I split Bloomington, Indiana in December of 1968 in my VW van on a slow trip to Canada. I planned on crossing over in British Columbia and emigrating. I had decided not to fight in the Vietnam war. I could think of better uses for my time rather than prison. My black Labrador retriever dog, Kingfish, sat upright in the passenger seat, intently watching for any animals. When I got tired driving at night, I pulled over and we slept in the back of the van.
On highway 70 in Kansas, we hit a massive blizzard just after sunset. Drifts quickly built up across the highway. I pulled off the pavement before I got stuck in the middle of it. The temperature quickly dropped. I spread out my sleeping bag and Kingfish and I slept together under it. We appreciated each other’s warmth. After a while, I noticed that there was no more traffic. The expressway was closed.
In the morning, all the windows of my van were frosted up from our breath. I went to open the door, but the handle was frozen shut. I checked the other doors, but they were frozen shut too. I finally broke one loose by banging my shoulder hard into it while holding the handle open. I stepped into an alien world of blowing snow and gray rolling clouds. Snow drifts of up to three feet deep covered the expressway. I saw no other vehicles. Other than the power lines, I saw no evidence of human life.
I lit my double burner Coleman stove in the van and made a breakfast with hot tea while Kingfish gulped down his dog food. Then Kingfish hopped out and romped through the snow, running into it full speed with his lower jaw open, scooping up mouthfuls.
I melted snow and used the hot water to thaw out my other door locks. I scraped the windows and began digging out my van with a small army surplus folding shovel. I had just about finished the job when the first of the snowplows came along. It threw a wall of snow three feet high against my van, covering up all the shoveling I had done. We weren’t going anyplace soon.
Kingfish stayed outside the van and searched for wild animals in the snow. He seemed content to live along side this expressway forever, someplace west of Topeka, Kansas. I turned on the AM radio and listened to the weather reports. This highway would be closed for another day. That meant more cheese sandwiches, frozen apples, and tea. But if the Feds were looking for me, they would now need snowshoes. I put on my snow gators and Kingfish and I took a long walk across the adjoining field. I read the fresh tracks of the animals. We followed them to a small stream that was still flowing under the ice. Mice, rabbits, and maybe a fox had all come here earlier today. They weren’t waiting for any snow plows.
We returned to the van. Kingfish rested in back from a hard day of play while I dug out my van again with the shovel. Another snowplow came along and covered up some of my work. This time I didn’t even cuss. I just kept digging.
At sunrise the next day, I turned on the radio to find that highway 70 was now open. I dug around the van some more until I could see pavement around all my wheels. Then I started up the tiny air-cooled engine. I let it warm a bit, but it still blew no significant heat over the windshield. I put it in gear and had to rock it back and forth until I broke loose the frozen brake drums. Then I got back on the highway.
No matter how I scraped the frost off the inside of the windshield, I still could not see out of it. So I put my ski mask on and with my window open, I drove slowly down the middle of I-70 with my face out the window. As far as I could see, I was the only vehicle on the highway, so I set the pace.
After a while, the heater melted small holes of visibility through the windshield frost. I pulled my head inside and drove faster. Finally I could see. There were disabled vehicles on both sides of the expressway. All of them were blocked with a wall of snow left by the snow plows. I had highway 70 all to myself.
Far ahead, I cautiously pulled into a truck stop. I stuffed my ponytail under my stocking cap before I entered. Then I had a hot, heavy breakfast along with coffee, coffee, and more coffee. All the truckers inside were waiting for the highway to be cleared better before they drove. When I told them I was going to Colorado, they said I was crazy. All the roads out west were closed down and would be for a while. Rather than wait a few days, I decided to get off the expressway and travel south to highway 40.
I plodded southward across the icy roads in southwest Kansas, chugging along at maybe 40 mph. I was living on cheese sandwiches and fruit, while my dog Kingfish was content to eat the same dog food day after day. Late in the evening I pulled off the highway in western Oklahoma and carefully parked in a field of wheat stubble. I wanted to stretch out, so I laid out a tarp and rolled my sleeping bag on one side of it. Then I pulled the other side of the tarp over my bag. That would have to do. Kingfish crawled under the tarp and lay against me. After a few minutes, I was no longer shivering from the cold.
Later in the night it began to snow again. This time it was not the blizzard winds, but heavy gentle flakes. Still later, I heard a scratching sound on top of the tarp. Some small rodent was scurrying across the tarp above me. Instantly Kingfish bolted out of the tarp. I heard a squeal, and then the crunch of small bones. Kingfish then lay on the tarp above me and proceeded to eat whatever he had killed. After he was done, he nosed his way back under the tarp.
At sunrise I forced myself out of the warm bag. I shook another half foot of snow off the tarp and quickly dressed. I saw no remains of whatever it was that Kingfish had eaten the night before.
