Guitar Pickup

A vignette from the 70 hours collection

© 2016 Wayne Slater-Lunsford

The pickup that stopped in front of me was painted in turquoise house paint, showing brush marks and rust bleeding through, but the engine sounded smooth and strong. The miniature man who jumped from the passenger seat to the roadside had flames in his eyes, to match his tousled strawberry-blonde hair, and he shouted across the 15 feet between us “How much you wan’ fo’ dat guitar?” As he strode up to me, we were eye-to-eye, though I remained sitting on my back pack. His shabby, dusty clothes hung loose on a strong frame. I smelled some too-sweet wine on his breath.

I said, “It’s not for sale.”

He shouted over the whirr-buzz of the cicadas in the trees, “Everytang fo’ sale, hippie!  How much you wan?”

“I make my living off this guitar, and it is NOT for sale!”

“Ain’t nobody make a livin’ off a guitar, onless you Johnny cash or Pete Fountain.”

“Well, I do, and besides, Pete Fountain plays clarinet, not guitar!”

“Tooshay, so I’ll l give you twennyfi dolla fo’ the guitar.” (opening a fat wallet and fingering bills)

The hulking driver watched intently from behind the wheel of the turquoise wreck, but did not move.

“Mister, this guitar is not for sale!”

His burning eyes settled on mine, and the wheels whirred, and the cicadas whirred too.

“Well, then I gotta fight ya fo’ it.”

“Man, that ain’t right! You a thief?”

“No, HELL no!,” the eyes flared, then narrowed, and I swear that burning hair stood up on end, and his lip quivered. “If you win, you get de truck.  BOOdrow! (over his shoulder) Fetch dat pink slip from out de box!”

“Mister, I ain’t gonna fight you.  All I want is a ride.”

“No choice! (reaching for the guitar) now, han’ it ovah!”

When his fingers reached the guitar’s neck, close to my own, I grabbed that hand and yanked hard, standing up. The tiny, wiry man stumbled several steps past me, arms flailing and hot head bobbing, into ankle-deep swamp water. Then he stood looking away into the swamp, waving like a cattail in the wind, long enough for me to wonder if I could get my precious guitar into its case before he came back at me again, perhaps with a weapon. He slowly turned a beaming grin toward me, and yelled, “BOOdrow! Git down from dis hippie’s truck, an’ leave de pink slip onna seat! (staggering up from the water, nodding at me) We walkin’ now!”

BOOdrow didn’t stir.

“Man, I am tryin’ to tell you I don’ want no damn pickup truck! All I want is a ride!”

“Well, you can give yosef a ride, now, Hippie (the sandy eyebrows lifted) an’ mebbe me an’ BOOdrow, too?”

I began putting my guitar into its case, muttering, “I just want a ride however far you goin’ up this road.  I do NOT want a truck!”

The cicadas whirred louder as he contemplated the concept. His gait was steady and solid as he led me to the truck and held the passenger door for me, bowing low. I tossed my guitar and backpack into the bed, and took the middle seat.  BOOdrow eased the purring Dodge up the two-lane, and the breeze was kind to our foreheads.

“You shore now? Dis a damn good truck.”

“Yes sir, I am.  I don’t have money for gas to get me to Denver.”

“Well, can you swang a hammer and yank a saw? Me an’ BOOdrow just finished building a house, an’ got paid.  We gonna lay out tomorrow, an’ start another house Monday.”

“I am a carpenter and cabinet maker, and I can even do some sheet metal, But I gotta meet my girl friend in Denver.”

“No you don’t! You can marry my sister.  She cooks as good as she looks, an’ that is mighty fine!  You can stay wit’ us until we build you a house.”

“No, I mean it – I’m going to Denver, no way else.”

We bantered happily up the two-lane until BOOdrow took a right turn onto a narrow road that burrowed eastward, into the Cypress and moss.

“Well, this is my stop.”

“No; dis’ a shortcut!” He and BOOdrow exchanged mischievous grins.

“This road goes East, and I know damned sure Denver is North and West of here!  Let me down and on my way!”

“No; jus’ pause a little – you gotta eat! You taste my sister’s cookin’, you gonna think again about Denver.”

