Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Pinto Chronicles - Part Three

Leaving Colorado was something of a letdown; we knew that this was the last truly "Western" state that we would visit. Next stop -- Nebraska. But the adventure was not yet over. We stopped in Lincoln at the home of a former pastor of Paul and Peter's church and were treated to ice cold glasses of Schmidt Beer, except for Peter, of course, who received something softer. We played some pool, visited the local college, then headed out the next morning for the final leg of the trip.

Coming back through Missouri, we started to notice Southern accents once again. The pace had slowed, and the humidity had increased noticeably. At dinnertime, we pulled the Pinto into Grandma Grossheider's house. Paul and Peter's grandmother owned a farm outside Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where she maintained two small fishing ponds. For $1.50, you could sit by a placid little pond and pull out the fish. Grandma fed us well -- in her words, she fed us "a little something." After gorging ourselves on everything from ears of fresh corn to chicken, we bade farewell and started toward Memphis.

Driving down the last leg of I-55 from Cape Girardeau to Memphis, we reflected on all the adventures which the last three and a half weeks had provided. We would never really feel the same as before. Interstates, back roads, and places long forgotten by the mainstream had given us a road legacy to remember.

As we drove back across the Mississippi River bridge into Memphis, with the stars piercing the night sky and the lights of the city reflecting off the river, I thought about how vast and varied this country really was, not only physically, but culturally, spiritually and emotionally as well. Indeed, it was and is a superb place to be.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Pinto Chronicles - Part Two

California is interesting. I'm sure that many of you have been there, or maybe you even live there (I know that a few of you do). I was born in Whittier, a suburb east of Los Angeles, well within the sprawling metropolitan area. My uncle is a retired Methodist minister who served for over thirty years in the Los Angeles Conference, so even though my parents had moved back East when I was very small, I had ample opportunities to visit over the years. For Paul and Peter, however, this was the first time they had visited or even been west of the Rockies, so there was a lot to take in.

Paul had slept outside on the patio at his aunt and uncle's in Alhambra after the long evening's drive, but when morning came, he appeared to be somewhat healed and was raring to go. And go we did. Over the next few days, we covered Greater Los Angeles like the best of tourists -- we hauled all the cousins and ourselves to Disneyland in the Pinto, visited Marineland of the Pacific (an early relative of Sea World), tried to get in to see a filming of "Barney Miller," visited Zuma Beach (my teenage beach), and spent a pleasant evening at Ports o' Call in Long Beach, where we stepped aboard the Queen Mary. All in all, it was a wonderful visit. But we still had many miles to cover.

After leaving the family in Alhambra, we headed north and spent a day or two with my own aunt and uncle in Camarillo, situated about fifty miles north of L.A. proper in Ventura County. It was great to see Aunt Ruth and Uncle Richard again. Aunt Ruth was a tall, beautiful, raven-haired woman who always appeared much younger than her years -- she taught me to play guitar when I was eleven, and she would periodically stop whatever she might be doing around the house to sit at her easel and paint. My Uncle Richard was and is probably one of the great storytellers of the South, and his relocation from Tennessee to the West with this talent was never lost on the people there. He and I had spent many days in the hills of California, exploring the back country while training his racing pigeons.

After a couple of days visiting with Uncle Richard and Aunt Ruth, it was time to head on. From this point forward, the whole trip would be new to me as well. Driving north up Highway 1, also known as Pacific Coast Highway or simply PCH, was a challenge in the Pinto. Having since owned a convertible, I would now relish the thought of driving this road, but back then, I was somewhat mortified. Here was this beautiful, no, make that gorgeous, landscape laid out in front of me, but my hands gripped the wheel tightly, and I could only appreciate the views when Paul resumed control. All in all, though, the day's drive was a good one, and we stopped for the night in Big Sur. And here I must pause.

