The unexpected journey which Dave and I had just embarked upon began in the usual manner for anyone at the outset of a long trip from San Diego to anywhere else. The early June sky was overcast, with the low clouds or high fog of the layer of marine air which every year treated us to what we less-than-lovingly called the ‘June Gloom’, hanging low over the city. We navigated across town to Interstate 15, which was an actual freeway only to the edge of the city. Just at the northern border of San Diego, which was not a very far drive in the summer of 1970, the road dwindled back to two lanes and returned to its original designation; U.S. Highway 395.
Driving north we passed first through the town of Escondido, which has always been a place of mystery to me. Growing up in San Diego as I did, I had some connection with nearly all of the neighborhoods and suburbs of that city. Either by riding my bicycle to the beach, the zoo or the municipal swimming pool, or taking the bus downtown to fool around in the department stores or go to the cheap movies in run-down theaters, or attending high school football games and other similar events, I touched upon nearly all of the town. Additionally, my father would drive to the more rural suburbs to buy garden produce and dairy products and our trips to the mountains for hiking and camping brought us through most of the towns in the county.
Escondido was a different story. Located only thirty miles north of San Diego it was still completely outside of San Diego’s orbit and slightly off the beaten path. Other county towns in San Diego, such as Ramona, Julian, Campo, Pine Valley, and even tiny Santa Ysabel, were visited regularly by me and I knew their layout and each one’s raison d’être very well. Escondido marched to a different drummer however. I can’t say if Escondido was a large town or a small city, but it was considerably more substantial than any of the other county communities that I mentioned. Escondido had its own economy, which leaned heavily on groves of avocado, citrus, olive and walnut trees and other agricultural and ranching pursuits, and enjoyed infusions of cash from passing visitors from San Diego and elsewhere but was by no means dependent on that source of revenue. In fact, Escondido means “hidden” in the Spanish language, and Spanish was the primary language spoken there for the first decades of that settlement’s existence.
Rising up over a low ridge one would see the valley in which Escondido lie tucked under all manner of trees, but you would not see the city itself. A sign by a large boulder announced that you had arrived in Escondido, and beautiful grove of cottonwood trees on the west edge of the road announced the presence of a creek or spring, evoking in me thoughts of Vanamee, a character in Frank Norris’ novel “The Octopus: A Story of California” who decades after the fact is still haunted by the murder of his lover, and returns from time to time to the tree-shaded mission garden where he waited for her one night but she never came. By the time I could think much about that book and its greater impact upon me, a detail to which we will return below, we had touched the western edge of that town and skipped off of it like a flat rock off of a smooth body of water.
We hurtled north another half hour or so until we came to the tiny settlement of Temecula, where we pulled off of the road in order to get one of the greasy but delicious hamburgers that they sold in the little restaurant which was one of the six or seven buildings in that ‘town’. I had eaten there many times before when my father would take us on drives out into the country, and the service had always been just fine. On this occasion however I was a gangling young man with long curly hair held in place by a leather headband and possessing a bushy, kinky red beard.
That hair and beard are meat for many other stories about those times, one of which I will share here. I had always hated my curly hair which my military father would never let me grow to any length at all. Then, in the mid 1960’s, surfing exploded onto the cultural scene and instantly a young man’s status could be improved simply by a mop of straight, long (for then) blond hair combed over mostly to one side. I had longed for long hair, and my discharge from the Army had brought the liberation of being able to grown out my hair for the first time, which I promptly did. At about the same time I read the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” and learned that in his early life straight hair was frequently obtained by Black people by a process which Malcolm called ‘conking’, or ‘getting a conk’. After reading that and growing enough hair to make it worth my while I decided that it was my turn to get a conk.
I promptly made my appointment at a styling salon and emerged an hour or so later with a glorious mop of flaccid, straight hair brushed straight back over my head and streaming down towards my shoulders. I gloried in the picture of masculine hippie perfection that I presented to myself when I gazed into the mirror! That night I went to shoot some pool with a friend and offer my new coolness to all ladies who might be in the vicinity, and as I leaned over to sight up my shot, ‘FWOOMP!” Down fell an avalanche of my newly straightened hair in front of my eyes, obscuring my shot. Annoyed, I straightened up and brushed my hair back into place with my fingers and leaned forward once again to take my shot. “FWOOMP!” Once again down came the furry avalanche. This went on for the entire game. By the end of the evening I was cursing my straight hair and after outgrowing the effects of my conk never considered doing it again to this day.
