Cross Country 1996

In the late summer of 1996 I left Bali for America. My good friend Slim met me at LAX in her Studebaker Lark. On the way to Hollywood the native Californian told me that she had fallen in love with an artist in New York.”

“That’s good news, except it’s 3000 miles from here.”

“I know and that’s why I’m driving there in two days.”

“In this car?” The ’61 Lark was a classic with a V8 engine.

“Yes, you want to be co-pilot?”

“I have nothing keeping me in LA.”

“Are we in a hurry?”

“Not really. I’ve never driven cross country.

“Then maybe we might make a few detours.”

I had a hankering to see Monument Valley in person rather than in a John Wayne movie.

Detours?”

“Short detours.

“When was the last time you cross the country?”

“1975.” America had been a different country.

“You old hippie.” Slim smiled and stepped on the gas. The 289 was tuned for speed and we headed into the Malibu Hills

“You got that right.” And I still was a hippie in many ways. I believed in love and asked, “So what about this guy in New York?”

His name was Cobb. She explained very nuances of their being, as she navigated the Ventura Freeway.

“I’m having a good-bye party. We’ll leave when all the beer is gone.”

“Then you’re behind the wheel first.” I liked my drink.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Slim and I spoke about Paris on the drive to her bungalow off Melrose.

The summer of 1984 we had met at the Bains-Douches.

The ex-model and I were simply friends.

In my 40s I had long come to appreciate the value of women as friends instead of lovers.

Even in the City of Angels.

The next morning I surfed with her brothers in Ventura. Joe and Pat were two of Slim’s seven siblings and they had known the Pacific since they were children. The waves at Little Rincon were bigger, thicker, and colder than Bali.

“Watch out for the shore break,” shouted Joe, as I ducked under the first close-out.

A wave thunked me to the sand and I crawled onto the beach, smoted by the hand of Neptune.

I scratched through the waves to the line-up to float like a log. I took off several times. The brothers didn’t let me drown. After the session we drove away with the Pacific waving goodbye.

That evening Slim and I drove to the bon-voyage party in Hollywood.

The Hills above Malibu had been Slim’s spiritual home since birth.

Just not now.

She was in a New York State of mind.

I was in the same mood.

Friends and family came to say good-bye. Slim said that she wasn’t leaving forever and added, “Only a real long time.”

For love and I said, “Don’t worry, Meg will always be a Californian.”

“Why?” asked her brother Joe.

“Because no one born outside the five boroughs will ever be a New Yorker.”

“I’ve been there over twenty years and I remain a New Englander.”

My accent said Down East or South Shore.

“I lived in a shack on a wooden pier jutting into Gloucester Harbor. It smelled of fish. Always. Nothing like that in New York.”

“Cobb lives on the North Shore.”

She mentioned the town and Cobb’s last name. His people didn’t speak to people from the South Shore, but Slim extolled the sculptor’s virtue. Cobb sounded like a good guy and I toasted her good luck.

Around midnight Slim kissed, embraced, and hugged the guests, then called her beau once more. I sat in the passenger seat and Slim got behind the wheel. She waved to everyone and five minutes later we were on the highway heading east.

Night traffic through the valley was light and I asked, “You mind if I sleep for a little?”

“Not at all.” Slim turned on the radio. A Mexican station from the desert played Selena’s NO ME QUEDA MAS.

I laid my head against the glass and closed my eyes on LA to dream about lands south of the border.

By dawn we were in the desert. The radio played Reba’s THE HEART IF A LONELY HUNTER.

Only a few cars and trucks graced the highway.

Slim drove the Lark at 80.

“I thought we weren’t in a hurry.”

“You really want to go slow through this?”

We were surrounded by sand, brushes, and rocks.

“No, I guess not. Where are we anyway?”

“South of Victorville.”

“Damn, I got stuck there hitchhiking in 1974. My friend and I ended up in Needles. It was 117 in the shade.”

“It gets like that out here.”

“Then step on it.”

Slim did just that and the Lark kept pace with her desire to be in New York with Cobb.

I looked at the map and asked, “You ever been to Zion Canyon?”

“No, but I’ve always wanted to go.”

“Nothing stopping us.”

We departed from I-10 and avoided Las Vegas to headed north to Zion Canyon.

There was nothing like the sandstone canyon back East.

Steep cliffs climbed into the heavens. I wanted to take a hike up the trail and Slim argued for moving on.

“We might never come this way again.”

