This past Saturday, after shooting the final segments for the first installment of the Jim Hinckley’s America series, Norm Fisk and I were driving into Kingman from the east on the old double six when a startling revelation came to mind. I have been traveling this stretch of road for at least five decades and for as many of those years as I can remember, there has been enjoyment in the vast landscapes that sweep toward a distant horizon broken only by the bulwarks of the mountains that stretch toward the sky.
For most folks the long stretch of road that sweeps into the Hualapai Valley from Hackberry in a gentle curve before running across the vast desert plain toward Kingman on a course that is as straight as an arrow rates quite high on most folks list as the least exciting. For me, however, the memories transform this portion of the old highway into a magic carpet of asphalt under a desert sky.
When we stopped at the old Stuckey’s to shoot the final segment the memories were unleashed and it was again the winter of 1976. In contemplating the first time I drive this old road solo, I also gave thought to a book started but never finished. Perhaps the time has come to dust off that long forgotten project, and give the memory tree a vigorous shake.
After the near disaster near Tulsa, that odd surreal relationship between pa and I continued as we motored west. The conversations now seemed to have a point; a paternal feel that left the distinct impression he was preparing me for the solo voyage into adult hood that awaited me in Arizona.
With his meticulously planned time table in a shambles, the trip settled into a pattern similar to our first trip west earlier that summer just after my eighteenth birthday. We took turns behind the wheel of the old Viking but the day didn’t start until around 8:00 and seldom did we drive much after dark.
Every morning started with a hot breakfast at some little café and a quick check to ensure the ’53 Chevy was still tethered to the rear bumper, each night ended at a hole in the wall motel and in between there was always lunch at a truck stop or diner. The rule of starting each day with a clean shirt and a shave was back in play but all of the others that my life had been built upon had vanished with the incident near Tulsa.
It was almost as though I had walked in during the middle of a French movie with Japanese subtitles knowing that there would be a test about the film in the morning. There was no illusion of a father and son relationship, an even a casual observer couldn’t ever have guessed a familial relationship from the tenor of our conversations.
As the odometer counted off the miles we rolled across the vast Oklahomaprairie, onto the Texas panhandle, and down from the cap rock country and into New Mexico. Even though I felt terribly unbalanced by the odd transition, and a bit apprehensive about what awaited me in Arizona, there was an almost unnatural peaceful feel to the westward odyssey.
Then, just west of Gallup, out near the rocky bluffs that shadow the old highway near the Arizonaline, the next disaster unfolded with stunning swiftness. It commenced with a grinding crash followed by pa’s death like white knuckle grip on the big steering wheel as the old Viking whipped violently from side to side. It ended in a swirling cloud of dust that rose into the sky like smoke from a prairie fire, the smell of brakes, the muffled sound of pa’s obscenity laced tirade echoing in my head as though I was hearing it with my ears full of water, and a sense of something warm running into my eye and down my face.
In less time than it takes to smash a fender and break a headlight, the illusion of a new and reformed pa, a pa who actually gave a damn, vanished and the old pa reemerged with a vengeance. His focus was on the truck, on the load, and getting it to Arizona, not on his son who had bounced his head off the dash, not the son who had opened a ten stitch gash in his forehead at the eyebrow.
In pa’s world this was combat and in combat injuries must not interfere with the mission. Barked orders came to me through the ringing in my ears. I fell rather than climbed from the cab as the ingrained response to orders over rode the pain, the confusion, and dizziness.
I was lying on my back in the dust when pa commenced another round of orders fired in a staccato fashion that reminded me of a machine gun. As waves of dizziness washed over me, I got to my feet and with the truck as a support, worked my way to the rear.
The big Viking was fully off the road and seemed to be defying gravity as it leaned heavily to the side. The pick up with a horribly smashed fender was at right angles with the front wheels suspended above the dirt by the tow bar and most of the front bumper wedged under the axle, and the rear wheels on the pavement.
Pa had flares on the road and a jack under the front axle before I could respond to the first of his orders. Things are a bit fuzzy but as I recall, pa got the pick up off the highway, extricated the tow bar, and with little or no help from me, removed the mangled remnants of the bumper.
As it turned out his race against time was to clear the scene before he had to explain anything to a state trooper. And so, with the pick up relatively road worthy, he looked at me and said, “Damn, you’re a mess. Take the pick up and follow me back to Gallup, then let’s see about a doctor.”
With that said he turned on his heels, climbed into the Viking, and slowly worked that truck into the desert and onto level ground before making a sweeping turn onto the highway facing east toward Gallup. Shaking badly, with wave after wave of dizziness sweeping over me and blood running into my eye I followed but there was something very wrong with the old Chevy as it pulled violently to the left, and shook horribly when the speed neared forty-five miles per hour.
As I struggled with the overloaded truck, and watched pa vanish from view, it became increasingly apparent that the old Chevy wasn’t the only thing badly damaged. My vision in one eye was blurred so that with my good eye closed it was impossible to read the gauges on the dash.
Pa had always told me that to focus on the task at hand was the best way to ride out an injury and to keep fear in check. And so I forced myself to pay attention to the road, the mile posts, to traffic, to everything but the panic welling up within me, and the swelling pain in my head.
Gallup was a welcome sight but even better, pa was waiting on the shoulder. That relief was short lived for as soon as he saw me, he lurched back onto the highway in a cloud of dust and proceeded into town.
He pulled into the parking lot of an old motel and I followed. As he headed for the office I climbed from the cab and took a seat on the running board.
