By Jared St. Martin Brown
Back when I lived in Arizona, I used to go on a lot of solitary hikes and camping trips. It was my way of taking full advantage of my time in the desert. It fit right in to the narrative I had already created for myself years ago. As a young man, I was going to wander in the wilderness, sit in dry river beds and meditate, observe the way of the mule deer, climb mountains, and sing to God while freezing in my own sweat. I did all of that and more. I ran my hands over the petroglyphs on canyon walls, ate prickly pear, and followed every lizard and bark scorpion back to its home. When coyotes yelped at night, I was in the moment, and I wrote haikus about it. It was who I wanted to be then. My spirit animal was Jack Kerouac.
Just about any weekend that wasn’t booked with work, college, or church was spent in the wilderness. I didn’t need a girlfriend then. I was dating Mother Earth. And if career and family never happened for me, I was going to be a beady-eyed prophet somewhere between John the Baptist and Japhy Ryder from The Dharma Bums. This is why I had no problem making myself scarce for a few days, when my housemates needed to be alone.
Josh and Joyce were husband and wife. Once upon a time, we were all single Air Force people. They met in base chapel Bible study, and were married soon after. At some point, they bought a house and I rented a room from them. This particular week, Josh was on his way home from Saudi Arabia, and he and Joyce were basically still newlyweds. I think in their first year of marriage, the USAF had let them spend a mere three months together, and not all in a row. So although they hadn’t asked me directly, I figured it was only right to give them some time to catch up, free from me, their crazy tenant.
“Tell Josh I said hi,” I told Joyce as I packed up my rusty old sports car full of camp gear and extra water. “I will be back in a couple three days. I don’t have class until Wednesday night.” Then I took off alone, straight into the hills from the backside of Surprise, AZ, speeding all the way. The destination was the forest of Oak Creek Canyon, about 160 miles away. I slowed down briefly for Wickenburg, and then it was back to full speed through Congress and Peeples Valley.
The car was my first ever. I had paid cash for it. It was a 1985 Nissan 300ZX, a fine car in its day, but now it was the year 2000 and I, being penniless, was behind on maintenance. I was doing around 90 miles per hour in the desert heat of June, and guess what happened. That’s right. A radiator hose exploded. There was a devilish cloud of steam and the window was painted with translucent green anti-freeze. A few seconds later, the engine stopped all by itself. That’s not a good feeling. I managed to roll the car up on to the shoulder, after a check under the hood, it was confirmed that I’d be walking.
I took a long look up and down the road, and thought, WWJD? What Would Jack Do? I pulled my camping gear out of the hatch back, threw it on and headed north. My plan was to hitchhike or walk to Wilhoit, which was still a ways off. One thing people from the east coast do not understand is just how wide open the spaces really still are in the west. Even here in West Virginia, if you break down, and you don’t have cell phone reception, the nearest town is only about 5 miles away in either direction. Some village is going to have a gas station with a phone you can use. Out west, though, you can still be truly far from civilization, and on some roads, you can go long time without seeing another car.
Several minutes later, one car passed by. It was a woman in a mini-van and she didn’t stop. I don’t blame her. It seemed like a full five minutes before the noise of her vehicle was out of range. It’s a lonely, anxious sound. As hers faded, another became audible. This one had muffler problems.
They stopped. Even Jack Kerouac didn’t have this luck. Picked up by the second car!
A white-bearded man stuck his head out of the passer window. “Holy shit! What happened, man?”
“Car broke down. The radiator hose blew up.”
“I’m a pretty decent mechanic. I’ll meet you back down at your car and we’ll get this taken care of.”
“Thanks, man!” I said, just as another car zipped between us, missing me by a foot or so.
The man leaned farther out the window. “Fuckin’ asshole! He almost hit you!” The woman in the driver’s seat added, “Some of these people are fuckin’ assholes.”
The two settled back into their car. It was a four door yellow Subaru of some kind with rust patches on the outside, and duct tape repairs on the inside. “My name’s Billy, and this is my wife Patty. See you down at your car.”
The two got out and helped me push my car a little further onto the shoulder, planting two wheels in a shallow ditch. “Billy can fix anything,” Patty said. And soon as Billy opened the hood, I could tell he knew exactly what he was doing.
“This hose right here is pretty common. We can probably get that at a gas station up the road. I need a Philips and a flathead.” Patty handed him all of that, and can of beer. “You want one?”
“No. In the hopes that I will be driving later, I don’t think I should drink.”
Billy laughed. “I understand.”
We got the hose off, and jump into the Subaru. I squeezed in next to giant white dog who was stretched across the back seat. “Get out of the way, Savannah!” Patty shouted, “Let him sit down!” The dog didn’t respond. “Just push her out of the way. She’s nice.”
“What kind of dog is she?”
“Siberian husky. She just had puppies, too. They’re in the trunk.”
I could feel them squirming around through the seat cushion behind my back. A couple of them yelped when reclined, so I leaned forward instead.
