WHEELS OF FIRE by Peter Nolan Smith

In the late summer of 1971 my Paul Deseret and I hitchhiked from Boston to San Francisco. Several of our college friends were living in the Haight. They were girls. I had had sex with one of them and sleeping with Marilyn again was enough of a reason to cross a continent, especially since neither Paul nor I had ever been farther east than the Adirondacks.

We were longhairs and caught rides fast from hippie vans and truckers.

West of Des Moines a Dodge Super Bee stopped for us. We ran to the muscle car, expecting the driver, to patch rubber and pop a middle finger out the window. The motorhead waited instead. The engine throbbed with low intensity. I ran to the passenger side.

“Hi.” Acting friendly was part of hitchhiking.

“My name’s Lucky. I’m going to LA.” The driver’s long red hair was slicked back with Brylcream. His arms were stained with old tattoos. His jaws were grinding teeth.

“We’re heading to San Francisco.” I yanked open the door.

“I don’t know.” Paul clocked Lucky as a speed freak.

“It’ll be night soon.”

Paul was a math major same as me. He had calculated the odds of surviving this ride.

“San Francisco is in the different direction than Los Angeles.” His girlfriend was waiting for him in Milwaukee. We were stopping there on the way back from the coast.

“There’s only one road here and it’s heading west.” I shoved Paul in the back and sat in the front.

“I’ll take you as far as Winnemucca.” Lucky revved the engine and broke from the shoulder in front of a piggy-backing long-hauler.

“Great.” I had no idea where Winnemucca was, but Lucky’s muscle-car version of the Coronet had a 440 cu in a V8 engine.

It was more than fast.

He drove 110mph from Omaha to Nevada. He had one 8-track for the stereo. We listened to BAD COMPANY probably fifteen times before he nodded at the wheel. His foot was on the gas.

I steered from the passenger seat.

“Was I out for long?” he asked west of Laramie.

“About two hours.” I released the wheel.

Paul was asleep in the back.

It was better if he didn’t know about my co-piloting.

“Thanks for keeping us on the road.” Lucky’s hands seized the steering wheel in a death grip. His foot crushed the pedal to the floor.

Wyoming became a blur.

“You want me to drive?”

“Naw, I’m good.”

He stopped only for gas and Coca-Cola to wash down handfuls of bennies.

When he missed the Winnemucca turning, I said nothing.

Several hours later he asked, “What the fuck am I doing in Reno?” Lucky snapped out of his speed trance upon seeing the Sierras. It was a little after dawn. He passed the Biggest Little City In The World and turned south on US 395. Lucky pulled off into the breakdown lane and stopped.

We got out.

The sun was bright.

“Have a good time in Frisco.”

“You too.”

Paul and I walked back to I-80 and stood on the side of the highway leading into the mountains.

Back in 1849 the Donner Party had eaten each other in those steep heights in the depth of winter.

Today it was nearing 100F along the Truckee River and a shiny blue 1965 Riviera stopped for us.

The passenger rolled down his window. The fifty year-old Mexican smelled of hard alcohol.

The dark-skinned driver was sweating behind the wheel.

A bottle of whiskey was held by a bleary-eyed Indian in the back. The scarred driver licked his lips and said, “My friends and I just got out of prison. I want to celebrate with them. Can you drive us to Oakland?”

“Yes.” I had reservations. “The car’s not hot, is it?”

“No, I bought it in Reno.” He showed me the bill of sale.

“Seems okay.”

Paul shook his head and called me over to him.

“Let’s wait for another ride.”

“It’s a ride all the way to San Francisco.”

“Oakland isn’t San Francisco.”

“Close enough.” I wanted to drive the Riviera and turned to the driver. “I’ll do it. Paul, get in.”

“I will, but I’m not happy,” murmured my college friend and he sat in the back.

“Let’s go.”

