Bonneville Salt Flats from BACK AND FORTH a hitchhiking novel from Peter Nolan Smith

The dawn sun burned misty shadows off the distant mountains and its stark brightness seared through my eyelids. I rose from my sleeping bag to drink in the austere surroundings. A white flatness stretched around me forever and a hissing wind pelleted my face with ancient brine. This was the Bonneville Salt Flats.

A quick swig of water from my canteen washed the dust from my mouth.

This was the second time that I had woken in the Bonneville Salt Flats. The dried-up lake had been a hard mattress on both occasions. I stretched my arms and legs without loosening their stiffness.

Today was my twenty-second birthday.

To the South cars and trucks sped east and west on a mirage of mirrors.

I walked to the Ford Torino.

AK and Pam were lying inches from each other in the back, but their positions betrayed that they hadn’t touched throughout the night.

I could have let the two of them sleep another hour, but there was a shower room at the truck stop in Wendover and I intended to be there within the next thirty minutes. Utah was a godly state and I felt like bathing in Nevada.

I opened the driver’s door and AK sat up with a jack knife in hand.

“Oh, it’s you,” the pianist sighed, sinking back onto his sleeping bag.

“Who were you expecting? The Manson family.”

Remnants of Charlie’s followers roamed the western deserts. It was a bad sign that whatever the renegades did out here never made the news

“Or worse.” AK sat up.

His eyes blinked in the increasing glare.

“So this is it?”


“The Bonneville Salt Flats.”

“The fastest place on Earth.”

Rocket cars and super-charged motorcycles ran a measured mile farther to the North. Gary Gabelich’s Blue Flame had hit 630 in 1970. It remained the land speed record.

“I’ve seen this place on TV. I didn’t think it would be so desolate.”

“It’s prehistoric.” The Salt Flats were uninhabitable for man or beast. “The salt is five feet deep.”

“Didn’t you sleep here with Marilyn last year?” AK crawled into the front seat and handed me the keys.

“Who’s Marilyn?” Pam remained lying in the back. Her sleep tousled blonde hair reminded me of young Brigitte Bardot in AND GOD CREATED WOMEN.

“She’s how AK and I know each other.” I didn’t want to tell this story to Pam. Her roommate in college was my ex-girlfriend Jackie’.

“Last summer he was hitchhiking from Berkeley with a friend.” AK had heard two versions of this tale.

“The two of them were stuck on Telegraph Avenue for hours.”

“There were about thirty hippies heading east.”

Three of them had been stuck there for over a day.

“You were in a hurry.”

He repeated the story the same way that I had told it to him, but I needed to take over for my own good.

“I had to be at school and Nick was headed to Tulsa to pick up his BMW. He had crashed his car, while rubbernecking at the State Fair’s roller coaster. A Ford Maverick pulled over driven by a woman. She was leaving her husband. He had become a transvestite dancer in the Cockettes.”

“Cockettes?” asked Pam.

“They’re a gay dance group in San Francisco. At least that’s what Marilyn told me. Her six year-old daughter was in the back. She was headed to Boulder, but had room for one person. She wanted someone to share the driving. I asked Nick if he minded me leaving him.”

“A better word was deserting.” AK added, as he opened the map.

“What’d he say?” Pam asked, then sipped water from my canteen.

“He told me to go and I went with Marilyn.” Boulder was almost halfway across the country and I was down to my last twenty dollars.

“That’s good friend.” Pam regarded me with tired eyes. “And?”

“And we drove till we crashed here.”

“And then what happened?

AK was dying to tell Pam about my making love to Marilyn on the salt flats, while her daughter slept in the car crowded with all their possessions. Anything I said now would be told to Pam’s roommate. She had been my girlfriend in 1973. I cut the love scene from my tale.

“The next day she drove me to Cheyenne, saying that she might come see me in Boston.”

“And here comes the weird part.” AK offered his angle on this story. “He and I lived next to each other in Boston. We didn’t know each other, but one day a Maverick pulls up in front of his house and this woman gets out of her car with her daughter. My girlfriend and I were surprised, since we had gone to college with Marilyn. Only she’s coming to see him, instead of us.”

“But once she sees you two, she decides to stay at your place.”

Marilyn and I had never made love again.

“We had a bigger place.”

“After that you and I became friends.”

“Unlucky in love.” AK handed the canteen to Pam. “Lucky with friends.”

“Marilyn and I weren’t in love.”

“Was this after Jackie broke up with you?” The blonde wanted to get the facts straight.

“Jackie had left me earlier in the summer.” I shrugged the acceptance of my fate and asked, “You know what today is?”

