Scene Six: Westward Ho! In The Search For The Blue-Pink Great American West Night
As I stepped down onto the yellow-sunned, farm-fresh soil from the farm-fresh cab of the farm-fresh truck that had deposited Angelica and me out into the waving-fielded, farm-fresh Neola, Iowa September day I quickly flashed back to stepping down from Colonel Eddie’s truck cab in Winchester, Kentucky that had started this whole segment of the trip westward. Christ that seemed like an eternity ago although it had been only a few summer heated, summer sweat-soaked heated weeks. Life on the road had its own tempos but this one, for reasons that I will discuss later, had run out of tempo and we were living on pure fumes just then.
While I am thinking about Winchester, Kentucky I might as well tell you what had happened since then to get us here to yellowed-sunned, waving-field, farm-fresh country and that will go a long way to explaining our need, our desperate need, for a jump start. Needless to say we had kicked the dust of Prestonsburg, Kentucky over in the eastern part of the state where fair Angelica, my travelling companion, and me had been kicking our heels up at a barn dance (and kicking those same heels after the dance under the sheets as well at her cousin’s house where we stayed during the visit). Right then me, I swear, about four sheets to the wind, no five or six sheets to the wind from the local, well-aged (about six minutes) “white lightning” but somehow during the dance we, thanks to Angelica, got promised a ride from Prestonsburg to Winchester which is just outside of Lexington, Kentucky.
Our chauffer, our Angelica-smitten chauffer, for the occasion turned out to be one ancient hard-driving (as we quickly found out), hard-drinking (as I knew from his condition as we met up with him), ghost of a truck-driving Colonel Eddie. (The colonel part is made-up, made up by him, all these Kentucky guys from the lowliest pig farmer on up call themselves that, or did back then. I think for about two bucks you could get yourself an “official” certificate designating you as such. If old Eddie had been a “real” colonel then that would go a long way to explaining the South’s righteous and well-deserved lost back in Civil War days). And despite this awful build-up of the guy, and a little off-hand character assassination above, he actually got us there, to Winchester that is, in one piece. Colonel Eddie was one the last of the good old boys, for sure.
What that one piece, by the way, looked like after traveling more back roads in the Commonwealth of Kentucky than seemed humanly possible in order to us get there is another story. See that is where the “white lighting” (rotgut, according to a somewhat miffed Angelica) had something like seven lives. Every time I thought I was feeling better, just a tiny it better like maybe I would actually survive the day, we would hit a double-reverse triple somersault hairpin turn followed by a triple-reverse double somersault hairpin turn that made me wish that, if there was any mercy in this flea-bitten old world, we would just go over the top down into some heavenly embankment and be done with it. But, as I said, we got there, and although we were pinching pennies a little, my condition was terminal and we needed, as a matter of simple primitive medical wisdom, to stay at one of those cheapjack motels that dot the back roads of this world to rest up for future battles, for future tilts at the westward windmills.
No, I am not going to descript this cheapjack motel, this back road, and what did or did not happen there, for the simple reason that I don’t really remember much about what it looked like it, or what happened there. Except this, this is etched in my brain and I can feel the cool- handed, cool-toweled sensation even as I am writing. Angelica, miffed or not, had taken a towel, wrapped some ice from the ubiquitous, usually whiskey fixings-friendly motel ice machine in it, and placed it on my forehead and held her hand on the compress for a while until I fell asleep. Of such kindnesses long-lasting civilizations should be created.
But enough of medical reports and folk wisdom medicines, sweet- gestured or not. We were on the road west now, the blue-pink road west and for the first time since Angelica and I had met really on our own. Winchester, Kentucky heading on to Lexington on our way west. Next morning, next already hot, steamy, sulky July Monday morning, having had a decent night’s recovery, and a thimbleful of food in my stomach to be on the safe side, we were off. Tonight we will sleep in no “bourgeois” roadside motel, ice cubes included free of charge or not, but out in the great outdoors, out in the promised great American night, and save our dwindling cash for stormier times. Thumb out, Angelica thumb out here, and we are indeed off. A half hour later after being picked up by a wayward sedan, driven by a nondescript but kindly driver, we are on the road to Lexington. And arrive we do without fanfare, or flourish.
This is really what is important about Lexington though. See, like I told you and I know I told Angelica before, that suitcase that she had packed up for getting her to Steubenville in her Muncie break-out days was fine to live out of for Steubenville motel cabin existences but no good on the hitchhike road, of whatever color. I didn’t tell you this before because Angelica had been such a trouper, especially with that ice-encrusted towel, but she had complained like hell about the damn dangling suitcase every time we had to push on in a hurry. Truth be told I had carried the thing more than she had, invalided as I was. So when we hit Lexington we hit the first Army-Navy store we could find to get her one of those fungible mountaineer backpacks.
