Hell’s Half Acre



There was a reason that it was called Hell’s Half Acre. It was mid-August, and the heat shimmering off the desert floor looked like the waves on the ocean a thousand miles to the west. The only water I could find was beaded on my forehead or soaked into the red bandana around my neck.

I knew there were parts of western Wyoming that probably still had some snow, way up high in the Tetons or huddled beneath a dirt bank on the north face of a canyon. Little good it did me there. I was here to test myself, walking away from the drilling rig on my week off, going walkabout in my own mind, going stupid in the eyes of my co-workers. The rig’s tool pusher had tried to voice his concerns, but I pulled rank on him and headed out anyway. I had my hat, my vest, and a head full of too much knowledge. I wanted to get rid of that part of me that wasn’t true. This was the only way I could think of that could fit in seven days.

That heat shimmer on the horizon wasn’t a mirage of some far off water body. I was facing east, and there was no water in that direction for a couple of hundred miles. I wasn’t planning on going that far, though, so it was find it or die. I was right at the beginning of day two, and had survived so far on stored fat and confident stupidity. I did know that I had to start looking in earnest pretty soon, or the rig crew would be short-handed.

The land around me wasn’t totally barren. There was scrub a-plenty, and the occasional gray tree forcing it’s way up from some rock ledge. I could have tried following the cracks down into the ground, but the tree roots were skinnier than I was, and the rock just about as hard. I took heart in the fact of my sweat. The drop on the end of my nose told me that I was still hydrated, and I had some bit of time ahead. It was the pallid dry skin that I was afraid of, and I thought that I could probably make it to day four before I had to contend with thoughts of heat stroke and vultures.

I moved forward in a steady walk, heading away from, not toward anything. My outward destination was just day 3.5, when I would decide to turn around and head back, hoping for a glow in the sky on the far horizon that was the 90 foot tall rig that I was calling home these days. I slumped my way down a shallow gully and pushed my way back up the far side. There was dry grass, but I just bent over and steadied myself with my hands on the hot dry sand.

Coming up the far side of the gully, I came face to face with the open mouth of a fat gray rattle snake, and I pulled away in shock. The snake had been sunning itself, and pulled itself back into a coil, alarmed at finding such a big fool rising in front of him. I turned aside quickly, and the springing snake thudded to the ground before me. My boot stomped forward, and I had dinner, and just a bit more fluid to go into my poor parched soul. My only regret was having to sit in front of a fire to cook it. I suspected that any gain I would make in fluid intake would be baked right back out in sweat. I ate that snake, from right behind the head to just before the rattle. Waste not, want not. The rattle went in my pocket.

On day 3.5, I was looping back to the rig and came upon a low, fat cactus that seemed way out of place. I sat down before it contemplating its existence, and my own. I figured the cactus was here first, so I moved over a few feet and began to dig down through the hardpan with my sheath knife and hands. Plunge the knife in the ground, twist it around to break up the crust, and scoop the sand out of the hole. Repeat as needed. The hole got to be about two feet deep, and the edge was getting perilously close to the cactus when the bottom started to get damp. I was tired, dusty and thirsty, but the feel of cool sand on my hands brought a stupid smile to my face. I slid a handful back across the back of my neck for relief from the sun. It stung, then cooled me and spurred me on. Another foot down and digging away from my savior cactus, and there was a tiny trickle of water in the hole. I pulled another handful out, and bent down to wet my bandana in the clear pool that formed. I sat there for an hour, happy as a kid in a mud puddle, sucking on my bandana and glad to be alive. I knew then that I would be back at work next Sunday. I pulled my knife out of the sheath and bored a hole through the snake rattle. I threaded a string through it, and tied it around my neck as a totem.

Good luck charm? No, just thanks for the journey.

Fishing Tales



It was dusk overlooking the pond. Paul and I were just sitting and reminiscing about our last short fishing trip, and kicking back with a beer or three. We both knew from experience that the night would grow darker, our vision would begin to fail us, and the size of the day’s catch would expand greatly. “It was this big…” with hands stretched wide, describing a thrown-back perch. Paul was the one who had introduced me to hand fishing, and it became a meditation practice we could both get into.

The idea is similar to tickling trout, which I learned from a rig hand while working on an oil rig in the Rockies. He had me wade into an incredibly cold stream and wait patiently for the fish to return after the shock of a human foot or two invading the realm. When the trout started swimming again, I leaned over and dipped my hands into the water, oh so slowly. As they began to freeze and I felt myself entering hypothermic shock, I would slide my hands under a trout. With fingertips just barely moving, I would stroke the belly of the fish. After hypnotizing the little bugger, I could flip it out of the water and hopefully onto the bank of the stream.

Well, down here on flat land, Paul and I had no ice cold Rocky Mountain trout stream, but we did have this great big shallow pond. Just for a hoot, we would wade out into the shallows and stand there waiting for anything wet to move by us. It was usually a fish, but there was the odd crawdad and the occasional mayfly larva. The rule was, if it moved, it was fair game. Size won out for fish, but weirdness won out for everything else. Today had been perch. Little perch. That made it a good day for beer.

I pulled another one from the cooler, and began to spin a tale of fish fighting back with sucker-laden heads and weight that would pull you under if you were the unbalanced type. At one point, I had beer spraying out of Pauls nose with a story about a fish with green eyes and eyelashes that would blink seductively as I stood in the water over it, hands extended and back bent. “Honest to God,” I said. “She blinked at me with those lashes, and blew me a fish kiss that came out as a bubble that made it to the surface. I think it might have actually been a proto-mermaid. You know, not yet fully evolved. Eyes and lips, yes, but no arms or hair yet. I’ll have to get back there some day to see if she remembers me, or has grown any bigger.”

