The License Plate Said “Hayduke”: Chuck Bowden and the Red Cadillac
“I try to construct a theory of how a moral person should live in these circumstances, and how such a person should love.”
Charles Bowden, Desierto
“Love” might not be the first thing that comes to mind when one considers the often angry, hard-bitten books Charles Bowden wrote. But love was what burned inside him, it seemed to me.
Those who knew him far better than I have told me this more than once. Even the ones who are still mad at him. Even Jim Harrison, after Bowden had left this earth.
I don’t think he was claiming to be a moral person, in this quote. But I do believe he was trying his damnedest to live by a code. It just had to be a code of his own devising. I risked calling him my friend.
This is how the thing began.
Early in February of 1993, between 6:00 and 7:00 in the morning, my phone rang. I was hiding out in San Diego after a doomed marriage had fallen apart behind me. And my first book had been on the shelves for less than a month. It was a nonfiction account of my previous life working with the disadvantaged people of my birthplace, Tijuana.
I scrambled for the receiver before the answering machine kicked in. The Voice, the voice his many friends and enemies and paramours would never forget, spoke.
“Urrea?” it said.
My first impression: the guy got the pronunciation right. My second impression: he was some crusty tough guy who sounded hungover. Some character out of a B. Traven novel.
Wait. What? As in Charles Bowden?
“Yeah. It’s Chuck.”
I was immediately pacing the floor.
“Where are you?” he said.
I was trying to wake up enough to understand that Charles Bowden had tracked me down for some reason.
I started to tell him he was one of my prose heroes. Then I remembered to answer his question. “San Diego,” I said.
“What the hell are you doing there?”
I went into the marriage falling apart explanation.
He cut me off.
“I know about those,” he said. “Where were you living before San Diego?”
He said San Diego as if it hurt his soul.
There was a long pause. I imagined him taking a drink, or taking a drag on a cigarette.
“Jesus,” he said, “talk about a place that makes you want to commit suicide.”
Bowden followed this comment with marching orders.
“Where you need to live is in Tucson.”
He said something about Boulder being an amusement park for rich people and that it had trucks gluing up picturesque claptrap all over town to make those people feel special.
Both Bowden’s and Ed Abbey’s books were on the shelf beside my phone. A devil’s claw sat beside my computer. Tucson. It would have seemed insane to think I had just heard Chuck suggesting, “Come be my friend.” An invitation to take the first step into Bowdenworld. But that’s how I took it. His real friends could have told me he was also saying, “Come here and let me kick your ass.”
I had been infatuated with Edward Abbey for years. I was one of those who had camped in deserts often as a kid, and now fancied myself some kind of Abbeyesque long-haul dry-lands wanderer. (I had a much milder demeanor than Ed— every time I reread The Monkey Wrench Gang, I grew afraid that the FBI was going to bust through my windows and arrest me for subversion. And then there was that Mexican-hating thing of Abbey’s.) But reading his work opened the door to Bowden.
When I read Blue Desert, I thought it was one of the greatest American books of the modern era. I distributed Chuck’s chapter on bats and their caves to writing students who often stared at it in bewilderment. Like, bats? I may or may not have known that Ed and Chuck were dear friends at that time. Though Chuck would have never stooped to an adjective like “dear.” I learned that if he sounded like he could barely stand you, he loved you on some level.
Re: friendship with Abbey, Bowden writes: He was reasonably polite, didn’t shit on the floor, and was well read.
In that first phone call, Bowden announced: “You owe me money.”
I must have laughed. I had no idea what was happening.
He said, “I’ve been up all night rereading your book. And I’ve bought copies for all my friends.”
I somehow knew it was true.
In The Red Caddy, Bowden implies that to be an expert on your friend means you were never really that person’s friend at all. I didn’t know this. I wandered around pondering the weird phone call from the icon. I went to the bookstore to hunt for any new or old Bowdens I hadn’t read. They were almost impossible to find, and it made them more appealing. But I was trying to be an expert. That never impressed him.
I had a Jeep, no job, and a little bit of publisher money in my pocket. I packed up and headed for Tucson. Time to meet the master.
I decided to bring an outlaw with me.
