October 21, 2012 Leave a comment
(two guys take a road trip)
1971 and counting…
The journey of a lifetime was being nixed at the first intersection. Boyd pulled up to the red light in the middle of our town. He braked and the Caddy stopped dead. There was nothing lit up on the driver panel – no “BATT” light, no “CHECK ENGINE” light, nothing. The Marantz stereo we placed on the back seat hump coasted to a stop. As it did the Lizard King’s voice churned down Riders On the Storm with a demonic basso profundo until the needle stopped sucking sound. Could a journey of a thousand miles end with a single stoplight?
Before the trip my mom had said “Go.” Boyd’s mom handing Boyd the Amoco gas card said “Go,” They both said, “Be careful.” So we went. So we thought.
Boyd and I sat in the Caddy facing a green light with dashed hope silence. There was no crank of the engine, no radio, no stereo rush, just a mortifying silence a half mile into our road trip. We looked at each other and then over at the Saint Jude medallion dangling from the rear view mirror. The “Pray for us” entreaty quickly came out of limbo. A horn blast broke our abject reverie and we jumped out of the car.
Boyd popped the hood and looked into the vast Caddy cavern. The engine gave no indication of changing its mind. The emergency light wasn’t working so I stood behind the car and waved folks around. Boyd ran over to the library and made a call home: “Mom we are stuck at the intersection of Kennedy Drive and Lake Street. The car just stopped dead.”
The Caddy was Boyd’s dad’s idea. He thought we would be safer driving the massive armored vehicle instead of Boyd’s sporty cruiser, a Chevy Caprice. But the journey of a thousand miles would restart with the Caprice.
Boyd’s mom drove the Caprice over to where we were stranded. We unloaded our gear from the Caddy into the Caprice. Boyd reconnected the AC cord of the Marantz to the dc to ac converter plugged into the cigarette lighter. We were good to go musically. Hope started charging the moment the Caprice cranked over. We thanked Boyd’s mom and drove off leaving her to wait for the tow truck.
After a couple of hours driving we had left Illinois behind. Boyd drove the whole first day and night of the trip. No-Doz, Dr. Pepper and a BTO album kept Boyd’s hand thumping the dashboard for hours on end. We puffed on Dutch Master Panetelas as he drove us through Wisconsin and through Minnesota and then into South Dakota, clicking off mile after mile, ash after ash. While he drove I lay back in my seat, eyes half-open, as the day turned to night before us. When it became dark I wondered if Boyd could stay awake the whole night staring at the two-lane monotony always just headlights away. As DJ Denny I was soon charged with changing the records and keeping him alert. Bumps in the road and lane changes kept me busy returning the wandering needle to its groove.
South Dakota: grasslands, vast open landscape, not a building in sight. In the early morning hours back-lit by the sunrise, the tall wheat grass looked like golden blond hair as it was brushed by the wind. After fourteen hours we let the turn table go silent. When we did I heard other music playing outside the open car window – ancient music streaming in the wind. The cessation of all that I knew from a life in Chicago and the revelation of sights and sounds I never knew somehow caused ancient memories to stir up in me, a mystical vision of a boy running free – no shirt, no shoes, just earth and boy and wind. Snap! A Wall Drug billboard appeared and then another and another. Burma Shave Lives on: GET A SODA…GET A ROOT BEER…TURN THE CORNER…JUST AS NEAR…TO HIGHWAY 16 AND 14
FREE ICE WATER…WALL DRUG.
What great wonder of the world awaited us? Boyd drove us past the endless signs to that middle of nowhere – the town of Wall, South Dakota, home of Wall Drug. The promise of free ice water noted on the drug store’s ubiquitous billboards along I- 90 had wetted our interest.
Wall Drug was just what my post card thought’s had pictured: Indian lore and artifacts packaged for tourists along with food, souvenirs, polished stones, rubber tomahawks, prescription drugs and the free bottle of ice cold water. When we got back to the Caprice a Wall Drug bumper sticker was affixed to the rear bumper – a billboard to go:
“WHERE THE HECK IS WALL DRUG?”
We set off with our free ice water and our newly labeled rear end and headed for the Black Hills, Mount Rushmore, the Badlands and the Corn Palace. I queued up Paul and Linda McCarthy’s Ram album. Out came “Too Many People,” “Three Legs,” “Ram On.” The Beatles were breaking up in our back seat.
