ON HE RODE: Chapter Five

A small-town SAFEWAY invites me in for Dutch-lunch picnic supplies —

Blitz Weinhard beer, Tillamook cheddar, saltine crackers. I fall in

love with the checkout gamin’s tan, competent-looking hands. Should I

be jokey? How does she like my new beard? When she says what beard,

I’ll say the one I just started. “Eighteen, nineteen, and twenty,” she

counts. “Next?”

Outside, I check my reflection in the store windows and try to imagine

weeks down the road, a mature Comrade Nikolai Lenin beard. Bolshevik


Back when Whitey came home with his first tidy flat-top after a

lifetime of fighting the pesky cowlick that adapted immediately into

the perfect haircut, family and friends were stunned. Should’ve done

it years earlier. Likewise, the Lenin bob — with or without beard —

could be perfect for me. Bob’s your uncle? We’ll see if he’s mine.

Before me lie the most gorgeous, totally drivable miles of packed sand

shoreline you can imagine, and, imagine, I’m the only one on it.

Toward the farther reaches of packed sand I find the ideal

configuration of old-growth cedar logs fronting crested dunes, the

perfect beachfront sound studio. Driftwood to nurture a cheerful

campfire. Snug. Homey. Wish I had weed, but oh well. Blitz Weinhard

for now.

My vintage Stella guitar requires a few tuning tweaks and is good to

go. Let’s try “House of the Rising Sun” in imitation of Bob’s-my-hero

Dylan. Pretty shabby at first, but a few reps and several cold Blitzes

later I’m crooning and strumming, the ocean my steady metronome of

universal order.

I also compose introductions to and critical assessments of the same

performance: A deeply romantic personification of naive angst, of

feeling good about feeling bad, on offer to audiences of near-adults

of all ages. It seems well within reach of my modest talents, if . . .

I practice.

Sun lights up a clear blue sky, the wind blows softly cool. Blitz

keeps me a man of the world, adapting to my environment in the muzzily

adroit manner of drunkards everywhere. A less open-minded person might

. . . Who do I kid? Whom? Tons of people are more open-minded and

experienced than me — writers, painters, musicians, railway bums,

artists of all stripes. I’ll tag along and learn by doing. Watch out

for me once I get going, whenever that might be.

Whoa! That’d better be now, the tide rising, my spirits failing. If I

don’t get out right now, I won’t. Ever.

It’s a cavelike pocket of sand, stumps, and rotting old-growth logs.

The tallest dune on the beach is cut off by a wide, quickly deepening

channel of angry incoming tide, no bridges, no shallows. One spot

looks broad enough to be shallow enough, barely. Forget the campfire

and the Blitz half-box, just snap Stella in her case and toss her in.

The engine fires off, and I head for the spot that might be shallow

enough, for now.

In first gear we nose warily into the channel, my stomach sinking,

tires slogging through deepening slurry, water seeping under the

doors, floor mats darkening with ocean brine, exhaust system submerged

in eery aquatic silence. This fragile forward movement cannot last,

but just as power ebbs and progress almost stops, the hood ornament

begins angling upward. We’re gonna make it! We really are! Up . . .

and . . . safe. For now.

Got to keep her moving until she’s banging on all six cylinders. Hope

her oil is not salty and her engine dries without burning. Without

stopping, I gauge Hwy. 101 traffic and limp steaming into the

southbound lane. Do the brakes work? Hm? Better just keep chunking


Pissed-off vacationers honk their horns, shake their fists, and yell

insults as they pass . . . if they can find a place to pass. I’d

gladly pull over and let them by, but it’s too risky.

Finally, all six cylinders firing more or less regularly, I speed up

to almost-normal until I find a place on a hill wide enough to stop,

with a kick-start option if her starter won’t start her.

Nice spot. Good viewpoint and I’m still drunk enough to enjoy it. Gets

even nicer once the line of campers clears and people stop yelling at

me. Kid-filled station wagons tow Winnebago or Airstream trailers with

wired-on bumper signs: SEA LION CAVES. TREES OF MYSTERY.

Really, folks, I’m improving your vacation, not spoiling it. You’ll

talk about me with pleasure this winter:

“You wouldn’t believe this ol’ baldheaded geezer in his rundown ol’ Dodge.”

“Wan’t no Dodge.”

“Wha’ was it then?”

“A ol’ Pontiac — ’49 or ’50, ‘round there.”

“Wan’t no Pontiac. Didn’t have no stripes down the trunk.”

“Jus’ some ol’ car, some ol’ baldheaded geezer in a ol’ beater.”

You know, the stories people tell about their time way out there on

that wild Oregon Coast.

I turn her off, pop the hood. A bit damp inside, little iridescent

puddles, rounded beads. Overall, though, pretty normal-looking. Let

her cool off, check her out. I’ll sit here on this warm rock and gaze

towards Hawaii, Japan, Korea, China. Out there. Wish I had a cold


The radiator’s full of normal-looking coolant and the distributor

seems dry. Then I pull the oil dipstick. You know milk vomit — kind of

dotted violet-grey? Frog puke?

Not good, but I have that case of SHELL X-100. How to deal with the

used oil — no drain pan, no containers. Why not just drain it and park

over it until it’s absorbed? Me, a dedicated Friend of the Earth,

sworn to keep our roadsides pristine? Ee-yah.

Drop the hood, get in, push the starter. Sluggish growl, no fire. We

roll down the hill, find second, pop the clutch. She pops, all right.

Snorts, farts, eventually glides to a steady third-gear. and we cruise

the Coast, me’n my car-car. Hey-hey, Woody Guthrie! Beep-beep um


Talk story

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