it a little, then said, "It's actually not a bad question. I think what you're asking is, was I a predator, an insouciant raptor, who paints in his slippers and robe, or did I appear on the stage as someone more action oriented, someone willing to express himself, and who, although he might not have worn cowboy boots, certainly wore some kind of paint-splattered boots? Is that what you're asking, sweetie?"
She answered, "No. That's not what I'm asking at all."
I groaned in my seat. Umpteen times is how many times we had driven this road we were on. Looking back now, I can postulate it might have become the slender thread that bound us to each other. And now this. I was tired of the jive, tired of Dolores. Hence, when I saw the welcome outlines through the windshield of the mound—red, cylindrical, and almost perfectly symmetrical—I said, with a gusto not entirely feigned, "There it is. The mound."
The mound is in actual fact a cinder cone. A few winters ago we had climbed it, slipping one step down for every two steps up until we got to the bigger rocks near the top, where it was far steeper and higher than I had anticipated. But Dolores showed the way, and we scrambled hand over hand. Finally we stood on the summit. From up there the highway appeared as a slender pencil line, thinning and disappearing to the north and south. Before us to the west began the step-up to the Sierra Crest, and when we turned around, we could see all the way across the bare, stippled valley—at that time of day it was the color of an unripe guava—to the Coso Mountains to the east. I took loads of photos, and in the ones I took of Dolores, her sportswoman's thighs once again dominated.
But Dolores was not finished with her question. She asked again, "Slippers or cowboy boots?"
I answered, "Neither." And I left it at that.
Dolores snorted and shifted her focus from me to the mound. Its growing presence was not just a beacon of adventures past, it also signaled our turnoff to the place where we planned to have a late lunch. I looked in the rearview mirror. With no one behind me, I took my time in turning off the highway. We rolled over some cattle guards and onto a dirt road, dusty and dry and ribbed like corduroy (or like a washboard) by some concealed process of physics. I put on the gas, and right away the car began to rattle and shake.
"Slow down please," Dolores said. "You're going to ruin the car."
I held onto the steering wheel with both hands and extended arms, and with a firm set to my jaw, sped up some more. I wanted to try something new. "It's the only way to even out the ruts," I said. Still, the faster I drove, the more the car complained. It sounded as if the whole thing was going to come apart. I must not be going fast enough, I thought. There has to be a point at which the car begins to glide over the ridges in the road. To reach that magic moment, I sped up even more, but then, well, I didn't want to ruin the car either, so I slowed down, almost to a walking pace. And things quieted down.
Dolores said, not very loudly, "Fuck you."
I said, "It's okay, no harm done."
Around us, piles of black volcanic rock, rough and serrated, reared up from the flinty valley floor. The road took its time winding its way through these dark, Godzilla-like formations, then abruptly straightened for the last mile or so to end in a flattened cul-de-sac occupied by a handful of empty camping spots, a couple of picnic tables, and a little cinder block house sheltering a pit toilet. There was no one else around.
While Dolores visited the toilet, I fetched the provisions out of the back of the car. I also checked the box that carried our skis, clamped onto the top of the car. I thought the vibrations might have loosened it, but it turned out to be fine. Dolores must have thought the same thing because the first thing she asked after coming out of the little cinder block house was if I had checked the boite. Dolores had recently toyed with the idea of learning French, and that was one of the first words she had learned. She had learned other words as well, but boite in reference to the box on top of the car stuck around. That, and an expression, Voila, bon appetit!, which she sometimes said after doing something simple like taking out the garbage or putting the laundry in the dryer.
Dolores next asked for the keys to the car. She wanted to retrieve her climbing shoes, shoes as delicate as ballet slippers. "Are you going to climb a boulder?" I asked. Dolores had been climbing boulders since forever. She had tried to interest me, but I have pretensions to playing the classical guitar and so I have to be careful with my fingers, especially my finger nails. Dolores doesn't have those limitations. I remember very well the first time I shook hands with her. This was in a cable car filled with ski instructors. I had been taken aback by how rough and hard those hands were. Her grip was at least as strong as mine. Not that it mattered. I was already smitten. She could have been born with flippers instead of hands (as some people are), and it wouldn't have made a difference.
With climbing shoes in hand, Dolores pointed behind me to an imposing stack of volcanic rocks, just behind the picnic tables. "Those boulders," she answered.
