His mother's old Civic’s white paint was faded by the California sun and appeared to have seen better days. The truth was that Ali had been beefing her up since before he could drive. The rebuilt intercooler turbo had her rocketing to the fast lanes of the freeway with ease. The boys at the speed shop had done a great job. Bigger brakes and new tires insured that he could stop is easily as he could go. Flaring, rad wheels, and a custom paint job would have to wait until he had the money. They served no purpose now. It was better to be inconspicuous.
It was still dark when he eased onto 880 and headed north. The road was almost empty, so he made good time. In 20 minutes he was passing Oakland, then Berkeley, and then on to pick up I-80 east. Fortunately, the radio had some early morning rock-and-roll that fired his imagination and didn't bring him down like the stream of news coming out of D.C.
The sun was coming up as he crossed the river at Vallejo. Already, crowds of commuters who didn't seem to have anything better to do were jamming the incoming lanes. He didn't see the checkpoint. Twenty miles further up the road, he saw traffic slowing to a stop. This time it was for him. Cars were really backed up. All he could see, far up ahead, were flashing lights in the morning sun. He took the time waiting to have his breakfast on the roll. By the time he was through eating he could clearly see the National Guard going through cars. A wave of apprehension ran through him. He'd have to get through this one, and many more.
“Where ya going, son?”
Ali thought about questioning the young man in the blonde butch cut about just whose “son” he was talking about, but didn't have the nerve. “To Arkansas to pick up a friend.”
“Let me see that driver's license, please?”
Ali reluctantly pulled out his billfold and handed the soldier his driver's license. He saw the reaction in the young man's eyes when he read his name.
“Ali Rasheed, huh? You ain't one of them Arab terrorists is you?” His blue eyes were squinting as he stared directly into Ali's eyes. “Pull it up over there and turn off your engine. Don't go getting any ideas about driving off, ya hear?
The young soldier walked over to an officer and began talking to him. They kept looking Ali’s way as they discussed what they were going to do. Another soldier was called, and the three of them walked to Ali's car. Ali could feel the blood pumping in his temples as they approached.
“Young man, we are going to have to search your car.” The sergeant spoke with authority, but much more calmly than his younger counterpart. “Show your hands to me as I open the door for you. I want you go around in the front of your car and stand with your hands on the hood.”
Ali did what they said and suffered the indignity of being patted down like a suspect. They poured over his credentials and asked him stupid questions like, “What country were you born in?” and “Are you planning to go to the District of Columbia?” As he watched them systematically go through everything he had so carefully packed and spread it out all over the car and ground, he was furious, but unable to do a thing about it. He'd just have to bear it.
Finally, the midmorning sun cooking his back and sending sweat from his brow dripping onto the hot car hood, he saw the officer give him a salute and signal that he could go with the flair of a traffic cop. Ali found a bottle of water and drank it down before putting his stuff back in order. It took another 20 minutes. By the time he got to Sacramento, it was noon. He stopped at a McDonald's to stretch his legs, a grab a hamburger, and get a large coffee so that he'd be alert on the road. He had the feeling that people were staring at him. He couldn't catch them at it, but he had the feeling anyway. He left before he wanted to. He'd never done that before. At least he was alone and not on public transportation where he couldn't escape the stares.
Ali was in the foothills now and traffic was light. With the afternoon light behind him, he was once again making good time. The Sierras were familiar. He had spent many happy times with friends camping, skiing, and hiking through their grandeur. He wondered if he'd ever enjoy them again. In a few minutes he reached Donner Pass and was soon slipping down the backside of the mountains towards Nevada.
There was another checkpoint just outside Wendover, before I-80 crossed the salt flats and Great Salt Lake. This one was easier. Not because they didn't go through all of his stuff again, but because they treated him a little bit better. He thought about asking them to give him a pass, but then thought better of it. It might attract too much attention to him--attention he didn't want.
