Old Friend Hunting

Edgerton, WI – Disappearances are like this: here one moment, gone the next. So it was with Aaron, a friend since high school, who quietly absconded from Madison around 2002. No good-byes. No forwarding address. No new number. Simply gone. Poof! Just like that. All connections, severed like arties and left to bleed out.

Back then, we figured the disappearance was only temporary. Aaron fell off from time-to-time, retreating to Edgerton, about 45-minutes south of Madison, where he had family. There he worked with his father, roofing houses, and patronized his aunt’s bar in the off-hours. When he tired of Edgerton, he’d return to Madison, party for a while, and then bounce back south.

He always returned.

Until he didn’t.

Circa 2003 or 2004, a rumor surfaced that he’d gotten married. This is it for information, however. New rumors never materialized. At some point, his present disengaged his past. There were no messengers. No updates. No sightings. No word. Those who asked about him often were answered with a reflexive shrug of the shoulders.

Once it became clear we would never see him again, my friend Life and I began hatching plots to hunt him down. We imagined ourselves driving to Edgerton on a Friday night to scour the bars, beginning with his aunt’s. Like detectives, we’d show his photo to bartenders and patrons, asking, “Have you seen this man?” We guessed that, Edgerton being a small place, we’d find him well before last call. We never followed through, of course. It was a silly plan. Plus, we never actually thought we’d find him.

But they say you never know until you try. They also say your past always catches up with you. These cliches crystallized my resolve. I called Life upon arriving in Madison  to set a date to at last track this kid down. I’ve thought a lot about Aaron, over the years, but especially since beginning this road trip in April. The epochal moments of our friendship centered around road trips and attempted road trips. There was our epic odyssey to Colorado; our co-ownership of a school bus that we never got to travel in; and the countless smaller moments we spent drinking and dreaming. Life and I had too much history with Aaron to let him slip permanently into obscurity without at least a good-bye. He was just as missed in 2010 as in 2002.  After many years of talk, we set out for Edgerton, finally walking the walk.

First, a little bit of that history. In March 1999, Aaron, Life, another friend, Adrian, and myself, threw in on a school bus we planned on converting into a mobile home. For several weeks, we parked outside of Madison’s water utility building, where we removed the seats and began moving in our stuff. Also on board were three large dogs, which complicated our efforts at keeping a low profile on the city street. So we relocated to farmland in Portage.

In Portage, we painted the vessel midnight blue, grilled steaks and spoke endlessly of the easy living the bus ensured us. Our “plan” was to drive out west and live off the land, but really we just wanted to be bums. Within two months, our big dreams of being mega-hippies drowned in a bottomless jug of Captain Morgan’s Rum. Once our motivation and money ran dry, we sold the bus, having driven it less than 75 miles.

Then, in spring 2001, Aaron moved into the party-pad I lived in on Lathrop Street. Jaded by the prospect of wasting another summer in Madison doing the same tired shit, we decided instead to waste it in Colorado. Problem was getting there. Our uncertainty with Aaron’s car, a Toyota with more than 220,000 miles, prevented an immediate departure. Aaron’s dog, Zoe, scratched Greyhound off the list as well. My car I sold to raise travel funds.

Our only other option was to hop on Further Tour, find a kid with a school bus who’d let us ride tour with him until we jumped off in Denver. For gas money, we’d sell bottled beer on the lots.

To our own amazement, we executed the plan flawlessly. Beer sales were good. Then, at a show in Indiana, we met Chad and Michelle, a couple touring in their school bus, with two toddlers, and two gas riders, a newly-in-love couple they found in Florida. Life knew Chad and Michelle from their days tramping around Arizona, which gave us an in. That night, we gave away Aaron’s car and moved onto their bus. Unfortunately, everything that followed went terribly wrong.

First, Chad and Michelle fought over everything and agreed on nothing. The toddlers, unless wailing, were largely unattentioned left to stew in their soiled diapers, which they often removed themselves. The other gas riders, the Florida couple, laid in the bed most of the ride, making kissy-faces wat each other while Aaron and I did our best to ignore it, being as our seats were five-gallon buckets at the bed’s edge. We kept watch over Zoe, who had a particular dislike for kids, and was also unhappy inside the overpopulated, poorly-ventilated vessel. But for Colorado, we suffered eagerly.

The shows weren’t much better. Aaron and I drank more beer than we sold. A baby died on one lot and for the next three nights the mother’s inconsolable wailing poisoned the air. In Columbus, a middled-aged couple tried stealing Zoe, and would’ve succeeded had we not wrestled the animal from them. After drinking up much of our cash, we bought a couple grams of MDMA, a higher-yield investment. But we never got a chance to flip the dope. Following that show, Chad and Michelle’s fighting led us to Stephensville, Michigan, where they had family. They explained they needed a break from tour. That night, as Aaron and I tossed back beers and the Florida couple found privacy, Chad and Michelle took off with an old friend to reminesce over the yellow rock.

