From The Vault #1: Night Driving
Night Driving: The Invention of the Wheel and Other Blues originally appeared in Mountain Gazette #30 in 1975 and was an instant hit. Black Diamond got permission from author Dick Dorworth to publish a small excerpt from his classic story in the '97/'98 issue of our Backcountry Skiing and Ice Climbing Winter Catalog (click here for the scans from the catalog).
Little did we know at the time, but Night Driving would become the most requested, inquired about and commented on article that we ever ran in a Black Diamond catalog, from 1990 to the present.
In 2007, the full version of the original story was reprinted by First Ascent Press for the first time since 1975. It is a beautiful hardcover book that contains six other Dorworth stories as well.
Until you can find your own copy of the book you can whet your appetite with our 1997 excerpt of this timeless tale of life on the road...
I didn’t become completely aware of my disposition toward night driving until 1968, when we drove from California to Argentina. Though it should have been obvious years before, I didn’t see it because it was such a natural part of the way I lived/live that, without giving it much thought, somewhere deep down in my mind, I assumed that everybody not only had his own nights on their road, but the ability to get through them. That, I learned, is not necessarily the case.
Doug Tompkins, Yvon Choiunard, Lito Tejada-Flores and I started that six month trip from Yvon’s shop in Ventura. In Lima, we added a fifth member, our English friend, Chris Jones. We had a 1965 Ford Econoline van; four surfboards; six pairs of skis; eight ropes; enough climbing equipment to get up anything under 25,000 feet; two 16-mm movie cameras and more film than any of us could carry at one time; a Nagra tape recorder with earphones; twenty-five hours of our favorite music on tape; our personal belongings, including clothes that would cover us from penetrating the tropics of Central America to skiing the volcanoes of southern Chile to climbing in Patagonia; camping gear, including mosquito netting to sleep in; wetsuits for winter surfing in Peru; books; and all the other outer and inner necessities of our lives. It was a good trip, and we drove more than 18,000 miles before it was over.
As always happens when people are thrown, brought, dragged or fated and given enough time together, we soon became quite aware of the strengths, weaknesses, skills, inclinations, follies, shortcomings, characters, personalities and mentalities of ourselves and our mates within the situation at hand. Water seeks its own level. People, too. And without a word being spoken, or a conscious working-out of each man’s part in the whole, I found myself the steady driver on the graveyard shift. I drove a lot of that 18,000 miles in the dark with all or most of the others asleep. Since we were passing through the borders of several of the most militaristic, suspicious, backward countries of the world, with jail and justice reputations bad enough to make us want badly not to get involved, we agreed beforehand to travel in a manner so as to make Mr. Clean seem, by comparison, the dirtiest, skunkiest, smelliest, most suspect traveling salesman ever to be caught crawling out of your thirteen-year-old daughter’s bedroom window at dawn. And so we did, with me accomplishing some of the longest, hardest night driving of my career, completely straight. I had some astonishing (to me) adventures and lessons and experiences and, you know, revelations on the nighttime roads of South America during that trip. None of them was more memorable than the one night in the Andes of Colombia, along the mountainous, Pan-American dirt highway that twists through some of the weirdest, most uncomfortable country of the mind that I have ever passed through. We found ourselves on the nighttime Andean roads of Colombia almost by accident. The Pan-Americano ends at Panama for a few hundred miles; the engineers haven’t yet figured out a way to put a highway through the swamps, bogs, jungles and other unknowns of the south of Panama. So, at the canal, you either put your car on a boat or you turn around and head back north. We wanted to find a ship going down the Pacific side to Buena Ventura, or even better, Guayaquil, but there wouldn’t be any for two weeks, and in addition to our common, nervous inclination for the road, Panama is one of the last places any of us would have chosen to spend two weeks. We found an alternative in a Spanish freighter which would take us and the Ford to Cartagena for a reasonable fee. We careened across the isthmus, from Panama City to Colon, caught our ship and spent two days in the Caribbean getting to Cartagena.