As he climbed the pass leaving Salt Lake City behind, it started to get dark. Ali had never been this far east before, but felt content with the loneliness of the high prairie. There were many places to pull off the road. He picked one, and then drove 200 yards or so along a ridge until he was far enough away from the Interstate so that he couldn't see or hear it behind a slight rise. He got out and breathed the dry mountain air. He could see the glow of Salt Lake City in the distance and the last embers of the sunset across the salt flats. It was warm and peaceful. He pulled his sleeping bag from the Civic and laid it out between the sagebrush. After an irradiated beef dinner and some Coke, he stretched out to sleep under the stars.
Sometime in the night, he got this weird feeling, like his hair was standing on end. Then, he saw the flash, and a loud, “crack!” Lightning had struck so close by he could smell the burned brush it had struck. As he rose to get up, a cold wind hit him. A cold driving rain followed close behind. Clutching his wet sleeping bag, Ali struggled to get the door open, and then dove into the Civic.
The dawn found him a crumpled mass of soggy sleeping bag in the passenger seat. He stepped out to pee, only to find himself surrounded by a milling herd of cattle. They were either curious are looking for a handout. Either way, they made Ali very uncomfortable. He looked around quickly for anything the wind might have blown around the night before, and then retreated to the Civic.
Except for the fog that lingered in little pockets on the mountainside and the dew on the sagebrush, it looked like it hadn't rained. Ali was grateful there was no mud getting back to I-80.
He was hungry for breakfast and needed gas when he saw Little America, so he pulled in. Using his credit card, he pumped his own gas, then drove up to the restaurant, parked, and went in.
“What'll you have?” The waitress smiled and gave him a menu.
“A big cup of coffee right now. Probably a couple of eggs and one of those sweet rolls over there.” Ali pointed to the display of rolls.
“Well I'll be. You all don't usually order our kind of food. But then, I'm glad not to have to make something special with curry on it.”
Ali didn't like the look in her eye. He ate his food quickly, trying not to say any more to her. He could feel those eyes on him again and he didn't like it.
He stopped in the bathroom on the way out and noticed that they had showers. He thought about it for a minute, and then decided not to. There were just too many rednecks around. He was glad to get back on the road.
At Cheyenne, he would have turned south toward Denver. However, expecting another checkpoint, he decided to drive into Nebraska, and then angle southeast to Arkansas. His plan worked. Soon after he saw a welcome sign for Nebraska he turned south. Not long after that, he was in Kansas.
He'd heard the jokes about America's breadbasket, the Bible Belt, and the like, but he'd never really seen the great heart of America. As open rangelands gave way to fences, and the rolling high plateau gave way to hilly farms, Ali marveled at the plenty in the way America farmed. They could take away the government with a single bomb, but it would be much harder to take away the heart of America. It was obvious that these farmers would fight to keep their way of life. The roads were almost deserted. He saw a lot of livestock, but not too many people working in the fields. When he passed a car or truck, the occupants would wave. He found himself waving back. They did know who he was, but everyone in these parts was considered a friend. It was comforting to know.
Darkness overtook him before he could reach Kansas City, so he pulled into a little eatery in a small Kansas town off US 24 at KS 15. “Good Home Cooking,” the sign read, so Ali thought he'd try some. The door opened with a creaking sound and all six customers sitting at three tables turned to look at him. Ali could see the waitress smiling behind the counter directly ahead. He could also see the looks turn to stares and the stares turn to glares on either side. He could have turned and run, but he was hungry and exhausted. It helped him decide to stand his ground. He spoke first.
“Hi, I just blew in from California. I'm hungry as a horse. What's your special?” Ali was shocked at his own bravado. He took it from the movies--his best Clint Eastwood. The young waitresses' frown returned to a smile. He had won her. He sauntered up to the counter and sat on a stool. The special was meat loaf. He ordered it anyway.
By talking to the waitress, he warmed the room. The banana cream pie he topped it off with, was great, so the meal was only half bad.
By now he could ask the waitress anything. Reading the nametag on her uniform, he was calling her by name. “Andrea, I'm beat, is there any good place to stay around here?”
“The Best Western is right around the corner. Do you want me to give them a call and see if they have room?”
“Sure.” Ali was glad to have her call for him. He was too tired for any hassles.
Andrea made the call. She returned smiling. “Got you all fixed up. Jim has a room waiting for you. Also got you a 50% discount.” She winked. “Not much business this early in the summer.”
