We drove off to look for America

Posted by on Jul 4, 2006 in Reckless youth | 0 comments

My two younger children embarked last week on a trip across the US to visit their older sibling and his wife in Seattle, which got me thinking of an epic journey of my youth. That’s me in the picture, along with my ex and the Buick, in my parent’s driveway as the story begins…

We got to San Francisco in June of 1968, but due to poor timing, I nearly missed the summer of love. It had been an amazing and difficult first year as a college teacher for John, who was my husband at the time. Camelot had died in 63, but Kennedy’s words still echoed in our ears, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Collective social consciousness among the 20 somethings had been stirred to a frenzied level. My husband had accepted a position for the 1967-68 school year at Virginia Union, a majority black university. He was one of 4 young white men, recently out of graduate school, and looking to make a difference in a world where discrimination was blatant and hostile. I still remember calling him on the phone the day that Martin Luther King Jr. followed JFK into martyrdom. He was in the chapel of VU, and the sound of the anguished cries of the young black students in the background will echo in my heart forever. We had made promises that year, standing in protests and marches, shoulder to shoulder with all the young idealists, that a new world order was just around the corner. Like King, we assured them it didn’t have to be like it was in Watts in 65, but it would occur naturally, peacefully, as the old men died and took their bigotry to the grave. The awful irony of the moment was not lost on us.

It was only after we started on our journey to the west coast that we found out that Robert Kennedy, our last champion, had fallen like the others. All hope fled from Pandora’s box that year, and those left behind clung to each other for what little consolation they could find. Everything seemed transitory, doomed, and we wanted to see the USA before it was lost forever. We headed out in a 1964 Buick the size of a small motor home, loaded up with camping supplies, around a thousand dollars, and the arrogance and idealism of youth. My Dad changed the windshield wipers when we got to Kentucky, but we never saw rain that summer from the time we crossed the Mississippi in June till we came back over it in August.

We followed the southern route, much of it on old highway 66, down through Missouri and Oklahoma, across the Texas panhandle and on to New Mexico, Arizona, and Nevada. The camping supplies were for when our money ran out, but we found so many cheap hotels we rarely used them. In Tucomcari New Mexico we stayed in a tiny clean room that cost four dollars a night. I saw my first scorpion, thankfully outside in the parking lot, but I checked my shoes before I put them on that morning, just like all the smart cowboys. It’s good that we found such cheap rooms, because as we came down the long slope leading into Flagstaff Arizona, the car made an awful gasp and died. The gas station we pulled into was able to locate and install a water pump while we spent the day in a nearby bookstore, my husband John’s instinctive point of refuge in times of stress. We were on the road again before the day was out, our cash reserves slightly depleted.

We found a spot to camp in the Grand Canyon, but slept in the car instead of outside on the ground. John insisted on leaving the Canyon after a cursory glance, because the drunks who were throwing beer cans over the edge ruined the whole experience for him, or so he said. I begged to stay, because even with the attempts humans had made to degrade it, the majesty of the landscape was undiminished. I was overruled, and we drove in silence along the hot dusty road leading to the Hoover Dam. We didn’t stop there either, since it had become apparent that the city boy I married had tired of rural scenery and was eager to get somewhere civilized. I did not protest, because after the canyon, the dam seemed like a child’s toy. Miles of desert later we arrived in the glitzy false façade of Los Vegas, feeling grimy and soaked with sweat. Construction dust on the road had been so thick we had to turn on the headlights and roll up the windows of our non air-conditioned car. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the big casinos practically gave away rooms and food, thinking they would encourage tourists to spend money on the gambling. We left no skin on fortune’s wheel, but shook the dust off our sandals the very next morning and headed for the city of angels. I was actually five dollars richer because I cashed in the free chip that came with the price of our blissfully air conditioned room.

Outbound, the city ended as abruptly as it began, and we sped along a highway that was covered with drifts of sand and blowing tumbleweeds, over dry mountains and dryer plains. Just when it seemed it would go on forever, I was abruptly hit with a gush of moist air and looked up to see a green that had been missing for days. Stretched below in the valley, at the beginning and the end of desolation, was tinsel town, as far as the eye could see. We had no clue as to which way to go, but we soon learned we needed to get there fast, to keep from being run down by the locals. We found a motel room in a slightly seedy part of town, and spend a couple of days looking for the center of the city. We went to Hollywood and Vine, drove by studios and star’s homes, walked up and down the “strip”, and drank our first fruit smoothie at a shiny old fashion diner, but we never found the heart of things. I had no desire to linger in LA and have never returned to give it a second chance.

