A camping story about how one man found his manhood in the Texas wild.
It was 1987, and I was an outsider. After all, didn't I have the requisites? I'd moved that year to Austin, Texas. I'd found an appropriately shitty job, as a "reservationist" on the Sheraton Hotels' 800 number. And I had the other crucial qualifications: Membership in a Bad Band. Miserable Hole to Live In. And Substantially-More-Put-Together Girlfriend. Patrizia. Student of law. Beautiful, smart, German. And understanding—so far.
Despite all this, I felt overcome by the squalor and pointlessness of my life. Sure, I was an outsider. My fellow reservationists, mostly Air Force wives from Bergstrom Air Force Base, could vouch for that: "You're in a band called the Stumps? That's gross." "Who'd want to listen to a band called the Stumps?"
Well, no one, except maybe Waxface Jeff, our roadie; but that might have been an act. We were also his biggest customers for the lousy pot he sold out of the house we all lived in.
I was beginning to catch on. Being an outsider meant being no one. And given that Patrizia was about to graduate from law school and start making $80,000 a year, my no-one-hood boded ill. The assassin of financial incompatibility was about to inject oxygen into the veins of our love. Things, it seemed, were about to suck. Clearly it was time to get out.
"Guadalupe Mountains?" Patrizia was puzzled. Whenever she was puzzled, she looked stern. "This is Texas. There are no mountains."
I explained. National park. Just east of El Paso. Guadalupe Peak, highest point in Texas. Cactus. Mesquite. Gila monsters. Rattlesnakes. Bobcats—
"This is one of those male things, isn't it?" she said.
"This is not a 'male thing.' "
"No, it's a male thing." She added with certainty, "You should go alone."
Well, good. Patrizia was right. This was a male thing. High time, too! No more of this namby-pamby camping trip B.S. No, sir, if you are 22, disaffected, and not in the company of your girlfriend, one thing you do not do is go on a camping trip. What you do is engage the wilderness one-on-one. You see what you're made of.
Five a.m., a sleepy good-bye kiss from Patrizia still on my lips. I packed my 1979 Ford Fairlane station wagon with the rudiments of survival: tent, sleeping bag, pillow, ground sheet, flashlight, rope, camp stove, Walkman, 130 cassette tapes in two faux-leather cases, paperback copies of Moby Dick, Desert Solitaire, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a quarter ounce of Waxface's best skunkweed, canned chili, canned plum pudding with hard sauce (Christmas present from my mother), cigarettes, instant coffee, beer, more beer, a fifth of Famous Grouse blended scotch whiskey, bottled water, snakebite kit, several aluminum pots, can opener, two 10-pound dumbbells, and a guitar.
The temperature was in the hundreds as I rambled up the access road to Dog Canyon campground. The Fairlane bottomed out every 50 feet. I'd decided to skip the south end of the park. Enough of this candy-ass forest shit. I wanted aridity, sterility, the rattlesnake slipping through the eye socket of the cow skull, the sun like God's disapproval.
I had my shirt unbuttoned. I was wearing sunglasses, smoking a Camel. Squinting against the ruthless wind, I felt weathered and tough, Clint Eastwood in high-tops and shorts. No one was around. I parked and got out.
An hour later, I was sitting on the picnic table of the site I'd selected, reading Moby Dick and batting gnats away from my eyes, nose, and ears. Abruptly the silence, the immense silence, my silence, was rent by a rumbling. A wedge of large men wearing leather and denim roared into the campground on Harleys.
I decided to keep reading to show my nonchalance. The Jokers—their jackets identified them—disappeared to the campground's far end. About 15 minutes later one of them sauntered up. He looked like a 30-year-old version of a kid named Randy Ray I'd gone to junior high with. Motorcycle boots, long red ponytail, pockmarked skin, gray teeth. He flipped a glassine envelope onto the table next to me. "You want to buy some crank, man? Good shit."
Hey, I was a Stump, man. I knew how to be cool.
"Not today. Thanks anyway." I handed the envelope back. He studied me for a moment, then palmed the speed and checked out my campsite.
"What are you doing—camping?"
"Yes, I am," I said.
He smiled. I recognized that smile: Bruce Lee smiles that way in Enter the Dragon right as he's crushing some poor fool's trachea with his foot.
Randy Ray said, "Come on over and party with us later, man. If you're up for it. We're gonna get fucked up."
E.L., the manager of a campground 30 minutes away, turned out to be a sweet old guy. He even reduced my fee when I said I didn't need an electrical hookup.
The following morning I drove to the forested end of the park, where the brown-pointed cinder blocks of a ranger station rose, inviting. The U.S. flag fluttered overhead. I went in.
"Hey, how you doing, buddy?" the ranger called out, a little too friendly.
I was doing fine, I muttered, and started registering.
"Tell you what. I'll put you over there by the creek," he said. "That's real nice. One thing. There's this flock of wild turkeys living around here. You might want to keep an eye out for the gander. Kinda thinks the campground's his kingdom." He chuckled.
With the same nonchalance I'd attempted yesterday, I said, "Well, it can't be any worse than a motorcycle gang."
"Are they up at the canyon again? Goddamn, those guys are worse than fire ants."
