Editor’s note: Each year Dirt Rag solicits readers’ fiction, essays and poetry in our annual Literature Contest. In Issue #182 of Dirt Rag you’ll find the winner of our 2014 Literature Contest, but we received many submissions worth sharing, so we will be posting some of the finalists here over the next few weeks. We hope you enjoy the creative contributions of fellow readers.
By Ryan Parker
Bandana Man first appeared at the bike shop in Northwest Portland in the spring of 2002. He worked at the health food grocery nearby and usually wanted to trade random lunch items for repairs. My coworkers and I took up calling him Bandana Man amongst ourselves, due to his propensity for wearing bandanas. He turned out to have a real name, which was Bob. His personality was eclectic, at best, and he intrigued me.
We started riding together, first in Forest Park, then on progressively longer excursions as we grew accustomed to each other’s company. Our midweek days off coincided and allowed many opportunities for adventure. We were both in our early 20s and poor by American standards, but kept low overhead and could move about freely as long as we showed up for work often enough to pay rent and buy fuel. He liked to ride uphill for extended periods of time, which is something hard to find in a partner, and he’s in the “we’re not really riding ’til we’re walking and carrying our bikes” camp when it comes to pondering which trails are enjoyable.
That fall we decided to ride the Ape Canyon/Plains of Abraham/Smith Creek loop on Mount St. Helens, leaving after work the night before so we could camp in his brown Ford van and get an early start. We figured the ride might take us eight hours and neither of us was known for getting out of town early.
Bandana Man’s automobile maintenance schedule is prioritized like the Millennium Falcon’s—the van ran great but I could see the road through several holes in the floor and we had to wear earplugs to block out enough noise to hear the radio. On the plus side, he had an ice box inside that would stay cold for a week and was constantly restocked with slightly damaged or recently expired foodstuffs.
The next day was beautiful and we had found a campsite in the National Forest close enough to leave the van and ride to the Ape Canyon trailhead. We rode uphill for several miles in the woods then the trail opened up into a volcanic wasteland. This was cause for much stopping, gazing, and indescribable wonder over the next several miles. At the Windy Ridge viewpoint, which is aptly named and roughly our halfway point, we hid from the wind in the toilet, ate sandwiches, and discussed whether any of what we’d seen so far was real. I’m still not sure. Reader, I encourage you to go look.
The Smith Creek portion of the trail was next, initially offering several thousand feet of descending on deep pumice switchbacks along a nearly vertical hillside. Trees and bushes had returned to the landscape, but they mostly served to disguise the magnitude of the cliff alongside the trail. Bandana Man was leading and I watched as his front tire washed out and he cartwheeled down the hillside out of sight. I stopped at the point he left the trail and waited for the dust to clear, my heart pounding, hoping to hear him hollering some indication he wasn’t dead.
While we had the essentials, we’d failed to incorporate catastrophe recovery into our plans. Even if we’d had a phone, it wouldn’t have worked here, and I was terrified by the now overwhelming logistics of rescue. I saw movement, a couple hundred yards down the hill and started scrambling down to him, really just sliding on my backside on the beads of pumice and grabbing shrubbery to slow down. He stood and yelled he was OK as I approached, and though covered in dirt and scratches, was beaming. “Check this out, I found a cave!”
Bandana Man had come to a stop by grabbing a small tree, which had uprooted in the loose soil and opened a hole big enough to crawl through. He was already digging through his pack and pulling out a flashlight. “You’re not going in there are you?” I asked. “Are you OK? You fell off a cliff.”
“Miraculously, I feel pretty good despite the deep pumicing of my entire body, and yes I’m gonna look in here. It could be full of gnomes or fairies or hill dwarves, or lined with gold ore, or all of the above.” He crouched down, cringing a bit, despite his claims of no injury. “There’s a cavern in here, not very deep but big enough to get into. I have to check it out.”
“OK,” I said, “though if you die in there after living through that crash we’re both gonna feel pretty dumb. I’ll stand watch out here against the gnome patrols.”
He crawled into the dark hole. I stood by the opening and tried to look inside. His light periodically presented itself, but I couldn’t see what he was doing. After a few minutes he reappeared face first on his belly at the other side of the hole. “Looks like a lava tube in there. It only goes back about ten feet and doesn’t get taller than four. I found a treasure though! Check this out.” He handed out a turquoise rock, semi round, about two inches in diameter. I took it from him and immediately felt a cool tingle flow up my arm then through my body. The hair stood up on my arms. “Crawl out here and take this thing. I think it’s radioactive. You’re carrying it, if you must, but the aliens are going to track it to your house and try you for theft in space court.”