Jim looked at him a little strange. Probably because he didn't fit the description Andrea had given of him. But gave him a key to 103 anyway. Except for a car that appeared to be parked at 109, the place was empty. All that food and a hot shower made it easy to fall asleep. He woke to the morning sun cutting a bright line across the wall. It was nearly 10am. Ali had planned to leave much earlier, but was grateful for the rest.
Andrea wasn't at the counter. Instead, the owner's wife, a woman in her late 50s with a broad smile to match her body, greeted him.” Hi young man. Andrea told me about you. We're always glad to see Californians in these parts. What'll ya have?”
After one of the best breakfasts Ali could remember, he was back on the road, angling toward Kansas City. He passed through just before lunch and was soon headed south on 271 to Joplin. Passing the sign, “Welcome To Arkansas,” a strange feeling of dread came over him. Dread of the unknown place he was going to. Dread of what he would find. And a general dread of the unknown. In haunted him from this point onward.
After Ali left 271 at Rogers, the roads got steeper and narrower and the terrain became very mountainous. It reminded Ali of the coastal range. The Civic handled the challenge with ease. He was enjoying the vistas that appeared at almost every turn. He stopped from time to time to watch green mountain after green mountain rise in lines one after another into the hazy distance. There were a lot of hiding places and all those valleys. He hoped he'd be able to find the one Rob was hiding in.
It was dusk when he drove into Harrison. The well-lit sign said, “One of the Top 100 Small Towns in America.” It sure seemed peaceful in the evening light. Ali hoped that it was. He pulled into the Ozark Mountain Inn with a vacancy sign and got a room. There was a Chinese carryout place around the corner. He took his food back to the room and watched local TV to get the lay of the land. He was asleep before he could eat his fortune cookie.
The dim light of dawn was peeking through the curtain when Ali got up. He stopped at the office to tell a sleepy desk clerk that he'd be staying another night, and then headed out onto the streets to see what he could find. It was very quiet and ordinary. Seeing the lights of a diner ahead, he walked to it. Once again, he'd have to face the locals on their turf. Luckily there were only three people in the place. Two of them were reading newspapers, and the other was at the counter.
Conjuring up his best Clint Eastwood, he walked up to the counter like he owned the place. “Hi, I just got in from California and would like to have a little breakfast.” The guy in the greasy white apron with thick glasses and “Mack” sewn on his shirt, was disarmed. He smiled.
“Well you can take a look at that menu there, or you can have some biscuits and gravy. The grits ain't bad either. What's your pleasure?” His smile turned to a smirk. Mack knew this stranger wouldn't dig country food.
“I'll try those biscuits and gravy. Throw in a couple of scrambled eggs too. I'll pass on the grits.” Ali had tasted grits, and he wasn't fond of them. He looked at the two guys reading newspapers and noticed that they hadn't looked up. “Good.” He said to himself.
The biscuits and gravy weren't half bad. He was just getting into them when Mack came up with a jar filled with dark liquid. “Would ya like to try some mountain honey?” Ali was game for anything at this point.
The honey was rich and dark, and as rich as it was dark. It was very good on those biscuits. “Sumac.” Mack interjected. “Grows wild up in these here mountains. Kind of a weed tree, but the bees love it, and we love their honey. Agreed?”
Ali, with a mouthful of biscuit and honey, smiled and nodded profusely. It was time to ask the question. “Say …, you know where Razorback, Arkansas is?”
Mack looked dumbfounded for a moment, and then he answered. “As far as I know, there ain’t any Razorback, Arkansas. Razorbacks is what we call these here hills, because they look like the backs of Razorback hogs. It's the mascot of the University of Arkansas over in Fayetteville. Maybe there's a Razorback over there, I dunno. Here comes Harvey, maybe he'll know.”
Ali turned on his stool to see two men in light brown Sheriff’s uniforms come through the door. Just what he needed, the local law. He kept silent, hoping he wouldn't get in trouble.
Placing two cups of hot coffee in front of the stools next to Ali, Mack spoke: “Hi, Harve. Lo, Frank. How is it going this morning for ya?”
