Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Red Rocks

One of the other things we did while visiting in Las Vegas was to drive out to the Red Rock country for a short hike. These rocks are really red, by the way; one of these days I'll get my photos developed and then you'll see. This is all BLM land, and it was as green as it ever gets, and I saw something I've never seen before: a Joshua tree in bloom. They're quite lovely if a little odd. The highway through the area is studded with signs warning about the wild horses and burros that live in the area; they sometimes mob stopped cars, looking for food, but we didn't see any that day.

Standing in the overlook, examining the Joshua tree, I noticed a woman walking down a desert path. She wore a floor-length dark dress and carried a parasol, which seemed unusually formal for a desert hike. The overlook was on a bluff and she was maybe 30 or 40 feet below me; so I hauled out my trusty binoculars and took a look. There was a wedding party on the desert floor below the overlook. All I could clearly see was a woman, not formally dressed, with a serious camera on a tripod; but through a small tree I saw a woman wearing a cream colored floor length dress with a slightly darker cream bow on her behind, and something cream or white on her head - presumably the bride.

Then a man walked out from behind the tree, into the clearing with the photographer. He was wearing a black tail coat, with vest and the usual black pants, and a top hat. He removed the top hat, revealing an entirely bald (possibly shaved) head, dropped flat on his face on the ground, and executed about 6 pushups. Then he got up again, retrieved the hat, and walked back behind the tree. I don't remember whether the photographer got any pictures of this or not, I was too startled to notice. I hope she did.

I'm still wondering why
the groom in a desert wedding would choose to drop into the dust, in full wedding regalia, and do pushups.

I also wonder whether the BLM ranger who asked to borrow my binoculars for a look at all this, actually went down and kicked them out. She spoke as if she might - maybe they didn't have permits.


  1. Everyone has stories like this.

    A couple of years ago, we were driving south on 580, just north of the Central Avenue exit in El Cerrito, where the road skirts along the mudflats...hardly anyone else on the road, when suddenly I see in the rearview mirror, someone in a dull red old sedan doing about 80 approaching us rapidly in the right hand lane...so fast, in fact, that I doubted that unless he switched lanes to the left, he'd be unable to avoid smashing into us. My thoughts raced: If I went into the left lane, he might rear-end me anyway, so I kept my speed and pointed the car straight ahead...but to my astonishment, he went careening right off the elevated embankment, bouncing into the mud flat, throwing up mud and water before finally coming to rest and sinking up to his hubcabs. We witnessed this in disbelief as we slowed and stopped about 1000 feet ahead. I thought he might be hurt, so my wife pulled out my cell phone, and called 911. We told them what had happened and continued on. As I pulled away, I saw him open the door and slog through the muck up to the shoulder of the roadway, apparently unhurt.

    Later that week, I began to get cell phone messages from a California Hiway Patrolman who had been assigned to investigate the case. Before replying, I thought about the incident for a while, and came to the uncomfortable conclusion that I had probably witnessed something I shouldn't have. The man in the car had either seriously misjudged the road conditions, or (more likely) was high or drunk and driving like a maniac. My surmise was that he might very well have tried to construct a story in which he had been "forced from the road" by another driver (probably me), moving from the left lane into the right, and that it almost certainly would be a case of "my word against his." Not wishing to be embroiled in this potentially risky controversy, I never returned the patrolman's calls. But he didn't give up. When I changed cell phones and service providers, he kept after me, leaving messages on the new number months after the incident. Eventually he gave up.

    The moral of the story? Never get involved in anything that doesn't directly implicate you. Witnesses can be accused of anything. Guessing at what the other crazy driver may have said, it occurred to me that my story might sound as implausible as his would. Who would just drive off the road willy-nilly and risk serious injury without provocation? I tried imagining what the patrolman might think, trying to sort things out. He might very well deduce that I was lying, despite the fact that I had called in the report. Who, after all, would risk being involved in an accident if they didn't have to, unless they were somehow responsible?

    The next time I witness an accident, I'm leaving by the shortest route. That taught me a lesson.

  2. I've been thinking about your comment ever since you put it up, and I'm not sure how to respond. The level of "they're out to get me" reminds me of a guy I knew in college, back in the sixties - his excuse was that he was from a very rich and very screwed up family and was dealing hallucinogens on the side. His motto was, "In this world, you gotta remember, there's a Them, and there's an Us - and the Them is after Our Ass."

    Since he was dealing dope, some of them actually were after his ass, come to think of it.

    You, as far as I know, are a solid upstanding citizen, family man, running a small business - and you still think they're all out to get you.

    I've been in real automotive trouble just once - I spun a car out on Hwy. 29 just south of the Napa airport intersection, taking out a couple hundred feet of median strip fence. I wasn't drunk; it was 11 in the morning; I was chatting with my passenger and didn't realize the line of cars ahead was stopped at the light. I didn't hit any of the stopped cars. The bystanders reached out to help us, and were as kind and obliging as anyone could have wished.