This monster of a man had been a biker once, and he boasted of having sex with a woman while stoned and speeding up I-5 on a Harley. He had also guarded LSD loads with a shotgun for the Hells Angels. He sported a Grizzly Adams beard and a head scarf, and was now a born-again Christian who was featured in my border book. Talk about a Bowden character.
Knowing Bowden’s penchant for outrage at the vagaries of this world, I also thought he’d be moved to learn that the biker was ultimately too wild for his church. That his beloved congregation had turned on him and turned him out. After years of service feeding the poor in Mexico, he was homeless and living out of public restrooms in San Diego. So I’d gone and collected him and moved him into my back bedroom.
Let’s call him Bear.
I called Chuck and told him we were on our way. He did not seem surprised. Over the years, it seemed very important to Chuck that nothing could be seen to surprise him. He allowed books to do that, but few people got the chance.
He told me to meet him at a bar on the corner of Speedway and Campbell. It was in a big hotel because witnesses would make it harder for the narco hitmen to get him. I laughed. What a card. He didn’t laugh. He told me there would be a bodyguard. I stopped laughing.
The bar no longer exists. This is fitting. The message of The Red Caddy, for all its gloriously hard-bitten prose and philosophical tough-guy narrative, and its often hilarious bluster, is a deep shade of melancholy. A sense of mortality that shadows the pages like the slow creep of dusk sliding over the desert. The bar is gone, its hotel is gone, Ed Abbey is gone, Bear is gone, Chuck is gone, and the bodyguard is gone.
Bear and I walked in and were greeted with a hard-boiled scene from some ’50s detective movie. There sat Bowden, back to the wall. Looking wrinkled and beat and nursing a beer. His sideburns were white. I think he was smoking.
Standing to his left, leaning on the wall, was a deadly looking older Mexican with his arms crossed. The man gave us the stink-eye and looked past us. The whole time, he scanned the empty bar for evildoers. “Ex-Federal,” Bowden said. “Armed.” He shook our hands and called for three more beers. With limes.
He told us some convoluted tale of Mexican narcos who were mad at him over some slight, either in his writing or his general comportment. Perhaps a dustup at a narcotraficante ranch, and there might have been a party involved. I don’t remember now, I was too amazed by this scenario, and keeping my eye on the gunman. Bowden advised me to always sit with my back to a wall so nobody could sneak up and assassinate me.
I half expected gunfire to erupt without warning. Which Chuck might have wanted me to think, just to see how I would act. Suddenly, all this manhood struck me as hilariously silly. Chuck gave all evidence of being in on the joke. The prospect of being shot by sicarios seemed to make him feel full of pep.
Tucson old-timers, by the way, will know that the bodyguard was the indestructible Art Carrillo Strong, author of Corrido De Cocaine.
“You two fed the poor, huh?” Chuck said, staring at Bear.
He was more interested in him than he was in me. Writers? He knew a million. And the writers he knew were not just typists but pistoleros. Biker missionary outlaw homeless guys, though, were something new.
Chuck leaned across the table and stared at Bear. He finally said, “Bear, are you a good man?”
Bear twitched and fidgeted and looked away.
“I don’t know,” he said.
It was a direct kung-fu strike.
Bear drained his beer and went looking for another.
Thinking I’d turn the conversational tables on Bowden, I said, “Was Ed Abbey a good man?”
Chuck looked at his hands splayed on the table.
Then he started to cry.
He muttered something like “Fuck this” and walked out of the bar.
How should such a person love?
I didn’t see Bowden again for a year. Eventually, we were both booked to speak at a panel at a southwestern university. I was unsure of my standing with the great man. But he was the kind of guy, in my experience, who liked you to think he lived in the moment and didn’t worry about old weepy episodes. When I walked toward the auditorium, he was sprawled on a bench outside, looking more disreputable than he had in the bar. His idea of dressing up. Three women hovered around him, getting autographs. He was in great spirits, flirting in an offhanded way that had them riveted. He greeted me enthusiastically and began an impromptu lecture about the Mexican Revolution that lasted for about twenty minutes. He handed me a copy of Daniel Nugent’s Spent Cartridges of Revolution. “Read this if you want to understand about revolution,” he said. I still have it.