Harvey, with “Sheriff Harvey Cox” on his brown on brown uniform, answered. “Oh, pretty quiet, Big Mack. Glad to take this break.” He was staring right at Ali.
Seeing Harve stare at his valued customer like that, Big Mack stepped in. “This here young fella is from California. He sure does like my cookin'. He just asked me a question that really stumped me. Ya’all know where Razorback, Arkansas is?
Both men adjusted their hats and scratched their foreheads, almost in unison. As expected, Harvey spoke: “Damned if I don't. What with it be'n the symbol of the University, you'd think there'd be a place like that. But I don't recollect running' across it in Arkansas.” Frank shook his head in agreement.
That said, both officers got up from their stools, said goodbyes all-around, and headed out. Ali, fueled for the day ahead, paid Big Mack and stepped out himself into the cool morning air.
Emboldened by the friendliness of Harrison, Ali walked the streets and began asking passersby if they'd heard of Razorback, Arkansas. Just like in the diner, no one seemed to know. Some people, seeing how he looked, shied away. Others were more friendly and open. He pulled the paper from his shirt pocket. The printed copy of the email said, Razorback, Arkansas, P.O. Box 23, 72601. That was the same ZIP code as Harrison--why couldn't he find it?
It was about 10am when he came to Boone County Courthouse Square. Some old men were playing cards near an old cannon. He approached them slowly, pretending to be interested in their game. He watched them play for a while, then spoke: “Excuse me, but I've been all over town, and no one seems to be able to help me.”
The grizzled old man whose hand he'd been looking into over his shoulder turned, looked up at him and said, “Just what is it that you want to know, son? Maybe we can help.”
“I'm looking for Razorback, Arkansas. Nobody seems to know where it is.”
The old man's eyes lit up. “Why that's the same thing that blonde surfer feller was asking a few days ago. There used to be an old broken down crossroads general store that they named Razorback that's rotted away years ago out on Old 62. That White feller bought the property a few years back and set up some kind of training camp. Don't see much of ‘em except when they come shoppin' and get their mail. Kinda keep ta themselves.
“When do they pick up the mail?”
“Oh, 'bout two every day. Right over there at the Post Office.” The old man pointed to a small brick building with an American flag hanging in front just off the square.
Ali thanked the old man, shaking his hand and patting his arm. Saying goodbye to the card players, he retreated to the motel room to think through what he was going to do. He emerged about noon and soon found a sporting goods store. To throw people off, he bought some fishing gear and a fishing license. He also found some excellent maps and bought some topographical ones. Because the terrain was so rugged, he knew he'd need rope. So he bought a hundred yards of good climbing rope and some hardware to go with it. It was a good thing his pre college credit card wasn't maxed out. It sure came in handy at a time like this. It was time to check the mail.
Ali parked about a half block from the Post Office. And then he walked there to check it out. The old men were no longer in the square. He was grateful for that. The Post Office had two sections. There was a counter with an old man working it, and a room off to the side with postal boxes. He slipped in without the old man seeing him, and found box 23. It was large, and capable of collecting a lot of mail. He retreated to the square and sat on a bench, acting like he was any other tourist enjoying the afternoon sun. He didn't have to wait long.
About 2pm a camouflage-painted Dodge diesel double cab pickup with brush guards and a winch pulled up to the Post Office. A big guy dressed in khaki and camouflage got out and went into the Post Office. Ali was close behind and went to the counter to buy a postcard. Out of the corner of his eye, Ali could see the man emptying the considerable contents of Box 23 into a canvas mailbag. He was out of the Post Office before the man, heading for his car.
He followed the Dodge out of town. It seemed in no hurry until it got on 62 and began to pick up speed. Ali had planned to lie far back, but he was having trouble just keeping up. He caught the tail of the truck turning onto Old 62, but when he got to the corner, it was nowhere in sight. He put the Civic through its paces, sometimes hitting a hundred miles per hour in the short stretches between the curves. From time to time, he could see the pickup in the distance, and then it would disappear around a curve or over a rise in the road. Finally, he saw the pickup off to the left, just off the road; he slowed to about 60 and drove by. The big man was opening the gate. Around the next bend he slowed to a crawl, looking for place to pull off. Luckily, a small trail to the left appeared, and he took it around some trees down a slight grade until his Civic was completely out of view of the road.
