I awoke the next morning completely enshrouded in a miasma of mist. It was almost bone-chilling outside. I tell ya’, after a week of the coastal California climate, I was ready for some good ol’ summertime weather. As I was piddlin’ around, I noticed a van had pulled up next to me. A tall, scruffy-looking guy in his 50s emerged and said, “You got your own Holiday Inn there.” “You got that right,” I replied. We compared interior van designs, his being rather spartan and dishevelled. Well, what coidd I expect? It was a Dodge. I started getting a funny feeling about the man, like he was patronizing me a little too much. I began thinking, “What does this dude really want?” Sure enough, he finally spews forth his jeremiad about needing money for a quart of oil. That was a new one! The smallest denommation I had was a sawbuck (I swear), so I ended up donating two dollars worth of quarters. He was most grateful. In a condescending tone, I said, “I’d really like to hang out here, but I’m ready to get out of Dodge. No pun intended.”
As I was leaving, I thought, “We probably could have hit it off pretty good, two old van men as we were, but the fact he was panhandling kind of put a damper on things.” You know what I mean? I headed south on U.S. 101 and it was already feeling warmer. One of the burgs I went through was Castroville, “The Artichoke Capital of the Country.” I literally chased an AmTrak train and never caught up with it. In fact, the son-of-a-gun left me in its dust, high-ballin’ along at 70 mph! I shouldn’t have been surprised. Everything in California moved a little bit faster. I stopped in Paso Robles for gas, and it was hot! This was another one of those junctions in the road. Should I head west to Bakersfield (even hotter), or continue south to the much cooler Morro Bay? I opted for the latter, deciding to go a little out of the way for one more night along la grande Pacifica. The highway descended towards the coast through rolling, feminine hills covered with golden grass and live oaks – so typical California (so similar to the area around Oakland). Intuitively, I turned off at an exit pointing to Avila Beach, and after a five-mile drive, I found a parking area filled with RVs. Just to make sure it was okay to spend the night there, I knocked on the door of one of the leviathians. All I got was, “Yea, we’ve been here a week.” That was it. Here we go again, just like back in Cortez. The door shuts and the blinds stay closed. I thought, “What have they been doing for a week? Watch the water roll in?” Wow, this was what they called the Great Escape, I supposed. Califomians are a weird bumch.
In spite of my neighbor’s snobbery, I was glad to be there, perched on the edge of the continent for one last time. I was a lovin’-every-last-minute-of-it landlubber, watching the sailboats and the waves crashing in, not knowing when I would ever see all that again. I biked over to the wharf to talk with some of the fishermen. They weren’t catchin’ much and weren’t talkin’ much either. They and the chilling wind had much in common. I checked out a rustic cafe on the way back, and noted it could well be an ideal place for a warm meal the next day. Back in the warm comfort of Ol’ Blue, I scribbled some travel notes while listening to a Dodger game, all the while trying to catch a glimpse of the waning full moon through the misty cloud bank. I fell asleep to the flapping waves.
I biked over to the FatCat cafe for a rare treat – a hot breakfast of two-over-easy, toast, and hash browns. And oh, what a magical setting it was, with a cool mist hovering over the calm cove full of moored sailboats and swooping seagulls. It was picture-postcard perfect. I hitched up the bike, started Ol’ Blue, panned the Pacific one more time, and thought, “Guess it’s time to head on east.”
I had to pass through Morro Bay before the turnoff onto eastbound CA 166. I had previously thought of looking for place to spend the night there, but after seeing that all the square-footage of waterfront had been inundated by private development, I couldn’t help thinking, “Wow, I sure made the right turn at the right time back there at Avila Beach.” Six hours and 250 miles later, I was in Barstow, having experienced a dramatic change in climate, ranging from 100% humidity and 57 degrees on the coast to 11% humidity and 98 degrees in the desert. I had also traversed a terrain spanning from lush coastal mountains across fertile valleys to sage brush and sand. Only in California!
I checked in at the Barstow Best Western which had rooms replete with a kitchenette. So, off I pedaled up Main Street to find VONS SuperMarket. It turned out to be the ultimate in cardiovascular exercise – an uphill, one-and-a-half mile trek into a 25 mph head wind. I had to use the lowest of low gears to make the grade. Hey; it was well worth the hike, just to get a whole chicken-fryer and be able to reheat it in the microwave. It was a nice change, having a comfortable table and an overhead lamp by which to jot down notes in my journal. My biggest impression was the endless rows of orchards that seemed to stretch to infinity across the bountiful California valley. The Almighty was certainly gracious when He choreographed the creation of that part of the planet.