“Now, damnit, first you grab my guitar, and now you gonna kidnap me?”

I turned the ignition off and threw the key out the window, right past HotHead’s nose.

His grin broadened and he jumped out as the truck shushed to a stop. I jumped out too, and he said I had to help him find the keys.  I didn’t mind.  As we walked back to the keys he kept on about the fishing and the Crawdaddys and the Fay-Doh-Doh dance parties there, and I saw the keys first, and snatched them up quick.  He chuckled and followed me back to the truck.

“You fas’ on de uptake, Hippie. You could do good in dis parish.”

I gave him the keys at the door, and went to haul my stuff from the truck bed, but just as I got my pack onto my shoulders, BOOdrow gunned the engine and threw the old heap into gear. I didn’t have hold of my guitar yet, so I jumped into the bed along with it.  HotHead craned his little neck to look back, and burst out laughing to see me with my face against the window.  He hollered, and BOOdrow pulled over, and then HotHead smilingly helped me and my guitar down from the truck.

“Damn, you fast, Hippie! Sure you don’ wanna meet my sister? Can’t blame a man for makin’ one last try, can you?”

“Hell, maybe not… (fighting a grin) but you best get outta here quick, before I think on it too much.”

They disappeared into the moss, and I dug out a can of vegetable soup, opened it and ate it cold, and it was pretty damned good.

A guitar floating in the swamp

I was afraid this would happen.

Flume Flail

One July about 1999 or 2000, the family got a great deal on a room at Squaw Valley off-season, and we enjoyed exploring around Lake Tahoe for about a week.  After arriving in the wee hours, we set out the next day to tick two items off the list , one for Mom &the boys, one just for me.  I had heard that the 12-mile Flume Trail, on the East side of the lake, was one of the best MTB (Mountain Bike) trails in the world. FLUME TRAIL LINK   The Ponderosa ranch (where the Bonanza TV series was shot) is near the north end of the trail, so while my wife and sons visited the movie set, I rode that trail.  There was a truck road I could use to leave the trail and get down to Incline Village and the Ponderosa, beside Lake Tahoe.  They dropped me at Spooner Lake, near the south end, and drove to the ranch, while I hit the road from the campground to the trail proper.  As I churned along through the loose sand of the jeep road, I passed a few people, and finally mentioned to one pair that I thought the Flume Trail was single-track.  They pointed up the steep mountainside to our right, and said that the trail was up on the ridge, a mile or so above us.

I hadn’t researched this trail enough to be sure, and they seemed rock-solid, so I backtracked to a small trail I’d seen heading from the jeep road up toward that ridge.  It was much too steep to ride the bike, so I threw it over my shoulder and headed up.  Nice little trail, sparsely-traveled, through scrubby pine and fir… and then narrower and narrower… until it was more of a rabbit run.  Still, by the angle of the sun, I knew the ridge must be up there somewhere. I came to a small grassy clearing, and the trail just ended.  Circling the uphill side of the clearing, I found nothing that even resembled a trail, so I gulped down some water and began making my own trail through ankle-deep bark chips, up to the ridge.  The bike kept tangling with the brush I passed, and I was getting pretty exasperated, when I stumbled onto a proper ridge trail, single-track, heading north and south.  Must be the Flume Trail.  I clipped in (pressed my shoes to the pedals so that clips on the soles locked into catches on the pedals) and began to roll along the narrow, beautiful trail. I passed a sign, which faced the north, and turned around to read “Hiking trail only. No horses, motor vehicles or bicycles.” Looking down at the dirt of the trail, I saw no bike tracks. Maybe the part of the trail to the south was foot only, and this part was OK?  As I kept going, and the terrain opened up to grassy slopes, I did see one set of bike tracks, and felt better.  Then I began to feel worse. The smooth, meandering dirt track traced through more and more rocks and small boulders, until it was again hike-a-bike. That was when I met the one other human I saw on that ridge, a gruff gent in alpine gear, who told me I was not supposed to take a bike on that trail.  I said I thought it was the Flume Trail, famous among mountain bikers, and he pointed north. He told me that the Flume Trail was four miles that way, around Marlette Lake.

