larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next

May, 2003

Westward Ho!

by Larry

One day in midsummer, 1965, at age twenty-one, I loaded all my possessions into my little Volkswagen Beetle and for the first time opened a road atlas of the U.S. to decide where I was going. From what little I'd read, heard, or seen in movies, it seemed to me that, for the budding writer I thought I was, three major metropolises beckoned above all others: New York City, New Orleans, and San Francisco. After a few minutes, I closed the reference and set off from Austin, heading west.

By the time I'd finished my packing, loading, and tidying up of the University Methodist Fellowship Hall room that had been home for awhile, the day was no longer young. As I drove past the time-and-temperature sign at a nearby bank, it was already early afternoon and 105°F. I had all my money, about $180, in my right front jeans pocket.

So now, at seventy or eighty miles an hour in an almost worn out old VW Bug, I was hurtling toward my destiny.

The first indication it was not going to be quite as carefree and splendid a trip as I'd imagined came in Fredericksburg, toward the middle of the afternoon.

I stopped for gas and a quick bathroom break and was distressed afterward to discover the car wouldn't start. In trying, on my own and then with help, I was just running the battery down. Finally, an hour or so later, after cleaning the carburetor and releasing any pressure in the tank, I got the engine to sputter and finally roar to life. Figuring that I'd dare not cut off the ignition again, as I lacked the funds for a major overhaul and felt I could also not afford to be stranded somewhere with the car not starting, I left the motor running while I ran in and bought a case of twenty-four bottled Cokes, an opener for them, and a bag of shelled peanuts (all placed on my front passenger seat, for ease of access while I tore on down the road), these to provide food and drink for the rest of my now planned non-stop trip out to the West Coast.

It was getting dark as I picked up IH 10, and rushed on across western Texas. If I could hold it no longer, I peed into an empty coke bottle and kept on driving, pouring the fresh contents out the open driver's side window. As the gas tank got close to empty and a filling station would eventually appear, I just left the motor running and had the fuel added without even shutting off the ignition, certain that if I did so, it would be for the last time.

Soon the interstate, then a small hint of the major artery it would become, was down to two lanes. There was no median. Nor did any brightly colored stripes highlight the edges of the roadway. The lanes, shoulders, and surrounding sands all tended to blend together in one's perception. Now, racing straight across Texas desert, I ran into a dust storm. Little dunes of sand piled up on the road and threatened to obliterate all trace of the pavement. For what seemed like at least a couple hours, even with my high-beams on, visibility was treacherously reduced. I had to slow to a crawl. All that blown grit settling through the air vents into the vehicle's rear motor did it little good.

I tuned in an all-night radio station. The announcer warned travelers of thunderstorms in New Mexico and Arizona, with some reports of flooding. This was turning out to be an exciting trip, I thought.

Arriving on the outskirts of El Paso just before the end of that first day of travel, I assessed with satisfaction my progress through Texas, despite a late start and a couple major obstacles. From Austin, I'd driven through Johnson City, then Fredericksburg, Junction, Fort Stockton, and finally had gotten all the way to El Paso, within shouting distance of New Mexico, going a total distance of just under 600 miles. Pretty good! Of course, I'd also gained an hour. El Paso was on Mountain Time.

In the wee hours of morning, a little after Midnight, I had to leave the interstate in El Paso to find an open gas station, but then got turned around in the dark as a cloudburst hit. Apart from a feeling that men never admit to being lost and just go on intuition in situations like this, I cannot account for why, guessing I was now well off the beaten track, I did not give first priority to finding my way back to IH 10. But I remember the whole period from then on, until well into the following day, as having a dream-like quality. What I experienced struck me as of such strangeness, so surreal, it was as though I had become the protagonist in a Fellini movie.

By now too maybe I was slightly hysterical and manic from too little sleep, combined with the excitement of the trip, youthful exhilaration, and a super overdose of caffeine. I had hardly slept at all the night before I left, and of course none since. I was now going, as so often I did in those days, on a straight dose of nervous energy. In any case, for whatever reason, I just found the situation rather funny, kept on driving though the intensely dark night, and headed, whenever I got to intersections, in what I supposed was a roughly northerly and westward direction.

As night wore on, I pursued a seemingly endless succession of two-lane roadways into and through the mountains of the Southwest. Periodically more rain would fall, and a Chicago announcer assured late travelers again that they should be careful to avoid high water areas in both New Mexico and eastern Arizona.

As dawn's dim light finally lifted the blanket of darkness, to my dazed gaze the landscape features and foreground colors were vivid and strikingly beautiful. I found myself descending yet another steep, two-lane road through the mountains. Mud slides had occurred in several places on either side as water-logged bluffs had given way, narrowing the road still further. I reached a fairly wide dip filled with an apparently shallow current. It looked to be now about fifty feet across. Obviously the flowing water had been deeper and was now receding, for, out in the middle but shoved off to one side with a jumble of debris, there was a pickup, the driver, apparently quite dead, hanging half in and half out of the truck, his mud covered appearance indicating the presumed earlier height of the torrent.