I was at another crossroads – either I-40 to Arizona or I-15 to Las Vegas. I chose the latter (as usual), thinking to myself, “Go for it, Early. Throw caution to the wind, and see if you can win again.” The 150-mile drive was made most pleasurable by the soft jazz sounds emitting from a local FM station whose format included periodic weather reports (all that interested me was that it would be in the high-90s in Vegas). About midway, I passed a building with the call letters of the same FM station emblazoned on the roof. Next to it stood a slender erection about eighty feet tall which resembled a thermometer. A few miles down the pike, I heard the DJ say, “This is 99 FM on your dial, trying to make your drive to Vegas a little more pleasurable. We’re also the home of the tallest thermometer in the world. You can’t miss us.” Well, wasn’t that a hoot?
I rolled down into Las Vegas, awestruck by the transformation that had taken place over the last thirty-five years. The Sands and The Dunes, the “venerable palaces” in the halcyon days of the Sixties, were long gone, having succumbed to the absurd, whimsical fantasies of the “New Vegas of the Nineties.” According to the 99 FM forecast, it was going to be a “hot night in the ol’ town tonight”, so I checked in at Motel 6, very close to The Strip and, of course, very reasonable. I gave my regards to Tom Bodett.
Before venturing in to another House of Lazarus, I hiked up and down The Strip, gawking at all the monstrosities that had reared their ugly heads along the boulevard… an array of architectural abominations beyond the imagination. From Luxor on the Nile to Lower Manhattan to Versailles (with the Eiffel Tower cranmmed in), it was the absurd in its purest form, the quintessence of folly. What really turned my craw was the impermanence of everything, like a stage set made of paperboard. And the insipid throngs were infatuated with every square inch of it! Only in Las Vegas! My bike tour ended up at the Tropicana Casino, where I checked in with four C-notes in my billfold, and after countless hours of gambling, I miracously escaped with 682 dollars! Guess I made the right turn again, back there in Barstow. When I got back to my room, I quickly jotted down some notes, and it suddenly occurred to me there was one thing sorely missing along The Strip – the sights and sounds of the hookers in their sensual garb and clicking heels. That new governor McCarran had decided to “clean up” The Strip back in the mid-80s. What a loss! I just knew the street hooker’s demise was due to the fuddy-duddy old wives complaining that their hubbies were being accosted by the “ladies-of-the-night”. How trifling can one be? Everything was family-oriented. Sodom had been sanitized.
“Leaving Las Vegas”, through the suburb of Henderson, where all I could see was a sea of peach-colored tile roofs with hardly a tree in sight. Clark County was the fastest-growing area in the country. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry were moving in from the north. And why? Because they wouldn’t have to shovel snow. I crept over Hoover Dam and whizzed down through “Desolation Inc.” into Kingman. I stopped for gas, and noticed one of those 454 cube Chevy cabs with a small house on the back had pulled in – with Colorado plates. I couldn’t resist. I had to find out where they were headed and where they were coming from. “We’re headed back to Denver,” was his first reply. Then he added, “We’ve been all over California. What a state! You know, they have these check points at the border, asking all these questions about if you’re bringing in any fruits or vegetables. That was really weird.” “Yoh, I know exactly what you mean,” I said, “You feel like you’re coming into a foreign country.” “Exactly,” was his conclusion.
I stopped in Seligman for a few items at the one and only food mart in town. The little burg was so typical of so many towns along I-40, purporting to have a simulacrum of “Historic Route 66”. What a sham! Damn Dwight Eisenhower and his interstate highways for swallowing up that once great mother lode road. Back on the pike, I noticed several highway patrol cars of the infamous Arizona Gestapo, lurking around like so many snakes crawling out from beneath the rocks. Hey, I had every reason to be a little paranoid, considering what 1 went through back in February on my “Last Blast of Winter” odyssey (two unwarranted pull-overs, I swear).
I made it “safely” to the Grand Canyon exit where I turned off to find my old overnight parking spot a few miles up the road. I had trouble locating the tum-off, periodically running off onto the shoulder to stop and gather my directions. Eventually, a patrol car spotted my “unusual behavior”, and out of nowhere, there was that pulsating sight of the flashing “party hat” in the rearview mirror. “Oh, my God, what now?”, was all I could think. Well, all he wanted to know was if I was having car trouble. That was it. Whew, you talk about gettin’ one lump out of my throat. Kinda readjusted my attitude towards the storm troopers. After the coast was clear, I made a U-turn and finally I found my little hideaway, a chubby nestled under the pines. Another Avalon.