In the last week of August AK and I left Southern California on a cloudless morning. Our long vacation had come to an end. Victor drove us over the Hollywood Hills east out of the Valley. AK and the dancer sat in the front of the Mercedes convertible. I couldn’t hear their conversation with the top down, but I could imagine the subject.
Victor wanted his college friend to stay with him.
LA was the entertainment center of America.
AK wanted to play music for a living.
He had a girlfriend and a teaching job back in Boston not to mention Pam.
Three days ago the blonde nursing student had flown to DC from San Diego. She was staying a couple of days with her parents before returning to her all-women’s college in Newton. AK was hoping to continue their summer romance on the East Coast.
The San Gabriel Mountains escorted us down the Valley, as we rode along I-10 through Monterey Park, El Monte, West Covina, and Pomona before turning north on the Ontario Freeway. The suburban development yielded to the harsh landscape and Victor exited off I-15 at Devore Heights.
Victor stopped at the onramp.
“I wish you were taking a bus.”
“Hitchhiking is free.” I had a hundred dollars in my wallet. A cross-country ticket was almost $70.
“I wouldn’t take a ride, unless it’s going to Barstow.” Victor handed AK a map. “You don’t want to get stranded out there and don’t get on the highway. The highway cops will arrest you and bring you court for a fine.”
“Thanks for the advice.” AK shook his friend’s hand.
The two of us got out of the Benz. We dropped our bags on the dirt shoulder. Victor wished me luck.
“You take care of my friend.”
“Same as he takes care of me.” I had audition for a film job. The producer ran a XXX company in North Hollywood. I failed my audition on purpose.
“If you get stuck here, take a bus back to Hollywood.”
“Getting stuck here would be a sign, we’re supposed to stay and not go.” AK shut the passenger door.
Victor drove away and we watched the Mercedes disappear into the westbound traffic.
A dry wash scrambled through desert brush. Willows and cottonwoods wavered along the waterless creek and withered scrubs wandered from the course of seasonal rains The Pacific Ocean seemed a thousand miles away. AK and I drank water from our canteens.
This was edge of nowhere.
“You ready for this?” AK stuck out his thumb to a four-door sedan.
The driver stared at the road.
He probably blamed us for Nixon’s resignation.
“Leaving any city is tough.”
“Especially when the next city is Albuquerque.” AK checked the map. “Over 600 miles from here.”
“And nothing in between?” The West was a land of long distances.
“Just small towns probably populated by rednecks and son of Okies. Neither likes hippies.” He handed me the map.
“There’s really nothing between Barstow and Needles.”
I stuck out my thumb to passing pickup. The cowboy behind the wheel gave us the finger.
“We aren’t on the coast anymore.”
AK and I were tanned bronze by the months on the beach.
“Floe and Rockford are probably in Arcata by now,” They had been heading to a commune in the Trinity Alps to harvest marijuana. She hadn’t invited me along for the trip.
“You’re still thinking about her?”
The black teenager and I had spent the better part of a month together in Encinitas.
Days on the beach.
Nights in bed.
“Like you’re thinking about Pam.”
“Except Floe ran away.”
She hated violence.
We dropped the subject and took turns hitchhiking.
About twenty vehicles sped onto the Freeway. A Greyhound bus motored underneath the overpass. AK looked to me. The morning was getting warm, but two minutes later a Monza convertible stopped for us. The driver was a pretty teen the same age as Floe.
“My parents would kill me, if they knew I picked up two men, but it isn’t easy getting a ride out of here. Get in the car.”
AK sat in the front.
“You mind if I play Joni Mitchell.”
“We love Joni.” The folk singer was Pam’s favorite.
The cute driver played the new Joni Mitchell 8-track on the stereo, as we headed over the pass into the Mojave desert.
“My parents won’t let me listen to music, but her voice is so pretty, so I bought a tape for the car.”
“You’re a Mormon?” I hadn’t ever met a girl belonging to the Latter Day Saints.
“Yes, but my people don’t believe in polygamy.”
AK glanced a warning over his shoulder. He didn’t want me to mention my family connection to Joseph Smith. We needed this ride.
The three of us sang every song from CLOUDS and AK and I both wondered why we were leaving California.
The young girl was visiting her grandmother and dropped us in Victorville.
“Good luck on your trip.”
We waved good-bye.
It was barely 10AM.
“What kind of town you think Victorville is?” ask AK, as we approached the Interstate.”