When he came out with the key, with great effort I pulled myself up using the mirror for support. I tried not to whimper or sound childlike but fear was sweeping over me as I told of my blurred vision with a quivering voice.
Pa looked me in the face, and then for the second time on this adventure from Hell, laughed heartily. “Son,” he said, “a lens is missing from your glasses.”
While he walked the mutt and carried our sea bags into the room, I recovered the missing and now cracked lens from the floor of the Viking, and washed my face. Then we set off in search of the hospital in the big lumbering Viking.
As the doctor issued a diagnosis of a slight concussion and shaved my eyebrow and closed the cut with a row of neat stitches, pa restored the missing lens to its rightful place. Nausea, a pounding head, and seeing the world through a refracted lens were not an excuse to forgo dinner; after all, pa was hungry.
The next day pa beat out the fender enough to install a headlight held in place with wire, and paid for three more nights at the motel. Then he found a garage that could rectify the alignment and bent rim on the pick up, and paid them in advance. Meanwhile, I was assigned “light duty”, namely caring for the mutt.
By this stage of life it should have been hard for pa to surprise me but surprise me he did. It was on the second evening of our stay in Gallup.
Over dinner he handed me a hundred dollar bill “for incidentals” and informed me that as the repairs would take another day or two, he was heading out in the morning. I was to follow as soon as the pick up truck was finished.
Sure enough, the next morning before sunrise, without a word, he slipped into the darkness and fired up the big green Viking leaving me, my sea bag, and the mutt in Gallup. For the first time in my life, I was alone and on my own.
For me, the rest of the trip from Gallupto Kingman was rather anticlimactic. It was just a matter of piloting the heavily over loaded Chevy west on Route 66, and on occasion, I40. Only the steep Ash Fork grade west of Williams gave me cause for concern.
Still, as I was possessed of a very active imagination, and was a deep thinker, there was a certain sense of destiny unfolding in the piloting of the truck I learned to drive in back across the Arizonaline. There was an almost unrestrained sense of eager apprehension in knowing that my life was about to begin and it was about to begin in the place where I belonged.
Christmas had never been a big deal in our house. For the first half dozen years or so of my life, pa was usually at sea when the holiday rolled around. Ma would make a fuss about Christmas mass, and play the sympathy card that always resulted in a string of do gooders parading through the house with gifts and food.
Later memories of Christmas weren’t much better. If pa was home the day most always ended with a pitched argument between him and ma, and practical usually won out in the gift department making it a rather lackluster endeavor to open another package of socks.
Still, the holiday always seemed to have a special feel about it, especially anywhere that wasn’t home. And so I was a bit surprised to realize that the occasional Christmas decoration in a café or truck stop had failed to register the fact that Christmas was fast approaching.
It took a merry Christmas greeting from the desk clerk at the Lariat Motel as I was checking out to bring me up short. This Christmas had the promise of being the best one yet, and the New Year loomed on the horizon full of unbridled promise.
As it was late afternoon before I picked up the truck from the shop, and as I would be driving with only one headlight properly focused, and would be seeing the road through a cracked lens in my glasses, my goal was to make Holbrook or Winslow shortly after dark. With each passing mile a sense of elation and euphoria grew and not even a winter storm blowing in early could dampen the spirit, after all for the first time on this trip I was driving a truck with a working heater, and I was mere days away from being set free to chart my own course through life.
A mushrooming urge to celebrate the holiday, and life in general, with a steak dinner led to me to choose Holbrook rather than Winslow as the place to weather the storm. So, as the storm raged, the mutt gnawed on a steak bone and I slept the night away at the Sun n’ Sand as warm and snug as a bug in a rug.
The next morning, Christmas Eve day, I awoke to a winter wonderland. The snow fall was measured in inches but the wind had pushed it into piles against walls and cars, and the temperature, according to the desk clerk, was seven below zero.
I scrapped the frost and ice from the windshield, popped the hood and removed the air cleaner, shot some starting fluid into the carburetor, climbed into the cab, turned on the key, and pressed my foot on the starter. The old six volt electrical system was better suited to warmer temperatures and the engine barely turned over, firing just as it seemed the battery was on its last leg.
I feathered the choke until it was running smooth, replaced the air cleaner, and then I took the mutt for a walk in the face numbing morning air before again scraping ice from the windshield. My first act of defiance since the infamous haircut episode, even though I didn’t realize it at the time was to forego the morning shave. I justified it as a prudent matter based on the extreme cold.
Still, as I washed my face that morning it was impossible not to stare into the mirror. Who was the man with the almost gaunt face, broken glasses, stitched eyebrow and green shaded goose egg bruise staring back at me?
The moment of reflection was brought up short with the urge to laugh. With the battered face and deeply cut knuckles, surely the desk clerk had been given the impression that I, the scrawny kid who preferred the library over the sports stadium, was a brawler.
With the exception of a stop in Williams for a mid morning breakfast, the white knuckle ride down the Ash Fork grade, and a stop for fuel in Seligman, it was a straight run into Kingman. As I swept onto the wide Hualapai Valley west of town, a feeling of dread slowly crept over me for the first time since leaving Gallup and the towering Hualapai Mountains draped with heavy winter storm clouds seemed to illustrate the mood.
The sense of dread became an almost palpable sense of doom as I drove through town, down Route 66, past the Whiting Brothers station, onto the original alignment of the double six, and to pa’s place at the bottom of the valley, the place where I first learned to love the desert. I pulled into the driveway and saw my sense of doom made manifest.