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HUNTER S. THOMPSON, CHARLES MANSON AND THE SINKHOLES OF TRONA

July 18, 2012

by Cole Coonce

(excerpted from Sex & Travel & Vestiges of Metallic Fragments)

They were in the middle of nowhere. Having heard no news for a couple of days, it wasn’t like they could make informed decisions about travel plans back to Los Angeles.

Iggy suggested they drive back in his silver Chrysler on Sunday night, as Jack had a flight to catch out of Burbank to Seattle the next afternoon and why thrash to catch a plane tomorrow, if they can make time now? Yes, leaving Death Valley late Sunday evening seemed like a good idea at the time. But seeing as how they had no access to weather reports—there were no newspapers nor TV nor radio nor cell reception in their motel in Stovepipe Wells, and the parallel mountain ranges of the Sierras and the Panamints that had sheltered them from the inclement weather that had been soaking these hapless flatlanders two hundred miles away in Los Angeles County—it was not an informed decision, really.

“I can have us back in LA in three and a half hours,” Iggy told Jack. He felt confident. So they blew off the ninety bucks they had already spent on another night’s sleep at the Stovepipe Wells motel and hit the road.

As soon as they crested Towne Pass at 5000’, they entered the mother of all storms. The raindrops started innocuously enough, all right, and seemed to trickle down and tickle the windshield with no more malevolence than soap bubbles out of a corncob pipe. During their descent into the Panamint Valley, however, the shit began to hit the Osterizer…

Instantaneously, the rain kicked with the ferocity of a burro peaking on angel dust and Iggy switched off the vintage punk rock on the CD player and switched on the AM radio. They needed weather information, so he began keying the “up” and “down” arrows from KFWB to KFI, the two stations with enough wattage to possibly penetrate hundreds of miles of a hostile ionosphere and dense mountain ranges that would work as earthly reflectors and bounce the radio signal back to Los Angeles like Marconi’s personal funhouse mirror.

In a word, they got static, and he cranked up the intensity on the Chrysler’s windshield wiper system until it threatened to swivel out of its socket. They were a mile high and descending a wet mountain buried in clouds, the radio told them nothing and Iggy used the transmission as a brake. Jack, meanwhile, was freaking. He had lost his glasses that afternoon during an unpleasant encounter with a park ranger at Zabriskie Point, and he couldn’t see squat except the blurry bounce of headlights off of soaked asphalt, or if he put on his prescription sunglasses, he could at least focus on the darkness by Braille.

They took the left turn to Trona, and it really got desolate. They were on the desert floor, in the country where the mass-murdering Manson family had been discovered thirty years ago and where flyboys from China Lake crank up the afterburners on their military jets and pretend the specks on the highway are rogue, bandit Sunnis or Shiites or whoever it is America is mad at this week in Mesopotamia.

As a Seattle boy, Jack had never been to Death Valley before and knew very little of its mythology. Filling him in on the local folklore—whether the exploits of the old silver miner Seldom Seen Slim or the gunplay of inept hippie assassins like Squeaky Fromme—seemed to Iggy like a necessary device of distraction from how hairy it would be driving to Los Angeles in the mother of all rainstorms. Iggy was, after all, traveling with a blind man who was justifiably afraid of drowning. In the desert. In a car. It was that kind of night.

“Do you see those lights over there?” Iggy asked. Jack squinted behind his ‘script shades. “That’s the old ghost town of Ballarat—an old silver mining town that went tits up one hundred years ago. Seldom Seen Slim died there in 1968.” “People still live there?”

“People? Well, at one time the Manson Family lived there. Nowadays, it is just some guy named Rock Novak that runs the general store, and he is probably the guy that has left the light on.”

“Rock Novak? Did you make that name up?”

“No, his name and his chiseled physique are both out of Central Casting, I’ll grant you. But I think the guy he replaced at the general store—and this is just a theory—was a member of the Manson family.”

“How do you know this stuff?”

“I dunno. I drive out here a lot, poke around and ask questions. This place just speaks to me.”

They were the only vehicle on the highway. They motored past Ballarat, the solar-powered night reading light of Rock Novak a mere speck in the rear view mirror. The rage of the rain continued to pummel the windshield and the engine cowl and the lapses in the conversation were interrupted only by more frantic sweeping of the AM radio band and an occasional PPPUUHHH- WWHHOOSSH!!! of the Chrysler hydroplaning across a small lake that gathered spontaneously on the nether pockets of the desert floor. Each time the water enveloped the coupe into a concatenated cocoon it was like an Invisible Hand was flushing God’s commode and they were its waste-paper detritus.

“Christ, can you slow down a little?” the near-blind man asked from the passenger seat.

“I’ll try dude, but we have a lot of tough miles before we get to Los Angeles. The faster we go, the less time we’ll spend in this shit.”

PPPUUHHH-WWHHOOSSH!!!

They began a careful ascent up a narrow, corkscrewing passage that divided the Panamint Valley from the town of Trona. Iggy explained that Trona is named after the chemical that is mined there, and is as close as any municipality gets to an actual company town, as depicted by, say, John Ford in How Green Was My Valley. (However, if anybody re-makes the movie and sets in Trona, they would do well to substitute “green” for either “toxic” or maybe just “putrid.”)

The road got wetter and the curves got tighter, and he never hit the brakes while cornering, allowing the negative impulse of merely removing his right foot from the throttle to serve as the necessary inertia and negative g’s to keep everything under control, meanwhile nudging the manumatic transmission between the 2 and 3 positions, depending on the geometry of the corner as well as the degrees of the incline, whilst looking for rocks and potholes lurking around any bend.

