Twenty-eight years ago this month, I set off on the great American adventure, heading west by land from one coast to the other. Wish I could say I cycled or hiked the span over the course of weeks; a logistical errand compelled my odyssey. I’d been assigned to the 25th Infantry Division on Oahu, so rather than ship my car from the East Coast and wait a month for its arrival in Hawaii, I elected to halve the process by driving it to the Matson docks in Long Beach, California.
Logistics provided an excuse, really; I was 23 and yearned for the ultimate road-trip.
The night before my momentous drive, I broke out my Rand McNally Road Atlas and did map reconnaissance for a route from my native Long Island, surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, to Santa Monica, where I would splash in the mighty Pacific’s waters for the first time.
Since it was February I knew I needed a southern route, but I had one stop along the way before I could turn towards warmer climes. I arranged to visit Professor Nicholas J. Amato and his wife Helen at their home in the little town of Allegany in western New York. The venerable professor had been a mentor to me as a history major at St. Bonaventure University and I was heading west. The first leg of my journey, then, would cover familiar ground, the drive to my alma mater up the Palisades Parkway and across New York via Route 17.
Long before I pulled up to the Amato residence, I found myself bumper-to-bumper on the Cross-Bronx Expressway. I turned on the radio and clicked one of my pre-sets, 102.7 WNEW, a legendary and, sadly, bygone station. Joining the din of actual car horns, Jeff Beck began adding remarkably lifelike honks from a Gibson Les Paul, his signature start to “Freeway Jam” off his 1975 masterpiece LP Blow by Blow. I loved it. It was perfect. And for once I actually enjoyed stop-and-go traffic.
Many hours later I arrived in Allegany. The Amato’s home exuded warmth and comfort on that chill February evening, but also a kind of quiet, unshakable civility. An old but well-maintained house with a wrap-around porch and a central staircase with an oaken banister, it was the home of an historian, a great American scholar–warm wood tones, books in abundance, framed pictures of family and 40 years’ worth of students.
After saying our good-byes, I got on the road and soon found my eyes welling up with tears, moved as much by Nick and Helen’s unaffected goodness as knowing that I would probably never see them again.
Fortified with a cup of coffee, I planned to make it into Ohio before finding a hotel. I reached again for the radio to lighten the mood. After sifting through static occasionally broken by human voices hawking cars or beer or burgers, I heard a pitter-patter tapping which I instantly recognized as the start of Led Zeppelin’s “Ramble On.” Twice in one day, an FM Rock station delivered uncannily apt soundtrack:
Got no time for spreadin’ roots;
The time has come to be gone,
And though our health we drank a thousand times,
It’s time to ramble on.
The next day, with Cleveland in my rear view mirror, I joined Interstate 71 South, covering almost as much ground westward as southward. I passed by Columbus and Cincinnati and over the Ohio River into Kentucky, until 71 ends in Louisville. (Here’s a helpful tidbit about America’s Interstate Highways I learned on that drive: odd number roads run north-south, even number roads run east-west–yes, it really is a logical system.)
At Louisville, the road merged into 65 South. Next stop: Nashville. Getting out to fill the gas tank, I noticed a palpable change in air temperature. Like a submarine diving deep to get out of depth-charge range, my plunge southwards ensured I’d avoid perilous wintertime driving.
Nashville. I heard a voice in memory that made me laugh: I remembered my first time in Nashville. After freshman year I attended Air Assault School at Fort Campbell. Like most ROTC cadets in the class, I flew into Nashville Airport. A driver with a van waited for us outside arrivals. We were easy to spot: 19 and 20 year-olds with Army duffel bags, high-and-tight haircuts, jeans, and tight-fitting polo shirts with which to accent biceps pumped from thousands of push-ups. We quickly got to talking and all seemed to be from the Northeast, a fact not lost on our driver. When the last young buck appeared, we boarded the van. That driver knew he had a bunch of captive young Yankees.
After he swung the door closed, he told us to buckle our seatbelts. Then, before putting the key in the ignition, he turned around to us, smugly smiled, and said in a comically deep Southern drawl: “Welcome to Nashville, home of the Grand Ole Opry–we got two kinds of music down here, Country and Western!”
Collective gulp. Cue the dueling banjoes, right? I didn’t see the humor in it at the time, but that driver still makes me laugh!
Four years later I hadn’t yet become a fan of Country music, so I had no interest in Nashville’s radio scene. It was time to switch to the tape deck.
One of my good friends, Jim, a musical omnivore like myself, made a mix tape for me, something to sustain me over the thousands of miles. One side featured new songs, the other a block of classic cuts by B.B. King, including “Hummingbird” and “The Thrill is Gone,” as well as live versions of “Caldonia” and “How Blue Can You Get.” The new songs began with a trio of now-classics from Tom Petty’s new solo record, Full Moon Fever, released in April 1989. The apropos “Runnin’ Down a Dream,” a song about driving, started the tape, followed by “Free Fallin’” and a funny Country-tinged tale of narrowly-avoided woe called “Yer So Bad.”