Ali filled his backpack with food, water, and other provisions, and started walking along the road back to where he'd seen the Dodge pull in. It was a pleasant walk in the late afternoon, but longer than he expected. Finally, he could see the heavy gate off to his right. It was heavily chained and padlocked. Then he saw it. Up in a tree, a few feet from the gate, was a camera. It was camouflaged, but enough out of place for him to notice it. He knew these guys meant business. He would have to be extra careful. Following that trail down to the camp would put him right into their hands. He didn't want that. He turned around and walked back to the car.
According to the topographical map, that trail led to a steep canyon and ended in a large valley with a creek running through it. The trail that he was on was also on the map, but it petered out about a hundred yards from the road. There appeared to be a steep drop to the valley about a half mile due north. Ali was glad he had the rope. It was getting late, so he decided not to cover the car.
He'd only gone about 200 yards when he came to the fence. It was about eight feet tall with razor wire on top, and appeared to be electrified. A beaten trail on the inside indicated that it was heavily patrolled. And, from the looks of it, the fence probably had cameras too. Keeping the fence in sight, he skirted clear and followed it. The damned fence was taking him away from where he wanted to go. About a half mile into the woods, he came upon the typography he had seen in his map. The fence ended abruptly at a cliff. From this vantage point, he could see up and down a narrow valley, with a creek shining here and there among the trees.
Ali was glad he had prepared for this. Finding a strong tree, he set up a rapelle with the rope he brought with him. It was about 75 feet down, but he had repelled many times in the Sierras as a Boy Scout. He wasn't afraid as he bounced off the cliff edge and was at the bottom and less than two minutes. He knew it would be harder getting back up, but he had done some cliff climbing even without a rope. Ali tied the rope off and left it so it would be easy for him when he returned. He crossed the valley carefully, aware that he could be watched or seen accidentally. The creek was only knee deep. He didn't bother to stop and take off his shoes. Well used sandy roads ran on both sides of the creek. They made him wary as he quickly headed up the slope on the other side. There, on higher ground, he felt more secure, and had a good vantage point on the valley in both directions. He turned left and followed the high ground until he could see buildings ahead.
There were about ten buildings, large and small, spread out on the valley floor under the trees. There was camouflage netting over them so that they couldn't easily be seen from the air. There were vehicles too: cars, trucks, and buses, and what looked like half-tracks and other military vehicles. Most were painted in camouflage designs and parked under netting too. As he crept closer he could hear the sounds of dogs barking and men talking. He could smell wood smoke and food cooking. This was too real. Fear crept into his body and gripped him. Still, he pushed forward. His mouth dry. His eyes and ears alert for the smallest movement or sound.
Ali was startled by the raucous sound of a loudspeaker reverberating up and down the valley. The echoes made it hard for him to understand what the man was saying. As he crawled closer, he picked up, “...[W]e must be vigilant, .…” and “...[N]ow is the time to lay low ...[C]an not let the outside world know what we are about. ...[M]ust set an example for those who would reveal us.”
Ali was close enough now so that he could see that a crowd had gathered by a stage in the center of the buildings. The men talking on the loudspeaker was walking back and forth on the stage and waving his arms as he spoke. The crowd raised their arms in unison for almost every statement that he made. Someone was hanging, spread-eagled, behind him. Ali had to get a closer look. He squirmed out of his backpack and pulled out the binoculars he had picked up at a garage sale for two bucks. He panned over the crowd and stage until he got them focused, and then he zeroed in on the man hanging. “Oh my God!” Ali found himself muttering. It was Rob!
Rob was tied, spread-eagled, between two tall poles with ropes. He was naked and bloody. His head was on his chest like he had passed out. Ali fought the nausea that came from deep in his gut. He had to get out of there. He gathered up his backpack and slipped it on. He heard the man on the loudspeaker saying a prayer. By the time the prayer reached, “Amen,” Ali was two hundred yards from where he had been and running full tilt. His foot caught on a root and he felt himself slamming into the ground.