The Last Leg


The last leg of my family’s journey to California was punctuated by some interesting events, not the least of these being the ever vigilant search for truck stops, rest areas and tourist traps marked by the extremely welcome “clean rest rooms ahead” sign. Our first encounter with Mexican food in Gallup had rendered all of us eager to make the proverbial deposit at the river bank if you get my drift. But enough of that, it was time to leave the safety of the El Rancho Motel on what is now called “Historic” Route 66 and make our way to the west coast. We didn’t know at the time that Riverside, California was an hour away from the beach and we would not actually see the west coast for almost a year.

As we crossed the state line into Arizona, we were rewarded with the daily double, trading posts in both states! The first was advertised as being our last chance to buy genuine “New Mexico Indian Curios” and the second welcomed us to Arizona with a cluster of genuine simulated tepees bursting with the Arizona version of the same head-dresses, tomahawks and keychains found along the length of the highway that crossed Indian country (by way of the Chinese keychain factory).

At one of our rest stops, we found a disturbing sight. A hangman’s scaffold had been built in the parking lot for the kiddies to climb and play on as if it were some sort of wild west jungle gym. It was fascinating to imagine the townspeople gathered on a hot afternoon to watch the horse thieves kick the air as a precursor of cable TV. So fascinating that I had a few sleepless nights imagining what it must have felt like, feeling the rope tighten as the trap was sprung, and looking out at the popcorn munching crowd, glad to have something other than a passing tumble weed for entertainment.

After the monotony of the New Mexican mesa country, Arizona did offer much in the way of variety. The climb up to Flagstaff put quite a strain on the old Ford, but we were rewarded with a feeling of actually being in real mountains. The cool pine air was a welcome change and we stopped a while to enjoy the change in scenery as well as to give the car a much needed rest.

The descent toward California became a trip across the surface of some unknown distant planet. There were what looked like plants, but they were strange and otherworldly. and the landscape was one moment the scene of a John Wayne film and another moment, a backdrop of the Martian Chronicles. For an Austrian kid from Cleveland, it was like being in my own technicolor, widescreen movie and I filled the landscape with circling wagon trains, charging cavalry and alien landing craft.

And then we saw the sign we had been waiting for. California State Line! We heaved a collective sigh of relief at being so close to our destination, not knowing that a full five hours of desert stood between us and our new home. My father insisted that Riverside was just over the next craggy mountain but as we passed each peak, another would appear. I remembered a cowboy movie I had seen in which a wagon master had said that the desert air was so clear the mountains looked much closer than they actually were and what looked like something only a few miles away would be a two day march. Frustration and impatience set in. My brother and I really did think that Annette Funicello and a band of bikini-clad surfer girls would appear moments after crossing into California.

There isn’t much to say about those last five hours. I’ve driven the same route both ways countless times over the years and I have not grown to appreciate the Mojave Desert. Maybe someday, they’ll finish it with something more to look at, but as it is, I’d much rather fly over it that drive. We eventually found our way to our new home, and over the course of the ensuing weeks, we became accustomed to our new lives. I was enrolled in a school that was built in the Spanish style and began the process of making new friends. My first day was a bit rough. I had incredible gas and when I lost control, I turned to the girl sitting behind me and said, “Jesus! nice one.” Everyone laughed and pointed at her. To this day I owe her a debt of gratitude as she saved me the embarassment of being the new kid who farted in class.

And so, that is the story of our exodus to california. In the intervening years, I’ve lost my Father, had two sons and lived a life well worth the trip. Next blog, I promise, I’ll write about music. Peace.

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