Billy had noticed a stack of books in the passenger seat of my car. “What are studying?” I told him I wanted to be an English teacher. “English! That’s MY major, too!” In the course of that discussion, I mentioned the G.I. Bill, which was met with a resounding cry of joy, “And you’re a vet too, huh!” We had hit it off, but I got the feeling that Billy could hit it off with anyone. He was amazingly friendly; abnormal in his readiness to accept others. Patty was the same way.
We pulled in to the gravel lot of a convenience store in Wihoit. There was an old man sitting outside at a picnic table under what may have been the only real tree for miles. He was thin, gnarled old man with a beard even longer than Billy’s. He sat looking beat, staring at the ground. Patty said, “You go in with Jared. I’ll sit and talk to this old dude.”
The store had no hoses, but I picked up a jug of antifreeze just in case. Billy said to the cashier, “Hey Mike, this young veteran broke down out here. Where can we get a hose?”
“Gibbon’s down in Peeples Valley would have it.”
“Would he be open?”
Back outside we stood around and talked with Patty and the old man for a while. “My name’s Ted,” he said smiling. His mouth had about three teeth, all black. I wondered what a man like that could eat.
Normally, I would have been impatient to have a conversation under a tree with Ted, while my car was stuck in the desert. But today I didn’t care. From the time Billy had picked me up, I had this deep feeling that this was all organized by God. Or maybe, I was in Billy and Patty’s world now. And in their world, people like Ted matter. They had that in common with God.
Billy opened the trunk to put away the antifreeze, and insider were seven puppies, some brown, some white. Some were asleep on a piece of carpet. A couple were snuggled up in the mesh that held the back of the seat together. One was awake and walking around. “That’s Lobo.”
There was a box of pink Franzia wine in there. “How is that?” I asked.
“Great. Hold on.” Billy ran back into the store and came out with a large Styrofoam cup. He opened a cooler, which was also in the trunk, scooped out some crushed ice, then he filled it to the brim with wine. “Here. It’s just wine,” he said, meaning that I shouldn’t worry about driving, like I did before with the beer.
I laugh at myself over this now. The young me had a moral dilemma at that moment. Would it hurt my witness as a Christian to drink this wine now? All of the old folks in my old church growing up would have said “yes.” I came from a community where alcohol was always a sin, even though Jesus has been called “the best wine maker in Galilee.” Should I take the wine? Will it destroy my witness? The question was absurd, because I wasn’t ministering to Billy. He was ministering to me. He was the Good Samaritan. Not me. And he wanted to give me a cup of wine.
With gratitude, I took it and nothing had ever tasted so good. The Arizona sun has a way of making cold liquid especially delicious. Sometimes it’s so hot that cool water tastes sweeter than a chocolate milkshake. It was just what I needed. Finally, I loosened up and began to converse freely. They had treated me like an old friend from the very beginning, but it was only now that I meeting them with same warmth. I was moving past my fear of strangers, my pride, and my long list of social hang ups. Certainly, the wine helped, but I was just caught up in noticing how open and accepting these people were. I got a little choked up even then to think that Jesus was this friendly and helpful.
I wouldn’t have figured Billy for a Christian- he cursed, he dipped Skoal, he smoked, and he was drinking beer non-stop- but he was more of a Christian than most Christians. I would imagine Christ having more in common with Billy than with me at the time. If I’d seen Billy and Patty broken down somewhere, would I have stopped?
We headed to Peeples Valley, about 15 miles south, talking about dogs and military life. I told him about my housemates’ basset hounds who’d just had nine puppies, and they were the same age as Savannah’s. Billy said, he was going to keep all the puppies and turn them into a dog sled team up in Alaska. That was the first time I had ever heard the word “Iditarod.”
Billy also said he was an airborne infantryman during Vietnam, but he never saw combat because he came in right at the end of the war. I explained that I had a National Service medal from the Persian Gulf War for the same reason. I was still in basic when the war ended. He said I should join the American Legion, and that it was a very helpful organization to him, mostly because they’ll give you $20 cash, no questions asked, if you’re in a jam.
Patty, Billy, and the dogs were from Washington State, but they travel around now from place to place. They sort of lived in their car or at campsites. They were staying at one right now on a road Indian Run. “Is it hard to live like that?”
“Sometimes,” said Billy, “But not harder than living in Phoenix and commuting to the office everyday.” If it had been anyone else, I would have guessed that he was telling me what I wanted to hear. But not this guy. He wasn’t the type.
We came to Peeples Valley, but we didn’t see Gibbon’s Gas Station. There was only the MountainAire Mini-Mart where I had bought many a bottle of root beer in the past. No hoses. “Well, let’s go to the next place,” Billy said.
We drove 5 more miles to Yarnell to find that everything had already closed. We knocked on the door of a house next to a mechanic’s garage hoping he was home, but he wasn’t. We were about to just head back to my car empty handed when Patty saw a sign for the American Legion Post 79. She yelled, “Score!”
I had no idea why that was good, but I soon found out. There were cars parked all around the place, so it was full. Something was going on. Billy and Patty marched right in. The inside was like a bar, and there were a couple dozen people in their fifties and sixties playing cars, and smoking. Billy boldly circulated through the room telling everyone that, “This young veteran needs a radiator hose.”
