I thought of the cowboys – they were cowboys in my mind despite the lack of horses – as soon as I opened my eyes the next morning. I wondered how they’d made out in town, trying to imagine them in the upscale Aspen bars. Definitely didn’t fit in there. Too gritty.
Too gritty to be a figment of even an acidified imagination. In the cold morning light, I was still sure of that.
Damn cold light, I thought, sitting up on the couch still swaddled in my sleeping bag. I surveyed the room where Charlie and I had been sleeping the last two nights. A Forest Service trailer, pretty Spartan. Alex and Tim were down the hall in Michael’s spare bedroom.
Michael’s pretty cool, I thought. Just met me the day before and laid that tab on me soon as he heard it was my birthday. Loaned Charlie a sleeping bag from the room full of stuff the rangers confiscated from illegal squatters in the National Forest. Real nice guy. Wish I could think of something to do for him to show my appreciation.
Charlie was sitting at the counter drinking coffee, and as I poured myself a cup, he set his cup in the sink. “I’m packing. Let’s roll,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, sitting down to drink my coffee and still wondering what to do to say thanks. Having nothing at hand but a pencil, I wrote a brief thank-you note and left it on the counter. I rinsed our cups, grabbed my stuff, and headed out to the van.
Charlie was sitting in the seat smoking, looking impatient. “What’s up man, let’s hit the road. I’m California dreamin’!” He was holding the gray kitten on his lap.
“Okay,” I said again. “Let’s go. Couple’a days and we’ll be looking at the Golden Gate!”
I climbed into the driver’s seat, tossing my bag and pack into the jumble in the back. Settling into the seat, I fired up the engine, dropped it into reverse and looked in the rear view. As I looked back, I noticed a new addition to the pile.
Charlie was keeping the bag.
“Michael give you the bag, man?” I asked, continuing to back into the drive.
“He was still asleep, man, but he won’t mind, it’s outta that room fulla shit,” Charlie said.
“Yeah,” I said flatly with a little shake of my head. I looked over at Charlie. His face was hard. I remembered his face that night in the cabin. Words came into my head, but I let them slide by. No use creating more friction, exposing myself to more ridicule.
The kitten jumped out of Charlie’s lap and bounded into the back. He seemed fine this morning.
We stopped briefly in Aspen to check a map, headed out north on 82 looking for the way west on US 50. I gazed around at the mountain scenery, trying to forget the angry knot in my stomach. I couldn’t quit arguing with Charlie in my mind, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak of it.
Charlie moved to the back, oblivious to my seething, and settled in as we rolled out on the main highway.
That’s the scariest thing, I thought. I never know what he’s thinking or feeling.
I blew my breath out hard and coaxed the old Ford up to highway speed, checking the instrument panel for signs of trouble.
‘Oh baby, don’t you want to go, back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago’ I sang quietly to myself. Maybe we’ll actually make it. Wonder how it will be to see CJ again after all this time. A lot has happened since I came back through Arizona…. At least this madness will be over, whatever I find there. I leaned forward on the steering wheel, staring hard up the road ahead, willing myself forward.
As the sun came up behind me, I watched the mountains ahead gradually come into relief against the sky and the nearly featureless Nevada landscape brighten. I had slept fitfully while Charlie drove through Utah. We must’ve stopped somewhere for a while. I remembered seeing signs for “Salina” and thought we were in California, but the neat little farms and towns didn’t fit.
The whole day was a blur now, the night just a long succession of mountain ranges that kept disappearing and not being California. I couldn’t remember exactly where it was I had taken over the driving, and I had no idea where we were at the moment. Just keep going. All the gas stations are starting to look the same.
Gas! I thought with a start, looking anxiously at the gauge. Nope, still got nearly half a tank. Then I noticed the temperature gauge. That needle’s not supposed to be that high, is it? I thought. I inhaled deeply to get a little mental clarity. Checking again, I was pretty sure it was not in it’s normal place. Got to keep an eye on that, I thought.
An hour later the sun was hot despite the low angle, and the temperature gauge had definitely moved up. Maybe it’s just that much hotter here, I thought. But I didn’t like that explanation. The needle was clearly too close to the red zone with the big H.
“Shit!” I said out loud. “Just what we fucking need.”
By the time the next station had come into view down the shimmering highway, I had slowed to 50 and the needle was just sliding into the curved red line on the gauge. When I pulled up to the pump and jumped out, I could hear a slight hiss under the hood, and a bit of steam was wafting out around the edges.
