Minggu, 18 Desember 2011

135 IN THE SHADE by Peter Nolan Smith

In late-July of 1975 Andy K and I left California on a cool morning. Our summer vacation had come to an end. We hitchhiked east from Pomona at the end of the Valley. Leaving LA wasn’t easy for long-hairs. The locals were the sons of Okie rednecks, but a young Mormon girl stopped at the Rancho Cucamonga on-ramp and drove her Monza convertible over the pass into the high desert. She was cute and played the new Joni Mitchell 8-track on the stereo. AK and I both wondered why we were leaving California.

She dropped us in Victorville. It was barely 10Am.

We had made good time and thought ourselves lucky until reaching the eastbound ramp. A long row of hippies stood by the arid curbside. 

Hitchhiking on the Interstate was illegal. The State troopers arrested anyone attempting to break the law. The fine was $50. I had almost $40 in my pocket. California cops didn’t bargain with hippies. AK and I took our place in the queue.

There wasn't a speck of shade in sight. Sand, weeds, and a dented guardrail decorated the scenery. Across the interstate was a gas station and a diner.

“What do you think?” AK asked with a canteen in hand.

“I think it doesn’t look good.” I sipped some water. It tasted of Pomona.

“We’ll have to go easy on this.” AK put away the canteen. We only had one.

After an hour a van picked up three hippies and six more joined the ranks of the stranded travelers. I walked down the line speaking to the other hitchhikers. None of them had anything good to say about this onramp. A New Orleans-bound couple were fortieth in the line-up. They had been on the ramp for 20 hours. Both of them were in the throes of cold turkey.

"15 hours?" I checked up the sky. There wasn't a cloud from horizon to horizon. The temperature was in the high 80s. By late afternoon it would be in the 100s.

"Some of it was night." The rail-thin girl wore a wife-brimmed hat, but her skin had been torched a torrid red. A merciless sun bounced off the black asphalt. 

We were six people behind them. AK and I were #47 and 48. I had been a math major my first years at university. One ride per hour meant that we wouldn’t get out of here for another two days.

"You two should split up. No one picks up two guys." Her strung-out old man had hair to his ass. The skinny girlfriend could have passed for his twin. They made a cute lesbian couple for anyone not looking too closely. 

"Except for perverts." His girlfriend was fuming mad, hungry for a fix. She wanted out of this desert  limbo.

"Yeah, I've had a couple of offers from some sick fucks."

"Wanted me to watch." Her face screwed up with disgust. Sex was as distasteful to junkies as it was to nuns.

"Nothing wrong with being queer." I danced with gays at the 1270 Club in Boston. They pawned me off to fag hags. It was a good deal for me. "Especially if it gets us out of here."

I tried to look bisexual. Andy didn't play that game and the cowboys weren't buying my solo act. The sun was fast approaching high noon. The temperature was in the high 80s.

By noon the sun would be melting the asphalt under our feet. A Greyhound bus exited from the Interstate and pulled into the forlorn gas station.

“Bus?” The heat had stolen AK’s tongue.

“Now?”

“Now.” AK and I grabbed our bags and ran across the cloverleaf to the diner. The Greyhound was billowing diesel fumes. Its driver was exiting from the station's diner. $8.50 bought escape for both of us. The two tickets were worth every penny. We sat in the back and stared out the window at the marooned hippies. Three minutes ago we had been them.

“Good move.” AK sucked down water from the canteen. He saved me half.

“You boys look hot.” An old black woman was peeling an orange.

“We were stuck back there for a few hours.” AK Wiped the sweat off his face.

“Hitchhiking?” She passed half the orange to us.

“Yep.”

“You’da have a lot more luck, if you cut your hair. You like girls and not pretty girls either.” The old black woman laughed with a simple wickedness, because she was telling the truth. “But these peckerwoods out here ain’t too particular about pretty.”

“Thanks.” It had been a long time since I had been called ‘ugly.

AK and I pored our the map, as the bus sped down I-10. The desert was even more desert. The window was warm to the touch, but the bus interior was ACed to Alaska. A few rangy cowboys and the old black woman got off in Barstow. She gave us each an orange. They were sweet and we sucked on the fruit as if we might not taste another for a long time.

The bus pulled out of Barstow. The driver announced that the next stop was Needles. It was a 170 mile ride.

Two and a half hours later the bus pulled into the desert town. I looked at the map. Needles was on the west bank of the Colorado River.

“The Joad family's first stop in THE GRAPES OF WRATH was Needles.” AK loved John Steinbeck. “They drove through the night to avoid the oppressive Arizona heat and they arrived here.”“The California dream.” I looked out the window. Nobody was on the sidewalks. The heat was too much for man or beast. Needles was a funny place to enter paradise and not funny ha-ha.

“The beginning or the end.” AK held his bag in both hands. He didn’t want to get off the bus. AK had the money for a ticket to Boston. His eyes asked me what to do."You want to go, go." In this heat it was every man for himself. My lack of funds meant that Needles was the last stop for me."No, I'll stick with you.""Really?" I would have bet my last money on his ditching out on me."Did you ever doubt I would?""Not for one second."

The bus braked at the small terminal and the driver announced a thirty-minute break.

We were the last passengers to exit from the bus. I stopped at the bottom of the steps for a second. A wall of heat stuck me and I thought that I had walked into the exhaust of a thousand buses, except our Greyhound was the only one in the sweltering parking lot. The other travelers hurried into the station. AK pushed me off the bus. The sun beat on my skin, as if its rays were ironing my flesh.

