IT WAS ON THIS PARTICULAR TRIP to the Valley of Fire that I learned smoking pot, while perhaps relaxing as a ritual, was a complete waste of psychoactive investment while in the throes of a powerful LSD experience. The tripper might congratulate themselves on having discerned the various weedy and pungent flavors in their particulate draw, but ultimately, the cosmic pinball show that was the night sky and the Mojave desert asserted themselves once more in the forefront of consciousness.
“Hey guys,” Jeff said. "Why don’t we go for a walk now? Now that the moon’s higher you can kinda see.”
The group quickly agreed to hike out into the wash by the Seven Sisters rock formation. They vowed to stick together. Seventy yards out into the wash, Jeff suddenly said, “okay, okay, lets get in the middle of this Doppler shift!”
I thought I heard Ron audibly sigh.
“What dude?” Jeff barked.
“Sshh, shh not so loud dude,” Dina implored. Ron shrugged and turned west, rolling his eyes at me on the way to posturing like a mock Jesus. I stood farther out than the rest.
Soon enough the pattern of an approaching rustling sound, the wind, the roar of the plane and then ultimately the plane itself as it passed nearly overhead. I wondered if the Key Air pilots were able to see us down here. Nah, probably not.
Before the plane passed from view I began trekking further out into the wash, feeling like I wanted to take the lead. Fifteen feet later, a sage bush to my right began to rustle sharply, and I could see a large, dark shape fling itself upward from the bush and then fly off, quickly disappearing in the night sky.
Ron had heard it as well. “What was that Paul?”
“I think that was one big ass bat.”
We waited for Jeff and Dina to catch up with us before going any further. Ron and I said nothing to each other. We didn’t need to.
Another fifty yards out and the landscaped seemed to change some. We were approaching a larger slope.
“Whadda ya think guys? Do we go over, around, back or smoke a bowl?” Jeff asked.
“Smoking weed now is just a waste of it,” I said in protest. “It’s wasting money. I can’t possibly imagine the weed having an effect on me at this point.”
Jeff passed me his bowl. “Does that mean you don’t want the green rip?”
“As a matter of fact, yes it does. I don’t feel like I need it at…oh Christ, give it here.”
Maybe smoking the bowl was a good thing. I wasn’t too crazy about wandering farther out into a genuine wilderness, especially with some doubt in my head about just what the hell sorts of creatures were living in it. As it turned out, I didn’t have to say anything. Starting back to the car by the roadside rock formation, Ron and I exchanged the quick glance. We weren’t going to get too far ahead or behind the group this time.
Sandwich fixings were greedily devoured back at Jeff’s truck. The ambient space jams on the truck’s stereo had given way to indigenous flute dirges. Ron was pushing for Jimi Hendrix. He was soundly voted down but a compromise was made in favor of the Twin Peaks soundtrack. The strains of Badalamente pouring out into this wild night time landscape fit perfectly.
On later trips to this same piece of magical Earth I would stare at individual stars so hard that I imagined myself trying to remember what it was like to be a part of a star once, as if there might be some wild memory of that time still carried inside the matter that made up my body. I felt like I got really, really close once. But I was nowhere near that sort of “enlightenment” or spontaneous combustion on this excursion. In fact I felt like maybe most of the “sid” had worn off and I was actually ready to crash after some more snacking.
An hour of or so of mindless banter and another wasted bowl of weed later, we decided to try sleeping, although Jeff was going to go recline back out on the red rocks that made up the Seven Sisters right next to us. The music stayed soft, and yet something bothered me.
“Ron,” I said, “you wanna go check out the memorial in the morning? In daylight? Just to see if…”
“Yeah, sure no problem man.”
Within an hour of that discussion we both slept fitfully.
At one point in the early morning I woke, and heard a wind howling outside the truck. It was like an enormous gust one could hear coming down the road, whipping around the rock formation, and then flying back out into the open desert, only to return five minutes later or so. Once I made myself get up and open the hatch, just to watch and see if I could see anything. As the gust approached, I found myself feeling nervous, and closed the hatch back shut. Looking out the window, I couldn’t see anything, and the strangest part of all was that not once did the wind ever blow directly into our little cove where the truck sat. I lay back down, feeling cold, and listening to the long, slow volley and return of what almost seemed like a miniature tornado, a dust-devil forever stuck in a long slow orbit around a state park. I remember thinking I couldn’t hear it anymore and fell back asleep until just before sunrise.