One woman went out to her truck and came back with two radiator hoses. One was just like mine but a couple inches longer. “God bless you! That’ll work,” said Billy. I thanked the woman and her husband, and offered to pay, but they wouldn’t have it. They told me come to an American Legion dinner one day.
My friends were just as excited as I was. We piled in the car and headed back. As we passed the MountainAire, I asked Billy if I could fill up his tank. Shyly, he said he’d rather have the money.
Back at my car, Billy got another beer and went to work. At some point, a State Trooper or a County Sherriff’s Deputy (I don’t remember which) pulled up next to us, rolled down the widow and said, “What’s going on here? Is everything okay?” I could see that Billy was nervous, so I answered, “Yeh, we got it, sir. These guys are helping me fix my car.” The officer, no kidding, scowled, forced a half-grin and slowly drove on.
After a half hour of struggling in the evening heat, we got the new hose on and filled the radiator. “If this don’t work,” he said, ”we’ll try something else. That’s how you have to do things.”
The car started. Patty and Billy followed me to the general store in Wilhoit, just to make sure it was all okay. They parked under that shade tree, and I parked by the store. There was an outdoor faucet, and as we washed the grease and dirt off our hands, I noticed the scrapes and abrasions on Billy’s. Some were fresh from working on my car. Others were older scabs. I gave him some Neosporin and my last $20 bill. I would have given him all my money, but I only had $20 cash. I had a bank card, though. “Do you need anything?”
“I’m out of beer,” he said.
“Well come on.” In the store, Billy tried to pick out the cheapest six-pack of crap beer, but I talked him into the twelve-pack of what he liked most. So he got Budwiezer. He cracked one open, and leaned against his car in the shade outside. He was so appreciative of the little things I’d just given him, but I kept reminding him that I’d be stuck in the middle of the desert if it wasn’t for him and Patty. A tow truck on a Sunday evening would have been crazy expensive, and I don’t know if there is a hotel in Wilhoit. Billy gave all the credit to his wife for finding the American Legion and the woman who had given me the hose. It was as if he didn’t expect anything back for helping me. He considered the beer a bonus.
“Well if we didn’t get your car fixed, we were just going to invite you to stay at our camp site,” said Patty.
“We have fun. I like to howl at the moon once in a while,” said Billy.
“You can still camp with us anyway,” added Patty.
“I think he wants to be alone. He wants to read and camp alone. That’s why he left the city.” I was amazed that Billy understood that with no explanation from me.
We stood talking a while longer. They said I reminded them of their son David- same age, same build, same beard, same disposition. He liked the orange shirt I was wearing, and said he would trade me a piece of petrified wood for it. I was happy to make the trade, even though it was one of my Burrito Brothers Flying Youth Camp shirts, which have sentimental value. I would have given him anything at that point.
An old Mexican man, a cowboy from Wilhoit, came over and offered to buy a puppy. Billy declined even though he could easily get $100 or $200 for a dog. “They’re a team. My dogsled team for Alaska.” They spoke in Spanish for while, with Billy explaining all of the places he’d been to in Mexico. “Shit!” said the old man, switching to English. “But you no want to sell dog?”
“You can’t sell a dog,” Billy replied politely.
I don’t remember how much longer I stayed around. Enough to notice that Billy and Patty looked angelic in that Kerouacian way. Gray, wrinkled and weathered, they were earthy in appearance but ethereal in manner.
We parted on the best of terms. Billy said, “Me and Patty say that something good always happens on our last beer. And when I was helping you fix your car, that was my last beer. Something good did happen.”
Ted was still there in the parking lot, and when I was about to drive away, he asked me for a ride. “Just to the top of the hill,” he said, “The cops are always giving me trouble.” As we were leaving, the policeman from before pulled in to the General Store, and looked over to see me shirtless, in my beat up 300ZX, with Ted in the passenger seat. I wondered what he thought.
Well, I made it to Oak Creek Canyon that evening. I’d gone up there to pray, to meditate, to listen to God. After all of this happened my ears were wide open. When I looked at a Bible, the words seem to glow, as if the Spirit was reading them to my heart. I learned a lot those couple nights in the woods. Some things you might expect: God’s sovereignty, Christ’s favor toward the poor… But I learned something unexpected too: I am meant to be with people. I need Billy. I need Patty. I need Ted. I need my housemates, Josh and Joyce. I need my Bible study leader, Zetty. I need my sisters. I need my friend, Jim. I am not meant to be Jack Kerouac or John the Baptist. I am not meant to be a monk or a Desert Father. My place is with people.
And when I’m with them, may the Spirit of the Lord work in me and bless them, the way it did to me through old Billy.
When I got home days later, I told this story to my housemates. Josh asked, “Do you think Billy and Patty were angels?”
I said, “Well, if they were, they were the cussing, snuff rubbing, drinking and driving kind.” But now that I think about it, though, the answer is “Yes.”
Oak Creek Canyon, AZ- Photo JSMB