This story was originally written, photocopied, and mailed to a whole bunch of folks, as one of the infamous Uncle Paul newsletters. This particular episode was during the summer of 1990, right before I ruined my life for 2 years by going to business school. Actually, I dont' regret going to UCLA at all, but I do wish I'd stayed in Honolulu for a few years, until I got tired of it orsomething first. But anyway...
The Pacific paradise thing had to come to an academically imposed demise. I left Honolulu, flew into Boston, and got psyched to drive cross country like you read about in corny old be-bop books. Unbeknownst to me, the deal for getting our Jah shipped cross country with the Acura drive-away had collapsed because of insurance reasons, and so there we were, Paul, Sven, and Boo-Boo out in the yard of Sven's house wondering what to do now. We drank and peed, drank and peed, and two days later we found a big old black Ford extended van in the Want Ads. We bought it, named her Imelda for various reasons, and set about attending to the endless stream of errands which seemed to spring up everywhere. During this time, of course, there was much visiting of dudes and dudettes, and great quantities of beer were consumed in various Boston bars of ill repute. Sven served his time duly fulfilling his two weeks notice at his work gig, sold off his bike, and we were all set to go.
So we had a final party in a New England monsoon, woke up late on Sunday, (August 12), loaded the van, and Sven & his folks had a mushy good-bye. Our modest goal was to cross the state border by midnight. We dropped John Caban off in Somerville, stopped by the Getty station on Mass Ave in Arlington center, and after filling up on twenty dollars of Saudi Arabia's finest, Imelda would not start. We used half a can of starter fluid and a quarter can of wire dryer before the attendant blandly delivered his sermon about "air, gas, and spark". We pushed Imelda into the parking lot, and worked on her for about two hours. At this point, we ran out of Absolut, and debated whether we should stay at Sven's house or camp out in the parking lot, fix it in the morning, and never admit that it had ever happened. We opted to call on the Hugginses (and wouldn't you know it) the truck started right before the tow truck got there. We got it towed anyway since we weren't sure how far it would go before it died. That evening we had a sheepish dinner with Bill and Aase, who had suffered a miserable, sad afternoon missing their only boy who was driving halfway across the world to villainous California.
Monday morning, we replaced the offending corroded wire with a new piece, slapped on some extra tape and stuff for good measure, and drove down Route 2 to the best Ford junkyard in Massachusetts (Mormon Hollow near Turners Falls) where we got everything we needed to fix the van right, along with a real spare tire for fifteen bucks. Our old one had rusted steel treads showing, which is not really a good thing to see as you put it on in the middle of the desert whilst the buzzards circle overhead. Junkyards are kind of funny because you can see what really happens to cars in bad accidents, and speculate on the real causes of motorbound premature mortality. " Hey Doug, I don't like these cinnamon donuts, get me one of those Bavarian cremes. HEY, watch it with the Coffee.......WAAH! " CRASH ! ...1983 Ford LTD, police cruiser, needs front clip, engine, and windshield.
We were actually kind of spooked for the first half an hour of driving because Imelda was dangerously overloaded and she wallowed and drifted all over the road. We both learned how to not overcompensate for it though, and she did a solid seventy with the rock and roll blasting . We drove through the Berkshires and somewhere near Albany some hard guy cop followed us for half an hour before pulling us over for "faulty taillights." We stopped in Syracuse in a parking lot at the university. We had set up two sleeping areas in the rig , although the crawl space in the back was sort of like a darkened coffin or perhaps a pressure cooker. We slept.
Tuesday morning we finally got in touch with Kristen Brandt. Although she was about to go to work, she said that she could meet us for breakfast at this place Cosmo's anyway . Kristen did not want to come to the barbarous west coast with us, claiming that she was happy where she was. After breakfast we found the Syracuse gym, where we showered. Just for good measure, we bothered Kristen at work, and then it was time to check out the rolling hills of upper state New York.