The only phenomenon that matches a sunset in a red rock valley is a sunrise in such a setting. Indeed, the Valley of Fire looked to be igniting for just a few moments, and had there been fresh shimmering heat undoubtedly it would have felt like it. But the high desert air was still cool and even invigorating despite our long night. There were only vestiges of the drugs left in our systems, and this sobered, daylight feeling seemed as if it might be more conducive now to exploration.
All four of us rehydrated with water, orange juice and devoured the last of the snacks and spare sandwich scraps. Then we drove out to the memorial marker.
Jeff pulled the truck over onto the turnout where the old cavalryman’s memorial marker stood. I climbed out of the back of the truck to survey the near landscape where I’m sure something that wanted to bleed my mortal coil out the previous night had been dwelling.
The first thing I noticed was the swarm of flying things which turned out to be bats; thousands and thousands of extremely small flying mice. Too small to be birds, and too large to be insects, I told myself that it would be no problem making my way out to the marker. Looking out and beyond, I saw nothing extraordinary other than the cross sitting on a mound of dirt about the size of a pitcher’s mound, and all the flying rodents, who seemed timid enough to keep a safe distance away from the four of us smelly humans standing on the side of the road.
I decided they didn’t dare come near me. I looked over at Ron.
“You in?” I asked. His answer was predictable.
“Nah, not really.” I didn’t care. I was going down and I was going to see the spot where this man dehydrated to death with his burro for real.
Able to easily scale down the gravel face of the hill, about 20 feet steep, I started hiking toward the mound in the distance. I was feeling pretty full of myself, thinking that these little flying rodents weren’t going to be much of a problem at all. when all of a sudden, there was the enormous dark shape, flinging itself up into the sky but this time, dive-bombing in a direct line with a point just in front of me. I took an instinctive step back. The shape (a bat? Was it a bat? ) was flinging itself up into the air again. It didn’t look like all these other tiny bats? It was at least five times the size of them.
And as I stood there gawking like the idiot fool I was, it was now clearly divebombing directly at me. My friends started yelling for me to get away, and I didn’t need to hear it again. I scrambled up the embankment a quarter of the way before daring to look back over my shoulder and yes, there was monster bat, but veering away, not even…flying? That was the crazy thing, it wasn’t even flying but like a projectile weaving through the air.
By the time I made it back up to the roadside it was gone, but everyone had seen it.
“Okay, so I’m not fucking crazy, right?”
“That was just the king bat motherfucker protecting his territory Paul, that’s all,” said Jeff.
“It didn’t even look like a bat. C’mon, you gotta admit this is weird. Right down here where Ron and I heard that…fuckin’ noise.”
“It is weird Jeff,” Ron finally spoke up.
“Oh bullshit you guys, c’mon. Let’s go to Elephant Rock.”
We went to elephant rock, a half mile further down the road, where we hiked a mile up a trail and took pictures of a rock formation that looked like…yes, an elephant. But you had to look at it from a marked standing point, or else it didn’t look like an elephant at all. I wondered what park ranger back in the day had made this “discovery.”
It felt like the day to end all nights. It should have been the end there. We all plopped into the truck agreeing we would drive straight to the Silver Dollar for their humongous plate of pancakes you could still get for $2.50.
Driving back through the memorial wash though, our path was blocked by a most curious sight. There, in the middle of the road, was a burro, which appeared to be injured as the back of its right hind leg had a horrific gash, and barely congealed bloodiness around it.
Jeff quickly brought the truck to a dead stop about fifteen feet from the donkey. He jumped out of his door and dramatically placed his hands on top of his head, and the clowning began in earnest.
“Oh man! There’s an undead zombie monster living in the Valley man! Holy shit guys, there’s some kind of wraith living out here!”
Dina was of course, laughing hysterically, and I almost thought Jeff was gonna hit the pavement he was laughing so hard. I don’t know if I would have helped him up.
“Fuck him,” whispered Ron, “he doesn’t know. This is crazy right here. I can’t believe this just turned out to be a perfect joke on us.”
Eventually, Jeff did get back in the truck and he had to navigate out of his lane around the burro, who watched us the whole way. I watched it too, and something did feel too perfect about it. I kept my eyes on that little creature as we pulled away from it, watching it get smaller and smaller on that road, and I thought, maybe, for just a minute, I had seen it break into a run, or bolt away. I blinked my eyes quickly, thinking I didn’t see anything at all, and then the rump of the road rose up in front of me and whatever vision there was left to be had there, was gone to me for good.
I haven’t seen Ron in years, but we kept in touch for a little while after I moved back to Northern California. We never talked about it all that often, and never with anyone else, but when it did come up, we never doubted that for a moment that whatever we heard screaming that from the depths of some hell no human being could imagine, it wasn’t a goddamn donkey.