Army-Navy store? Yah, Army-Navy store. Don’t snicker about something so, well, about something so yesterday, okay. Out on the hitchhike road you needed sturdy stuff, whatever it was you needed, because stuff got pretty banged around and your “faux” hitchhike road designer goods would last about seven miles (or about as long as the owner of such goods would be on the road before hailing a cab to the nearest airport). And as much as we hated the notion of deadly military weapons and anything military in those days we, we of youth nation, were strangely drawn to that fashion look, and the indestructible nature of their “camping” equipment. Besides the stuff was cheap, remember it was bought as World War II surplus mainly, hell, maybe World War I, but cheap.
Naturally, as events kept unfolding Angelica was showing more and more her origins as a Midwestern flower, and although a total stranger to such a place was thrilled (and mystified) by this place, including the odd , musty smell that goes with such stores. I will quote her, “Wow, does all this stuff really work?” So you can see by that simple statement that, every once in a while, she will throw out her Indiana naïve to confuse me. In any case, soon enough she will know whether it works or not. Of course she took forever to decide on which of two types of olive green backpacks “fit” her. Christ, women (oops, sorry). After that we made other purchases in order to set up “housekeeping”. Like. Well, like a small very portable army pup tent, complete with staves, to shelter us from storms and summer bugs. And a couple of canteens, small useful three-prong knives, a shovel, and mess kits.
I, as I write this, still smile over the fact that Angelica talked for days about how whoever invented such a useful thing as a mess kit was a genius, a pure genius. So you see again what I meant about that Muncie thing. Best of all to her sheer unmitigated delight we purchased a warm, cozy, snuggly army surplus sleeping bag (hey, the best kind okay, you can’t have soldiers freezing their buns off in Alaska, Korea, Northern China or wherever). And also delighted, blushingly delighted, when I, off-handedly, whispered in her ear about how many people could fit inside the thing, in a pinch. And, finally, a green (naturally) army blanket, for emergencies, real emergencies, not those “in a pinch” kind.
After completing those purchases we stepped just outside the store door to a nearby bench, placed there probably for just such purposes, and ceremoniously transferred her stuff from the suitcase to the backpack. Here is the kicker though, which may tell something about human nature or maybe not. I just kind of threw everything into my knapsack and hoped for the best. Hope, for example, that a pair of socks, matched, showed up when needed. Angelica, as I noticed back in the Steubenville pack-up, neat of suitcase also took pains (and would do so throughout the trip) to keep her stuff organized just like in the suitcase. I wonder if we had decided that plastic bags were absolutely the best for travel gear whether she would have done the same. Probably so.
In any case, Angelica’s yesterday Angelica miffs had turned around and she was beaming, at me, at her new existence, at the whole wide world for all I know. I liked it, I told her so, and we were off to a campground just outside of town that the Army-Navy store owner told me about to “camp out” in the great dark American night. Hell, even I was excited. Still I noticed, just a glimmer of a notice, that she turned back wistfully for just a second to take one last look at the suitcase that we left on that bench for someone else in need.
Every once in a while, just as things are going right and this old world seems full of bright-eyed possibilities, things get twisted around. Let me tell you about it and see what you think. As we were walking, Angelica proudly practically hip-hop walking with her new backpack bouncing up and down with each step, decided she needed to discuss something, one of our little “adjustments” talks. Apparently the miffed Angelica of yesterday was not so much miffed at my condition as that when we went to sign in at that cheapjack motel I wrote down my real name and her real name indicating that we weren’t married, or at least not related. Some primordial sense of modesty, no, I know, just Muncie conventionality, made her feel ashamed.
Christ Angelica, there was not one cheapjack (or five star, for that matter) motel, hotel, inn, Youth hostel, ashram, whatever in the whole world that in the year 1969 cared who you sign in as. I could have put down Queen Elizabeth and Richard Nixon (although that combination might have raised my eyebrow) and they would have been nonplussed, as long as the coin of the realm, cash, was in hand. I didn’t put quotation marks around the above sentences but I think I could have because that, in my mind’s eye, is probably exactly what I said to her. Her plea, and here I will quote, “I feel ashamed and like a tramp (exact word) and couldn’t we just say we were married when we signed into places?” Apparently the time I was going to spend with this woman was going to be filled with throwing in towels because that is just what I did, I agree to this proposition. Why? Well, in those days I, frankly, didn’t have an opinion, at least a strong opinion, about married or not married and to keep peace I conceded the point. Now would be a different story. But, hell, let’s get to the camp and the great American night.
There are camp sites and there are camp sites. Today you can belly up to some sites with your seven ton, overloaded monster “trailer” home and put in a plug or two and act just like you never left Cicero, Albany, or whatever your port of origin. Or you can go back up into the hills, some forlorn shaggy hills, mainly some Western hills these days, carrying in with you whatever you are going to bring on your back, and be not that far removed from those old pioneers who feared every dangerous animal, dangerous man, dangerous natural condition step of the western way, and carried on nevertheless. The real westward ho crowd.
