Reptile Triptych, I: The Day the Sixties were Over

I remember someone asking me when it was that I knew the Sixties were over.  I told him it was the day I was hitchhiking and a VW bus didn’t stop for me.  It was a Saturday morning in May of 1974, long into the next decade, but hey, this was New Mexico, and the Sixties didn’t even arrive until 1968.

I was at the on-ramp for I-25 out of Las Cruces, and I was shocked when that bus drove right on past me.  In all the years that I’d been thumbing rides around the state, I couldn’t recall even one time that a VW had let me down. The summer before, in fact, I’d been stranded just north of T or C, where there was truly nothing at all but creosote and rattlesnakes.  I was at the top of a hill, hiding from the sun under the overpass that the exit made off the freeway, when I saw this bug coming from miles away, and I practically knelt down and thanked God right then, because I wasn’t going to have to spend another two hours baking in the desert.

Not this time, though.  And, if that wasn’t weird enough, the next thing was that this cowboy drove up and stopped for me.  And I mean a cowboy, too:  Hat, mother-of-pearl snaps on his shirt, big shiny buckle, pickup truck, gun rack, camper top, spitting tobacco into his bottle of Boone’s Farm.  Freaks and Stomps didn’t even talk to each other back then, and I was all beard and long hair, so I wasn’t sure if he might not have some unsavory ideas about leaving me by the side of the road without my boots.

“Where you headed?” he yelled at me.

“Ruidoso.”

“I can get you as far as Alamogordo.”  That was most of the way.

I arranged my backpack on the floor between my legs and he took off.  When I leaned back, there was this giant dog’s head right in my face; he must have been crouched down behind the seat, and now he was scoping me out.  I like dogs and they like me, but it was all I could do not to scream when he appeared so suddenly like that.  I let him sniff for a bit, and then gave him my hand to lick.  After a minute or two of that, I pushed his head away.

Right then, the guy figured out what was going on.  “Captain! I said Lie Down!

I said, “I’m glad I didn’t bring mine along.  Captain would’ve had it for lunch.  What kind is it?”

“He’s a Belgian Shepherd.  That’s what they told me.  What’s yours?”

“A whippet, sort of a miniature greyhound.”

“And you actually take him along when you’re hitching?”

“Yeah.  I think people stop to find out what the dog is as much as for me.”

“So why didn’t you bring him today?”

It hadn’t been two minutes, and we were getting into personal stuff.  “Well, the friend I’m visiting doesn’t want to put him up.  He says I’m sort of cheating, bringing the dog along to get rides.  He says I’m playing up to people’s ‘reptilian brains,’ you know, the oldest parts of our brains, before we evolved into mammals and things.  People take a look at my dog and their hand wants to pet it, but they aren’t even thinking it, they only know they want to stop and let us in the car.”

“Okay, so why’s it cheating?  I mean, why’s he so all hung up about it?”

“Well,” I tried to reply, “I don’t know.  He’s a stickler for always doing things the fair way.  He thinks I shouldn’t be hitchhiking at all!  I should be driving myself.  I don’t really see all that well, but he says it’s an excuse, and I’m being a parasite.”

“And he’s your friend, you say.”

I kept silent for a minute.  “We go back a long way.  We’ve done a lot of things together.”

“Like what?” he asked.

I lied, sort of.  “Like we were in demonstrations together.  A lot of them.  I counted on him when I freaked out because of the cops or…”

“Or the stomps?”

“It got pretty scary sometimes, you know?”

We had already cut off the freeway onto U.S. 70, which would lead us over the mountains to Alamogordo, and we were in the middle of the desert at this point, a place where I didn’t want to have to step down from his truck.  I didn’t say anything else.

He said, “I don’t know why some people get so riled up.”

“But they do.”

“Yeah, they do.  This teacher at ‘Cruces High gave A’s to anyone who ripped off someone’s black armband.  What an asshole.”

