Here it is, my first question from StoryWorth and already off to a rocky start. I read the question and immediately started pondering what was meant by “big trip?” How far back did I go? Was it in reference to an important trip or one of a huge duration? Naturally, it was Rasa who solved the dilemma.
When I presented the question to her, stating that it could be any number of trips, from the Florida trip with the family just after 9/11 or my Alaska trip, or even backpacking through Europe by myself in 2008, she just stared at me.
“Isn’t it your trip with AAron?”
And she was right.
Sure, I’d taken trips before, but they were with parents or weird, spur of the moment things. There was also the time I took off in the middle of the night to drive to California to get my friend Annie and bring her back to Vegas for a visit, but none of these really seemed to fit the bill of “First Big Trip.” Nope, the only thing which fit the bill of all three questions, first and big and trip, was the August 1987 transcontinental voyage undertaken by myself and my best friend since we were 12, AAron.
It started this way…
For some reason, now lost to the mists of history, we had decided we needed to go to Florida and visit Disneyworld. As I said, we had been friends since just before AAron turned 12, having met on the school bus and sharing a love for comics and science fiction. The Friday before his 12th birthday, we finally exchanged phone numbers and his mom called my mom to invite me that Sunday to a roller-skating birthday party. That was it, from that point on we were pretty much inseparable. I had found a brother, in spirit if not in blood.
For the next several years we did all the sorts of things you read about in most coming-of-age novels, and by the summer of 1987, we had both graduated high school and were just trying to figure our shit out. AAron was living up in San Jose and I was still in Vegas. And over phone calls and letters (there was no real internet to speak of back then) we had planned a two-week or so trip to visit the Florida amusement parks. We saved up our money, he had a 1970 Volkswagen van painted psychedelic colors which would be our transportation and portable campsite during the trip, and we had both just turned 20. Honestly, what could possibly go wrong?
So, in August of that year, he showed up at my place in Vegas and, after adjusting some of the random paint on the van which happened to look like a star of David and was freaking out my parents since we’d be driving through the South, we were ready to take off.
Our music of choice as we started down Boulder highway: “Born to be Wild” by Steppenwolf.
Since this was also the days before things like GPS and Google maps, we had an actual, honest to god folding paper map (I don’t think it was a AAA Triptych but I could be wrong) and I started out as navigator while AAron drove. Those were our general roles in the van, although we could change anytime. Our route was pretty straight forward. We’d hit Albuquerque, New Mexico that first day, then, like Bugs Bunny, make a right turn to El Paso, Texas, and from there, I-10 across the center of Texas, across the Southern US and into the Florida panhandle, eventually ending up in Orlando, where we had hotel reservations for a few days of park hopping.
In Albuquerque we stopped briefly at the house where I’d spent a few years formative years of my childhood (from kindergarten through half of second grade). This is where I learned to ride a bike and how to read and saw my first horror film double feature (Them! And the Blob as part of a summer camp program – at least I think that was in Albuquerque. I’m sure my folks will fact check this, though). We paid a 5-minute homage and then were on our way. By this point, it was late and we decided to pull off into a rest stop to get some…you know…rest.
Somewhere in the middle of the night, AAron woke up with bad dreams and decided since he wasn’t going to get back to bed anyway, he might as well get us back on the road. That was fine with me. I went back to sleep. I stayed blissfully asleep until sometime just after the sun had come up, when I woke up and we were coasting to a stop.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Out of gas,” came the reply from the driver’s seat.
“What time is it?”
“Where are we?”
“Almost to El Paso.”
The van rolled to a stop on the side of the highway and AAron decided that he should go off in search of gas and I should stay and safeguard the vehicle. Not a problem. I was reading Stephen King’s It at the time (it had come out recently) so I had enough to keep me occupied. I certainly wasn’t expecting him to be gone for several hours, of which the longer he was gone, the more nervous I became. I’d never been to these parts of the country as an adult and a Mexican border town, from all the low-budget B movies I’d watched, was not the place you wanted to breakdown and be on your own.
Eventually, though, he did return, now with full gas can (which he’d had to buy in order to get the gas back to us). We emptied the can into the tank, got the beast running and made it to the next station to fill up. We then had the conversation that we had money, so there was no need to concern ourselves. If the gauge got around the ¼ tank level, we’d find the next available station and fill the tank. No harm no foul, and away we went across the wilds of Texas.
Once thing you don’t realize until you’re driving it is that Texas is a big freaking state. It went on forever! We went through three states the day before, but here we were in Texas (granted, we were driving right across the belly) on a never ending quest to reach Louisiana. It was hot and I was tired so while AAron drove, I curled up in the back and took a little nap.
Until I woke up. And we were coasting to a stop.
“AAron…? Please don’t tell me-“
“We’re out of gas.”
This time, however, we were in the middle of nowhere. On the plus side, we already had a gas can, but on the minus side, I did mention middle of nowhere, right? I wasn’t letting AAron go alone this time, so we locked the van and left it by the side of the road, sticking our thumbs out and hoping for the best. It didn’t take long before a pick-up truck with a passel of migrant workers slowed and we were able to jump into the back for a quick ride 5 miles up the highway to station.
The can was filled and we psyched ourselves up for the trek back, sticking out our thumbs just in case, but not figuring we’d get lucky twice. Sure enough, though, we did. Wasn’t long at all before a white truck cruised to a stop just in front of us and the guy inside, seeing our gas can, quickly figured the situation.
“I can take one of ya,” he says.
And before I can say “that’s okay, thanks anyway,” AAron has jumped into the passenger seat.