Cartagena—the heroic city, yesterday’s queen of the sea. Farther north than Panama. A sad, interesting place, full of memories and history and the vibes of the Spanish lust and greed that founded Cartagena, the same that made short work of the Inca and Aztec civilizations. We spent part of a day walking around, waiting for the car to be brought up from the bowels of the ship; as soon as the car was on the dock, we got on the road, and we didn’t want to stop until we reached a placed called Playas, in Ecuador, where Chouinard, the surfing expert, informed us Mike Doyle had reported excellent surfing and sympathetic surfing people. And so it came to be; but not without a more-than-fifty-hour grind, making only the minimum necessary human and mechanical pit stops of life on the road. There were two reasons for our haste; first, we wanted the Pacific surf; and, second, in those days the reputations of the bandits who lived in roving bands in the mountains of Colombia did not instill confidence in the peaceful, unarmed traveler. Indeed, a week after we passed through, a bus on the same road was stopped by one of these bands, and more than twenty people were reported shot. Not too long before that drive, we had been surrounded by an army patrol in the hills near Antigua, Guatemala; the soldiers kept us covered with submachine guns and vibes that could turn blood to ice, especially those from one fellow who had aim on Yvon and me—the first human being I had ever seen who I knew wanted badly, deeply and truly, to kill me. (“Did you see that dude’s eyes?” Yvon asked me after they had left. “Yup, sure did.”) And they’d kept us wondering if we had driven our last mile until we could convince them that we were only tourists, not “revolutionaries” (i.e. CIA) and, for sure, only passing through. Two weeks after this incident, the U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala was machine-gunned to death in his limousine in downtown Guatemala City, while on his way home for lunch. We had heard other stories, including the one about my old schoolmate, Bob “Spade” Moran, who, as it turned out, was a CIA agent, and died as a consequence; he met his end with two shotgun blasts in the back while walking down the main street of a tiny Guatemalan town, from two local fellows who did the job for a hundred dollars. So we knew that the insanity was real, and we suspected a full measure of it existed in the mountains of Colombia. That was our feeling, anyway; and one measure of saneness is the ability to listen to the music of the gut, twanging away on the central nervous system.
One of those nights I found myself behind the graveyard wheel of our journey, peering into the headlight-brightened dirt roads that wind through the strange, high jungle mountains of Colombia. Everyone was asleep—Yvon on the sleeping platform way in the back, Doug on the back seat and Lito sleeping shotgun on the other tiny front seat. I had the Negra going, with the earphones on, plugged into the best music of the time. One side of a tape lasted nearly an hour, and every hour I would nudge Lito and have him change tapes. He would grunt and ask me how it was going, change the tape, offer to drive when I wanted to collapse back into one of the most uncomfortable positions in the history of sleep. So my company that night was Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, Buffalo Springfield, Joan Baez, Tim Buckley, The Byrds, Quicksilver, The Jefferson Airplane and, of course, the Beatles. All good friends of the night, the day and all those grey times in between. Good music is one of the very best ways through long drives or, for that matter, any difficulties.
The most amazing thing happened that night. I didn’t begin to notice it until after five or six hours of driving, and my system was twanging and twitching in time to the music and rhythms of the road, like a puppet being moved by the cosmic puppeteer in the universal control room.
