Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Pinto Chronicles - Part One

In these days of discounted air fares, most people take the high road and get from one place to another as quickly as possible. But just a few years ago, when a transcontinental airline ticket was a semi-major investment, it wasn't that way. This is the story of how three young men traveled together from Memphis to California and back in a Ford Pinto and lived to tell about it.

The idea began one late spring evening in Memphis. My friend Paul, whom I had known since ninth grade, and I were sitting around talking when the idea struck us -- why not make a cross-country pilgrimage to L.A. and San Francisco? The more we talked, the better the idea sounded. After all, we were college kids with holdover summer jobs in town; we could probably do this. We decided not only to make the plan a reality, but to include Paul's younger brother Peter, who was 17 at the time. I was born in California and had visited several times in my youth, but for Paul and Peter, this would be their first West Coast pilgrimage. It would later come to be known the Great California Trip of 1975.

No good trip happens without a little preparation, and this was no exception. Entrenching ourselves firmly at the Ranch House on North Highland Street in Memphis, with roast beef sandwiches, fries, and ice cold beer, Paul and I set about planning at around 9:00 one evening. Within an hour or so, we had a basic itinerary. We would drive west on a Sunday afternoon, hoping to make Oklahoma City by evening. It could be done. It was going to happen.

There were several weeks of planning involved, in which we procured an old Boy Scout tent which belonged to Paul and Peter's church, visited an auto parts store to pick up belts and hoses, bought sunglasses, and discussed the plan in further detail. We set up the tent in my family's back yard just to make sure that a) we could do it, and b) there were no holes through which we might receive an unwanted washing or creatures of the desert. Having found no problems, we waited with anticipation for the date to arrive.

Finally, on a Sunday morning in early August, we headed out from Paul's house. We had mounted a sign in the back window that said, "California or Bust!" Peter donned his favorite Army cap, I put on some reflective sunglasses, and Paul took the driver's seat. Paul and Peter's family and my mom and dad all waved goodbye to us as we headed out of the driveway and into the unknown. It was gonna be great, and by the time it was done, it was gonna be over 5,000 miles.


The first day's drive was about what we expected. The route from Memphis west through Arkansas was a long, solid Interstate 40 haul with few interruptions along the way. Somewhere around Fort Smith, the bottom fell out, but the downpour didn't last long, and soon we were across the Oklahoma state line. At around 10:00 PM, we pulled into a Day's Inn in Oklahoma City -- $17 a night and very comfortable.

The next morning, we stopped at a convenience store to pick up the necessary provisions (more about this later) and got back underway. The plan was to spend the night at a campground close to Bluewater Lake State Park, New Mexico, fairly close to the New Mexico-Arizona state border. Little did we know what awaited us there.

That morning's drive through western Oklahoma and into the panhandle of Texas gave us our first glimpse of the west in all its dusty glory.  The last time I had made this drive, I was only four years old, but surprisingly, I had some recollection of the old Route 66, which our home road of I-40 paralleled (and in some cases, replaced). For Paul and Peter, it was an initiation.  

I suggested that since we were in Texas, it would be nice to stop for some "good Texas beef". Now, if you're from Texas, please don't take offense at what I am about to say, because it is not representative of the state in general. I've had many great times in Texas and have known some wonderful Texans. We just picked the wrong place on the wrong day.

We pulled off the road and into an Amarillo restaurant which had been widely advertised on billboards ever since we crossed the Oklahoma-Texas state line as promising great beef. We stepped out of the Pinto and into what was essentially a businessman's restaurant. Now, it being 1975 and all, we didn't exactly have that clean-cut look, and the regulars took notice. It seemed that everyone else in the place was dressed in a short-sleeved shirt with tie. Steer head belt buckles were in abundance. We, on the other hand, were three somewhat shaggy youth in a little car with Tennessee license plates.

Nevertheless, we were waited upon and presented with plates of "good Texas beef", or so we thought. The problem with the beef was that you needed much stronger teeth and jaws than any of us had. I assumed the beef came from longhorn cattle, not known for tender cuts. But regardless, it was food, and we gnawed down what we could, glad to have provisions and air conditioning. Back on the road.