In my then altered state, I simply reflected that their commercials always said of Volkswagen Beetles they were so well built and sealed they could float. So I slowly drove on in. I opened the driver-side door to watch and see how high the water was getting. When it rose enough to start leaking in over the floorboard, I slammed the door shut.

My luck was better than the pickup driver's. I felt the vehicle lose its traction and begin to drift a couple times, but eventually I made it up on the other side, there to discover the roadway had become a shallow creek. At least I was above deeper water, and my engine was still running.

After awhile the stream was pouring over the right side of the road in a little waterfall where the thoroughfare abruptly dropped off, and I noticed that with the slightest extra acceleration I'd begin spinning and then sliding off to the right myself. So, I kept my speed at about 5 MPH or even less and just kept barely chugging along.

A few minutes later I passed a pair of gentlemen, American Indian in appearance, leaning against a large car stuck in the soupy mud. They were laughing the same as I was and passing a bottle of whisky between them. As I slithered on by, we waved in mutual delirium, and I yelled out that I'd send help. They saluted my good intentions with another couple sips of their sauce and hilariously pointed at my cautious amphibious progress.

A little later still, a sheriff washed by in his vehicle, heading back the way I'd come. We waved too. Through our open windows I yelled across about the stranded Native Americans and the dead guy in the pickup.

I eventually reached a tiny, still sleepy community. The only gas station was a pair of locked pumps in front of a residence. Nobody was in evidence. Of course the sun was not fully up yet either.

With mud all over my car's engine, four tires going flat, and running on fumes, but still thinking I'd better not shut off the motor, I felt I could not wait and so began pounding like a fool on the front door of the house and yelling "HELLO!"

Eventually, a rather irritated fellow in a bathrobe opened the door, listened impatiently to my concerns, shut the door in my face, and only appeared again later in his own good time.

I restored my tires' pressure with his air and refilled my tank with his fuel, paid a few more of my precious remaining dollars, and continued on. It was amazing how many gas station attendants, once I'd explained about the problem restarting the car, allowed me to gas up without shutting off the motor.

Afterward, I resumed my progress and soon was again in the mountains. As I tried the higher switchbacks, however, it became obvious my little Bug had only a fraction of its former power and, short of a major overhaul, was on its last legs.

About 10 AM, conveniently just at the entrance to a service station built into the mountainside, my faithful vehicle came to a jerky final halt. With the attendant's help, I pushed and guided it over to a parking spot on one side of the establishment's concrete apron. I dug out the most essential of my belongings and inquired of the worker about transportation.

He suggested shank's mare. The next town was a few miles farther up the winding road. And so, overheated, wearing extra clothes for which there was no room in what I could carry of my luggage, and with my arms overloaded by suitcases and a duffel bag, I set off. My vehicle had ceased all forward motion a few miles inside the Arizona state line.

I had taken the service station man's business card and told him I'd return for the car, wondering, though, how and when I could ever arrange the money and time for another trip to retrieve it. About $500 was still owed to the bank on the auto loan.

Kindness was in evidence that morning. Before long someone stopped beside me and asked if I could use a lift, taking me, then, as far as the next community, where I checked on the possibility of a bus. There was none. But, for a fee, that afternoon I got a ride on the U.S. Mail truck. In a sense, I posted myself the next fifty to a hundred miles or so through those peaks and valleys and on to Phoenix. Long before we arrived, I fell asleep.

Once there, I turned over more than half my remaining funds for a ticket to San Francisco via Greyhound, checked my baggage, and finally boarded later that afternoon.

As we crossed the last ranges of hills and mountains before reaching the Bay Area, I realized that even if I had an extra few hundred dollars, went back for my disabled car, got it towed to a major city, and then spent whatever it would take in time and money to get it refurbished, it still likely couldn't make it all the rest of the way over those peaks.

So, before even arriving at my destination, I was seeing the journey in cosmic terms. Just as in a trip to the moon NASA planned to be relying on a multi-phase rocket to deliver a payload to the lunar surface, so my intrepid VW had, along with my extra cash, just been the sacrificial booster stages, assuring my and my worldly goods' eventual trajectory all the way to the Pacific Coast.

I would send my Austin bank a letter, I decided, enclosing my key and sadly reporting where the booster Bug had come to rest, suggesting they go get it, sell it, and let me know the balance still due. (Three months later, I received a courteous letter from my Texas bank in reply. It said that they had indeed sent a fellow to Arizona, retrieved my auto, cleaned it up, and sold it. They added that I still owed $62. By now working in Berkeley, I promptly sent them a check. My good credit was intact.)

The temperature as I got off the bus that third afternoon was 55°F. My actual arrival in San Francisco was somewhat anticlimactic. The relief and thrill I felt to be there were of course tempered by the reduction in my resources. I had about $30 left, one-fourth of which went to my first night's lodging at the downtown YMCA hotel near the bus station. (I had yet to see my first credit or debit card. Calling on friends or relatives for a loan was out of the question. I was too proud for that, and, besides, this trip had been all about independence.)

I never did become a professional author. The next few years in San Francisco and Berkeley, though, were among the more challenging, exciting, rewarding, and personally productive of my life, and were set in one of the world's most beautiful and culturally enriching areas. (But that's another story.)

larvalbug bytes archives / Main Index / previous / next