The summer after my second year of college, 1969, as I was deciding whether to go back for another year of academe or take my chances in the outside world, my great pal Dick Mead hired me to help him install sprinkler systems in Hope Ranch, a suburb of Santa Barbara where Dick grew up. Dick paid me well for being his ditch digger, and at the end of several weeks of work, we embarked on a cross-country adventure in Dick’s school-bus-yellow GMC panel truck.
The eastern seaboard of Canada and the farthest eastern point of Long Island were our ultimate destinations, but we began our odyssey by heading north through Oregon and into southeastern Washington, and then we veered east through Idaho and Montana and north into Canada. After crossing the great plains of western Canada, we pulled into Winnipeg, Manitoba on a muggy day in August, and wondered where all the people were.
Winnipeg is a big town, and as we drove along the downtown streets and saw virtually no one on the sidewalks, we wondered if a nuclear war had started and we hadn’t gotten the news while crossing Alberta, Saskatchewan, and half of Manitoba, a land of few towns and no radio stations we’d wanted to listen to.
Our map indicated that in the middle of Winnipeg was a big park, so we decided to go there and throw the Frisbee, which had been our daily habit at UC Santa Cruz where we lived in the same dorm when Frisbees were a brand new thing in the world and we were early pioneers of the new athletic art form.
We pulled into a completely empty parking lot fronting a vast greensward. I jumped out of the truck and ran out onto the soft springy grass as Dick flung the Frisbee high and long for me to chase and catch. I thrilled to be running after long days of driving, and I laughed for joy as I snagged the disk out of the air and flung it back to Dick, and then…
I looked up into the blue sky and saw a small dark cloud forming in the air above us. A cloud? On a cloudless day? Then I watched in horror as the cloud darkened and descended toward us, and a moment later the first of the mosquitoes struck. They were huge and their bites stung like wasp stings, and there were literally millions of them!
The world’s record for the fifty-yard dash was unofficially shattered twice that day as Dick and I sprinted back to the truck. Dick leapt into our mobile fortress seconds before I jumped in, but not before several hundred of the ravenous mosquitoes flew into the van with us and continued their attacks as we hysterically slapped the starving females (male mosquitoes don’t bite) on ourselves and each other, our t-shirts bloody, and nasty red welts rising on our skin, while all around the truck a cloud of their sistren (really a word) droned their horrid whining drones and beat their wings against the windows, hungering for our blood.
Exhausted and terrified and sweating profusely in the stuffy van, we didn’t dare open the windows until we were driving, and we didn’t start driving until we’d killed the last of the buggers that had gotten inside with us. And as we drove way from that scene of insect horror, we knew only one thing: nothing could make us stay another minute in Winnipeg.
So we headed south, aiming for Minnesota. We drank the last of our water, and then… the next day or so is a blur, as the snout of our school-bus-yellow truck turned a sickly green from the countless bugs we smashed en route to someplace where, we hoped, we might rest for a time without being besieged by mosquitoes.
One of our first stops was a hardware store where we bought material for fashioning window screens so we might sleep in the van with the windows open on the hot muggy nights prevalent in summer in that part of the continent. And then we found a dirt road leading we knew not where, parked a half-mile off the highway, and slept for some hours before continuing our journey.
Very early the next morning in a small town in Minnesota, and here my memories grow clear again, we stopped at a little diner for breakfast. The proprietress, a tall Swedish woman with blonde hair worn in two short braids, welcomed us as her first customers of the day. When we told her our story of encountering incredible hordes of vicious mosquitoes in Winnipeg, she smiled and said, “Maybe they are worse here.”
We asked if this was a particularly bad year for mosquitoes.
“No,” she said, shrugging. “Nothing out of the ordinary.”
Then she made us a splendid breakfast of eggs and hash browns and toast, and asked us about California, where she had never been. In fact, many of the people we met on our odyssey had never been to California but longed to go.
From northern Minnesota, we made our way to Black River Falls, Wisconsin, but not before we passed through Hibbing, Minnesota, hometown of Bobby Zimmerman AKA Bob Dylan, and we understood why Bob moved to Malibu. My name it is nothing, it means even less. I come from the country known as the Midwest.
We also came to realize that Minnesota’s state descriptor Land of Ten Thousand Lakes was actually a poetic euphemism for An Enormous Swamp, as most of those “lakes” blended one into the other and spilled into every gully and depression to insure mosquitoes would never lack the necessary aquatic environs to breed without end.
Why Black River Falls? Because at the outset of our expedition we had chosen a few places along our way, unknowing of the insect terrors of the Midwest, where people could send letters to us care of General Delivery.