Dawdled all day on backroads, and checked out the Fingerlakes. This is a suburban/American paradise type of area, and it was truly green and fertile looking. Sven was all psyched to see the great lakes, and he took a number of snapshots of the momentous view. Lake Erie is cold. Anyway, we drove till my camping hormones started kicking in, and we consulted our AAA camping guide for the nearest campground. And now for a brief word about the AAA campground guide. The kindly folks at AAA are no doubt of the RV persuasion. The campgrounds it led us to ranged from neatly mowed golf course type deals to completely paved trailer parks. (In fact, Sven and I had a minor disagreement over where to camp because Sven didn't care, and I wanted to go somewhere that had wildlife, trees, streams, etc.) As far as I was concerned, if it wasn't going to be a good campsite, we might as well just pull over onto the side of the road and crash wherever. So it was already dark when we pulled into our third campground. The cashier at this harsh RV place "Indian Creek" said they had "primitive camping" in the back, if we wanted to check it out. So we drove past the neat columns of RVs and trailers, past the swimming pool, the laundromat, and the central pavilion to the "primitive areas", where there were multiple trees and the grass, though mowed, had weeds in it. The terrain seemed fairly tame, so I decided to go off the road in search of a site with nearby wild shrubbery and possibly even sources of wild uncut groundwood for campfire purposes. We located an OK spot and were headed back for the main path, when I felt the front end sink into a drainage ditch that ran alongside the road. I floored Imelda Momelda, but It was too late and the back end got stuck in the mud. We decided to stay at Indian Creek for the night... I casually asked if we could borrow a backhoe or a tractor at the front desk, and they laughed and told us they'd call the tow truck. "First one this week" said the manager matter-of-factly.
Snarfing some boards that had been lying in the woods and some goodly sized logs, we proceeded to get a huge bonfire going. Sven got sliced when he stepped on my Rambo knife while trying to cut firewood using the jump on it method. We cooked burgers and drank a twelvepack of some local beer (four bucks!) and crashed.
Wednesday morning we got up late, had another huge fire upon which we roasted hot dogs which later gave us gas. We showered, etc., and opted for the superslab. 343 miles to Chicago. The superhighways are fast but you don't get the exciting scenic viewing so desirable for such once in a lifetime type events.
The warm-up act for Chicago was a few miles of the biggest electric towers in the whole world. (This and many other transfixing vistas have been captured on film which can be viewed at headquarters, by the way.) We took an exit which dumped us right into the projects, and tried to call Hock, John Caban's friend. Of course he wasn't home and our map of the area showed absolutely no detail. The only thing to do was drive to the lake, find their equivalent of Storrow Drive, and stop at a record store to find out where the rock and roll was. We found our way to the Lincoln Zoo area, and got the hot tips on where to scarf beers from some guy with blue hair at a record store. By the time it got dark, we had chomped Chicago pizza and were at this upstairs dive called Avalon. It has three rooms; one with a real stage where a very silly Metal band was playing quality loud noises, a euro-mo haircut attitude dance room, and a little bar in the back. Apparently every Wednesday The Jammin' Junkies, led by Paul Somethingorother had an open jam. Sven and Paul were treated to several hours of first class talent. It went from straight ahead rock that could have been practice sessions for Goats Head Soup to searing blues (like only a heavy smoker woman's voice can do) to what sounded like Jimmy Paige meets Metallica. Some lineups were obviously in the same band, but more often people just casually walked on and off the stage, led by nods and glances from the floor leader. We all know the Boston music scene has been slowly drying up since Jack's and Jumping Jack Flash closed, but that is simply not the case in the windy city. The raw talent is there, and more importantly there's that happenin' feeling in the air. I for one could live in Chicago. Sven, for two could also live in Chicago.
We slept in the rig once more, and Thursday morning we went to a huge Bally fitness affiliate where we took showers, had a brutal workout, and showered again. Then we went to one of the parks which line Lake Michigan (which is freezing) and napped in the sun. Sven took a nice spill on the stone jetty and scraped the hell out of his knee. Wondering if he would make the trip, I commemorated the event with a snapshot. We cruised town for a few hours before we got ahold of Hock. He took us to this unbelievable restaurant called Giordanos where we had the best deep dish pizza of all times. We couldn't even finish it. I gave the doggie bag to a bum outside of Wrigley Field. You know, I think he had gotten beaten up in the past by someone who looked like me, because when I approached him, his face was absolutely filled with terror. I'll always remember the transformation on his face when I held the box out to him and told him it was a free dinner. We went to a reggae bar, and stayed at Hock's. Of course the next morning we wished we had the pizza for breakfast, but we didn't, so off it was. Thanks, Hock, for being such a gracious host to previously total strangers.
So the 17th we left Chicago in torrential rain. We drove and slept in shifts. I had the chili urge in St. Louis, and we wandered for an hour before we were served lame white-boy baked bean soup mush. But we were responsible and ate a lot at the salad bar. We drove 750 miles that day. Apparently in Oklahoma City an out of state van with faulty taillights merits four cruisers at three in the morning. The officer we dealt with was truly courteous, but he wouldn't let us get a picture with him. (Said it was against regulations.) We got fooled by a sign that was apparently wrong on a little back road, and went on an hour long detour that had us really worried about running out of gas. Lost in the middle of nowhere takes on new dimensions in Oklahoma. The night sky in the midwest is so clear you can see the milky way. We made it to Stillwater at about four in the morning, and we slept in a parking lot by the stadium at OSU.