It was hard to miss the Cadillac Ranch. Located just off I-40 were ten cars, dated 1949 to 1963, placed nose first into the sand, parallel to each other in single file. Erected in 1974 by a helium millionaire, this modern monument has since been moved to a site two miles west of its historical location to avoid displacement by the spreading development of Amarillo.

New Mexico presented us with an artist's palette of color almost from the moment we entered the state. I hadn't remembered this part of the route -- unusual rock formations along the way revealed splendid earth tones, and the clear light seemed to highlight every grain of sand along the side of the road. We breezed across the state, noting the bicycle riders in the Albuquerque heat with respect, since Paul and I both did a considerable amount of biking back in Memphis, but not in these temperatures. Before too long, we arrived at the Bluewater State Park campground, where we had reservations for a tent site for the evening. Paul pulled off the road and into the park entrance.

The Pinto was a tough little vehicle, but the road into Bluewater was daunting. We bounced along a rutted, dusty lane toward what appeared to be an open tomb of weathered RV's and tents. There was a sense of drama in the air. And then -- BANG! -- down came the Pinto on a protrusion of hardened earth. Paul thought for a minute that we might have punctured the oil pan, but everything appeared to be OK, at least for the moment.

Peter had been experiencing gastric difficulty for quite a few miles, so we pulled off the dirt road, well away from any other campers. Poor Peter excused himself from the car to head into the bushes, since there were no facilities in sight. Paul and I waited for a few moments, and then we heard a frantic rustle. Peter came running toward the car yelling, "Let's get outta here!"

Once he was in the car, he launched into a highly animated account of what had happened. Apparently, as soon as he had positioned himself sans trousers, he found himself looking up at a rattlesnake coiled on a rock directly in front of him. Time was of the essence, and Peter felt that a hasty retreat would be well advised.  Besides, we'd find another place down the road, wouldn't we?

Spooked by Bluewater, we headed farther down the road and arrived in Gallup, New Mexico, at about sunset. Within minutes we located a McDonald's (we seemed to be developing a knack for this). Rushing in, we placed our usual orders, which came on egg buns instead of the classic white buns we were used to in Tennessee. But no matter, because the food tasted great, and there were no reptiles in sight. After dinner, we drove on through the rest of Gallup, where we noticed groups of heavily inebriated Native American men standing on the street corners -- big, strong guys with seemingly nothing to do and no place to go. It was eerie and sad at the same time.

As night fell, we headed on, since by then we had no accommodation plans.  We passed Petrified Forest National Park but could see nothing, since we were totally enveloped in darkness. Along the way, we began to see ominous road construction warning signs reading "DANGER AHEAD". The first sign was not disturbing, but as we proceeded, the signs became larger and more threatening. We began to be a bit nervous about what might lie ahead.

After a few minutes, we reached the dreaded site. Arizona road construction crews had been hard at work patching a small slice of the pavement in the right lane, an area no more than a few feet long by a foot or two wide. In retrospect, we thanked the state for taking the time and effort to provide warnings. We had thought that the road was about to drop off into space.

Soon, we reached Holbrook, Arizona. This looked like a good place to crash, and fortunately, there was a KOA campground within sight. We had found a home for the night, so we pulled into the campground and positioned ourselves on one of the outside lanes. Even though it was 10:15 PM, we still had to set up camp. Paul and I, being 20 and drained from the day's 880-mile drive, popped out a couple of tall Coors beers which we had purchased earlier in the day. We handed Peter a soft drink and began to pitch the tent.

In a word, we had not adequately prepared for the tent setup. As we clattered among the various poles, trying to make sense of it all, the New York couple across from us emerged from their RV and set up lawn chairs just to watch us. It must have been entertaining -- three guys from Tennessee, two of whom seemed somewhat tipsy, who without some divine intervention would soon be sleeping under the stars for want of structural knowledge.

Peter was by now road weary, and seeing the KOA swimming pool, became excited at the thought of a refreshing swim. But upon further investigation, we realized that the surface of the water was quite dirty. It looked as if many previous campers had not dusted themselves off prior to taking the plunge. The pool was perhaps not a good idea for us.

Eventually, with the tent up and reasonably stable, we settled in for the night. All was well until some time later when Peter sat up and stated, "I can't park the tent. I can't park the tent!" He appeared to be frantic, but he also appeared to be talking in his sleep. Paul then assured me that this was normal, and that we might be further entertained by Peter throughout the trip. This would come to pass.