On the day we arrived in Black River Falls, the heat and humidity were both around ninety-five and we did not wish to stay there. However, we got to the post office moments after they closed for the day, and so we consulted our map and saw there was a state park nearby where we would spend the rest of that day and night.
We had taken to sleeping in the truck to save ourselves from being drained of blood during the long humid nights, and we were glad for the screens on our windows. We slathered on great quantities of insect repellant and strolled around the park where our fellow campers were sequestered in their trailers or hanging out in large tents made of mosquito netting. Some of the people we saw were watching portable televisions, some were playing cards, and some were comatose from the heat.
The Wisconsin mosquitoes, gnats, and several kinds of biting flies were not the least repelled by our repellant, which made our stroll unpleasant. As we passed a camp featuring one of the aforementioned mosquito-netting tents, a denizen of that tent, a corpulent fellow drinking beer and watching television, saw us swatting at the persistent bugs and said, “Ain’t no flies on me.” Then he snorted derisively and we thought we would like to bludgeon him to death and thereby vent our rage at the bugs that were making our summer journey so unpleasant. But we did not want to go to prison, especially not in Wisconsin or Minnesota, so we did not murder him, though his sniggering stung.
With hours to kill before dark, we inquired of the park ranger through the screen door of his cottage if there was a swimmable body of water nearby where we might find relief from the heat and humidity. He scrunched up his cheeks and pursed his lips and made a variety of odd faces as he pondered our question. And then he said, “Well there’s Red Lake about two miles up the road here.” He gestured at the road that ran by the park. “People go there to swim, I guess.”
“You guess?” I frowned. “You aren’t sure?”
“No, they do,” he said, chuckling. “Way we talk around here, I guess.”
“Oh I see,” I said, smiling. “Red Lake here we come.”
“Water’s a little red ‘cause it used to be an iron mine,” he said, calling after us. “I wouldn’t drink it, but you can swim in it for sure.”
So we donned our swimming trunks and drove the two miles to Red Lake, which may or may not be the real name of the lake, but the water was certainly red, and not merely reddish. Dark blood red. And there were no other people at Red Lake, and we were not surprised.
We stepped out of the truck and waited to be descended upon by things that bite, but nothing out of the ordinary came to get us, so we crossed a little muddy expanse and stepped into what we hoped would be cool water, only to find the liquid tepid, though possibly a few degrees cooler than the air, and that was good enough for us. So out we waded and then swam, and we agreed, all in all, this was a step up from where we’d been, emotionally speaking, for the last several days. And then…
Something flew down out of the sky and smacked the top of my head and started burrowing through my hair to my scalp. In a panic, I grabbed whatever it was and flung it away from me. And lo it was a black fly the size of a chicken egg, and he or she was not alone. We swam madly for shore, diving under the water every couple of strokes as scores of enormous flies dive-bombed us all the way to our truck. And just as I was about to get in, one of those dive bombers sunk her fangs into the back of my thigh and her bite felt like a strong electric shock, followed by searing pain as I smacked her and she fell away, though I have no idea if I killed her or merely stunned her.
The welt that quickly developed on my leg was the size of a quail egg and itched and ached for days. Disheartened and sweaty and grumpy, we returned to our campsite and decided to splurge and go out for burgers and shakes. This was Wisconsin, after all, America’s Dairyland, so we had visions of ice-cold milkshakes to go with big juicy burgers and fries.
We went to a little take-out joint with the promising name Rick’s Super Shakes, but when the sad sweaty young woman opened the bug screen and handed us our shakes through the little window, the drinks were little more than sweetened chocolate milk, and they were not cold.
“Excuse me,” I said, trying to remain calm. “We ordered milk shakes. You know, milk blended with lots of yummy ice cream and so thick our straws stand up in the ice-cold mix.”
“Never heard of those,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “What you got is what we call a milk shake around here.”
“Could you add some ice cream to our shakes?” I asked, wondering if perhaps this whole fiasco was being filmed for Candid Camera, the gimmick being that several people are served these travesties of shams of mockeries of milk shakes, and the camera records all the hilarious outrage and disappointment, and then the real milkshakes are brought out and everyone laughs and rejoices.
“I can sell you scoops of ice cream,” she said, turning away to listen to somebody inside say something to her before she turned back to us. “The ice cream is a little runny right now. Freezer broke down at lunch and isn’t back up to real cold yet, I guess.”
“We’ll have two runny scoops of chocolate ice cream,” I said, and these we added to our warm chocolate milk to go along with our pathetic little burgers and soggy tasteless fries.