Inside, we sat at a long, swooping table laden with microphones and pitchers of ice water. I remember it as some vast gathering, dozens of scholars, but I’m sure there were only five or six of us at the table and maybe a hundred people in the audience. We each gave our perspectives on the border. Scholars droned on and on, it’s true. Footnotes were parsed. Bowden, who never met a gangster he didn’t love, even when the killers he dropped in his pages gave every indication of having been kids lounging around a Juarez barrio out of boredom, painted his usual ghastly border inferno. How could you argue with him? He was a force of nature. He was being hunted by narcos, for God’s sake.
Being born in Tijuana, and having lived all my life on both sides of the border fence—sometimes in both places at once—I had what I considered to be a saner view of that hideous death trap that so appalled observers of the border. After all, I argued, those of us who live with it every day also see it as a symbol of family, of potential, perhaps even as a place where two cultures might meet each other in partnership as well as conflict. Witness the Mexican and American kids who regularly play volleyball over parts of the wall. And it was evident that a new renaissance in commerce, technology, culture and the arts was coming.
I was saying this, apparently to Chuck’s exasperation.
Suddenly, he took up his microphone to interrupt me.
“I don’t know what planet you’re from,” he drawled.
Laughter and soft gasps.
I replied, “I’m from the border planet, Chuck. I was born and raised there.”
He slumped, disgusted: Urrea scores a kung-fu blow of his own.
Later, he took revenge in Bend, Oregon. We were on a panel with Ursula K. Le Guin and other writers, talking about the future of the American West. I was in the middle of speaking my piece, preaching border glasnost, when Bowden simply sighed into his microphone and groaned, “Oh, God.”
Then he went outside to smoke.
Once I moved to Tucson, we drifted apart a little. Chuck had become addicted to the ongoing drug war. He had gone from damaging his soul on the southern Arizona immigrant killing fields to feeding on terror and blood with the crime photographers of Juarez. He was wandering in West Texas and southern New Mexico. Rumors of his demise proliferated. His foes and competitors were predicting his fall—surely, Bowden couldn’t keep it up.
When he was in town, we spoke. I knew he was a gardener, and had a rumored backyard wonderland. But it felt indecorous to invite myself over to his place, even when he said I should.
Chuck railed against what he called the “Dead Ed Industry.” He was drawn to evil and corpses and bad mojo and worse governments, sure. But I am convinced that the Dead Ed freaks had a hand in making him flee Tucson. I had seen the pain he hid with bravado. How does such a person show that he is vulnerable?
He complained that people who had once drunk a beer in the same cantina as Ed were now claiming to be his best friends, and were offering to take people to Ed’s unlawful burial spot somewhere out there near the Devil’s Highway. “They could just show suckers a pile of rocks in the backyard and say ‘This is Edward Abbey’s secret grave,’ and they’d believe it.” He was furious.
This was when Chuck told me Ed’s Red Caddy was moldering away in a dirt alley behind Speedway, the street where we had first met.
“It’s covered in raccoon shit,” he noted.
Fellow Tucson writer Gregory McNamee confirmed this story. It seemed like some urban legend. If Ed was such a titan, how was his car left out in the dirt? So Greg drove me down the alley one night, and there it was. A well-known book dealer had acquired it. It had become something of a shrine to certain writers, who ogled it and wrote WASH ME in its dust and drank beer in Ed’s honor. It became my habit to visit the car often. I didn’t ever tell Chuck, though.
Tony Delcavo, of Bella Luna Books in Colorado, bought the old car. He invited me to help drive it to Denver. That amusing semi-epic journey became an essay called “Down the Highway with Edward Abbey.” McNamee kindly published it in an Abbey-themed anthology. And here I am, mourning Chuck in print. What a circle.
Charles Bowden. I consider him a master—if not in every book or utterance, certainly a master of audacity. He fought to maintain his integrity. He always tried to tell the truth, even when he lied. Chuck knew things, terrible and beautiful things. I feel richer for reading him and knowing him.
If you listen, you will hear him from the other side, saying “Oh, God” when I say I loved him.
As he wrote about Abbey:
In some way I can’t quite put my finger on, he’s not quite dead.
[Excerpted from The Red Caddy: Into the Unknown with Edward Abbey by Charles Bowden. With permission of the University of Texas Press.]