A clear morning dawned bright, early on the day that we were to begin our trip home. It is probably a pity that none of us were up to see it. Our farewell party had gone on late into the evening and nobody felt inclined to roll out of the sack in the manner of those who have somewhere to go. We had set no alarm, having no alarm to set, and therefore got up and got moving at whatever time that the spirit moved us. My guess is that it was close to ten in the morning when we began to get serious about leaving.
Getting out of the door was not a great problem for us. The motorcycle had been stashed in the truck the evening before and all that we had besides that was our sleeping bags, backpacks, my duffle bag, a cooler full of food and a five gallon glass bottle of water for us and Foxy, Dave’s dog, which was pretty much what we had when we arrived. After a hasty breakfast of I don’t exactly remember what, we took our few belongings downstairs and stowed them in the truck next to the bike. Then, after one more look through the apartment to make sure that we were not leaving anything behind, although we had so little that I wonder why we bothered, we piled into the truck, fired up the engine, and nosed out onto the streets winding through Bellevue until we gained the Interstate. Once again we were on the road, this time headed south.
“We” had in fact grown by one. Kelly, a traveler from the U.K., had been bumming across the U.S.A. and Canada and had somehow attached himself to Marilyn and Sandy. Kelly seemed to find a kindred spirit with our footloose selves and asked if we would include him in our party. We agreed to this, finding in Kelly a curiosity with his cool British accent and stories of his travels. In retrospect I believe that Marilyn and Sandy were eager to be rid of Kelly, as he turned out to be a bit of a moocher. We were all eager to begin the journey however; Dave and I looking forward to going home and Kelly for a new adventure.
The Interstate on the east side of Lake Washington rolled south and before too long we joined up with I-5, and now we truly felt like we were on our way home. We decided to take the straightest route possible until we reached the Bay Area, and then we would transition to Highway 101. The Studebaker truck had never really gotten over its tendency to overheat, and while we wanted the shortest route, the California Central Valley in the summer is as hot as anywhere in the country, and so we planned to take a cooler stretch of road which had more towns where we could find help if disaster struck again. For the time being however the old Studi was running warm but not hot, and we soon lost our anxiety on that score and began once again to enjoy the road.
Seattle fell behind us, and then Tacoma and Olympia, where some considerable road construction was still under way on I-5. Now the country opened up before us as the city receded in our rear-view mirror. I asked Dave to pull out the map that was in the glove box in order to see how far it was to Vancouver, where I intended to take on gas. As Dave fumbled in the glove box a rolled up half-sheet of pink paper fell out onto the floorboards. Dave picked up the official-looking sheet and flattened it out on his knee. “Hey man, you got a ticket” he said. “The hell I did” I replied. “What’s the date on that?”
Indeed, it was a ticket for a taillight being out and failure to present registration, the latter of which meant nothing to me. “It was two weeks ago, and it has Paul’s signature” Dave said. I had let Paul use the truck for some reason earlier and obviously he had been pulled over. I don’t think that Paul ever told me about it; at least, I don’t remember him doing so. Paul was a little bit flakier that the rest of us, but we were all so generally flaky that I could not hold that against him, and do not hold it against him to this day. “Well shit” I said sagely. “I think we’ll just keep driving until we get out of Washington.”
And that is what we did. I took on gas in Portland, Oregon, and we kept a steady pace down the highway. By this time it was early in the afternoon and Oregon’s Willamette Valley was getting warm, which meant that my truck’s engine was getting warm too. Still, it did not get too hot and we rolled on with brief and infrequent stops towards California. We fueled up again in Ashland, Oregon, where we once again followed our nature and picked up two hitchhikers.
I don’t recall the names of this two, but it was a young man and a young woman. Evening was drawing near and they were happy that they would not have to sleep by the side of the road. “Where are you going?” I asked as we rolled to a stop. “San Francisco was the reply. The two were total hippies. Earth muffins. Granolas. In the summer of 1970 the glory years of Haight Ashbury, and sitting cross-legged in Golden Gate Park stoned and playing or listening to bad music were fading but the afterglow was still strong, and this pair were out to find enlightenment and better drugs than were available in southern Oregon.
I got into the bed of the truck with our new passengers in order to take a break from driving and give Kelly a turn in the softer seat of the cab. As we chatted above the road noise I learned that they weren’t really a couple; they were just traveling together. Even as undiscerning as I was in those days however it was pretty obvious to me that the young woman was feeling a lot more independent than the young man wished that she did. Her conversation was light and airy; full of vague goals and easy laughter, while he spoke less and seemed to laugh from time to time when it seemed appropriate for him to do so, rather than being truly entertained by the conversation. I felt for the guy, and believed that I knew him better than anyone else in the truck.
