Ah Dunbar. From our perspective, so much of life resembles a broken play in a football game, or a broken forecast for the weather man or herding cats, which is a lot like breaking the balls in the first shot of a pool game, or even riding a pig backwards across a parking lot while the Amishmen fight to remain standing because they are laughing so hard at the silly Englishman who even presumed to give them such a show. Yet if we take a moment to stand back from our foibles, perhaps possibly and just maybe we’ll realize how entertaining life can be. As Judy is fond of saying, I had the choice of laughing or crying. I picked laughter. For me, it’s the sheer absurdity. Life indeed resembles theater of the absurd. See, it was like this….
Liz who was Stell and is now hyphenated, Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy, Sue who was Smith but is now Zahradnick, and I who am Melville and as far as I can tell, will always be so, arranged to go rafting on the Youghiogheny, commonly known as the Yough only it’s pronounced “Yock.” The whole adventure occurred back in the days when all the four-wheelers had CB radios so they could learn, and pretend, to talk like the truckers who used them for such legitimate purposes as dodging Smoky the Bear, and since Wayz hadn’t been invented yet (hell, the PC hadn’t been invented), radidios were handy for keeping tabs on traffic and beavers and other necessary things. Of course, the first order of business was for all of us to actually get to the Yough.
For whatever reason, Judy and I picked up Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated, and headed up I-70 from suburban DC. See, we lived in Pennsylvania and Liz who was Stell but is now hyphenated lived in DC, which is really not on the way from here to there unless you choose to go that way. After all, unlike Pennsylvania where you can’t get there from here, if you go to DC first, you actually can get there from here. Consider it a glitch in God’s plan. But anyhow, it was already dark when we picked her up, and the Yough was most of four hours away. We weren’t going to be early getting to the campground in the state park.
The late evening summer air had conspired with the hollows and valleys to conjure some most excellent fog, with the effect that when the highway was on a high ground hilltop everything was peachy and you could see the twinkle of town lights 20 miles away. But when you dropped down a grade into the hollow of the valley, the fog set upon you like thieves and just as quickly. So it was that the CB radio crackled.
“I can’t see.” It was said by a twangy voice reminiscent of George Jones, the Country singer. It was either a trucker or a very well-practiced four-wheeler. The comment went unanswered. The airwaves were silent for a moment.
“I still (pronounced steel) can’t see. Apparently he found himself in a long low spot. Another period of silence. We popped out of the fog onto a highground hilltop.
“I can’t see she-it.” This was long before the first Gulf war, when the national news alerted us to the fact that the fine folk of hot ‘Lanta expressed confusion as to the proper response concerning news of Shiite Muslims, being unsure if it was OK to talk like that in polite company. The trucker, unaware of such unborn nuances, rumbled into the night. Really, the rest of the trip was uneventful except for the deer bounding over the car, the flat tire and the guy who decided an alternative view of the universe would serve him better and so chose to breakdance his car down the highway on its roof in a shower of orange sparks. Small potatoes.
The Yough is in southwest PA, and though, for tax purposes, it is indeed a part of the Keystone state, culturally it is a northern extension of the land of the Hatfields & McCoys. Sally, who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick lived up in “da Burgh,” i.e. Pittsburgh, about an hour and a half away. In those days, we had to use folded paper maps of whatever state we were in, except unless if we had a Rand-McNally road atlas, most famously known for putting little grey roads in areas where there weren’t other travelable roads. Call it artistic license. We consulted our foldy map and discovered that we could cut half an hour off the travel time up to da Burgh if we took this little blue road, the foldy map’s equivalent of Rand McNally’s grey roads. Just go out of the campground and instead of turning left towards Ohiopyle, go straight. After some twists and wiggles and some unmarked side roads that didn’t even warrant blue status, it seemed we should pop out over on US 119, a little south of Connellsville, south of da Burgh. The roads suggested themselves. Where there was a fork that didn’t appear on the map, we took the one more traveled. Hah! Take that, Walt Whitman! We knew things were going as planned when we came into this little nub of a town just before we hit 119. The sign said Village of Dunbar in gold letters on a blue background with a Greek key squiggly pattern outlining the sign. Just a little black dot on the foldy map.