Nothing is more irritating to false nonchalance than real nonchalance. Nevertheless, as I was leaving, it occurred to me to ask, "So—what are you supposed to do if this turkey decides it's feeling aggressive?"
The ranger laughed uproariously. "Oh, just make a lot of noise. Yell at him. That old boy'll get scared, he'll figure out what's what."
Noon. I was pounding the stakes of my tent into the hard-packed West Texas dirt. Shirt off, sweating in the sun. Testosterone pumping through every fiber of my body. This was it: maleness, solitude, cojones grandes. I felt strong. Powerful. Then I heard gobbling.
It occurred to me, briefly, to pay attention. But really, who gives a shit if there are a hundred turkeys roosting in this campground? I came out here to go mano-a-mano with the brutal truth of nature, after all, not to spend my time worrying about fat birds so mindless that if you leave them standing outside in the rain, they drown.
On the dusty rise behind my camp, a large turkey appeared. In a sort of Napoleonic moment, it took in the camp and saw me. Its head cocked to attention. Then it gave a strident gobble and trotted down the slope.
My thought, roughly, was this: It's a turkey. Give me a fucking break.
I picked up an aluminum pot and my heavy-duty can opener. Make noise? You got it. I was going to scare the bejesus out of this bird.
I went up the hill to meet it, banging on my pot and yelling "Shoo? Shoo? Hyah!" That was when I learned my first lesson in turkey behavior: Turkeys don't give a shit when you make noise. Maybe they don't have ears. As soon as I got near it, banging away and hollering, the turkey leaped into the air, battered me with its wings, and raked at my face with enormous black claws.
"Jesus Christ!" I said, and ran.
When I got about 10 feet between us, I turned and banged on the pot again, harder this time. "Get out of here!" I yelled.
This time the turkey tried to tear my face off.
"Jesus Christ!" I yelled again, and ran.
We went through this three or four times. Then I punched a hole in the bottom of my pot with the heavy end of the can opener. "Uh oh," I said. The turkey launched a brutal counterassault, trying to crawl up my chest. I flung the pot aside and dashed to my car.
Outside, the turkey sat on my picnic table and started eating my Doritos.
At that point I had my epiphany. I had come to the wilderness looking for one, of course, and though this was not the epiphany I'd hoped for, it would have to do. It occurred to me that even in the direst of circumstances, trapped in a car as hot as a pizza oven, nagged by the thought that (a) you have just been outfought and outstrategized by a bird most people consider holiday dinner and (b) back in the civilized world your friends are investing in mutual funds, your girlfriend is checking out Mercedes sports coupes, and you are still buying canned tamales for dinner despite all this, the wonderful thing about nature is that poverty asks no comparisons there. The turkey would have attacked me even if I were Bill Gates.
Whereupon a Range Rover drove into the next campsite and parked. A wiry, balding fellow got out and stood, hands on hips, observing the site. Moments later a much younger, much taller woman with a lot more hair poured out of the passenger side and flowed up to him, nuzzling his ear.
The turkey studied the two of them, then me, and in a turkey insight of startling clarity, understood that epiphanies are bullshit. It returned its attention to my Doritos. Bald guy and girlfriend opened the swing-back of the Rover and vanished inside. Within moments it began to bounce.
The turkey, serene in its turkeyness, not hungry for existential justification (or anything, since it had now finished my Doritos), settled down for what looked like an extended roost on my picnic table. If I'd had a shotgun, dinner that night would have been extravagant.
I had no gun. But—call it a second epiphany—it occurred to me that I did have a brain.
I moved. The turkey cocked its head and gave a low warning gobble, but I was fast, scuttling from the station wagon, apelike, scooping up stones. And as the turkey launched itself from table to earth, I hit it in the ass with a rock.
It seemed worried. I hurled another rock, advancing. That's right, bird, know what you're dealing with? Monkey-boy ascendant! Opposable fucking thumbs! It ran. There's one for terraced farming, pal, and one for irrigation. The turkey scooted up the hill. I grabbed more stones. I was filled with righteousness.
The turkey, gobbling in outrage, topped the rise and vanished.
On my way back to the camp I nearly ran smack into the blond girlfriend of the Range Rover pilot as she delicately stepped from the women's porto-can. I asked her if she was enjoying her camping trip.
"My God, last night we partied with this motorcycle gang, the Jokers. I was freaked out of my wits. But Alan, my boyfriend, he was great with them. They loved him. He's in criminal defense in Dallas. He deals with guys like them all the time."
No, no pride. But even if you can't squeeze pride out of the aged lemon of life, sometimes you can still recover a few small, sour drops of victory:
I am heating tamales for dinner when the primordial gobbling rises again. It bubbles up like oil, undaunted and instinctual. And down on the flatlands the balding guy, looking desperate, waves up to me. His girlfriend is huddled behind their picnic table. He's dodging and feinting as the turkey advances.
He yells, "Excuse me, buddy, but do you know what we're supposed to do about this thing?"
Panty-boy. Lightweight. "Oh, sure. Just make a lot of noise! It'll get scared and run away."
I figure five minutes. Maybe ten. Then, hormones humming, I can head down into that violent darkness and save them.
Adapted from Terra Nova (Fall 1997). Subscriptions: $34/yr. (4 issues) from MIT Press Journals, Five Cambridge Center, Cambridge, MA 02142.