In case you didn't know, Uncle Paul spent his formative preteen years in Stillwater, mostly in married student housing complexes. This did not make us feel gleeful however when we woke up four hours later to unbelievable heat. Imelda turns into an oven when she's not moving. We snuck into the gym and took showers in the visiting team's locker room. And then it was off to find Paul's childhood haunts. It's amazing to think that yes, I still knew my way around. I found Will Rodgers Elementary school, two of my old apartments, and one that had been reduced to a concrete walkway. "The creek" had apparently become "the ditch." Lots of things had in fact shrunk in my absence. My best friend Mike's house had become a church parking lot. The day got hotter, and we opted for another nap by a beautiful little lake by "the turnpipe" . Bugs wrecked our naps. There was some brilliant lightning, and cloud formations Sven had never seen before. We finally got ahold of some friends of my parents, who invited us over for the night. The Spiveys, like most of the folks in Oklahoma were extremely friendly. We went out to a bar called Eskimo Joe's, which was filled with pre season football players, but we had fun anyway. We got pulled over again, by another friendly cop who was genuinely concerned about our safety. By now the only taillight that worked was the left side brake light.
The next morning I fixed all of the taillights (which still work) and Sven used some metal strapping to fix the exhaust (which also still works). If you have space in your toolbox, we highly advise bringing a small cordless drill. A huge cooler is also helpful, but a good stereo and lots of cassettes are essential. We listened to nonstop rock for the first few days, but things started getting a bit weird so we started playing jazz fuzak and stuff. In fact, Sven even got used to Basia (not).
Anyway, it was a late start, but Stillwater is closed on Sunday, so we decided to get to Amarillo. The driving got more interesting when it stopped being absolutely flat. Two girls, looking about fourteen, asked us to buy beer for them at a rest stop in the middle of absolutely nowhere. It was kind of sad. Midwestern rest areas are all the same, by the way. There are two gas stations, one clearly for the big rigs, one that's attached to a restaurant, a liquor store, and kids asking you to buy for them. There are lots of payphones and vending machines, and a few old video games. Sven and I frequently played one (and only one) game of Galaga when we found it. For some reason it makes you wake up. And then of course there is the souvenir shop where you can buy pottery, Indian jewelry, cedar knickknacks, cheese logs, and cowboy junk. The mainstay items of a good garage sale. In fact, I developed a philosophy of shopping whilst at such a shop awhile back. Just think to yourself when you're buying something, would this stand anywhere close to a fifty-fifty chance of being tossed when you move? OK, so I bought a few postcards.
That evening we snoozed at Palo Duro Canyon Park in the "late arrivals" area. I left the windows open because the air was so nice, and we both suffered insect attacks all night for it. I was having campfire urges when we woke up, so we went into the park to look for a site. By now the only campgrounds we would stay at were National Parks . Firewood is scarce in the midwest, so I stopped at one point for some excellent sticks I spotted beside the road. Sven went out to grab them, and when he was about to get into the door, he suddenly dropped them and started making those scabbly arm motions you make when a bee is on you. I jumped out of the van, and Sven was about a hundred yards down the road in his shorts. Apparently he'd seen a huge, gibunda sized black spider on the sleeve of his shirt. We couldn't find it, so we found a site and made bacon and eggs. We washed up out of a faucet where the water was so hard it made your skin feel tight when it dried up. Sven was inspecting the picnic table, and he found a spider in one of the metal tubes of the table. It wouldn't come out completely, but he said it was exactly like the one that had been on his arm. It was pitch black, with a red stripe on it's back. I assured him that it probably wasn't a black widow, because I'd been taught that black widows have a "red hourglass" under their tails. I didn't remember anything about a red stripe... We went for some scenic driving, and found a stream where I was sure crawdads lurked. I wanted to catch one. There weren't any, but there was all this awesome red Texas clay. We saved some to try pottery experiments with later.
Some cop in Amarillo followed us around, but there was nothing to write us up for. (Everything on the van worked.) We pulled into a place called Boots 'n' Jeans, where I scored an awesome pair of elephant ear skin boots. They're supposed to last forever. I was kind of bummed out that I had spent so much money on them, but I justified it by the fact that they don't make them anymore, and I generally have a hard time finding triple E boots. Ah yes, but such purchases just bring me that much further from that Ninja.
