By Dan Haag
Nothing says road trip like long, empty stretches of highway. Just you, a car, and miles of blacktop. Additionally, nothing says road trip like desperately searching for a place to pull over when nature calls. A full bladder can sidetrack you mercilessly, taking you to hideous roadside places you would normally hurtle past like Wile E. Coyote on an Acme rocket.
Such was the case a few years ago as my wife and I trundled across Idaho towards Yellowstone.
My wife is a master of the inopportune roadside pit stop and when it’s time, the right spot is right now. Ditch, shack, Native American burial ground, or haunted mansion, it makes no difference.
We once pulled over at a dilapidated tackle shop north of Coos Bay where a man dressed as a pirate glared at me while I waited for her. When I say pirate, I mean he sported an eye patch and had a parrot perched on his shoulder. While the parrot was obviously a stuffed animal, that didn’t stop him from trying to shove handfuls of bread crumbs into its beak. They cascaded futilely down his coat and formed a nearly ankle-deep pile at his feet. He’d apparently been at it awhile and I admired his dedication from the relative safety of my locked, running car.
Besides being potentially fatal, the constant stops can really eat into travel time. We once drove from Oregon to Couer d’alene, a trip that by all accounts is roughly an eight hour drive. It took us approximately three weeks and I emerged from the Toyota resembling Robinson Crusoe after he’d been marooned awhile: bearded, wild-eyed and wearing a grass skirt.
In case you think I’m exaggerating – as many husbands are wont to do – I have corroborated this with family members.
Her mother once told me their family vacations were meticulously mapped out ahead of time to find highways with the highest concentration of rest areas. Many of my wife’s childhood vacation pictures feature her family milling around in some featureless rest area or another, her dad scowling and gnawing angrily on a cigarette. It might make a fun coffee table book: “Great Rest Areas Of The West.”
Now, on a deserted section of highway outside of Yellowstone, my wife began to squirm. It had only been an hour since the last time we had pulled over, at a lovely garage/tanning salon. The key had been attached to a bald Barbie Doll.
As I cast around for a place to stop, she motioned excitedly at a hand-painted sign adorned with balloons coming up on our right. The sign said “festival,” but judging by the withered state of the balloons, it was hard to say when it had occurred. Still, I had learned long ago that festivals, parties, farmer’s markets, and street fairs often come with port-a-potties. Not wanting to look a gift Blue Lagoon in the mouth, I hung a hard right and sped down the exit.
I turned on some music to distract her and was greeted by Queen and David Bowie singing “Under Pressure.” Her squirming increased.
We entered a large, deserted gravel parking lot and beheld the remains of the festival. On each side was a row of empty tents, not unlike the kind you find at any outdoor market. They were ripped, torn, and flapping loudly in the wind. The ground was littered with red Solo cups, plastic forks, paper plates, and various other detritus, including torn clothing. There were even a few shell casings. The one port-a-potty I could see lay on its side in a ditch. It all looked like a frat house after a SWAT raid.
At the end of the tent line was a ramshackle building. Its screen door banged loudly in the hot breeze. There was no light coming from the windows and no sign giving the structure a name, though the lonely, faintly humming neon Coors Lite sign in a window suggested bar.
Honestly, it doesn’t take much to frighten me. At times like these, every crappy horror movie I’ve ever seen suddenly feels more like a documentary. Every tree becomes a monster, every bird a spirit of the undead, every stiff breeze the hand of the devil himself reaching out to touch me. As I surveyed the building, I was assaulted by a back-log of stored away slasher film vignettes from the archives of my brain.
Everything about the place – from the banging door, to the peeling paint, to the raven perched on a nearby dumpster – screamed hockey masks, chain saws, and probing aliens.
“It’ll just take a minute!’ my wife assured me as she trotted to the door. Of course we were going inside.
The door led to an entryway populated with an out-of-order cigarette machine and a large poster of a bikini-clad woman holding an M-16. “One Night Only,” it read without further details.