“Not one that likes hitchhikers.”
A long row of hippies wound around the arid eastbound onramp.
“I counted forty-six.”
“Victor had warned that hitchhiking on the Interstate was illegal. At least none of them are Bill.” The violent drifter seemed to be following us around America.
“Thanks the heavens for that.”
AK and I took our place at the end of the ragged queue.
There wasn’t a speck of shade in sight. Sand, weeds, and a dented guardrail decorated the scenery.
Across the interstate was a gas station and a diner. I smelled bacon in the air. Our breakfast had been a donut and a cup of coffee.
“What do you think?” AK asked with a canteen in hand.
“I think it doesn’t look good.” I sipped some water.
The hitchhikers in front of us licked their lips with envy.
“We’ll have to go easy on this.” AK put away his canteen.
Cars and trucks whizzed past on the Interstate. They were going faster than 55 MPH. Speed wasn’t an issue in the Mojave. Hippies were the danger and A CHiP cruiser patrolled the onramp every twenty minutes to enforce the anti-hitchhiking law.
After an hour a van stopped to pick up three hippies.
I walked down the line speaking to the other hitchhikers. None of them had anything good to say about this onramp.
A New Orleans-bound couple were fortieth in the line-up. They had been on the ramp ten hours. Both of them were in the throes of cold turkey.
“Ten hours?” I checked up the sky. There wasn’t a cloud from horizon to horizon. The temperature was rising into the high 80s. By late afternoon it would be in the 100s.
“Some of it was night.” The rail-thin girl wore a wife-brimmed hat, but her skin had been torched a torrid red.
The merciless sun reflected off the black asphalt.
We were six people behind them, making AK and I #44 and 45.
“One ride an hour for three people means that me and my friend won’t get a ride until tomorrow.”
“You two should split up. No one picks up two guys.” The skinny girl had done the math countless time during their wait. “Anyone will pick up a single girl, but I don’t want to end up in the desert with some crazy cowboys.”
“So you’re stuck with me for better or worse.” Her strung-out old man had hair to his ass.
“Unless you want a pervert.” His girlfriend wanted out of this desert limbo.
“Yeah, I’ve had a couple of offers from some sick fucks. They were into men,” he said, as if homosexuality was a sin.
“They wanted me to watch.” Her face screwed up with disgust. Sex was as distasteful to junkies as it was to nuns.
“Nothing wrong with being queer.” I danced with gays at the 1270 Club in Boston and the Brass Rail in San Diego. They liked a good time. “Especially if it gets us out of here.”
“These guys weren’t after sex.” The junkie was hinting at murder. Killers were preying on hitchhikers in LA.
“Oh.” I had come down from Big Sur. A madman had been caught for chopping up co-eds. Another murderer was shooting men in the Valley. Some of the Manson Family was at large. This desert had been their home.
“What do you think?” AK asked when I got back.
“Let me try a different technique.” I tried to look bisexual. Andy didn’t play that game and the cowboys weren’t buying my solo act.
By noon the sun would be melting the asphalt under our feet.
A Greyhound bus exited from the Interstate and pulled into the forlorn gas station. It wouldn’t be staying there long.
“Bus?” The heat had stolen AK’s tongue.
“Now?” My mouth was as dry as dust.
“Now.” AK and I grabbed our bags and ran across the cloverleaf to the diner.
The Greyhound was billowing diesel fumes. Its driver exited from the station’s diner.
“How far we get for $5?” AK pulled out his wallet.
“$4.25 buy you a ride to Needles.” The driver sucked on an icy coke.
“Make that two.” $8.50 bought us escape from Victorsville. The two tickets were worth every penny. We stared out the window at the marooned hippies. Three minutes ago we had been them.
“Good move.” AK sucked down water from the canteen.
“You boys look hot.” An old black woman across the aisle was peeling an orange.
“We were stuck back there for a few hours.” AK wiped the sweat off his face.
“Hitchhiking?” She passed half the orange to us.
“Yep.” I was still stuck on single syllables.
“You’d have a lot more luck, if you cut your hair. You look like girls and not pretty girls either.” The old black woman laughed with a truthful wickedness. “But these peckerwoods out here ain’t too particular about pretty.”
“Thanks.” It had been a long time since I had been called ‘ugly.
AK and I pored our the map, as the bus sped down I-10.
With each mile the desert was even more desert.
The window was warm to the touch, but the bus interior was ACed to Alaska.
