Thursday, March 22, 2007

Beavis & Me, Part 1

In 1965, just minutes after receiving a high school diploma that I most certainly didn't deserve, I jumped into my little red '62 Corvair and headed west. I was not going alone. Riding shotgun was a friend. 

Although Gene Miller was a year older than me (I was 17), he was a year behind me in school. Gene was without doubt one of the scrawniest kids I had ever known. He was about the size and shape of Barney Fife. The two even looked alike. Gene was an incessant smoker, which probably contributed to his puniness and his troubles in a former school. People like to identify with similar people. Since Hoss Cartwright was out, Gene identified with Frank Sinatra, bought all his records, even though the Beetles and Beach Boys were then in vogue, and even tried to croon like his idol, much to the anguish of my ears. But Gene was a trooper; he loved to travel, he had an upbeat personality, and he was the only person I could find who would go with me.

For the first time in our lives we were both absolutely free with no moms, dads or coaches–parading-as-teachers to hassle us. We had no real, clear cut destination in mind, but we were going and that was all that mattered.

Unfortunately, soon after hitting the Pacific Coast and visiting a couple of old flames in Bakersfield, it occurred to us one day that we were out of cash. Although we saved money by sleeping in the car every night, even the slow Corvair, which generally ran on air, needed a little gas every thousand miles or so to keep moving. And thus, like Moses of old, we sought refuge by wandering into the desert. At Ehrenburg, Arizona, just over the Colorado River from Blythe, California, we pulled up and mooched a week or two of free eats from my Aunt Marge, a great, good, red-headed woman whose husband of half her size worked at the nearby agriculture inspection station.

At length, Gene managed to land a job at a service station in Blythe. His dad owned an Apco station back in Lawrence and thus my partner felt himself highly qualified to pump gas. Having no similar work experience, save bucking Kansas hay bales and cleaning up messes in the chemistry department one summer at the University of Kansas, I realized that my skills were limited and that I would need seek employment elsewhere. I'd heard vague rumors of jobs in the Texas oil fields. Since the name "Roughneck" appealed to the macho in me, I thought I'd give it a shot. Hence, one day shortly after Gene went to work, I packed my duffel bag, walked east through the agriculture inspection station, stood by the road and did something I had never done before-–I stuck out my thumb.

Won't get into the folly of that week-long hitchhiking misadventure here, of burning days, of freezing nights, of starvation, rattlesnakes, and an eye-opening side trip South of the Border; but for the first few days, see "The Hitchhiker," 9.22.06, and "Thumbs Up," 12.16.06.

Ten days after my ignominious return to Blythe, Gene and I once more packed up the Corvair and struck off. As we both agreed, it was time to get the hell out of Hell. My friend had somehow managed to get fired from the gas station job and tossed out of his rented room, all within twenty-four hours. And as for myself, one week of stoop labor in the 120 degree heat of a local melon field was more than enough for me. We both now had a little money and we'd heard that hard-working he-men were wanted in Alaska, where an earthquake had leveled Anchorage the year before.

On our circuitous trip north, I found myself almost involuntarily stopping for every hitchhiker that I saw. Until my recent experience, I'd never given much thought to these thumb bums but now whenever I saw one I saw myself. Late one day, we stopped in the Nevada desert and gave a lift to an old black man. He was weathered and gray and bundled in clothes dirtier and greasier than any rag I had ever thrown away. When, just before we were to let him out, he hit on us for a couple of bucks, I thought we might strike a deal. Spotting a liquor store, I gave him four dollars. And so, when he came back to the car with his cheap wine, he also brought a six-pack of beer for Gene and me. After we let him out at a fork in the road on the edge of town, I looked in my mirror and saw the old man ease down an embankment and walk under a low bridge.

"That is definitely not the way I want to end up," I thought to myself.

After picking cherries for a week near Salem, Oregon, Gene and I once more hopped back in the Corvair and continued our journey north. We followed the Columbia River until it eventually led us into Canada. Since I was already a seasoned international traveler in 1965 after having spent less than twenty-four hours in a Mexican border town, I was not nearly so impressed by crossing another national frontier as Gene. A few things were perplexing though, even to me. Both my friend and I were a little confused when we exchanged our greenbacks for the Canadian "monopoly" money and they actually gave us back more than we had given them. Also, we two ketchup fiends were more than a bit surprised when we saw many of the locals dashing vinegar on their french fries. Although the folks we met spoke English, both Gene and I were somewhat mystified when most of the inhabitants ended questions to us with a simple "eh?" Gas was more expensive but since we were getting five quarts with the imperial gallon, we were happy. Forget Marlboros and Luckies; we switched to Players and Sailors. Also, like many Canadians, I started rolling my own. I got so good at it in fact, that I could roll a cigarette with one hand and drive with the other. Kilometers Per Hour remained a mystery to both of us but since the Corvair even at full tilt was going nowhere in a hurry we figured we were always under the speed limit, KPH or not.

With Alaska still our goal, we steered the little red car north through Osoyoos, Kelowna, Kamloops, Quesnel, and other British Columbian towns whose names we couldn't begin to pronounce. When we reached the very verbal town of Dawson Creek after several days of travel, we knew we were finally getting somewhere. The place had the look and feel of a frontier outpost and it seemed that everything--hotels, gas stations, out houses--were made of logs. Here too began mile one of the Great Alaskan Highway.

(continued tomorrow)