All names are pseudonyms and have been changed to protect the identity of the people in this story…except Matthew
Enter Ricky Bobby
If there was any moment in my life where I made my redneck ancestors proud, now was it. I hopped out of the ATV, my vision still shaky from the bumps we’d just gone over, and opened the cooler secured with duct tape. I grabbed three PBRs. And I handed one each to Matthew and Joe. Then on the count of three. One. Two. Three.
I struck my PBR on the ATV’s tailgate, popped open the top, and shotgunned my beer. Whew, okay. That was a lot. But let’s go again. I crushed my can, threw it back into the cooler, and then hopped back into the ATV, ready to go. Joe and Matthew followed suit, and the journey began again.
We zoom past rented ATVs and Jeeps full of tourists with cargo shorts and calf-high white socks. They’re treading carefully, cautiously over each obstacle. But we’re flying over sand dunes, cutting around sharp turns, and traversing on the side of steep cliffs. This is Talladega Nights, and Joe really likes to go fast.
I can barely make out the other vehicles when we pass them. However, I can clearly see every drivers’ white knuckles gripping the steering wheel for dear life as we speed past them, only feet away from a steep drop.
And while everyone else on the trail looks like they’re about to have a hernia, Joe is completely at ease. He switches gears seamlessly and drives like the ATV is an extension of himself. Three PBRs and two Marlboro cigarettes in, he is in the zone, completely focused, oblivious to everything around him but the trail.
Every little turn, movement, dip in the landscape, Joe senses it and immediately reacts. So, while I’m bobbing around barely able to keep my head straight. Joe is in tune, performing thousands of tiny mental calculations and shifting gears with a lit cigarette in his mouth.
Every now and then, we’ll stop and take a couple breaks to open up another drink and take a bathroom break. And at every break, Joe provides us with some philosophical nugget or bit of desert survival knowledge. He takes us to an overlook that no tour ever gets to see. The sun is coming down and paints the canyon in front of us in a yellow-orange light that brings out the red in the rocks all around us.
“Wow, this is absolutely insane,” I say.
“No, it’s not insane. It’s outsane,” Joe responds with a half smile.
I shoot him a puzzled look, and just like with the waving at the cemetery, he automatically answers, “Outsane is more than insane. Because, insane is on the inside. Only you really know, but outsane. Everyone can see outsane.”
It’s a weird explanation, but yeah, I guess he’s right. This is outsane.
And to most people I know, Joe’s life is outsane. If someone saw Joe on the street, they’d easily dismiss him. It doesn’t seem like he’s particularly successful or educated. But if they had the chance to talk to Joe, to hop in an ATV with him, then they’d realize that Joe has easily won the game of life. He loves his job, has amazing friends, interacts with nature every day, lives simply, and has the means to do whatever he wants.
Eventually, we all get back in the ATV and head back into town. I look at the clock on my phone. Holy shit. I can’t believe we’ve been out here for almost five hours.
The sun is sinking even lower, and paints everything in an even more brilliant light, golden hour. The unnoticeable, monotonous streets we once crossed in the middle of the day are now a destination. Normal, cookie-cutter houses now glow in a merigold-ochre hue. I’m so enchanted by the changing landscape that I don’t notice we’re back at the ATV center.
Joe parks the vehicle and we get out. His fellow tour-guiding friends come up and greet us.
“How was everything?” a guy named Fred asks excitedly.
“Can’t wait for tonight, the bonfire.” Brianna adds energetically.
Huh, I guess she eventually got off her paddleboard. Wait. Bonfire?
Joe looks at me and Matthew and explains, “Oh yeah. We’re having a bonfire at my place tonight. Actually, in a few. As soon as I get the ATV rinsed off, you guys can follow me.”
Brianna, Fred, and the rest of the crew head out to Joe’s while we wait for Joe to finish washing the ATV. Once we’re out of earshot of everyone, Matthew looks at me and says, “Yeah, so this is going to be interesting.”
Lost to the desert
And this is how my episode of Dateline starts. We leave the ATV center, following Joe’s beat-up 4runner out of town. I know Joe said that he lived out in the sticks, but we’re at least ten miles away from town, and I’ve seen nothing but rocks, cacti, and the occasional tumbleweed.
A few miles later, Joe pulls over to the side of the road, his truck teetering on the edge of a steep hill. He motions for us to pull in behind him. Huh? This can’t be where Joe lives.
Joe swings open his door, moseys over to our car, and then leans against our open window, “Hey, so if you guys got any important business, make your phone calls now because there’s no service out near my place.”
I know we spent all day with Joe, and from what I could tell he was a stand-up guy, but no cell service sounds just slightly sketchy. But we’re too far in to turn back now. So, Matthew and I send our last texts and check Instagram one more time before following Joe further into the desert.
Over the next few miles, we come into a canyon, surrounded by ginormous, flat-topped mesas, and the road begins to follow a small nameless creek that’s lined by lush, greenery. And eventually Joe pulls off on a side stretch of dirt that could be the beginning of a road to the top of the canyon.