Big Sur without a doubt possesses some of the most spectacular vistas to be found anywhere in the United States. You have probably seen them in numerous two-dimensional pictures, but you cannot be prepared for the visual feast which awaits you. Steep cliffs descend to the vast ocean below, and the coastline is charged with ever present breakers and flocks of seabirds. A stiff breeze blows off the ocean and whips back your hair. Across the road, stands of evergreens exude a wondrous fragrance.

But back to the details. We set up camp for the night at Ventana Campground. We had to hike up a hill to reach the site, but it was actually good to stretch the legs. The evening was worth it. I had brought along my acoustic guitar, which I always traveled with in those days, and looking down on the ground, I spotted a blue plastic pick, picked it up, and started to play. In the background was the sound of the surf. Needless to say, I kept that pick as a souvenir.


After a restful night, we broke camp and headed to San Jose, where Don, my college roommate from Chicago, was spending a few weeks with his brother George. Once again, we became part of an adopted family, resting by the pool and playing with the family's hefty but sweet malamute, who announced his arrival by licking the back of my neck as I rested in the water at the edge of the pool.

That first afternoon, we drove into San Francisco, where we took the Pinto through an ancient car wash that almost ate the molding off the front car doors. Boarding the ferry to Sausalito, we were astonished to find that this place was COLD. Standing on the deck of the ferry in a lightweight t-shirt, I looked enviously at the guy next to me, who sported a navy pea coat. He was probably comfortable.

We dined in Sausalito, then headed back over to San Francisco and tooled around for a bit longer before heading back to George's house. The next day, we toured the Winchester Mystery House, then did a bit more cruising around San Jose. Don's mother made us a wonderful, hearty Midwestern dinner that evening, and we gladly availed ourselves of this opportunity to eat real food again. Being energetic youths, we were accustomed to cruising at all hours of the day and night, so shortly after dinner, we decided to go out for a drive.

It was sunset, so we headed up a rocky road into the hills to gain a better view of the approaching twilight and the lights of the city. Suddenly, Paul stopped the car, or rather, the car was stopped. I still don't believe to this day that I saw this, yet it remains clear in my memory. Out of nowhere stepped a stern looking woman about sixty years of age, holding a rifle, with an ammunition belt slung across her shoulder. She recommended that we leave, and indeed, we took very little time in doing so.

Returning down the mountain, we stopped at a McDonald's for a brief respite, then headed back to the family at George's house. When we arrived, Don's mother, upon finding out that we had eaten a second dinner, was livid, in her own sweet way. "You boys went out to EAT after I had cooked you DINNER?" I felt about two feet tall, but as usual, she forgave us our foibles and we had a good laugh.

We made a second trip back into San Francisco the following day to see more local color, and then it was time to head on up the road. The next stop was Lake Tahoe.

Prior to heading out on our cross-country pilgrimage, Peter had purchased a new 35mm single lens reflex Pentax camera, which he had been using to its fullest advantage. Paul also had a Pentax, and I had purchased a small 35mm Konica in Camarillo, having brought only a small-frame Instamatic along. In other words, we made lots of stops for film along the way, and it was somewhere between San Francisco and Lake Tahoe that we saw it yet again -- the ubiquitous pairing of McDonald's and K-Mart. Wherever we would find a K-Mart, there was sure to be a McDonald's close at hand. This was convenient, in that any time we ran out of film, we would head to K-Mart for replenishment and there, lo and behold, was a convenient, predictable lunch.

Lake Tahoe -- what can I say? The clearest water I had ever seen outside of northern Arkansas' White River. We set up camp on the California side, at a campground where campers hang blankets on clotheslines to make fake walls around their sites. There was a general spirit of joie de vivre about the place which was infectious. And that was a good thing, because it was also chilly, which meant that Peter and I needed to scavenge for firewood while Paul heated up our dinner.

