Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Inspired by Hunter

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"Fear and Loathing in the Duke City"

An epic journey of rage, foolishness and suffering at the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta

by William S. Hunter

I was almost across the Rio Grande when the caffeine started to kick in. It's anybody's guess as to how few people have actually had the pleasure of arising from a pleasant slumber at 4 a.m. on their own volition, without the foulmouthed cursing of some boot camp Drill Instructor to remind them of the error in their ways, but this would not be one of those mornings. I was to cover the goings on at this week-long ballooning convention for the hot air-minded, my expenses funded in spectacular fashion by my editor back at the New Brunswick Swagger, Dean Stapley, who had called me late the previous afternoon to deliver the pleasant news that I, William S. Hunter, would not be attending the annual Democratic fundraiser at the Watergate, but instead had to find a quick flight out of town on whatever plane I could scare up at the last minute and get my ass out to Albuquerque, pronto.

While I'm no fancy-pants hairspray journalist on the order of Sam Donaldson, I've been known to inhabit the darker corners of first class lounges on virtually every major airline this side of Air Guatemala. I like my drinks neat and gently stirred, my coffee as dark and rich as - well - they don't come dark AND rich around here, so never mind.

But the point is, I never expected to have to suffer the utter indignity of flying a budget discount airline like Southwest, where they have - get this - NO FIRST CLASS SECTION AT ALL! NONE! Boarding an SWA plane is like rats fleeing the light into some dark, narrow sewer pipe of an aluminum fuselage where this smorgasbord of humanity rush in, stow their enormous, over-sized carry-ons wherever they can and hunker down in survival mode for the duration. You can see it in their eyes, the intensity of fear, the shallow, quick breaths and elevated heart-rate, sure signs that this cross-country commuting experience is nothing like what we were promised by the overly-optimistic futurists from the mid-20th century. I ordered a coffee and two airline bottles of bourbon, downing them in quick succession. If I was going to suffer the indignities, I'd at least do it in style.

I endured the cross-continental flight, penned in between an over-stuffed Mexican and some business suit-clad fascist, arriving in the desert wastes late at night after a hasty and turbulent descent that felt like an unplanned emergency, like nobody in the armored cockpit had any clue where the hell Albuquerque was, like they were having to scratch around under their seats to find the old, outdated air maps of how to find the damned place. We - the whole zombie-like plane-load of us - roamed the dark, empty airport corridors looking for some way out, until a little Mexican lady pushing a janitor's cart pointed us in the right direction.

Outside, luggage in tow, the air felt thin, hot and dust-laden, like someone had sucked all the life out of it with a blast furnace and then salted it with particulates. I could feel my skin, at that very moment, releasing the last remnants of whatever moisture was left, shriveling up like ancient papyrus before my very eyes. But at least it was a dry heat.

I had to negotiate the rental car counter, staffed by some little prick of a tattoo-clad gangster with attitude, only to find the best car they had left was an old Ford Crown Victoria. I'd arrived in style, looking like some poorly disguised narc. But at least the AC worked.

I hauled ass through the narrow, pot-holed streets and out across The River to The West Side, where my editor, the bastard, had me holed up in some fleabag interstate motor lodge bordering on the scariest-looking barrio I'd ever laid eyes on.

Checking in at the desk and getting my junk hauled out of the Battle Cruiser's cavernous trunk, I then inquired as to the possibilities of any late-night entertainment for members in good standing of the National Press Corp. It would seem that none was to be had at this apparent late hour, aside from a walk across a busy six-lane thoroughfare to an all-night combination gas station/liquor store, laden with ready-to-eat burritos, lottery scratchers and booze. Plenty of booze, of every describable kind. But at least they have their priorities right, I thought, out here in the Wild West, having their liquor prices more prominently displayed than their gasoline prices.

Somehow, I made it back to my room in one piece, dodging a phalanx of late-night drunks, speed freaks and police cruisers in Hot Pursuit. All around me I could hear the roar of traffic and sirens, peppered with an occasional pop-pop-pop of automatic weapons' fire. Somewhere, someone was having a fine old time. Or not.

Dawn came harsh and brutal. Actually, it was still dark as night, and I'd hardly closed my eyes when the clock radio began blaring some gawd-awful mariachi music at an unheard of volume. I hurtled the cheap plastic radio across the room and into the waste bin by the door - almost Three Point Land - and hit the shower running. Blasted by a torrent of chlorine-scented mineral water, I was in as good of shape as I'd ever been, considering the circumstances. Somehow, I was to find my way through a predawn traffic jam of epic proportion, to some tumbleweed-strewn field on the other side of town. They should be pitied, the poor bastards, every last one of them, for they had no idea who they were dealing with.

