Note: this was originally posted at Open Salon in November, 2013
Afternoon light streaming down on open country. Heat. Scent of dust and grass drifting through the windows. Felice Brothers on the CD player - "I put some whisky into my whisky..." It's an early summer day beneath blue sky and drifting white clouds and we're heading east down a gravel road about ten miles south of Cottonwood Falls.
"Would you feel comfortable if I drove for a while?"
I glance over at her. "Sure. I've seen you drive Tank Girl in Sam From Siska - if you can make navigating that urban hellscape look so easy, this here should be a cakewalk. But I gotta ask; you ever driven a road like this?"
"Well, no biggie - just keep her under fifty or so on the straightaways, less on the curves, and allow yourself plenty of braking time when you want to stop. Easy peasy."
I pull over so we can trade places, and after a few minutes watching her focused but relaxed manner behind the wheel - this is a woman for whom, if something is worth doing, it's worth doing right - I go into passenger mode and let my mind drift. We have no particular destination in mind, no deadlines to meet or tasks more pressing than following the moment, and as the miles unwind I marvel at how lucky we are. The roadside is adorned with butterflies and wild rose, while meadowlarks, startled into flight by our passage, rise up to the left and right and inscrutable nighthawks eye us from their fencepost perches. A plume of dust unfurls in our wake, and up ahead...
We clear the crest of a rise and right there, a hundred yards downslope but hidden 'til now by the grade, the road makes a hard right. Cris is already decelerating - veteran driver that she is, she knows we're moving too fast to make the turn safely. Just as I say "You might wanna..." I feel a slithery, queasy sensation in my gut as our tires lose traction in the deep gravel.
Well, this should be interesting.
Time goes all weird, the seconds stretching out like warm taffy, and I watch her tap the brake - once, twice, three times. The SUV yaws alarmingly to the left then pivots abruptly on its right front wheel, bringing the left rear forward with a sickening lurch. The rear end rushes clockwise and in a moment will become the front end with who knows what consequences, but Cris, against all apparent logic, steers into the skid - I adore this woman! - then, while continuing her delicate heel-and-toe dance on the pedals, steers just barely the opposite direction. The vehicle reacts by pivoting violently on the left front wheel, which brings the right rear sharply forward. We're now aligned with the road again instead of fishtailing at a right angle to it, but we're still out of control, whipsawing madly and moving way too fast as, scant yards away, a barbed wire fence and boulder-strewn pasture loom into focus. The boulders, jagged limestone chunks glaring whitely in the sun, seem to rush at us gleefully, and in a strangely elongated moment somewhere between detached observation and stark terror I have time to think, "We don't want to go through that fence... don't wanna roll either, oh god no... there's all kindsa ways this could end and only one of 'em is the right way," and suddenly we're fishtailing again, but fishtailing in a controlled fashion. Controlled fishtailing! Our driver's side wheels (and intermittently the entire rear end) are in the ditch as we round the turn, but the passenger side tires, thanks to the Hyundai's AWD 'puter and my peerless travelling companion's agile footwork on the gas and brakes, are gripping the road like champs. The fence and boulders recede to our rear as, with one final, bucking lurch-pivot - this time on the left front wheel, which brings the right rear forward just enough to heave us up out of the ditch and away from all those nasty rocks and barbed wire - we slide to a shuddering stop.
A cloud of dust engulfs us as we sit there and stare at each other.
As I begin to breathe again, my brain flashes on Toad's Wild Ride. I start giggling.
Cris isn't amused. "Why are you laughing? I almost wrecked your truck." She narrows her eyes, suspecting I'm making fun of her. " We could have been killed."
I'm still laughing, can't help it, and after a moment she joins in.
"But you didn't and we weren't. And see, this is why I love you so much." I pause, making my usual correction to that statement; "This is one of the reasons I love you so much. With no prior four-wheeling experience, with no coaching or lessons and nothing in your favor but your instincts and all-around stellar competence, you did exactly what you had to do to get us around that turn without wiping out. There was little or no margin of error there, and no second chances or do-overs allowed, but you reacted superbly. If you hadn't, the best case scenario would have been us smashing through that fence and across that field of boulders. Did you see those things? They would, at a minimum, have demolished my suspension and ripped out the oil pan and no telling what all else, leaving us stranded on a back country road miles from anywhere in 100 degree heat with no cell phone coverage. And that's best case; worst case would have been to roll it. I don't like even thinking about that one, but thanks to you it didn't happen. Instead, because you're so phenomenally fucking fantastic, we're sitting here shiny side up without a scratch on us and me trying to remember if adrenaline is always so Viagra-like. Which is weird 'cause I don't even own a reptile, let alone a dysfunctional one."
She's beaming her million-watt smile now, and once again I marvel at my luck in knowing her. "God I love it when you go all alliterative, but that should be 'Viagrimose' or, less formally, 'Viagraesque.' And waddaya mean, no reptile? Is that a monitor lizard in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"
"Monitor lizard? Puh-leeze. Lucifer is a frilled dragon, madame, and I'll thank you to remember that."
"A frilled dragon? That sounds kinda fancy, but I gotta ask, is there a no frills dragon too?"
"I'm no cosmetologist but, yes, one would assume so. Still, only the rankest of hoi polloi would use such a beast. Wanna drive some more?"
"Yep. Which way are we going?"
"I kind of lost track during Slalompalooza back there, but, let's see, um... " I pretend to unfold an imaginary road map and study it intently. "OK, we're right... ah, lessee, we must be here, about three miles due west of Matfield Green and eight miles - that would be 2.4 hectares or approximately 5000 Lydian cubits give or take an Iberian league - north by northwest of Bazaar, so Highway 177 must be off to our left a few miles. Says here there's a Stuckey's Chicken with salad bar, WiFi, an animatronic Wyatt Earp, and the world's largest ball of twine just off the second exit out of Eldorado, so maybe, hmm, what if we... or, wait, no, I've got it, how about... "
By now familiar with my navigational technique, she already has the little Hyundai in gear. Road dust, backlit now by a westering sun, still hangs in the air around us, and as we pull away from the scene a tiny burrowing owl perched on a nearby fencepost hears Sirenita yell out...
all images ©2017 by nanatehay