So in we tromp in our jeans, huarache sandals, tee shirts and hair and plop down at the counter. It was reminiscent of a scene from “Easy Rider”, where the two heroes and Jack Nicholson in a supporting role sat down at a table and got ignored by the staff while the locals growled disparaging and threatening remarks. It was not that bad, but the wait for service was loooonnnnnnggggg, and when our orders arrived the meat was barely cooked. We chugged it down anyway and were glad to pay up and take our leave of that place.
A short way farther up the road we began to enter the orbit of Los Angeles and had to decide which way to go. Highway 395 continued north through rural country and went all the way to the Canadian border somewhere near Spokane, although We didn’t really know that at the time. Across the county lay Highway 101, and I was very familiar with that road, at least to a distance of about fifty or sixty miles north of San Francisco, so we decided with little debate to continue our vision quest on that route.
The down side of that plan was that we had forty or fifty miles of Los Angeles County between us and Highway 101 on the west side of the city/county complex, and this was before the age of superhighways or the Siri App on one’s iPhone. With a fold-up road map, the kind that you would get for free at gas stations like the one that we both had worked at only a day or two before, we threaded our way from one major road to another across town. It was a lot like following a forty mile strand of spaghetti through a giant bowl filled with hundreds of other strands just like it. We finally picked up Highway 101 on the northern edge of the City and as we talked non-stop about nearly everything but Stacy we soon left Los Angeles behind us and began to roll through the now brilliant sunshine or the California coast.
An hour or so later our gas tank was empty and our bladders were full so we pulled off of the highway and entered Santa Barbara. Santa Barbara is one of the most beautiful towns on earth in one of the most beautiful geographic locations in the universe, but we paid scant attention to that. San Diego is no barren wasteland itself, so the beauty of Santa Barbara did not jump right out at us then. We were interested in gas, beer, sandwich and snacking goods for that evening and getting back on the road. This we accomplished and soon were preparing to turn right onto the highway, and that’s where we first saw Kathy and Roy.
“Where’re you headed?” Dave hollered out through the window as I pulled over and Kathy and Roy ran up to the truck. “Seattle” they responded. “How far are you guys going?” Dave and I looked at each other and shrugged. “Seattle, I guess” Dave shouted back to them. “Climb into the bed”, which is exactly what they did and we wheeled back into traffic and resumed our march north. We chatted a little through the window with the couple and learned that they were students at the University of California branch in Santa Barbara and were hitching home for the summer break. Mostly we rode with the window to the back of the truck closed and Dave and I cruised with our own conversation and Kathy and Roy rested with their backs against the back of the cab engaged in their own.
In that manner we rode into what was becoming the Central California coastal area, which for me is even more attractive than Santa Barbara. We drove past Pea Soup Anderson’s restaurant in Beullton, through farming areas around Santa Maria, and finally turned west at the university town of San Luis Obispo towards Morro Bay and U.S. Highway 1, which would continue north through Big Sur and on towards Monterey and the land of Steinbeck.
Evening was coming on and the fog was starting to roll inland off of Morro Bay when we pulled into the parking lot of a motel in Pismo Beach. All of us got out of our respective perches and began to stretch our legs, and then I walked up to and through the door into the motel office. The clerk, who was probably also the owner, did not look especially happy to see me.
“I’d like a room for two” I said. The man made it obvious as he took a squint out between the blinds in the window facing the parking lot. “One, two, three, four. I count four people” he replied to me with a sullen glare. I thought of leaving then and there, but I was tired and wanted to relax that evening. “The couple are hitchhikers” I explained. “They are going to sleep in the bed of the truck in order to keep an eye on our stuff back there in exchange for the ride. I only need two beds, and twin beds will do just fine.” Kathy and Roy and I had in fact made no such contract at all. Fortuitously however they were at that moment fiddling with their packs and sleeping bags, probably rearranging things and tightening them up, and it looked for all the world like they were doing exactly what I had said. “OK, but I don’t want any funny business. This is a family establishment and we like to keep things quiet here.” “That’s exactly what I’m looking for” I told him and signed on the dotted line, paid up for the night, took my key and retreated back to the truck.
