The real live desert was new to me, the cactus and bramble and endless miles of nondescript brown dirt were fascinatingly boring, if that's possible. The freeway from Flagstaff to Phoenix winds around humps of clay and around each bend is only more humps of clay.
What struck me more than the topography was the heat, which far too rapidly changed from below freezing to sweltering in only a ride or two. With one meal in two days under our belts and a day’s travel with only a short nap in a doorless icebox, we were tired, cranky and much more susceptible to the strain of temperature fluctuation. Between Flag and the bottom of the hill we advanced 70 degrees in that few hours of late morning, and our bodies screamed to retreat into the mountain snow.
There is no shade in the desert, I'm sure you've heard that and I'm here to testify that it's true indeed. I had our driver let us out, sweaty and smelly, somewhere in central Phoenix; not because he would be leaving the road soon as in actuality he was traveling on to points west and it turned out we should have stayed with him.
It only took one phone call with no answer to aggravate my partner into demanding I just forget my kin and get back on the road again. I was terribly discouraged; not only because we would miss a chance for a hot meal and a shower, but I'd long had the urge to begin a relationship with my extended family, and somehow I thought this was as good a time as any.
No matter, the temp was near 100 and we were raisining in the sun, it was time to hit the road again in search of more comfortable surroundings.
A few more thumbs worth and we found ourselves in the town of Gila Bend Arizona; about as desert as the desert gets. It's an intersection between east and west, a town close enough to the border that it's quite often overrun by illegals on their trek to blend into the American woodwork. It's a dirty little place the last I was there, dusty and furnace hot, poor and mean to even it's own kind; and we got stuck there for hours in the blazing afternoon sun.
For what seemed like days we stood on the dusty shoulder of a two lane highway, each of the thousands of semis that passed us kicking enough earthen talcum to fill a dozen cowboy boots. I may have lost 5 pounds that day and before long I looked like a car whose owner lives on a dirt road; I had a light brown coating from head to toe, as if I'd been lightly battered and readied for the community french fryer.
We were crashing, the no sleep/no food thing taking its toll. Then I had a brilliant idea based on that ability I mentioned earlier; the one where the smallest shred of experience makes a teen the world renowned expert at nearly everything. We'd hop a freight train to San Diego and screw all this hitchhiking crap!
When I was a bit younger a friend's father had worked in a switching yard, a clerk in the trainmasters office where we'd sometimes go to watch the big diesels blow smoke and toot their horns in our names. There's much more to the story though I'll save it for another time; but the crux is that I thought my few days near the rails made me an honorary hobo, and just the guy to choose which set of boxcars in the freight yard across from us would be headed in our preferred direction.
I didn't know squat actually, save the fact that as a boy scout I could tell my compass points by solar alignment and knew that if this here train was pointed west, well then by gum it's prolly gonna go west. But we needed a little hope at the moment; we were getting nowhere but another foot closer to our graves and if nothing else we needed a little rest and relaxation before the final push to the Pacific.
I assured Denny that this was the one and we slipped the bar lock on one light colored car, slid the door open enough for two skinny butts to take up residence in the space made available and took a load off in the shade of the car itself. It wasn't long before we were both asleep, passed out on the wooden floor with our extremities hanging into the wind, just begging to be whacked off by a passing train or maybe yanked to the ground by snotty railroad bulls who took great pleasure in kicking trespasser ass.
I woke up as someone was shaking me and calling my name. Denny had broken his last 20 dollar bill and bought a loaf of bread and plastic container of bologna, and without so much as a drop of liquid between us, we scarfed the entire sandwich within a few minutes, choking down the last of the white bread in the shape of fluff balls we'd squeezed together to make the cheap airy dough seem to have more substance.
For the next few hours we sat there as our train was attached to, pulled a few feet and let loose, events that each time made us grin in glee and then shout vulgarity when it became obvious we were going nowhere. Now that I know what happens in switchyards, it's all too clear that we'd jumped onto a train that was being cut up and reformed on another track; and while eventually the car we were on might make its way to sunny California, it may have rolled to Nogales just as easily and we'd never have known until we'd stopped to find everyone within our viewing range was short and brown skinned.
By about midnight we'd sat on the lip of that boxcar for nine hours and had moved all of 30 yards. I'd failed as a train spotter and it was past time to hit the highway for another chance at a free ride. But we'd been fed and had a few hours sleep to brag about; our mood had improved and our patience right along with it. Not that it mattered since the second truck to barrel down the road stopped and took us aboard.
It dumped us in Imperial Valley well before dawn, and as we'd made it to the Golden State in record time, and since the freeway was dark, cold and nearly empty of traffic, we jumped a fence and walked to an all-night restaurant for coffee and a comfy seat where we might wait out the darkness.
It's funny now what little things draw wonder and amazement from a child's eye, and let's face it, at 16 I was a child....a big one, a mean lookin’ one maybe, but a child nevertheless.
Thinking you know everything is not an age dependent attitude; I know plenty of folks in all age brackets who have a handle on all the world's knowledge. But there's a special grasp of reality in one's teens that transcends even the most pompous of the adult demigods.
When an adult sees proof that the world isn't exactly as they'd imagined, they most often wave the offending facts away, secretly marking them down so they might not look stupid again, while in public, cynically denying their knowledge was flawed and needed correction.
A kid on the other hand can be stunned by all new things, amazed at the most simple piece of information that drops on them from the sky, even though just a moment before that enlightenment they were convinced that they'd already "known it all." Some of it's downright silly, but no less awe inspiring for some reason. A case in point:
It was my first Denny's restaurant whose doors we passed through that morning...and I was suddenly thrilled to be alive.
Sure we had our Perkinses and our Embers, Mac and Dons and White Castles. But it had never occurred to me what a wealth of chain restaurants could be found in other parts of the country, I'd always thought we all ate the same crap! Man, there's somethin’ to learn every day, aint America just the coolest place in the whole world!
I know what you're thinking; no one could get excited about any diner much less a dump like Denny's. Au contraire my friends, as it's just that type of insignificant nothingness that instill a sense of wonder in an autistically creative mind. It was like seeing the Taj Mahal!...well ok I think it was since I've never actually seen the Taj Mahal, but you get the idea.
We'd come near 3000 miles by that point, counting the little detours and run arounds. And we'd done it by thumb in less than four days so far, about the same time as Greyhound might have taken had we been wealthy enough to buy bus tickets. I was a kid, a runaway I suppose and already I had lived through an adventure of a lifetime.
And here I was in this coolio restaurant sipping coffee as if I were my father, looking at a menu with choices I'd never known existed, gazing out the window at palms and orange trees and other foliage I'd never seen before beyond books and television.
I was in Califuckingfornia for God's sake! And I got there on my own two feet...well, sorta. I'm certain I was in hog heaven and so damn proud of myself that I just had to try out some "Denny's" specialty I'd never heard of to celebrate my good fortune. Chicken Fried Steak it was by God, and yes ma'am, I'll take the sawmill gravy whatever the hell that is.
I spent the rest of the morning in the freshly scrubbed, white and tidy restroom at the first that if God would only let my sickness pass without blowing me open like a water balloon, I'd never come within a hundred yards of chicken fried anything ever again. And ya know...I've kept my word ever since.