Night descended upon us as we crossed the border into California, and as the temperature cooled down so did the motor, and we pressed on nearly non-stop through the night. Kelly was driving when dawn began to lighten the inky eastern sky, and Dave had curled up in his bag in the bed with the rest of us. The “natural air conditioner” that operates in northern California was hard at work, and the rising air from the heat of the north Central Valley had created low pressure which sucked in the cool, moisture-laden marine air through the Golden Gate and eastward, where it spread north and south through the valley. We were huddled in our sleeping bags and under blankets, but roused as the gray became more pronounced,
After fully waking up we all began to talk again, and once again as usual Dave was soon enjoying the attention of the young woman. The flirtation was obvious and mutually enjoyed, but the young woman’s traveling companion was, it was equally obvious, suffering and doing his best not to show it. I clumsily tried to butt into the action, with scant success, and probably let my irritation show more than I wanted it too. A short while later we both got back into the cab and exiled Kelly to the back of the truck.
“What was your problem back there?” Dave asked, more mystified than angry. “Dude, the guy is wishing that he was tighter with her” I said. “It was like you were rubbing it in his face”. I didn’t mention that Dave’s easy manner with girls was beginning to cut my seriously uptight and tongue-tied self just as much as it was cutting the unrequited lover sitting in the bed of our truck. “Aw hell, I was just flirting. They’re getting out in a couple of hours anyway and we’ll never see them again.” “I know” I said. “That idiot’s riding a losing streak and doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing. I just felt sorry for the dumb shit. Let’s let him have his fantasy for a little while longer” Dave probably knew that there was something going on at a deeper level but we left it at cutting some slack to the poor sap who was going to get a dose of reality soon enough anyway. We returned to our usual banter as we approached the Bay Area, and that’s when I saw the red light in the rear-view mirror.
“What is the problem Officer?” I asked as the California Highway Patrolman walked up to my window. I sat in my seat with my hands in view; a lesson that I had learned on a police stop years earlier. “You have a taillight out” he said. “Can I see your license and registration?” I produced my license but frankly did not know what he meant by registration. I had never owned a car before, as was the case with most of the kids that I had grown up with, and when I bought the truck from its prior owner I paid the money, got a hand-written receipt on a piece of notebook paper, signed something that he gave me and drove away. This was, in fact, a repetition of the scenario which had occurred with Paul a couple of weeks earlier somewhere in the Seattle area.
After a few minutes on his car radio the officer returned and asked me if I knew where Spring Valley was. “Yeah, that’s right next to where I live in San Diego” I replied, wondering why he was asking me that and hoping that it was just friendly chatter. “That’s where the registered owner of this vehicle lives” said the officer. I was genuinely confused. “But I’m the owner. I have the bill of sale right there in the glove box.” I began to reach over to extract the bill of sale but remembered the lesson that I had learned long ago about doing such things and pulled up. “I’m going to get it out of the glove box, if that’s all right” I said.
The officer exhaled a bit and moved his hand slightly away from the handle of the pistol on his hip. “OK” he said. “Slowly”. I did as he said and produced the bill of sale. The officer looked it over and then returned to his car to continue a conversation on the radio. Whatever they were talking about ended with a conviction on the part of the officer that I was dumb as a gate post but not criminal. He admonished me to get the paperwork cleared up as soon as I got to San Diego and I promised him faithfully that I would. We all breathed a huge sigh of relief as the patrol car sped off down the highway in front of us, and soon we were rolling again and angling towards the ribbon of concrete that runs south along the East Bay.
We let the flower children out in Oakland, close to the bridge that leads to San Francisco. I do not know to this day if we did them a favor or not, but thats where they wanted to be dropped off and that’s where they were dropped. In a minute or two we were tooling down the McArthur Freeway heading steadily towards San Jose, where we would reconnect with Highway 101. This time, however, we would stay on 101 at Salinas and cut inland, away from Highway 1 and Big Sur.
I have been a gardener for longer than I can remember, and going through Gilroy, the “Garlic Capitol of the Nation and the World”, and Castroville which claims only to be the “Artichoke Capitol of the World” was very pleasing to me. The smell of the garlic and the endless fields of artichokes exerted a pull on me to pursue some sort of career in agriculture, and when you consider how disinclined I was at that time in my life to pursue a career in anything at all, that is saying something.
