From Rieseland to L.A. By Modified Car
By Paul Briggs
This was right after I graduated from high school. A whole bunch of us — me, Meredith Holk and Rachel Vulpius, along with Richard Kaiserswerther and his girlfriend, Katie Bruckner — realized we were all headed in the same direction and decided to make a real road trip out of it. You see, I was going to UCLA, Kaiser and Katie were going to the University of Southern California, Meredith was going to California State U and Rachel had a summer internship at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Meredith's brother had a place down in Westmont where we could crash until we found our own living arrangements.
Anyway, the plan was for me to lead in my '84 Plymouth Reliant with all the interior redesign. Meredith and Rachel would ride with me. (I could only fit two other people in my car.) Kaiser and Katie would follow in their Chevy Citation, I forget the year but it was ancient. Most of the journey would be on what was once Route 66 of song and story (well, song, anyway).
On Monday, we were supposed to get started at 8:30, but that didn't quite work out. I'd done my part — my good-byes with Mom, Dad and Jody were long and tearful, but over with before then.
But somehow, word had gotten out that I was leaving town that morning. A few people stopped by to say goodbye and shake my hand, and of course I had to talk to them… and then came a few more, and a few more, all wanting to give me a hug, have their picture taken with me, tell me how much they were going to miss me… I think the entire town showed up that morning. I knew I was kind of a local celebrity, but this much?
Even Mrs. Rollins showed up. Maybe she'd forgiven me for breaking her son's jaw all those years ago, or maybe she just wanted to make sure I was really leaving. Even my arch-nemesis Miss Vardaman showed up. I could tell by the look on her face that she had one last fifteen-minute lecture on the tip of her tongue, but there were too many other people waiting in line.
At this point I was feeling one of those awkward mixtures of emotions. On the one hand, it was good to be so loved, but on the other hand, it made me sad to think what a nice little town I was leaving and how much I'd be missed… and on the other other hand, the clock was ticking, Rachel was supposed to be in Flagstaff on Friday and we were hoping to get in a little sightseeing along the way.
It was after ten when we got started. If you like the image of five sexy young teenagers on a road trip across America, looking for fun and adventure… well, then, enjoy it. There's no need for me to tell you what we actually looked like. (Actually, none of us were really bad-looking, although I hadn't quite learned to show myself to best advantage and Kaiser had zits.)
We stopped in Madison for lunch. I had put my foot down about going to McDonald's ("We are not journeying across the country just to eat at the same damn place wherever we go!") so… we ate at Burger King instead. We'd lost a lot of time getting started, so I couldn't argue. Then we had our pictures taken at the state capitol and visited the Olbrich Botanical Gardens. I wasn't complaining about this particular delay — the gardens were beautiful, and it gave me a chance to work the cramps out of my legs.
It was after three when we got started again, and then we got lost in Rockford because Kaiser, bless his heart, wanted to avoid the toll plaza. Then, just to top things off, I got stopped by a cop outside Bloomington. I hadn't been breaking any laws — or at least, I hadn't been driving faster than the general flow of traffic — he just wanted to get a better look at me. (This happens a lot. I just play along with it. I mean, they're cops — what else can you do?)
So, instead of spending the night in Springfield, we spent it in Lincoln, and in kind of a cheap hotel. I wrote to my parents on the back of a postcard I'd bought of the gardens. (If you want to know how I remember so much of this little trip, it's because my parents saved the postcards.)
What got to me, that night, as I lay on the bed (my knees hanging over the edge and my feet resting on the floor) was that… this was it. I had now, officially, Left Home. From here on, for the rest of my life, everywhere else I went would be just another a way station. Even if I went home again, it would only be to visit, not to stay. It was a long and melancholy night.
Tuesday morning, we got up at six, and we were ready to be out the door at 6:30… and guess what? A reporter from the Lincoln Courier had been waiting in the lobby for 45 minutes. She wanted to do a big feature story about me.