Yep. This is it. We park and see Joe’s crew already set up beside the road. Brianna, Fred, and Brianna’s boyfriend Tim are passing around a bottle of Jack Daniels and laughing.
We get out of our car, and Joe says, “My place is right up the hill, but your car probably can’t make it up. So… when Hank gets here, and we’re ready to start the fire, just take everything you need for tonight.”
Okay, awesome. So far so good.
Matthew and I walk up to where everyone else is drinking, and I see Brianna with an electric razor.
“Okay Fred. Let’s do this,” Brianna says while laughing, her voice tinged with mischief.
Fred sits down on the tailgate of Brianna’s truck, too buzzed to care what’s about to happen next. I’m expecting the worst. I mean, Fred already has a grown out mullet, so what’s the next step? A mohawk? No hair at all?
But no, it’s none of that. Brianna just cleans up Fred’s grown-out mullet, crafting it into a perfect rendition of Billy Ray Cyrus circa “Achy Breaky Heart.” Immediately, I look at Matthew. He already knows what I’m going to say, and he’s prepared with a stern and resounding “No.”
“You have to. You’ve been joking about how you want to get a mullet this entire trip. And now is the time. This is a sign,” I tell him.
Brianna overhears and also persuades Matthew to pull the plug, step out on the ledge, take a leap, and get the mullet.
Next, Joe joins the battalion. Amidst all the peer pressure and fading buzz of the ATV tour, I can see Matthew cracking. At first it’s a suggestion of the idea in his mind. “Yeah, maybe a mullet wouldn’t be so bad,” he thinks. Then after a little more convincing, I can see the thought forming in his mind, “Yeah, mullets are cool. They’re trendy.”
I know it’s going to take a little more convincing, so I continue, “C’mon Matthew. I mean we’re in the desert with a bunch of strangers. There’s an electric razor. Clearly, Brianna knows what she’s doing. This has to be a sign.”
He looks cornered, eyes darting back and forth like a feral cat, but after a few seconds, he cracks under the peer pressure.
“Okay, fine,” he huffs, “I’ll do it.”
I can’t help but laugh. This is going to be something.
Matthew sits on Brianna’s tailgate looking defeated. And Brianna starts toward him, razor in hand, but then Joe interrupts her.
“No, stop. I’ll do it,” he says decisively.
Matthew looks at me with panic in his eyes. It’s not like he can refuse at this point. What’s he going to tell Joe? “Uh sorry, I don’t trust you to give me a mullet, but thanks for the ATV tour and also letting us stay with you.” Yeah, he has no choice. This is it.
Joe approaches Matthew with the electric razor and makes the first swipe. Matthew’s whole body tenses, and I can’t tell if he’s scared or about to cry. Maybe both. I imagine everything that’s going through Matthew’s head: the loss of his hair, the idea that he’s getting a mullet in the middle of nowhere with strangers, or the fact that Joe’s had about six PBRs, a joint, and multiple cigarettes today.
I expect the worst, but Joe is extremely precise. Just like with the ATVs, he is completely focused and tuned into the task at hand. Errrrrrrrrnn. Errrrrnnnn. With each swipe, Matthew looks more uncomfortable, but after about five minutes, the task is done.
Matthew jumps up and sprints to the car window to see his reflection.
“Oh shit. What the fuck did I just do?” he says, his voice dripping in dread and regret.
“No. No. No. It looks cool,” I promise, trying not to laugh.
Everyone else jumps in, “Yeah man. It looks super sick.”
“Yeah, it looks good.”
Matthew looks down at his hair, already blowing away, and picks up a piece. Brianna looks at him and snickers, “Well, it belongs to the desert now.”
You should talk to strangers
“Katelin, I can’t believe you made me do this,” Matthew whines for the twenty-third time in ten minutes.
At this point, I’ve stopped responding. The first couple times I laughed and told him it was his choice, but now it’s just annoying. Every time Matthew passes a car window or pulls out his phone camera, he makes a face like someone just stole his puppy.
But luckily, I only have to put up with the world’s saddest sob story for a few more minutes because soon after Mullet-gate, Hank arrives. Thank god.
“Woooooo-yeeeeee,” Joe yells and then loudly announces, “Hankkk is here with the firewood.”
Hank parks and steps down from his lifted truck. Like the rest of the group, he looks like he belongs out in the desert. But with his full beard and cutoff jean shorts, I could easily mistake Hank for Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty.
“I am hereeeee, and I bring you firewoodddddd,” Hank bellows, gesturing to the pile of branches in his truck bed.
Everyone cheers, and then we begin the procession to Joe’s house. Brianna flips up her tailgate and takes another swig of whiskey from the bottle. Joe tells us to grab our things, and we hop in the bed of Fred’s truck for the short ride up the hill to Joe’s house.