"You want a double what? Expresso?"

"No," I indicated with a calmness that was already, at this early hour, being thoroughly tested. "Espresso. No 'X'. Espresso," I corrected.

"I'll see what I can do, okay?"

"Okay," I said.

I hurtled out of the cracked parking lot spewing gravel, the Battle Cruiser in overdrive, tranny whining something awful. Between my legs was the hottest, densest cup of sludge masquerading as coffee that I'd ever tasted, probably no different from whatever was keeping that engine in one piece. It also sported just a hint of red chile, just an accent, the "house specialty" at The Greasy Bean.

I hit the interstate doing at least eighty, confident in my journalistic intuition, when I was surprised to find myself being passed, like I was standing still, by a small squadron of dented, patched and rattle-can-painted econo-boxes, piloted by short, bald-headed young fellows with big ears and bigger attitudes, the boom-boom-boom of their bass making the Battle Cruiser shake with every beat. Stapley, that bastard editor of mine, had warned me ahead of time to not even look at them, saying that 'mad dogging' them could get me into a world of hurt. So I just sat there, eyes fixed on the road ahead.

Suddenly, red tail lights were all I could see in the dark up ahead. I braked, then braked some more, until I was sitting at a standstill at four goddamn thirty in the dark of an October morning in the high desert of New Mexico, surrounded by out-of-towners, gangsters and fascists in their GMC Yukons and Ford Expeditions. The American Dream in action.

It was at this point that something snapped inside me. Call it a survival instinct, call it journalistic integrity - call it what you want, but at that moment all of my life passed before me. And what it amounted to was this: I'd always played the outsider, the interloper, the guy out there on The Edge.

The Edge.

That was it! The Edge! That was the solution to my dilemma of getting out to that damned balloon field and the pilot's briefing in time to post a field report back to The Home Office and my idiot of an editor, who himself was probably comfortably asleep in his regal estate at this moment.

I punched her in low, spun the wheel like a mad fisherman at the helm and the old Ford Battle Cruiser roared to life. Riding the shoulder of the highway, littered by debris, that endless string of red lights whizzed by at an ungodly speed, just one continuous ribbon by now, and Boy Howdy! were we making good time, eating up miles of clogged interstate in one fell swoop.

Where in God's Green Earth did all these people come from, I wondered. There can't be this many people in all of New Mexico, even throwing in half of Arizona for good measure.

But my confidence was short-lived. Up ahead was my exit, all right, but the shoulder, and one lane of the off ramp, were barricaded by troopers as well-equipped for battle as any I'd ever seen, their tall, shiny jackboots glistening in the predawn streetlight, tactical belts arrayed in maximum masculine splendor. The classic Show of Force. I'd seen it before, and it ain't pretty. They will be in no mood, at this ungodly hour, to take no crap from anyone, least of all from some out-of-town, hotshot journalist who's running a bit behind schedule. Story of my life.

Using that secret combination of turn signal, hand wave and friendly smile (that seem so rare in these parts), I succeeded in at least merging back into line before being halted by one bristly-haired trooper with an especially cocky attitude, the fingers of his trigger hand nervously fidgeting with the grip of his sidearm.

I slid down the automatic window and flashed him my best smile, along with my press credentials. That would surely get his attention. There was no way I was going to sit in this goddamn line for the next hour, I'd come here with work to do.

"You're in the wrong line," he scowled. "Press entrance is on the other side of the field, off Alameda and Edith."

"Can you escort me?" I uttered, not believing what I'd just said. I must be losing my grip, I thought.

"Look, Mister, that's not how we do things out here, " he growled. "You'll have to follow this line into the field, then find the press entrance. Have a nice day."

And that was that, no special favors for a national press who might be in a position to provide this fine hamlet with some much-needed good publicity. I was on my own, it would seem.

It was at this moment that I spied, using all the journalistic intuition I could muster, the artifacts of a crumbling infrastructure. More precisely, up ahead I could see that the curb and most of the sidewalk were washed out by sand from some recent floods, and so I once again signaled all ahead flank speed to the engine room and got the Battle Cruiser heaving, rising her up on two wheels upon the sidewalk, skirting the entire line of vehicles slowly inching their way to the parking lot, dust and not a few middle fingers flying in my wake.

The progress of my flight was only halted briefly by attendants sporting orange safety vests and overly-optimistic smiles, charging a prepaid parking fee, which I was happy to pay and expense later to my idiot editor Back East. Succeeding in narrowly avoiding running over several large families in one fell swoop, I skidded to a halt in a cloud of dust, double-parking beside the chain link fence bordering upon the balloon field proper.

Lookout world, I have arrived.

(To be continued.)

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