Challenger - Return Home   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Winter 2003

 

3000 Miles in Three Days

Randall Fleming

 

       It is said that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and I am again reminded that even a cross-continental motor trek – be it one’s first, my fifth or a journeyman’s fiftieth – is a series of disastrous dots and joyous stops fueled as much by persistence as by petrol. Thrice the mileage is sure to have an exponential effect far more than merely three times that of said thousand; perhaps because of the magic number, death – while close at hand toward journey’s end – was resolutely repulsed as many times as the charmed number.

       My first journey across the United States was in 1987, and while slightly shorter, had no fewer bulwarks thrown my way than the most recently completed one. Granted, I was younger, alone and highly idealistic (who is not, at the genial age of eighteen years?) and even the Texas trek (across the widest part of that dismal state) was not so bad despite a trailer tire going flat, not to mention sundry other frustrations.

       But that was then, and then has become misty in my musty olde mind.

       And so it was that I started out from Los Angeles only a few weeks after the tenth anniversary of the 1992 riots – straight outta downtown. On the very day, ten years after, city-funded street crews were breaking down a Broadway Avenue carnival. The aftermath of the so-called street faire was no less a mess, at first glance, than the riot that had wrecked the main streets surrounding my soon-to-be abandoned AT (1) office on Sixth and Spring Streets: carnival rubble everywhere, steel roll-down doors DOWN, and not a soul to be seen from Olympic up to Temple (a mile stretch, at least). The absolute lack of people, however, was due not to any impromptu nor impending carnage, but the break between pulling down all the stages and tents, and the cleaning-up of the day’s drunken mess.

       In any event, I departed. No, we departed. Unlike the solo fashion by which I had a decade and a half earlier delivered myself unto the west coast, this time I had with me a passenger. De-clawed some years before we collided, I could not help but have compassion for him and the way he seemed to have been abandoned by all others whom previously had been charged with Ernie the Cat’s welfare. He probably had no concern about matters to come as we backed out of the Woodland Hills house that Friday at noon. As a Cat, he probably had little about which to fret; whether it were due to a burgeoning or declining sentience, I shall probably never know. (2)

       OUR FIRST STOP was in Tucumcare, New Mexico, a boomtown recently gone bust and one that relied almost exclusively on the rare international travler as well as any infrequent interstate drifter.

       Entering Tucumcare with a loosening grip on reality induced by a full day’s drive across a great stretch of unforgiving desert motorway, I immediately took two quick laps around what may as well have been Rod Serling’s resting-home away from teevee-hell. Said spot of purgatory, locally known as The Tucumcare Boulevard Inn, had one inhabitant. He was standing stupidly against a sun-drenched motel wall, and in the moment I allowed my look to wander back to the road only to suddenly return to the otherwise bare wainscoting, he was nowhere. And I do mean nowhere, for there were no doors along the outer building against which he had only moments before been clearly standing. Whether a wisp of tainted vision painted by the possible onset of our Morning Star or a sign that the otherwise empty desert inn was no safe stop for a weary traveler, I cannot state. But as surely as I can even now envision the very denim cutoffs hanging dryly on the bearded man’s waif-like waist, so, too, can I state that my interest was nevertheless deeply piqued. I continued into the front drive, pulling under the tawdry awning and stopping directly before the door. Locking my car doors while checking successfully for my spare keys, I exited the vehicle and stepped into the foyer to find the inner motel doors secured. Taped on the left one of the double glass doors was a sign that read, simply, “Gone to bank.” Inside on the clerk’s counter sat a tandem coffee maker, each pot filled with water. A third pot sat in the middle of a counter to the right; with it were some cups and an ashtray partially filled with butts. A (possibly) previously engaged monochrome monitor could be viewed through the recently cleaned glass doors leading to the questionable sanctuary of an inner office. The lobby lights, like the obviously lit monitor, were on. I knocked on the door. After a few pointless moments, I exited the stuffy foyer to wander in vain before the sandblasted bay windows while taking in the stale signs of existence. Making my way round to where the man had been, and seeing naught save weeds withering under the soon to be noon-day sun, I turned back to the car to find that Ernie was intact but the door locks were open.

       Ernie, long in the tooth and exhibiting symptoms of the shellshock resultant of the resultant rapid travel, was nearly as nervous as his fraying nerves would allow. Alarmed at my absence, he had probably been at the driver’s side window the whole time I had been away. I quickly obliged his obvious desire to leave, acting as if he alone had such a concern. We pulled out of the driveway and northeast along Tucumcare Boulevard, only to find no more than merely less mysterious motor hotels waiting further occupancy. I took a last chance and returned along the way I had just come and started yet again to turn round once again for a final pass and-

       -And there it was. Truly an oasis it were, like love at first sight, the figurative saving grace, and surely something more than any proverbial port in the brewing storm.

