a literary review
Blasting a sixty-foot pine tree with cantaloupe from a homemade PVC potato gun is inexplicably exhilarating. As is blowing up a coffee can full of gunpowder and roasting a pig over an open fire. During the Saturday night parties at my cousin Melanie’s place near Johnstown, Weaver’s Ridge, a tiny, isolated enclave deep in the woods of western Pennsylvania, these pursuits, while neither mundane nor dignified, served as our entertainment. This was in the 1990s, and back then, mud bogging was the perennial favorite. No act more clearly defines one as country folk.
Mud bogging is an off-road activity that involves driving your vehicle into a muddy area expressly to traverse bumpy, unpaved, muddy roads, maybe get stuck, and thoroughly smother your vehicle in mud. Yes, drunken revelers were getting behind the wheels of vehicles, always Ford trucks, or at the very least an American-made pickup, but we irresponsibly reasoned that mud bogging happened off-road, that it was harmless fun, and the drivers were not inclined to damage their own trucks. I was always just along for the ride, making an effort to join the fun own and be a part of the group, which did not come naturally to me. I wasn’t against drinking but in my own small circle of friends, it wasn’t how we spent our time. This mud bogging group was pretty focused on it, and I knew I could never catch up, and didn’t want to. Drinking to excess among this group would have made me just like them, and I always wanted to be different. I definitely would not ride with a drunk driver navigating any type of road today. That I emerged from my twenties unscathed by my dangerous choices is a miracle. I’m a careful person and when I think back on how uncareful I was, I blame youthful ignorance and count myself and others lucky for ignoring the obvious danger.
Mud bogging protocol dictated that the manliest men drive their trucks into the mud bogging area in order of manliness, at least that’s how it looked to me: alpha males with the biggest trucks at the lead, everyone else following behind. I know, I know, there can be only one alpha male, but these rednecks all considered themselves to be the alpha male. They were friends, or cousins, or brothers, were all named Mike and Johnny, except the one guy, he was named Pete, and their wives and girlfriends (sometimes one of each) frequented the parties religiously.
It did not matter the time of year—if mud could be found then the trucks were out hunting for it, like pigs after truffles. Bouncing around in a vehicle over ruts and holes, the headlights flashing over the forest and the sky; that sick feeling when you’re airborne and you don’t know where you’re going to land. Finding something to hold onto was the hard part. Laughing and screaming was the easy part. It was pure, pointless fun, something that is hard to come by the older I get. I had no fear of consequences, and the drivers were in it for showmanship, how well they could handle the trucks in the dark, in the mud, in the weeds. I never doubted their abilities and I never worried for my own, or anyone’s, safety, whether through ignorance or willful naiveté I do not wish to recall.
I did most of my mud bogging when I was in college, still not much of a joiner then or a maker of friends. My sister Amy was always there with her boyfriend Johnny Walker—his actual name. For one reason or another Amy was fond of renting cars. I can distinctly remember the white three-door Geo Metro she rented one summer. It was not the rental we got stuck in with my mother at an adult book store. That was a sedan.
Geo Metros were not known for their comfort, space, or power. My father referred to Amy’s car as “The Unit.” The Unit satisfied her around-the-town needs, but it wasn’t powerful enough to navigate the mountains of western Pennsylvania. And it was definitely not powerful enough to take on the mud-bogging paths around Mike and Melanie’s compound. My cousin’s husband, Mike, took a look at the Metro and, throwing caution out the hatchback door, said, “Oh yeah, we’re taking this out mud bogging. It’s a rental.” It was entirely, purely and fundamentally due to the ridiculousness of taking a subcompact hatchback, white no less, mud bogging. With Mike in the driver’s seat, Amy riding shotgun, and me and Wendy in the backseat, we took off. No, we were not following. We were the lead. The trucks had to keep up with us. We bounced and skidded in every direction, through the woods, the mud, the rutted paths. But we never got stuck, never slowed for a minute. And when we finally made it back, the car was a chocolate drop. No harm done. But still, this is why you should never buy cars that were previously rentals.