My wife pushed determinedly through a set of crookedly-hanging saloon doors – like the ones John Wayne used to throw people through in westerns – and into the inner sanctum. I followed. An image of my wife and I adorning the side of a milk carton flashed through my mind.
To my relief, there were no killer clowns or amorous hillbillies awaiting us. There were, however, bodies. Three of them to be exact, amid the same debris we had seen on the ground outside.
One was sprawled face-down on a worn pool table, his snoring rattling the sea of empty beer cans surrounding him. A rather large knife was jammed into his waistband.
A shirtless man sat on a bar stool, his head resting on his arms. Every now and then he’d emit a low moan, like a sick cat. He also had a knife, though this one was stuck upright on the bar’s surface about half an inch from his head.
A third sat behind the bar beneath a muted television, his eyes closed and a cigarette dangling precariously from the mouth hidden somewhere behind his prodigious Viking beard. His t-shirt read “Frisky.”
Above the bar hung a limp banner that raised more questions than it answered: “Welcome To The Annual Testicle Festival! Get A Mouth Full!”
Before I could hustle us back outside, my wife declared ‘thank god,’ and sprinted towards a darkened door that read ‘Gals.’
Frisky muttered something and opened his eyes, his blurry gaze taking in the stranger who had suddenly materialized in the middle of his bar. His gaze narrowed in a way that suggested he was trying to decide if I was real or alcohol-induced.
“Hi,” I said. I wanted to sound nonchalant but came off sounding more like Alvin the chipmunk.
“Hurgh?” he replied and belched. The cigarette fell from his lips and was consumed by his beard. He stood slowly and whatever he had been sitting on clattered loudly to the floor behind the bar. He was a very large man. I half expected him to reach over his head, pull down on a zipper, and emerge as an enormous grizzly bear, all pretense at being human gone as his man-costume fell to the floor.
Shirtless sat up, looked me over, and laid his head back down. Pool Table shifted his weight but didn’t rise.
I turned to find Frisky standing across from me, his features screwed up in what looked like pain. I saw that he had not one, but two knives, strapped to his belt. He held out a dog-eared piece of paper towards me and I took it, hoping it was the right thing to do.
“Grrmph,” he nodded and shuffled back behind the bar. He pulled a dirty rag from his waist band and began absently wiping random surfaces. His cigarette had made an encore appearance.
What he had handed me was a menu, not for burgers and fries, but for all manner of testicles: fried, grilled, steamed and so on. There were even pictures of the various animals they came from.
But that would mean that the festival was about cooking and eating…
All of the knives suddenly made sudden gruesome sense. I unconsciously folded my hands over my fly.
Frisky nodded and gave me a thumbs up.
I returned it dumbly.
Something oily bubbled dangerously in the back of my throat.
My wife returned from her foray and I reached for her hand as I fought to regain my composure.
To my astonishment, she had sidled up to the bar and was looking at another menu.
“I could use a drink and a bite to eat,” she said enthusiastically, starting to pull out a stool.
I fumbled for her hand and eased her towards the exit.
“Can’t stay honey! Everyone is waiting for us outside!” I said much too loudly as we made for the doors.
“Mrfff,” Frisky replied with a desultory wave of his rag.
In a blur of spinning wheels and spraying gravel, we fled the Testicle Festival behind with an epic peel-out that would’ve been the envy of Steve McQueen. A leaning sign along the road back up to the interstate bid us farewell: “Thanks for coming – it’s been a BALL!”
As we tore down the highway, it occurred to me that now I had to pee. It also occurred to me that I could damn well hold it until we were far away from the threat of deep-fried testicles.
I checked the rear-view mirror for any sign of pursuit by a stampede of maniacal, neutered animals.
“Can I turn on some music?” my wife asked. I nodded and concentrated on dry thoughts: the Sahara, corn starch, algebra.
Led Zeppelin’s “When The Levee Breaks” drifted from the speakers.
I began to squirm.