       It had no name, the vine-covered, L-shaped motor hotel, and it needed none. It was a better haven than I could imagine, and I was still wondering, as the borrowed car’s tires crunched across the gravel, how in hell I twice missed seeing it. Bt I did not dwell long on my burgeoning delusions. I popped out of the vehicle, nearly sprinted into the shade of the shelter dealt, and was given a room – for a day and a half, if I desired – in exchange for the twenty dollar bill I surrendered with a quick flip of the wrist.

       The thunderstorms came not much later in the day, and Ernie slept well, safe inside a rather large room with a firm foundation that hummed not at all. I sat outside beneath the awning that framed the entire building, peering out from the vines, sipping Guinness Extra Stout and recovering, that we could later continue wayward. Before too long, I took leave of the company that had gradually convened, drew a bath and after that was off to bed. By 3am, between rainstorms, we were off again.

       AS THE SUN ROSE ON OUR SECOND DAY, I hurried to speed – but not so speedily as to allow me to be a quick bit of revenue for Tejas – through the smokestack section of that wretched place. But I was not to escape the Damn It! State without enduring the very misery that had marked my first true tour through it: motor malaise. This time it was a dearth of fuel brought on by my belief that we could make it to a filling station before the tank was empty. Just as it did in 1987, so, too, did the sun rise to illuminate my folly; again I walked with one terminal purpose in mind: not to stop, but to go. After a two, three or ten mile trek, I found a station whose attendant was kind enough to lend me a grease can that could hold a gallon of motor fuel. Despite the decent sleep in New Mexico, the two states’ worth of travel that had since transpired left me spent. But the undesired anticipation of the return hike – under the mid-morning sun, no less – fueled my indignation much like the gas in the can hanging from my right hand would soon fire the pistons in my only briefly arrested four-door sedan, I was burning. Yet the burn was not so hard as to prevent me from anticipating the need for some way to convey the petrol from its lard tub to the gas tank: a paper towel tube found on the roadside worked well enough. It was a wonder that my anger failed to inflame the fumes as said tube was soiled by the gas. Ernie, confused by the concussions of the early morning eastbound eighteen wheelers, seemed nevertheless happy for us to be on our way again.

       Next was Oklahoma City. A brief brush with the green field that marks the remains of ye olde federal building that was violently relieved of its middle section mere minutes after the federal gestapo were evacuated so as to let the explosives express their terrible voice upon the civilian proles and some of their nursery-bound yet no less doomed offspring. The site, now no more than an otherwise discretely covered scar on the once-aggravating acne that is indicative of the demeanour of America’s biggest business, the U.S. Guv-Mint, truly works. Like the brevity for which it stands, I skated quickly past the remains and through the surrounding sands.

       Skipping a mere degree or three north of the state whence I was seminally issued some thirty-five years ago, I continued madly towards my destination, but with one problem on my mind: fuel, and its imminent shortage. Pulling into a convenience shoppe just slightly north of the new Tahoe (Bruce Willis’ Branson, MO) (3), I contemplated the soon-to-be-realised misery of vehicular estrangement. Little cash was left in our till, and judging from it, there was no way we could make it to New York.

       Here, I must admit the availability of a resource as well as the bulwark to it: my parents and my head, respectively. My folks, forever anxious about my tours yet (finally!) confident of my possible success, nevertheless offered help that I initially refused even as the winds of fate blew badly upon me. I was near panic when we pulled into the aforementioned stop. After wasting a dollar on a massive cup of coffee, I returned to our vehicle to verbally ascertain our desperation. LOUDLY. And as I started to state the situation to a stunned Ernie, I suddenly decided to step out and phone Sherry (a soon-to-be vain love in Manhattan) so as to act as if naught was amiss.

       Marching boldly round the rear of the motorcar, I nearly stepped over a crisp albeit oddly folded $50.00 bill.

       With an almost fatal enthusiasm, we barreled across the rest of the rust belt. The earlier shortage of fuel – and its subsequent resolution – was indicative of the day to come. The eternal blast of the sandy range over which we raced was amplified frightfully by the decision to stop using the car’s fuel-consuming air conditioner. This, in turn, accelerated Ernie’s unfavourable reaction to the late summer heat; and it was not long before he was seeking shelter beneath my feet between the pedals whose proper deployment determined our fate every minute of the way. He was panting madly, and I was cursing loudly. He suffered, I screamed and the car never stopped until Ernie nearly died.

