On the road with Cactus Ed

  • Edward Abbey

    Jack Dykinga

One day early in the 1970s, Ed Abbey and I were cruising along a southern Utah highway in a forest-green Chevy that had rolled off the assembly line some 20 years before. Ed had given a friend $100 for it in the spring and we were both pleased that it was still running now, early in autumn. We got pretty good gas mileage, considering, but we did have to pull over every half hour to put a quart of oil into the engine.

This was not a problem. We were rarely in a hurry, and it was a beautiful day. I remarked how the quaking aspen were turning their lush and bedazzling gold, and observed with wonder the flocks of geese rising into the sky in their mysterious, noisy chevrons, and noted how, soon, the spiders would be spinning their webs closer to the ground.

“Oh, shut up,” Ed said, as he shifted down to climb a hill.

It was mid-afternoon on this cloudless, crispy day, churning along from nowhere in particular to home, when one of our retreads went flat. Alas, we did not have a spare. Or, to put it another way, our spare was one of the three tires we were now driving on. Our good tire, the one the spare had replaced, was leaning against our house trailer some 100 miles away. We were in sight of a gas station at the time of this misfortune, however, and we rolled conveniently into the station and came gingerly to a halt.

Ed bought a bag of peanuts, I got some chips and, prudently, we split a Coke. We didn’t have much cash. Actually, we also didn’t have much money that was not cash. We planted ourselves on a curb and talked about what we should do if the station was one of those stuck-up places that did not sell retreads. Spring for a brand-new tire? Patch the flat?

Today I do not recall which alternative we settled on, but I remember it cost $22, exactly. Ed charged it and we rolled away. Before long, a patrol car came tearing up behind us with red lights flashing and siren wailing. “Oh, what the blazes have you done now?” I asked.

“I didn’t do anything,” Ed said. “You saw me.”

We watched in the rearview mirror as the armed high school graduate approached us. We scanned the car for beer cans, body parts, whatever. All seemed to be in order. “But what’s in the trunk?” I said with sudden alarm, considering the things that were, from time to time, in the trunk. “Just oil,” Ed said reassuringly, “and plastique, and of course your old boyfriend.”

We had begun to laugh. We struggled to look serious. Ed rolled down the window and said, not for the first time, “What’s the problem, Officer?” “You just did some business at Mac’s Garage?” he asked.

“Why yes, Officer,” Ed responded as the cop looked around our car.

This was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. Students were “hippies,” tie-dyed, with love beads and long hair. Cops were “pigs” and they had short hair, no love beads.

Well, Ed had short hair and didn’t have love beads, so he did not fit the profile of the enemy. I don’t know what the cop made of me; I could have been Ed’s wife, or daughter — something one could say of all the women who joined Ed in the second half of his life. The policeman did not speak to me.

“Well, your charge card’s no good,” the cop said to Ed. “It’s expired.”

Ed smiled weakly, and said, “Oh, sorry, I had no idea,” which was true. Had we known it was expired, we would have been driving much faster. The Arizona state line was not far away.

The policeman believed Ed and quickly came to the conclusion that we were as we appeared to be: two irresponsible people in a jalopy, not felons. Thus he explained that if we would simply give him the cash, why, then, he would take it to Mac and we could go on our way. It was less clear what would happen if we could not produce the 22 bucks. So far in our lives we had pretty much managed to stay out of jail, so this was a serious moment.

Ed looked in his wallet. He had a $10 bill and lint. “Got any money, honey?” he said to me hopefully.

Well, well, I had all the aces now. “First,” I said, “apologize for telling me to shut up.”

After a thoughtful moment, he replied: “Truly, I can hardly tell you how sorry I am.”

I was able to put together $11 in bills, and handed them to Ed. Digging around the bottom of my purse, I put some dimes and nickels into his hand. “How much we got now?”

“Keep trying,” Ed replied. Fifty cents to go. The cop was waiting silently at Ed’s window, showing no signs of lending us any money.

I found a quarter and then, eureka, a half-dollar coin. What a relief. Ed gave $22 to the police officer. He thanked us politely, we thanked him politely, and he got into his patrol car and drove away.

We spoke simultaneously as Ed pulled the old Chevy back onto the road. “That was lucky, you are a complete idiot, am not, should have let him shoot you, not sorry I told you to shut up.”

He handed our last quarter back to me and I tossed it onto the dashboard. “HEY,” Ed yelled, watching it roll around. “Don’t be so casual with that.” Twenty-five cents; 80 miles from home. So, well, we laughed. When the oil-warning light started flashing red on the dashboard, we laughed harder. We were not mature.

We were getting closer to home now, and began the steep climb up the Kaibab Plateau, 9,000 feet. Now the old Chevy wanted a can of oil every 20 minutes, and that became time-consuming.

“I’m hungry,” I said. “I don’t suppose you brought any food?”

“I don’t know why you even bother asking,” he replied.

“Hope springs eternal.”

“Food’s not my job. My job is to bring money.”

By the time we got to Jacob Lake, it was getting dark and we were famished. We stopped in the restaurant there and had a good dinner, leisurely. We ordered dessert and coffee and, in due course, began to talk about how we would pay the bill.

“We could give them the car,” I offered. Rejecting that, we discussed making a run for it. It was a thought. We had put the Utah highway patrol behind us and by the time the Arizona highway patrol caught up to us, we would be on federal land, Grand Canyon National Park, where we lived. The state had no jurisdiction there. In due course, however, we rejected that plan, because once we completed our dash to the car we would have had to put a can of oil into the engine prior to speeding away.

In the end, Ed just made a show of having forgotten his wallet, “I regret that I am temporarily embarrassed,” and said we’d pay them the following day. That worked out because we knew the waitresses in that restaurant. We ate there whenever I did not feel like cooking, or eating the two huge meatballs Ed would roll under the broiler and serve up on hamburger buns, which was all he knew how to make.

Soon we were safe at home, in our government-issue house trailer, where Ed frequently hit his head on the door frame between the kitchen and living room. “OW,” he always said in pain and amazement, putting a hand to his forehead.

I made a pot of coffee and we commenced our nightly poker game. When it got late, I took the part of Ed’s money that I had not yet won and added it to my stash of similarly obtained winnings, and then we went to sleep. The next morning, Ed climbed up into the North Rim fire lookout tower and I drove to Jacob Lake and paid our dinner bill. We were nothing if not honest.

The day after that was payday. Life was perfect.

Ingrid Eisenstadter is from the Bronx.

High Country News Classifieds