|4. THE ROAD TO NEW ORLEANS (1975)
I was comforted to at least be in America to receive my medical care. Originally, I had hopes of leaving the country. I had my passport and had even gotten inoculations against yellow fever and diphtheria before we set out from Seattle more than six months ago. My traveling partner, Marino and I had tried to hitchhike south on Interstate Five for a few days and had terrible luck. Near Grant's Pass, Oregon, cold and wet and getting dark, we were relieved to get picked up by a big, yellow decommissioned school bus. The heavy-set bearded driver gave us a smile and jerked his thumb towards the back. Most of the old schools seats were still in place but a few rows in back had been removed and we stashed our gear and grabbed a seat.
The bus was half full of people, young multiethnic folk who were obviously members of a commune of some sort. One young man, long braided hair down his back with a bandana around his neck sat in the seat in front of me and turned around. "Hey man, what're you into?" he said. It had been a long day and I really wasn't in much of a mood to talk but I was grateful for the ride. "Nothing much" I said. "We're on our way to New Orleans if we can get there by Mardi Gras". "Yeah?" he said. "I'll bet that'll be a blast!” I took my jacket off and laid it over me like I was getting set to take a nap and closed my eyes. "What d'ye know about Jesus?" he said, sitting up a little straighter. I opened one eye. "Huh?" I said. "I mean have you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior?"
"Yeah", I said, closed my eye and hunkered down in the seat. "I went to Catholic school for seven years." "Oh yeah?" he said, "Me too. But I got hung up on all the hypocrisy, you know?" "Uh huh" I mumbled. "I mean look at what happened when those early missionaries gave smallpox-infested blankets to the Indians. And don't get me started on the Inquisition or the Salem witch trials." "Right" I said slowly, keeping my eyes closed.
The driver pulled off the Interstate and into a wooded rest area. The tires squeaked to a halt. He shut off the engine, stood in the aisle and announced; "It's getting late and we don't want to arrive at the ranch in the middle of the night. So we're gonna catch some sleep here for a few hours and then pick up our brethren in Crescent City before heading down to the ranch. Make yourselves comfortable."
I looked out the window and then over at Marino who was deep in conversation with a pretty blond girl in a floor-length granny gown. There was no way we were going to try to get any further on our own so I laid out as best I could on the bench seat and rolled my jacket into a pillow. The hand-crocheted afghan that hung over the back of the tattered seat served as a cover but my legs were still sticking out in the aisle. "Hey man, don't you say a prayer before going to sleep?” said the fellow in the seat in front of me. "C'mon, join me". I squinted my eyes open until he could see me looking at him. Then he closed his eyes, bowed his head and said softly; "Heavenly Father, we give you thanks and praise for this day and for all our blessings. May we strive to be washed in the blood of your begotten son Jesus Christ and share the truth of the gospel around the world. Amen." "Amen" I said and turned my head into the back of the seat.
It wasn't easy to get comfortable as I readjusted my position and shifted around on the bench seat. Finally, as all the lights went out and the conversations died down I laid my jacket on the floor of the bus, bunched up my stocking cap and scarf under my head and draped myself with the afghan and got a little sleep.
The driver didn't bother waking anybody up a few hours later. He cranked the ignition over and the engine rumbled alive and slowly backed out of the parking slot at the end of the rest area. It was still dark out but there was a hint of color on the eastern horizon. We pulled off the Interstate and onto Highway 199 and just as the sun was breaking into the sky we pulled into Crescent City. I could smell the salty sea air the moment I stepped off the bus at one of their homes. We only stayed long enough for a pit stop and to pick up several more members of the commune. The bus was pretty full now and we couldn’t lounge on the seats like we had been.