“You were there?”  I had heard that story the next day at college.  It was during the Moratorium in sixty-eight, the first really big protest against the war.

“My big brother got into that mess.  I don’t know how long he was showing off that armband he’d swiped.  He was so proud of beating up on a high school kid.  He was a college student!  You can bet him and me went round and round about that.”

“But you weren’t ever in the demonstrations themselves, were you?  At least I don’t remember seeing you there.”

“Oh, I was there all right.  I just liked being in the background, sort of, on the outside.  I think I saw you once or twice, though.”

Well, of course he did!  In a town our size?  He must have seen me more than once or twice.

We were clearing San Agustin Pass then, the truck having slowed down a little for the steepness of the road.  As we came through the pass, the whole Tularosa Basin opened out before us, and we could see at the far end sixty miles in the distance the Sacramento Mountains, and Ruidoso.  The driver asked if he could chew.

I told him, “It’s your truck, man.”

“My mom really hates it.”

I laughed.  “My mom loves it.  My dad used to smoke these awful cigars in the house.  It was okay to chew.  But he chews that Beech Nut.”

The driver was trying to put a wad of Skoal into his mouth, but he had to take it out so he could laugh.  “That stuff is awful.”

We grew quiet then, and I started thinking about Simon, and the real reason I was making this pilgrimage.  He had come down to visit me in February, when his job with the Forest Service had slacked off some.  Simon had quit the university to get out into the “real world.”  We all wished him luck the day he left town.  He must have been twenty then.  He dropped in on us the next February without any warning, driving his battered old light-blue-on-dark-blue VW bus around the curve in the dirt road, into our cluster of small houses, and right up to the hammock where I was rocking myself.  Simon had had lots of news for me, including a triumphant revelation that he had recently “got shed of” an affair — with a man! — whose steamy details he hinted at only with winks and eyebrow flutters.

I remember I was reading that afternoon, the first day warm enough to lie in the hammock.  I had finished planting the early crops.  Simon came and got in facing me, legs out on both sides.  “I broke it off with Matthew.”  I didn’t know who Matthew was, so he told me.  I didn’t have anything to say, even when Simon started grazing his leg against mine.  Had I already come out to him, or had he learned from someone else?  I wasn’t any more experienced at this than he was, maybe less, and I felt like an illiterate when it came to touch, but I could read what he was saying to me with his long legs.

Later that afternoon, inside the house, I clumsily put my hand on his shoulder and tried to say what I had only then realized I’d wanted to tell him for years, but he brushed my hand off and said, “Not now.  Sarah and Rita don’t know.”  That confused me even more — he’d been closer friends with them than with me.  We didn’t get to talk of it again, except that Simon had sought me out in the garden before leaving.  “Look, I’m sorry.  I’m new at this.  It still feels pretty weird.”

I dreamed of Simon for three months and, when life in our little compound got too intense and the weather too hot, I called him up and asked if I could visit.  That’s when he told me not to bring the dog.  And he warned me about his redneck friends.  I was supposed to behave myself when they were around.

The driver must have spit out his wad while I was staring at the road ahead.  “I’m Ben,” he said.

“Oh.  Yes.  I’m Jonathan.”  We were coming down the back side of the pass the whole time, coming close to the bottom.  The windows were open, and hot air was blowing through the truck.

“Well, Jonathan, where I’m from, we had this guy hiding out from the draft.  He hid up in one of the ranches near mine.  Everyone knew it, of course, everyone but the Feds.”

Where he was from was near Animas, if you can call sixty miles “near.”  It was down by the “Bootheel,” the farthest corner of New Mexico, where it meets Arizona and Chihuahua and Sonora, and there’s hardly a human being for miles.  Mapmakers used to label places like that Terra Incognita, uncharted territory, with pictures of “tygers” and animals no one has ever really seen.  The mapmakers aren’t so humble anymore, they’ve got a name for every place — maybe they’re not as creative — but that area down by the Bootheel was still terra incognita to most of us, and Ben seemed to like that, belonging to Somewhere Else, a place not part of anything at all.

