These are the days…

I came of age in our nation’s Bicentennial year. Celebrating with beloved friends and angels, I raised my glass to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which had recently granted 18 year olds the right to drink. If we were old enough to fight for our country, we were old enough to have a beer. But now the fighting was over, the draft abolished … it was a glad wrinkle in time.

It was also a time when people wrote letters and as a college freshman in Boston I maintained a lively correspondence with my sister in San Francisco.  Naturally the merest hint of an invitation was all it took to envisage myself rolling across the transcontinental pathway come summer like some latter day Woody Guthrie, or John Steinbeck, or Jack Kerouac…

Working double shifts in the dining hall,  I found a posting on the Student Union ride board.   Ella and her friend, Shirley were going to Eugene, Oregon and wanted someone to split the cost and share the driving. “You know it’s over 500 miles from San Francisco, don’t you?”  Hey, it looked close enough on a map. Figuring to hitch that final leg I was ready to roll.

Written years later by Natalie Merchant and Robert Buck, and performed by 10,000 Maniacs on their album, Our Time In Eden – and as an alternative to its intended meaning about falling in love – for me this song captures a bit of the venturesome euphoria found in tying your dad’s old army duffel to the roof of a careworn Plymouth Duster, with $200 in your pocket and a head full of unlikely notions…

These are the days.
These are days you’ll remember. 
Never before and never since, I promise, will the whole world be warm as this. 
And as you feel it, you’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky. 
It’s true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you. 
These are days you’ll remember. 
When May is rushing over you with desire to be part of the miracles you see in 
Every hour. 
You’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky. 
It’s true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you. 
These are days. 
These are the days you might fill with laughter until you break. 
These days you might feel a shaft of light make its way across your face. 
And when you do you’ll know how it was meant to be. 
See the signs and know their meaning. 
It’s true, you’ll know how it was meant to be. 
Hear the signs and know they’re speaking to you, to you.

That $200 represented my life’s savings so I’d planned to economize by fasting the entire way – I also just wanted to see if I could do it – until Ella asked if we could stop at her grandparents’ house in Scranton for lunch. Second helpings of stuffed lamb chops and green beans made up for any lost time in my book, and I have yet to get back to that fast. Even better, the stuffed gorilla that had taken up half the back seat all morning had been a present for Ella’s niece. Now there was room to stretch out….

Back on the road I came to appreciate just how looooooong the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is and was happy to take the wheel somewhere north of Pittsburgh. Relaxing in the cozy space I’d established in back, Ella began to roll a joint. “You smoke right?” I explained how it mucked up my situational awareness, said I’d pass, and regaled them with past escapades. Plenty of time for that. Around sunset we pulled into a Motel 6 in Youngstown, Ohio, split the $9 fare three ways, and took our turns – 25 cents “for your comfort and relaxation” – on the Magic Fingers vibrating bed.

The next morning the girls felt ill after a Stuckey’s stop. Thankful not to have gone with the Breakfast Special, I put in a good 10 hours of driving through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and into Iowa when the ‘herb superb’ appeared again to “settle the queasiness,” and Shirley said she felt okay to drive. Immediately falling asleep, I woke up when the car slowed to a crawl. “Everything okay?” Shirley was bent over the wheel looking at the sky.

“They’re talking about tornadoes on the radio,” she was more intent on watching the clouds on the horizon than the road beneath us. Even I could see that the distant sky was taking on a greenish-yellow hue. But ‘distant’ was the optimal word. I offered to take the wheel, stepped on it, and we made it all the way to Council Bluffs.

This time we pulled into a Depression-era motor court with a chain of cabins, each with an open-faced garage. Seeing that they charged by the head I told Ella to stay down in back while Shirley and I went in to register, which didn’t endear us to the canny proprietor. “And what about the person hiding in your car?” Like sneaking into drive-ins, this was not a Boy Scout move.

That motor court, those Magic Fingers, even some of the route numbers are now gone, as is a time of life when price and novelty took precedence over comfort and new-fashioned amenity.

Geographically we hadn’t hit the halfway point, but with the eastern traffic behind us we could go farther faster and set our sites on Salt Lake City, Utah, a day’s drive from Eugene. We might have made it too, had it not been for a blowout somewhere around the chilly Great Divide in Wyoming. Of course changing the tire meant emptying the trunk and I was reminded why my duffel was on the roof.

“I see you’ve got a tent.” I’d replaced the tire and was repacking the trunk. “It’s getting dark. Why not camp here and get an early start in the morning?”

Ella loaned me her sleeping bag and the girls slept in the relative warmth of the car. As there were no stakes I anchored the tent with some ski boots. This was no Boy Scout move either, but it worked, until the tent collapsed under half a foot of snow. “Hey,” I banged on the windshield, “remember what I said about that early start?”

There was heavy snowfall around Salt Lake City and our last 400 miles were spent on a two-lane highway (Route 20) through the Cascades. But we rolled into Eugene with time enough for beer, pizza, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep in the bungalow the girls were sharing with friends. Up early, I made a sign for SAN FRAN over a cup of coffee and hugged Shirley goodbye. Then Ella gave me a lift to the I-5 onramp, hugged goodbye and – such is the way of the road – that was the last I’ve heard of them.

Five hundred miles seems a lot further when you’re looking at a road instead of a map.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hoisted my sign, certainly not the rusty ’55 Chevy Bel Air with balding tires that immediately pulled over. Driven by a no-nonsense hippie chick who told me to throw my duffel in the trunk, there were also a couple of guys in the car. “How far are you going?” I eased into the back seat.

“All the way to San Francisco,” said the driver. “This thing has a habit of stalling and I could use the extra help to pop the clutch. Looks like we’re okay this time,” she pulled onto the highway. The guy in front told me he was a musician, while the older, bearded guy next to me said he was a hobo who’d “been everywhere.”

Cruising along at 60 mph there was surprisingly little conversation, except after a couple of rest breaks when we each manned an open door and, “one, two, three, push,” got the car rolling fast enough for the driver to pop the clutch.

At one point my hobo compatriot opened a loaf of Wonder Bread he’d picked up at the last stop and offered me a slice. “This reminds me of when I was kid,” he breathed in the aroma before rolling the bread into a ball and eating it like a roll. “It builds strong bodies 12 ways ya ‘know. Ain’t nothin’ like Wonder Bread, especially with a nice cold glass of milk.”  …These are days you’ll remember…

The sun was setting as we pushed the car through the Bay Bridge tollbooth. “California here I am!” Hopping out near the waterfront I found a dive bar, ordered a beer, took a deep quaff, and called my sister from a pay phone on the wall. “We’ll meet you there,” she said. “Enjoy that beer, and just so you know, in California the drinking age is 21.”


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