I began to grope around for my favorite bottle of alcetto balsamico. "Do you want me to spot you," I asked. I did that sometimes, stand under Dolores' butt with my hands in the air, as if I could somehow catch her. But Dolores was already gone, tromping her way through the creosote and manzanita to find the leeward approach to the challenge. I took out an awesome loaf of bread I had scored at the farmer's market and a plastic container of homemade mozzarella. The tomatoes I'd picked the day before, and the bag of organically grown spinach I had gotten at Whole Foods on the way out. I had also brought along a case of ale from one of my brewing homies, and I thought it might be nice to open one now so that I could drink it with my sandwich.
The sandwich was good, as was the beer, but the beer chilled me. Trying to keep warm, I crossed my arms and folded over myself. Down there, a small bug, smaller in length than a dime, half black, half orange, crawled between my feet. I wondered where it might be headed, so far out in the open. I moved one foot, and it stopped, hesitated, then kept going. I moved the other foot, same thing. I whispered something to it, then looked up when I heard a scream. Overhead, Dolores stood on the last of the pile of rocks in a typical mountaineer's pose, legs wide and arms outstretched.
I leaned back to better behold her triumph. Dolores was breathing in great gulps of air. She made a fist pump, then fearlessly toed the edge, from where she pretended to clear her throat as if to spit on me. I didn't react, so instead she closed her eyes and arched her back to receive upon her bosom the last of the golden light. Replete, she spun around and made a little jump. Another, one more, and she was gone, to reappear shortly thereafter from around the pile of rocks, still breathing hard. She sat down across from me at the picnic table. "Fuck, I banged up my finger." She held it out to me. Her hands were as grubby as could be, her fingers stained from dirt and rock. One of them bled slightly. I could see it was a scratch, just a little deeper than the rest. "Lick it," she said.
I slid her sandwich forward on its paper plate and looked at her, bemused.
"You're not going to lick it?" Dolores kept her finger poised in front of my face.
"I can pee on it if you like. To disinfect it."
"That's disgusting." Dolores retracted her finger. "But thanks for making my sandwich." She bit into it and said, "Hmmm. Delicious. I love this place."
I noted then the way she looked around as she wiped her mouth with the back of her sleeve—that look of innocent satisfaction, plain belief, the same look she beamed when for instance describing her faith in interplanetary travel—and no matter how I would have liked to join her, in truth I was somewhat blinded by familiarity and incomprehension. I was aware this place had something to do with water flowing out of the giant dried lake a little to the north, eons ago, and volcanic eruptions, and lava cooled by the water. Even so, I couldn't care enough about what I was seeing. Geology is not my strong suit. Besides, we had eaten lunch on this very picnic table so many times before. The years were flitting by, that's all I knew.
Dolores took a swig of what was left of my beer, then partially unzipped the front of her down sweater. A moment later, the sun dipped behind the mountains and put us into shadow. I said, "That's it. I'm going to switch out my shorts." I had put my cargo shorts on that morning on account of my contacts. When I'm wearing contacts, I need reading glasses for seeing up close, and suddenly shorts with lots of pockets become eminently practical. I'm able to put my reading glasses in the pocket by the side and whip them out whenever I need them. In the other pockets I put my sunglasses, my smart phone, the lens hood for my camera, my wallet, keys, and whatever else I need to carry.
I walked to the car and took off my shorts, and before I put on my pants I did a little jig in my underwear, daring the cold, and yelled to Dolores, "Hey, do you think I have old man's legs?"
To my surprise she said, "No, you look good." She meant it, I think, at least by the way she was watching me—legs crossed, leaning back, elbows on the table. I guess it's something I worry about, even though I make light of it: the eventual degradation of the body, loss of muscle mass, bone density—this whole issue of aging, though I'm not that old. On the other hand, I'm a decade older than Dolores, who furthermore works as a trainer and yoga instructor. And before that she worked in the upper echelons of California ski instruction. Hence the handshake in the cable car. Dolores had been the testing clinician for a group of part-time ski instructors whose aim was to attain a higher certification. I was among the instructors. Call it a mid-life crisis. Others have, but it matters not at all to me; as far as I'm concerned, it was fun being a ski instructor for a while.
The first ride up the gondola we had huddled together, our goggles and gloves loose on our laps. To loosen us up and perhaps take our minds off the blizzard conditions and the way the wind whipped the car back and forth, Dolores had each of us tell a joke. How many ski instructors does it take to change a light bulb? Three. One to turn the bulb and two to criticize the turn. How can you tell who's the ski instructor in the room? Don't worry, he'll let you know. Stuff like that, but when it came my turn to tell a joke, I couldn't think of one. I was too distracted by Dolores' prominently displayed name tag. It read, after her name, Western Division Tech Team. I glanced at the Subaru patch on her official tech team jacket and let my eyes wander, discretely, over the thighs that stretched the fabric of her ski pants. Frozen tresses of blond hair, woven into icicles, poked out from beneath her white stickered helmet. She was, all of her, jaw-droppingly wonderful.
