The sun wasn’t up when we loaded into Jody’s Cordoba. My motorcycle was hitched to the back bumper, riding on a fifty dollar trailer made from angle iron and the rear axle of an old pickup truck. For my part, the trunk was jammed with a tool box, duffel bag, typewriter, two guitars, and a box of art supplies. I fired up the engine and we inched toward Hollywood.
We didn’t get out of the driveway before a loud clack clack clack erupted from the engine compartment. I popped the hood and waved a flashlight beam over the big V-8.
“Is it bad?” Jody asked.
“I think it’s the air conditioner compressor. Start it up and shut off the AC.” Problem solved: we would have to cross the American south in late September without air conditioning. We had no tape deck, either, just a factory installed AM/FM radio. And my ancestors thought they had it rough crossing the country in covered wagons.
None of that mattered. The sun rose behind us and our lives fell away a tenth of a mile at a time, click click click. In front of us lay a couple thousand miles of blacktop and a clean white slate. We wound up I-26, climbing the Blue Ridge Mountains toward Asheville, then we caught I-40 and headed into Tennessee, where gentle waterfalls cascaded along the roadside.
“I could live here,” I said.
“You’d be bored in a week,” Jody replied.
I held her hand, letting go only to fiddle with the radio. Where we were didn’t matter: Every station played the same shitty lineup of Phil Collins, Bobby McFerrin, Tiffany, Rick Astley, and Steve Winwood. This was a horrible year for popular music—the year of Milli Vanilli, Taylor Dayne, and Debbie Gibson. Former favorites like Midnight Oil and INXS set their phasers to suck. Even Cheap Trick, the crazy uncles of the Guys In Black Tee Shirts Who Jam, stunk it up with their biggest hit, “The Flame.” Patrick Fucking Swayze had a hit in 1988. These were dark musical times.
Not all the news was bad. The Bangles’ “Hazy Shade of Winter” was pretty hot, and Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock’s “It Takes Two (To Make a Thing Go Right)” got the Cordoba thumping. But for sheer goosebump music erupting from that FM dial nothing beat the Gunners’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Welcome to the Jungle.” Every mile brought us closer to that: Hollywood Boulevard, the Sunset Strip, raising hell at the Seventh Veil.
The midday heat came on so we rolled down the windows, which blasted hot air into the car at 65 MPH. Our hair whipped us and our window-side arms reddened. The rushing air drowned out the radio. Slowly the Southeast fell away: South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas. We didn’t stop for food, just ate in the car, pissed at rest stops, bought chips and sodas every couple hundred miles during fill ups.
The sun crept lower. We hid behind our visors as long as we could, and then we squinted into the sunset. After dark we rolled the windows back up and kept pushing forward. Somewhere in Oklahoma I noticed that we’d driven almost 24 hours straight. “I need a break,” I said, and I pulled off the interstate and found a cheap motel. We set the alarm for three hours later and we collapsed.
And then we were up and eating some greasy, paper-wrapped breakfast sandwich with a cute name while we chugged down the road again: the brown, flat road. Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico: scorched, colorless territory where heat shimmered like wet puddles on the blacktop. We stopped in New Mexico and shoveled down a couple of chile rellenos.
That night in Arizona I managed to lose the interstate, a fact I didn’t realize until the road abruptly ended at the gates of an enormous factory. The place was covered in lights: security lights, red lights marking tall towers, spinning blue and yellow lights indicating who knows what.
We backtracked until we hit a convenience store located in the middle of Bumfuck on Nowhere Highway. Standing out front were two Native American guys straight out of central casting: long braided hair and matching black eyes, Wrangler jeans and colorful western shirts. They glared at us as we walked past. A couple Cokes, some directions, and we were back on the road, cutting Arizona in half with no sound but the hiss of rubber on asphalt.
We hit the agricultural checkpoint at Needles, California, and the attendant told us to throw away our food.
“Why?” I asked.
“Medflies.” Mediterranean fruit flies. Johnny Carson made medfly jokes. We were really here: the promised land. We drove all night across the Mojave until we hit a town named Ontario. “I don’t want to tackle L.A. traffic on no sleep. Let’s stop here,” I said.
We found a motel. “Fifty bucks. Checkout’s at 7,” the desk clerk said.
“That’s in two hours,” I said.
“Can’t you let us sleep a little longer?” Jody asked.
“Sure. Pay for two nights,” he said.
“Come on, man. We just need some sleep,” I said. “We just drove all the way across the country.”
“Fifty bucks. Checkout’s at 7.”
We didn’t bother to get undressed, just fell onto the bed and slept. The alarm jarred us awake. Outside everything was gray–the sky, the ground, the buildings. I walked to the gray office and handed my room key to the gray desk clerk. To the west billowing gray clouds rolled along the ground like cream penetrating black coffee; like a sentient fog in a horror film. “What the hell is that?” I said.
“That’s Los Angeles,” the desk clerk replied.
“How much farther?”
I checked my watch. Mickey showed I hadn’t been a southerner for 46 hours.
—photo Katatonic28 / Flickr Creative Commons