“Nah, it’s not radioactive,” he said. “I’m flying to my folks’ house next week and I’ll put it in the tray at security. If it’s radioactive those new TSA guys will let me know.”
His bike had stopped before he did, and we retrieved it on our careful slog back up the hillside. The bike too had magically escaped a trip to the bottom of the ravine by getting hung up in a tree. Off we rode, finally finding our way down to Smith Creek and completing the ride with a lovely fifteen hundred foot climb over four miles of fire road back to the van.
Evening had arrived, so after recovery beverages and a snack of one half-rotten (but half good!) cantaloupe, stale bread, and canned oysters, we set out for home. We passed the Ape Caves on the way out, which reminded me again of the rock he was squeezing in his palm as he drove. Darkness crept in, and I dozed until we got to the freeway. Bandana Man still held the rock in his right hand as he turned onto the ramp marked Portland. “There ought to be portals between interstate ramps so we could go to any Portland we want,” he mumbled. “I wish I could check out Portland, Maine, right now.”
There was a flash of light and a lurching feeling, and when it cleared we were still on a freeway ramp, but not the one we’d been on before. He dropped the rock like it was hot. “Holy shit,” he gasped as he pulled the van onto the shoulder. “Where are we? And what was that? You might be right about the alien gnome police coming for that rock because it just made my hand numb.”
I peered ahead at the next sign. It had I-95 and I-295 symbols and read “I-295 North. South Portland, Downtown Portland”. “We’re in some version of Portland, just not ours.”
“What? No way. Did I die during that crash today?” He took off his bandana and wiped the sweat off his face. “Let’s get off this road ASAP and see what’s really going on.”
We did, and stopped at a quickie mart with a hobo drinking Night Train by the dumpster. He said we were in Portland, Maine. We went inside and asked the night clerk who confirmed the hobo’s story. We hung around out front for a while, hoping for a third opinion.
“Well?” Bandana Man asked as we climbed into the back of the van for a parlay, “How are we gonna get home?”
“I’m not sure how we got here,” I said. “What were we doing when it happened?”
Bandana Man reflected for a moment. “I was holding the rock, and wished we could go to Portland, Maine.”
“Try it again and see if it takes us home.” I nodded toward the console where the stone rested. He picked it up and wished us back to Portland, Oregon. Nothing happened. “What else could it be?” I asked.
“We were driving, on a freeway ramp marked Portland,” he hypothesized. “Should we try that again?”
“Can’t hurt,” I said. “Lets get on the road and look for an exit ramp labeled Portland.”
In less than an hour we’d found another ramp indicating the path to Portland. We pulled over as soon as we saw it. “Ok. Lets attempt to recreate what happened the first time,” he said.
The magic rock was in Bandana Man’s console cup holder. It appeared blue-green and shiny if I looked right at it, but if I looked from the corner of my eye it pulsated light. I chose to only look at it directly or not at all. He picked it up and pulled the van back into traffic. His bandana was across his thigh and he held the magic rock up to the windshield and said, “I wish we could go to Portland, Oregon.”
Again, the lurch and flash of light. We appeared right back where we’d come from two hours before. He set the rock down in the console and kept driving. I was freaked out, he was freaked out, and we didn’t talk about it again until he got home from his parental visit two weeks later.
Bandana Man had taken the rock through airport security without a hitch. He came by the bike shop, more crazy eyed than usual, indicating he’d “taken a few trips” and wondering if we were going riding that week. I was scared of the magic rock, but also fascinated, having slept very little since our portage to the east coast. I hadn’t told anyone of our experience, mostly because I wasn’t sure it had happened. It happened to me, but my opinion is moot. “Where do you want to go?”
“Springfield?” He replied. There are Springfields everywhere. For all I knew he was going to take me to the Simpson’s version of Springfield but I knew I had to go regardless. He said he’d been busy trying all sorts of wishing with the magic rock, but the only thing he could get it to do so far was to open portals between freeway exit and on-ramps of the same name.
Through November we spent every day off riding or driving around looking for appropriately labeled freeway exits all over the continent. We hit quite a few Springfields that had trails nearby. We went from Milwaukie, Oregon, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, discovering the magic rock didn’t care much about spelling. We went to Vancouver, Canada, from Vancouver, Washington. We learned a lot of geography.
Both of us were in trouble at work due to getting stuck places and calling in because we had to drive home. I finally called a sabbatical to our adventures for fear of getting fired. I preferred to come across at work as moderately responsible. Winter was here, and at many of our potential destinations, so we cooled it for a while until spring got our blood flowing again. I still thought it possible I’d dreamed the whole thing up. Other explanations sounded insane.
