Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Cross Country 1996 by Peter Nolan Smith

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 next week."

"In this car?" The '61 Lark was a classic with a V8 engine.

"Yes, you want to be co-pilot?"

"Are we in a hurry?" I hated the soulless interstates.

"Not really?" The tall ex-model was looking forward to the trip. We knew each other from Paris. The summer of 1984. We were simply friends. I wasn't her type.

"Then count me in."

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

"When was the last time you cross the country?" This was starting to feel like an interview.

"1975." America had been a different country.

"You old hippie." Slim smiled and stepped on the gas. The 289 was tuned for speed.

"You got that right." And I still was a hippie in many ways.

"I really like this guy." Slim extolled the sculptor's virtue. His family came from Cape Ann. Their last name was known to New Englanders. They didn't speak to people from the South Shore and that was alright by me.

"When are we leaving?"

"Tomorrow night. I'm having a good-bye party. We'll leave when all the beer is gone."

"Then you start the trip." I liked my drink.

"I wouldn't have it any other way."

The next morning I went surfing with her brothers in Ventura. They were eight of the brothers and sisters.

They were members of the White Watusi and had known the Pacific since they were children. The waves were bigger, thicker, and colder than Bali, but the brothers didn't let me drown.

Friends and family came to say good-bye. Slim said that we wasn't leaving forever, "Only a real long time."

She had no intentions on coming back to LA, but I knew that no one born someplace else than New York would ever be a New Yorker. We were just passing through same as I was passing through Southern California, because I came from the South Shore of Boston and had even lived in shack on a wooden pier jutting into Gloucester Harbor.

It didn't get more New England than that on the North Shore of Boston.

We ended the night early. Slim kissed, embraced, and caressed the guests, then call her beau once more. I carried out our bags to the Lark. The trunk was packed to the rim. Slim got behind the wheel and started the car. She gave a last wave and five minutes later we were on the highway.

Night traffic was light heading east. I was glad to not be driving.

"You mind if I sleep for a little?"

"Not at all." Slim was glad I wasn't driving too and turned on the radio catching a Mexican station from the desert. I laid my head against the glass and closed my eyes on LA.

By dawn we were in the desert.

The road was empty.

Slim was driving the Lark at 80.

"I thought we weren't in a hurry."

"You really want to go slow through this?"

"Where are we?" The scenery was a landscape of sand, brushes, and rocks.

"South of Victorville."

"Damn, I got stuck there hitchhiking in 1974. My friend and I took a bus and 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 the fast-moving traffic.

We gave Las Vegas a miss and continued onto Zion Canyon.

There was nothing like it back in the East.

Awesome cliffs climbed into the heavens, dwarfing me and Slim. I wanted to take a hike up the trail, but Slim voted for moving on.

"We might never come this way again."

"You're right. A small hike on the canyon floor."

Thanks."

We walked into the canyon. The water was low in the narrow defiles. Slim took photos.

That night we stayed on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. The room had twin beds. We fell asleep fast. 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?"

"That's me, although I cut my hair in 1975. Some girl said my head looked like a thatched roof."

"Not an attractive look."

"You got that right." I thought I looked like Jimmy Page. No one else did.

In the morning we continued east through the entrails of the Grand Canyon. I posed as 'the thinker' on a rock.

I liked the 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."

It was getting hot and there was no water in sight.

"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 was running good. Slim drove faster.

"This car wasn't built for speed." She still hadn't let me drive.

"It'll go as fast as I want." She was deeply in love and wanted to see her man, whose name was Chris.

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.

The evening sky was going purple, as we arrived in Kayenta, Arizona, capitol of the Navaho nation. The windblown town looked like Mars 100 years after a failed terra-forming experiment. Slim wanted to stop at the hotel. I said that we could a room nearer Monument Valley.

Darkness dropped like a stone. The purple was underscored by orange.

"Are you sure there's room up ahead?"

"Monument Valley is a destination. The motel there has to have rooms." This was the end of the tourist season.

I was wrong. Everything was booked for miles.

We returned to Kayenta for gas and food. Slim was not happy. She got out at the pump and call Chris 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 don't like it, but I want to see the valley in the morning."

"Okay." I paid for dinner and we got back in the Lark.

After dinner I drove out into the valley and pulled off the road on hard-packed sand.

"Do you think this is safe?"

Safe as anywhere else." Even I was spooked by the high plains blackness. "I don't think I've ever seen so many 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."

Slim folded down the driver's seat. I followed her lead.There was only one blanket. 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 no one."

"You got that right."

She was speaking of me and pulled up the blanket. 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 went back to the car, happy to be alive. Slim was sleeping in a bed. I tried to do the same, but nights were cold in the desert.

The Valley was even more desolate with the daw.

The road north was devoid of traffic. We made good time.

Along the San Juan River.

Past Mexican Hat.

Up 191 to join 161 and head east towards the Rockies.

A Mercedes had been totaled outside Bluff.

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

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

"Suit yourself." I couldn't see what he had hit or how.

A half-mile farther Slim asked, "How you think that happen?"

"Certainly not another, so I'm thinking driver error." Nothing else made any sense.

"Please try not to do the same."

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

That afternoon we stopped at the Ananazi cliffside ruins. This site had supported over 2000 inhabitants. They had been abandoned the canyon 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 tribes. Modern historian think there was a long drought and the people migrated to a river." I felt no ghosts. After an hour we were ready to go. Slim wanted to drive. "I'm hearing something in the engine."

"I didn't hear a thing."

"It's not your car.

Heading into the Rockies it was obvious something was wrong with the Hawk's carborator. A mechanic fixed it in Durango. Slim called Chris. 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 snow pack had lasted through the summer.

The next day we cross 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 chemicals from the mine tailings. Very dangerous to human life.

Mining had been its life blood.

Now the quaint town 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 basically 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. We listened to radio and she asked about my trip to the Orient. I told her about London, Paris, Nepal, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Hawaii.

"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 had an apartment in the East Village. I called it home. The road was someplace else.

Truck stops were the only civilization in the plains.

Long-Distance trucks were drivers by kings of the road.

We crossed the Mississippi stopping only to put our feet in the Father of All Waters for good luck. Slim's mind was set on 'go'.

Meg wanted to see the Studebaker Museum in South Bend, Indiana. It was out of our way.

I convinced her to skip it and instead we swam in Lake Michigan.

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

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 flat. 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 flipflops 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 was across the river. We had run out of states.

The Lark had done its job.

We were in the Catskills.

New york was less than one-hundred miles away.

We arrived in Soho in the evening.

"Happy?"

"I will be soon."

Chris met us at Lucky Strike. He took one look at me and figured the worst. He was wrong. Slim and I were just friends, but the two were in love.

I thanked Slim for the ride and left the restaurant to go to 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.

Sometimes this place was home and tonight was one of them.

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