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...