Thursday, May 13, 1999
“We’re not leaving civilization,” I told Tom. “We forget anything, we can buy it on the road.” But Tom’s more cautious than I am. Though not as obsessed as a former boss of mine, so intent on planning ahead, we sometimes got nowhere at all.
Tom and I got somewhere, after only a kind of late start. We headed north from L.A. on a seven-week trip following the U.S. border. At least, I thoughtseven weeks: I had no idea how long it would actually take to drive 10,000 miles. And I was guessing on the miles.
We were taking Tom’s pick-up truck, a ten-year-old Toyota, though he offered to buy something new. “Don’t you understand?” I’d laughed. “No one’ll steal your truck. It’s insurance.”
“It is red,” he insisted. A tiny flare of masculinity.
“It needs paint,” I said. “It’s past paint.”
But it was in good shape otherwise, had just been checked. And bribed with new tires and a used camper shell. Not that we planned to camp out. I mean why sleep on dirt when there are plenty of cheap motels? Plus friends with a guest room for Tom, a couch for me, and a place to park the dog.
Oh, yeah — the dog. She has a name, but it’s too stupid for words. That’s what happens when you’re christened by a three-year-old, the daughter of Tom’s pet-rescuing neighbor. Without the dog, we wouldn’t have needed the shell: I used to bike long-distance, so travel light, and Tom said he didn’t need much, either. But on a test drive to see if the hound would do anything besides be sick the entire trip, she took up most of the back seat. (Tom’s truck has a cab-and-a-half.) And while Tom and I could have each crammed a small bag besides the beast, that probably would have been inhumane. And who wants to risk getting tickets — all across America — for torturing a dumb animal?
Okay, she’s not dumb. She has her own training manual, Smarter Than You Think. But I’m not dumb, and Tom’s not, either. So of the three of us, she was Shep.
Taking her was my idea. Partly practical — a friend of mine who used to travel with her pooch said it was great for making friends. More sentimental — once Tom adopted the mutt, she mainly slept in his backyard. And knocking rotten grapefruits off a tree, then burying ’em, then digging ’em up again, ain’t my idea of living.
So I packed a couple of bags, plus a handful of shirts on a hanger and a pair of half-decent khakis for visiting my mom. Tom took two duffles, plus a Samsonite bunker jammed withTriple A books, one for every state and four for Canada. And we took The Cage, sleeping insurance for anti-dog motels or friends with cat houses.
I wanted to leave early, then wander through the mountains and up the coast. But Tom had to work till just before we left and wasn’t even sure he’d be ready by noon. Also, my friends in Salinas preferred us a day later.
“We can stay somewhere else,” I shrugged, pulling out the maps. “How ’bout Morro Bay?”
“What’s there?” Tom asked.
“I don’t know. We’ll find out.”
And that was about the plan: North to Vancouver. East to Nova Scotia. South to Florida. Home to L.A. Going where we wanted, when we chose.
Only I slept late this morning, something I’ve been known to do. Then it took us a couple of extra hours to get organized. We finally left around two, though in mid-May that still gave us five hours of light, for only a few hundred miles.
Easy, if we were taking the freeway. But another goal of the trip was to stay off main roads. That wasn’t absolute: in some places, like West Texas, the best idea is to find the biggest highway, floor the gas, and get the hell out. So we wandered local streets for a while, before connecting to slightly larger roads, then we slipped into Los Padres National Park. That was amazingly empty, though maybe not by chance. Last fall, a deadly mud slide wiped out its main road for six months. Along with several rangers.
Driving warily, we eased up 4,000 feet. Around us, flowers were yellow and mountains unCalifornia-green. The Tourist Board tries to spin us sunnily as The Golden State, but it’s a lie — those plants are dead. Below us would have been the Cuyama River. But in a land where rust never conceives, the mighty Cuyama was a dried old shoelace.
In Santa Maria we hopped onto the freeway to skip a stretch of stunted malls. The towns had great names — Nokimo, Oceano, Halcyon — but that was about it. Though to our east, often right to my shoulder, swept the Sierra Madres.
At San Luis Obisbo — another pretty name for nothing there to see — we stopped at the famous Madonna Inn: Mae West bedrooms. Flintstones johns. The late Liberace doing his lounge act. All for a quick laugh and post cards, then back to the road. Soon enough, we were on two-lanes again, closing on Morro Bay. And, yeah, there are better places to stay than Motel 6. But we had this dog.
Checking into our room, I already was rolling up windows and rolling down sleeves. Then we headed to Margie’s Restaurant, the diner suggested by the desk clerk. “You’ll be surprised how much food you get,” she’d grinned. Though after ordering, I slipped out to the truck, digging in the back for my sweater. The one I’d only packed for Canadian glaciers.
Dinner was big, and cheap, though just what you’d expect — meaning there was no French on the menu. There was no French in the motel room, either, though it was less Jesuitly-awful than I remembered from other trips. And the mattresses were firm.
Tom and the dog quickly fell asleep despite Little League practice going on under lights right across the street. I balanced my notebook on my knee and considered the day.
What was the high point? The big stone F, carved boldly on a mountainside above the musty town of Fillmore? Almost as warning.
Or the roadside plaque, dedicated to young Thomas Bard — merely twenty in 1865 when he drilled California’s first oil well, changing history?
Nah, it was how quickly we’d ditched the muck of L.A. In ninety minutes, we’d sped to the high Sierras, home of Bogie and stubble-chested adventure. If stinky mules.