He’d been coming to college every other year.  “I just can’t take the city, I guess.”  By “the city,” he meant the sprawling metropolis of Las Cruces, which at the time was maybe forty thousand souls.  He went back to the ranch on the off years.  He was twenty-four by this point.  I had done the opposite, finishing my B.A. back in Philadelphia, and plowing straight into grad school, where I’d burned out and quit.  I was twenty-eight but felt like I’d seen nothing of the world outside of classrooms and labs.  Even the hot, close confines of the compound had been liberating.

We got quiet again for awhile as we drove across the flat of the Tularosa Basin.  It was strange how quiet it was, in fact.  I expected him to have something on the radio, CW I guess, though I can’t say I missed it.  Usually it had been other Freaks who picked me up, and the Stones or the Dead would fill up the car.  In fact, I had heard something on his radio when I was coming up to the truck, but he must have turned it off.  And it wasn’t country, and it wasn’t anything psychedelic.  Later, I’d find out that the only stuff he listened to was ranchera music, the kind he heard at home, coming in from the high-powered Mexican stations, almost the only stations you could get out there.  He tuned his radio to it as if to keep the truck part of Terra Incognita while he was traveling abroad in foreign lands.

The Sacramentos were a wall coming imperceptibly closer to us.  Sierra Blanca stood out above them all.  That’s where I was headed, to the cool and the green.  To Simon.  I didn’t think of what it meant, spending time with Simon; I hoped something would be more likely to happen if I didn’t think too much.

“Jonathan.  Do you know where to get some psilocybin?”

“No.  Are you into that?”

“Me and a buddy tried it last month.  I kind of liked it.”

“Well, I’ve never done any psilocybin.”  Even if I had done any, I wasn’t going to tell him.  I was still worrying if he was trying to set me up for something.  A bust, maybe.  Or maybe something else.  First, the War and what he felt about it, then the draft dodger hiding out in the badlands, now this.

“Never?” he said.  “I heard all you counter-culture types did everything they could get hold of.  Hell, that’s why I took it in the first place, to find out what all you’d been doing.  How about dope, grass?”

“Well, yeah, I’ve done that.”

“You don’t happen to have some on you, do you?”

“Not a chance, man.  I’m never holding when I’m on the road.”

“Oh.  I get it.  Cops.”

“Yes, cops.  And… I figure it isn’t safe.  You can dig that.”

“Sure.”

Good.  At least that sounds believable.  I really hadn’t ever done any psilocybin, or LSD, or hardly any of the other things that were being passed around.  Marijuana was the only one I’d had much of, and not even so very much of that.

“Do you do dope?” I asked him.

“Hell, yes!”

“What about, I mean, are there a lot of cowboys who do it?”

“There’s more all the time.  We’re not all Okies from Muskogee.”

Quiet again.  Captain stuck his head around in back of me to put it out the window and get a whiff of whatever was outside, and gave my ear a lick in passing.  After a while, we started to see the white dunes on our left, the outlying area of the White Sands National Monument.  Ben slowed down.

“Do you mind if we stop for just a bit?  I always let Captain out to run around in the dunes.”

“But the entrance isn’t for another ten miles.”

“No, I like to let him run around here by himself.  See up the road there, where there’s a break in the fence?”  And he swung the car over and parked it on the left side of the road, where, sure enough, there was a two-foot space between two of the fence posts.  He must have been telling the truth that this being a kind of custom of his, because the dog started going crazy, whining and trying to jump over me to get to the door.

Ben opened his door; Captain jumped out.  He ambled over to one of the fence posts and lifted his leg.  I got out on my side, and followed Ben through the break in the fence into the Monument grounds.  The break was clearly put there by intent, so I wasn’t worried that we’d be found.  I was a little squeamish about Ben.  It’s one of the hazards of hitchhiking: He was probably not dangerous at all, but I had to go along with whatever detours he wanted to make.  He was only a few miles from Alamogordo, where he was headed, but I was going to have to put my thumb out at least one more time.

