I was on the road again, heading west out of Chicago and through the Great Plains. This is an apt enough description by the way, because they are the plainest things you can imagine. I’ve seen more interesting things on the Senior Menu at Denny’s. There was nothing but newly planted corn for as far as you could see, and it’s so flat that you can see a long, long way. Eventually, the corn stopped, and the newly planted wheat began. After a forgettable four or five states worth of that, we started into the Rockies. The most beautiful part of them for me was the ride from Salt Lake City to St. George, in Utah. The faces of the valley we drove though had been worn by erosion, whether it was by air, or by flooding, or by some prehistoric glacier heading north I don’t know, but something had cut right through twenty or more layers of different colored rock strata, making it look like God’s own sketchbook. I remember seeing the lights of Las Vegas, and noted crossing the border into California, but not much else until I got off the bus at the station in downtown Los Angeles.
I called Kathy, who made me swear not to set foot out of the building for any reason, as it was far too dangerous for an innocent from New Hampshire. She would be right over to get me, she said, and not too long afterwards pulled up out front in her faded green Volkswagen Beetle.
We went to her house in Van Nuys for a few days, where it was good to sleep on something that wasn’t moving. That Friday, Lynne came over in her Chevy Vega and she, Kathy, and I drove to Baja. The right rear tire went flat somewhere on the toll road between TJ and Ensenada, so we pulled out the luggage from the trunk, then the spare, and then wondered what happened to the jack, because it was gone. Plan “B” that night was me lifting up the back of the car while Lynne and Kathy popped the wheel off and put the spare on as fast as they could. We made it into town about 10 Friday night and got a couple of rooms.
The next morning we walked over to a very pleasant restaurant whose name I have forgotten and couldn’t have pronounced anyway, and ordered breakfast. Lynne, who had gone to school in Mexico City, tried vainly to translate my request for “two eggs, over easy.” She eventually gave up, turned to me and said with finality, “Today you’ll get your eggs the way you get your eggs,” smiled at the waiter and said “gracias.” The eggs came with refried beans, which were another novelty to me. It was at that moment I felt a tenuous connection to Ensenada. Besides the fact that it was small-townish enough to remind me of home, they cook their beans twice. So do folks in New Hampshire. While it’s true that in Mexico they fry them twice and in New Hampshire we bake them twice, it is a connection of sorts, and I felt kind of simpatico. The eggs were perfect, by the way.
After a quick stop at General Popo for a new tire, we drove to La Bufadora, about ten miles further down the coast, to see the blowhole, which is what la bufadora means. When there is an incoming tide the water is forced up though a small opening and shoots upwards into the air about ten feet like the blowhole of a whale, and then falls all over you, if you get too close. Nowadays I am told it is a big thing, with boardwalks and shops and touristy stuff everywhere. Back then it was just your basic hole in the rocks, and I like the fact I got to see it that way. I picked up a pair of sandals at a small roadside shop on the way back to town, (the soles were made from old truck tires, they lasted me for nearly ten years, loved those sandals) and a hat that I lost to someone over a bet years later. Lynne bargained the price down on both items, and I remember being a little embarrassed, as I wasn’t used to that. She explained it was the custom, and the man behind the counter confirmed it, saying it was practically insulting not to. It is a way of making each person part of the transaction, and an equalizer of sorts. You have to learn to communicate with people. Life’s lessons start at an early age in some places.
We made the obligatory stop at Hussong’s Cantina for dinner. There was a sketch artist drawing like a madman for the tourist’s dollar, and Lynne pointed out a picture of Nancy on the wall, with a date on it from the previous year. I don’t know if Hussong’s is still there, but I can truthfully say I have been there, seen that, and (had) the T-shirt. We came back to Van Nuys on Sunday, and a few days later I went north on the coast road to San Francisco and then to Vacaville to see my Mother’s brother, a retired Air Force Colonel. I had not seen Uncle Robert in ten years or so, and he looked in the pink of health, showing no signs of the illness that would take his life four years later, at the relatively young age of 60. Auntie Buff also looked great for someone who was in her mid fifties, (three years younger than I am now!) and would go on to outlive him by three and a half decades.
I circled back to Los Angeles to see everyone again before heading home, taking the southern route back, as I had taken the northern way out. I do not remember much of that part of the trip for some reason, except for three things. The first is Texas, and I remember it because we stopped just past the New Mexican border for breakfast in El Paso, then proceeded east to have lunch in Texas, dinner in Texas, and breakfast in Texarkana, just before the border with Arkansas. Twenty four hours of steady driving to go from one side to the other. Big damn state, Texas. The second is the old section of New Orleans, where I walked all over the French Quarter looking for the Café Du Monde so I could have a beignet like my hero, Jimmy Buffett. Never did find it, but loved seeing that city. Told myself one day I would go back and see it again, but never have (yet). We went past Lake Pontchartrain on the way to Mississippi, then through Alabama and Georgia. I tried not to talk too much down there, not wanting them to know I was a Yankee. (Many years later I drove through that part of the country in a station wagon with New Hampshire plates on it. As I was coming out of a store, I saw a group of guys looking at my car’s plates. I pointed towards the store and hissed, “He’s in there!” and when they all ran in to “get the Yankee” I jumped in the car and drove off). Lastly I remember a night in the Philadelphia station, listening to a lonely old man talk for hours about not much at all. I politely nodded for most of the night, and when he finally left to get on a bus, a gentleman sitting nearby with his family came over, shook my hand and said “Young man, you should be a priest.” It was a very nice compliment.
I only had a few days left on the pass at this point, and was nearly out of money. With a last, small detour though Vermont, just so I could say I’d been, it was on another warm, sunny day in June when I climbed down the bus steps at Burgess’s Store, home again. That summer was one of the coldest in memory, and during the winter that followed the temperature went down past 50 below and stayed there a while. It was so cold it wouldn’t snow, and it’s got to be mighty cold for that. I remembered how California had felt, the warm breezes, clean beaches, and an ocean that wasn’t frozen halfway out to another continent, and came back, this time to stay.
Since Mom grew up in LA, her connections to and reminiscing of it have a different feeling and hue, but for dad there will always be that element of surprise. It’s stupid, really. I mean in playground terms, he was “here first” and his “claim” is stronger than mine. It’s always said Los Angeles doesn’t have any history, which is false on approximately a billion levels, not the least of which is the oppressive assumption that nothing before colonialist obliteration has any value. But for purposes of this, I’m talking about generational history and the bizarre notion that nothing existed for your parents before you.
The Greyhound station at Alameda and 7th is in a part of town that provides a fairly grey welcome to the city of angels, save for the mammoth pink American Apparel factory down the street. In a city branded as a cultural animorph, the first time dad excitedly jabbed through the car window at the station was surreal. I blurted, “What, it’s still there?” and then I think we had a very serious talk about how time passes slower when you get older, or at least how I should keep my mouth shut sometimes. When I was 19, I “taught” (by “taught” I mean “shadowed the actual teaching assistants and teacher in an exhausting mixture of wonder and terror, in my first teaching experience”) at an arts program at Inner-City Arts at 7th and Kohler, a couple blocks west of Alameda. One of the students there would later live with my family, as one of the 7 room-renters mentioned in From Boscawen to Chicago.
In the following years, friends or I would work Downtown, go to each others’ performances, I’d meet friends at Union for cheap coffee across the street, tear up at the Bradbury ceiling, and take newcomers on Bladerunner themed tours – and always within shouting distance of Alameda and 7th, the opening of Dad’s West Coast origin story…which occasionally reads as myth.