The Unknown: The Red Line.
  Mike was eager to be our chauffeur through Colorado. He had written some of my lines, I had rewritten some of his sentences, and he was a great researcher and avid reader of the news. Which is not even to mention a swell guy, a pal’s pal. One of the kindest party-throwing militant communists in Urbana (who had hosted the fabulous outdoor barbecue at which we had first met Barbara Trent, who, much later, after Dirk’s assassination and the whole Y2K upheaval, would do the documentary film: The Unknown: Exposed), Mike was a skilled offroader and drove a ‘93 Isuzu Rodeo with the 31.5 inch big tire package, locking differential, and the five-speed manual, 4.31 final drive gear ratio.

We knew that we liked Mike’s model narrow-gauge railroad. What we didn’t know was that he drove like a nuclear missile up the asshole of hell. Like fire on fire, or a swarm of hornets, like Chuck Yeager, upside down, across vistas that would make your stomach turn if you were from the flatlands, which we were and which it did. One slip of the tire would have meant any of our deaths, but, as he drove, he managed to keep our beers full from the keg of Heineken bolted in between the seats. That was what scared us the most actually: the idea that that badly shaken keg might explode. But Mike had a special knack for handling good beer at high altitudes. He hardly lost a shred of foam. And he was an exceptional host, considering that we were in a truck.

There’s usually trouble with lighting dope at that altitude. Mike had a torch and knew the path and drove like a studied maniac. He knew the path and it scared us, but he always bucked those cliffs and got the wheels back on the road through determined gravity. He blasted Bob Marley.

Dirk got sick first.

Frank was there. He told me that it would be okay. We’d reach the border and we’d be back on the book tour as usual. This was worse than a bad review, all this hanging on the edges of cliffs on two wheels, one wheel, as Mike tore through some sense-mutilating curves along precipices that made everyone, to a man, almost pee his pants. But what a driver!

And what a terrain. Those red gorges, rocky jagged upheavals, horrible crags, and the old narrow-gauge line where the strike was, where those workers were gunned down and their blood ran red like the rocks and dust and flag. We were almost choked with our love for America, the land trod by those weird people who loved our writing, those Americans so desperate for literature that they missed Bukowski and avoided the newspaper. Choked by patriotism as we burned rubber between the rocks of the land those pale immigrants stole from the indigenous peoples by inventing land ownership, a psychotic concept they enforced with violence. All four of the Unknown in the backseats were choked by fear as the Isuzu bounded like a gazelle from rock to rock. A 3400-pound ballerina, camo-green, snarling and swigging gasoline like a revolutionary poet.

Scott got sick third.

Frank was there to comfort me during my sickness. We’re gonna die, Frank, man, he’s a good driver, but he’s in trouble tonight I know it. No way, Frank said. Just think about Dickens. Think about Stein. Tender Buttons, William, think about that. Think about Marx. After all, it’s just an internal combustion engine. Think about Camus. Wait, don’t think about Camus, Camus died in a car crash, think about Woolf, think about Howling Wolf.

And then the storm began. We had just reached the shelf road below the final tangent up to Cinnamon Pass. It’s a narrow trail, clinging to a mass of earth and rockslide constantly shifting downhill. Occasionally, a US Forest Service road grader would struggle over, attempting to level the ever-shifting road. You had to actually look at the road before you started across it. If you encountered anyone coming down the trail, you did have the right of way; uphill traffic always did. But did you really want to watch someone back off the trail to their certain deaths? But we were in a hurry.

Just then hailstones began to pelt down from the threatening, swirling clouds. Lightning struck all around us and then began to hit below us! Mike simply stopped in the middle of the trail. “I can’t see where we’re going! We’ll have to risk that no one is stupid enough to try going downhill in this storm,” he shouted, as the beating of hailstones on the roof of the truck drowned out everything except the Blue Oyster Cult’s “Secret Treaties.” We sat there for a few minutes and passed the bowl, loaded with hashish and opium. The smoke filled the truck, relieving our anxiety. Soon, we could make out a winter-like scene, with the terrain, fantastic already, now covered in a white blanket a few inches thick. You would have to ski in or rent a helicopter to drop you off to get here in the winter and still you would risk setting off an avalanche to see such a vista. Mike simply engaged second gear, low range, and continued up the hill, past the snowbank that delineated the top of the pass.

“Glaciers,” Mike said, “glaciers.”

What, I thought, did he mean by “Glaciers?”

Then I thought about the malleable nature of perception, and I thought about the Jesus Paper in Dirk’s shaving kit. But I couldn’t think about that. The thought that Mike was negotiating this hazardous topography under the influence of hallucinogens made me uncomfortable. Seeing glaciers. We ripped over the foothills of Cinnamon Mountain and the descending sun burned orange in a narrow aperture of cloud. “Glaciers,” Mike said, “the next Ice Age, fellas, hope I can outrun it.”

Mike began then, in desperation, to assemble his portable blender, which plugged into the Isuzu’s dashboard cigarette lighter, and handed it to Dave, in the passenger’s seat. Mike steered with his teeth as he opened a can of coconut milk and then a can of pineapple juice, handing each to Dave to pour into the blender. Lastly, ice, from the glove-compartment refrigerator, and a lime deftly chopped into quarters on the dashboard by Mike, with one hand on the wheel and the other wielding his nine-inch dark-bladed survival knife. It seemed to absorb the lightning it was so black. It was freaky. There was that knife and the intermittent hum of the blender.

Things had begun, for me, to dissolve into a blur of undifferentiated sensation. The opium and hashish had begun to soften me. My tongue was like good leather and cloves. I was above myself, peaceful, mellow, enjoying the distant reggae, a flow of oil lubricating dry and corroded arteries. Endorphins waltzing with adrenaline, the truck a grand dance-hall, with frescoed ceiling and chandelier. Warm jets of pleasure gushed from my joints. Rain beat on the windshield, dissolving the fragment of red sunset. Lightning described a complicated figure.

A jolt. Mike braked and slid to a stop, tires carving a quartet of deep streaks in the wet gravel. Before us, revealed in the lightning’s sinister flash, a ghost town. The buildings seemed empty, but foreboding.

Presence hinted otherwise. Mike switched off the engine and there was the roar of the storm. And the ticking of the cooling engine. And the drum of raindrops. Then he shut down the headlights and there was only the burning orange comma of the hooter, connecting our clauses and slowly scrawling a constellation of the six men in the truck’s interior.

The building was dark and shadows moved therein. We saw the weak glow of mining helmet lanterns. We saw figures. And then in a flash they went down in the street their torsos blooming red in the splash of bullets. And men in suits with false badges lowered their rifles. Thunder.

And then the rain and the dark and none of us breathing not a one—

"What the hell was that," asked Frank, "what was tha, did you see that?"

"Ghosts," said Mike, "ghosts of the miners, the striking miners, gunned down by company goons. 1915. I saw it."

And another flash revealing nothing. And then the radio coming on, even though Mike hadn’t touched the dashboard, even though we were out of range of any station, playing Phil Ochs playing “Joe Hill.”

Something strange had just happened.

As if thousands of struggling workers and artists had cried out in pain and were suddenly silenced.

The next day we planted lots of grass in the Colorado mountains and felt better.

We thought that the next Unknown anthology could be a little red songbook.


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The Unknown at Spineless Books.