Kenny was an unconventional guy.
Unconventional for a lot of reasons. The drugs, the shady deals, the kidnapping; there was a lot that got between him and regular people. I don’t mean physically; not to most people, at least. God knows there was something physical separating me and Kenny for some of the time I knew him; until I talked the cops out of searching his RV and got us a few miles closer to the border.
For a while, though, he kept me in the back, behind some doors that separated the living room/kitchen/cockpit from the more cozy, romantic bedroom. Not to make it sound like there was any sort of intimacy between Kenny and I; nothing romantic, at least. Our dealings were somewhere between a platonic friendship and a business partnership.
He picked me up in Cortaro, just outside of Tuscon; I was in a bit of a bind and was trying to find someone who would deliver me back to Phoenix. He was in a Winnebago that was looking to be about fifteen years old and six years past its last inspection; a sputtering, decrepit mobile home with more than its share of screws loose – not unlike its owner.
So there I was, hitchhiking on the side of the I-10, when this unwashed behemoth of a recreational vehicle pulls over to let me in. I climb up into it and meet the man himself: Kenny.
Kenny was a character. He was terribly overweight; his beer gut sagged well past his belt down to the seat of his pants. He looked like a full trash bag propped up on stilts. He had a scraggly beard, wore a heather-grey Hard Rock Café t-shirt and a pair of mirrored wraparound sunglasses. He said hello, told me his name and asked where I was going. I told him I had to be at the Arizona Science Center as soon as he could get me there.
Truthfully, that wasn’t where I was going. From what I could tell from the map at the Tuscon greyhound station, it was walking distance to the airport. Somebody back home told me that the first rule of hitchhiking was to never tell them exactly where you’re going – or to lie to them. Even if I was planning on leaving the airport that day, I followed my friend’s first rule. Maybe if I’d followed the rest of them, things wouldn’t have turned out the way they did.
Kenny was glad to take me there. He said that he was on his way across the border, which didn’t make any sense. I asked him why he was going north if he wanted to go to Mexico. He said that he couldn’t trust anybody in Nogales; the only way there was through Tijuana – an eight-hour drive away.
That was fine by me, as weird as it sounded. I needed to get to Phoenix, and as luck would have it, Phoenix was on the way. If he wanted to take me all the way to the science center, it would be a two-hour detour, but even if he dropped me off at Casa Grande, I wouldn’t be far from where I wanted to be.
Kenny told me to buckle up, and we were on our way. He said he didn’t want me sitting up front, but I could sit at the dining table all I wanted. At least, I assume that that was what it was designed for. At the moment, it was covered in these peculiar packages covered in plastic wrap; Kenny told me not to touch them.
So, I scooted into the booth and did my seat belt. Kenny got back into the fast lane and I took a look around the place. It was absolutely filthy; covered in all kinds of stains, grime, and detritus. Fast food containers, empty bottles, syringes, grocery bags, jerry cans and about a half-dozen jugs filled to the brim with yellow-brown urine. I didn’t want to be rude, so I acted blind to it for the duration of my time there.
Kenny had some quirks about how he drove. He didn’t signal when he changed lanes, he occasionally overtook on the hard shoulder, and he had the habit of throwing empties at cars in his way. He speeded for nearly the entire trip, and stopped infrequently. He alternated between energy drinks and light beer; he offered me one of each. As the day wore on, I would eventually want to take him up on it.
I learned a little about him as we made the drive up the 10. He was raised in Holbrook, Arizona, the son of a salesman and his wife. That must have been where he got the entrepreneur’s spirit; Kenny was a businessman in the purest sense of the term.
Boosted cars, counterfeit bills, drugs; there wasn’t anything that Kenny couldn’t sell. He told me he couldn’t get into the details about what he was working on then, but he took the opportunity to remind me once again to refrain from touching the plastic-wrapped packages.
I asked him about the Winnebago; he said he’d won it that week. I asked him what kind of contest would have a decades-old mobile home as the prize, but I didn’t get an answer. He said not to worry about it; that he had a great insurance plan.
He asked me what I did; I told him I was a writer. A newspaper back in New York sent me down to cover the governor’s election in Phoenix. While everyone else was watching the podiums in the state capitol, I wanted to go to Tucson and get some more background on one of the candidates, in his home town. While I was away, that same candidate was found in a hotel room in Scottsdale with a male prostitute. I was the only person that didn’t send a story home about it that day. I got a phone call at my hotel room from my editor saying that I shouldn’t bother coming back at all. The room was paid for by the paper too; they’d cancelled the last two days of my stay. The cheapest flight to New York I could get was the next evening out of Phoenix, not Tuscon; I had to get there quick.