We teamed up with two New York boys who were staying in the same hotel and offered them a ride to San Francisco, where John had an apartment rented for the month. One of them offered to share the driving chore, and it seemed like a good idea before we found out that the boy had learned his driving skills from his uncle, a taxi driver in New York City. We felt like we had whiplash from his gas-brake, gas-brake style within an hour after we started up the scenic coast highway, but no matter how many times we offered politely to take over, he insisted he was fine driving. Still, the views were the most incredible I have ever seen, dots of sea lions far below on rocky beaches, quaint little towns with organic food stores, and beautiful green hills rising impressively to our right. When we finally got to San Francisco a stop in a local garage confirmed that our brake shoes, that were put on only a few months earlier, were worn down to steel. Replacing the shoes and turning the drums took another bite out of our small reserve of cash.

We didn’t expect much in the way of elegance for the price we were paying for the two-room apartment on Sutter Street, but we were only two blocks from the main drag of Market Street where we could catch the cable car for a nickel. Chinatown was in walking distance, and we ate there a few times, indulging in the best Chinese food I have ever had before or since. I often took the cable car down to the harbor and Ghirardelli’s square, where, if I my pockets hadn’t been empty, I could have shopped and eaten very well. Judging by the number of people begging for spare change on the street, I wasn’t the only one strapped for cash. I had too much pride to fall that low, so I mostly strolled around in my homemade clothes, blending in with the other longhaired girls in mini skirts and jeans. One treat I remember was a free concert at Marina Green on the fourth of July, where I huddled under newspapers to stay warm, watching the fireworks explode over the Bay Bridge. We also did a bit of exploring in the car, with John driving and me doing the navigation. On one of our first days there I found a great shortcut on the map, but the street was marked in an odd way I had never seen before. We only discovered after we stared down with our tank like car that we were on the Byzantine curves of Lombard, the crookedest street in America. I did much better getting us to Haight- Ashbury, Berkley and Stanford.

John wore his hair fairly short at that time, and dressed in button down shirts, narrow pegged jeans and trousers, and polished leather shoes. We were both excited to visit Haight-Ashbury, the center of the counterculture movement, but John couldn’t blend in with the unwashed shaggy freaks in bell-bottoms and tie dyed shirts. He decided the North Beach strip clubs were more to his liking, and he and the New York boys spent a lot of time there. The boys got their own place after camping out on our floor for a few days, and lacking other friends in the area, John decided to hang out with them and be a bachelor again. During the daytime we visited the aquarium, the zoo, the ghost fleet of the Pacific, and strolled over college campuses, but many days and all nights I was left in my little two-room apartment watching Star Trek reruns on the black and white TV. It was the beginning of the end of our marriage. The middle of the end was four months later in New York, when I found out I was pregnant, but I get ahead of my story.

When our month was up, we packed and left in the early afternoon so we could drive across Nevada at night, avoiding the awful heat and dust of our earlier journey. John, like Ronald Regan, who was governor of California at the time, had no interest in the Redwood Forest, or any other strictly scenic areas, so we sailed through Northern California after dark. I had especially wanted to see Donner Pass, but all was blackness when we drove though the mountain gap where trapped pioneers ate the dead frozen members of their party in their desperation to survive the winter of 1846-47. The blazing summer sun baked Salt Lake City while we stood across from the Mormon temple and talked to clean-cut revolutionaries who were nervously passing out free underground newspapers. They seemed as out of place as the elaborate cathedral, in the arrow straight streets full of drab modern buildings. They advised us not to stay the night, and paranoia prevailed as we scooted on down the road toward the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone Park.

For some reason I clearly remember the color of the sky in Wyoming the morning we drove through the mountains. The rare dawn light had a yellow cast that blanketed all the surrounding hills, and a lake we could see far below. Could this same light have colored the imaginations of those men who named the Yellowstone River? The park ranger never said, but he talked a lot about local hazards and being cautious when camping. John listened with growing alarm at the tales of bears roaming about, eating tourists. Other tourists were not phased by his speech, but stopped their cars and sent small children out to get their pictures taken with moose, elk, buffalo, and grizzly bears they spotted along the road. Because of them progress was very slow and darkness caught up to us before we found our designated campground. Although the ranger had specifically told us not to, we were finally exhausted and pulled over to the side of the road to sleep in the car. John woke me around 3 in the morning telling me there were bears outside in the woods. I told him that’s where bears live, but the car was an impenetrable tank, sure to keep them at bay, and tried to go back to sleep.