“Looking for a home in the heart of the country….Heart of the country, where the holy people grow, Heart of the country, smell the grass in the meadow.”
We exited I-90 at Rapid City and drove south to Custer State Park. After scratching our heads we left. We followed Iron Mountain road out of the eastern gate of Custer State Park. The road’s corkscrewing “pigtail” bridges and three narrow honk-your-horn-through-the-rock tunnels wound us through the Black Hills to Mount Rushmore. As we drove out of one tunnel the chalk-white “Shrine of Democracy” appeared before us in the receding aperture. We had come out of the rabbit-hole of the sixties and face to face with our forefathers. We sat up straight in our seats.
As we stood on Mt.Rushmore’s viewing terrace I was hoping to see Cary Grant or Eva Marie Saint but not James Mason. I was in a North by Northwest latitude of mind. With some intrigue in mind I did put some tokens into a telescope. I was hoping to catch someone hanging from the nose of a president but all I saw was a few eroded pores. Stone faces don’t do anything for me.
That night we decided to camp at Mount Rushmore National Park. Red – eyed and saddle-sore, we had been driving since 2:00 in the afternoon the day before. It was now 7:30 pm Saturday. Fortunate for us the gods behind the stone faces smiled down upon us: we were able to get the last open spot on the campground. After pitching our two-man tent on a floor of pine needles we crawled into our sleeping bags. We let sleep overcome us – screaming kids, barking dogs and banging pots not withstanding.
The next morning’s commotion gave us a start. Folks were packing kids and camping gear into their cars and leaving the park. We didn’t start a fire or make coffee. We pissed, packed the tent and drove back to Rapid City where there was a Waffle house and breakfast.
After some scrambled eggs and toast and plenty of coffee we pulled onto I-90 heading northwest. I put the needle down on BTO’s groove “Taking Care of Business.” Boyd again thumped the dashboard as we drove past Sturgis into Wyoming. We drove past Sundance and then Gillette. We turned south and headed to Casper passing the Hole-In-The Wall hideout. We had heard that Butch and Sundance were out of the country so we didn’t stop and say “Hi.”
After an early supper in Casper we made the Grand Teton National Forest by twilight. On a bluff that overlooked Jackson Lake’s Spalding Bay we set up our tent. The once-in-a-lifetime view: the cerulean blue lady of Jackson Lake had put on a string of diamonds that sparkled as the sun set.
The air that night was crisp and clean, full of promise. We slept like two bears in hibernation. I finally woke the next day when I stretched out my legs and my feet touched the cool damp edge of the tent. I poked myself out of the tent and found the same morning dew had been soaking the bottoms of my shoes. “Hey, Boyd wake up. Look at this.”
With one last snort Boyd roused and fumbled out the tent, one leg in his pant’s the other caught in the tent. “What?”
“Look!” I pointed.
Boyd’s jaw dropped.
All around our tent there were huge paw prints in the damp earth. A bear had been stalking our campsite during the night. “Whew!” – our collective thought blurt out from our ashen faces. We were relieved that we had not been mistaken for food and that the cache of food we had brought with was safely packed in the car’s trunk ~ a two-week supply of beef jerky, spam and bottles of Dr. Pepper. As far as I was concerned, though, the bear could have the jerky. GIGO, as they say.
Now Boyd liked to keep moving. He was not ADD. He was ASAP. His mom told me one day that “you never know with Boyd. Boyd goes wherever the wind takes him at the moment.” Boyd was my Dean Moriarty. So every day, On the Road, wind at our backs, we drove like the world was holding out on us.
For the both of us movement meant music. Boyd brought his LP and eight track collection and I brought my LPs: Boyd’s road tunes: Bachman Turner Overdrive (BTO), the Beatle’s White Album, McCarthy’s Ram, The Bee Gees, Barry Manilow (yes, Barry Manilow), Jefferson Airplane. Mine: Chicago Transit Authority, Blood Sweat and Tears, Bill Chase: Chase, The Doors, Sargent Pepper Lonely Heart’s Club Band, the Woodstock soundtrack, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass, Simon & Garfunkel’s Parsley, Sage, Rosemary And Thyme, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Green River, Moody Blues Every Good Boy Deserves Favour . Mile markers, grooves, tracks and flashbacks – we let the RPMs take us.
Driving up to Yellowstone was a panoramic delight. We “aw”-ed at the sight of Old Faithful, we laughed at the “blup blup” of the Mud Volcano erupting and pinched our noses at the rotten egg smell of the Sulphur Caldron – the bounty of good earth filled our senses.