Late the next day, we packed up the bus and set out to catch up with tour, but we never made it. Hours after departing Stephensville, the bus suffered a series of break downs along the Interstate, just outside of Gary, Indiana, each one provoking fierce fights between Chad and Michelle. The Florida couple, impervious to the drama, continued making kissy faces. The kids, cried hysterically, left in the buses rear, swatting their hands at the flies buzzing around their discarded diapers. It took a while for Chad to jury-rig fixes to multiple problems, but the hobbled bus eventually jerked and chugged its way into Gary, where it stopped for good.

As Chad and Michelle waited for the tow back to Michigan, the Florida couple headed in one direction and we moved in another, into Gary, Indiana. With nothing but our backpacks, cash and drugs, we walked hurriedly as the sun set over one of America’s shittiest cities. Like prey in a balls-in survival game, we felt the eyes of tricky people and their deliberative stares as we took fast, frightened steps along the busy but poorly-lit street.  We were the brightest things around. For an hour we pressed on, backtracked  and stopped to think,  before finding a motel with a big flickering neon light. The next day, we caught a ride back to Madison with Aaron’s sister, who came to our rescue from Fort Wayne.

Sure, we were demoralized by being back in Madison, but our determination in getting to Colorado was undiminished. There had to be a way. After hunkering down at my mother’s house for several days, we hatched a new, more brilliant plan, this one not involving school buses. As far as we could tell, its only drawback was that success hinged entirely on lying, lawbreaking and luck.

Our starting point was finding an address for Aaron’s father’s roofing company in Edgerton. We jotted it down, and hit the road, heading south on I-90. During our drive across the sun-drenched farmlands, Life and I began questioning whether seeking him out was a good idea. It wasn’t like Aaron had for almost a decade simply forgotten to call everyone. He chose not to. We mulled the implications of this quietly for a moment.

“What’s the worst he can say?…” Life asked, breaking the silence. “Leave me the fuck alone? If he does, then fuck it, we will.”

There was also the question of whether we’d be glad to see him? He’d gotten married. That’s what we knew, but what we “knew,” we didn’t even know to be true. What if he was in bad shape? Over the years we speculated wildly about his fate, never really giving him the benefit of the doubt. Anything was possible. Drug addiction. Alcoholism. Disease. Prison. Homelessness. These were easy, if not sensible, explanations for why he fell off so completely.  Aaron, like the rest of us, wasn’t above any of  these things. How far he’d fallen or risen over the last eight years was impossible to say. For many in our constellation of friends during the late 90s and early 20s, outcomes like these weren’t uncommon. For some, the tragedies are ongoing.

Around 11 a.m., we arrived in Edgerton and quickly located the roofing company, which was actually a residence, without cars in the driveway, but through the drapes shone a light. We made a couple of passes before pulling into the driveway. Inside the house, dogs barked maniacally as we approached. After knocking several times, a young girl answered the door.

“Is Aaron around?” I asked.

“He’s not here right now.”

“Do you know where I can find him?”

When the girl stepped back inside to get Aaron’s phone number, Life and I looked at each in disbelief. Was it really going to be this easy? The girl was scrolling through the caller ID when she returned. We asked where Mallwood was. She only knew it was near Culver’s, but didn’t know how to get there, either. We thanked her for the number. Even if we couldn’t find him completely, we now at least had his ear.

Edgerton is small, but still I had to stop for directions to Culver’s. In my effort to remember them, I forgot to ask “what” Mallwood was. Life guessed an apartment complex. I agreed that sounded right. As we cruised over the Interstate bridge, the big blue Culver’s sign peeked up over the arcing road. “Mallwood!” Life shouted suddenly, her pointing finger locked on it as I passed it by. “It’s a street.”

Mallwood Road leads into Mallwood Estates, a collection of tree-canopied homes in various stages of disrepair. Some distance down we spot a roofing crew busy at work. Parked on the site was a truck emblazoned with the name of Aaron’s father’s company. They all wore baseball caps, wife-beaters and work boots, their faces indistinguishable from the road. So we crept by again and again until we saw a pair of workers climbing down the ladder. They were out of range by the time I backed up.

Now stopped in front of the house, work on the roof all but halted as the crew stared down at us. An older man, who looked an awful lot like Aaron, climbed down and approached us. “What can I help you with?” he asked. I waffled nervously before asking if Aaron was around.

“Aaron? He’s in the back,” the man said. “You can go talk to him if you want.”

We couldn’t believe it. Within an hour of leaving Madison we’d found him, in three simple steps. Now to shatter eight years of silence. I parked Purple Thunder and we strolled alongside the house. There, pounding nails in the corner of the roof, was Aaron. He looked our way, but then resumed his work. We stopped to stare up at him. He did a double take,  his expressive blues growing wide with surprise.