Back in the van I heated up water and studied my maps. I now headed straight south to 40. I drove at 30 mph now, and don’t dare go into a ditch. At the highway 40 junction, I tanked up on a hot breakfast and coffee. A dark-complected man maybe in his late 20′s came up to my table. He introduced himself as ‘Maestos’. He had a long, pointed mustache that covered his dark, weathered face. He asked me what direction I was going. When I told him ‘west’ he asked if he could ride along. He was headed for Albuquerque where he had grown up. I said yeah, and he grabbed his army duffel sack.
“What’s your name?”
“Adam” I answered. That was one of the alias I was using then. Now I would have to stick with it.
I finally hit better roads. The high New Mexico plains opened up with a cold sunniness. Far in the distance I saw the beginning of mountains. Maestos said he had just gotten out of prison in Oklahoma. Fourteen months for selling a few ounces of marijuana. He said he had just been back from Vietnam less then three months before he got busted.
“Ain’t that the shits” he concluded. “You been to the Nam yet?”
“How come not? All my buddies been drafted.”
“I’m going to Canada.” The moment I said it, I regretted it. Too much information. Keep your mouth shut.
“Oh yeah. Some of yous can do that. But we can’t.”
Maestos said we should head for Taos instead. He had old friends there, and it was a really beautiful place. He wanted to go that way first, before Albuquerque. I guess I had time to spare. It wasn’t like anyone was waiting for me anyplace. So I veered to the northwest, through the austere high desert via Santa Fe, and then along the Rio Grande Gorge, climbing up to Taos.
I arrived in Taos on Christmas Eve, 1968. I pulled into a cafe where, it turned out, a party was going on. Maestos came in with me. He stood alone in the corner and did not speak with anyone. He was the only Chicano in the room. He told me he wanted to walk down the road and see if he could find his old friends. He said he would be back in a bit. I told him I would stay here.
“I’ll be back, man” he waved. “Thanks.”
I never saw him again.
I was having fun at the party with friendly strangers. So I stayed til late, and then slept in my van again. I thought maybe I would stretch out my journey to Canada for a while here in New Mexico. Those few days eventually became five years. I never made it to Canada.
* * *
Young people began arriving to northern New Mexico in the late 1960′s. We staggered in from all over, without much direction, for many different reasons. The law, riots in the cities, personal visions of the apocalypse, deserting the military, serious drug problems, Indian and spiritual visions. We were refugees from breakdowns that were maybe of our own creations.
I got to Taos with my absolutely brilliant traveling partner, Kingfish, some mushrooms, and no money at all. It turned out that would have to be enough.
I heard of a room for rent nearby and checked it out. The landlord of sorts was Qaul. He described himself as an ‘astral mechanic’. I guessed that he was about fifteen years older than me. Qaul stood over six and a half feet tall and had a three-foot long black ponytail trailing behind him. That was long hair, even for 1969. He seemed to stare intently at me when we spoke, like he was looking for something. I was not comfortable with that. I felt I had to maintain eye contact with him.
Qaul introduced me to his wife, Zuannu. She was a beautiful red-headed lady with a ponytail even longer than Qaul’s. They had a blond son, Dort, of about four years old, who had a ponytail about a foot long.
“Where did you get your names?” I asked. “They’re kind of strange.”
Qaul turned me toward him, face to face. He silently stared into my eyes for all too long. Finally he stated with complete confidence, “We got our names from the astral plane. We consulted with the spirits.”
“Ohhhhh?” I nodded, waiting for him to let go of my arm.
Qaul showed me around the large adobe ranch compound they had rented outside of Ranchos De Taos. Surrounding all the buildings was a wall made of both adobe and stone. The main home had at least ten rooms. There were several out buildings, one of which held a great tool shop. Along one of the walls, Qaul had an assembly of welding and metal-working gear. In the middle of an adjoining room was a large, oval-shaped frame, welded out of stainless steel.
“We’re building a space ship. We should have it done in a year or so.”
“I have an extra room here, Adam. It’s $35 a month rent. But you can work it off. You would have to be my apprentice. You’ll have to work hard and learn quick. You want it?”
“Sure. But I don’t have any money now.”
“No problem. I accept mushrooms as currency.”
How did he know that?
I followed Qaul around his shop. He had a problem. He could not figure out why the alternator he had installed was not charging the battery on this truck he was working on. All of the individual components tested out fine. Qaul could find no shorts in the wiring. Yet the battery would not charge. Qaul muttered something, and then he began talking out loud to himself. He described the problem, inhaled on a joint, and then he shouted out “Now why the fuck would it ever do that?” Then Qaul listed the potential reasons. He turned to me.
“I bet the engine is not completely grounded to the frame and chassis! Even though it looks like it is.”
If he wanted my agreement, I was clueless. Qaul began installing grounding straps at a furious pace. A bit later he started the truck up and got out one of his meters.
