a journal of modern society & culture

Two for the Road

The Dallas show was over; the crowd had dispersed and the campgrounds were deserted except for the Prankster’s four buses and a couple of rented Hertz trucks for the Querry, the band that had played on the free stage at Woodstock and followed us here.

I overheard one of the Pranksters say, “There’s a faint smell in the air­—cops.”

Time to head out.

But Furthur was stuck in the mud in the middle of a field and wouldn’t start.  Fort Home was running okay, but Babbs said he didn’t dare risk driving in there and getting stuck, too.  I was squatting beside Mighty Bus with my spirits lying at the bottom of the black pot I was scrubbing.

Windy took one look at me with those clear blue eyes dancing. “Hey, what’s happening?  Aren’t you riding in the Hertz with Stoney? Think how nice it will be—just the two of you.”

“He hasn’t asked me.”

She fell back on her heel. “Asked you? It isn’t the prom. Just go get in the truck with him.”

I looked at her with hot eyes. “I can’t. I’ve been following him around for days. I have to know if he wants me or not.”

She sighed.

I looked up in time to see Stoney twirling the Hertz through the mud, between and around trees, pulling out of a skid with only an inch to spare on either side, braking nose-to-nose with Further to offer a battery charge.

The engine of the bus roared to life; the whole crew turned out to push, sloshing ankle-deep through mud, heaving at Furthur’s flowery behind or straining on the chain attached to her front bumper, tossing branches under her wheels as she inched to higher ground.

Babbs, our spiritual leader, stood tall in his red and blue striped shirt, looking on. “He’s driven through the worst of it,” he laughed, “and now here he comes back without getting stuck.”  Babbs called to Stoney, “You shouldn’t do things like that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you make it look like anyone could do it.”

Glowing, Stoney pulled alongside Mighty Bus and called, “Hey, freak. Want to ride with me?”

I dropped the burned pot, darted around the truck and hopped in beside him. Three miles down the road we were busted. They got Stoney for driving without a license and took him away in the squad car. They nailed the rest of the caravan for everything they could think of: no mud flaps, no green signals, no muffler, and no registration. The fines came to forty dollars.

“Why?” I said to Babbs. “After all we did to help.”

“We took too long getting out. There was a period of grace when they wouldn’t interfere, but we overstayed our welcome.”

“What about Stoney? Are we just going to leave him to rot in jail?”

“Bucko went after him to pay the fines,” Babbs said.

They were back in about half an hour, but someone else had taken the driver’s seat in the Hertz. Glowering, Stoney said, “Never mind. I’ll hitch.”

He grabbed a few things and took off down the road.

“There goes your man,” Windy said.

I grabbed my boots, crocheted bag and my Travelers Checks and took off after him.

* * *

Stoney and I lay in the long grass beside the highway.  We still had about an hour until sunset. We were dressed like Walt Disney bums in faded denim shirts and blue jeans.  Stoney wore a battered straw hat he had found somewhere. I had stuck a big yellow sunflower in it to make him look innocuous, and one behind my ear to accent my hair.

Stoney was lazily scratching his belly. He lifted his shirt to look. “Hmm, I wondered why I kept scratching my belly. It wasn’t my belly I was scratching.” He grinned at me. “What are you doing over there in the grass?”

I ran my tongue over my top lip. “Nuthin’.

He chuckled and lit up a cigarette. I picked up a handful of pebbles and tossed them across the road, one at a time. “Did you really want to do this trip alone?”

“Yes, at first.”

“But you don’t mind me being here?”

“I guess not. I’ll probably get more rides with you along. But if we don’t, we should hop a train.”

“Have you ever done it?”

“Nope. Thirty years old and I’ve never hopped a train.  Never had a beard either.”

I sat up. “You said you were born in 1928.”

“I wasn’t.”

“Then why did you tell me that?”

“Because I thought you were looking for a father figure.”

“You sure got that wrong.” I stared at him, seeing a younger man. He no longer seemed so wise. “Is Stoney your real name?”

“Is Laughing Lily yours?”

“No.”

“My real name is Gabe Gouch.”

“Really?”

He shook his head. “Come on, let’s go. Nothing is going to happen if we just sit here.”

A ten minute walk brought us into Vernon, Texas. We stopped by a small cafe. He used the restroom while I ordered coffee and sandwiches. I still had two bucks in my pocket, and fifty dollars worth of Traveler’s checks.

The place was empty except for the waitress and the manager. Stoney leaned on the counter and said to the manager, “I’ll flip you to see who plays the jukebox.”

“Okay . . .” The manager was a heavyset man with a red face and a big belly. Stoney won and the manager handed him a quarter. In a moment the cafe resounded to the voice of Dean Martin singing, “Just a’Bummin’ Around.” Stoney and I sang a duet for the waitress who watched from behind the counter with her finger in her mouth.

