off to Utah - Friday July 13 2001
setting: Los Angeles, California
Today is the day I leave Los Angeles. If all goes well I'll be in Utah at the next sunrise. This morning I finally broke down my computer network, packing up my 19 inch monitor and pulling all the ethernet cables out of my Linksys Router. I placed the desk, which has served me well for nearly three years since I bought it in Hillcrest, San Diego for thirty dollars, out in the alley. There's very little left to do and almost nothing left in the house. The other day Gretchen's friend Jacob bought the red velvet couch for $50 and the alley microwave for $25. The only pieces of furniture remaining when I went to work this morning were the black swivel chair and the alley mattress.
The big errand I have to run before departure is to the UPS pickup place on the corner of Amherst and Wilshire. From there I'll be shipping my bicycle and monitor.
I slipped out of work at noon, feeling kind of guilty because I hadn't yet put two things live I had been planning on putting live. Back at the place the realtor Jesika was showing the condo to a couple of women who seemed impressed by it. I was in the basement at the time trying to take my bike apart and pack it into a rotten bike box that my old housemate John had once used and that Gretchen had recently repaired.
Our nerves were frayed from the stress of the move and Gretchen and I managed to get into a fight over the way she'd packed the Punch Buggy Rust. So I found myself driving my bike and 19 inch monitor up to a supposed UPS station on Wilshire all by myself. The monitor was so huge that I couldn't completely shut the passenger door when I placed it in the passenger seat. An additional problem was that I couldn't shift into any gear except first and reverse. I found it fairly easy to carry the boxed bike simply by propping it against the back of the car with its bottom clutched snugly by the rear bumper.
But it turned out that UPS.com had been misleading and there was no actual UPS station at Amherst and Wilshire. Try to imagine my existential angst as I carried a heavy 19 inch monitor and an unwieldy boxed bicycle in stages first into and then, defeated, out of the slate grey tower on the southwest corner of Bundy and Wilshire. Then imagine me packing it all back into my Bug and driving back to my condo using only first and reverse. Gretchen was off having one of her pouts and I couldn't find her anywhere. There I was with these two huge boxes wondering what the hell I could possibly do to get out of this pickle.
When I finally found Gretchen, I told her that I really needed her help and that now was no time for fighting. Could she please help me find the place of the nearest actual UPS office?
It turned out the nearest actual UPS office was too far away for my makeshift transportation capabilities. While I pondered the dubious idea of possibly lashing the monitor box to the rounded roof of my Bug, Gretchen managed to convince a bored unemployed young man wandering around West LA with his fancy four wheel drive RAV-4 to take our stuff to the UPS office. She offered to pay him $20 but of course he refused.
After we were done with the bulky UPS parcels we went back and did the final cleaning and packing necessary at the condo. At the last minute it was obvious we couldn't fit either my nice swivel chair or a wicker shelf I'd found in the alley that Gretchen liked, so these were donated/returned to the gods of the alley (and their representatives on Earth, a shopping cart-pushing family of Mexicans). Happily, all my paintings fit in the back seat, even the really big one of the Gummy Dude (though just barely).
The Punch Buggy Rust creaked noticeably (and handled somewhat differently) as we rolled out of the garage for the last time at 3pm. "This car is really loaded," said Gretchen.
For the next three hours or so we were mostly stuck in traffic, averaging maybe ten miles per hour heading eastward down the 10 freeway. Traffic was slow even after we'd made it out into the desolate scrubland, past the last tracts of regional Los Angeles development. Though the landscape was barren the evidence of Mankind's appalling affect on the environment wasn't difficult to see. A thick yellow smog hung like an old mangy blanket across the plain, completely obscuring the landscape beyond a distance of a mile. This unpopulated land lives what life it can beneath hand-me-down air.
The Punch Buggy Rust's first big test was climbing over the San Bernadino Mountains standing between Los Angeles and Barstow on I-15 at 4190 feet. I took it fairly slowly, not going over 50 miles per hour, and all went well.
Night had come to the Mojave Desert by the time we crossed the lowest of its basins near Baker (on the map this appears to be on the southmost end of Death Valley). Still, the heat of the day hung oppressively over the freeway and the car started stinking of overheated oil as we climbed one of the long grades out of a particularly deep basin. Gretchen was driving by this point and she found that the solution was as simple as shifting down into third gear, which made the engine fan run rapidly enough to keep the engine cool.
A good 15 miles before we crossed into Nevada we could see, off in the distance, the tawdry lights of its border casinos, a first or last chance to gamble for the weary desert traveler. Similarly, long before we reached Las Vegas we could see a single bright spire of light rising from the city. This light came, it turned out, from the pinnacle of the Luxor casino pyramid. I-15 goes parallel to "the Strip" in Las Vegas for several miles and you can get a sense of the over-electrified attractions, each trying to outdo the others with fragrant largesse and neon-flavored faux opulence.
Beyond Las Vegas, the interstate traffic quickly drops to a trickle. Occasionally we'd see a state police patrolman and get nervous because none of the Punch Buggy's paperwork was legitimate.
In a small town somewhere in the desert we pulled in for gas and of course I checked the oil and the engine. It was running hot, but nothing like the stinking clicking heat of my old Punch Buggy Green.
While I was examining my engine, a young hippie couple came over and asked us how our "Volksie" was doing. They were driving some sort of aircooled Volkswagen Bus and were a little unnerved how hot it was, but when they touched my engine they didn't think it was any hotter than mine. They were, in other words, paranoid, but paranoid is a good way to be when dealing with air cooled engines in the summer desert. Gretch and I ended up doing dinner with this other couple in a booth in the nearby slot-machine-equipped greasy spoon restaurant. Gretchen's grilled cheese sandwich was "completely gross" as was my hamburger. Meanwhile the other couple regaled us with stories from Berea College in Kentucky, the place where the two met. The hippie woman hadn't actually attended Berea and had gone to nearby state school, but the way she evangelized Berea you'd think she was on its board of regents or some shit.
Just before we crossed into the far northwest corner of Arizona we passed up our last chance to gamble and started climbing up the narrow-walled Virgin River Gorge in the darkness. While it was somewhat surprising to see an undammed canyon remaining in the West, all I could think was, "What a shame this beautiful gorge has a big four lane interstate going down the middle."
Every time we crossed a state line I felt that much better about our prospects for crossing North America in a beat up 36 year old car. Suddenly we were in Utah, and the car was putting along just fine. My brambles of unease were nourished more now by the conservative righteousness implicit in the heart of global Mormonism than they were by the performance of my car.
By the time we hit Cedar City we were ready to turn in for the night, so we tooled around the fringe of town looking for a motel vacancy, preferably in a nasty little non-franchise place. But all the rooms in all the hotels, motels and inns were taken. There was nowhere in town for us to stay and we had to keep on driving. When we finally did find a motel vacancy, it was far off the beaten track in the town of Parowan (elevation: 6000 feet).
Gretchen was excited by the clearly non-corporate nature of the establishment. The main office was a bleary eyed woman's pet toy and spirit chaser-littered living room. She made the arrangements with Gretchen while wearing nothing but a tie dye tee shirt.
Before we fell asleep, I bet Gretchen that Utah shares a border with Idaho. When I inevitably won that bet, Gretchen was forced to pay for my next tank of gasoline.