The first things I noticed were the small bushes and trees alongside the road; I could see the potential animal spirit in their vegetable matter. Fair enough. I could understand and get my head into that one. Feed a carrot to a rabbit and the carrot becomes rabbit, not vice-versa; although, in the long haul, every rabbit is a potential carrot. The cycle of life, inextricably connected to the inescapable karmic wheel, turns over everything in its journey, making carrots out of rabbits, grass out of men, horses out of grass and glue out of horses, with no more feeling or regard for the individual rabbit or blade of grass or man than the engine of the Econoline had for the individual molecule of gasoline that propelled it along the Andean road, guided by a particular hunk of flesh and bones and blood to which I was presently attached and which would, inescapably, hopefully, help nourish a stout pine tree, a strong sagebrush or, at least, a blade of mountain-meadow grass. Then I saw the tiny rodents trapped in the little shrubs along the road; the deer waiting to spring from the leafy trees on the hillsides lit up by the Ford; coyote-like creatures, crouched in expectant stillness among unnameable, formless ferns; half-dog, half-pig beasts, magnificently ugly, loping through the tall grass, stopped in mid-stride like the protected, unburnt silhouettes left on the streets of Hiroshima by terrified, running, doomed people; skeletal horses, staring dully into the lights from the structure of strange trees with roots so deep you could feel their permanence; flying frogs, stopped in mid-flight on the branch of an enormous, pine-like tree; powerful, lovely leopards and tigers, stopped in the act of the kill and the run of freedom and the pleasure of movement like the petrified mummies of Pompeii, embedded in the dirt-rock banks of the Pan-Americano highway; almost human beings stretched out on trees in lifeless dejection, as if needing just one missing part—an eye, a heart, a brain, a toe, a kidney, a spleen or, perhaps, a soul—in order to start dancing to the sounds of the Grateful Dead, right there in the mountain jungles of Colombia; iguanas and snakes and spiders and bizarre birds everywhere, on every bush and tree, caught in the limb and leaf, locked in the inanimate, waiting, waiting for the key, the time, the turn of the karmic, evolutionary, magic wheel of life and mystery that will plug them into the universal river of love and give them freedom, movement, substance—meaning. A whole menagerie of the mind accompanied me and my musical friends through that night. Along toward dawn, that time of the morning when you can’t see any difference in the night, but you feel the light will soon appear in the east, after, maybe, seven or eight hours behind the wheel, the entire Fillmore ballroom rocking out to the Airplane, men and women dancing with crocodiles and water buffalo and pythons; flying frogs and hopping toads, four feet long; alligators; pigeons; eagles; bats; dogs; guanacos; cats of every description and size; every critter that ever existed in the human mind had stretched its vegetable limbs, broken the fibrous bonds that tied it to the earth, and was on the move. All over the road and the banks and in the trees and flying through the sky. Needless to say, I was fascinated. I don’t know how long I moved through this swirling, primordial world, the gas-eating beast in my hands just another innocent creature of the jungle, the road and the mind, before I noticed an enormous mastadon standing in the road ahead. A 100,000-foot precipice was on the left, a sheer blank rose up on the right, and we were moving too fast to stop. I quickly considered the alternatives, slammed on the brakes, shifted down, braced myself for the inevitable crash with a mastadon and skidded right through the fucker to a stop.
Lito, by this time, had emerged from his back-breaking sleep, and was peering around like a suspicious gnome, waking up from a twenty-year-long nap to a sound he couldn’t quite recognize. “What’s happening, man?”
“I think you’d better drive,” I said.
“Sure, sure, right on,” he said, coming immediately to life.
I opened the door and stretched, and my body was numbness in the flesh. I noticed that it was daylight, and I was surprised. We were somewhere in the mountains, and the morning cool refreshed me. My mind was working only on the most basic level. The road was dirt. The trees and bushes and flowers and ferns and shrubs and grass were vegetable. We were men; and Yvon, a really good one, woke up and gave me the back sleeping platform, which I badly needed.
Lito, one of the worst drivers in the history of the wheel, took over. Lito has a faculty for learning that is unequaled by most human beings, but he drove the great Ford for six months during that trip without learning how to shift into second without grinding the gears. I suspect he never learned to drive so he wouldn’t have to. I crawled in back and covered myself with a down bag, oozed the remainder of my head into a sweater used as a pillow and savored the delicious relaxation that massaged the tension from my body. I was already missing that wonderful, innocent world that began when we drove through that damn mastadon into another day. And why do we think we miss anything? Do we feel the loss of reality? Of illusion? Opportunity lost? Or is it only the realization of having encountered one more of God’s thousand faces, all of which we must learn to know intimately, one by one, before we will be able to see the whole. I was awake when we started moving, but already dreaming in Technicolor by the time Lito gnashed his way into second gear.