He said, “I like it here.  No one to get ticked off if I take off my boots.”  Not to mention his shirt.  The last time I’d been to White Sands, it’d been with some teenagers who took off everything and went traipsing out into the domes.  I’d figured I had to do it, too.  That huge white sandbox turns everyone into a little kid, even me, even then.

“Do you think I’m sexy?” Ben asked.  He still had his jeans on, thankfully, but his belt was lying in the sand by his boots and socks.

“Well,” I stalled.  His looks hadn’t been anything to consider; he was the dude driving the car.  But, at the moment he asked, I realized that I saw something attractive in him.  “Well, yes, I guess so.”  He was short and built pretty broad, and what I liked most was his smile, which I should have noticed in the truck, but I was only coming out of the closet, and I had not got rid of the blinders I had used to keep myself safe all those years.

Nowadays, I’d put him down as a Category C: The Electric Blanket.  My partner, the man I live with, is one, too.  There are three ways men turn me on — with classic beauty that I could look at all night (The Statue), with sensuality (The Primal Ooze), or by being an affectionate sweetheart, The Electric Blanket.  He’s the guy you want to be snowbound in a log cabin with for six months.  But in 1974 I had hardly any experience, so I wouldn’t have known what it was about him that I found charming.  Besides, full of the righteousness of the Sixties, I felt electric blankets were decadent and wasteful, like electric can openers and hair dryers, all of which I now own.

“My girlfriend doesn’t think I’m so hot,”  Ben said.

“How come?”

“I don’t know, she just wants something else, I guess.  That’s where I’m going now, to see if I can change her mind.”  He was walking around while he talked, skipping and running in the dunes, throwing sand at imaginary targets.

I was actually shocked.  Naive as I was, and lonely as I was, I couldn’t think of any reason why she might want to get rid of a perfectly good man.  I couldn’t help thinking that I sure wouldn’t be so wasteful of people who wanted me.

He said, “If we had more time, we could bury each other in the sand.  You’d be surprised how cold and damp it still is.”

Ben sat down at the top of a dune, facing east toward the Sacramento Mountains.  “You sure you don’t have something to smoke?”

“I’m sure.  Listen, are you some kind of narc; I mean, are you trying to bust me for something?”

“Hell, no!  I’m not a narc.  What kind of a dumb question is that, anyway?  Would I say so if I was?”

I nodded my head.  “They’re supposed to own up to it if you ask them — otherwise it’s entrapment.”  I don’t know where we had come up with the idea, but the rumor was that if you asked a narc if he was a narc, he had to admit it.

“Well, I’m not a narc.  Now, do you have anything to smoke?”

“Not exactly, but I do have something.”  I went back to the pickup and got the baggie out of my backpack.  I took out one piece of the cake.  It was my vacation, after all, and my first cake in three or four months.  “This takes an hour or so to come on.  You’ll be in Alamogordo before it hits you.”

“Well, actually, I’m going to Ruidoso, same as you.  That’s where she works.  I said Alamogordo because I wanted to be able to drop you there if you turned out to be a jerk.”

It took a minute for me to digest that.  In the meantime, he was intent on digesting the cake.  “I don’t think you should eat that much if you’re going that far.  It’s pretty strong.”

“I don’t taste anything.  It’s not crunchy.”

“Take my word for it, I don’t think you should eat any more.”  He had already eaten half of it.  I had sautéed the marijuana in butter, and then used the butter without the leaves, which is why no one ever tasted it.  I haven’t tasted marijuana in years.

Ben looked skeptical, but stopped eating.  “So what do I do with this?  Do you want it?”

I ate what was left.  When I looked up, Ben was getting dressed.  I was grateful; we were on our way again.