We made it to Coronado State park that night, and we were both very psyched about the mesas. The west is beautiful, although I'd hate to be a hunter-gatherer there. We drove over a water spigot there, which thankfully didn't pop. The clay didn't turn into very good ashtrays. The next morning, we were throwing it around when we got the inspiration to paint stuff on the van with it. The left side got a large dog saying "woof," and the right side got an "LA or Bust" and a smaller dog which says "arf." We still haven't washed it off.
So we went to Santa Fe and spent all of Tuesday there. Santa Fe seems like a great place to live. A lot of people there came from such horror cities as New York and LA. The girls were all gorgeous. The city center has hundreds of extremely interesting shops, selling the goods of the west. High class versions of the good stuff in souvenir shops. Fossils, clothes, Indian stuff, art, books, and truly memorable chili. Its like a non-corporate Freeport, Maine. Late in the afternoon, a sudden thundershower hit, so we left, and we were out in the sun within fifteen minutes. Weather is like that in the west.
I was by now obsessed with firewood, and we stopped to get a big root I saw by the side of the road. It turned out to be cedar, and it made the truck smell great. Actually, we'd kept the rig pretty clean so it didn't smell like food, butts, feet, or anything harsh like that. We were so conscientious, in fact, that we didn't litter or anything.
We drove to Red Rocks Campground in Arizona. That night we made an exciting discovery. We were playing backgammon (thanks Mrs. O) under a floodlight, and we saw another of the cute black spiders. It was hanging in a thread, and sure as hell it had not only a black stripe on its back, but also a red hourglass underneath. Sven was horrified. I got a picture of it before we (Sven) smushed it with a stick. We slept with the windows closed.
The next day we hit Flagstaff, where nobody was friendly, and skipped off to the Grand Canyon. Your basic road day. It was kind of late in the afternoon, so we camped early at the best campsite we'd seen yet. We didn't find any more black widows, and we chowed bigtime. Cedar is great kindling, but not such ace firewood for actually cooking. I suppose everybody already knows that.
So Thursday we got up bright and early, had another hard water shower, and checked out the Grand Canyon. We did about three hours of unauthorized hiking and rock climbing. The GC is huge. You throw a rock as hard as you can and it looks like it just went straight down. However, it looks pretty much the same from all the scenic areas. Sven stood on a precipice and shouted "haloo!", but the echo came back "stop throwing rocks." We decided to call it a wrap and hit the highway for Vegas.
The road was pretty much downhill all the way there. Momelda started running a little hot from being in low gear, and lost power. While we were sweating it out in the parking lot of some local bar, I noticed that a tire had dried out completely and had cracks almost half an inch deep all around the rim. We replaced the dangerous dry-rotted tire with the dangerous bald tire that we had taken off the truck in Massachusetts. When the van had cooled off, it ran fine.
The Hoover Dam was an unexpected bonus. We're going back sometime to see it in the daytime. The winged centurions guarding it are fabulous deco period sculpture. Sven exposed himself to them.
On this leg of the trip I kept on seeing "scenic view" signs with the headlights. Now I can't stand to think that I missed out on all that scenic viewing, so I imagined my own twisted roadside views. Dragons and dinosaurs dukin' it out, non-perpendicular gravity areas, a mountain range that looked like Rita Hayworth, etc. I told Sven about it but he was sleeping so I got to keep driving. There were signs that said, Burma Shave Fashion, "there's a last time for everything", "Driving doesn't mix," "with drinking," "with sleeping," etc. There were crosses on the side of the road wherever someone had died. I guess lots of people die on the long, straight, featureless road to Vegas.
We made it without any further mishap to Las Vegas. We got lost trying to find Janet's (formerly Boylen) house, and we found it at about midnight. We debated the coolness of showing up unannounced (I had apparently been trying to call the wrong number) versus spending another night in the rig, with the distinct possibility of missing them in the morning. Taka & Janet let us in, but everyone was very tired, so we went to sleep after some happy hellos.
Glitter Gulch, The Tropicana, Excalibur, Circus-Circus, it is a bizarre place. The housing developments around town look really strange, because they look like they could be anywhere in the country, except that at the property line the lush sod turns into desert sand, which continues until the next condo project. Apparently housing is affordable, which is a weird concept of its own. But most of the people you see are staying at the hotels, which are fairly economical. Everything is actually pretty cheap in Vegas, because they get you at the tables. Gambling tax means residents don't have state income tax. Janet took us out and we lost money. At least the drinks were free.
And so Saturday the 25th, thirteen days later we crossed the border into California which you will read about in the next newsletter.back to the main page
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