From Yellowstone we headed south to Wind River Indian Reservation. We set up our tent in the early evening in a nearby campsite and started a fire. Boyd stirred up some Sanka.
We sat by the crackling pine needle fire until the reflective light of the moon flooded directly down onto us through the towering jack pines. Branches scratched each other in the night breeze. After a while we decided to hike over to a treeless area we could make out at the edge of our forest canopy. As we did we came upon a creek bed lay that lay at an opening in the side of a deep ravine.
It appeared that a mighty river had once flowed through the rock, its torrent gouging a deep channel through the sandstone and later breaking out the gulch before us. But now instead of a large swift river forcing it way upon the landscape, a shallow unhurried stream silently passed over a bed of smooth stones and sand. The desultory shimmer of wet stone offered teasing glimpses of the moon’s face from earth. Boyd and I sat down near the stream on a fallen grey tree trunk. Our short shadows floating on the stream.
I saw her then, a silhouette of a young woman with waist length hair. She was kneeling at a bend in the stream. She looked to be a cutout of the Indian princess on the Land-O-Lakes butter package. (My fantasies always include food.) Kneeling about twenty feet from where we sat she turned toward us. I met her gaze. The next thing I knew my legs were carrying me over to where she knelt. Funny things, legs, but I guess when you are seventeen and having just graduated from high school the torrent of impulse is unleashed within you moving your legs before all else.
“The moon,” was all I got out and I sat down next to her feet. The moon’s ethereal light dappled our faces with faint glow. We sat silently for a while, my fearlessness now speechlessness. And while I waited for my impulse to catch its breath I hoped that she would say something.
“I’m Denny. Hi.” I looked over at her hoping to see more of her face but it was in shadow.
After a couple of awkward minutes she said, “My folks are taking us to California for vacation. I’m from Rapid City, South Dakota.”
“I’m from Chicago.”
“I can tell.”
“Guys from Chicago talk like Chicago. You know, like their chewing on meat and potatoes when their talking to you, like regular guys. That’s what my mom says about her dad. He’s from Chicago.”
“I didn’t know I was regular until today. I do like my mom’s pot roast.”
“Regular is good. It means you are who you are and not something else. I could sense it before I walked out here alone.” She turned quickly toward the trees. “I am not alone. My parents are right over there in the camper, so I am not alone. See?”
I looked where she looked and nodded. “OH. OK then. I am regular.” I said looking at her. “Regular is good. So be it.”
From behind me came the sound of a small rumble and then a loud splashing of hoofs followed by neighs and whinnies. A herd of wild horses ~ Mustangs ~ appeared out of the east ravine passage. They stopped right in front of Boyd to slurp up the clear water.
It was midnight and a dreamscape: wild horses standing in a quick sliver stream, my hand now in hers, the moon’s pale illumination casting a black and white surrealism onto the ravine walls and Boyd, a shadow, sitting alone on a log. I shook off my dream.
I said good night to Anna telling her that I hoped we’d meet again in another dream and walked over to where Boyd sat. He had been whittling a pine branch into what looked like a spear. I sat down and together we watched the horses until they chased each other down the stream and out of our view. We returned to our tent for the night. The Dream followed me there.
One fine morning, girl, I’ll wake up
Wipe the sleep from my eyes
Go outside and feel the sunshine
Then I know I’ll realize
That as long as you love me, girl, we’ll fly
And on that mornin’ when I wake up
I’ll see your face inside a cloud
See your smile inside a window
Hear your voice inside a crowd
Calling, “Come with me baby and we’ll fly”
Yeah, we’ll fly-y-y, yeah, we’ll fly
We’ll fly-y-y, yeah, we’ll fly
Later, Boyd said he didn’t mind about me and the girl. But he did begin to mind when I met another girl on our trip to England and then another on a trip to Miami and then another on our trip around the Great Lakes. I was happy when began to talk about a girl he liked at church. I hoped she liked him.
Wyoming was a state of mind that I didn’t want to leave. I vowed to return and make my home among the broncos. Denver was next on our road trip. Our former pastor lived in a suburb of Denver and Boyd decided that we should surprise him by showing up at his church office. The pastor gulped when he saw us.