We pulled into Eureka and drove up to Lighthouse Ranch at Loleta that had at one time been a Coast Guard station. It was just past sunrise and the people at the commune had been awake for some time preparing breakfast of cornmeal pancakes, powdered milk and tea. I was most anxious to lie down in one of the bunkhouses but knew there’d be no food left if I waited so I got in line with Marino and the other commune members from the bus. The plain food was nourishing but pretty tasteless even though I covered it with syrup and I got a scowl from the garbage attendant who was making sure people separated the compost from the trash when I tossed in what I couldn’t eat.
I did get a couple hours of blissful sleep in the bunkhouse before Marino woke me up. “C’mon down to the beach!” he said. We’d talked before about how we needed to get back on the road if we were going to get into San Francisco that night but this would be our only chance to be at the ocean. We hiked down one of the trails in our bare feet and out to the water’s edge where we were greeted by a huge double rainbow. One of life’s great pleasures, walking on the beach with the surf in one’s ears, feeling the sand give way beneath your feet and scouring the shore for driftwood shapes or maybe a glass float from Japan.
We explored some tide pools just like we had done on Magnolia Beach back home and visited with some commune members who encouraged us to stay. One young girl made it a tempting offer. She had flaming red hair nearly to her waist that she had decorated with wild flowers. Her beguiling smile and soft voice lured me like a siren and she caught my hand as we walked back up the twisting trail back to the ranch. “We’ve been here since the sixties” she began, “We’re now setting up missions around the world but this will always be home.” She explained how she had been a teenage runaway, escaping a rich but cruel father and an indifferent mother. After a few weeks on the dirty streets of San Francisco her options began to diminish and she was looking at prostitution or drug dealing as a way to survive.
“As fate would have it,” she continued, “A rally was taking place in Golden Gate Park that promised free food. I went up there to eat and decided to stay long enough to help clean up at the end. They took me in, helped me to a better understanding of my worth and my life hasn’t been the same since, Thank God.” “I sure could’ve used this a few years ago,” I said without thinking. “Maybe now’s the right time”, she said in response. Marino pointed to his wrist like he had a watch on.
The commune members were beginning to gather in the main assembly hall and were signaled by brass bells and the clanging of metal bars. I held her hands to my lips and kissed them. “Thank you for the invitation to stay.” I said with conviction. “I believe my destiny is calling me down that road”, I hitched my thumb southwards. “Go with God” I heard her say over my shoulder as we made our way back to the bunkhouse to collect our gear.
The early blue skies began to darken considerably and after a couple short rides we were just north of Mendocino when the clouds began dumping rain and we took refuge under an overpass. After an hour with our frigid thumbs sticking out and no hopes for a merciful driver we finally flagged down a Greyhound Bus for the ride the rest of the way to San Francisco.
We met a young British fellow on the bus who was touring the U.S. on his own and heading for Arkansas. He pronounced it as Ar-Kansas and we laughed our heads off. He was from Stratford Upon Avon and was surprised that we knew it to be the birthplace of Shakespeare. His name was Peter he pronounced it Petah. He was a tall chap, about my height and carried himself with a distinct air of authority.
Marino on the other hand was short and had brown curly hair that was already beginning to recede. His long nose and cleft chin gave evidence of his Greek heritage. He could be abrupt in his manner, even overbearing if he thought he could get away with it. We’d known each other for years, hanging out together on Magnolia Beach and dating each other’s girlfriends. He could play the alto saxophone a bit and had it with him in hopes he might get a chance to play in a band in New Orleans.
There were some pretty shady characters hanging around the bus station in San Francisco and it didn’t take long to be approached. While standing in an empty doorway consulting our map, an older well-dressed man came up and introduced himself. “You boys looking for a place to stay the night? My apartment is just down the next street and you can crash on the couch if you’d like.” “No thanks” I said without making eye contact, looking around for a street sign name. “Are you sure?” he said a bit more urgently. “Let me buy you a drink anyway”. Since we were three to his one we didn’t see the harm and let him lead the way around the corner to a dimly lit bar.