Flume&RimI had climbed that steep slope and gone several miles out of my way, using a trail I was not supposed to be on, because I had not gotten an actual map and traced my intended route carefully ahead of time.  Today, I’d pull out my cellphone and it would show me where I was, map the trails, and give me an estimated time of arrival. Back at the turn of the century (nice ring to it, eh?) all I had was a couple of “You are here” reader boards, and a couple of verbal descriptions.  I hated that I was on a foot-only trail. I respect that designation, and don’t ever intentionally abrogate it. I wasn’t upset about the extra distance, but I was very concerned about the time.  We had agreed to meet at the Ponderosa, a couple of hours after they dropped me at Spooner Lake. Now the 12-mile ride on an established bike trail had turned into 16 miles, with a lot of extra hill climbing and bike carrying. I was going to be hours late!

I continued north, ate some snow (Yes, in July, at over 8,5oo feet altitude) and finally found an outrageous downhill that got me to Marlette Lake.  There I took up the actual Flume trail, and followed it along the edge of the lake to where I could see Lake Tahoe, 1500 feet below.  The trail leaves Marlette and clings to the western slopes of the mountain, eventually meeting the truck road for a 3-mile downhill to Incline, beside Lake Tahoe. I had to carry the bike again in several spots, but other bikers I met along the way assured me that I was on the right trail. It was beautiful, but I was feeling time pressure.  When I finally got to the truck road, I was ready to bomb a little, to make up what time I could. The truck road was hard and fairly smooth, so I was flying. I came up on a hairpin turn and could see a berm at the kink, which told me it needed special attention.  I set up my approach perfectly, and was carving my line precisely, when I unexpectedly got airborne because of a shelf I couldn’t see from above. That put me a foot left of where I wanted to be, and my front tire caught on a rock I should have missed. I endoed. When the front stops, but the rest keeps going, it means flipping end-over-end, and one mainly hopes to land with some sort of grace, maybe roll, and not get tangled up in the bike. I was able to clip out (disengage my shoes from the pedals) and the bike and I separated nicely. I rolled a few somersaults before stopping.

I stood up to survey the damage, and the bike seemed intact, though twisted a little. Then I noticed that my left shoulder was bumping my chin. It was not supposed to be able to do that. I didn’t see much blood, so I was not worried, but I couldn’t ride the bike that way.  I pushed at the shoulder, but it hurt, and didn’t move much. I grabbed a branch of a small pine tree next to the trail and leaned away from it, but my hand reflexively let go. I tried it again, but could not hold onto the branch when I yanked against it.  I was able to wedge my wrist into a fork, and leaned hard away from it, pressing at my shoulder with my right hand, and that did it. I heard a squishing sound, fell flat on my back and saw a whole galaxy of stars, but my shoulder was now closer to where it belonged.  I straightened the handlebars of the bike, checked over what I could, and clipped back into the pedals. I rode the last couple of miles down to the Ponderosa’s parking lot, and met the family there.CollarboneCurveOrtho

We went to the emergency room, and they marked my crash on a map there. It was a hundred feet above the hairpin turn they call “Collarbone Curve.” Apparently, riders come down that road too fast for that curve, lose it and go over the berm, breaking a lot of collar bones.  I was special, though. I broke mine before even getting to the actual hairpin.  They said that my makeshift setting of the bone had already aligned it as well as they could.  They put on a figure-eight wrap and told me to sleep on my back with a rolled-up towel between my shoulder blades. One thing that seemed to bring the ER nurse extra pleasure was scrubbing out my abrasions.  Everywhere blood and mud was sealing up the ground-down parts, he went after the mess with hydrogen peroxide and abrasive sponges, and a cheerful grin. After that came gooey gauze and mummy wrappings. No lollipop, but at least I got one really cool x-ray of my shoulder to take home.


I enjoyed the rest of the vacation far more with the wife and boys, hiking rocky streams, enjoying the lake, and taking the tram up to the summit.