Another night on that trip, a driver’s fatigue helped set up a situation that taught me much; though, like many lessons of the road and elsewhere, I didn’t see it right away. We didn’t even drive all night, but, after dinner at an amazing roadside restaurant in the desert of northern Chile, it was my turn at the wheel. Our goal was Antofagasta by morning, because the car was barely running, and we hoped to find parts there. No such luck, as it turned out. Eventually, we had to limp clear into Santiago, at 20 mph, where Yvon and Doug rebuilt the engine. But immediate hopes and goals first.
I don’t remember much about the drive, but sometime about two in the morning we reached a gravel pit off the road just outside Antofagasta. I pulled in, turned the lights and engine off and, according to my habit, pulled on the emergency brake and put the beast in reverse gear. Then the five of us stumbled through the tired motions of getting ready to sleep. Chris and I slept on the ground behind the van, Yvon crashed just in front, Doug curled up on the sleeping platform and Lito had the back seat.
Sometime later, after all of us had quit the bed-down chit chats and were sleeping deeply, Doug awoke in an instant realization that the car was moving. Doug is that kind of person, for the car couldn’t have moved more than a foot. Since he was completely encased in his mummy bag, he flung himself headfirst, like a huge jumping worm, across Lito and the motor casing between the two front seats. He hit the brake with his hands. Lito woke up screeching, and Doug was yelling for Yvon to get out of the way; and Yvon woke up with the front wheel stopped about six inches from his head. Chris and I woke up about the same time to the commotion.
Well, I took a lot of shit then and during the next few days for not putting the car in gear or using the emergency brake. Doug was most vehement in his shit giving. It didn’t help that he hadn’t gotten over an unfortunate meeting with a Peruvian mule several nights earlier, when it was late, we were a few hundred miles north of Lima and, once again, I was at the wheel while the others slept. I had been plugged into the Nagra and my musical friends, sighting down one of the skinniest paved roads on earth. Every time a truck came along, heading in the other direction, it was like trying to run a very tight, closed gate at 60 mph. The periodic adrenaline rushes caused by every passing truck helped keep me awake and provided a counterpoint to the music filling my head from my earphones. The beast was cruising at a steady 60 mph, our agreed upon max. Suddenly, with no more warning than a few feet of headlight vision, we were surrounded by mules. Mules everywhere, and they just kept appearing, all over the road. There must’ve been a thousand of the dumb creatures. “Shit,” I shouted; and Lito, riding shotgun, woke up mumbling, “oh fuck, oh fuck, oh shit,” as I steered the metal monster through a maze of mules like a broken-field-runner on a speeded-up film. At one point an old Peruvian mule-tender, complete with staff, flashed through my vision. We were getting to the other end, the van careening all over the place, everyone awake now, anything not tied down bouncing all over the inside like keno balls in the blower, clear highway in sight, when I clipped one of the beasts in the ass with the right front bumper. The beast went down like he’d just been hit by a ton of steel moving at 60 mph, and the right headlight went out. The vehicle shuddered. I saw the mule thrashing around in the rear-view mirror. We cleared the herd and were still moving and on the road. I stepped up the pace to 70 mph and got the hell out of there. “Genius driving, Dorworth, genius,” Lito said. And he was right. By all rights we should have destroyed thirty mules and one Ford and all its inhabitants; but we’d got by with one mule with unknown injuries, a crunched fender and a broken headlight. The car was fixed in Lima for a few dollars. Doug, who didn’t appreciate his luck at being alive after surviving the mule herd, apparently felt I should have flown the Ford over the beasts on the road, and landed on the other side.