Locating suitable natural firewood at a large campground is not always an easy task. You find that you become quite creative. Yet Peter and I persevered, and within something close to thirty minutes, we returned to our site with arms of sticks and marginally acceptable kindling. We were hungry. But wait -- all we had was beans for dinner and yet the pot was close to empty. What had happened, we thought? The guilty look on Paul's face revealed the horrible truth -- in a fit of hunger, Paul had consumed a larger than normal share of the beans. But we couldn't be too mad at him, because Tahoe had cast its spell over us, and we were mellow fellows.

The next morning we got up, broke camp, and headed into the wilds of Nevada, entering at America's Biggest Little City, Reno. You could see the vestiges of the Old West in Reno. Without much effort, it was easy to imagine wooden sidewalks, horses tied to hitching posts, honky tonk pianos, and bar fights erupting behind swinging doors. We cruised on through and headed into the vast salt desert that comprises most of Nevada.

Not all parts of Nevada are like Las Vegas. There are places in the middle of the desert which are largely untouched by man, woman, or beast. The sun beats mercilessly down on a barren landscape, punctuated by tiny plants every now and then, but with little mercy for the traveler. We stopped at a rest area with a water fountain, above which a sign had been posted reading "Next Water is 78 Miles". A fellow traveler, a woman in her thirties, looked at the sign and said, "Oh, they must be kidding." No, ma'am, I think not.

This was a heads-down part of the drive. We stopped for the night at Winnemucca (pictured in a satellite photo at right). Winnemucca gets about eight inches of rain per year, and that fact was evident upon arrival. Weary from the drive, we found ourselves a comfortable, inexpensive motel and crashed for the night.

I knew something was amiss when I stepped into the shower and saw that the tilted floor had accumulated several days' worth of water. Hmmm. Looking out the bathroom window as I dried off, I could see some abandoned farm implements baking in the desert heat.

Clueless about where we might find dinner, we asked the desk clerk, a lady in her fifties who had obviously enjoyed a small toast of wine in the very recent past, for a suggestion. Slurring her words, she directed us to a "family restaurant" down the road. When we arrived there, we noticed that we had to walk through the obligatory casino prior to being seated at our table. (Remember that this was before the days of nationwide gambling, and casinos were only to be found in very few places.)

The waitress who served us our meal was a few years younger than we were, and she told us that she was working this summer job just to make a few bucks. She was curious about our appearance in Winnemucca, and when we told her a little about our trip and described a few places we had visited, she said rather plaintively, "Oh, wow -- I wish I could go the rest of the way with you." With our being in the middle of nowhere, as far as we could tell, we deemed it best to leave this one alone. Besides, the Pinto was already crowded enough with the three of us.

The next day took us out of Nevada and into Utah. The desert sand had whitened considerably, and before too long, we reached the Bonneville Salt Flats. We stepped out of the car long enough to watch a guy in a yellow Pantera pull off I-80 and onto the Flats, where he accelerated with abandon and headed off toward the horizon. The desert here provided a spectacular mirage, in that the hills in the distance appeared to float above the desert floor. But enough -- we still had to get to Salt Lake City by evening.

I-80 riding into Salt Lake presented us with even more unusual scenery. The Great Salt Lake itself appeared dark green in color, with definite hints of deep indigo. We stepped out of the car at a rest area and looked out over the briny, aromatic water. From seemingly out of nowhere, a band of motorcyclists roared into view. Looking down from the bluff where we were standing, we could see Hell's Angels emblems adorning the back of every rider's jacket. Interesting.

The drive into Salt Lake City was starkly beautiful, and the city itself was something of a treat for the eyes. Nestled on the side of a mountain, we could make out the Mormon Temple. Checking into a neat roadside motel, we ditched our bags and headed out to explore. After dinner, we drove up to the State Capitol building and took pictures while standing on the Capitol steps. A band of roving teens only a couple of years younger than ourselves yelled obscenities from their car as we came back down to the street, but they wanted nothing more. For the second time in the same day, we had seen something which didn't quite fit with our previous perceptions of Utah.