To Fly and Die on Kauai

The engine opened its throat to a groaning growl as I pushed in the last bit of throttle I had.  The plane was not shaking yet; I was keeping it above stall speed. My three passengers were getting some once-in-a-lifetime views of the vine-hung, red-brown cliffs beside us. I pulled the yoke harder, slowing below best-angle speed, easing toward the right, because I now knew there was no way we were going to climb over that ridge.  I was going to have to turn this thing around inside this tiny space, and fly back out, where I could climb more gradually out…. If I could keep it flying at all. I smiled at my knuckles, which had not yet turned white… then at my wife in the seat next to me, and said, “Take a picture while the left wing is high, and you can see Pu’u O Kila Lookout up there.”

The faces and cameras of a few people hung over the railing 200 feet above us, documenting a crash for the NTSB to investigate later.  As I gently transitioned from the shallow right bank toward that side of the canyon, to a left bank, to actually make the turn, the stall horn warbled a couple of plaintive notes, but the passengers followed my cue and remained relaxed, enjoying the spectacular views of the mountains up close… very, VERY close.  My hand did not shake as I hit the switch to add the last bit of flaps I had, and gingerly eased the aircraft into a 60° left bank, then a little farther, letting her settle and lose a little altitude, in exchange for a tighter turning radius.  This was going to be the most precise maneuver I had ever performed … and the blood drained from my smile to settle in my gut…

Not fair! The weather report had quoted no wind at all, but the downdraft at the ridge spoke of 30 knots or more.  That, plus the extra weight in the aircraft, meant we could not pop over the ridge the way I had done a dozen times before.  We were stuck inside Waimea Canyon, and as good as dead.

I had taken many friends from Oahu, where we lived, across the 100 miles of open sea to Kauai, the oldest and prettiest of the Hawaiian Islands, and developed a little tour that was always a lot of fun.  On Friday afternoon, we’d land at Lihue, on the south-East corner of the island, closest to Oahu, and rent a car.  We’d pile our stuff in it, and drive past the Menehune fish pond and through Hanapepe, then along the south and leeward coast, to Waimea. There, we’d have a snack and head up the mountain, alongside the “Grand Canyon of the Pacific,” to Kokee camp to spend the night in the clouds. Next morning, as the mist burned away, we’d go to the very end of the road, to Pu’u O Kila Lookout. From there, we could see the ocean to the North, framed by the enormous green Kalalau valley, and turning to the South, we could see into the red-brown clay valley that cut deep into the island, and I’d tell the passengers that we’d be flying through that valley soon.

We’d head back down Kokee Road, find breakfast at some place along the way back to Lihue, and pile into the airplane, leaving our baggage in the rental car. With ¾-tank of fuel and no baggage, the plane was light and agile.  We’d retrace our path of the afternoon before, swooping low over the Menehune Fish Pond, climbing to crest the Hoary Head Mountains, and pass by Poipu surfing village. Then we’d follow the beach, and just about the time we could see the tiny island of Niihau off the left wing tip, we’d be over Waimea.  There, I’d turn us mauka, toward the center of the island. Instead of following Kokee road as we had driven, I’d stay low, inside the canyon just east of it.  The brown and red soil was spotted with lush green, and tiny streams flowed at the bottom of every ravine. As we passed the center of the island, the elevation even inside the canyon was rising, and we’d climb gently toward my favorite spot. I had pored over flight charts and topographical maps for hours to find it.

At the very end of the longest arm of the canyon, there is a ridge.  Kokee Road ends at the Pu’u O Kila lookout, and Pihea Trail continues along that ridge. I had used that spot many times to thrill my passengers on these little trips.  We’d dawdle along inside the canyon until very close to the ridge, then I’d pour on some power, build up some speed, and pop up over the ridge to a view of the enormous, deep-green Kalalau valley, with the sea and sky rising from the beach in a crystalline blue bowl.  I’d swoop down through the large, lush valley of wild boar and pakalolo plantations, and turn right at the beach. We’d follow the coast back to Lihue, spotting places we would visit later that day, and where we would camp that night. We’d stop at different spots on our way back to Lihue on Sunday.  We always returned to Oahu with eyes and hearts and cameras full of wonders.

