Early on an August morning of 1974 my friend AK and I left Southern California. We had been there for over two months. A red sun rimmed the eastern horizon, as our friend dropped us in Hollywood.
“Wish I could take you farther, but I have a rehearsal.” Victor waited by the curb, expecting us to get back in the car.
“We’ll see you in the East.” AK waved from the exit.
“I’m not going back there ever.” Victor was happy in LA. He had a job dancing for Merv Griffin, a convertible Mercedes, and a drug-dealer boyfriend. Few young people needed more to achieve satisfaction with life. “Good luck.”
The Benz u-turned on Sunset and we waited for a ride. A buzz-cut salesman in a white shirt pulled over to the curb within three minutes. He was heading east and we jumped into his Buick. Nixon was on his mind.
“The bastard betrayed the Silent Majority, preaching law and order, while ordering illegal wiretaps and break-ins. Mind you it was for a good cause. Trying to keep you long hairs from running the country.”
We were glad to get out of the car, but hitchhiking out of Pomona wasn’t easy for hippies. The locals were the sons of Okie rednecks. Most glared at us, some gave the finger, and one tried to drive into us. This was Nixon country and his followers were sore losers.
The locals were the sons of Okie rednecks, but a young Mormon girl stopped at the Rancho Cucamonga on-ramp and drove her Monza convertible over the pass into the high desert. The cute driver played the new Joni Mitchell 8-track on the stereo.
“My parents won’t let me listen to music, but her voice is so pretty.”
As we sang along with URGE FOR GOING, AK and I both wondered why we were leaving California. It was all about money. We had none.
She dropped us in Victorville.
It was barely 10AM.
We thought ourselves lucky, then we saw the long row of hippies standing on the arid eastbound onramp.
Hitchhiking on the Interstate was illegal.
The State troopers arrested anyone attempting to break the law. The fine was $50. I had almost $40 in my pocket. California cops didn’t bargain with hippies. AK and I took our place in 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. I was hungry.
“What do you think?” AK asked with a canteen in hand.
“I think it doesn’t look good.” I sipped some water. It tasted of Pomona. The hitchhikers in front of us licked their lips with envy.
“We’ll have to go easy on this.” AK put away the canteen. We only had one.
Cars and trucks whizzed past on the Interstate. They were going faster than 55 MPH. By the time the drivers saw us, they were gone. A CHiP cruiser patrolled the onramp every twenty minutes. The steel-faced officers were dead-set against hitchhikers. They were here to enforce the law.
After an hour a van picked up three hippies and six more longhairs joined the ranks of the stranded travelers. 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 for 20 hours. Both of them were in the throes of cold turkey.
“15 hours?” I checked up the sky. There wasn’t a cloud from horizon to horizon. The temperature was in 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.
A merciless sun bounced off the black asphalt.
We were six people behind them. AK and I were #47 and 48. I had been a math major my first years at university. The math was simple addition and subtraction. One ride per hour meant that we would not get a ride for another two days.
“You two should split up. No one picks up two guys.” Her strung-out old man had hair to his ass. The skinny girlfriend could have passed for his twin. They made a cute lesbian couple for anyone not looking too close.
“Except for perverts.” His furious girlfriend was hungry for a fix. She wanted out of this desert limbo.
“Yeah, I’ve had a couple of offers from some sick fucks. They were into men,” he said it as if it were a sin.
“They wanted me to watch.” Her face screwed up with disgust. Sex was as distasteful to junkies as it was to nuns. Torture was beyond her strung-out comprehension.
“Nothing wrong with being queer.” I danced with gays at the 1270 Club in Boston. They pawned me off to fag hags. It was a good deal for me. “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. It was a city of commuters. They drove everywhere to get their kicks.
“Oh.” I had come down from Big Sur. A serial killer was chopping up co-eds. Another was shooting men in the Valley. Some of the Manson Family was at large. They called the desert their home.
“What do you think?” AK asked for the second time. Our water was getting low.
“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. The sun was fast approaching high noon. The temperature was in the high 80s.
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.
“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 was exiting 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. He saved me the last gulp.
“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 simple wickedness, because she was telling the truth. “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 oppressive Arizona heat and they arrived here.”
“The California dream.” I looked out the window. Nobody was walking on the sidewalks. The heat was too much for man or beast. Needles was a funny place to enter paradise and not funny ha-ha.
“The beginning or the end.” AK lifted his bag in both hands. He didn’t want to get off the bus. AK had the money 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. My lack of funds meant that Needles was the last stop for me.
“No, I’ll stick with you.” He hefted the bag over his shoulder.
“Really?” I would have bet my last money 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 stuck me the second I stepped off the bus and I thought that I had walked into the exhaust of a thousand buses, except our Greyhound was the only bus in the sweltering parking lot.
The other travelers hurried into the station. AK pushed me off the bus. The sun beat on my skin, as if its rays were ironing my flesh.
Needles was 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 was gasping 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.
The highway was in the distance. Cars and trucks sped through a shimmering mirage. It was less than a mile away. In this heat that walk 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 question.
The heat was so dry that the sweat was seared off our skin. 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. Doors opened easy.
“Shut the damn doors.” The counterman shouted from the cash register. “I’m not cooling the outdoors.”
“Yes, sir,” I answered with respect, as AK shut 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 was 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 $33 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.” I was in no shape to walk to the highway.
“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 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 merciless 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.
Twenty minutes later the farmer pulled off the highway. The town was two miles away. We were on the wrong side of the Colorado. The sun was four hours from setting. The only shade was a bullet-holed billboard some 300 feet off the highway.
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.” AK put on his best smile. The Berkeley School of Music graduate had perfect teeth and excelled at looking harmless. He pushed me to the side and the second car stopped for us.
“We’re out of here.” He led the way to the waiting Delta 88.
“Thanks for stopping.” AK pulled off his bandana. “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 much for my bones.”
“Isn’t Lake Havasu where they put the London Bridge?” I had read about the move 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 shook her head with an giggle.
“No, but it’s better than no bridge.” This sounded like a regular discussion between them. “I wish I hadn’t moved down here. It’s cooler up in the high country. Sometimes down here my head feels hot enough to fry an egg on.”
The driver might have said the line maybe 100 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. The two complimented each other. “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 safe from dehydration. We were leaving the frying pan. We both slept in the back seat.
The old couple pulled off the road at Kingman for the night. This town was mentioned in Chuck Berry’s ROUTE 66.
“We’re staying here for the night.” The motor lodge offered rooms for $20.
“We’ll keep on going.” My money was going too fast to spend $10 on a bed. Boston was 3000 miles away from here.
“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.
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 was throttling its diesel engine through Kingman. Wherever we would be tomorrow morning was a night away far from Needles.