Thirty seconds of bobbing around and bouncing in the back of Fred’s truck later, and we’re in Joe’s yard which is really more of a circular clearing overlooking the road. I look around and don’t see much but small piles of rocks, a dilapidated picnic table, a makeshift fire pit, and an elaborate wicker Rattan chair covered in blankets. Past the fire pit is towering red rock walls that look like paradise for any mountain goat. And then to the right, a large bowl of desert filled with cacti. Priority number one: don’t fall in a cactus patch.
I continue looking around until I finally see Joe’s house. Hidden in plain sight, it’s a part of the landscape. Because really, Joe doesn’t live in a house, at least not in the conventional sense. Joe lives in something called a hogan, a traditional Navajo hut made of logs and dirt. If a helicopter was to fly over, all it would see is a dirt mound with solar panels on top. You would never guess it was someone’s home.
While I’m taking everything in, Joe calls to me and Matthew, “Hey, c’mhere so I can give you guys the grand tour.
He walks past us and opens up the old wooden door. I follow hesitantly. I feel like I’m entering the caves in Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth” as I step across the threshold. But then I look up.
The inside of Joe’s hogan is much more spacious than I imagined. It’s a large one-room dome with intricately stacked logs as the interior walls. Elaborate Navajo-style rugs cover the entire floor. Next to the old leather couch hangs a large painting of a desert sunset that Joe did. Books are scattered everywhere, on the coffee table, on the kitchen “counter,” on the floor.
Matthew and I set our things by the couch. I’m in awe. Joe has found a way to completely live off the grid. He gets his power from solar panels that he rigged up, and he has no address. However, he doesn’t have running water, so he has to venture into town every so often to fill up his fifteen-gallon water jug. Hmm, I guess a shower is not in the cards after all.
But despite the lack of indoor plumbing, Joe’s hogan is still magical. There’s no way we would have ever experienced anything like this at a hotel or Airbnb.
After we set down our things and Joe gives us the grand tour, we step outside to Hank and Fred stacking up firewood in the pit. Joe goes to his car and grabs a 24-pack of PBR. He offers me and Matthew each one. Matthew immediately takes his beer and starts downing it.
The sun is setting fast, and as the fire gets bigger, the sky gets darker. And even with everyone drinking beer, a bottle of whiskey is still passed around. Soon, a joint gets passed around too. Ryan Bingham’s “Wolves” plays on the speaker.
Pretty soon the music changes, and an upbeat song that I don’t know comes on. This is Fred and Brianna’s cue to start dancing around the fire. Together, they’re like two kids, jumping sporadically, limbs flailing everywhere. Tim joins in next. And then suddenly everything stops.
Fred turns off the music and points to the rising full moon, slowly peeking over the canyon walls. And he begins to howl. Everyone else joins in, and Matthew looks at me, his eyes wide, and I can only imagine what he’s thinking. “What the fuck is going on?”
And to be honest, I’m thinking the same thing, but we’re here so we may as well just go with it.
Eventually, the howling stops, and the music comes back on. Fred continues to dance around the fire to his own tribal beat, and small conversations go back and forth around the fire. Stories shared, life philosophies discussed, and jokes made.
Hank gets Brianna’s attention. “Hey, ya know. I’ve been trying that vegan thing you do, and I have to say I love it,” he pauses for a moment, “I’ve lost so much weight on my diet of weed and mushrooms. May never go back to meat,” he chuckles.
Fred and I talk about traveling. “I love exploring, but I’ll never live anywhere else. There’s something about the desert. It’s like… the way of the desert. You live here a couple years, and you’ll know what I’m talking about,” Fred explains as he stares into the fire.
“It’s like a drug,” he continues as he intermittently sticks his hand into the fire and swats at the flames.
A couple of hours later, everyone becomes too tired to carry on, and the fire dies out. We say our goodbyes because we’ll be leaving early in the morning, long before anyone gets up. Soon after, Fred falls asleep on the picnic table. Brianna and Tim head to Brianna’s truck bed. Hank throws a blanket down on the ground. And Joe, Matthew, and I stumble into the hogan.
With a big hug, I say goodbye once more to Joe. I doubt he’ll even hear our alarm go off at 5:30 a.m. And pretty soon, we’re all asleep. Joe in his bed, me on the couch, and Matthew on the floor.
A few hours later I’m awakened by the sound of a blaring alarm. Matthew and I quickly gather our things, creep out the door, and run down the hill to our car. I didn’t put my contacts in, so I can barely see anything. But I follow the shape of Matthew’s neon hoodie in the faint morning light. And as I’m stumbling down the hill, I can’t help but think how amazing the last eighteen hours were.
Shit. We did it. We’re still alive. We hung out with random strangers from the Internet in the middle of nowhere, and surprisingly enough, everything turned out fine. Actually, better than fine. Meeting Joe and his friends was an incredible, eye-opening experience.
And while everyone you meet on the road probably won’t be as welcoming or great as Joe and his friends were, talking to strangers is worth the risk. Because sure you might encounter some assholes or end up in some sticky situations, but you also might meet people like Joe. People who share their water in the desert, people who are brave enough to oppose society and live how they really want to, people who restore your faith in…well, people.
Thanks for everything Joe.