I felt lonely for the first few miles after Ben parted company with me to rejoin his people at Laguna, but before long my mind returned to the patterns of the previous day; ranging far and wide in space and time. The road was somewhat broken, as construction of the future Interstate 40 was underway and I would be sometimes hemmed in tightly by construction barrels and sometimes had to wait as eastbound traffic used a single lane, followed by westbound traffic when our turn came. The delay was annoying but it allowed me to appreciate the harsh beauty which surrounded me. The red cliffs on the north side of the road looked as if they belonged on Mars, and the jagged, broken black rock of the Malpais, a vast volcanic extrusion which occurred eons ago and yet still only sported tenacious and ragged shrubs and other hardy plants which grew in cracks and depressions in the rock where a little windblown dust had gathered in sufficient quantity to support life.
By the time I got to Grants I had broken free of the construction and was sailing once again on good and open road. I stopped to get fuel and check my transmission fluid, which was low but no worse than before. Near the gas station was a tiny hut which sold burgers, burritos, fries, and not much else. I ordered a cheeseburger and found that it was even hotter than my breakfast burrito had been. I gobbled that down and washed it down with an RC Cola, and then returned to the road. On the very outskirts of Grants I saw two more hitchhikers and, since I greatly missed Ben’s company, I pulled over and indicated for them to climb in. I no longer remember their names so I’ll call them Tom and Jerry. They were returning home from some school east of New Mexico and one was going to Flagstaff while the other was going to Prescott. Once again, this was not exactly the route I had been planning to take, but I could drop them off right at their destination at no inconvenience to myself.
Tom and Jerry were likable guys who were very grateful for the ride. We talked of our homes and their school experiences, and mine in Vietnam. The miles flew behind us. Soon we drove through Gallup, on the eastern edge of New Mexico, and then we began to cross the high, flat countryside of northern Arizona. That part of Arizona is very much unlike the arid land of the southern part of the state, or the lands further north near the borders with New Mexico, Colorado and Utah. There were shallow ponds, or perhaps small lakes, with high grass growing as far as I could see.
As we approached Holbrook, one of the railroad towns that run across the West, I had a bright idea. Tom was twenty years old like me, but Jerry was twenty one. i pulled into the parking lot of a small grocery store and provided Jerry with the funds to buy a couple six packs and some snacks, which he gladly did. Soon we were back on the road and enjoying ourselves even more than we had been before. Winslow rolled behind us and in another hour we were in Flagstaff. Jerry got out in the downtown area and said that he would like to walk the rest of the way home. I was beginning to wonder about this walking home thing. Prescott was an hour further down the road to the south, and Tom let me take him to his door. I was offered the hospitality of his family but I was by now wanting very much to get home. We waved and I was alone again and pointing the Mercury towards Phoenix and, beyond that, home.
The road from Prescott to Phoenix back then was a gently winding and steady drop from the evergreen-dotted high country to the low desert. As I drew nearer to Phoenix the vegetation grew more and more scrubby and sparse while the land became drier and more rocky and the air like a blast furnace. Driving through Phoenix was like swimming in a volcano, and as I turned first west to Glendale and then south to Gila Bend it got even hotter. There is a story told about this low desert country. At Yuma, which was in my path, there once was a prison. A prisoner who had lived many years in one of the cells there died and, being a very bad man, naturally went to hell. After a short while he petitioned the Devil to let him send a message back to earth, to which request Old Scratch surprisingly agreed. His message was simple: “Send my blankets”.
Turning west at Gila Bend I was now on a straight line for home. Across the farmland of Dateland, Tacna, Dome and Azteca I flew, stopping only in Azteca for gas, fluid and a restroom break. It was in the restroom at that gas station that I saw a sign that has stuck with me for all these years: “We aim to please. You aim too, please”. It was now mid afternoon and hot as hell, but I had visions of home dancing in my head. Since I was now driving straight west the sun was beaming in my windshield and roasting my knuckles on the steering wheel. I had to take turns; first one hand and then the other. The windows were rolled down and the scorching wind swirled around the growing fuzz on my head and face. Occasionally I would rest my elbow on the drivers’ side door, but quickly the flaming sun would begin to cook my pathetically pale skin and I would withdraw a slightly more pink arm back inside the safety of the car.
Soon I climbed a low pass through an outcropping of jagged, sun-blasted hills and descended into the town of Yuma, of the shivering bad guy in hell fame. A long, long line of traffic lights; the entire town seemed to be strung out along the east-west axis of U.S. Highway 80, finally gave way to the bridge over the Colorado River, the state checkpoint to keep out fruits and vegetables which could harbor pests injurious to California’s agricultural industry, and I was at last barreling across the sand dunes and sage-and-greasewood-and- cactus covered desert floor of the Imperial Valley.
The climb up the east side of the Laguna Mountains was a wonderful thing. Each thousand feet that I rose brought the temperature down further and further from hellish to miserable to hot, until finally I achieved comfortable at the top of the grade. Watching the temperature gauge on the Mercury’s dashboard gave me a few moments of heartburn as the extra effort of propelling a ton of vehicle and passenger up the steep, winding, 4,000 foot grade made the engine overheating more than a dim possibility, a prospect which was attested to by the rather large number of cars pulled over in turnouts provided with large barrels of water by the State Division of Highways to grant succor to those who had to drop out and cool off before continuing up the grade. The needle climbed into the “HOT” range but never made it to “TOAST”, and almost the moment that I rose up over the crest and began to wind my way westward across a level valley north of Jacumba the needle began to dip back down to its usual resting place.
I wanted to keep going but needed one more gas stop in Pine Valley, where I was to be married one day eight years later. The transmission fluid was not leaking any worse than before and I felt relieved to know that a phone call and a couple hours’ wait for my dad to arrive with a tow bar was the worst thing that could happen now. I got a burger and fries, this one cooler than molten lead, from a little place next to the only motel in Pine Valley, and ate it as I resumed my journey west.
A couple of miles west of Pine Vally I mounted a gentle hill that marked the last high point between me and home. Descanso slipped by and then Alpine, the town with a tavern that has a huge oak tree growing right through the center of the building. Flinn Springs, El Cajon, and finally back to the incipient Interstate 8. No more than five miles after that I was pulling up in front of the home that I grew up in. I turned the motor off and sat there for a few minutes, listening to the ‘ting, ting, ting’ of the motor cooling down. It had been a long and arduous drive for both of us, and my admiration for that car grew as I thought back over the last 36 hours. It was about eight o’clock, just before the last fading of light in San Diego in the summer. I emerged from the car and walked up to the front door. I hadn’t called ahead, so i rang the doorbell. it was Dad who came to the door and he was surprised to see me home so soon. He opened the door as Mom came from a room in the back of the house to see what was going on. I said “Hi”, and gave them both a big hug, just like the hugs I had been given at the campground at Wind Cave. It was the hug that I should have given them a couple of weeks ago when I returned from two years of war. It was the coming home that mattered, like Bens.