“Cool, but I wanna you to drive fast. I want me some pussy,” the black man said before downing a long slug of bourbon. “It’s been a long time. Maybe I’ll get me some hippie pussy.”

“Maybe you will.” I sat behind the steering wheel. The Riviera had only 2000 miles on the speedometer.

“This car isn’t stolen, is it?” Paul got into the back on the hump.

“The keys are in the ignition.”

Paul shook his head.

“You don’t have any guns?” They looked the type, especially the old black git in the back.

“No, only whiskey.” The Mexican smiled with two gleaming gold teeth filling a gap in his grin.

“Sure.” I was a sucker for a fast car after the ride with Lucky.

“This is not a good idea.” Paul was jammed in the back between the indian and the black man.

“I’m driving. How bad can it be?” I was also a Math major.

“Just don’t kill us.”

The gas tank was full. The highway was recently paved. I stepped on the gas.

The Riviera’s nailhead V-8 produced enough power to motor up the steep Sierras.

It hit 100 without any strain.

The convicts talked wildly about their years in prison. The first bottle of whiskey was replaced by a second. I took a sip. The AC chilled the interior of the Riviera to the coolness of a summer day in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Once we topped the pass, I caught a radio station from San Francisco.


The DJ played HP Lovecraft’s WHITE SHIP

Paul and I were into the home stretch.

The Riviera’s top speed was 115.

East of the Bay the driver said he wanted to take over the rest of the way.

“I don’t need some white ass long-haired chauffeur to take me home.”

The whiskey was turning him mean.

“No worries.” I pulled off I-80 into a service station. Paul and I got out of the car.

“You white boys ain’t comin’ with us?” The Chicano was wavering in his wide-legged stance.

“You’re not in any condition to drive.”

“Fuck you, gringo.” He sat in the front seat.

“Have a good day.” His epithet had negated my obligation.

The Riviera pulled out of the gas station.

“I’m glad to be out of that car.” It had been a long ride for Paul. The Indian had been feeling up the long-haired math major the entire distance, figured him for stick pussy.

“Me too.”

We walked to the onramp. A sign warned against hitchhiking. ChiPs in California hated hippies.

“So we’re walking to San Francisco?” Paul was wearing heavy Frye boots.

“Maybe not.” I pointed to the Riviera back.

It had stopped half in and out of the road.

The reverse taillights lit up and the car backed into the gas station to ram the gas pumps. Both exploded and engulfed the Riviera in flames. The Chicano jumped out of the car. His two friends were struggling to open the passenger door. Paul and I ran to the driver’s side and pulled out the two ex-cons. The station attendant extinguished the fire with an extinguisher. He was not happy. His two pumps were trash.

“Why you leave the car in reverse?” the driver asked with a whiskey-thick tongue.

“I left it in PARK.” I stepped up to him. He might have been a convict, but I was younger by a good 30 years. “I didn’t do nothing wrong.”

A state trooper pulled into the gas station. The convict told him his side of the story and I told him mine. The cop came over after his radio call and said, “That car is stolen.”

“They showed us papers for it.”

“Yes, I know, but best you go unless you want to spend more time with your friends.”

“We’re going.” Peter picked up his bag and we went over to the highway. A hippie gave us a ride ten minutes later. The VW van’s top speed was 60.

“Now I’m happy.” Paul lit up our last joint.

“We’re in California.”

“And not going to jail.”

“Or prison.”

“Just to San Francisco.”

The trip from coast to coast took us 47 hours. It could have taken a lifetime if it hadn’t been for the cop.

That evening we partied with the girls. Marilyn had a guitarist boyfriend. Paul and I crashed on the floor.

The next day we wandered through the Haight.

We were three years late for theSummer of Love. Groovy was gone and after two days Marilyn hinted that we should be moving on. We were third wheels on a scooter.

Paul and I walked to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was our starting point home and we were heading North.

I stuck out my thumb.

Late or not for the Summer of Love we were still long-hairs and the road was open all the way to Alaska.

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