Rick Baker was my partner in crime, whiskey and adventure for almost 45 years. We first met in the mid ‘70s when he moved to West Carrollton from Alton, Illinois. I had lived in West Carrollton since my father retired from the Army, came home from Vietnam and planted his flag there.
One typical evening about 1975, I showed up early for the weekly scout meeting to get chairs, flags and such set up for the meeting. The church basement where the meetings were held was still locked, and I spy Rick standing in the dark all alone, wearing his full uniform to include a red patch vest full of patches with trails and events I had never heard of. He had been dropped off and left to fend for himself.
We stared each other over, each sizing up the other the way teenage boys do. At the time I had risen through the ranks of the troop to be voted by the rest of the boys as Senior Patrol Leader, the one in charge of all the other scouts in the troop…this guy looked about my age and had his Life rank badge already…was this guy a challenger to my leadership role?
Giving him the stink eye, I wondered to myself who this outlandish looking, dorky nerd was. He was all dressed up like he was going to a Court of Honor, one of the few occasions that would get me to wear the full monkey suit like he had on. It wasn’t all that cool to be seen in a Boy Scout uniform in High School in the 70’s…so I figured this guy must be a real piece of work.
He was indeed a piece of work…anyone that has known Rick knows he was a real character and never knew a stranger. So along with Steve Burns, the Scout Master’s son and my buddy since Cub Scouts, it wasn’t long before we were running the troop like Hawkeye, Trapper John and BJ on the TV show MASH.
We once convinced some of the assistant scoutmaster’s that it was a somehow a good idea to give us a pint of Mad Dog 20/20 if we collected enough fire wood for them to burn all night. They bought it, and we were toasty all night and we were soon swinging from the rafters in the little cabin.
Rick, Steve and I were the three amigos throughout High School. Rick’s mom was divorced soon after the family arrived in Ohio and worked nights, so he had the crash pad where we hung out every day; listening to music, partying and doing all-nighters with the usual teenage shenanigans.
We had many adventures hiking and camping and then school was done. I joined the Army. Rick went to community college to become an X-Ray tech. Steve also joined the Army with an instant family to take care of, and so the three amigos went off in separate directions.
I’d come home for leave every once in a while and we’d take up where we left off, going to crazy house parties or just hanging out talking about how boring it was in Ohio. Finally, my four years were up and Rick’s schooling was complete. I had told him many tales of my travels and that I was going to move back to Washington, with its big beautiful snow covered mountains, ocean, rainforests, wild rivers and desert it had everything for high adventure.
Rick didn’t hesitate for a second and said he was in. So we packed our cars with all our worldly possessions and began our month long caravan to the promised land. We had numerous adventures along the way…not the least of which was my ’65 Valiant began overheating as soon as we got on the interstate heading West.
I had pulled the back seat out and filled it with cargo so the poor old thing was being badly overworked and mistreated. We had to pull over at every rest stop to refill the radiator. We finally made it to Rick’s grandmother’s house in Illinois and stayed a few days while I tried everything in the Chilton’s manual to fix the overheating.
I would perform one “possible source of overheating” after the other and take the Valiant down the Great River Road along the Mississippi River to see if it overheated before I made it to the “Our Lady of the Rivers” shrine and turned around.
I learned a lot more about Rick after watching his grandmother in her natural element for a few days. She was a real character and forced us to eat constantly, but you had to say grace every time you took a bite. She had a nervous Chihuahua that just about shook himself apart and piddled every time someone came near him.
She still had a trash barrel out back in the field and was a rampant pyromaniac. She would have us get it started and would then make 500 trips to the barrel to keep it going, each trip with just a handful of something combustible. I swear she was bringing out single sheets of toilet paper for a while.
In any case we continued on our path Westward, driving at night as it was cooler until we got far enough West that it was still snowing in Yellowstone. We stopped at anything remotely interesting along the way…the Badlands, Mt. Rushmore, various caverns, The Corn Palace, Wall Drug, Devil’s Tower, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, we hit them all living out of our cars eating baked beans and macaroni & cheese.
We barely made it over the Continental Divide, driving in a massive blizzard where we couldn’t even see the road. Smelling the barn, we quickly cruised through Montana and Eastern WA to arrive at Mt Rainier National Park. This big pile of lava was the source of my magnetic draw back to Washington.
My Valiant must have sensed her mission was complete, the oil pump went out and the motor seized as we were leaving the park. We used one of my new climbing ropes to tow it to Tacoma, snapping it several times before arriving on Memorial Day weekend 1982.
We finally found a place open, the Calico Cat Motel on Pacific Avenue. It was eventually closed down in 2016 after a murder happened there and all the rooms test positive for meth. Back in ’82 it was very hot that weekend and with no auto garages open we filled a bota bag with Lambrusco, grabbed our bikes and headed for Pt Defiance Park to see if it was cooler down by the water. We hung out at the old boathouse, now long gone, and drank the entire bota of wine.
We headed back to the motel, half-lit on cheap wine. Climbing back up the hill in the 90 degree heat Rick paused to do the Lambrusco hurl on the overpass next to the still under construction Tacoma Dome. I continued to the top of the hill and found an air conditioned bar to re-group in and Rick soon limped in.
Feeling a little more refreshed half way into our pitcher of ice cold beer Rick looks at me and says, “I think I’m going to like it here”. With that, dos Amigos were back in the saddle for decades of adventure.