An empty can came sailing over the space between us, and Paul scored a direct hit on my forehead. “You’re a lying bastard,” he said. “That was no proto-mermaid. You’re daft enough to have stayed right there and tried to seduce a fish if it had blinked up at you and blown you a kiss. There is no way you would have left that there without trying to marry it. It’s probably the only thing that’s blown you a kiss in the last five years.”

Impugning my character and dismissing my manner with the womens was definitely a breach of fishing etiquette. I reached up and over into the cooler for another beer, getting ready to spray my fishing partner with a sacrificial beer, when we heard a distinct plop from the pond. Both of us sat up in our haze and peered into the shallows. There before us was a school of our little perch cuties, mouths working and bubbles bubbling. There must have been a couple of dozen of them, none of them bigger than your hand, but all with the most distinctive green eyes you could possibly imagine. They were lined up, all facing the shore of the pond, as if they had listened to what we were saying.

I looked at Paul, he looked at me, and we both burst out laughing as hard as we could. Tears in eyes and all. It was loud enough to scare our fish away from the edge, and we collapsed back onto the grass. “Okay,” I said, “you can never use this in a story from now on. This one’s done, and you can only top it at the next fishing party.”

Paul agreed to the rule, and so it became our job to outdo each other in the tall tales after fishing. I came up with the sewer gator that I caught on a ten-pound test line, and Paul eventually beat me with a story about using his brand new baby girl as bait in fishing for catfish on the Missouri River. We still stopped by to harass the perch in our favorite pond, but the green-eyed lovelies never reappeared.





After the storm, we all came out of the shelters to assess the damage.  It would have been easier to assess the remains, as there were fewer of those.  All of the adults who had sheltered their families in the ground stood about with sunken eyes and swayed on their feet as though the winds hadn’t finished with them.

I stood next to my neighbor lady and reached out to hold her.  As my fingers touched the back of her hand, she flinched, and a cry came out of her mouth, sounding like a young chick.  That little peep of terror was all that was left of her former life.  She turned her head toward me, mouth agape, and dropped to the ground.  There was a run of aluminum gutter under her, but she didn’t notice.  Her two kids were wandering around, picking at the debris and playing King of the Hill on a pile that looked like it might have been the grocery store from four blocks away.  How it ended up here was fascinating to the kids.

There was a sudden stillness to everything, as though the strength of the storm had used up all of the air, and it was waiting to recover.  A siren wailed in the distance, but someone must have realized how stupid it was to have it running, and it stopped.  We stood, or sat, and waited for the world to come and help us.

Come they did.  First were the neighbors from a couple of blocks over coming to see if everyone else had been wrecked.  They asked if we were okay, and we asked back.  Then came the fire trucks and police and ambulances, but they took a look and went off to where they were needed and could do some good.

I attached myself to the neighbors and we all went trooping off to see if we could do any good.  The stunned neighbor got up and gathered her kids and joined our little mob.  We attracted others who came through in one piece, and we just traipsed around, growing in size.

There were over fifty of us when we came to the empty lot where that grocery store belonged.  It must have been picked up straight by the wind because there were shelves standing up on the floor with goods still stacked on them, all alone in the open air.  The police cars  and ambulances were parked in the parking lot, setting up a command post.  One of us went over and talked to them for a second and then reported back.  They said it would be just a little while before they were ready.  I said to our mob, “Ready for what?”

It was summer, or we would have been in a world of hurt.  We all slept outside on piles of stuff we found and pushed together into beds.  The kids tried bouncing on it, but found the stuff lacking, so they lay down and went to sleep.  The mob mostly sat around talking quietly.

In the morning, FEMA showed up and took over for the cops and fire department.  We all lined up and gave our name and address.  What they would do with that was going to be interesting, seeing as how there wasn’t any such thing as an address left in the town.  They brought along the Red Cross, and those kind folks fed us and set up tents and gave us showers and toilets.  The kids ran around exploring and getting under foot.

One of the FEMA folks came over to the mob and called out some names.  They had papers that we signed, and they gave us checks for money.  I tucked mine in my pocket and went over to the Red Cross to get a cup of coffee.  The nice lady took my name and wrote it down on a clipboard and gave me a paper cup of pretty good coffee and a big cookie.  I thanked her.  My neighbor lady was there getting a big tray of food for herself and the kids.  She still looked like she couldn’t do much more than peep, but she steered herself back to her kids and they all ate a late breakfast.

The rescue folks set up a bus so we could go shopping for stuff we needed or wanted.  There was a mall a couple of towns over that hadn’t been hit, and the mob invaded it.  I took my check up to the window of the bank in the mall and cashed it in.  I asked for small bills, so it took a while.  They brought it to me in a bag, and looked at me a bit funny.  I stopped off at Staples before we got back onto the bus and headed back to the blasted zone.

When the Red Cross Lady came around the next morning, I had been up for a couple of hours already.  She stood for a while, watching me as I rolled up each dollar bill and taped it into a cylinder.  I had connected about a thousand dollars together into sticks using the tape from Staples, and I was well on my way to building myself a new house when the ambulance folks came by to admire my work.  I smiled up at them from where I sat inside the frame of my little house and asked them if they wanted a cup of coffee from the nice Red Cross lady.

Two months after I got out of the hospital, I got a letter in the mail.  I picked it up in the grocery store parking lot where the police and ambulance had set up.  It was a bill from the Red Cross for five dollars and twenty five cents for the coffee and cookie.