In March, Bandana Man brought a load of day old veggie burritos by the bike shop and we had a chat. He looked haggard, but his eyes were bright, and a bandana was still perched on his head like a flag. “Let’s go to New Zealand. It’s early fall there in terms of weather, opposite us.”
“Do you have a plan yet, or know if they even have freeways?” I asked, concerned, but interested.
“Absolutely. They have a Springfield, and it’s just outside Christchurch.” He gave me a conspiratorial look.
I’d been riding to work in the rain for five months. Business was still winter slow, and I thought perhaps not making the boss pay me would be better than standing around building wheels we didn’t need or spending all day assembling one bike while watching Pink Flamingos on the shop TV. I checked in with the man and got permission to escape for a week in early April. Bandana Man was ecstatic.
We set out on the two hour drive to Springfield, Oregon, on a Tuesday evening after spending several days pondering our needs. If we interacted with New Zealand police (which was more than likely considering Bandana Man’s van had Oregon plates and neither of us had a visa stamp) what would we do? Due to limited options, we resorted to the plan my wife, the woman of my dreams, recommends: Play dumb.
How would we have gotten here without proper documentation? Here are our passports. I’m sorry your customs people forgot to stamp them, but they must have seen them, right? This plan is highly dependent on our behavior. Mine I could trust, but Bandana Man was a loose cannon. The bandana alone was enough to send us to the gulag. I didn’t care. The reward was worth the risk and I figured at worst they’d send us home. As we pulled out onto the highway the first Springfield exit sign we saw on I-5, Bandana Man picked up the rock and wished out loud.
I’ve never had a better time. The U.S. dollar was worth more than twice the New Zealand dollar then, and we stayed everywhere essentially half price. We landed at a hostel called “Dreamland” in Christchurch, and rode every trail we could find on the south island without being hassled.
Too soon, our time ran out. On our last day we decided to ride the Avon River Trail to the beach in Christchurch. Bandana Man ran out to embrace the ocean. I made a nest in the sand and paused to reflect. When he returned he opened his pack to retrieve and light a fat joint, the contents of which he’d purchased from some guitar playing kid on the waterfront in Queenstown. With our imminent departure at hand, we rode slowly back to Dreamland.
Upon arrival, Bandana Man noticed he’d forgotten to zip his bag closed after our beach excursion. He began running around the room like a Tasmanian devil. “Where’s the magic rock? Have you seen it? It was in the pocket with the joint and now it’s gone. My multi-tool and patch kit are gone too. Have I just unleashed a yard sale of epic proportions?”
I helped him search. We turned his hydro-pack inside out, combed every inch of the room, and decided that Murphy or Karma had struck again. The magic rock had fallen out somewhere on our journey. We retraced our steps, including another ride to the beach at dusk, but if the rock was visible from the path, someone had already taken it home. We certainly weren’t going home today. I called into work, hoping the caller ID would show I was really in New Zealand and not entirely full of fantastical excuses.
Bandana Man knew his van wasn’t going to make it back to the United States. We drove to the airport and scouted around for a flight home, paying with my credit card since he didn’t have one. Next we hit car lots from the phone book until he managed to sell the van for the best pittance offered, which was better than expected due to the novelty of the steering wheel being on the wrong side. Included in the sale negotiations was a ride back to Dreamland, since our flight wasn’t until the next day. We sat in the empty pool that night and reflected on our situation. Sure it was bad, but yet it was good. In fact, how much better could it get? What if we hadn’t lost the magic rock and had continued to traverse the world uninhibited? Eventually our reign over time and space would have come to an end, and we’d had a good, if not impossible run thus far.
We flew home and resumed life as we knew it before the magic rock. Who knows what else it was capable of and with whom it ended up. Maybe it’s lying in the bushes waiting for the next Bandana Man.
More than 10 years have gone by now. I’m married and have two kids. Even Bandana Man pays the mortgage on a house and has had the same partner for five years. We still go riding as much as we can—often taking the kids since it’s the only option. We’ve included new riding partners who have kids too so we can take turns babysitting and riding.
Do I wish Bandana Man had zipped his Camelbak? No. The time we had with the magic rock was a gift. We exploited it but not in any way I’d consider unethical. If we still had it, would that be the case? I doubt it. He would probably be using it to smuggle something from Portland to Portland, or Springfield to Springfield. Enjoy the time you have while you have it, and go riding.