The Smoketree School of Hard Knocks | by Cathal Gunning

     Teresa, you have one new match on Tinder.

     For all the fucking good that’ll do, says you. You’ve one new match on Tinder, your screen blinking under the glare of too-bright sunlight as you expire alone in the foothills of the San Jacinto, midsummer Californian heat haze melting you into nothing. What a world, indeed. Dying of dehydration is among the worst ways to go out, up there with drowning, (which’s ironic, really). When they find you, you’ll still be yourself, just without the water weight. Skin clinging to the bone underneath it, thin, almost transparent. “Withered”, Teresa, is the word you’re looking for.

     Teresa who cares what word you’re looking for when you’re as good as dead. And worse, unable to meet your new Tinder match. She’s an Irish ex-pat, too, you two would have so much in common already. Well, maybe she’ll come to your funeral. She can spend the rest of her J1 holiday mentioning how she matched on Tinder with the girl who got lost in the desert, and sure Jesus isn’t it awful altogether. That’s how you’ll be remembered, Teresa.

     So, the good news is you’re not Teresa. You’re Carl Eytel, the enigmatic, quintessentially American artist who vanished into the San Jacinto over a hundred years ago, disappearing into nothing somewhere between Suicide Rock and Shangri La. Or Ojai, if you insist on being a pernickety virgin about it. Jesus, be romantic for once. Taqwus has already fucked you over royally, now’s as good a time as any to become an ardent believer. The Salton Sea’s stinks because it is haunted by the spirit of a pissed off minor god, and Ojai for all intents and purposes may as well be Shangri La. Look, a few more hours without drinking anything and it so won’t matter. You’ve reached the level of dehydration where drinking piss no longer sounds merely viable, or even outright acceptable, but downright refreshing. Your kingdom for a fucking golden shower, right Carl? Next time ask the locals, asshole. The natives know these mountains. Not in some vague, bull-shitty way, that patronising bollocks about being “spiritually linked to your ancestors”. As in, practically speaking, the people who have lived here for years know where there’s water and where the snakes nest.

     Carl thought of this, spoke to and fell in love with and in short order married a local, so he survived. And not only survived, but lived, even. The sort of life that turns Ojai into Shangri La, you know what I mean?

     God lighten up Teresa, you’re not dead yet. Close enough, though. You’re not Cheryl Strayed, you’re at best Christopher McCandless after he strayed off the path. See what I did there? Never mind, not the time.

     Okay Teresa, you’ll maybe survive. Don’t eat your fingers just yet, they’re going to be dry and dusty and you don’t have the constitution for it, despite what you think. You can’t die out here, thirsty and alone amongst the depths of the San Jacinto. What about taking ayahuasca at Joshua Tree next week? Now who’ll chase smoke people of the imagination through the cloudless dusk? Staring at the sun whilst resisting the urge to throw up, then eventually begrudgingly letting go and letting yourself get sick, and feeling all the freer for it, if not necessarily better. Who’ll try to climb trees looking for your friends only to realise those trees are cacti and your friends are a few feet behind you, wishing they hadn’t let you talk them into this “vision quest” by giving it a name that sounded less like hippy-dippy bullshit and more like a Saturday morning cartoon you grew up with?

     “Vision Quest”. This, Teresa, is your vision quest, your conversation with the burning bush, your encounter on mount Hira. You too are desperate, dehydrated, and delusional; you too are in the perfect place and position to see god(s).

     You’re good, there’s a patch of darker sand over there; a rumour of water, or something like it. Maybe it’s a split open cactus or a stream of recent desert fox piss; either way, something living is in the vicinity (other than you). Salvation. This’s meeting a god, the mere luck to survive when you could (and arguably should) have died already. I hope you learned your lesson, whatever it is. Now yo tengo que get the fuck out of here.



Born in Blackrock, Cathal now splits his time between Dublin and Mayo. He is an editor and co-founder of the online poetry, non-fiction, and literature collective ‘Cold Coffee Stand’ ( His story “Hearts/Sinews” was short-listed for the Hennessy New Irish Writing competition. His poetry has been published in The Rose Magazine (‘Hark’, Issue 4), and his fiction has been published in (or is forthcoming in) Tales From the Forest, The Honest UlstermanSnakes of Various ConsistencyThe Runt, and the collection “From the Candystore to the Galtymore”. His debut novel ‘Innocents’ was published by Solstice in September 2017. Excerpts from ‘Innocents’ have been short-listed for the 2015 Maeve Binchy Award and the Cuttyhunk Island Writer’s Residency.