That day though Angelica and I found ourselves at a plain old-timey campsite which we could see from the road in was dotted with various tents, some small trailers sitting in the beds of pick-up trucks, some free-form trailers pulled by trucks and a couple of psychedelically multi-colored converted school buses. The last had been popping up on the road ever since people started hearing about Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters and their mad eastward escapades a few years earlier. Not a monster trailer in the house, a good sign. I can see a little river as well. Best of all there a small supermarket right across the street. Yes, this portends to be a great American night, and maybe nights.
After I passed the test at the camp office we went to our site, a cozy little site for a tent not too far from the river. What test? Come on now, pay attention, you know the test. Did I or did I not sign us in as Mr. and Mrs. (no Ms. then)? Well, I am still sitting here writing this thing so of course I did. Angelica was beaming, beaming like an old married lady (at nineteen, jesus) but, maybe, just maybe because her “hubby” played it straight with her. (I never did get all the details, and she never put them all out there for me, but back in staid old homey Muncie some guys definitely did her wrong, tramp-treating wrong). Of course unlike the “bourgeois” upper class dwellers here in their little campers we were primitives (a word I have actually seen used to designate some campsites) and had to set up camp from scratch. Hell, we had more fun trying to set that damn Army-Navy tent and setting up for dinner on our little fireplace. There are not many times in life when just a couple of goofy, simple things provided so much entertainment. We napped then feasted.
As it got dark though I heard some music, the Stones, I think coming from one of the multi-colored painted, converted buses down the dirt lane. Nothing loud, but also something that said “youth nation” among the families of three and four that seemed to dominate the camp. We moseyed (like it?) on down and as we got closer I knew we had found kindred spirits, at least I thought we had. Angelica said, “What’s that strange smell?” Of course it was nothing but grass (marijuana, herb, ganja, whatever your term), and from the smell high-grade stuff. I thereafter proceeded to tell Angelica the “skinny”. She seemed a little non-plussed by the news but, however, confessed that she had never smoked or done any other drugs. And from the tone of that response seemingly did not want to.
Those were good and simple days to be young, especially on a road situation like this. Perfect strangers, unknown to one another, except by a telltale beard, or long hair, or long dresses or some slightly off-key sign, immediately embraced and as a welcome “gift” passed you a joint (or whatever drug of choice was available that day) and you passed whatever you had. We had some store-bought wine. I knew, knew from hard Arizona and Connecticut experiences, as well as the lore of the road, that carrying drugs was not “cool.” Many a road comrade spent many a night in some godforsaken cooler for making that mistake when the grim-reaper, usually small town, cops needed to boost their arrest records.
Thus, for me it was nice to have a chance to get “high.” (inhaling even) although Angelica passed and was happy getting a little silly on the wine. We spent a nice night hanging out, listening to the Stones and the Doors, and a couple of other things that I don’t remember. I do remember, as we went back to our own site to turn in, that Angelica said she finally “got” what her parents, her neighbors, her minister, her schoolteachers, and some of her former boyfriends were afraid of. They feared great boxed-in break-out. She started to go on about it, but I gave her a knowing “preaching to the choir” smile and she stopped.
We wound up staying for few days, got to know most of the twelve or fifteen people connected with the buses (two at two adjoining sites, actually) and found out that they were on “vacation” from a little farm house that they all lived in communally, including some primitive farming and weaving to keep body and soul together, just outside of Springfield, Illinois. They were leaving Saturday morning and we were welcome to join them and stay at the farm for a while. We talked it over and it seemed right, especially for Angelica, as we could by-pass sweet home Indiana that she wanted avoid at all costs, so we left with them. That Saturday morning Angelica with great tenderness, and by herself, struck our camp (“our home” she called it by the end) as we prepared for the next leg of our journey. Ah, pioneer woman.
You know some towns you can say that you have been in but that is misleading. You might have passed through them, you might have been caught having to sleep on some forsaken bench in some lonely bus stop there, or stretched a watery cup of joe in some lonelier diner against some cold , rainy night wait, or, in flusher times, just hopped on a plane out of the place. So, yes you can tick that town off on your map as you move along in the world but you don’t know the town, no way. That is my recollection of Springfield. Oh sure I knew it was Lincoln’s home area, I knew it was the capital of the state of Illinois, I knew that people in that area were not Mayor Daly’s (the first one) people and that there was plenty of farmland there. But Springfield on this trip (or ever) was just that dot on the map because once we passed through it and we got to the farm a few days and joints after leaving Lexington that was it. We spent some quiet, well maybe no so quiet when the music went decibel high, but youth quiet time on the farm, did a little work for our keep, Angelica got a little more sun that she thought was good for her, and we relaxed before pushing on. Westward ho, ever westward ho in the blue-pink great American West night.