On the road to Weaverville there stands a bright yellow sign, and on it, one simple warning: “DO NOT PICK UP HITCH-HIKERS.” It might as well read: “JUST SAY ‘NO’ TO ADVENTURE.”
When I first saw Marlo and his dog, it was dusk on a Wednesday and I was falling asleep at the wheel. Pinching myself was getting me painfully nowhere, slapping myself was beginning to attract unwanted attention from the drivers behind me and I was long out of ice cubes to suck on or drop down my shirt. So, as any law-abiding pastor would do, I picked up a hitch-hiker. And his name was Marlo. And his dog’s name was Blue. I pulled over to the side of the road and listened to my Ford’s abnormally high idle while the two of them jogged up to where I sat in the truck, waiting.
I immediately liked Marlo because his dog wore a backpack. Look, any guy can carry a back-pack and there are plenty of hitch-hikers with dogs. But I instantly liked Marlo because he was clever enough to train Blue to think dogs wearing backpacks was just the way of the world, and anything less was just plain lazy. I watched Blue jump onto the tailgate and decided he looked exactly like “BOLT,” the animated canine hero from a recent Disney movie.
“He killed a deer for me last week” came Marlo’s first words to me as he gestured proudly in Blue’s direction. “Took it down right in the middle of a creek.”
I nodded and flashed an ‘of course he did’ smile, re-evaluating Blue while deciding he was bigger and a little less cuddly looking than BOLT. He laid down calmly on the rubber bed-liner and grinned, sticking his tongue out at me.
That first encounter with Marlo and Blue was a short one. Ten minutes later I was exchanging the customary fare of ‘goodbyes’ and ‘God bless yous’ that come with the hitch-hiking experience. It was a short encounter, but in those brief minutes I learned three important things about Marlo that prepared me immeasurably for the exchanges we would have in the weeks and months to follow: 1) Marlo knew his way around the woods. 2) Marlo helped out on a pot grow and 3) It took a lot to get Marlo excited. Thus began my adventures with Marlo and Blue.
“What’s going on?” I asked Marlo several months later as he opened the door to my office and sat down, telepathically ordering Blue, ‘the deer slayer’ to take a seat on my floor. I’d been hanging out with him off and on as he wandered in and out of my life, working on knives with him, talking survival tools, religion and trapping, sampling his homemade smoked venison (thanks Blue), and even taking good-natured flak from him as I hung a ‘chandledeer’ over my office pool table. “A little to the left” he’d said with his arms crossed, seconds after I’d finished drilling the hole, securing the hook and hanging the central light fixture for the room, all while dangling precariously over open space from a 10-ft. ladder. We’d all had a good laugh about that one. But Marlo wasn’t laughing now.
“It’s funny you should ask,” he said matter-of-factly as he tossed a bag full of sharp and survival behind a cushioned chair— “I’m on my way to the courthouse.”
The story that enfolded went something like this, and nothing like I’d have expected.
While working with his ill-tempered partner on their legal pot grow, a neighbor from ‘down the hill’ had wandered up drunk, onto the property, spoiling for a fight. A fight is exactly what he got.
“First,” said Marlo, “he started tossing dirt clods at my buddy. Then he began throwing rocks.”
“Uh-huh,” I answered on auto-pilot, checking my email quickly while he talked. Tossed dirt clods did not qualify as spectacularly interesting at the moment and, keep in mind, it took a lot to get Marlo excited, so the tone of his voice did little betray the actual epic…ness… of his story.
“The thing is,” Marlo continued casually from the chair behind me, “my buddy was holding a chainsaw when this guy started throwing stuff.”
Something about the word ‘chainsaw’ gummed up the gears in my head long enough to glitch my internet surfing mode, like some insidious verbal virus. I paused, considering the word in my head like a ten-year old with a magnifying glass considers an anthill. “A chainsaw?” I repeated finally, my ancient desk chair creaking like a prodded beetle as I turned around, the bait too irresistible to ignore—“Your buddy was provoked with thrown rocks while holding… a chainsaw?”
Marlo shifted his weight with a slight grimace before going on. He has periodic problems with his knees and back after years of living on the move and out of a heavy frame pack. We have an interesting relationship, he and I, especially since we’re just about the same age. I think we both see in each other a glimpse of ‘what might have been.’
“Yup,” he confirmed after stretching—“a chainsaw.”
“So then what happened?” I was hungry for more now, vaguely remembering something about Marlo being on the way to the courthouse. There was something connecting the dots here, and I wanted details about whatever that ‘something’ was.
“My buddy started using his chainsaw like a bat,” Marlow continued, “knocking the dirt and rocks to each side as they came.” Then, apparently, the antagonist moved in closer.
“I suppose my friend could have put the chainsaw down at that point,” Marlo said thoughtfully, “or maybe turned it off.” This was just now occurring to him. “But that’s not what happened,” he finished helpfully.
What happened was that a running chainsaw was then purposely lowered onto the neighbors back, apparently while the neighbor was trying to tackle Marlo’s friend.
“Was the guy okay?” This was just too crazy.
“He was until he took a step back and didn’t run,” replied Marlo with a puzzled look. That’s when the chainsaw party really got interesting. At that point, Marlo’s partner decided to play for keeps, and swung the chainsaw down a second time, aiming for the man’s face. The neighbor lurched backwards with a shriek, revealing a clean slice through the bill of a baseball cap that basically saved his life, but not his good looks. A deep, oozing groove appeared from his eyebrow to the corner of his mouth, and he had stumbled off, hand pressed to his cheek. Within minutes the grow was a swarm of uniforms, guns and flashing lights. Marlo’s partner was headed to jail.
About two weeks later my wife and I had a visit from my sister who, at the time, lived an hour away in Redding. Showing her around Weaverville, I remembered something I’d left at the office and made a quick stop to retrieve it while she waited in the car. After grabbing what I needed and locking the office door, I looked up to see Marlo walking by on the sidewalk. He stopped and we talked, laughed and caught up with each other’s news for a few short minutes before I excused myself to get back to my sister. When I climbed back into the truck, she looked at me and then turned quizzically to follow my dreadlocked woodsman friend as he passed by flashing the ‘peace’ sign on his way to who knows where. Then she looked back at me.
“Who’s he?” she asked. The truck rumbled to life.“Oh, that’s my chainsaw friend,” I answered absent-mindedly as I hit the left-turn blinker and pulled out into traffic. My sister never said a word.