My protests of innocence from negligence in both cases were in vain. No matter what I said, thought, knew or claimed as habit, the car did start moving in the gravel pit, and would have hit Chouinard if Doug had been one foot slower. I didn’t want to think I was that sloppy, and I didn’t think that I’d neglected those basics of the stopped automobile, but sometime after we’d gone to sleep, the car had started rolling…
After the incident in the gravel pit, everyone got rearranged, the car was put in gear and the emergency brake pulled on; Yvon moved uphill from the great metal creature; and we all dropped into the deep and special sleep of the long-distance traveler, those questioning, but hopefully, not questionable souls who travel long distances. The next morning I was exhausted. Sometime after daylight, but well before any of us were ready to move, a force, a power, a voice that spoke not in words—something—wanted me to roll over and look at the sky. Nothing doing. I was secure and asleep and comfortable, and I didn’t want to look at anything except the back of my eyelids and the whole of my dream. More persistent. “Roll over, you blockhead,” it seemed to say. “No. Nothing doing. It’s nice where I am. Why should I move?” I even stiffened my body against… what? I don’t know. Just against. But after a time of arguing with a power that was going to have its way with me, no matter what, I rolled over and opened my eyes.
And there was a buttermilk sky scudding by above me, moving inland from the early September Pacific. I stared at the soft, friendly whiteness, and I sensed in a flash that the sky and I were one, that I was the universe and the universe was me; the whole of creation was within and “I” was the whole; and any differences I perceived between, say, myself and a buttermilk sky, or between anything else—a Martian and a human, an Indian and a White Man, a long and a short hair, a panda and a rock—was the result of the workings of a mind crazed on illusion. A mind addicted to drawing distinctions, separating, comparing, splitting hairs and atoms. A mind, as described by Walter Van Tilberg Clark, as wanting to be all instead of wanting all to be; a mind that attempts to limit the limitless. I saw that, in reality, everything in creation is connected, a part of the same whole, the same creation, woven together from the fibers made by the same substance, which, at bottom, is pure spirit, the divine spirit that breathes life and movement into the universe.
When that realization had sunk into my brain and being, I rolled back over and fell immediately into a calm sleep.
A long time later, the seeds planted that morning grew into a beautiful, sturdy, fruit-bearing tree. And eating the fruit of that tree teaches one to beware of habit. Habit is the great deceiver. Habit is the child of the machine, trying to make an experience, a time, a thought or action the same as any other. No matter how good, worthwhile or beneficial in the beginning, habit always ends up draining the life out of the action, the juice out of thought and meaning out of result. Habit is a stagnant pool, making one moment like another; it is, therefore, corrupt and pestilential. Life is a clear, flowing stream; and each day, each minute, each instant must be met on its own terms, fresh, forever changing and irretrievable. Habit becomes system; system becomes machine; machine is death. The life force adapts to the situation at hand according to the intelligence of the moment, not the acquired habit of other times. Habit is faithless and will abandon and deceive: it will tell the brain that it has put the car in gear and pulled on the emergency brake, but it will forget to tell the body the same. Habit, which is not the same as practice, is a deceiver in the guise of friend; but habit never teaches the law of the land and, sooner or later, leads its poor, trusting follower right into the quicksand of the mind that separates, splits, draws imaginary lines of division upon the indivisible and looks for differences instead of sameness, in much the same spirit as the man worrying about the splinter in his brother’s eye, entirely ignoring the plank in his own. Life has to be embraced, with no holds barred, throwing the whole show on the line as if there were no tomorrow and no yesterday either!
The Randmeister began climbing in 1970, just before the dawn of clean climbing. His career in the climbing industry started at the Boulder Mountaineer in 1985. After stints with La Sportiva USA, Mountain Tools and the Access Fund, he made his way to Black Diamond in 1994 and has been doing a variety of things here ever since. From the Vault will continue to feature articles, photos and gear from the past 20 years of Black Diamond history and beyond...