Kenny was sympathetic to my plight. He told me it was going to be okay; that media types were a fickle bunch. He said that he liked the look of me and that he bet that I would be able to pull myself up by my bootstraps. I told him thanks.
We drove for a while, passing by miles of desert as we went. I still hadn’t become accustomed to the heat; I was sweating like a pig through my work shirt and jeans. Kenny didn’t seem to mind the temperature, though my nose was privy to a raging battle between the stench of the RV and a single, pungent whiff wafting from Kenny’s underarms.
When approaching the city of Phoenix, Arizona from the south, travellers will likely find themselves along the I-10, which runs west into the state from New Mexico, through Tucson, north to Phoenix and beyond. At a place called Casa Grande, just past Love’s Travel Stop, the I-10 sprouts another highway, the I-8, which heads directly west, past Phoenix, all the way to San Diego, California - just across the border from Tijuana.
Shortly after we passed the Love’s sign, with the midday sun beating down on us, Kenny took the interchange, transferring us from the 10 to the eight. On this course, we would miss Phoenix entirely. It was then that it dawned on me that I had been kidnapped.
For a few minutes, I attempted in vain to convince Kenny to pull over. Each of my requests was rejected; Kenny said that there was no time to lose. He said he’d drop me off when the time was right. I tried to explain to him that my flight was that evening, and that I had no time to lose.
Kenny decided to put his needs before mine.
I made the mistake of insisting that he stop, even going so far as to raise my voice. Kenny didn’t like that. He pulled out a revolver I hadn’t noticed before from his waistband and pointed it squarely at me. As I pissed myself the slightest bit, Kenny explained to me that I was his insurance plan. He expected to run into some trouble with the highway police in the next few hours and if that were to happen, he would be much better off with an innocent bystander in his care. I begged him not to hurt me; he said that I had nothing to worry about. As long as I did what he asked, he said, I’d be fine.
Then, Kenny put on the cruise control for a bit and made me get in the back. He pulled the doors closed. Even thought he didn’t lock them, he still had his gun on him; I was trapped. Between the heat and the stress, I was sweating more than ever. From what I could hear, Kenny got back into the driver’s seat and cracked another energy drink, or another light beer. It was hard to tell which.
The bedroom was cramped, to say the least. It was almost entirely dominated by the filthy mattress with a large lump in the middle, which I sat on for the entirety of my time in the room. There were windows on the walls at the sides and back, all of them blocked by trash bags and duct tape. I peeled one of them back so I could see outside and ward off motion sickness.
I sat in that bedroom for a long while. Eventually, my boredom won out over my fear, and I tried to start up conversation again with Kenny. I asked him why he was going to Mexico; he said that he had some business to do there. Apparently, someone wanted to buy his packages, and didn’t trust the mail system to get them there. Kenny had gumption running through his veins; he was willing to drive all through the day and night to deliver his product.
We kept driving, cacti and wildflowers whipping past us on either side of the highway. I started feeling a little claustrophobic; the heat and confinement made it a little hard to breathe. I decided to pull off one of the garbage bags entirely and open the window, letting some fresh air into the room. My palms had gotten clammy from perspiration. I stuck them out and let the wind dry them off.
Then, I heard a police siren bleep and I froze stock still. I peeked my head out of the window and saw a highway patrol vehicle following a few car-lengths behind us. Then I heard Kenny curse out loud from the front of the RV.
The Winnebago slowed and pulled over to the side of the highway. The police car stopped behind us and killed its siren; there was nothing but the sound of cicadas and the sizzle of baking pavement. Kenny yelled back to me to keep my mouth shut; that he’d deal with it and we’d be back on the road in no time.
I sat quietly in the bedroom and listened to footsteps on the pavement as the police officer approached the RV. He came up alongside it and knocked on the side. Kenny got up from his seat and stepped out into the heat. I crouched down by the window and watched.
The officer asked Kenny his name. Kenny said his name was Kenny. The officer asked Kenny where he was headed. Kenny said he was going to Los Angeles. The officer asked Kenny if there was anyone else in the RV.