“No, no,” he said, shaking me awake, “they’re right outside, look!” I stared out into the inky blackness and saw nothing at all. I started the engine and turned on the lights. Plumes of steam were rising across the field, this being a geologically active area, but where I saw smoke, John saw bears. He had been staring out the window all night, unable to sleep, and was now desperate and exhausted.

“You have to drive.” He said, “I’m too tired.” I thought of teasing him out of it, but finally realized he was genuinely petrified with fear, and nothing would do but for me to drive us out of the park. I hadn’t gotten more than a few miles along the road till I heard a siren and saw red lights in my rear view mirror. I pulled the car over and rolled down the window when the park ranger approached. Seeing a young lady driving, he shined a bright light into the back seat, where John sat, wide-eyed, wrapped in blankets. The obvious questioning ensued, but I quickly explained to the man that I was saving my husband from bears. He really tried not to laugh, but he couldn’t help himself.

“So”, he says to John, who was cowering in the back seat, “the little lady is rescuing you?” John, too frightened and sleepy to be embarrassed, agreed that pretty much summed it up. “Just be sure you keep it under the speed limit,” he said to me. ”I’ll let the other rangers know you’re on your way out so you don’t get stopped again. There aren’t too many people on the road up here this time of the morning, you know.” I could hear his suppressed giggling as he walked back to his car. John never did see the humor in that story, and I don’t imagine he ever will.

I woke him up for breakfast somewhere before we got to the Bighorn Mountains and slept while he drove on to South Dakota. Having missed a lot of Yellowstone, I didn’t want to go through the Black Hills without stopping at Mt Rushmore, so we headed up the winding road that led to that famous spot. I’m really glad I did, because when my family and I stopped there in 1999, the pristine vista had gone Hollywood. All the trees had been cut from the formerly unspoiled area where I had looked at the president’s giant faces, while a chipmunk sat on my foot and begged for food. A massive stone and concrete stairway had been built and lined with hundreds of flags waving to the tune of canned patriotic music. An immense multi story parking deck had replaced the simple gravel lot we used, and the entrance fee had gone from nothing to $8.00. I wish you could have all seen it before it was “improved”.

We slept in a motel that night, one of the many clustered around Rapid City, and rested up for our long drive across the Badlands. I was delighted with the views, imagining the early desperadoes and Native Americans who used this forlorn and beautiful area as a hideout. John relaxed visibly when we finally hit Chicago, for just as I understood the message of the trees and streams, he was at his clearest amid the traffic and hurry of the city. We toured a few more universities and bookstores, then drove on across the flat, but green plains of Indiana. Our summer vacation ended when we arrived back in DC, loaded up our meager belongings, and headed off for John’s new job in New York. He had resigned from VU and had accepted a job as an entry-level bureaucrat in the New York City government, or as he described it, “working for Mayor Lindsay”, who was the liberal, progressive mayor of the world’s largest city. The dream of a Manhattan brownstone was compromised as soon as we saw the real estate section. We settled for a fifth floor one bedroom in a Queens high rise, and John quickly found himself to be an extremely small cog in a giant government machine.

It has taken me many years to understand what a significant journey I had taken. I looked at the good and the bad that America had to offer and had been profoundly affected by its splendor and squalor, its diversity and disparity, its optimism and fears. I believed in my heart that I had seen the last of a generation where materialism, greed, and bigotry would be the driving force for our country. I had talked to such a wide cross section of people and I truly thought as my generation matured and moved into positions of power, we would create a utopia. I could not see then how profound the changes would be over the next few years in America, or in my own life, but I felt something big was happening.

A few weeks after we arrived in NYC, I listened to a girl playing guitar in Washington Square. She sat on the curb in her tattered jeans and bare feet singing, “Can’t help but wonder where I’m bound.” I wish I could say that I had a revelation, and saw my generation clear at that moment. That I realized you can’t change human nature. That I knew the drugs and the war would muddle and confuse us all, and we would never keep the promises we had made. But, like millions before and after me, I had only a moment of uncertainty as I glanced at her grimy backpack and tangled hair. I still had faith that she would find her way, that we all would. I’m still hoping.

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