“You’re right. A small hike on the canyon floor.”

“Thanks.”

We walked into a narrow defile. A stream trickled through the stone. Slim took photos.

The wind washed over the sandstone.

Meg looked at her watch.

I turned to leave rather than have her say we had to go.

That night we stayed on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The room had twin beds. It had been a long day and after dinner we walked out to the edge of the expanse.

“I was on the South Rim in 1972.”

“A hippie?”

“Yes, but I cut my hair in 1975 after some girl said my head looked like a thatched roof.”

“Not an attractive look.”

“You got that right.”

We returned to the motel and fell fast asleep.

In the morning we continued east through the badlands and I posed of a giant stone as Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’.

“Don’t show that to your beau?”

“Not a chance.”

We were friends, but most men hate their girlfriends’ and wives’ male friends.

WThis was the home of weird rock formations.

They were everywhere.

At noon we approached the Vermillion Cliffs and stopped at a historical marker, stating that the Spanish explorer Francisco Coronado’s expedition had come this way in the 1500s.

“I wonder what they did for water.”

“Sucked stones until they reached the Colorado.”

“Only an hour behind us.”

“By car. By horse or on foot three days. We could be in New York in three days.”

She got back behind the wheel. I sat with the map, plotting the route.

The Lark ran smooth and the road was smoother. Slim drove faster. She was deeply in love and wanted to be with Cobb.

I thought about her desire to be with someone. I had just circled the globe. I had seen millions of people. None of them were for me.

“You really are in love.”

Yes.”

“I wish I could say the same.”

One day you might be able to.”

“maybe, but for now I’m in love with the road.”

By evening the sky was turning purple, as we arrived in Kayenta, Arizona, capitol of the Navaho nation. The windblown town looked like Mars a hundred years after a failed terra-forming experiment. Slim wanted to stop at the hotel. I said that we could get a room nearer Monument Valley.

“It’ll be great waking there in the morning.”

After the sunset darkness dropped across the desert like a black stone.

“Are you sure there’s room up ahead?”

“Monument Valley is a destination. The motel there has to have rooms.”

I was wrong. Every room booked for the night.

We returned to Kayenta for gas and food. Slim was not happy. She got out at the pump and called Cobb from a phone booth. We barely spoke during our meal.

“So what’s the plan?”

“We sleep in the car.”

“Where?”

“Out in the desert or we keep driving until we find a motel.”

“I’m done driving and I want to see the valley in the morning.”

“Okay.” I paid for our meals and we got back in the Lark.

After dinner Slim handed me the keys.

“Find us someplace.”

I drove out into the valley and pulled off the road onto hard-packed sand.

“Do you think this is safe?”

“Safe as anywhere else.” Even I was spooked by the high plains darkness, but looked into the stars.

“Please don’t ask if I think we’re the only ones out there? I’m not in the mood for a talk about ETs.”

“Sure.” I hadn’t seen any aliens since living New York.

Slim folded down the driver’s seat. There was only one blanket. She wasn’t sharing it with me. The temperature dropped into the 50s.

“Thanks for this.” Slim broke her silence.

“You think I wanted this? I’m coming for Asia. There are motels everywhere. Here there’s none.”

“Fuck you.”

She pulled up the blanket and I shivered myself to sleep, but I woke in the middle of the night and got out of the Studebaker. I needed to pee.

A billion stars spread across the heaven and I returned to the car, happy to be alive. Slim was sleeping. I tried to do the same, but nights were cold in the desert.

The Valley was even more desolate with the dawn and Slim said, “You’re up.”

“You ready to go?”

“Yes.” She was still rightfully pissed. I had been a man thinking I knew everything and that meant no motel bed. Even I was angry at me. I started the Lark and drove through Monument Valley.

I made good time on 163.

Gigantic buttes accompanied our path to the San Juan River.

We ate breakfast at Mexican Hat.

Slim was not talkative and went to the telephone to call Cobb.

She returned with a smile.

“All good?”

“It will be,” Meg explained how she was stealing Cobb away from a wicked girlfriend.

“My money’s on you.”

“Then start driving like you were in love.”

“Yes, M’am.”

I hit 100 on 191 and we joined 161 and head east towards the Rockies.

A Mercedes had been totaled outside Bluff.

I slowed down to ask, if the driver needed help.

“No, the tow truck is coming.” He was a middle aged man with a cowboy hat.

“Suit yourself.”

