By Robbin Thompson
The case of coke bottles rattled in the back of our woody station wagon as we pulled out of the driveway. My husband was wearing his James Dean red jacket, white t-shirt and jeans. I was wearing my cashmere twin set and my steel gray pencil skirt. It was the same color as the sky that early November morning when we turned left on the Tremperskill, crossed over the Pepacton and followed the geese south.
The exhausting brilliance of October had passed. Just a few leaves stuck to the windshield wipers when it started to rain. The air, filled with the smell of smoky, just-fired shotgun shells, was strangely comforting. I wondered how many miles, how many days it would be until I could turn off the car heater. Chuck wondered how many miles to the gallon our old station wagon would average from Andes to L.A..
On the first long day on the road we made bets about who would see the first palm tree and who would make the first sighting of Spanish moss. On the second night, we pulled into this roadside joint outside Memphis. It was little more than a tin shack. Inside, it was dark and smoky. There was a pool table on the side and a little stage in front where a live band played soft, strange, soul exploding music. We were the only white people in the place. A man, with a deep voice with a lot of phlegm and gravel in it, sang, “Now when a white man gets the blues, he gets up in the morning, but when a black man gets the blues, he gets the blues so bad he could die.”
The only sound you could hear in the audience was Chuck’s Zippo lighter flipping open. I took a deep drag on my Luckies and we got up to leave. That was the moment a really big woman wearing a hat came out on stage. She looked tired. But when Big Mama Thornton started to sing, we sat down. We were hearing sounds we didn’t know a person could make. The song was about a dog, a hound dog. Her voice was deep and took us away to a place we’ve never been. We got the beat, nodded our heads and soon got up and danced like we’d never danced before and we didn’t ever want to stop.
On Route 66 we waved goodbye to the geese and headed West. We drove through Texas and Oklahoma and sang cowboy songs. “Don’t Fence Me In”, “Good-bye Old Paint”, “Tumbling Tumble Weeds,” and while we sang we looked for cowboys. We saw guys wearing Stetsons, guys wearing spurs, but we never did see a real cowboy on a horse with a lasso rounding up little doggies.
When we saw the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign, Chuck blew the horn and we both whooped it up. It felt like we had made it across the country in a covered wagon.
We were warm, we were young and we were thrilled when we drove down the Strip and saw Las Vegas for the first time. Maybe we’d renew our vows in the wedding chapel, make a killing at the slots, or even run into Howard Hughes. What we did was play 21 at the Sands Casino and Chuck won ten dollars. We spent it on a lobster dinner. Our waiter, a sad man from some middle European country we never heard of said, “This nothing, Las Vegas, it just buildings. Upstate New York, that is beauty”. That made us homesick and we were happy to leave our hotel room, with its faint smell of Lysol and head out to the desert. We never did see Howard Hughes.
We felt the golden gift of California as soon as we crossed the San Bernadino Mountains. We blew the horn and whooped it up again when we saw the Hollywood sign. We drove down Sunset Boulevard, had a black and white ice cream soda at some drugstore where all the movie stars are discovered. We didn’t see anyone famous so we bought a guide map to the homes of the stars. We found the Arnez house but didn’t see Lucy. Or William Holden, or Cary or Tab or Rock. (We thought we saw Bob Hope. Whoever it was, he was swinging at a golf ball and wearing that peaked cap you always see Bob Hope wearing.) But we never did see an honest to goodness movie star, or even an actor. Just a lot of really healthy looking tanned people who were close to our age or younger. Maybe real movie stars spend a lot of time out of the country. In the South of France or at the London Palladium.
Chuck took a picture of me. Actually he took a picture of my shoes, my matte red Capezios in Clark Gable’s big footprints.
But everywhere we went, we ran into people who told us they were writers, writing scripts for the movies. We met them on nature trails, in tram cars, in hot tubs and on tennis courts. One woman, paddling around in a kidney shaped pool, dripping with gold jewelry, told us she’d been working and reworking her screenplay for the last five years. She envied us, said how lucky we were to live in Upstate New York. In the Catskill Mountains.
“It must be heaven,” she said as she floated around in her yellow rubber raft, sipping from a tall glass with a little umbrella in it. “Absolute heaven. The icy winters. The isolation. So perfect for writing. The endless sunless days that lead to depression and that long dark night of the soul. It’s all so spiritual.”
“Yes,” we said, “it’s something like that.”
We both felt terribly homesick and after a quick trip up the coastal highway, raced back across the country. And when we came to the bridge on Route 30, took a left and headed down the Tremperskill, we stopped the car on the side of the road and asked each other what we always ask each other at the end of every trip. Have you ever, anywhere on this earth, seen a spot more beautiful? ~