    You don't really know what caused that man to go off the road. He could have been drunk; he also could have had a mini-stroke, or a mechanical failure in a badly maintained car. I suspect that the highway patrolman merely wanted get a little more detail on what you saw; but you spun his attempt to do his job into a conspiracy theory worthy of Kafka.

    Frankly, if I ever spin out again, I hope I'm around the folks from highway 29 and not you. You'd leave me in the ditch.

  3. Dear H:

    No, you misread my post.

    We did stop, long enough to see that the driver was okay. He hopped out of the vehicle in no time, and strode up the bank to hail someone for assistance.

    He didn't have a stroke, or any other visible health problems. My first impulse was to report it, as any responsible citizen would.

    But the circumstances were very fishy. It almost felt like a staged incident. If you'd been there, you'd understand what I'm describing. It was bizarre. Maybe he wanted to ditch the car for insurance, maybe he misjudged the position of the exit road. But he had been going 20 miles over the speed limit, at least, and could easily have caused a bad accident.

    But the plain, unfortunate fact, is that the only reason the California Hiway Patrol would be interested in talking to me, as a "witness" to the accident, would either be to back up the driver's account (so unlikely as to be absurd), or to defend myself against an accusation. It's quite unlikely that my "testimony" was innocently solicited. He--the driver--was looking for someone to blame, and we were simply handy.

    Approaching strangers who have acted very irrationally in situations like this is quite risky. Supposing he was simply insane, or so high he was disoriented and emotionally out of control. These are potent probabilities.

    If you believe the police or the hiway patrol are looking out for your welfare, or your convenience, you're quite mistaken. Read something about the psychology of the officers, and some of it will make your hair stand on end. Many of them do splendid jobs, under terrific pressures, but few of them have much regard for the general public, whom many of them see as adversaries.

    I'm certainly not advocating apathy or selfishness in the face of crisis. I could as well have been standing on the Central Avenue overpass, watching the incident unfold below me, but that's not how it happened. My position on the freeway, just ahead of him, put me in a vulnerable position vis-a-vis the possible "explanations" for the accident. I could very easily have been drawn into a confrontation with the patrolman in which I was accused by this other man of driving wildly and causing him to veer off the embankment. I would have had no way of backing up my account, and could have ended up being blamed, and even cited, for something that simply didn't happen.

    Seeing that he was not injured, my best course of action would have been, as I now perceive it, to leave without becoming further involved. By calling 911, I inadvertently placed myself in jeopardy. I suppose one could say I had no choice, but that's not how I see it in retrospect.

    Sorry if this all sounds paranoid, but it clearly isn't an example of that. My responsible instincts were to go back and try to help, but that would have been a mistake, under the circumstances.

    In your case, you saw something, from a distance, a private, peculiar, inexplicable incident which didn't make a lot of sense. You were powerless to effect its outcome, even if you'd wanted to. This quality of being involved and uninvolved at the same time is a dilemma often remarked upon by novelists and poets: The Existentialists regarded it as THE crucial dilemma of the modern age. Political theorists will often say, doing nothing is usually best. Often our generous or concerned impulse to get involved can have no favorable outcome.

    Think about it. The unfortunate fact is that often the best course of action is to leave. Police usually recommend that to people who have no direct involvement. Rather than hang around, it's usually best to leave the matter in official hands.

    The best outcome for me, under the circumstances, was to leave this man to explain his behavior without recourse to a handy (fake) account. Anyone performing the stunt he did, needed to address the actual cause(s), instead of trying to concoct a story to cover his actions. Since I couldn't have known whether his gas pedal had locked down or he was an escaped convict, I really had no business staying, and there's nothing concrete I could have added to the fact of his car sitting in the silt, that was not readily evident just following his tracks. I would clearly have been risking much in trying to furnish my "version" to the patrolman. The fact of my reporting the incident was already enough, unless there was another story to confront.

    As a reader of mysteries, I should think that would be a familiar mechanism to you.

    I also had a close friend in the 1960's who got heavily into drugs, and trading in them. He was eventually caught, and had to spend all the money he had made (over $500,000) to get a good lawyer to save his ass from a long prison sentence. Patrick was forever maimed emotionally from that whole period, and he eventually committed suicide in a fit of depression some years later. He was a talented writer; it was a real loss. But I do remember how paranoid he was. The world was neatly divided into those who "knew" what he was doing, and those who didn't; then there was the further bifurcation between those who knew, and could be trusted, and those who knew but maybe couldn't be. What a miserable way to live!

  4. Not having been there for your observed accident myself, I have to take your word for it; I can't really judge, except to say that it doesn't sound like a reaction I myself would have had. I would almost certainly have answered the phone call. But that's just me.

    I think everybody who went to Berkeley in the middle sixties knew someone of great potential talent who fried himself (usually himself) on drugs and wasted his future. It's one of the reasons I always stuck to alcohol, and moderate amounts at that.