“Shit!” I said again, opening the hood. Realizing the engine was far too hot to mess with, I left the hood up and filled the gas tank.
I was hosing down the radiator when Charlie poked his sleepy head out the window. “Que pasa, mon?” he laughed, making little spitting noises.
“Glad you find the situation so fucking hilarious,” I said, not looking at him. I stifled the urge to spray him with the hose, and checked the radiator cap again with my hand. Way hot. Shit. I turned the water off and came back to the window.
“We must be low on water. Haven’t checked it in a few days,” I said, looking in at Charlie. “Just in time for the desert, too.” I shook my head and looked west up the highway. “Lotta miles to San Francisco.”
“Yep,” Charlie said, still grinning and laughing quietly. “Perfect ending to a perfect trip.”
“It’s not over yet,” I said, beginning to see the existential humor that had Charlie so amused, but not in the mood to laugh about it.
We had cold drinks and exchanged pleasantries with the attendants while the engine cooled, and when the radiator was finally refilled and the engine running again, we all leaned into the hot oily space and listened intently.
We all heard it, a slight hissing sound somewhere down below. “Cap’s good, hoses look okay, but you got a leak somewhere,” the attendant said, pulling at his cap. “Probably the core.” He squinted at me. “Been easy it was a hose.”
We filled all the empty containers we could round up, gave the guy two dollars – “Don’t nobody give away water in this desert!” – and drove away slowly, unsmiling now.
As the day wore on, the sun got hotter and the hissing got louder. We were stopping at every gas station and several times in between, cooling things off, filling the radiator. We thought of waiting for nightfall, but it was too hot for sleeping, even resting, so we limped along slowly, stopping hourly.
“Seems to use less if we don’t let it get so hot,” I noted. Charlie just laughed. He was enjoying the situational tension. The virtues of the literary perspective, I thought.
“I love the desert!” he said. “We just need some ice.” He giggled. But in the next town, he bought a dollar bag of chipped ice, filled a cup and poured Johnnie Walker over it.
I watched him furtively, feeling a curious mixture of anger and envy.
“Isn’t this great!” Charlie sipped the whiskey, sighed and propped his feet on the dashboard, cradling the cup on his stomach.
We limped along, most of the tension gone about halfway through the cup of whiskey, rolling through Carson City and finally into South Lake Tahoe. By late afternoon we crossed the border into California and cruised into Washoe Meadows State Park, exhausted and depressed. We couldn’t even get excited about making it to California.
But the park seemed as good a place as any to rest for the night. We ate our rice and beans with little conversation, and lounged around the tiny campsite until dark cooled things off enough to sleep.
We fixed ourselves a bit of breakfast the next morning and lingered over our chores, reluctant to get back on the highway and into the maddening routine of the leaking radiator. But finally there was nothing left to do but go, so we assembled our gear and I climbed into the driver’s seat.
Charlie was still looking around outside, and I called to him to let’s go.
“Have you seen the kitten?” he asked.
I looked around in the van. “Not in here. I don’t remember seeing him for a while.”
I got out and we started looking around, but no kitten.
Washoe Meadows is a sparse place, but the high desert brush is surprisingly thick there, and the pathways through it were labyrinthine. We wandered aimlessly, calling the kitten, growing more and more distraught. We sat around the campsite morosely, searched some more and came back. There were few other campers about, but we visited them all, asking about the kitten.
As the hours went by and the options diminished, we grew sadder and sadder, neither of us willing to broach the subject of giving up the search.
“Maybe he’ll come back to the campsite if we just hang out a while,” I ventured.
“Yeah. Maybe.” We hung around the site, trying to think of things to talk about, calling the kitten sporadically, and getting more and more depressed.
But it was the first time the two of us had felt connected since sometime after arriving in North Carolina.
Finally, after several morose hours, Charlie gave me his best fake smile.
“Well,” he said, “I guess we better hit the road if we’re ever gonna make it to ole San Fran!” He was really trying to be cheerful.
I looked at the ground, hiding the fresh tears that sprang to my eyes. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess so. Damn cat anyway.”
We wandered around the edges of the campsite again, giving it one last shot, and headed back to the van. I climbed in and started the engine, but it took me several extra seconds to put it in gear and drive away slowly, checking the rear view the whole time.
Neither of us spoke as we pulled onto the highway again, but it was a mutual silence now, a shared misery that kept us from talking. I hadn’t felt so good since… the orange grove.