With the long pants on, I set about getting everything back into the car. Dolores remained sitting idly, as if to stress we were in no hurry. And it was true, the bulk of the drive was behind us. Before us, we only needed to drive to the town of Lone Pine. There, we had friends—Dolores' friends, really—who ran a motel. These two, a full-time climbing and hiking couple, tattooed and pierced, had put whatever money their parents left them into the motel, which they had bought from an old Mormon woman whose husband had died the year before. It lay on a side street and had a sloping lawn out front, between the parking lot and the street, over which were scattered a mismatched assortment of deck chairs. A huge stone barbeque pit was sunk into the middle of the lawn, around which we routinely ate, smoked, and drank beer and talked about what conditions on the mountain would be like the next day. It could tire me out. The last time we came up, I had excused myself. I said I had felt something like a cold coming on and that maybe I should go inside and stay warm. I had returned to the little wood paneled room with the queen-sized bed in the middle and watched three back to back episodes of Fat Guys in the Woods before Dolores came back in, glossy eyed and a little drunk and angry with me for having opted out.
After I finished putting everything away, I sat down beside Dolores. "So, are we ready to take off?"
"I've been ready," she said. "You know, maybe we can camp here next time. It's an awesome spot."
"Not going to happen."
"Too close to the highway." I explained: "People around here, those who live outside of the towns, are most likely feral. Even now, a truck with pipe stacks belching diesel smoke could come skidding in, and we could be in a world of trouble." I asked her to remember what had happened earlier that day. In my opinion, it had been a potentially serious situation.
But Dolores merely placed her hands on her knees, yawned, and stood up. "I'll drive."
"Yeah, you drive," I said. "The fucking oddballs that live out here. People like us, we drive up and down this highway, and we're just a tremendous source of anxiety for them."
Dolores stopped halfway to the car. She shuffled her feet in the dirt, sending up little plumes of it. "You don't even like carpet," she said.
I had to laugh. Carpet. To wit: Dolores, after we married, had moved into my house. I live in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. My house has original hardwood floors, put down in 1914. Rare, good housing stock. But Dolores thought the flooring was cold and wanted to put in carpet, at least in the bedroom. The first times she mentioned this, I remained calm. I explained that the people who had lived in the house before had for decades covered the hardwood floors with carpet, which is why the floors were in such good shape. But later, after Dolores brought it up a few more times, I lost some of my patience. One night I yelled at her. "Are you fucking kidding me? This is not a fucking ski condo. This is my house!" I corrected, "Our house."
But what did Dolores want, really? When she was not wearing ski boots or hiking boots or climbing shoes? What was wrong with her wanting nothing more than to spread out on a nice, soft carpet, on her tummy, and watch big screen TV? I regret to say there were times when I thought Dolores incompatible with my Mission style oak chairs, when the thighs that had so predisposed me to her seemed to have become too big for my fully restored Craftsman bungalow. That night, after I lost my patience, she cried for the first time, and I knew I had effected an unforgivable sin. I had taken a ski goddess down from her throne—never mind that at the time she was wearing slippers with bunny ears—and watched, numbly, as she wept in frustration.
Once back on the highway, back on a level asphalt surface, the car rolled smoothly forward. From the beating of the washboard road to this, barely a ripple. It resembled a miracle. Most of the valley was already dimmed. Only a third of it to the east was still lit by the sun, a stretch of land turned garish orange against the sky's deep blue. Meanwhile, the scattered clouds overhead had turned into long, lenticular waves, painted pink. Next to me, Dolores sat in silence, dreamily driving. An half hour or so later, I yelled, "Emergency!"
Dolores' hand jumped on the wheel, and the car lurched. Dolores corrected, and it lurched in the other direction. We both held our breath, it could have gone either way, but the car straightened. Flushed red, Dolores turned to me and asked, "What the fuck is wrong with you now?"
I said, "I don't have my wallet." I had become aware of it in the last few minutes. I had checked to make sure my wallet was not in my back pocket where it could pinch a nerve and make my left leg go numb, and it wasn't—but it wasn't in my front pocket either. After some further checking, I found that my wallet wasn't anywhere on me at all, and that's when I had that awful feeling.
"You must have left it in your shorts. Check them," Dolores said.
I reached into the back seat, but I could tell just by picking up the shorts that they were empty. I untwisted myself and tried to reach under the seat. We had just passed the turnoff to Death Valley and were slowing down as we approached Lone Pine. I felt something wet or melted. "The hell with it," I said. "Maybe you could pull over, and I can have a look around."
