Feature Story
There May Be Angels - in Gerlach

by Don Asher

It's 110 in the shade outside, 125 on the thermometer on the surface of my travel trailer. I decided it's a good time to sit in the fine comfort under the swamp cooler and write you a letter. Sheryl Crow is telling me "there may be angels" on my boom box, and it's just a good time to be inside creating one's own space.

The other day I was in a bar called Jan's place (the sign says Prospector's Place, but nobody ever calls it that) listening to Jason tell me all about being conceived in New Mexico at the Manhattan project, and how he never knew what his father did, but it was something scientific.

Then Patty comes in, sizes up the single men at the bar, and decides to split her chances between Jason and me. Jason whispers to me that she and her husband just broke up. "He was a real alcoholic," he says, and I look up and down the bar at six pm on a weekday and wonder at the relativity of that term. I don't know her too well, but she's VERY friendly, and keeps calling me Red Dog Don. "My friends call me Cat," she says. "Cat is ok, but DON'T call me Catty Patty!" I assured her that I would not. I'm not too fond of being called Red Dog Don, but decide to keep that to myself. Why pour gasoline on the flames, I think, as I turn my shoulder slightly away from Catty Patty and engage Jan in a conversation about the country and western singer on the juke box, singing about "Shame on you . . . ." Jan tells me he shot his wife in bed with another man, and drew life in prison. This was recorded at the one and only concert they ever let him out of prison for. He died of a heart attack at the edge of the stage after his last set. "I don't care if he did shoot his wife," says Jan. "Just listen to that voice." She turns her head just so to catch the tragedy in every note. "He musta really loved his wife," says Jan.

Tanya, a wide shouldered silver haired lesbian, comes into the bar, momentarily blocking the entire door, and says, "Round for the house! I just hit the jackpot at Joe's! You're looking at a thousand dollar woman." I glance at my watch, worried about so much drinking so early in the day, then take if off and put it in my pocket. "Whiskey," I say to Jan, upgrading my drink from beer due to Tanya's largesse.

Eventually, Jason and I step outside to flip a coin over Patty and are practically knocked down by a huge double rainbow, the close end of which is coming right down into the sewer ponds just downwind of town. It runs from horizon to horizon, framed in back by the Selenite Range, the main peak of which I spent a whole day climbing last week. While we are admiring this sight, Patty leaves with the dishwasher from the only restaurant in town, a man named Mike who seems to be running from the law (all kinds of education, no past, an obvious last name like Wilson or Smith or Watson, doesn't drive, and a mysterious, powerful family a long way away--in every sense). They pile into Patty's diesel pickup and drive off, and Jason and I look at each other, unsure whether to be relieved or pissed off.

The next day my dalmation, Dot, and I walk over to the sewer ponds looking for the pot of gold. Dot jumps in to frolic in the water, delighted to find a pond in the middle of the desert. I notice the water is as green as food coloring, and she's stirring up quite a stink. I drag her home and hold her under the hose in the yard, and she is SO hurt that I would treat her like that. I won't pet her for a day or two, but the tourists just rub her down like always. I smile a secret smile and watch them go off smelling their hands.

This weekend the rocketeers are here, out on the flats (the largest flat service in the world, according to some. 30 miles long and ten miles wide and flat as a tabletop. Not one bush or blade of grass. Other places are bigger but not flat like this. You can drive all over it). One faction is trying for CATS (Cheap Access to Space, a contest to send 2 kilograms 200 kilometers from the Earth's service for a cash prize and world geek glory), but the FAA and BLM won't agree on their permit. The CATS faction is secretive and separate. The other faction is communal, about 100 cars, trucks and campers pulled up to a firing line shooting off model rockets. Not the kind of model rockets you buy at a hobby store, but BIG FUCKING model rockets, some of them as big around as a telephone pole and fifteen feet long.

The big contest this weekend is to see who can launch a bowling ball the farthest from the launch site. They have big bolts through the bowling balls, with parachuttes tied to the bolts, and the whole mess stuffed into the top of these big rockets, making the whole mess top heavy and dangerous as hell. One geek is wearing a T-shirt, "I really AM a rocket scientist!" another sports the message "Be afraid. Be VERY afraid." I stay behind a pickup as I watch the rockets blast. One goes straight up, almost out of sight, turns over, and comes straight down. It's a big rocket, with a bowling ball in the top of it.

"Lake dart!" someone yells, and all heads try to gather this bomb's flight trajectory. Parents scramble for kids, and some people are climbing under trucks, not that it would do any good. When the thing finally lands, it drives straight into the playa until only about three feet of it are sticking out. It would have driven straight through any car or truck on the lot. Then everybody takes a picture of it and they stand around and analyze what went wrong "I guess I didn't have a big enough charge to eject the payload and deploy the shoots," says the owner, infamous in one sense, but certainly the center of attention (much more so than if it had been a successful flight). Meanwhile, they set up another and start the countdown. "Five, four, three, two..... "

The judge walks up taking it all in, and I say, "Tom, I've been writing to a friend of mine with all those slogans about Gerlach we made up in the bar the other day, and I think I left one out." He says, "Gerlach -- Not just another pretty name." Yeah. That was it.

Gerlach Slogans

The Art of Being Human

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