“I guess we’d better get going before I get too stoned,” he said.

But Captain had disappeared, and we were forced to spend time tracking him.  Captain was deaf in one ear because of a cherry bomb when he was a puppy; he didn’t have stereo, so to speak, and he wasn’t able to tell where we were calling him from.  It took a long time.

We drove to Alamogordo and then kept going.  Ben asked if I “might could stand” to take the road up to Cloudcroft on the way to Ruidoso, a much longer and far more beautiful route.  I said I had hoped to get to Simon’s place early, so no, but what I really was thinking was that I had no idea how Ben drove when he was stoned, or how soon or how strong it would come on.

We were approaching the cutoff to Cloudcroft.  Ben tried again.  “Look, if you really need to get to this Simon’s that fast, well okay, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been up in those mountains.”

What could I say?  It was his truck.

The road up to Cloudcroft rises forty-five hundred feet in eighteen miles.  In other words, it’s steep.  I suppose I should have been grateful that Ben didn’t start feeling the dope until we were up in Cloudcroft itself, above the narrow switchbacks and sheer cliffs, but I had also come on, so I was working hard at not being paranoid, and I was not always succeeding.  When we got into town, Ben pulled over to the side and stopped.

“Oh, man, am I ever high!”

“Nine thousand feet,” I said, and gave an unintended giggle.

He laughed and said, “Oh, no, man, I’m a lot higher than that!”  When he stopped laughing, he asked, “How long does this keep going?”

“A long time.”

“How long?”

“Hours.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do to, like, stop it early?  I mean, this is great, but I can’t go visiting Shirley this way.”  And he laughed again, but not sounding so out of control.

“They say that eating brings you down.  Like when you get the munchies after smoking, the food does something.”

“Well, let’s go get some food, then.  We can have a picnic!”
There was a store on the other side of the street, and Ben meticulously maneuvered the truck into a parking place.  He wanted me to go in, since I was relatively straight — the word meant “not stoned” then — but he was the one who looked like a native, and I was pretty obviously the hippie, so I wanted him to go in.  In the end, we went in together.  It took us forever to decide on what kind of food would do the best job, so we got pop, candy, and beef jerky.

The main road goes east from Cloudcroft, but we took the fork that went north, through the Mescalero reservation to Ruidoso.  Ben drove with studied care.  He stopped before we got to the reservation, at one of the Forest Service parking areas.  Ben made Captain stay in the truck this time.  I agreed, with relief in fact, but not before realizing that I’d spent the past ten minutes scratching his neck and ears.  We took the food out of the truck and went walking to find a sunny place to sit down and eat.

We heard a whooshing sound above us.  It was a hawk, gliding to wherever it was headed.  I couldn’t tell if it had been stalking us, or even noticed us.  We stopped walking.  The forest was silent.

“I did the right thing,” Ben said.  I didn’t say anything, so he went on.  “Coming up here to see Shirley, getting stoned with you.  Everything.”

I was still looking up at the now empty sky.  I nodded, though I don’t know if Ben was looking at me.  Certainly, it did feel as though I was on the right path, even if I had no idea where it was going, but it always felt like that when I was stoned.

We found a sunny place to sit, and ate, with very little talk between us.  How easy it was for strangers to share food with each other, as if we had known each other for years.  There is something important in that, and it’s a lot deeper than the effects of marijuana.

Ben was lying on his back, eyes closed against the sun.  “It’s those reptiles, I guess.  Is that what your friend would say?”

“About what?”

“Here we’re having such a good time, doing hardly anything at all.  It must be those reptiles inside us.  This reptile needs a nice warm rock, I think.”

I laughed, and he did.  I hadn’t told him anything to say that I was having a good time.  I was still being the hitchhiker, letting the driver know enough.  But it was true:  With all the quarreling going on at our little compound, I hadn’t been at peace in months.

“I’m going for a walk,” I said.