Kenny said no.
The officer asked why, then, he witnessed a pair of hands extending out of a side window at the back of the vehicle. Kenny looked like he was uncomfortable. I looked like I was uncomfortable.
Half-drunk on light beer and hopped up on taurine, Kenny’s mind worked quick. He explained that he’d picked me up – a hitchhiker – and had forgotten I was back there. The officer asked him why there were trashbags on the windows; Kenny said they were to block out the light and help me sleep. The officer seemed very suspicious of Kenny. He asked to speak with me, and Kenny came back into the RV.
Kenny told me to go and talk to him, and to not try anything funny. I told him okay and marched outside. The officer stared right through me from behind his aviator sunglasses and asked me who I was. I told him my name. He asked me how I knew Kenny; I told him I was a hitchhiker that he picked up outside of Tucson. He asked me where I was going; I told him I was headed for Orange County. He gave me another long look, then told me I could go back into the RV.
Kenny went back outside and talked to the officer briefly, then came back in. I asked him what happened; he said that the officer let him go without any more fuss. Then he looked at me funny and asked why I didn’t spill my guts to the cop about everything.
I couldn’t think of an answer.
After the patrolman passed us and drove away, we got back on the highway. Kenny didn’t make me go back into the bedroom, which served me fine. He even let me sit up in the front with him and watch the highway roll under the wheels and disappear behind the dashboard. He gave me an energy drink from his stash, which I nursed thankfully. From all the sweating, I was terribly dehydrated.
I asked him for some more information about himself. He said that he sold drugs for a long time, but now he was moving into a new business. He still wouldn’t tell me what it was.
As we talked, he continued throwing empties out the driver’s-side window onto the highway in front of us. I asked him why he did it; he said he was practising. I asked him what for; he said not to worry about it.
He’d calmed down pretty significantly from his outburst with the gun a few hours before. Hoping to catch him at a good moment, I asked him to pull over and let me out. The road signs said that there was a town coming up; I hoped I would be able to catch a ride headed back east to Phoenix. I pointed out that we’d already had trouble with the police and everything turned out fine; he didn’t need me anymore.
Kenny didn’t like that idea at all.
He said that it was my fault we got into trouble in the first place, and that there was plenty more where that came from down the road. I reminded him that I stuck my neck out for him, and that the kind thing to do was to let me go so I could catch my flight and go home. Kenny responded by pulling out his pistol again and setting it down on the dashboard. He said he was sorry, but he wasn’t going to let that happen. I decided to be quiet for a while.
I eventually dozed off there in the passenger’s seat; when I woke up more than two hours had passed. Kenny was shooting me side-long looks as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. He told me to go over to the dining table and grab him one of the packages. I sleepily walked over, took one, and brought it back to him. He set it on the dashboard and then gripped the wheel a little tighter.
I was suspicious.
Kenny told me that up ahead was the town of Yuma, Arizona. The highway passed right through it, then got back out into open road until Jacumba Hot Springs, where he planned to make the border crossing. I asked him why he was so nervous; he responded by flipping on the radio. He had it tuned to the state police’s frequency.
A voice over the static mentioned an APB out on a mobile home featuring advanced wear and tear with blacked-out windows, driven by a man of large build with a beard and a lithe, bespectacled passenger. I sat and stared at the radio in bewilderment for a few moments.
Kenny told me they’d be looking for us in Yuma. We’d have to snake through the surface streets, get back on the highway, and high-tail it for Jacumba before they figured out what happened. I wanted to ask him one last time to just let me go, but I reasoned that he was plenty high-strung as it was.
A few minutes later, we drove past into the Yuma city limits. As soon as he could, Kenny turned onto a residential neighborhood and slowed the RV down. We crawled past houses from block to block; Kenny’s tired eyes wide open for police cars. More than once, he had to throw it in reverse and back away as a patrol drove past, narrowly avoiding being noticed. The whole time, I was glued to my seat.
Eventually, we snuck our way to the north end of town. All Kenny had to do was cross the Colorado River on Winterhaven drive, pass across the border into California, and get back on the I-8. It seemed simple enough, until we turned onto Winterhaven and saw what was waiting for us on the bridge.
Kenny cursed and smacked the wheel. The bridge was blocked by a police checkpoint. I could see a single car in front of us being questioned by the police, with the opposite laneway open.