Pastor Renz greeted us and then invited us to his home for lunch. We ate PB & J sandwiches and drank lemonade. His told us that his wife was out-of-town so we sat with him and his three sons on their patio. During lunch we chatted about our trip and about our home town and then we said goodbye. This side trip was important for Boyd. Years before I had brought Boyd to our church. This pastor had led Boyd to the Lord. Boyd wanted to see him one more time and thank him. As his mother said Boyd was impulsive in every way. The high RPMs of his soul kept us moving quickly in some direction – a direction we’d figure out on the way.
After lunch Boyd’s compass pointed northeast and to Estes Park, Colorado. We made our way to this mountain town where the bindle bums of the sixties had come to find a Rocky Mountain High – hippies and tie-dye shrines were everywhere among the polished stone and incense shops. Guitars were being strummed by glazed eyed folk singers warning of the world’s destruction at the hands of the Man. We quickly left town after stocking up on a supply of beef jerky and Mountain Dew. We soon found a campsite along Silver Creek.
Our rented patch of earth for that night was no more than six feet by five feet. It sat right on the edge of a small bubbling creek. All the other campsites were taken for the night. With no space to build a fire and an itch to do something we left the tent and drove around until we found a sign for a drive-in movie theatre nestled within the steep mountain valley. An hour before the movie began we bought our tickets. To pass the time we sat on the hood of the Caprice eating popcorn watching the sunset gild the mountain ridges.
By 9:30 the mountains had shuttered off light on all sides except for the corona of moonlight directly above us. The previews began to roll and then came the main feature: Le Mans with Steve McQueen. There were Porsches and Ferraris burning up the track. There were more wild horses, more RPMs. All good until the screen went blank after the credits. Everyone had driven off except us. The Caprice wouldn’t start. Then the drive-in manager shut off the food stand lights. Our race car wasn’t going anywhere. Boyd wiggled the battery cable but the battery had been DOA.
After talking to the drive–in manager Boyd made a phone call, this time to AAA. An hour later a tow truck chained our fate to its cantilever pulley and hauled us over to a darkened Amoco gas station. The sign on the door told us the station opened at seven am. We got back into the car and slept restlessly wondering if seven o’clock MST was ever going to show up like it did in CST. I also began to realize that Beef jerky and popcorn don’t come together for your enjoyment.
At seven-o-five a mechanic pulled his pickup into the driveway of the gas station. He got out of the truck, dropped his mouth open at the sight of us and then spat some brown liquid twenty feet behind him. He then walked over to front of the gas station and unlocked the garage door. He then set about brewing some coffee. When the muck he was brewing had finally stopped belching he offered it – an oily looking residue with islands of powdered cream floating on top – in a grimy Styrofoam cup. The lack of air at that altitude must have deprived my brain of needed oxygen. I drank the coffee.
While the mechanic installed a new battery we called home. We wanted to let our parents know that we hadn’t fled the country to avoid the draft. We were “OK” we told them, “just more battery problems.” We set out again confident that we were firing on all electrolyte cells.
“You ain’t seen nothing yet.” The drive through Rocky Mountain National Park lifted our spirits skyward but the dizzying drop offs and the struggling out-of-breath car are the things I remember. And the feeling of being at the top of the world with eagles, soaring.
After descending the mountains our trip began to take on a deliberate speed. We had tired of sleeping on the hard ground and the endless ribbon of highway unreeling in our sleep. We drove across Colorado to a town on its western edge, the town of Dinosaur. This small town and its streets were so named because of their proximity to Dinosaur National Monument – the home of prehistoric fossil beds. The rocky ridges along the highway leading to Dinosaur gave the appearance of exposed dinosaur backbones.
After a brief glimpse in the direction of epochs and eras Boyd pushed the “Fast Forward” button on the floor of the Caprice. From Dinosaur we drove into Utah so we could say that we had been to Utah. We found a campsite east of Vernal. In the morning we headed southeast to Grand Junction Colorado and then up and around Denver and straight for Kansas. We camped that night outside Salina Kansas, under a large oak tree. The next day I wondered if I would see Jim Ryan, the first high-school cross-country runner to break a four-minute mile, run past us as we drove through his home state.
Topeka came and went. We drove into and across Missouri. We spent the night at a St. Louis West Route 66 KOA campsite. After breakfast in St. Louis we sped a northeast diagonal across Illinois prairie up to our homes outside of Chicago. Even wild horses need their batteries recharged.
© Sally Paradise, 2012, All Rights Reserved
“One Fine Morning” lyrics by Lighthouse, © OLE MEDIA MANAGEMENT LP