We drank our coffee, ate our BLTs and left a quarter tip, trudging off with our arms around each other singing in a raucous tone, “Oh we ain’t got a barrel of money/Maybe we’re ragged and funny/But we’ll travel along/Singing a song/siiide by siiide.”

***

Hours passed, but only three or four cars. The long straight road was flooded with moonlight. Neither of us felt sleepy so we hiked along, holding hands and talking.

“My mother was French,” Stoney said. “She was slender when I was young, but later she became grossly overweight.  She weighs about three hundred pounds. I’ll never let myself get like that. She left my dad when I was six and ran off with a Puerto Rican. A Puerto Rican! I never got over it. He didn’t like me and I didn’t like him. He had four boys, all older than me. He drank and beat me. Once he stripped me naked, tied me to a willow tree and beat me to amuse my mother. So I ran away from home.”

He looked up at the stars and said in a sing-song voice, “When I was a kid I never saw the door of the gods.  I’d still like to go. I’d even like to find the door.”

“What door?”

“When I was little I’d get a daydream—I was going to be in the army and be a hero for my country. The ants were friends of mine, marching across the driveway. I could depend on them. Every day I went out and they were there.  And the whole sky full of daystars and at night, nightstars.”

“You must be stoned.”

He pointed to the star-studded vault of Texas sky.  “See the Big Dipper? The end of the Dipper points to the North Star. North is where I don’t want to go, so I keep an eye on it in case it starts creeping up on me. I got as far as Montana once. That’s when I learned the rules of hitch hiking: never hitch north in the winter. Can you imagine?  A ten-year-old kid from Los Angeles? There I was in the wastes of Montana walking around in the snow wearing a thin jacket and tennis shoes. No hat. No gloves. My ass nearly froze. I came to this farmhouse. Nobody was around, so I went in. I had just taken the shotgun down from over the fireplace to see if there were any shells in it when the farmer came in. I told him my story and he said I could stay if I’d water the cows twice a day. I can still feel my fingers frozen around the handle of the bucket and the ice cold water sloshing into my tennis shoes. I did that for two days and then I split for warmer climes. I guess I never quite thawed out because now when I see the tiniest snowflake in the air, I flee.”

* * *

Dawn unveiled a wide cobalt blue sky painted with baby pink clouds. So corny. Long grasses dreamed beside the road and yellow sunflowers nodded at us over the fence. Down the road I saw wide-open freedom, adventure and fulfillment. That was my fourth moment of total happiness. . . but I still wasn’t counting. I thought they were infinite.

Stoney and I lay face down at the edge of the road to watch the ants march single file across the Tarmac. A car came rumbling over the horizon. Neither of us moved.  Startled faces gawked at us out the window as they passed.  We laughed.

* * *

Clayton, New Mexico. A pink plastic restaurant. The waitress stood over us, arms akimbo. “You two will have to go somewhere and get yourselves cleaned up if you want to eat here. Just look at you—both of you. You’re a disgrace to God.”

“Who, me?” I said. “Christ went barefoot all over while he was doing God’s work. And I’ll bet he wasn’t that clean, either, sleeping every night on the ground.”

“He most certainly was. You’d better leave.”

“There’s no use arguing about it,” Stoney said, getting up. He flashed the waitress a toothless grin. “Hey, you got a cigarette?”

“Just go!”

Back on the street, he disappeared into a bank and came out with a cigarette behind each ear. “We’re down to this,” he said.

“I guess so.”

“Did you forget to bring your Traveler’s checks?”

“Uhh . . . ”

“Not that I expect you to pay for everything. I pay when I can.”

“How did you know?”

“Keith told me you paid for the engine of Mighty Bus. So you had your little secret and I had mine.”

“Sorry.”

“Whatsamatter? Don’t you trust me?”

I shoved my hands in my pockets and thought of Frank’s parting song, “Oh baby, baby, it’s a wild world . . .”

“Take my advice, kid. Stash it in the bank and don’t let anybody get it away from you.”

We strolled to the edge of town and waited. And waited.  A freight train emerged from behind a distant row of buildings and chugged slowly toward us. “Just what I ordered,” Stoney laughed. “This is our train.”

We made a dash for the crossing. Two brick-red boxcars rolled toward us, doors open. We glanced around. Stoney said, “Here’s our car.”

Just for a second, right before us, the train paused.  I scrambled in. Stoney tossed in the bedrolls and jumped up beside me. I gave him a hug. “Too fucking perfect!”

We hid down behind some cardboard cartons. “It’s fun for now,” Stoney said, “but I’ll bet it gets cold at night.” Two minutes later we could still hear the wheels clicking, but our car didn’t seem to be moving. He peeked out the door. “Guess what. There goes our train.”

We watched it chugging away to the east. The two boxcars with the open doors had been sidetracked.

“Remember how sweetly it stopped in the middle of the crossing? The engineer will probably be laughing all the way to Oklahoma.”

“What the hell. Who wants to go to Oklahoma? Let’s get ourselves a clean motel with lots of hot water.”