I asked Kenny what he was going to do. He didn’t say anything back; he just opened the glove compartment and pulled out a small length of twine. Then, with one hand still on the wheel, Kenny unwrapped the plastic package to reveal a white, clay-like brick underneath.
I asked Kenny what he was doing, but it seemed that he was done listening to me. He inserted the twine into a little hole in the brick, pushed it in there tight, then pulled a cigarette lighter from his pocket and set it down on the dashboard next to the brick.
Then Kenny revved the engine and the whole truck jumped forward. We speeded toward the road block, with me clinging to the dashboard for dear life. Kenny veered to the left, taking the path of least resistance square in the middle of the oncoming lane. He limbered up his left arm for a second, then grabbed the lighter and lit the fuse sticking out of the brick.
I screamed for Kenny to stop. Just as we blew past the open checkpoint, he grabbed the brick in his hand and hucked it out the driver-side window behind us. Police sirens started blaring as he drove by, only to be drowned out moments later by a deafening explosion at our backs. I curled up into a little ball and clenched my eyes shut, but the nightmare wasn’t done just yet.
I let out my breath and opened my eyes again to the sight of Kenny bobbing his head in time with a song only he could hear. I looked ahead to see the far end of the bridge rapidly approaching and a whole lot of smoke in the side mirrors. I asked Kenny what the hell just happened; he responded by telling me he could sell anything. Drugs, cars, bombs; anything. Apparently, he was meeting up with some reprobates south of the border; they were going to use them to clear up some gang beef down in Tijuana. Kenny had made a couple extra bricks for himself though; just in case he ran into some heat on the drive from Tucson.
Once the ringing in my ears died down, I could hear the sirens again. Kenny rounded the bend, bound for the on-ramp back to the highway. I stuck my head out the window and looked back to see that the checkpoint was a complete mess, but one of the cars was still functional. It was scrambling to get on our tail and chase us down; bad news for Kenny.
I asked Kenny again what he was going to do, but he deflected by welcoming me to the state of California. I told him it wasn’t much of a welcome when he’d just got there too; at least that made him laugh. We were now officially in a police chase, in an aging Winnebago driven by a drunken, wired arms dealer and arsonist. As beautiful as the state of California can be, I was having trouble relaxing.
Next thing I knew, there were two additional police cars on our tail. An officer appeared leaning out of the passenger side window with a megaphone, yelling at Kenny to pull over immediately. I looked at him, hoping he’d take the advice, but he had different ideas. He reached under his seat and pulled out a megaphone of his own, then passed it to me. He told me to communicate his thoughts and ideas to the police, but to dress them up as politely as I could. He remarked that he was lucky he picked up a writer; I failed to appreciate the humor in it.
With my head stuck out the passenger-side window and the wind whipping my hair all over the place, I began outlining Kenny’s communiques, as requested. Kenny told me to tell them that there was no way they were going to stop him, that he had a hostage (me), and that there were plenty more bricks where the first one came from. The police didn’t like that one bit, and reiterated that Kenny should pull over and surrender.
I ducked back into the RV to ask Kenny what I should tell them next, but he had other ideas. He put the car back into cruise control and dashed over to the dining table to grab another brick.
For just a few seconds, my window to freedom was open. In his panic, Kenny had left the wheel – and more importantly, his gun – unattended. All I had to do was take the gun for myself and the tables would be turned. Even if I jammed the wheel to the side and sent the truck rolling over on the highway, the job would be done.
Instead, I just sat there. Kenny snatched up another brick, ran back to the driver’s seat, and my window closed. I think at the time it was fear that stopped me; fear of messing it up and earning myself a bullet to the skull from Kenny. But at the same time, there was a part of me also just didn’t want the chase to end, just yet. I was embroiled in the middle of a news story – the greatest story of my life. To end it so anti-climactically right in the middle; I couldn’t do that to myself.
Kenny stuck a wick in the next bomb, lit it, and threw it out the window behind us. It skipped twice on the pavement, then exploded. One of the police cars behind us had to swerve to avoid it; narrowly missing the blast radius. Kenny cursed, his eyes watching his mirrors, but then shook it off and went back to redlining the engine.
Over the blaring sirens and the ringing in our ears from the explosions, I decided to ask Kenny a few more questions. I asked him how he was going to lose the cops; he responded by yelling for me to get him two more bombs. I did what I was told and got them for him; he stuck a third and fourth wick in their slots.