We headed north on 119, which is the direction to go if you want to get to Pittsburgh the short way. If you turn south, it’s 23,950 miles, which is a lot longer than 50, and there’s this small problem of a couple of oceans and getting across Antarctica. Besides, we wanted to go rafting the same day. As we went up the highway, we passed used equipment dealers with old, dead, non-resurrectable mining equipment: steam shovels with no bucket or tracks, old Cats, so old they used a cable and winch system instead of hydraulic cylinders to raise and lower their blades. That didn’t seem like much of a problem, because they lacked engines and other seemingly necessary bits commonly used for the operation & mobility of such dinosaurs. There were used car lots where cars were missing headlights or windows or other things the rest of the world considers essential. But, see, in West Virginia, that’s still a “good runner.” You could almost get the idea mining had left, and nothing came in to take its place. The resulting vacuum spoke of hard times. Even the used equipment dealers and the used car lots had barbed wire fences and padlocked gates. I guess they didn’t want to lose any more headlights.
We picked up Sally without incident. We took the correct left turn to whip into Dunbar, came up to a tee in the road. Turned right. Then left. Some wiggles. Another turn. We followed the road more traveled, and in a jiffy we were in Ohiopyle, ready to get swamped, drenched, chundered and all the other fun stuff that goes with whitewater rafting. The water level was nice, not too high, not too low, sort of a Goldilocks kind of level. The air was warm. Birds were claiming their stake in their annual mating rituals (singing). In the best tradition of the movie Deliverance, what could possibly go wrong?
Now if you’ve ever watched Deliverance, you’re aware that there was some, um, tension depicted between the city slicker river rats and the locals. That dynamic was real. Not only that, I fit the part of typical river rat: a lanky hippie-looking kid of 20-something who (unless you knew me) could easily be judged as one of them mara-je-wanna smokin’ liberals bent on the destruction of society as we know it. Hey Pony tail, you know you look like a girl? Hmm. Let me check. Yeah. And my sox don’t match either. I was way ahead of my time. But that’s for later. We launched the raft below the falls. The park guys got kind of pissy if you ran the falls. Maybe that was because they called it illegal. What’s a 35-foot waterfall. Schmaterfall.
We wound our way down through the first section, known as the loop. I steered. They paddled. Everything was going great. We were singing “Oh what a beautiful morning” until we took the hydraulic in Railroad rapid sideways, which is a recipe for disaster. We were only a little sideways. It didn’t care. The hydraulic grabbed the tail of the raft and, in the best tradition of guide and passenger ejection, pwanged (or is that pa-wanged?) Judy out of the raft.
They say you shouldn’t run any rapid you wouldn’t want to swim, because sometimes you wind up swimming whether you planned to or not. The guidebook warns that the hydraulic there in Railroad, which hydraulic is known as Charlie’s washing machine, is not a good one to swim. There’s something about “if you swim this hydraulic, you will know what it’s like to get flushed down a toilet.” It’s not a keeper, one of those hydraulics that recirculates you again and again. Getting recirculated really isn’t that pleasant. The river has this game: it knows you like your air. So it dunks you. Then, as you’re coming up towards the surface, it whispers “quick! Get a breath while you can” And as soon as you open your mouth for a gasp of air it invariably smacks you directly in the mouth with a smack of water and chuckles as you sputter. Needless to say Judy, who was liminally afraid of water to begin with, was not amused by the hole’s treatment of her. Sort of took the shine off her day. Of course, it’s always more fun watching someone else get trashed than it is to do it yourself.
Naming rapids is a long and colorful tradition. Cucumber… because it’s shaped like one. Railroad is called railroad because there’s a railroad bridge just downstream of it. Stunningly original. I’m going to go way out on a limb and speculate that somewhere in the distant past, a fellow named Charlie got famously abused in the hydraulic that today bears his name. River’s end… the river takes a hard left behind a gigantic rock and it really looks like there is no more river. Of course like an episode of Star Trek, you know Kirk is going to squeak out of whatever jam he’s in. The river and the show both continue. Dimples, or dimple rock, has a darker side to it. In the early days of whitewater paddling, aluminum canoes were the weapon of choice. Never mind that the soft aluminum caught on rocks in such a manner as to throw the passengers through the windshield. That was in the days before seatbelts, when you could still go through the windshield if you wanted to. Aluminum canoes were also really good for gift wrapping rocks, which was a simple enough trick for a rookie. Get sideways to the current. See the rock downstream. Lean upstream in an intuitive effort to avoid said rock. Ship water. Fill with water. Impinge on the rock you were trying to avoid. Glub. [Rock’s] mission accomplished.