“I’ll be right back,” he yells and the truck drives off into the hot august sun of a Texas afternoon. I know I’m never going to see my friend again, and the buzzards will find my carcass by the side of the road, only identifiable by my long hair (and maybe a necklace or something I wore at the time, I don’t remember). But I held out hope and continued walking, just in case.
About 10 minutes later, there it was. Our van was heading down the road straight for me. I realized the sun was baking my brain since the only thing I could think of was that the guy had killed AAron, gotten in the van and was coming back to finish me off. I did the only thing I could think of – I hid. And I waited for the van to get close enough I could see who was driving. It was only after I confirmed it was my friend and not a reject from a Tobe Hooper central casting request that I started waving him down.
Another 5 minutes and we were at the same gas station, filling the tank. We decided to fill the can at the same time, just in case someone (and I don’t want to name names or point fingers because, after all, it was 33 years ago, but I think you know who I’m talking about) decided not to fill the tank again.
Here’s the thing about carrying a gallon of gas inside your car: It stinks! The smell of gasoline was overpowering and we knew this was not going to work. We also knew we didn’t want to abandon the gas or the can, for obvious reasons. So AAron, ever the practical one, decided we should tie the can to the front of the van, protected inside the spare tire already mounted there. Now, the axiom that says if you have something, you’ll never need it proved entirely true in this case. For the rest of the trip, that gallon of gas stayed connected to the front of our van, leading the charge for several thousand miles, to and from magical worlds and scary landscapes.
It’s about this point in the trip my mind gets a bit fuzzy on the order of things. I know we stopped in Crane, Texas for AAron to run a personal errand, and I’m pretty sure it was on the way back, but not positive. What I can tell you is that we made jokes about driving through east Texas including discussing the welcome to town signs that boasted a population of “8…and a dog.” And we imagined conversations taking place on porches as our long-haired asses drove by in our multi-colored van:
“Daddy? Is them hippies?”
“I believe they are, son.”
“Thought you said they was all dead?”
[pumping a shotgun] “They will be, son. They will be.”
We may have just seen Easy Rider.
Regardless, I do remember when we were leaving Texas (Finally!!), heading out of the bustle that is Houston and a car full of frat dudes pulls up next to us, motioning for us to pull over, take the next exit off the highway. I was driving at the point and while I nodded my assent, no way was I pulling over. Again, we were hippies. They pulled off, we waved good-bye and thought that was the end of that.
About twenty minutes later they pulled up alongside us again.
“Two things,” the guy in the passenger seat yelled at me while we were travelling 60 mph.
“Yeah?” I yelled back.
“Your license plate is about to fall off!”
Okay, that one was on us. AAron had mounted the plate on an angle so while it was in no practical danger, it looked precarious. I nodded back at the guys. “Thanks! And two?”
“Wanna get high?” The guy held out a joint by way of illustration.
“No thanks,” we responded.
I looked. They had a beer in hand and before we could respond, they were chucking it in our general direction. Now, AAron and I had done a few crazy things in the past, especially when it came to doing stupid things in cars, but there was no way in hell we were going to be able to catch a beer at 60mph. But we did try!
I think 3 beers hit the highway before the guys gave up and, waving at us, sped off into the distance. We just laughed and kept to our relatively slow but steady pace.
We hit the border to Louisiana (which is in the middle of a bridge) and realized exactly what humidity was. Having been raised in Vegas, I understood the concept of a “dry heat” but when all of a sudden my skin was sticking to itself, I was in a whole new realm of uncomfortability.
Along the way, we made collect, person-to-person calls home at least once a day, always asking for ourselves so our folks would know we were okay and it wouldn’t cost us anything. I specifically remember doing this outside of New Orleans (we didn’t stop in, because again, Easy Rider) and trying to find a payphone.
Eventually, we did, in fact, make it to Disney. We spent three days hopping between Epcot and the Magic Kingdom just having a great time. We flirted with the girls, enjoyed the rides, and ate too much food.
Then it was back on the road and heading home. We did, at one point, get off the highway in search of a gas station (which we found) but then discovered that getting back on the highway was slightly more problematic. Round and round we went, trying to get back on track. What we did discover, though, was the headquarters of Tupperware, so we know where that is, which is nice.
Our ride back wasn’t nearly as eventful as our ride out. We stopped in Austin, Texas to check out the famous clock tower at the university, which I only knew from the song “Sniper” by Harry Chapin, but since I was a huge fan (of the song, not the incident), it seemed only fitting we stop in. Unfortunately, this was the period of time when it was closed to the general public (and not because of high profile shootings, but because of a multitude of suicide attempts).
Throughout our entire trip, our folks were worried that we long-haired freaks in our hippie van were going to get hassled by the cops, especially down south. We didn’t. In fact, the only cop we saw (in Louisiana or Mississippi) had pulled over a short-haired banker type in a BMW. As we were about to leave Arizona, just as we were about to cross over Boulder Dam and about 40 miles outside of Vegas, we were sure we were home free.
We hadn’t counted on the Dam Cops!
Sure enough, as we were coming back over the dam the second time – we had stopped and turned around to take a picture – a modified golf cart driven by a guy with an inferiority complex and a bullhorn fixation pulled up behind us and implored us to “pull over the vehicle.”
We did. What else were we going to do?
Of course, the guy couldn’t actually do anything since we hadn’t done anything wrong. So he swaggered around and told us we better watch ourselves and then I’m sure he went home and jerked off while watching the Jackie Gleason scenes in Smokey and the Bandit.
We eventually made it back home, safe and sound. It wasn’t long after that I ended up moving to Los Angeles, which was another big trip. But it wasn’t the first. This was. And it was a great way to start a lifetime full of adventures and stories to count them.
And I still have my key, even though the van is long gone.