       Careening frantically off the tollway some miles east of St. Louis, MO, I was nearly in tears as I carted Ernie into the saving grace of a small spot of shade in the central area of a tiny rest stop. Despite the stink of human waste wafting our way from the outhouse-styled toilets so graciously provided by the state of OK (a measure mandated to deter terrorism as well as any hint of civilisation, I imagine), I sat and petted he whom had come under my woeful care. Thinking he was well enough for a moment, I quickly skipped back to the car to retrieve some food and water for him. The short span of time proved enough for him to purposely “wander” off through a barbed wire fence. He was just out of arm’s length so that he could lay down and finally die.

       Desperate to not repeat what to Neferttii had happened not a year earlier (4), I panicked. I started screaming at the poor olde boy; he stared back at me with a contentment that only made me more insane with rage and desperation. When he let his head flop onto the decomposing leaves and his tongue loll out to wet a patch of ground already mouldy with decay, I acted with a swift madness. Successfully seeking a long and strong branch, I stuck it through the fence and twisted it into Ernie’s collar. Responding violently, he twisted as I partially choked him; when he came to his feet and attempted to back away from the offending intrusion, it was with his ass towards me. I grabbed his tail, quickly released the stick and shoved my other arm through the skin-ripping fence, dragging him back from the bliss that I myself had not the courage to attempt.

       Dazed by the pain of salted eyes, scratched arms and a hardened heart strafed by some sort of strange love, I carried Ernie back into the shade of the nearby Oak tree. Lying down with him, guarding his failed corpse with my bloody arms, I snuggled close in an attempt to impart life as much as to draw strength from his ironically innervated spirit.

       Eventually we continued northeast towards Toledo, OH, a distant stop off our path wherein resided a doctor whose embrace would save us. (Her profession and public position prevents me from disclosing her name, but I can mention that she was known as “L” in the previously published series entitled Los Angeles Downtown Diaries.) There we were greeted with a truly great bed and breakfast while being entertained not only by our accommodating host, L, but also by two wonderfully confused Cats, Jasper and Shiva. We soon slept, neither Ernie nor I caring for the moment what the morning might bring, if anything at all.

       A LATE START ON OUR LAST DAY OF TRAVEL, but being well rested we were also eager to end our journey as planned. Taking the tollway due east towards New York, the miles melted away as the day progressed. Possessed with a ferocity that seemed to make both of us glow, the car seemed likewise to slip over the road and through the woods as if by magic.

       I contemplated a detour south to Akron, Ohio: by doing so we could have ripped through the Kent State University campus like a 5.56 ml round seeking satisfaction in some unfortunate student’s abdomen. But I felt that enough risks had been taken during our mad dash across the U.S., and the obligatory major mistake made every few minutes or so had already been claimed by the Ohio National Guard. The last few sentences describing my reluctance to waste time and precious fuel seemed foolish enough (even if I had to complete the trip to contemplate the trite metaphors mentioned directly above!). In any case, I was too renewed to trip even slightly south of the straightest line (along which I had allowed my fate to be strewn), that I might slip through forgotten sites of olde deaths. Before I could think more about it, we had passed the already dwindling opportunity and the eastern seaboard loomed ever nearer.

       I noticed Pennsylvania only because it took the rest of the day (and a little of the night) to traverse. Slicing through the shit-filled state of New Jersey, I dumped my fear and stepped on the accelerator. We tore through the tollways, and then, there it was, finsally, a-gain, for the third time in my life: New York City.

       At the entrance of the Holland Tunnel, I lied to the toll-taker about what little cash I had on hand, and was told a bill would be sent later. (I imagine a photo was taken of the license plate.) Attempting – poorly! – to restrain myself as Ernie and I raced through the twists under the Hudson, we soon enough emerged amidst the recently ruptured city. A not-so-quick semi-right-turn had us on the crowded Canal Street, but I gained our bearing and quickly took us south to the site of what was once the World Trade Center Towers. It was a few minutes of midnight, Monday night, and the numerical order that had manifest came to mind: one trip completed, two towers gone, and three days done. We zipped around the brightly lit WTC Pit, popped up past Canal Street (again!), then Houston, and finally into Alphabet City. Avenues A, B and just past C and then into the squat on East 9th Street where we would very soon sleep; it was somewhere slightly north of the once riotous Thompkins Square Park. With a strangely settling abruptness not unlike our trip, this tale ended.

(1) Angry Thoreauan magaZine
(2) Ernie the Cat has since passed away, I am afraid to state.
(3) hailing (relatively) from Hollywood, I must namedrop at least once, eh?
(4) a cat with whom I had lived for ten years, and one whose brutal death in the jaws of the slum-lord’s dog was the beginning of the end of my fifteen-year-olde rag (the aforementioned AT) 

 

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