This weekend did not happen exactly that way.  On Friday night, we camped at Polihale beach, at the end of the leeward road, instead of at Kokee in the middle of the mountains.  That was nice, but it meant missing Pu’u O Kila lookout, because clouds would likely have obscured the view by the time we got there.  Then, at the airport in Lihue, I learned that the weather would not let us do the Waimea canyon trip.  Winds and cloud cover were simply not in our favor.  No big deal – we had a great time swimming at the Kilauea slippery slide, and saw some beautiful caves and waterfalls, and bought some food to cook up at Hanakapiai beach where we camped that night.  Next day, we headed back to Lihue and piled into the aircraft, and the Sunday weather report was exactly what I had hoped for Saturday.  I had talked a lot about the trip through the canyon, and didn’t want to disappoint my passengers, especially my wife. Maybe this was our chance.  With a full tank of fuel for the trip back to Oahu, we took off. The tower let me use runway 17, because we didn’t even have the usual trade winds out of the NorthWest. That headed us South across Nawiliwili Harbor, and it just seemed inevitable that we visit the misty green Hoary Heads. After that it was smooth flying along the south coast of the island and up into Waimea Canyon.

As we turned from the beach toward the center of the island, we waved to Barking Sands, on the Leeward coast, where Navy aircraft would fuel up to run practice missions out around Niihau. That was also where the Coast Guard waited to hear an emergency beacon and go rescue, or recover body parts.  The day was severe clear, liquid bright, and the canyon was more brilliantly colored than I had ever seen it.  We wound our way through mile after mile of lush green trees and bushes dotting deep red volcanic soil. By the time we got to the ridge, I saw clearly the exact spot where I would cross it. I headed toward it, and began to ease the power in to gain airspeed.  We had to clear the ridge by at least 500 feet to be legal, so I began my climb at a point that would allow that margin of safety plus an extra hundred feet.  Nosing up, I traded airspeed for altitude, and kept adding power.  We were not climbing as quickly as I expected.  I peered ahead at the Keawe on the ridge, and damn it, they were whipping around in a strong wind coming across the ridge!  That meant that the air was bouncing high over the windward slope and then falling hard as it crossed the ridge, right in our faces.  That downdraft was not going to let me climb as I had so many times before.  We were stuck below the ridge line, and a Cessna 172 has no reverse gear.

This was NOT going to end well, unless I came up with a new plan, quickly. A pilot must always plan for unexpected adverse conditions, but cannot allow for every possible fault mode.  This was a problem for which I had only partially prepared. The weight of the full fuel, baggage, and some very solid souvenirs was holding us down, and the downdraft over that ridge was clinching the deal. I knew that a left-hand turn was more efficient in an aircraft with a clockwise-spinning prop, so it would be a left turn to get out of there, but I also needed the full diameter of the dent in the ridge where we were stuck, to get the bird headed South. I began the maneuver I had practiced as a commercial pilot, but never bet my life and the lives of others on.

Once I’d eased over toward the right side of the canyon and banked left, I followed the procedure I knew would allow the tightest possible radius turn, losing just a little altitude, hoping that it did not run us into the ridge. The aircraft began to vibrate just the tiniest extra bit, which told a pilot that we were nearing the stall buffet. The engine groaned on, and it got very, very hot in that cabin. Through clenched teeth, I spoke calmly over the cheerfully chirping stall horn. “We’re going to follow a different track than usual, and retrace some of Kokee Road, so we can fly over Kokee Camp.”

That sounded like a hell of a lot of fun, compared to piling into the ridge 100 feet below Pihea Trail.  The turn took about two years.  Finally, I saw the canyon walls begin to back away from the left landing gear, and a little while later I began transitioning to normal flight, closing the flaps, easing back the power to cruise climb, leveling off and heading south. The sweat on my forehead felt cool.  The aircraft was performing flawlessly. We cruised the 6 miles down to where a low spot made it easy to get over to Kokee Road, and very gradually kept climbing over the gently rising terrain. Passing the Pu’u O Kila lookout, we had 1,000 feet to spare, and eased through the clear, rushing air above Kalalau Valley up to the Na Pali coast.

From there, the trip went as planned, along the windward shore, past Princeville, Kilauea, Anahola, and Wailua, then the 100-mile channel back to Oahu and Barber’s Point Naval air station, our home base.  Landing and post flight were routine, except I had to check carefully that there was no red clay in the tire treads.  That’s a dead giveaway that a pilot has been naughty.