A few rangy cowboys and the old black woman got off in Barstow. She gave us each another orange. They were sweet and we sucked on the fruit, as if we might not taste another for a long time.
The bus pulled out of Barstow. The driver announced that the next stop was Needles. It was a 170-mile ride.
Two and a half hours later the bus pulled into the desert town. I looked at the map. Needles lay on the west bank of the Colorado River.
“The Joad family’s first stop in THE GRAPES OF WRATH was Needles.”
AK loved John Steinbeck. He had written a paper on the author in college.
“They drove through the night to avoid the Arizona heat and they arrived here.”
“The California Dream.” I looked out the window. Nobody was walking on the sidewalks of the dust-blown town.
“The beginning or the end.” AK didn’t want to get off the bus. AK had the cash for a ticket to Boston. His eyes asked me what to do.
“You want to go, go.”
In this heat it was every man for himself. Needles was the last stop for me.
“No, I’ll stick with you.” He hefted his bag over his shoulder.
“Really?” I would have bet my last dollar on his ditching out on me.
“Did you ever doubt I would?”
“Not for one second.”
The bus braked at the small terminal and the driver announced a thirty-minute break.
We were the last passengers to exit from the bus.
A brick wall of torpid heat greeted us, as we stepped off the bus and I thought that I had walked into the exhaust fumes of a thousand buses, except our Greyhound was the only bus in the sweltering parking lot.
The other travelers hurried into the station. The sun beat on my skin, as if its rays were ironing my flesh.
Needles were much worse than Victorville. My boots sunk into the molten asphalt. Across the street a large thermometer displayed the temperature.
“That can’t be right.” AK gasped for breath. We were from the East Coast. New Englanders wilted whenever the mercury lifted north of 85.
“No one else is outside.” I felt like I was breathing off the end of a hair-dryer.
I-10 shimmered in the distance. Cars and trucks sped wavered east and west like waterbugs on a mirage. It was less than a mile away. In this heat a walk that distant was a test of survival.
“There’s a Dairy Queen across the street.” AK headed toward the promise of cold ice cream and AC.
I followed the New Yorker without hesitation. We ran across the parched grass verge. The time was almost 3pm. High noon lasted long in Needles.
Our entrance into the ice cream parlor was loud.
“Shut the damn doors.” The counterman shouted from the cash register. “I’m not cooling the outdoors.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered, as AK close the glass door.
The other customers appreciated the gesture.
They were farmers, teenage boys and girls.
Hippies were not a common sight in the Mojave, but they directed their attention to spooning sundaes and floats into their mouths. The AC was set to 68. Everyone looked comfortable.
“Two vanilla ice cream sodas.” My mother had given the sweet slurry of cold comfort to me when I had strep throat.
“I want chocolate.” Andy stepped up to the counter. “Two too.”
After the 3rd ice cream soda our core temperature had dropped to 98.6.
“Is that thermometer right?” I asked an Okie rancher.
“Sun got to it. Ain’t right by 15 degrees. Makes it 120. Hot, but ain’t half as hot as July 2, 1967. That day it hit 122. The two degrees don’t sound like much until you been in 122.” He spoke with pride. “Not many humans can handle that heat. Felt like the Devil was burning my bones. You boys, headed east?”
“Yes, sir.” The heat brought out the polite in me.
“I can give you a ride to Topock. Some 20 miles from here. It’s on the other side of the Colorado. You got some money for gas?”
“Sure.” I had $93 in my pocket and gave the driver two of them.
“Every little bit helps.” Gas was 40 cents a gallon and he was grateful for the donation.
“Same goes for us.” Walking in the desert heat was a matter of life or death.
“Mind if I fill up my canteen?” AK lifted his metal water container.
“Make it snappy.” The Okie exited from the Dairy Queen. The back of his Ford pick-up was loaded with bags of grain. His dog was in the front seat. When I approached the passenger door, the black dog snarled with bared fangs.
“Ranger don’t like the heat. Don’t like strangers though. You gotta sit in the back.”
“Okay.” I put my hand on the truck. The steel was frying pan hot. I sat on a burlap bag and pulled a bandana from my pack. The sun was high in the sky.
AK ran out of the ice cream shop and jumped into the back.
“Damn.” He leapt off the flatbed like a fried egg with legs.
“Pull up a bag.”
The sign next to the Dairy Queen indicated that the temperature was hovering around 125. It was the wrong reading, but my mind registered it as the real thing.