Needles was much worse than Victorville. My sandals sunk into the molten asphalt. Across the street a large thermometer displayed the temperature.

135F. 

"That can't be right." AK was gasping for breath. We were from the East Coast. New Englanders wilted whenever the mercury lifted north of 85.

"No one else is outside." I felt like I was breathing off the end of a hair-dryer.

The highway was in the distance. Cars and trucks sped through a shimmering mirage. It was less than a mile away. In this heat that walk was a test of survival. 

"There's a Dairy Queen." AK headed toward the promise of cold ice cream and AC. I followed the New Yorker without question. The heat was so dry that the sweat was seared off our skin. We ran across the parched grass verge. The time was 3pm. High noon lasted long in Needles.

Our entrance into the ice cream parlor was loud. Doors opened easy.

“Shut the damn doors.” The counterman shouted from the cash register. “I’m not cooling the outdoors.”

“Yes, sir,” I answered with respect, as AK shut the glass door. The other customers appreciated the gesture. They were farmers, teenage boys and girls. Hippies were not a common sight in the Mojave, but they directed their attention to spooning sundaes and floats into their mouths. The AC was 68. Everyone looked comfortable.

"Two vanilla ice cream sodas." My mother had given the sweet slurry of cold comfort to me when I had strep throat.

"I want chocolate." Andy stepped up to the counter. "Two too."

After the 3rd ice cream soda our core temperature had dropped to 98.6. 

"Is that thermometer right?" I asked an Okie rancher.

"Sun got to it. Ain't right by 15 degrees. Makes it 120. Hot, but ain't half as hot as July 2, 1967. That was 122. The two degrees don’t sound like much until you been in 122." He spoke with pride. Not many humans can handle that heat. "Felt like the Devil was burning my bones. You boys, headed east?"

He offered a ride to Topock. Some 20 miles from here. The other side of the Colorado. Okie was driving a Ford pick-up. His dog was in the front seat. 

"He don't mind the heat. Don't like strangers though. You gotta sit in the back."

At 3:22 the temperature was hovering at 110.

"We're ready when you're ready."

Needles was the type of town to suck a day from your travels. I had $33 in my pocket. I gave the driver two of them. Gas was 40 cents a gallon. He was grateful for the donation. Twenty minutes later he pulled off the highway. The town was two miles away. We were on the wrong side of the Colorado. The sun was four hours from setting. The only shade was a bullet-holed billboard some 300 feet off the highway.

I stuck out my thumbs. Cars and trucks were coming our way. I pretended to be Jack Kerouac's illegitimate son. He had to have one somewhere.

"Look like you're harmless." AK put on his best smile. The Berkeley School of Music graduate had perfect teeth and excelled at looking harmless. He pushed me to the side and the second car stopped for us.

“We’re out of here.”

The retired couple was heading for Kingman in their Delta 88.

“Nice car.” My father had a gray version.

“Good AC.” AK was settling into the leather seat. “Where you going?”

“Lake Haves. We used to be from Chicago, but the winters got too much for my bones.”“Isn’t Lake Havasu where they put the London Bridge?” I had read about the move in LIFE magazine.

“Yes and no.” The husband was a full head of hair. He drove with both hands on the wheel. “The developer bought the old London Bridge, thinking it was the Tower Bridge.”

“But it wasn’t.” His white-haired wife had a pleasant chuckle.

“Still they reconstructed the London Bridge and people come from all around to see it.”

“Bridge doesn’t really go anywhere.” His wife shook her head.

“No, but it’s better than no bridge.” This sounded like a regular discussion between them. “I wish I hadn’t moved down here. It's cooler up in the high country. Sometimes down here my head feels hot enough to fry an egg on."

The driver might have said the line maybe 100 times. The punch line was funny to us, because we knew it was true.

“It isn’t this hot all the time.” The desert sun had leathered his wife's skin. Her silver-blonde hair was a homage to Dinah Shore. “We have grandchildren. They come and visit sometimes. That's why we picked you up."

"They're hippies too." The old man smiled in the rearview mirror. The two complimented each other. "There's lemonade in the cooler. Drink as much as you want."

There were four glass screw-top bottles. 

"Don't be shy." The driver floored the pedal. The big V8 ate up the road. The old man was in a hurry to get out of the heat. “Drink as much as you want.” "Drink as much as you want."

Andy and I drained one each in thirty seconds.

We were safe from dehydration. We were leaving the frying pan. We both slept in the back seat.

The old couple pulled off the road at Kingman for the night. This town was mentioned in Chuck Berry's ROUTE 66.

“We’re staying here for the night.” The motor lodge offered rooms for $20. 

“We’ll keep on going.”

“I’d pay for a room.” The old man had a kind heart.

“No, thanks, we’ll be fine now we’re out of that furnace.”

We waved good-bye and stood on the remainder of old Route 66.

“I can’t believe two hours ago it was 135 in the shade.” The air at 3000 feet was cool relief and I stuck out my thumb.

“The thermometer was broken.” AK sat on the guard railing.

“It was still as hot as I’ve ever been.”

“You can say that again.”

I didn’t bother to repeat the obvious. The sun was setting in the pines and a semi was throttling its diesel engine on its way through Kingman. Wherever we would be tomorrow morning was a night away.

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