“The guy’s a jerk” I told them, “and thinks that we’re all going to sneak into the room. I told him that you guys were sleeping out here and he was cool with that. Why don’t you take a walk and come back when it’s dark?” I had spoken briefly with Kathy and Roy through the sliding window and wanted to get to know them better. “We’ll break out the food and have some dinner together” I suggested. “Sounds good us” they replied, and off they walked down the beach together.
An hour later we were all sitting on the beds or the floor, wolfing down ham and cheese sandwiches and potato chips and washing it all down with a couple of six packs of Coors. For desert we passed around a few joints and began the real process of making introductions. This was one of the turning point moments in my young life.
Kathy and Roy turned out to be members of an organization known as the Seattle Liberation Front, a very radical and left wing group made up mostly of students who’s focus was opposition to the war that continued to rage in Vietnam. “I just got back from Vietnam a year ago” I told them. “I can tell you that it is one big cluster bang”. I actually used language a bit more forceful than that. Kathy and Roy stared at me for a moment, as if deciding whether to stay or not. Returning veterans from that war were more likely to get spit upon than a handshake in many parts of America then, but I had shared my truck, my food, my motel room and their weed, so they decided to continue with the relationship. “The war is immoral” they said. “It’s about a lot of very rich capitalists making blood money with the help of a lot of very paranoid old politicians using the lives and bodies of young men to get off on body counts and killing Reds to massage their fat, corrupt egos and keep their feet on the necks of workers and students here and peasants in Vietnam. The politicians and the generals are a bunch of obsolete old gasbags who haven’t got the decency to die off and let workers and students build a free and prosperous and equal society.”
I had not met real live left wing radicals before and never heard them expound upon their vision in a coherent manner, but I had been preparing to hear their message for most of my life. After growing up in a conservative household which was ruled autocratically by my military father I had joined the Army, oddly enough, looking for a measure of freedom, and in fact found freedom of a sort there. Over the course of three years I met people with a wide diversity of opinions about nearly everything, many of whom had been drafted and whom I would not have otherwise met. The almost two years that I spent in Vietnam resulted in disillusionment with the leadership of my country, disenchantment with the confident depiction of the American Dream, and no firm belief in anything greater than myself to hold onto as I tried to make sense of the world.
Added to that were two important books which I had read in my teen years which had prepared me for this first transforming revelation in my life. “The Octopus”, which I have mentioned above, spoke of the corruption, greed and willingness of heartless capitalists to go to murderous lengths to secure profits. A second book, Steinbeck’s “In Dubious Battle”, spoke of communist organizers coming into an agricultural workers’ camp in California’s Central Valley and bringing workers together to improve their lives. The two organizers enjoyed some success until goons working for the capitalist growers came and busted up the camp and arranged for an unhappy end to the organizers’ efforts. These two books made a deep impression upon me, and my disillusionment upon returning from Vietnam only heightened the conflicted and unfocused feelings that I held concerning the war and my country and society and just about everything else. Now here Kathy and Roy were articulating many of those disorganized feelings that had been gnawing at me with an organized train of thought, a conviction that “we the people” were traveling down the wrong road and that they knew how to get to the right one. This intrigued me greatly and I looked forward to discussing it further during our travels on the next day.
For now however it was time to get some sleep. Dave had been going since early that morning and I had been going since 9 AM, which was early for me. We were well fed, had a few beers on board and a nice buzz from Kathy and Roy’s weed. Kathy and Roy brought in their sleeping bags and spread them out on the floor, exactly as the clerk expected that they would do, and Dave and I climbed into our beds. The lights went out and in no more than a few minutes my lights went out too. Day one had come to a close and ,in typical fashion, I never gave a second thought to what day two would bring. As it turned out, it would be an interesting one.