“We’re ready when you’re ready.” I rapped on the rear window.
The pickup crossed the Colorado River into Arizona. The farmer pulled off the interstate. The town was two miles away to the north. He drove away without a word. His dog barked their good-bye. The sun was four hours from setting. The only shade was a bullet-holed billboard some 300 feet in the scrubby desert.
“That wasn’t much of a ride.”
A railroad bridge traversed the river and another bridge for cars spanned the water coming out of the Rockies. Weeds were growing out of the pavement of the old Route 66. Cottonwoods dotted the near shore before the river curved to the east, otherwise low scrubs and yellow dirt dominated the scenery.
“It got us out of California.” Arizona was as hot as the Golden State.
“I wish I was back in Encinitas.” AK loved Moonlight Beach.
“I wish we were back two weeks ago.”
We ended our days with a swim in the surf.
Floe loved the waves. She came from Texas, but never said where.
“If only I was Dorothy and could click my heels.” AK had been brought up on THE WIZARD OF OZ.
“Then we’d end up in Kansas.” I believed in the magic ruby slippers.
“Kansas, Kansas.” AK snapped his boots together.
“No such luck. There’s only one way out of here.”
I stuck out my thumb. Cars and trucks were coming our way. I pretended to be Jack Kerouac’s illegitimate son. He had to have one somewhere.
“Look like you’re harmless.” The Berkeley School of Music graduate had perfect teeth and pushed me to the side. The second car stopped for us.
“We’re out of here.” He led the way to the waiting Delta 88.
“Thanks for stopping.” AK jumped in the back. “It’s a life saver.”
“Nice car.” My father had a gray version.
“Good AC.” AK was settling into the leather seat. “Where you going?”
“Lake Havesu. We used to be from Chicago, but the winters got too hard on my bones.”
“Isn’t Lake Havasu where they put the London Bridge?” I had read about its sale in LIFE magazine.
“Yes and no.” The husband was a full head of hair. He drove with both hands on the wheel. “The developer bought the old London Bridge, thinking it was the Tower Bridge.”
“But it wasn’t.” His white-haired wife muffled a pleasant chuckle with her hand.
“Still they reconstructed the London Bridge and people come from all around to see it,” her husband explained with an apologetic tone.
“Bridge doesn’t really go anywhere.” His wife found it amusing.
“No, but it’s better than no bridge.” This seemed to be a regular discussion between them. “I wish I hadn’t moved down here. Sometimes down here my head feels hot enough to fry an egg on. It’s cooler up in the high country.”
Mountains looked from the desert plain.
The driver might have said the line a hundred times. The punch line was funny to us, because we knew it was true.
“It isn’t this hot all the time.” The desert sun had leathered his wife’s skin. She was as brown as a Naugahyde couch and her silver-blonde hair was a homage to Dinah Shore. “We have grandchildren. They come and visit sometimes. That’s why we picked you up.”
“They’re hippies too.” The old man smiled in the rearview mirror. “There’s lemonade in the cooler. Drink as much as you want.”
There were four glass screw-top bottles.
“Don’t be shy.” The driver floored the pedal. The big V8 ate up the road. The old man was in a hurry to get out of the heat. “Drink as much as you want.
Andy and I drained one each in thirty seconds.
We were leaving the frying pan.
Just before sunset the old couple pulled into Kingman, Arizona. Its main industry was the state prison.
The Interstate was replaced by an old section of Route 66. Within a few years the legendary road from Chicago to LA would be gone.
“We’re staying here for the night.”
A motor lodge offered rooms for $20.
“We’ll keep on going.” My money was going too fast to spend $10 on a bed.
“I’d pay for a room.” The old man had a kind heart.
“No, thanks, we’ll be fine now we’re out of that furnace.” AK opened the door. The cool mountain air smelled of pine. We were safe.
I followed him out of the sedan and put my bags on the ground. We waved good-bye from the shoulder of old Route 66.
“I can’t believe two hours ago it was 135 in the shade.” The air at 3000 feet was cool relief and I stuck out my thumb.
“The thermometer was broken.” AK sat on the guard railing.
“It was still as hot as I’ve ever been.”
“You can say that again.”
I didn’t bother to repeat the obvious.
The sun was setting in the pines and a semi’s diesel engine was throttling on its way through Kingman.
Wherever we would be tomorrow morning was a night away.