During my college years, I was bartending on the weekends not far from Weaver’s Ridge. The bar was the Airport Tavern, a biker bar. When I finished with closing, after cleaning endless beer spills and the urine-soaked bathrooms, I’d head out to mud bog. I went with the hope of seeing Daryl, my crush back then, but Daryl sightings were becoming infrequent, and I was trying to have a life of my own at Saint Francis College (now University) where I studied History and English Literature.
I knew I should probably spend more time at college, going to parties thrown by the students there. But every time I thought about giving it a go, and trying out the college nightlife, I’d end up back at the mud-bogging parties. These parties were such trashy redneck fun that I couldn’t resist. Once, some college friends talked me into going to a fraternity party. It wasn’t catastrophic, thank god, but it was torturous for someone who has little tolerance for fraternity and sorority types, or pop and country music. My friends assured me it was a lot of fun. I knew it wouldn’t be, but ambitious as I was, I wanted the experience.
We headed into town, four of us, and found the derelict house by following the blaring music and the tentacles of already inebriated guests working their way in. The house was dark, dirty, loud, and smelled like terrible beer and something else I couldn’t put my finger on. I knew I didn’t fit in, and that I would not be staying long. That was about half an hour, right after I slipped and fell in someone’s vomit. Ok, yes, that was the other smell I couldn’t quite pinpoint. That night, I went back to my dorm, showered, and promised myself I would never go back. I wouldn’t do that to me again.
The thing was, with mud-bogging parties, I knew what I was getting into. At my cousin’s house, I knew the music would be good (Metallica and their ilk). I knew that people went far off into the woods to vomit, leaving the high traffic paths clean. I knew that something interesting was always likely to happen. Even so, with all these superior qualities, I somehow knew I didn’t fit in there either. I was the only one going to college, who thought monster trucks were stupid, and I was never going to date someone named Mike or Johnny. But every weekend, after my shift at the Airport Tavern, I was irresistibly called back to those parties.
On one of those last evenings in the woods, I decided to have a beer. I knew I likely wouldn’t finish it. but I just wanted to do what everyone else was doing. And this night I wanted to try to fit in. I had just gotten off work and was back in college after the summer break. It was late September, starting to get dark earlier, just starting to get a hint of a chill in the air. On this occasion there happened to be some strangers at the party. One of the mud bogging regulars met them at a bar and brought them to the woods—two Marines from Texas, in Johnstown for some military-related reason. They were loud, inebriated, southern braggadocios who drove into town—not in a Ford, but a red Toyota truck. The local Ford-truck-driving revelers instantly had it in for the Texans whose vehicle wasn’t American-made and invited the perfect opportunity for mud bogging. Somehow, the decision was made to take the trucks and the Toyota further into the woods on the mud-bogging course, further onto the rutted, overgrown paths. The air was crackling with imminent showdown and male preening. It felt right to ride, standing up, in the bed of a pickup truck next to my cousin Len. I felt like a Roman in the back of a chariot, waiting for the game to begin, my long hair loose down my back, and my beer in hand. Johnny Walker was driving with Amy beside him, and when he took off, I instantly dashed my beer all over myself—after I’d had maybe one sip. I probably wouldn’t have finished it, but, with my beer in hand, I wanted to at least look the part of the mud blogger.
We started down the course—identifiable as a road only by the lack of grass. There were two parallel compacted ruts for the wheels to follow, and encroaching branches scraped against the sides of the truck. The trees were so heavy with leaves that the moonlight was completely diffused. Someone in a Jeep Wrangler was bringing up the rear. We bounced through the woods, the headlights leaping up and down, scanning the trees and lighting up the night in a chaotic pattern. We twisted and turned through the paths; I held on tightly to the roll bar, giving only a brief thought as to its purpose and what it might mean if we needed it.
