By Don Kenton Henry
8 May 2023
It was 1977 and I drove my 1973 Volkswagen camper van down Highway 1, from Seattle, along the coastline through Oregon. I refused to get on the straight and easily navigated Highway 101, just to the east, because the views over the cliffs and the Pacific Ocean below were the most spectacular and breathtaking I had ever seen. Being a poor college student on summer break, I ate smoked salmon from roadside stands until I couldn't look at the ocean without getting nauseous thinking of all the fish in it.
I went through Coos Bay into California and down into Big Sur, where I parked my van, watched the sun go down in the Pacific, opened the canopy top and windows, and fell asleep listening to the surf crashing against those beautiful rocks below.
Finally, north of San Francisco, my arms were almost sore from navigating the hairpin turns of 1 … I switched to Highway 101 to make time.
I ended my trip down the coast in San Diego, where I parked my van for the next two weeks in Balboa Park, awakening each morning for a 3-mile run and an ice-cold shower (free of charge, courtesy of the city). I mostly ate tuna and sardines out of a can and cooked soup over propane on my Coleman stove. By day, I hung out at the beach and by night at a disco nightclub called the Halcyon. I was feeling a halcyon of "California funk." A couple of nights before I left, I met two college girls from Canada and spent my first night in a hotel room since leaving Indiana University and Bloomington, Indiana, one month earlier. I had my first hot shower the following morning. (I would later meet up with the girls in Phoenix, Arizona, where they let me crash a wedding party. At the invite of two of five bridesmaids, the party was very accommodating of the guy who showed up with a mahogany tan and dressed like an extra who just stepped off the set of Hawaii Five-0. . . . But I digress.)
Finally, all the gay sailors that gathered around my van at night (as I had attracted quite a following, completing my run each morning and then doing one hundred pushups and a thousand sit-ups in nothing but my orange nylon jogging shorts) prevented me from getting any sleep. Thankfully, the locks on the van doors held up, and I left for Arizona. On my dashboard was a handwritten address and phone number on the back of a Ramada Inn business card.
The van broke down in the desert in 120-degree heat late the first afternoon. Shirtless, I put my camera on a tripod and timer and posed next a Saguaro cactus about 20 yards off the highway.
Then I returned to the van, put my shirt on in order to appear more civilized, and stood by the van for a couple of hours with my thumb out. The sun was going down somewhere beyond that Pacific I'd just parted ways with.
Finally, a Chicano dude in what seemed a 20-foot-long 1967 burgundy Lincoln Continental pulled over. As he was headed east out of LA, and appeared to be "straight out of Compton", I was momentarily hesitant. But in perfect English, he said, "It looks like you could use a ride." With that, I climbed in. (I found the air-conditioning, Freddie Prinze bobblehead on the dash, and a rosary hanging from the mirror comforting. Who was I to be picky, anyway.)
He took me 40 miles to a Shell station on the west edge of El Centro, CA. The lone attendant raised it on the rack. He would work on it in between pumping gas. Around midnight, while he was doing the latter, I, desperately in need of sleep, went into the bay, took a ladder, and climbed into my van through the side door and into a perfectly good bed. I had just fallen asleep when he appeared in that door, spitting nails, and evicted me while vehemently citing OSHA regulations intermingled with Spanish descriptions of mi Madre. "Madre", I understood. And while mi comprehendo was very limited, given his tone, I didn't take them as complementary.
As sand was everywhere around us, the only other place where it seemed reasonable to throw down my sleeping bag was on a 10-foot strip of AstroTurf outside the men's and women's restroom. Again, the attendant found me and remained fixated with my mother. This time he explained, between some new and even more colorful Spanish curse words, that he could not have customers stepping over me. (That would have been 1 at the rate of every 4 hours.)
I asked where else I could sleep because I could not afford a motel. He pointed to an 8-foot hurricane fence behind the station and told me I could sleep there. I asked him what was behind the fence.
With my Adidas shoe, I cleared a 10-foot circle amid the assorted trash and desert roadkill and spent my last night sleeping in a California landfill cum junkyard.
With the rising sun, I put the repair costs on my mom's Shell card (for emergency purposes only) and caught the I:8 TO YUMA.
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