“Let me guess. It’s your birthday.”

“You helped celebrate my last one in Buffalo.”

I had hitchhiked back and forth from Boston to Buffalo to see the doctor’s daughter.

“Jackie, you, and me drank tequila on the American side of Niagara Falls. Later that day we played softball against her ex-boyfriend’s team in Delaware Park. You knocked two balls over the railroad tracks. Her boyfriend had been playing centerfield.”

“That night Jackie said that she felt sorry for Jerry. It didn’t take me long to find out how sorry.” Not making love for my birthday had been a bad omen.

“Maybe today you’ll have better luck.”

“Yes, maybe I will. You know I shared the same birthday as JFK and Bob Hope. It was also the day that the Turks stormed Constantinople.” History had been my college minor.

“Happy Birthday to you.” Pam sang the entire song. She had a good voice and AK backed her lead with a solid baritone.

“And you know what I’m going to do for my birthday.”

“I can’t wait to hear.” Pam shivered in fake anticipation.

“I’m going to drive this car as fast as it can go.”

“I’m not sure the owner would appreciate your putting his car to the test.” AK was the more cautious of us.

“Jake would love it.” The ex-Marine had boasted of the Torino’s Cam-Jet injection and 428 FE V8 back in Boston.

“What the fastest you’ve driven?” Pam had exhibited a heavy foot on the gas throughout this trip. Her destination was a boyfriend. Ours was the beach. Neither was going anywhere without us, although the ocean was more faithful than a man.

“About 110 in my father’s Olds 88 on a straightaway in my hometown.” The road crews prided themselves in the condition of Route 28 from the parish church to the Blue Hills.

“This car should beat that.” AK drove a Pontiac Firebird. “It’s your birthday. Knock yourself out, but if anything goes wrong, you pay for the damages.”

“Nothing is going to go wrong.” I started the special-edition V8 engine. “If you want to play it safe, you don’t have to come along for the ride.”

“He doesn’t, but I do.” Pam jumped into the front seat between us and strapped on the seat belt. “I want to see how fast it can go too.”

AK’s reservations were overruled two to one and clinched his seatbelt tight.

“Roll up the windows.”

Speed was all about better aerodynamics.

I revved the Cobra-Jet engine and stepped on the gas with a young man’s mercilessness. The tires responded to the acceleration on the salt surface without any shimmy from the steering wheel.

The speedometer in the second dashboard pot climbed to 60 within seven seconds. The needle hit 80 and my hands tightened on the wheel. At 110 we were traveling almost two miles per minute and I gritted my teeth, as the speedometer passed 120. The saltpans shivered in the morning light and I pinned the needle at 125. The car had more goose in its go, but there was no way of telling how fast was its fast and I lifted my foot off the gas.

“That was fast?” AK was a convert to the religion of speed.

“I figure it topped out at 130.” We were rolling to a long stop and I lightly tapped on the brake.

“Now it’s my turn.” Pam was eager for her attempt and I pulled up the rear seats.

125 seemed faster in the back and I think that she might have hit a top speed of 135. AK didn’t come close to her best, but drove the Torino with a broad smile on his face.

“I didn’t think it would be that much fun.”

“Some cars are built for speed,” Pam said with admiration for the V8’s power.

“I’ve always wanted a GTO. My friend had one and Moon would bet people $20 that they couldn’t grab the bill off the dashboard before he had shifted into fourth. He never lost.”

“They’re about $4500 new.” AK burst my balloon. “And a second-hand one costs $2000.”

“Maybe I’ll be lucky one day.” I owed $7000 in college loans. I had to start paying them at the end of the summer.

“You’ll be lucky as soon as we stop for breakfast. Bacon and eggs are on me.” AK turned on the radio.

A country station from Wendover was playing Ray Stevens’ THE STREAK. We shuddered at the topical hit’s banjo picking. AK twisted the knob finding only static.

We were on the wrong side of nowhere.

“There’s a town with an Air Force base at the foot of those mountains. Wendover, Nevada. It will have someplace to eat and wash up.”

“I forgot you’ve been here before.” Pam was digging for facts about my night with Marilyn.

“Twice.” I wasn’t squealing on myself. “The motorhead with the Super Bee drove this route two years ago. I have no idea he was going.”

“Maybe 200 miles per hour.” AK still doubted this tale, since it was the truth.

“Lucky liked 300 better, but the speedometer only went to 125. Same as this car.”

“Shame we couldn’t go 300,” said AK and he got a laugh out of Pam.

I was tired of being the butt of their jokes and sulked against the door, knowing none of us would ever drive 300.

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