“I’ll wait.”  And he turned himself off like a light going out.

I wanted to meditate on Simon, or maybe the compound, or myself, or perhaps the state of the world.  Life at the compound did bubble up to the surface while I walked.  It had been what we called an alternative school, and I had spent some unpaid time as an inexperienced (and probably rather poor) teacher’s aide.  The real teachers lived there, too, with a host of dogs and cats.  We spent hours arguing over how “alternative” a school should be, and what that even meant.  The farm part of it came later, by accident.  The students wanted it, so we got chickens for eggs and goats for milk, and planted vegetables.

How good it felt to be able to do something as simple as milking a goat!  But it looked like the tiny disagreements of people who after all hadn’t even known each other before starting this monster project were becoming too much to bear.

My unhappy reverie eventually dissipated, though, into the cool air, where I noticed nothing at all except the bright new yellow-green leaves on the aspens, the sound of the wind in the evergreens, and the hawk, wherever he was now.  When I got back, Ben had thrown away all our trash and stacked all the remnants beside him.  He was asleep, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to wake him.  I realized, now that he had forced the information on me, that he was, in fact, very sexy, and I didn’t know how to wake him up without drooling on him.  But he lay there unmoving. I called his name a few times, and finally gave his shoulder a shove.  “Ben!”  It was a good, strong shoulder.

“Howdy, my fine reptile friend!” he said with a laugh.  He went on without a pause.  “I’m still stoned.  This is good stuff.  What time is it?”

An hour had gone by.  We got back into the truck — giving Captain a piss break — and headed north through the reservation.  We said hardly anything at all — the scenery took up the whole dialogue.  One time Ben pointed to a brook running through the green meadow.  I wouldn’t have had words to say, either, how lovely it was that there was this green mountain island in our sea of desert.

When we reached the main road to Ruidoso, Ben asked me, “You don’t suppose your friend Simon would have a place for me to sleep this off, do you?  I wish I could have my brains working when I get to see Shirley.  It would just be for a few hours.”

It was bad enough that Simon wouldn’t appreciate another cowboy, and his dog, but there were those friends of his, his redneck co-workers — would they be there?  I had no idea what they thought of marijuana.  I told Ben as much, and he asked if he could sleep outside our cabin in his truck.  I could hardly refuse, so I said I would ask.

We drove off the highway onto Sudderth, the main street that goes the length of Ruidoso.  A mile or two down, I directed Ben to the left, to a street that dead-ended uphill against the forest.  Today, of course, they’ve built the city a lot farther, but then the forest came right down to Simon’s back door.  The whole state is more crowded now.

I got out to knock.  Simon was taking a shower.  Someone, Charlie, introduced himself, and tried to make me feel at home.  It was clear that Charlie was actually a room-mate, something I hadn’t counted on.

“I need to ask him something,” I told him.  “The guy who brought me here needs a place to stay for a few hours.”

“He can crash in my bed for awhile; I’m going out.  Is he as wrecked as you are?”

I was grateful that Charlie was so matter-of-fact.  Dope, at least, wasn’t going to have to be secret.  “He’s a lot worse off, actually,” I said.  “I think he’s afraid of seeing his girlfriend like that.”

“Well, hell’s bells, tell him to come in!”

Charlie introduced himself to Ben, who put the dog in the camper part of the pickup and took his gear inside.  Charlie left, Ben went in and crashed, and I sat, alone, in the living room waiting for Simon to finish his shower.

About In a Former Time

This blog is meant as a vehicle to publish my literary work.
This entry was posted in Short fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Reptile Triptych, I: The Day the Sixties were Over

  1. Susan Fitzgerald says:

    I very much enjoyed the “sense of place” in your story. And in this case it was not only place, but time. Reading about places that I know described with such accuracy and detail rather than the broad brush of “sounds like” is always a pleasure.

  2. Pingback: Adventures in Hitchhiking – Part One « Crysti·ology

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