After an itchy night in the truck, we picked up our mail at the post office and motored south into Illinois where at the end of a long drive we arrived at Starved Rock State Park on the banks of the Illinois River. Were the bugs less horrible there? A little, yes. And we were glad. There were few people availing themselves of the big park and we got a camping space right beside the river. The temperature and humidity were both stuck on ninety-five, so you can imagine how inviting that big moving body of water looked to us.
We donned our swimming trunks and made our way down the embankment to the river and were just about to dive in when a loud siren pierced the air and a park ranger’s truck with red light flashing skidded to a halt above us. The ranger jumped out of his truck waving his arms and shouting, “Don’t go in there! Didn’t you see the signs?”
Shaken, we made our way up the embankment where the red-faced ranger glared at us as if we’d just stolen an apple pie cooling on his windowsill.
“We saw no signs,” we said, abashed. “Where were they and what did they say?”
“When you checked in,” he said, wide-eyed. “On the bulletin board.”
We admitted to skipping the news on the bulletin board.
“You go in there,” he said, pointing at the mighty Illinois, “and you’re dead. Not maybe dead. For sure dead.”
At which moment a large boat went by with men dragging the river for bodies.
“Eleven people drowned here so far this summer,” he said, grimly. “Looks nice, but that undertow grabs you, your body won’t come up for a long time.”
Dick and I exchanged glances and silently agreed not to suggest to the good fellow that they might want to post large warning signs at the river and in the campground. Instead, we thanked him for saving our lives and asked if there was a good safe place to swim, and he guessed something about creeks, which did not appeal. So then we inquired about showers, and he said we would find showers in the rest rooms.
And so in the late afternoon we went to the big old restroom a quarter-mile from our camp and took showers in warm sulfurous water that was as refreshing as a wrapping your head in a hot towel on a hot day. Then we dressed and took a walk around the park, and as dusk approached we saw lightning bugs flitting about a meadow, and it was a magical experience, every time we wiped the sweat out of our eyes.
On our way back to the truck, we stopped at a playground where, feeling truly happy about Nature evolving a non-biting bug with a little light bulb for a butt, I commandeered a swing and started swinging. Dick went off somewhere, and a moment later a cute girl of ten took the swing next to me and said, “I can go higher than you.”
I allowed her to have her glory, though I could have gone higher, and then she said, “Ooh wanna do the spider?”
“What is that?” I asked.
“Stop swinging and I’ll show you,” she said eagerly.
So I stopped swinging and in a twinkling she was astride me, facing me, her legs wrapped around my waist.
“Okay now,” she said breathlessly, “get pumping.”
I pushed off, got us swinging, and realized how inappropriate my doing the spider with this cute young lass might appear to anyone unaware of my inherent goodness—a twenty-year-old guy with a beard hooked up in such an intimate way with a cute young girl not the guy’s sister or daughter. I had visions of her Baptist or Methodist or Unitarian parents coming upon us doing the spider and having me arrested, I, the California pervert forcing himself on a sweet innocent young girl for which this court sentences you to seventeen years in a hot humid Illinois prison cell!
So I stopped swinging, lifted her off of me, and said, “Gotta go now.”
“Aw,” she said, pouting. “We were just getting to the good part.”
Back at the truck, darkness falling, we prepared supper over a little campfire, and as we were dining, a big pickup pulled into the camp site adjacent to ours, though there were plenty of other empty sites nearby, and a big muscular guy and his petite girlfriend got out of the truck and hurriedly set up a little Army surplus pup tent a mere thirty feet from our truck.
Then they got inside the tent, zipped up the flap, and Dick and I grimaced in dismay as we imagined the veritable sauna inside that little tent where the big guy and his much smaller cohort were, we assumed, having sex.
However, we didn’t have long to contemplate what was going on in that canvas cocoon because the clouds burst and torrential rain began to fall. We adjourned to the truck and thrilled to the air growing cooler for the first time since that fateful muggy day when we rolled into Winnipeg and were attacked by legions of ravening mosquitoes.
The rain pounded on our truck for a good long hour, and pounded on that pup tent, too, and then came thunder and lightning that got closer and closer until a mighty flash illuminated our campsite and a crash of thunder shook our truck.
We held our breaths as two more lightning bolts struck near enough to shake the ground, and then the lightning and thunder moved on, and the air was heavenly cool, and the only the sound we could hear was the mighty murderous Illinois rolling by.
In the morning the pup tent was gone and we continued on our way to the east, fully rested for the first time in many days and hopeful of better times coming our way.