Here it is important to realize that a canoe full of water weighs about 2,000 pounds (908 kg for those of you playing along at home with enquiring minds which need to know). You get it going a couple of miles per hour, just add rock, and voila! Nice shiny wrapping on a rock. Only this was even more sinister (left-handed, if you must know). Dimples rock was undercut, so that when the unfortunate paddlers capsized, the bottom of the river swallowed their boat. No one ever admitted to being the boat’s owner. It was found late in the low-water summer by some Folboters out for a hike because they didn’t want to tear the canvas on their Folbot which was a kayaky thing with a wood frame that folded up sort of compactly when you wanted to transport it, and a rubbery canvas skin that stretched over the frame. The aluminum was still shiny, to some degree. The water rippled and shimmered. The boat’s name was dimples. The name of the rapid memorializes that fact. Shoot, it would almost be worth losing your boat to get a rapid named after it. Nah.
Half a bony mile below dimples rock is swimmer’s rapid, sort of the final insult because if you capsized at dimples, and the current played pinball bouncing you off the bony stones for that half a mile, the hydraulic at swimmers was going to give you one final nasal enema before the slack water. This is such fun. I’m sure you can see why we do it. Then came double hydraulic.
As the name implies, it was a double hydraulic, one right after the other. That very self-same guidebook that enlightens prospective victims about the toilet-flushiness of Charlie’s washing machine, drolly notes that the first one (hydraulic, also known as a hole for obvious reasons if you’ve ever spent time in one) slows the prey down. The second one captures it. There’s a nice eddy below the rapid, where we pulled out to eat lunch.
What to our wondering eyes should appear but a raft full of turkey boaters, which is a kind way of calling them inept. They either didn’t read the map the outfitter gave them, didn’t know where they were, couldn’t control their raft, or possibly all of the above. While they took dainty little paddle strokes like they were sipping tea at brunch, the current directed them directly towards the two holes. And just as the guidebook predicted, the first one slowed them down and the second one stopped them. While the hole didn’t capsize their raft (as holes are prone to do), it wasn’t about to let them go, either. They were there, as Flo used to say in her Texas accent, on the sitcom “Alice,” for the duration pronounced as two words: doo-ration. And so they were. The hole spun them around. It munched on the upstream tube, like a cat with a vole. The turbulence of the water tore the bottom out of the raft and one by one it sucked the turkey boaters out of the raft like you’d slurp a strand of linguini. Finally there was one lonesome, terrified rafter left spinning round & round when another raft committed the same error of the first hole and the second hole and bumped the lonely rafter out of the second hole. Then they were stuck. Sort of a river version of rinse & repeat. It was the best show we’d had in many a trip. It’s always good, even if there but for the grace of god go I, when turkey boaters get munched. I even think it brightened Judy who became Melville and joined my conspiracy’s spirits a little. Being flushed down a toilet was apparently pleasant (in her mind) compared to the fate of the turkey boaters. I think she enjoyed the show.
Back at the campground, we regaled each other with tales of rocks vanquished and feats of extraordinary wateriness while we burnt tofu burgers on the fire grate. The thing about days like that, though, is that dirt would taste good. Hungry and alive and relaxed and exhausted. Anything tastes good. Sadly, Sally who was Smith but became Zahradnick had to be returned to her home in Da Burgh. Sally, Judy, and I, piled back in the ’68 Corona and plied the trail back that way. This was the third trip on those roads more traveled. The horse knows the way and all that other trite stuff. Only by now it was dark. And sometimes it’s the things your brain thinks it knows but doesn’t really that get you in trouble.
We dropped Sally who used to be Smith but is now Zahradnick off at her ‘rents house a little after eleven, got out of Squirrel Hill and followed the signs for Connellsville. It had gotten late. Traffic was sparse. There was reason to believe that what traffic there was originated at either the Legion or the VFW, endowing the drivers with a certain undulant narrative. Anyone who hadn’t been to a watering hole was most likely looking for headlights.
We spotted the turn for Dunbar, a nondescript township road with no street light and no sign. As an official nub off the highway, it didn’t even rate for a borough sign. No road sign. It turned inky dark. We came to a T. Which way? Left seemed the most traveled. Left it was. Driveways branched off, left and right. A township road to the right. Another to the left. Two more to the right. The road most traveled got a little narrower. The yellow line disappeared. It had only been a single stripe, but it was a stripe nonetheless. Now it was gone. The hardtop turned to gravel, then dirt, and ended in the side yard of a ramshackle farmhouse. An old Ford pickup up on blocks presented its tailgate, verifying the end of the road, both figuratively and literally. Weeds, even small trees, were holding a vigil around it. The yard was mostly red dirt, where it wasn’t stones. The rump of a Farmall M strained to support a splay-doored shed. It was about midnight, but there was a light on in the upstairs room. There was hope for directions. Being a warm summer night, the sash was open. I beeped the horn as quietly as possible. Their hound bawled.
A woman in a nightgown pushed the shade aside. She was a lot older than us, sort of saggy in the places younger women aren’t, her hair the color of iron filings.