They were creeping up around a particularly pinched apex, when Iggy noticed the bounced reflection of another car’s headlamps. They had not seen another vehicle since they made the turn off of Highway 190 over a half an hour ago. The lack of traffic was no source of comfort and seemed to underscore the dicey-ness of the situation Iggy had put them in. The lights of what he thought were an approaching automobile failed to get any closer, and the wail of a horn punctured the clatter of the pelting rain.

Iggy could see an economy car off the side of the mountain in the shadow of the next curve’s ingress/egress and they slowed to a crawl, trying to figure exactly which David Lynch movie he and Jack had driven into.

As they pulled up parallel to the taillights and the ass end of a bondo-ed and beaten Japanese car teetering on a rock off the shoulder of the road where a guardrail would normally rest, Iggy rolled down the window and the two travelers tried to assess the situation. Was the horn a notice that somebody was dead, impaled on the steering wheel?

A big, scruffy tow-headed youth scrambled and unfolded himself out of the driver’s side door.

“Are you alright?” “No man, I’m fucked up.”

“Is there anybody with you?” “No.” He continued stumbling towards the Chrysler. Iggy was unsure if this was set-up or what. Both his and Jack’s heads pivoted, looking for some high desert desperadoes to come catapulting out of the mountains from behind some rocks and to roll them for their money or their lifestyles, if not their lives. As a lookout, Jack was rather worthless, about like Ray Charles or Mr. Magoo riding shotgun in a John Wayne movie or something.

They could smell the booze on this big Baby Huey of a knucklehead as he continued to amble towards them. Iggy put the transmission in park and told him they could take him to Trona, but beyond that, he was on his own.

“That’s where I live.” (Come to find out that Trona is the only place he had lived in his entire life.)

“How many people live in Trona?” Jack asked, fascinated.

“About 3500 and they all work for the mining operation,” the lunk replied. “And about 2500 of those are on drugs.”

They asked what kind of drugs, but they knew the answer already. Crystal meth, the plague of bored American youth.

“That’s why I crashed,” the kid blathered. “You’re on crank?” Iggy asked. “No, my girlfriend is all tweaked on that shit. She always pisses me

off and drives me to drinking when she gets on that stuff. A couple of hours ago I got mad and left her house and got drunk and just had to get away.”

“Where were you headed exactly?” Ray Charles asked. “I mean there’s nothing out here, is there?”

“I had to drive into nothingness in order to clear my mind.” Nobody said anything, but they all knew exactly what he meant. “Dude, you are lucky to be alive.” “I know.”

PPPUUHHH-WWHHOOSSH!!!

Iggy asked him which roads were open and which were flooded. All the shortcuts he wanted to take—via Randsburg or Garlock—were flooded and fucked.

“You gotta’ watch the desert, man,” the drunken prophet in the backseat spluttered. “This place will play tricks on your mind even when it isn’t raining. Right now it’s one big sinkhole.”

He had Jack suitably spooked. True, they were in the middle of the shit, but to Iggy the only solution to their dilemma was to stay alert and power through the adversity of broken roads, bad vibes and hostile weather. They dropped the kid off at the fire station in Trona. He was truly on his own. For life. Did he know that?

*****

The car was drenched by roadside flooding a half dozen times by the time they reached a surface that had any recent influx of tax dollar-driven maintenance. It was Highway 395 and they would have to take that down to 58 East, and backtrack through Mojave, before continuing south to Los Angeles. Would it ever stop raining?

Finally, the radio locked onto a station. Iggy recognized the host as a famous conspiracy theorist.

“Do you ever listen to Art Bell?” He asked Jack.

“Who?” “Oh man, this is perfect. Art Bell is an ‘ufologist’ and broadcasts out of trailer

in Nevada, just on the other side of the Funeral Mountains.” “You mean east of Death Valley?” Jack was beginning to grok the mythology out here and how it was inseparable from the terrain and topography.

“East of the Rockies, you’re on with Art Bell. Go caller.”

“Yeah Art, I just want to say that I don’t believe for a minute that Thompson stuck a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. It just wasn’t his style.”

“Who are they talking about?” Jack asked. “I dunno. Probably some engineer from Area 51 who offed himself in

Vegas.”

“Well sir, I cannot comment, as news reports are still trickling in. I do know that Thompson’s health has not been good recently, and that may have influenced the cause of his death.”

Bell fielded a few more calls, many blurbing his appearance on some investigative news show on ABC-TV about “Ufology” as he called it, and one about some modern corollary of Schrödinger’s Cat that involved the airports of Miami and Denver, a lost pet and a car crash in Florida. Then Bell went off on Biblical screed-cum-soliloquy about how tonight’s torrential pounding of desert soil in Noah-like quantities while Seattle is in a drought may or may not be a harbinger of End Times.

Jack was silent. Behind his sunglasses, he appeared to be bumming.

The station broke for news—it was now 10:30 at night, they had been driving for hours and they still had a tough gauntlet of bad road and bad rain ahead—when they realized who the “Thompson” was.

“Hunter S. Thompson committed suicide tonight in his home in Woody Creek, Colorado…” and Iggy didn’t really hear the rest of the news story.

It rained all the way into Los Angeles. When they pulled into Iggy’s driveway, his knuckles were white as stone. That may have also been the color of his heart.

All he knew is that through the wind and the rain and the sinkholes, he didn’t blink for five hours. He passed out and dreamt of death. -30-

(excepted from Sex & Travel & Vestiges of Metallic Fragments)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 18, 2012 6:11 pm

    Reblogged this on K-Bomb Publishing and commented:
    Reminiscences of the night Hunter S. Thompson died.

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