“That’s it! It’s charging now.” Qaul got out another joint. I asked him where he learned all of this. He was evasive.
“It’s just obvious — if you open your eyes and mind.”
Then Qaul took a five pound steel mallet and smashed it full force onto the metal work table right next to me. I jumped as sound echoed in the work shop.
“JUST PAY ATTENTION!” he stared down at me as I gathered up my nerves. Then he laughed. “Let’s go on to the next problem.”
And thus began my apprenticeship under Qaul.
Under Qaul’s tutelage, I learned how to grind valves, hone and bore out cylinders, press valve guides, measure crankshafts, torque engines to factory tolerances, rebuild clutches, brakes, front ends, and trace electrical shorts. I watched Qaul rewind electric motors, test voltage regulators, measure front-end alignments. Sometimes he even pulled out a slide rule.
About every week Qaul bought some broken down vehicle, usually from some itinerant California hippie whose knowledge of cars included turning the motor on, putting gas in, and nothing else. Fifty dollar Volkswagens, hundred dollar trucks, two-hundred dollar jeeps. Then we would take two dead vehicles and combine them into one good working vehicle. We dragged the carcass of the donor vehicle into the sagebrush field behind the compound. The place was quickly becoming a junkyard. ‘Parts inventory’ Qaul preferred to call it. Sometimes Qaul resold the working vehicle at a hefty profit. But other times he sold cars cheap, or gave his labor away. Once I saw him give a car away to a family in need. He adjusted the price to their ability to pay.
One day Qaul welded a mechanical engine hoist. He said that this time he would use the ‘Archimedes principle’. The business end of the hoist had all the normal chains and hooks to attach to the engine block to lift. In the middle was the fulcrum. But the other end had a twelve foot long, heavy iron bar with a steel plate welded to the end. Attached to the plate was an improvised rope ladder.
First, Qaul and I disconnected the engine from the vehicle. Then Qaul wrapped the chains about it. He told me to slowly climb up the rope ladder to the plate. I did. Qaul shouted for me to stop climbing, then start again, then stop. My weight brought the plate slowly down. And in teeter-tauter fashion, the engine on the other end slowly lifted out of the car and dangled in the air.
“EUREKA!” Qaul smiled through his greasy beard and windblown hair.
But the engine just dangled there. We had no way to turn the hoist to the side. Qaul mentioned that he had not thought about that. If I got off the plate, the engine would come crashing back into the car.
“Adam, we are going to rebuild the engine right here as it hangs. So I’ll need you to stay on that plate for a few days while we work on it. I guess you’ll just have to be some sort of an industrial paperweight.”
????? as I stood on the plate.
Then Qaul shouted “Sometimes you move the world.” He had a mad look on his face as he leaned forward against the car. “But other times, you just push the car.” Qaul rolled the car out from under the dangling engine. Then Qaul pulled a small wagon under the engine. Together we eased the engine into it.
I got off the plate and asked Qaul where he learned these things. But he never answered. When I asked again, he put his finger to his lips.
One day a guy brought in his VW van to our shop. He told Qaul that it was losing power. Qaul walked around the van and examined it in detail. The van had the weirdest vertical stripes painted on it, like a rainbow of asymmetric jail bars. Just what had they been smoking when they painted it anyhow?
Qaul studied it intently without saying anything. Then he turned to the van’s owner.
“Those vertical stripes are causing “psychic resistance” Qaul announced. “You will have to repaint it.”
The guy scratched his head and handed the joint back to Qaul. He mumbled that he hadn’t thought about that. Then he drove off.
A few weeks later, the guy pulled his van back into our shop to show us his new paint job. All the rainbow stripes were horizontal now. “It runs way faster,” he yelled over the motor to Qaul. Qaul nodded knowingly.
So, under the guidance of Qaul, mushrooms, and peyote cactus, I learned mechanics and lived magic. We rebuilt and fixed everything we could, and took very zonked pride in our good work. At the end of the day, we washed the grease and filth from us and ate another one of Zuannu’s delicious macrobiotic meals. It may very well have been bird food, but let me tell you, it was damned good bird food at that.
Then one spring, after a winter of shop and cabin fever, I left Taos for a while to visit some Indian ruins and national parks. I fully intended on coming back directly. But I got waylaid on the trip by vehicle problems and a lovely siren, and I did not get back for months. When I returned, I discovered that Qaul and Zuannu had just disappeared one day, leaving many of their possessions behind.
I walked around the old compound. What they had not taken with them had been looted by the locals. The only things that remained were the junk cars in the field behind – and my memories. They did not leave a note or a message for me. Nothing.
No one seemed to know what had become of them. Some said that they went to back to California, or Puerto Rico. There was an unconfirmed story about them living on a spiritual commune in South America. And then, there was always the spaceship…