Morning dawned, and we were ready to hit the road again. We hoped to make L.A. by evening. As I rolled back the tent door, I was startled to find that I was looking out onto a vast desert. Apparently, the KOA had been plopped down in the middle of, literally, nowhere. No wonder we had heard coyotes calling during the night! We packed up the Pinto and headed out, stopping for breakfast at Winslow, Arizona (the same town mentioned by the Eagles in "Take It Easy").

After a decent breakfast at what appeared to be a locally popular restaurant, we picked up some post cards to send back home (this was before email), but we were saddened to find that the proprietor of the neighboring Motel 6 would not let us use his pen to write the cards. He was adamant about it. Apparently, pen theft was a serious crime in this part of the country.

In Arizona, there were many makeshift billboards along the side of the interstate advertising Indian jewelry. In 1975, turquoise jewelry was quite popular, and the locals were keenly aware of market demand. But we truly had to stop and laugh for a moment when we saw one eager effort which read simply "Indian Jewry." If only my friends in Chicago could see this, I thought.

No trip to Arizona is complete without a visit to the Grand Canyon. Stopping for a rest at Flagstaff, we prepared ourselves for the hike up Highway 89 to the "big hole in the ground". As we headed up 89, we came across numerous Native American women selling jewelry by the side of the road. Perhaps this was what the signs had been referring to. Spreads of beautiful beaded necklaces graced sheets which had been laid out on the sand, while makeshift sheet canopies protected the merchants from the noon desert heat.

The Grand Canyon itself was a spectacular sight, and to add to the ambiance, we pulled out cans of Vienna sausages and packages of crackers. As we feasted, we looked out over the magnificent vistas before us, but after an hour or so, we decided it was time to head down the road. Returning down to I-40, we resumed what by now had become a trek through the desert. We refueled at a Whiting Brothers gas station where a thermometer read 114 degrees in the shade, and we noticed that all the men standing outside the station had dark brown, leathery skin.

We stopped at Needles, California, for dinner. Needles is one of the hottest cities in the United States. If you'll watch the weather reports on TV, you'll see that Needles quite often takes the prize for highest daily temperature, and they are not joking. Dinner was at Sambo's, a restaurant which has since disappeared from the American dining scene. As we sat in the comfortable surroundings of the restaurant, bathed in extreme air conditioning, we pondered what lay ahead of us, for we still had to get across California by the end of the evening.


Driving west out of Needles took us across the Mojave Desert, certainly one of nature's most mysterious places. Occasionally, we would spot a house nestled back away from the road against the sand hills. But we never saw any people. At about 9:00 PM, we pulled into Barstow for gas, and I took over driving from Paul.

All was going well until about 45 minutes later. Now, recall that I was driving my friend's Pinto with a stick shift, and that, being at Northwestern in Chicago for nine months each year without an automobile, I did not drive on a regular basis, plus all our family's cars were automatic.  You get the picture.

While descending a steep, curvy downhill grade on I-15 toward San Bernardino, I suddenly noticed a pair of headlights closing in on me. I could not pull into the left lane, because other drivers were already occupying every available slot. When I next looked in the mirror, I could see the name "Mack" on the truck's radiator, as well as every fly and mosquito which he had picked up between Needles and Barstow. The driver was barreling down on me at around 80 miles per hour (the speed limit in those days was 55, and 80 was very fast to be driving at the time).

I was truly without an escape path, since it was pitch black and we were in the process of careening, albeit in an orderly fashion, down the grade. My palms started to sweat. And then, as suddenly as it began, the truck slowed down and fell back. I looked in my rearview mirror and saw that he had been pulled over by a California State Trooper. I breathed a sigh of relief.

It was not long before I handed the wheel back over to Paul, and he took us in. A large dark blue sign spanned what was by now the "freeway" -- it read simply "Los Angeles", and displayed a city seal on each side. As we hauled on down I-10, we saw our exit sign up ahead. We were staying with Paul and Peter's aunt, uncle, and cousins in Alhambra, an L.A. suburb just a bit south of Pasadena. We located their house without much trouble and headed up to the door, tired but no worse for the wear. The family greeted us with open arms. We had arrived.

to be continued...