A half-mile down the road Slim asked, “How you think that happened?”

“Certainly not another by hitting another car, so I’m guessing driver error.” Nothing else made any sense.

“Please try not to do the same.”

Slim loved her Lark, although not as much as Cobb.

You got it.” I hadn’t had an accident in over ten years.

And that had been in Paris.

Before noon we stopped at the Ananazi cliffside ruins. Six hundred years ago this site had supported over two thousand inhabitants, but the city had been abandoned a century before Coronado’s expedition. Now there were only tourists.

“Where they all go?”

“No one knows. There are no native legends about the tribe. Modern historian theorize that there was a long drought and the people migrated to a river.”

After an hour we were ready to go and Slim wanted to drive.

“I’m hearing something in the engine.”

“I don’t hear a thing.”

“It’s not your car.

Heading into the Rockies it became more obvious something was wrong with the Hawk’s carburetor. A mechanic fixed it in Durango. Slim called Cobb. They spoke on the phone for a long time.

“I wish we were on the highway.”

New York was about 2000 miles from here.

“We’ll be on one as soon as we’re out of the mountains.”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

My trip around the world was coming to an end.

We stayed the night in Durango.

The next day we crossed the Continental Divide.

Rivers flowed to the Atlantic from here.

We passed old mines.

I thought about swimming in a stream. The water seemed clean, but a sign warned of toxic chemicals from the mine tailings.

We passed through Telluride, a city on the Roof of America.

Mining had been its life blood.

Now the quaint town had struck gold with tourists.

We kept going.

We reached I-80 outside of Vail. Slim was ready to make time and we were in the Great Plains within the hour. Everything from here on in was downhill.

People honked at us. They loved seeing the Studebaker. We waved back.

Slim’s foot remained heavy on the accelerator.

“No stops.”

“What about food and gas.”

“That’s all we need.” Slim was living strictly on love.

I fought to take the back roads.

Slim was having none of it.

You want to see the country. Hitchhike.”

I’ve done it before.”

“You want to do it today?”

“No.”

I wanted to be in New York too.

We listened to radio and she asked about my trip to the Orient. I told her about London, Paris, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Bali.

“All around the world.” I took a photo of a drive-in. No one went to them anymore.

“My fourth time.”

You think you will ever settle down?”

“I guess this is just my way of settling down.”

“The Wanderer?”

“I guess so.”

“You know women only love drifters in the movies.”

“I know that too well, but women in New York only want someone rich and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

“So you’re wandering the world to find love?”

“I haven’t even thought about it.” Loneliness was a friend, but not a good friend.

We drove on in silence. Truck stops were the only civilization off the Interstates.

Long-distance trucks were driven by kings of the road.

We crossed the Mississippi and put our feet in the Father of All Waters for good luck.

In South Bend, Indiana Slim mentioned a detour to the Studebaker Museum.

I was a little angry at her. My lack of love was my story. I convinced her to skip the museum and instead we swam in Lake Michigan.

The Ojibwa considered Mishigami as the great water. They had no word for the ocean.

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Slim and I didn’t have one either.

We had no reason to stop in Detroit and continued across Ontario to Niagara Falls.

We would have kept driving, except the Studebaker had a slow leak. We stopped at a gas station and the mechanic told us to wait in the diner. Slim entered first.

The patrons had never seen someone as tall as her and their eyes followed her every steps of her flip-flops slapping against the floor on her way to the Ladies room. We slept that night in a hotel on the Canadian side of the Falls.

Twin beds.

New York lay across the river. We had run out of states.

“Sorry about what I said about you’re not being lovable.”

“I’m sorry we didn’t stop at the museum.”

“One day you will fall in love.”

“And I’m glad you are in love. Better one of us than neither of us.”

“We wouldn’t be here, if I wasn’t.”

“Thanks.”

The Lark had done its job.

By noon we were crossing the Catskills.

New York was less than one-hundred miles away.

We arrived in Soho at sunset.

I retrieved my bag from the trunk.

“Happy?”

“I will be soon.”

Cobb met us at the restaurant Lucky Strike. He took one look at me and figured the worst. He was wrong. Slim and I were just friends.

I thanked Slim for the ride and left the restaurant for my apartment on East Tenth Street.

My key turned the lock.

I sat in my living room and shuffled through six months of mail.

None of it was important and I turned on the TV.

I was alone, but sometimes this apartment was home and tonight was one of them.

Even if the road seemed more home for a drifter without love.

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