We had a nice sit-down breakfast at one of those old folks' restaurants, the kind of places with an Early Bird Special where there's creamed chipped beef on the menu. (They tend to be pretty good places to eat cheap, if you can get there before they go out of business.) I tried to get across that we were a little pressed for time, but I pretty much ended up telling her the story of my life over breakfast. I also tried to talk as much as I could about my four friends, just so they didn't feel left out. It was almost eight when we got started.
After a quick stop in Springfield (Katie had the state capitals memorized, and was kind of a geek about them) we stopped in Alton for lunch. This was a little out of our way, but… well, I had to insist on this.
You see, Alton was the home town of a man named Robert Pershing Wadlow, who was the tallest man in all recorded history, unless you count the Biblical story of David and Goliath. Unlike me, he kept growing all his life, and died at age 22, a fraction of an inch shy of nine feet tall. I could not pass anywhere near this place without stopping to pay my respects.
First, I had my picture taken at the life-size statue of Wadlow on College Avenue. Needless to say, my little 7'9" self looked like a pixie standing next to him, not even coming up to his chin. That was… good. That was wonderful. It was like a little voice was saying "See? You're not so big. You're not so strange. You're practically normal." (Note: I said it was like a little voice was saying these things. I don't get messages from the dead.) It was hard to tear myself away.
I also left flowers on his grave. (I once dreamed of finding out what the largest flower in the world was, and then getting hold of one and laying it on his grave. Then I found out that the largest flower is something called the rafflesia, which is two to three feet across, grows in Indonesia, is pollinated by carrion flies and smells like rotten meat. So I went with the white roses instead. For what it's worth, they had longer-than-average stems.) And I bought a copy of the text of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, one of which happened in Alton.
After that came St. Louis, where I'm afraid we spent most of the rest of the day. Not my idea this time — Rachel wanted to see the Cahokia Mounds, Kaiser and Katie wanted to see the arch… it was at the arch that the TV news crew that spotted us at the statue and followed us around the whole day finally caught up with us long enough to interview me. Not to mention, more newspaper reporters. About this time I realized we weren't going much further today. I did make a point, however, of not talking about our itinerary any more than I had to, since it seemed word was getting out ahead of us. We picked a nice restaurant in the city, then got moving again and found a hotel outside Warrenton.
Wednesday morning we got up at 4:30 a.m., and… almost got out of there before the local media showed up. A reporter caught up with us in the parking lot. I did manage to keep it a little shorter, but that sick, panicky feeling of lost time was already grabbing a big fistful of my stomach.
We made a very quick stop at Jefferson City (jump out of the car in front of the state capitol, run to the steps, take Katie's picture, then get back on the road again) but… first I got a flat tire on State Route 73 (thank you, Dad, for teaching me how to change a tire) and then we had to stop and ask directions in Buffalo, Missouri. To make matters worse, Kaiser was trying to chart out a path through Oklahoma that didn't involve toll roads.
This was where I decided to lay down the law. It was Wednesday afternoon, and Rachel needed to be in Flagstaff and at the observatory 48 hours from now. So — no more interviews, no more sightseeing, and above all else, as soon as we found I-44 we would get on it and stick to the interstates. (My ulterior motive for wanting to stick to the interstates was that whenever I turn the steering wheel far enough, my elbows tend to bump into my knees. This gets aggravating after a while.) I even offered to reimburse Kaiser for any tolls he had to pay. (He was starting to remind me of my mother and her obsession with finding one more tax deduction.)
We got to Oklahoma City late in the evening. After I'd found a hotel and we'd had some decent barbecue for dinner, I relented a little and took Katie's photo on the grounds of the state capitol. I figured if we got an early start tomorrow and didn't hit any reporters, we could make it to Gallup, New Mexico with plenty of time to reach Flagstaff on Friday.
Dodging the media would be the hard part, but I had a plan. First, I told the desk clerk to give us a 7 a.m. wake-up call. Then I got my own alarm clock out of the suitcase and set it to wake me up at five.