As we drove inland, putting the coast range between us and the Pacific Ocean, the overcast quickly burned off, and as the midday and early afternoon came upon us the air temperature ratcheted up dramatically. Unhappily, so did the temperature of my motor. At last, the needle was nudging the red line and I was forced to pull over. It seemed like a good time to get something to eat so we gathered up what we had and took our time eating it.
Kelly noticed that the Salinas River was flowing not too far off of the road and said “Oy, mates. Wot you say we wok to th’ riv’r and fill the bott’l with wot’r for the truck?” or something like that in his British accent. It seemed like a reasonable thing to do so we grabbed the nearly empty glass bottle and began to walk over the uneven terrain which stretched for farther than it looked from the road. We didn’t mind the walk, and talked about everything as Kelly took in the beauty of the Salinas Valley and Foxy chased butterflies and left calling cards at every rock and bush.
We finally reached the river and found that the steep bank made filling a five gallon glass bottle more of a project than we had counted on. “I’m the lightest” I said to Dave and Kelly, “so you guys hang onto my belt while I lean down and fill the jug”. they agreed to this plan, but it was still a struggle to fill the bottle, get both it and me back up on the bank, and then transport the heavy, awkward package back to the truck. After much grunting, stumbling, cursing and changing positions we manhandled the bottle back to the truck with most of the water still in it.
The Studi had actually cooled down quite a bit by the time we returned with the water, so we removed the radiator cap and topped off the radiator with the fresh, cool water. The rest of the water we poured out, deciding that we would drink other things between there and home and would get something for Foxy at every stop. We fired up the truck and rolled back onto the highway. The gauge climbed back up into the “high” range right away, but stayed away from the red line, so we pushed on with our fingers crossed. The temperature gauge actually dropped when we went uphill, just north of San Luis Obispo, and we all looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. Why look a gift horse in the mouth?
The remaining seven or eight hours of the trip were mostly uneventful. The road was yesterday’s news to Dave and I but Kelly was taking in every sight that floated by. As we went through Los Angeles Kelly asked if we could see Disneyland or the La Brea Tar Pits or a number of other landmarks. We told him that L.A. is huge, and there is no way that we were getting off of the freeway until we were parked in front of our house.
That wasn’t quite true however. Late in the evening, as a thick fog descended upon us about thirty miles from home, the needle on the temperature gauge began an inexorable climb and would not be coaxed, begged, or cursed into declining. At Del Mar we pulled off of the freeway and into a service station. Being so close to home after fifteen hundred miles of worrying about the reliability of the truck engine and now seeing the temperature spike when we were so close to home, I lost control just a little bit. Control wasn’t my strong suit anyway, and as the hissing, steaming, struggling old truck rolled to a stop next to the gas pump I gave vent to the frustration that had been building within me regarding the old Studi ever since the first event in Big Sur. “God **** this piece of ****! I’m going to leave it here and hitchhike home. I don’t give a **** if they tow it or sell it for scrap or push the mo**** f***** into the ocean!” I kicked the bumper and the door and generally melted down.
“It’s OK man. It’s OK” Dave told me. “We’ll get it running again. We only have a few miles to go and it’s gotten us this far, hasn’t it? Yeah, this is a big, fat, f****** drag, but it’s not like it’s something that we haven’t dealt with before. Take it easy man, we’ll be OK.” Kelly just sat in the bed of the truck dumbfounded, watching this exchange. Anger had been a feature of my life since my return from Vietnam, although I believe that the roots of my anger extended much farther back than that. Usually I kept it under control, but on occasion it would flare out and show it’s ugly, distorted, and desperate face. I would go on to have other and much more dangerous and damaging outbreaks of that anger later. Soon, however, Dave had me settled down before the station attendant called the police, and as Dave had predicted we cooled the old truck down and drove off into the dark and damp southern California night.
Less than an hour later we were home. I drove onto the gravel driveway and parked my truck behind Dave’s old sedan, which hadn’t moved since the day we left. Peter came out from a bedroom when Dave inserted the key to let us into the house. We finished off the beer that we had brought with us and smoked some of Peter’s stash, and then stretched out on beds or sofas or chairs and quickly dropped off to sleep. One monumental two-month adventure was behind us, and in a few hours we would be arising to begin our next, but that is another tale.