“Oh, wow,” he laughed, awkwardly. “What’s going on?”

The clerk at the Ryder depot explained to us that a couple moving to Connecticut the next morning had reserved the last available small moving truck. We could use it that afternoon, but couldn’t keep it overnight. We told him that wouldn’t work, that it was an emergency, that we had a lot of stuff. “We’ll have it back first thing in the morning,” we promised.

After much pleading, the clerk relented, took our $150 deposit, Xeroxed my suspended driver’s license, and handed me the key. “Just drop’er off around eight,” he instructed. “There’s a short check-in process.”

Back at my mother’s, we grabbed our packs, hit the road and drove straight through the night. By 8 a.m. the next morning we were cruising across the Nebraska plains, just north of Denver.

We figured that in a matter of hours Ryder would report the truck stolen. Even if for some reason it didn’t, we still were riding dirty and without a valid driver’s license between us. A traffic stop would get hairy. Complicating the situation was that we hadn’t really thought about what to do once in Colorado, where even to go. I’d been to Denver. Aaron had been to Nederland. We casted our votes respectively. Then we remembered a mutual friend who supposedly worked at an ice cream shop in Silverton, a mountain town in the southwestern part of the state. However, Silverton meant keeping the truck for at least two more days. Though neither of us had heard from Greg in several years, the option at least had promise.

By the time we arrived in Silverton late that night, our eyes were fighting for sleep. We stopped off for the night, relocating to the truck’s storage container and rigging the door clasp so we could close the door without becoming locked-in. Despite our fatigue, sleep that night came in fits. In our blankets, too thin to protect against the frigid mountain air, we shivered violently, our only warmth coming from Zoe, who slept soundly between us.

The next morning we discovered that our friend, Greg, was no longer in  Silverton. When the ice cream shop never opened, I phone his mother back in Wisconsin, who gave us a phone number to the place he was staying in La Salle Creek, four miles from the Utah border. We called several times throughout the day, as we drove west toward Utah, but no one picked up.

By late afternoon, panic over having the truck began setting in. Our stomachs sank each time we spied a cop, our MDMA at-the-ready for ingesting. Driving along southwestern Colorado’s red dusty highways, which seemed to stretch forever across an expanse of hot, barren earth, made the situation seem all the more hopeless. Regret began to consume us. Hungry, tired and with nowhere to go, we pulled off in a sparse little desert town. We found a payphone, called, waited around and called again. And again.

At last, an answer; it was Greg, who thought, when informed Aaron and I were about an hour away from La Salle Creek, that I was fucking with him. I assured him I was not. He gave us directions and within the hour, we turned onto a little crooked driveway in the middle of nowhere. Greg stepped out to greet us with a big, goofy grin. “I can’t believe you guys stole a moving truck,” he laughed. “You’re fucking nuts!”

First thing first, Greg dug out a phonebook so we could find the nearest Ryder depot at which to dump the truck. Moab, Utah was closest, but it was already late. Since we’d have to hitchhike back, we decided to wait until the next day.

It was great to see Greg, another high school buddy who’d been tramping around out west. He prepared a dinner, which we ate greedily. After, we began talking about what to do with the MDMA. Worried that we’d be pushing our luck by hitchhiking dirty, we cut up three even piles, one for each of us. That night, the three of us sat on the porch, swapping snippets of our lives, all alone in the desert. We rolled hard beneath a black open sky dotted with billions of stars, banging drums and strumming guitars, laughing hard, belly laughs and smoking cigarettes until our throats hurt.

It felt great to be in Colorado.

As Aaron climbed down the roof, Life whispered, “He doesn’t recognize me.” Indeed, he didn’t. The last time they’d seen each other, Life, who has her own long history with Aaron, had long, gnarly dreadlocks, generic state-issued glasses and dressed in baggy skater gear. These days her hair is salon cut, her glasses fashionable and her clothing straight off the women’s rack. He’d barely given her a fleeting glance.

Once he was on the ground, I asked, “You remember Life, don’t you?”

Again, his eyes lit up. “Man, it’s been a long time,” he said.

For several minutes we chatted about our recent lives, what we’ve been up to, how things are going, giving updates on mutual friends. Before long, Aaron’s dad called him back to work. Aaron invited us to meet him back at the site in 30 minutes, explaining the work day was almost over. Of course, we said, and spent the next half hour tooling around Edgerton, grateful that Aaron seemed well, happy and glad to see us.

He seemed like the same old guy, only older, healthier and more domesticated. The marriage rumor was true. All those years ago he did meet a girl, got married and became a father. One-by-one, he lost contact with friends in Madison while settling into family there in Edgerton. That, of course, wasn’t the entire truth, but it sufficed. We weren’t there to drill him, but to say ‘Hello.’