* * *

At dusk our ride left us off in Cimmaron, a drive-through, New Mexican town about forty miles northeast of Taos. It was chilly at seven thousand feet; the air smelled of pine and steep mountains thrust up into the clean, evening sky. We stood around for a while with our thumbs out, but nothing happened. Stoney gathered sticks, I wadded up some paper and we started a fire with nibbles of wood, warming our hands over the cheerful blaze.

A black car pulled up. The driver sat looking out the open window, not saying anything. I smiled. “White man build big fire, sit way back. Indian build little fire, sit way up close.”

The Man in a black uniform gave us a restrained smile, got out of the car and came over. “May I see your ID?”

I got out mine, but Stoney didn’t have any. “I lost it.”

“Will you get in the car please?”

“Oh, God,” Stoney groaned. “Here we go.”

“But we haven’t done anything wrong.”

The police station was a five-room adobe house. We followed the officer up the walk and waited while he unlocked the door. He turned on the lights and motioned for us to come in and sit down.

I took the battered leather armchair and glanced around the room. A couple of half-burned logs stood in the adobe fireplace in the corner. To the right were two smaller rooms; one was a bathroom and the other had been converted into a cell equipped with a bunk and an oversized mattress that looked comically comfortable.

The officer was about twenty-eight, black hair, crew cut, discerning black eyes and a square jaw. Handsome, I decided.

“I’m John Graham,” he said.

“I’m Tom Neece. You can call my answering service in L.A. They’ll identify me.”

“At one in the morning?”

“Somebody usually sleeps in the office. It’s been broken into a couple of times. Big city crime.”

Graham put in the call. After awhile someone answered.  “They refuse to accept the charges,” he said with his hand over the receiver.

“Shit! Who have you got on the line? Stella? Tell her this is no time to be cheap.”

“Look,” said Graham into the phone, “I’ve got this man in custody and he’s really in trouble unless you can identify him.” Tom and I leaned forward in our chairs.  “About five foot eight?” He looked at Tom and shook his head. Tom pulled up his sleeve and showed his tattoo. “Ask her about this.”

“Any distinguishing marks you can think of? Uh-huh . . . uh-huh. Okay, thanks very much.” He hung up.

“I think you’re a little shorter than five eight, aren’t you?”

“No, that’s about right.”

“She couldn’t think of any distinguishing marks, and she didn’t mention that you wore glasses. She did say you never carry any ID.”

“Okay, I lied about that. I don’t see any point to it.  I never have. You are who you are. If you’re doing what you should be, you don’t need any ID.”

Graham held his eyes for a moment. “It’s cases like this where it’s handy to be able to prove who you are. It so happens that we’re looking for a man who beat his wife to death in Colorado. And you match the description.”

A long stupefied silence. Graham turned to me. “What about you?”

“Tom and I have been together since the Woodstock festival in New York,” I said. “It couldn’t have been him.”

“No, it wasn’t me,” Tom said with a sheepish grin. “I can dig what you’re saying about ID. I was just never much for conforming to other people’s rules.”

“Have you ever been arrested before?”

Tom didn’t answer. The phone rang. Graham swiveled around in his chair, carried on a muffled conversation for about a minute and a half and hung up. Leaning back in is chair, he gave me a faint smile. “When you said that back there–about the little fire and the Indian sitting way up close—that kind of got to me. Did you know I was Indian?”

I shook my head.

“Well,” he said, I believe you really are who you say you are. But there’s another matter. It’s against the law to hitchhike in this state. Unless you have some money, you’re open to a vagrancy charge.”

I had spent my last dollar on a pack of Camels for Tom.  We cast each other a helpless look.

Graham stood up. “Maybe I’m crazy, and maybe I’ll wake up dead tomorrow, but I guess I’ll take you both home with me.”

Tom broke into a broad grin. “Really? Thanks a lot.”

“You won’t regret it,” I promised. “How do you like your eggs?”

* * *

In the morning Graham drove us about a mile out of town. We shook hands, said thanks, and set off down the road. It was understood that as soon as we were out of sight we’d stick out our thumbs.

What a great day to be out in the warm sun and sparkling air, with masses of purple asters in the fields and tall yellow sunflowers nodding by the wayside. In ten minutes we were picked up by some freaks who took us to Taos. We stood on the plaza looking around. Every store was mud-brown adobe with sky blue window frames. Most of the folks on the street had dark hair and brown faces. The mellifluous sound of Spanish wafted through the air. I knew by the warm sunlight on curved adobe walls and the blue mountain that towered above the town that after my long cross-country search, I had come home.

It wasn’t hard to score a ride from here. We didn’t have to lift a thumb. A VW van pulled over, slapped with smiley flowers and a bumper sticker that said, “Question Reality.” By early afternoon we caught up to the Pranksters at the Hog Farm in Peñasco.

Phaedra Greenwood is a prize-winning free lance writer, teacher, editor and photographer who lives with her family in Northern New Mexico. For more information, see www.phaedragreenwood.com.

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