The establishment had red-linen curtains in the windows and it was even darker inside than it was outside. “What’ll you have?” said our host as he was welcomed by the bartender and a couple of the regulars. I requested some red wine and my partners ordered something stronger. “Are you young men planning on sticking around Frisco for awhile?” inquired the gentleman while bringing the drinks to our table. “Nope, just passing through” I said and got up to look over the selection on the jukebox. He engaged my companions in conversation and I noticed a gust of cold air as the doors flung open, sweeping in couples dressed in tuxedos and tails, very much on each other’s arms.
“Hiya Franklin” said one to our host. “Looks like you bagged your limit.” I’ll bet you can hardly wait to get ‘em home and bent over”. “More likely, he’ll be the one bending over” laughed his date.
It took barely another minute to piece together the scenario that was unfolding. Our gentlemanly fellow appeared to be trawling for unsuspecting drifters to lure into his lair for devious intentions. I caught the eyes of my companions and we determined to split this scene. Finishing our drinks, we said thanks and got a forlorn look from our host after telling him again that we didn’t need a place for the night and stepped out into a cold and wet San Francisco night.
There were plenty of cheap fleabag hotels offering beds for the night so we picked one that seemed the cleanest. The proprietor of the Windsor Hotel was encaged in a secure booth and told us we’d each need separate rooms and they wouldn’t let us bunk together. It was only a few bucks and he gave us each a set of sheets and some towels that we carried to our closet sized rooms. I threw my Kerouac paperback on the dresser and unpacked my gear.
We devoted the next day to seeing the sites and replenishing our supplies. I needed new shoes and found some lightweight loafers on sale in a shop on Market Street. We caught the city bus to the Haight District and were dismayed at the squalor and over-commercialization of an area that had been briefly such an oasis of creative social experimentation. Thankfully, Golden Gate Park still retained a measure of tranquility and I was delighted to tour the stunning art collection at the De Young Museum.
One painting, tucked off to one side of a gallery of Baroque art, intrigued me. The subject of painting came from Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis, painted by an unknown student of Titian. I couldn’t help but think of Marita, the girl I’d left behind in Seattle who had welcomed me into her life and hoped we’d live together. Like Adonis, I thought I was too young to settle down and I hoped I wouldn’t be fated for destruction as he was.
After some time exploring the San Francisco waterfront, where I kept thinking of the Otis Redding hit, “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”, we caught BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) and travelled over to the Berkeley campus. I remembered where I had hidden my pack when last I had visited here and knew how to get up into the hills where we planned to pitch our small tent for the night. We freely roamed the university grounds and some of the head shops that smelled heavily of patchouli and sage.
A free concert was being performed and even though it was mid-February it wasn’t unpleasant to sit out of doors and enjoy the music; a cultural hybrid of Latin jazz with a funky beat and crowds keeping time with sticks and clapping hands. It was a joyous occasion and it was quite late by the time we re-collected our packs and hiked up into the Berkeley Hills in search of a spot where we wouldn’t attract attention. It was harder than we thought and when finally we located an appropriate site the marine fog and drizzle were upon us. We managed a few fitful hours of sleep in our dilapidated tent but by daybreak it was rank with our body odor and rapidly mildewing sleeping bags.
Early that next morning we pooled our funds and rented a cheap light-blue Pinto station wagon. We had to put it in Peter’s name since he was the only one with a credit card. We then unhooked the odometer so that our mileage charges wouldn’t register. Marino had a couple contacts in Los Angeles and if we kept to our plan we might still be in New Orleans in time for the Mardi Gras.
It hadn’t taken much to convince me to take to the road. I’d spent the previous summer in Alaska and had saved up enough money to relocate somewhere else. I was also escaping an unfulfilling romantic relationship that I had developed there but doubted had much of a future. Maybe I felt like I needed to prove something to myself. I knew for certain that my youth only allowed me a brief span of time to have the kind of experiences that I’d read about and that would shape my character for the rest of my life.