By now my hair was a tangled mess from the beer and the leaves and dirt, and I was glad for the darkness. Every few minutes, we would stop and wait for the others to catch up. Eventually, we made our way to a narrow section of the woods, a path much too narrow for an F-150 to maneuver. The trees were too close on one side, and there was a truck-sized pool of water about ten feet deep on the other. Our ride pulled off to the side, and the Toyota came bounding past, the Marine in the driver’s seat taunting Johnny for his lack of courage. Johnny shrugged. Heedless to the warning, the Toyota and the two Marines zoomed ahead. At that moment, the truck tipped over into the pool and quickly was submerged in the murky water. For a few seconds, everything came to a standstill. We all stood with our mouths open, then ran to the edge of the pool. We watched as one Marine, then the second, and their friend came out of the truck through the window, someone giving a hand to each as they climbed out.
Pretty quickly the elder Mikes and Johnnys decided to bring in my uncle. He ran a wrecker for years and was known for his ability to pull vehicles out of ungainly situations. Someone at the rear of the convoy reversed course and went off to find him. At that late hour, there was only one place he would be: The Abruzzi, a club that served beer until 4 a.m. About forty minutes later my Uncle Len appeared and assessed the situation, and in his highly pickled state was nonetheless able to cleverly recruit the Jeep Wrangler. The Wrangler had a winch on the front, which he hooked to the axle of the Toyota, but the Wrangler was lightweight and couldn’t get enough traction to pull the truck. Soon another winch was found to tether the Wrangler to one of the innumerable trees, and pulling, tugging, spinning tires ensued.
Meanwhile, I spent the time carrying on with Len and the others who stood watching. There wasn’t anything for us to do—and yet, even as dawn began to break, I had no plans to leave. The part of me that committed to the beer and this adventure needed to see how this would play out. Finally, with a huge revving from the Wrangler, a grand spluttering, and at the sound of a plug being pulled out of a muddy drain, the Toyota emerged from the pool of muddy water—perfectly upright, as though nothing had happened. The truck wasn’t even muddy, just sluicing off water. Uncle Len was cheered and clapped on the back, feted for the masterful choreography. Then he said to the Marines, “Let’s see if she starts up. Who’s got the keys?”
We looked at the Marines, expectant faces all turning in tandem.
In a slow Texas drawl, one said, “Well, sir, in the heat of my anger, I threw the keys in the pooo-ool.”
Uncle Len threw his hands in the air and walked away. We all did. Got back in the trucks, left the Marines standing there by the now very sad, dripping, draining, albeit pretty much intact, red Toyota pickup truck. Dawn’s half-light had pushed its way through and the atmosphere of dogged groundwork dissipated. Everyone was exhausted and unwound.
And me, I was done. I didn’t know it at the time, but the event signaled the end. I did not see a way to top that night’s experience. I would only grow more distant—though not in a bad way; I didn’t feel superior, but I was bored of those parties in the woods and bored of mud bogging. I was nearly through with college and had found my calling as a museum curator. I was anxious to begin graduate school and my work in museums. For me, mud bogging was like a book I’d loved as a teenager, one I’d outgrown but still loved.
After graduate school, I didn’t think about parties in the woods or mud bogging very often. I even started dating, though I never stopped thinking about Daryl—persistent that I am. It took fifteen years, but we started dating and eventually, I married him. He tells me he regrets missing out on those wild nights of mud bogging
I never learned what happened to the Marines. They’d probably tell the story differently, and may not have appreciated our example of the collaborative work mentality of western Pennsylvanians. I still wonder how they got their truck out of the deep, dark, difficult-to-navigate Weaver’s Ridge. Perhaps it was as much a learning experience for the Texans as it was for me. Maybe they wouldn’t have attempted mud bogging if they’d known what we’d done to the Geo Metro.
Carrie Blough is a history museum curator and writer from western Pennsylvania, living in Maryland with her husband and two cats. She is a member of the Maryland Writers’ Association and can be found on Twitter at @cablough.