Dolores steered the car onto the shoulder and flicked on the hazards. I opened the door and stepped out. There was little traffic. Along the shoulder was strung the usual fence of barbed wire, and on the other side two thick poles supported a wood sign across the top that read "Lone Pine Says Howdy!" In the failing light I knelt down to look under the seats. Nothing. I checked the backseat, under the clothes, in the food bags, the glove compartment. Still nothing. Beaten, I scrunched back into the front seat. I said, "I need to think about this." I ran my hands through my hair, scratched my head. Could the wallet really be gone? It hardly seemed conceivable. How could I acknowledge such a thing? Then, in a flash of memory, I grasped just how gone it really was. I slapped my forehead. But of course! It had happened when I switched out my shorts. I had put the wallet on the roof of the car by the driver's side and then promptly forgotten about it. I leaned forward in my seat. I beseeched Dolores for forgiveness. I explained everything to her. I confessed my stupidity. But I had to ask: "Did you not see the wallet on the roof of the car before we drove off?"
Dolores said, "Let's just go back and look for it."
"Look for it?"
"Why not? Think about it. The wallet would have bounced off long before we got to the highway." With the back of her hand she somewhat uncharacteristically smacked me on the chest. "It's somewhere on the dirt road. We can backtrack and find it."
I saw her point. It would take some time, but it was worth the try. I sighed deeply. "Turn it around," I said. "And let's give this a shot."
The entire way back Dolores drove ten to fifteen miles over the speed limit. I sat hunched forward in my seat and wrung my hands. All my attention was focused on the small chance of finding the wallet. It was unbearable to imagine it lying in the dirt, alone and forgotten. All because of a stupid mistake. "How could we have been so stupid?" I asked again and again. Dolores for her part said very little. She seemed barely concerned. We drove into the night, and by the time we turned once more onto the dirt road, the mound no longer seemed to welcome us. It was now a somber silhouette, a mere shape, uncaring and aloof. But that's how all things appear to me, once the sun has gone down.
The plan was for me to walk before the car and scan the ground by the light of the headlamps. At first I walked slowly, deliberately, looking left to right. Five, ten minutes later I began a light jog. I ran to part the darkness. For once Dolores and I were concurrent. As I ran, she kept pace with me perfectly, and the washboard road opened up before us. I scanned it back and forth, from one side to the other, determined nothing would escape my scrutiny. If the wallet were anywhere on this road, I would find it. That's all that mattered now, more than carpet or hardwood floors, more than my "artsy fartsy" background—which would never be entirely knowable to Dolores anyway—more than Dolores' frustration at having been reduced from ski goddess to weekend warrior—though, as I often told her, her life had considerably expanded—more than the distrust and disappointment we sometimes directed at each other, more than the distress I had felt when Dolores hung up not one but three hummingbird feeders and the slight embarrassment I suffered when she held my hand at social gatherings. The hell with all that, I thought, as I trotted along. Look at us now—we're a machine, a wallet sweeping machine tunneling through the darkness of the valley. What could be better than this?
My breath soon stabilized. There was not another light to be seen, and nothing to be heard but the tires as they rolled over the ribbed dirt road and my own two feet as they pounded the dusty surface. It made for a steady and comforting rhythm. As long as we continued to advance through the darkness like this, hope could not be extinguished. Indeed, I might have liked for it to go on forever, and it was not until we had very nearly reached the end of the road, within sight of where it opened into the little campground, that I saw something. At first it looked like just another rock, but as I got closer, it began to take on the quality of an object, of a thing that didn't belong there. This thing, which turned out to be a small and leathery triptych, lay supine in the middle of the road, open to the sky. I ran toward it. I crouched before it, and I wanted to say, "I'm here. I've come back." But instead I snatched it up and held it aloft, and now it was my turn to scream, "Whoohoo!" I ran to the passenger side window, which I had left open, and leaned in to show Dolores. "We actually found it!" I cried.
Dolores smiled and said, "I told you so." She instructed me to back up a little. She wanted to turn the car around. I put the wallet in my left front pocket and watched, content, as she made a U-turn in the cul-de-sac. Then, quickly, I skipped across the road and reached out my hand as if I were hailing a cab—over here!—with my head tucked into my shoulder to escape the glare of the headlamps.
But Dolores drove right by me. And I laughed. On our way to the movies, to buy groceries, drive to the gym, whatever, I sometimes opened the door with the remote and got in and drove off as if I had forgotten all about Dolores. Then of course I would stop, back up, and Dolores would get in the car with a wry look on her face, and I would say, "Oh, my God. I knew I had forgotten something."