Mix tapes are anachronisms, but burned CDs or digital playlists create the same juxtapositions. And when you listen to a mix enough times, the segues become mentally canonical–you expect to hear a certain song after a certain song. As unusual as the transition may be, whenever I hear the concluding two Rickenbacker strums of “Yer So Bad,” I always expect to hear Soul II Soul’s “Keep on Moving” with its iconic opening beat of bom, bom-pat, bom, bom-bom-pat, bom, bom-pat, bom, bom-bom-pat….
Jim chose well, dealing me a double-shot with the equally sweet “Back to Life (However Do You Want Me),” Soul II Soul’s other memorable hit from 1989. Now locked into Route 40 West until I reached California, I could punch in coordinates for auto-pilot and groove.
Let me say a few words about the car, a beloved mechanical sidekick and my reason, ostensibly, for traversing the continent. Back in 1988 I bought a used white ‘83 BMW 320i, a manual (of course), low-mileage creampuff. My pal’s older brother drove an ’81 for years and I was sold on the concept. That little 4-cylinder and I would log nearly a quarter-million miles together over 13 years. The speedometer topped out at 85 mph, but you could run it pegged all day long. What a joy that car was….
I crossed the Mississippi at Memphis, another milestone. It was night and as I drove over the bridge I rolled my windows down; the fabled river smelled like an old attic. I rolled on through Little Rock and stopped somewhere in Arkansas for the night.
Next day’s light revealed how the landscape had dramatically changed. Those flat, wide open stretches across Oklahoma and Texas didn’t offer much to the eye. Amarillo took forever to be gone. Familiar as I was with Little Feat, I didn’t appreciate Tucumcari when I saw the sign.
But the drive revived in New Mexico with an incredible, nay, an utterly uncanny coincidence. The day had grown overcast. The highway, two lanes in each direction separated by a sizable median, was taking me through the high country. A dusting of snow like flour on a fresh biscuit coated the steep hills flanking the road. My side of the highway looked down on the opposite side from a height of twenty feet or so, providing a commanding view of oncoming vehicles.
While my eyes contended with New Mexico, my ears were in Illinois–Chicago’s Cook County Jail, 1970, to be exact. A patrician-sounding lady addressed the inmates. Before introducing B.B. King, she nearly incited a riot by acknowledging “our own beloved Sheriff Woods” and “another dear friend of all of yours out there,” criminal court chief justice Joseph Power. Through a hail of menacing boos, B.B.’s unmistakable guitar licks burst forth. A searing Blues intro mollified the crowd. B.B. had just finished his first verse–
I been downhearted baby
Ever since the day we met.
I said I been downhearted baby
Ever since the day we met.
Said our love is nothin’ but the blues –
Baby how blue can you get?
when I idly observed a very fancy touring bus on the eastbound side. It was black with gold stripes, but as it got closer I spotted the big painted guitar and now could clearly read on its side to whom the bus belonged: B.B. King!
I banged on my horn, flashed my hi-beams, and yelled “I’m listening to you right now!” I think the wonderful adrenaline surge lasted me all the way to Flagstaff.
Under cover of darkness I crossed the California state line, silhouettes of cacti plainly visible. That night I stopped in Barstow, a trucker’s town if ever there was: diners, economy lodgings, industrial-grade gas stations, and more diners. In the hotel parking lot, my little 320i all but vanished amidst rows of Mack, Kenworth, and Peterbilt rigs decked out in chrome and custom paint jobs.
Barstow had been a major pit stop long before the Interstates were built; it’s mentioned (and sometimes mispronounced) in the Rhythm and Blues classic “Route 66” covered by such greats as Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby and the Andrew Sisters, Chuck Berry, and even, improbably, The Rolling Stones. I didn’t get my kicks in Barstow, but I did get a good night’s sleep and an ample breakfast.
The bright morning sun mirrored my mood as I pulled out of Barstow heading south on Interstate 15. “Today I’m going to wade into the Pacific Ocean,” I thought with glee. It’s still a long hop, but eventually I took the exit for Interstate 10 West–the final leg–which would lead me through Los Angeles and on to my coastal terminus, Santa Monica.
The California freeways astonished me with their size; somewhere in L.A.’s massive vehicular orbits, they would astonish me with their congestion. After almost five full days of driving near top speed, I hit a wall of brake lights. As my trusty 320i slowed to a halt, I found myself in a familiar setting. You’re not going to believe me but it’s totally true: I turned on the radio, scanned for a Rock station, and heard the fierce attack of Jeff Beck’s “Freeway Jam.”
Some hours later, I parked the car across the street from the beach at Santa Monica. I wore shorts and a tank top (because it was just another sunny February day in southern California.) I kicked off my sneakers, crossed the warm fine-grit sand, and joyfully waded into the Pacific.