There was so much we wanted – needed – to share with him, but when we arrived back at the job site, no one was there. We called the number the girl had given us, but there wasn’t any answer. We tried again with the same result.

Maybe Aaron wasn’t that glad to see us, after all.

Greg went with us to drop the truck off in Moab so that on the way back he could teach us to hitchhike. Not that hitchhiking needs much explaining, but he had traveled that way many times, and we maybe we were a little worried it wasn’t as easy as he claimed. We also had more questions about Telluride, a little mountain town he receommended to us the night before, located not far from La Salle Creek. With Greg and Zoe crouched between the two cab seats, we roared through Utah’s red canyons on the final leg of our daring mission.

But washing our hands of the truck required finding a real Ryder station. In Moab, at the address the phonebook listed, in real life stood a Holiday Inn. We couldn’t believe it. I stopped out front as Aaron double-checked the address. We must’ve written it down wrong, so we cross-referenced using a metal-covered phonebook dangling from a payphone. According to that one, we had the right place. After a bit of head scratching, we realized that the phonebook was outdated. Ryder no longer did business in Moab.

Leaving Moab, we felt even more helpless than the day before, certain that at any moment we’d be pulled over and arrested for felony grand theft. Making the most of it, we got some beer and hiked around in Utah’s canyons before returning to La Salle Creek.

The next morning, Aaron and I headed to Montrose, Colorado, about 120 mountain miles away, hoping the Ryder depot listed there actually existed. It was a long, quiet drive. After the school bus, being stranded in Gary, spit back to Madison, and almost week in a hijacked moving truck, neither of us felt like talking. We held our breath and hoped for the best.

Late that Sunday afternoon, we passed by the Montrose Ryder depot. After ensuring it was closed, we pulled in and parked alongside the building. I dug a Sharpie from my backpack. On a torn piece of cardboard I wrote, ‘Sorry,’ and affixed it to the steering wheel. We grabbed our backpacks, unloaded Zoe and, as Greg had instructed, walked a few miles to the city’s southern edge. There, for the first time in our lives we stuck out our thumbs, hoping to catch a ride. As Greg said, it was easy. A short time and two rides later, were were in Telluride. Our summer had finally begun.

A brief game of phone tag later, we all met for lunch at a nearby diner, where we spent the next hour catching up on our combined 24 years apart. Later, at his house, we rehashed old adventures, crazy times and memorable moments. It almost felt like old times, but we were now adults. Life had twin boys. Aaron had two children, a wife. Me, I was living in Philadelphia, no kids and still looking for “the one.” We had jobs, responsibilities, and new friends who could never relate to these fantastical stories from our pasts. It’s only those with whom you go through the shit with that ever really get it.

“Remember when we took that Ryder truck to Colorado?” I asked.

He laughed. “Yeah, didn’t you leave a note for them or something?”

Then we asked Life about Chad and Michelle, the hippies with the school bus that broke down in Gary, Indiana. She hadn’t heard anything from or about them in years. We updated him on other old friends and others from the past as best we could.

We encouraged him to get on Facebook.

“There’s a few people from Telluride on there,” I said, knowing it probably didn’t matter to him. But it reminded me that I had e-mailed with Greg recently, an exchange set in motion by an old Telluride connection I found on Facebook. He was working as a mechanic in Washington, but moving soon to Montana. Said he doesn’t e-mail much, but to look him up if in the area.

We spent that entire summer there, in Telluride, though we fell in with different people, insofar as one can in Telluride. For a while we resided among the forest dwellers, known locally as Woodsies, but Aaron eventually moved into town. By August, he’d tired of it. When Greg scored a free station wagon, Aaron hopped a ride with him back to Wisconin. I stayed for a while longer, hitchhiking toward Oregon, but getting only to the border of Wyoming. I came home, put in a semester at college, and returned the following year. A fledgling reporter, I lived in the woods for four months, while writing for The Telluride Watch, and came to be known as the ‘Woodsie journalist.’ 

I can’t remember if Aaron was still around when I returned to Madison, but if so, it wasn’t for long. One day he was gone. Poof!

Just like that.

Now, here we were, eight years later, in his living room, talking about that odyssey for the first time. “Ryder never tried to collect on that truck,” I said, to Aaron’s surprise.

“Man, I thought for sure they’d send you a big bill,” he laughed.

Before departing, we made tentative plans to hang out again, meet his family, maybe even go canoeing, tentative being the operative word. Even if we don’t meet up anytime soon, I doubt it’ll be the last time our paths cross. I have his number, plus he’s now on Facebook, where everyday is a reunion. He is no longer missing and we can stop wondering. And that’s where we left it, the future, up the in the air, just as it has always been.

1 Comment

  1. life says:

    what an awesome day it was!hopefully out “tentative” plans become a reality sooner than later!

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