Um, we’re kind of lost. We’re trying to get to the state park. Bad call. It pegged us as river rats. Or maybe it was a ruse & we were going to rob them. Either way, it earned us about as much grace as someone looking for a gas station during the1974 gas shortage.
How did you get here? Twenty questions.
Pittsburgh… off 119… trying to get to the state park…wrong turn… lost… directions? Please?
Yer not one of those hippy-types, are you?
No Ma’am. Extra polite.
About that time I saw the kitchen door open. There were lights over the counters, and a pole light in the yard. A man- -without reason I assumed it was her husband- -was coming toward me. He wore boxer shorts and a muscle man shirt known colloquially as a beater – short for wife beater. He had at least a three day beard, stubbly and grey, and a stain of chewing tobacco juice at the corner of his mouth. He walked like a bulldog. He wasn’t overly large, but there was no way I was trusting him. I noticed that he held both hands cupped at his sides. His arms hung stiffly. His carriage seemed unnatural, artificial. I began to back away. There was a glint between his thumb and forefinger in the shine of the pole light. A flash of revelation. He was sloppily concealing a Derringer in the palm of his right hand. Yikes!
I held up both hands.
What’re you doin’ here? Really? Nothin’ funny. Don’t nobody come back this road this time of night lest they’re up to no good. His voice was as stubbly as his face.
Sir, you give me directions back to 119 and you’ll never see me again. Hippies and guns aren’t really such great friends. Just think of Dennis Hopper at the end of Easy Rider. He brought the gun into plain sight and put his finger on the trigger. With a barely audible grunt, he motioned toward the car. The only directions he gave were a wave of the gun and the words “that way.”
For some reason that I’ve never really been able to pin down, I was a little rattled. Maybe it was the three-day silver grubby stubble, or the beater, or the way his wife (presumptuous as that might be) acted as a diversion while he crept out the kitchen door. Or the gun. I’d never been on the receiving end of a gun before. I put as much distance as I could between me and him as I could as quickly as possible. The Corona leapt over rises in the road that weren’t even noticeable as less than light speed.
Unbeknownst to me, they organized that little nub of a town in a series of interlocking circles. Twenty minutes later, we were back at the pole light. The upstairs light wasn’t on any more. We turned around and left as quietly as we could. No shots were fired.
We got the scenic tour of that little burg. It even got to the point where we recognized certain corners, but the road over the ridge to the park refused to show itself.
It was about this time that the smoke began rolling out from under the hood of the car. I stopped and flipped it open. The rag I kept on the firewall for wiping the dipstick when I checked the oil had fallen down on the exhaust manifold and was smoldering. I reached back in the car, grabbed my coffee and poured it on the rag. That at least cooled it off enough to grab the rag and evict it from its subhoodian residence. Fortunately for me, that crisis happened in front of another house where the light still burned. Was that a smirk, or a chortle I heard from Judy who joined my conspiracy and became Melville?
This was a more prosperous residence: a ranch house with vinyl siding, wrought iron columns on the front porch. The yard was grass. Mowed grass. There was a lamp post at the end of the driveway with a cute little manicured flower bed and a couple of rug-junipers and a garden gnome. It seemed the risk factor wasn’t near as high as the first place we stopped.
The TV was on. The doorbell button glowed to the left of the door. The tones chimed inside after I pushed the button. From inside I heard
“Just a minute.” The door opened. The man was dressed. Button-down shirt in uniform blue, with “Clyde” on the left breast pocket. (It’s amazing how many people know your name when you wear that shirt. Then again, perhaps it’s more amazing how many people still don’t know your name). Perhaps he worked second shift and was just winding down at one in the morning.
My gaze wandered from his face to his shoes. In between, his hand held a nice Colt .45 with a 12 inch barrel. There it was in the open; no attempt at sneaky concealment. It was pointed at me.
Can I help you?
We’re lost. We’ve been looping around this little town for an hour. We can’t seem to find the way back over to the state park.
“Ah, well. This place is like that. Just go back this way,” he said pointing down the road with the gun. “Take your next left. That’s the road.”
I thought about telling you we got lost again and this time we found a guy who pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at us, but that didn’t happen. I wouldn’t want to be accused of making this kind of stuff up.
Next morning, Liz who used to be Stell but is now hyphenated asked us, over Cheerios, in a polite and conversational voice how our trip to Pittsburgh was. I guess she didn’t hear us roll into the campground at 2 in the morning. Somehow she didn’t cue into our blurry red eyes. I’ll never know how or why. Maybe that has something to do with why her last name isn’t Melville.
 Waiting for Godot is a favorite of mine.