The next day, we took a tour of the Mormon Tabernacle and grounds. This was a memorable experience. We saw a statue dedicated to birds who had saved the farmers from a locust invasion. Of course, not being members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, we could not enter the Mormon Temple itself, but nevertheless, the tour proved quite interesting. And besides, we needed a bit of cultural enlightenment before our next foray into the wilderness.

Bright and early the next morning, we packed up and headed north to Ogden. Sitting in yet another Sambo's, we planned in detail the next leg of the trip. We knew we wanted to head to the Grand Tetons, but the details were still a little sketchy. We decided to drive north into Idaho, then approach Jackson, Wyoming, from the west.

The drive from Ogden to Jackson was fairly uneventful until we approached the Wyoming border. Here, elevations increased dramatically, and again, we were treated to a palette of color similar to what we had seen in New Mexico. On the other "side" of the mountains, we descended into Jackson. At that time, Jackson Hole was not quite as developed as it is today, and consequently, about all we could find to eat was pizza, ice cream, and fried chicken. We settled for pizza and marveled at the size of a taxidermied elk which had been mounted on a wooden platform outside the restaurant.

Grand Teton National Park, as we were to discover, is probably one of the best places in the United States for day hiking. The trails, although somewhat challenging, are well marked and clearly spotted. We wasted no time taking advantage of this, beginning our hikes almost immediately upon arrival. And this time, unlike our evening at the Holbrook KOA, we had been able to set up the tent without any problems or disturbances to our fellow campers.

We had planned to stay only one evening at Grand Teton and then move on to Yellowstone, but after a night of camping at Yellowstone in high winds with grizzly bear alerts, we returned to the relative safety of our Teton campground. We took day hikes in Yellowstone, even hiking in areas which were considered off limits due to a recent avalanche. But we were careful and enjoyed everything both parks had to offer. We took some magnificent pictures, probably the finest shots taken during the entire trip.

After several days in the area, we decided to head on to our next destination, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. We headed straight south out of Jackson to the town of Evanston, Wyoming, then east to Cheyenne. We stopped briefly in Laramie to see the University of Wyoming, where my friend Lewis had attended college for a year. Pulling into Cheyenne around dinnertime, we headed into a McDonald's for dinner. I remember that I was sporting an old hat which my father had worn in the 1950's. In the hatband was a Moshe Dayan button and a big rhinestone pin. Folks in the McD's probably thought we were possessed Eastern folk.

We reached the Colorado border sometime after dark and heard for the first time the song "Green Grass and High Tides" by the Outlaws as we drove into Fort Collins. Finally pulling into Denver, we booked ourselves into a TraveLodge, arguably the nicest place we had yet stayed. As Peter once again talked in his sleep, Paul and I sat up watching an ABC-TV production of "The Picture of Dorian Gray." It was better than the average show in those days and was humorously punctuated at intervals by Peter sitting up in his sleep and saying something totally out of context.

After a restful evening, and in spite of Peter's random exhortations, we awoke the next morning and headed into town, stopping at a sporting goods store alongside the railroad tracks. By this time, we were a bit too outdoor oriented to truly appreciate Denver, so we headed on to the park. Rocky Mountain, like Grand Teton and Yellowstone, gave us the opportunity to do some great day hikes. Here, elevations were even higher than in Wyoming. One day, we hiked up Flat Top Mountain, which topped out over 12,400 feet. At that elevation, I noted that my "Photogray" glasses (the ancestors of today's "Transition" lenses) had not only turned gray but had darkened further, to a deep cobalt blue. We threw snowballs at each other from atop a glacier in August.

Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a gust of wind took hold of Peter's beloved Army cap, which he had worn all day, every day, and lifted it on the breeze to an unknown location at a much lower altitude. It was gone. The icon of the trip -- it had been stolen by Mother Nature. Perhaps it was time to move on.

to be continued...

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...