There were more Lows than Highs, so far, on this trip, at least for my diminutive cohort but I didn't care. I wasn't really keeping score for either one of us. We were slowly heading south as the general plan dictated and at least for my part, not a care in the world was dragging me down; except for possibly the price of gas and the fact that you had to pay before you filled up. Carefree California, not so much, not anymore.
We weren't on the road for more than a few minutes outside of Pismo when I heard the squawk, squawk, squelching of the walkie-talkie.
“I wanna take a detour, okay? There's another friend I'd like to see, you know, a guy from back in the day. He's over in San Luis Obispo, and yeah, I know, a backtrack, but if you're into it, it might have good vibes.”
“Sure, sure, Charlie, sounds great. We just sped right through today. I haven't spent any time in that place for years. Let's go back”, I cheerfully agreed.
No real cheerful exchange was offered in return. This little man didn't know from cheerful. The best you could hope for was a slanted, thin-lipped smirk or a Cheshire cat wide-mouthed grin. Cheerful, I think, had been knocked out of this guy a long time ago.
So without further ado, I followed Charlie's lead and hit the next interchange to have us head back up the 101 - San Luis our next port-of-call. I was getting the feeling this Tour wouldn't be very linear, which was great. Old people do linear, young people, with no fear of life, do not. Charlie was old but he breathed young.
And beyond the mere attraction to the randomness of this adventure, I somehow felt Charlie's goals were just more important than mine for now. Hell, if I hadn't stumbled upon this wee dude, I'd probably have given up on this 60s retro road-trip and found myself doing lame 21st century things, like antique-hunting in boutique-themed coastal shops or sipping overly commercialized Napa wine on the deck of some overly-priced shack over-looking the waves. Not that there is anything wrong with that, if you're THAT kind of guy. But I'm not that kind of guy, nor do I want to be, not now, not on this trip. I just knew that if I truly wanted to return to the Past, feel it like I had all those decades ago, I'd need the courage Charlie was carrying around so casually in his back pocket. My “citified” ways would just fail me when it counted.
I was all geared up to head back into the town proper, halfway back to where we had started at Morro Bay, when all of a sudden Charlie threw his rather hairy left arm out the window of his VW and waved me to a roadside turn out. I guess the urgency of his desire left no time for the squawk-box.
“Hey, what's the deal, Charlie?” I asked, void of any real concern.
“We ain't goin' all the way back into town, Man, I'm takin' this road here” as he pointed to the left, to a rather unremarkable, rather deserted highway I had never even noticed before.
“Okay”, was all I said.
Hey, I knew that I would just suck the fun out of my time with this guy if I knew, as he knew, what it was we were about to do.
I again followed his lead, casually taking in the undulating, low-lying, rather barren if not altogether water-deprived hills of the countryside, when all of a sudden I read a very unassuming sign, yet very stark and to the point in its design –
Department of Corrections California Men's Colony.
All of a sudden this “adventure” seemed to up its game and not in a good way for my nerves.
Charlie wasn't hesitating one bit. He continued to drive forward, heading for the gate that I could see, even from this distance, had severely scary barbed-wire fencing and an electrified gate. My itinerary trip down Memory Lane hadn't seen this coming.
I pull off to the right hand side of the road, just waiting to see what would happen to Charlie and his VW wagon at that gate -
he pulls up to the wicket, he talks with a guard there, the guard has this rather business-only look on his face, Charlie smiles wide, right back at him, reaching out of his window to overly shake the man's hand (that was weird) and then surprisingly puts the van into reverse and does a U-turn back towards where I was parked, idling.
“They won't let me in. I ain't on the List, they said. You gotta be on the List to get in. And you gotta show I.D. and I ain’t got none. They said this was like a resort, an easy stay. I guess it ain’t all that easy. Texas wouldn't put me on the List even if he knew I was here, even if he knew this was the last chance to see me, I bet…fool idea”, rather mumbling, now, to himself, more than talking to me.
Charlie's look was, well, hard to describe - his head – endowed with such an insanely shiny, healthy mane of hair for a man his age - rather downcast as he hung out of the driver's side window, not that he was really sad, I'd say, more like he was genuinely concerned; but about who or what was not mine to guess.
“Yeah, I've heard about that before, those Visitor Lists”, was all I could add, thanking God Up Above that he didn’t get a Pass.
“The Man said I could call him, maybe, not sure now if he'd take my call even. He has this “thing”, you know, some new-fangled high and mighty reputation, they’ve been saying, like shit can't stick on him anymore because he has “found God”. He's playing a New Game...”
“There's a time for living
Time keeps on flying
Think you're loving baby
But all your doing is crying…
What a mad delusion
Living in that confusion
Frustration and doubt
Can you ever live without the game
Can you feel
Are those feelings real
Look at your game, girl
Look at your gammmme, girl
Charlie just segued into song and not one I had heard before.
He was doing that thing that Nixon did when Tricky Dick made his Farewell Speech in the East Room of the White House, not looking into the camera, just staring off into space, talking, or in this case, singing, to an audience-unknown.
He could carry a tune, of that there was no doubt. It was rather a folksy jingle but somehow it suited this guy.
I looked down at him as he came back to reality. He looked startled to see me as if my face just didn't belong to whomever he was serenading in his mind.
“Yeah, okay, let's jam outta here. I've had enough of this shit”, was all he said, not even waiting for me to give the nod either way. Without another glance my way, I ate his dust as he burned his already thread-bare tires across the sun-baked, dust-ridden asphalt, all eight of those cylinders in his Hippie-mobile doing their utmost to make like they were inside a Jaguar.
I looked ahead, sighed, watched for traffic that didn't exist and a long, slow U-turn did I make with my silver bullet behind my SUV. It didn't seem right all of a sudden, more not right…even more than it did before. It was as if I was a disturbance, a ripping destruction I was making through this man’s fabric of time, just being in his presence. He had his journey and I had mine and my existence in his reality felt almost cannibalistic – the slow, menacing feast of something purer than myself.
Well, in for a penny, in for a pound, I always say. And my new friend hadn't come back on the walkie-talkie, yelling for me to get the hell out of his Dodge City fantasy, so follow, I did, to another destination by his lead. The day’s light was dimming now and we still had to find a place to hang our hats for the night, set up camp and maybe forget what needed to be forgotten from today. Darker clouds loomed over the western horizon, odd for a California sunset and the sight made me even more uneasy.
At this moment and without planning, The Doors' “Riders On The Storm” came on my MP3.
Man, could there be any more perfect description to where I was in this moment and with whom I was heading....
To Be Continued…
Photos, in order of appearance, courtesy of admissionblog.usc.edu, totaltrafficla.com, kcoy.com, and fineartamerica.com