(Editor's note: Renowned Western writer Edward Abbey, who died in 1989, would have celebrated his 76th birthday this Jan. 29, 2003.)
About this time of year, almost 30 years ago, the writer Ed Abbey and I were laboring through the exurbs of Ajo, in the south of Arizona. We were driving on a miserable backcountry road in an old VW van.
There were, of course, paved roads to Ajo, but Ed had taken the scenic route, as usual. He had the gas pedal to the floor on this javelina trail, and we were doing 15, maybe 18 miles per hour due to an imperceptible incline. As nothing distinguished this particular thoroughfare from anything to the left or right of it, staying on the road was not easy.
Nor was it scenic. Just the lamentable, searing desert, and us. I was hungry, hot, annoyed.
I'm thirsty," I said.
"Have some water," he replied.
"You brought water?"
Ed thought for a while and said, "I'm thirsty, too."
"Well, had you told me we were going to go this way, why, I suppose I would have brought some water," I said, eventually adding, "and food."
Everything we owned was in the back of the van, as usual. Whenever Ed heard about a house that had fewer neighbors than ours, or more property, or a bigger refrigerator, we moved there, as we were doing this day. It wasn't very hard to move because we didn't own very much: some clothes, one of which was a tie; a typewriter (manual); a sewing machine (treadle); some pots purchased at J.C. Penney in St. George largely as a means of cashing an unemployment check; an ice chest; books maps tools; a bottle of wine; and some money, not much. As usual.
We spoke only intermittently in the oppressive heat. When our conversation lapsed entirely, the only sound we could hear was the low-slung van waging battle with the rock-strewn road. Kerchunk. Kerchunk. I glanced at the speedometer. Ten miles per hour.
"Can't you get this crate to go any faster?" I asked.
"I've got the pedal on the floor. What do you want me to do? Push?"
"I'm thirsty," I said.
"Well, you should have brought some water. That was stupid."
"You're the one who's stupid."
I was growing aware that the rhythmic pitching of the van was corresponding not to our hitting rocks in the road, but to the sound of the engine. KERCHUNK. KERCHUNK. It was growing louder. Soon the van was lurching in sync with the noise. I was holding onto the door handle to steady myself.
After a time, Ed turned to me and yelled: "I think something's wrong with the car."
"Did you put any oil in it?" he shouted.
"When?" I yelled back.
And, so, well, we began to laugh. Time passed. We were not moving forward anymore, just jerking violently in place, and, so, we laughed harder.
Then with a final, violent kerrrrrrCHUNK, the engine seized up. Died. Four red-hot pistons solidly and finally fused to the cylinders, melted into the engine block that was now their coffin, never to pump gas again. Silence everywhere.
"Well, thank God," Ed said, glancing at the gas gauge, "we've still got half a tank."
Now we spilled out of the van, eyes tearing, struggling for breath, collapsing onto the desert sand with aching lungs and throats, laughing. When our merriment subsided, we crawled over to each other, and, back-to-back, sat quietly, exhausted. Time to assess our situation. After awhile, Ed spoke.
"Got any water?"
So, we opened our bottle of hot red wine, and prepared to die. We had almost finished it when a truck happened by and the driver gave us some water. Sympathetic to the plight of two complete idiots, hungry and thirsty, he tied our dead VW to his back bumper and off we went. We chatted lightly about whether we could get arrested for drunk driving when our engine wasn't on.
Our tow ended at a car dealer in Ajo, and there we threw out the Volkswagen and bought a red-and-white Ford van, an American car, reliable. Six cylinders, 600 bucks. We loaded our worldly possessions into our new van, which, before too long, I would back into a parked car that was, alas, occupied by its owner at the time. But, that was in the future.
Off we went. Late that night we pulled into a cheap motel, cashed an unemployment check, and fell peacefully to sleep. It had been a good day, as usual.