I could easily have caught up to her of course, on account of how slowly she drove over the washboard road. But I chose to remain rooted to the spot. I thought, Dolores will just have to back up. Funny girl. But Dolores didn't stop, didn't back up, didn't open the door and tell me, "Stupid. Get in!" Dolores kept driving. The car must have dipped down because the red glow of the tail lamps suddenly disappeared, then popped back up. I began to think: Not funny. The tail lights blinked out and reappeared again. "Hey!" I shouted, in spite of myself. The little lights were already far too small. When they disappeared a third time, they stayed gone for good.
For a few moments I stared, motionless, at the exact point where total darkness had taken over. My eyes adjusted to the void. I said, "This is not cool." Alone in a vast emptiness, I decided to make myself smaller by squatting down on my heels. I rested my forearms on the top of my thighs. I looked at my phone. No reception. Minutes went by. Actual minutes. And as these long minutes accrued, a terrifying possibility began to fill my chest, which I somehow wanted to sketch and give shape to in the sand before me. But all I could do was sit still and repeat to myself the word, seriously. Could Dolores seriously have left me in the most literal fucking way possible?
I began to shiver from the cold, or tremble from the sudden excitement of the moment—a bit of both perhaps. I played back in my mind the events of the day. It's true I had to be talked into going on the trip in the first place. Dolores requires a minimum number of snow days. For me, they are too many—almost 30 days out of the year spent skiing—but we've talked about it. I've reminded Dolores that it had been her decision to go back to school and leave the mountain life style behind, if only for a few years. At a certain point in time, of course, there had been no question of returning. We have a substantial life together. And though the long drives over the desert and through the valley, from late November to May, are beginning to make me physically ill, it wasn't that long ago we were perfectly happy. It wasn't that long ago we went to the tattoo parlor together (upscale; more than a three-month waiting list) and I held Dolores' hand while the needle etched into her skin.
When I finally looked up out there—a strange effort—I was immediately overwhelmed, maybe appalled, at the number of stars I could see. Enormous clumps and giant swaths of them were thrown across the night sky. It was hard to make out even one simple constellation. In the face of this perfect disorder I couldn't even begin to think about what I might do next. I was loath to do anything, really. Why should I disturb the crystalline purity of this brand new reality? I wondered if things had already gone past the point of no return. Straight ahead, the ridge of mountains to the east rose up to begin the shape of the earth. Once I focused on the outline of those mountains, as flat against the firmament as if cut from cardboard, I had a most unusual feeling. For a moment, I felt the entire earth tilt forward and the stars stand still. And I was on the earth, balanced, riding it through space, with one hand resting lightly in the dirt before me.
It all ended with a slight scintillation to my left, a flickering aura. At first I thought I had imagined it. But when I stood up to see better, I could tell that, yes, the night had been compromised, and more or less from where Dolores had earlier dropped out of sight. A rock formation, still very far away, glowed faintly, then dropped back into darkness. Another did the same, and pretty soon I was able to follow the strange bouncing light, from one pile of rocks to another, until eventually it lost its borealis-like quality and became centered into two blazing beams of white light headed my way, first swinging about a little, then focused, on the final stretch.
A part of me wanted to laugh, but another part of me was too angry to laugh. So Dolores was coming back for me after all. And look at how she was driving. It could be panic. It could be she had become afraid of what she had done and was making up for lost time. But then again, knowing Dolores as I do, she might just have been showing off. Because Dolores was simply flying over the washboard road. She was ripping it up. Go Dolores! But then a little later I could see that it was not Dolores. It was not our car. The headlamps on this car were spaced differently, lower and wider, and it was missing a boite.
That's when I started to picture how I might have looked out there, in the beams of those headlamps. Perhaps I looked frightened, or perhaps I looked frightening. Perhaps I looked like an insect, pale and upright. Or like an apparition. Or perhaps I looked like myself. Regardless, and for the second time that night, I half turned away from those bright, blinding lights.
But this time the car did not drive by. It stopped. About 30 feet before me, engine running, a well-tuned low rumble. I then had a choice: I could commence to run like a rabbit, zigzagging through the shrubs and rocks, or I could walk forward and hope for the best—say, a couple of teenagers with a six pack of beer in the backseat, their faces caught between fear and indecision. At that point I felt like I had nothing to lose. And so this is what I did. I walked up to the passenger side of the car. I bent down, peered through the dark-tinted window, and bravely waved hello to whomever was inside.