This time, though, he switched up his strategy. He put on cruise control one more time, turned around in his seat, and used his right hand to throw the brick instead. He had a hell of an arm on him; it sailed far and high and hit the windshield of one of the patrol cars. It blew up half a second later, completely obliterating the car and sending bits of the wreckage in every direction. The car spun to its side just in time to clothesline the car directly behind it, stopping both in their tracks.
The last car got wise and flanked us on the opposite side to Kenny, making it too difficult to peg it with another brick. For a moment I thought that he was foiled, but it seemed that he had a plan for that kind of maneuver.
He lit the nest bomb and tossed it in my lap. I screamed in shock, the wick rapidly disappearing into flame. In a panic, I grabbed it in my hands and threw it out the window. It tumbled on the ground for a second and exploded right as the third cop car passed over it. The force of the blast lifted it off of the ground for a few seconds before it landed on its side and rolled over, coming to rest on its roof.
Kenny cried out in celebration, overjoyed that he’d outsmarted the Arizona and California state police. I screamed at him that he almost killed me, but he laughed it off. He said I was fine, that I did a good job. I said that I probably killed someone; he said that they were just some no-good cops. I told him to let me go; he pulled back the hammer on his revolver.
I shut up.
Then Kenny made a sharp turn, pulling off the highway to the right and heading north into a region called Dunes. Kenny said that he’d lose the heat out there, then get back on the highway and make the crossing. I asked him when he planned on dropping me off; he said he would hold onto me until he felt safe on his own. I was worried he might never feel safe that way.
We drove north into Dunes for a while with the I-8 at our backs and a range of mountains before us. The RV was having a little trouble traversing the untamed sands and brush, but we were making some distance. After the excitement of the chase, I almost calmed down enough to doze off. Then I perked up at a suspicious sound coming from above: the putter of a helicopter’s propeller.
I stuck my head out the window to see a dark spot in the clear sky above us. Kenny started shouting incoherently into the dashboard; clearly having hoped that the police wouldn’t step their game up for little old me. He kept moving forward, but the chopper was gaining on us quick.
Kenny told me to get him one last brick. I told him he was out of his mind, that there was no way he was going to be able to do what he was thinking of doing. He told me again to get it, and I decided to appease him. With the brick in his hand, he eyed the dark spot as it overtook us in the sky. Then it lowered to a reasonable distance and a voice commanding us to stop the vehicle boomed out from speakers up above.
The helicopter descended just a few more feet; Kenny looked like he’d been waiting all day for that. He cracked his neck, lit the fuse, then held it low out the window and hurled it forward and upward.
It flew into the sky, hung in the air for one precious moment, then plummeted back down and hit the ground ahead of us. Kenny cursed and jammed the wheel to the side, but there wasn’t enough time to get out of the way. The brick exploded just as all the others did, this time right under the RV’s back axel. The whole truck shook like an earthquake and the rear half was thrown up off the ground. In the few seconds before my face smashed into the dashboard and I blacked out, I remember seeing the dusty ground speeding past us through the windshield.
I woke up in the hospital with a concussion, a broken arm, and significant trauma to my spine. I wasn’t paralyzed, but I had a lot of physical therapy ahead of me.
After the doctors asked their questions, it was the police’s turn. By the time I had come to, they’d put together the story featuring Kenny as the unhinged kidnapper and me the hapless victim; accurate enough. They asked me to go over the details of my ordeal a few more times and then asked me to comment on a few pieces of evidence they’d collected from the wreck of the RV. Lots of incriminating things, but nothing that would make any trouble for me.
I stayed at Yuma Regional Health Center for a few weeks, then got on a flight back home to New York. When I got back to my apartment, I found a missed call from my old editor: an offer to give my me job back in exchange for an exclusive about my experience in Arizona. I thought back to that moment on the highway when I chose to cover for Kenny and lie to the patroller. I thought about how much of the narrative I would have missed, how much more dull the story would have been if I had taken the opportunity and saved myself any more grief.
I called up my editor right away and told him he had a deal. A week later I was limping back into the newsroom, first as a source and then as a reporter again.
As for Kenny, he’s still awaiting trial. I’ve been screening calls from prosecutors for the past month, though I know I’ll have to start picking up eventually.
Even with it all behind me, I still often think back to my road trip through the state of Arizona.
My road trip with my good friend Kenny.