Thursday morning. The look on the clerk's face when we showed up two hours early was priceless. I could tell he'd called every radio, paper and TV reporter in town to let them know there was a giant on the loose and she'd be in the lobby, ready and eager to grant an hour-long interview to every clown who held a microphone up to her tits because he couldn't reach her face… after seven. Sorry, guys. Big does not mean dumb. Better still, we got to Clinton so early the Oklahoma Route 66 Museum was still closed, which was a disappointment to Kaiser but a relief to the rest of us. I didn't even have to get out of the car. (Which is good. As you can imagine, getting in and out of my car involves a certain amount of contortion.)
As we went through Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle and into New Mexico, the countryside got more and more desolate, going from wheat fields to pasture land to just plain desert. It was a long drive with very few stops, very few chances to stretch my legs. But none of this ruined my mood. We were on track again, and making up for lost time.
Friday morning. What I was thinking of as the "Oklahoma City Dodge" worked just as well in Gallup. Again I was stopped by the cops for no reason, but it wasn't too much of a delay. We had no trouble setting up Rachel in her new apartment, and getting her and her bicycle to Lowell Observatory. It was about there that the media caught up with me again, but I had plenty of time to talk to them now.
So… now the four of us had two days to get to L.A. Naturally, I figured we'd try to make it all in one go on Saturday and then spend Sunday at the beach.
I should have known. You can't take a cross-country road trip without going through Las Vegas. It's practically a law. Even if you're driving from Seattle to Boston with stops in Kalispell, Grand Forks, Duluth and Mackinaw City, you've got to work Las Vegas into your itinerary somehow. There is no escape. And it wasn't even that far out of our way — past Kingman, then Route 93 over the Hoover Dam, which was worth seeing in itself.
So… there we were on Saturday night. Picture it if you can — Saturday night. In Las Vegas. On the Strip — that stretch of Las Vegas Boulevard South, the part of the city everybody thinks of when they think of Las Vegas. A summer night, in the desert — when it's cooled off enough that you can walk around outside and not die, but it hasn't gotten cold yet.
Of course, there were all those famous big flashing signs, but the real show was at street level. It was mostly tourists like us, of course, but you could see all kinds of… I don't know about famous, but definitely rich people. Kaiser spotted a couple of NFL players he recognized. I'm embarrassed to say I didn't, even though I had a much higher vantage point. I play more sports than I watch. And then there was the occasional porn star, or whatever it is a woman does for a living when she's stuffed herself with silicone until her tits are the size of my head.
As for how they acted, well, quite a few of them were obviously drunk or high or both. I saw a guy down the street stepping out of a limo, and he was snorting cocaine. Really. Right out there in the open. He had one of those little jars with the tiny little spoon on the chain. And I'd just come out of a high school where pot was considered dark and evil… by the teachers, anyway.
I'm told there are two kinds of serious gamblers — professional and compulsive — and they're as different as wine connoisseurs and alcoholics. You could pick them both out of the crowd easily enough. The professionals were wearing tailored suits, and had a kind of bored look, like this was all just another day at the office. The compulsives had a more focused, hunting look to them, and their clothes looked pretty ratty.
Even here, in this crowd, with so much else to occupy their attention, people stopped to stare at me. Maybe not as much as people everywhere else did, but there were a lot more of them. I wish I'd had something better on. We'd gotten our motel rooms in the afternoon, and Katie and Meredith took upwards of an hour getting their makeup ready and deciding what to wear. Then they looked at me and said "Just wear what you've got on." (Easy enough advice to give.) So I went out on the town in homemade sandals, beige shorts and a T-shirt that said "I CAN SEE YOUR COMBOVER FROM HERE."
Don't worry, I didn't waste any of my money. Mostly, we were just sightseeing. Except for Kaiser. This boy, who grudged every dime he gave in tolls to pay for the upkeep of the very roads he was driving on, managed to gamble away about three hundred dollars that night. Go figure.
Sunday morning. Realizing we had more or less all summer to see the sights of L.A., we headed straight for Meredith's brother's apartment. As it turned out, he'd only actually been expecting his sister — he hadn't realized he'd be having three other people moving in. But he was a pretty good sport about it, and decided he could put us up for at least a week without his landlord finding out, as long as we didn't break anything.
So, Katie and Kaiser moved into the back room, and I lay down on the couch and chair and… tried to figure out where to go from here.