The sky had already turned an unhappy gray as we jumped into the ford wagon and headed up the street of our old colonial town still fast asleep in the early morning light, downtown to the Greyhound Bus Station up river in Springfield, Massachusetts. The long winter had wrapped the region in a cold wet dog breath blanket making everything depressing and worn out looking, like what the inside of Mr. DeAngelo’s lungs from Algebra 1 must have looked like after a lifetime of smoking Lucky’s.
Frozen brown wet leaves swept free into the gutters as Curt and I rolled through that happy morning in my Dad’s car secretly keeping our conspiracy to ourselves, trying our best to hide our wild delight at what great adventures were to be had the minute we broke loose of that old battle wagon.
Curt was sitting up straight, his long knotted hair hid his crazy disposition from my father who looked back at us in the mirror from time to time while he gave advice as to what to expect on long haul over the road bus trips. I seriously doubted he had actually ever seen the inside of a Grey Hound bus but we let him talk anyway:
"Don't go using that toilet in the back anymore than you need to. There's all sorts of germs and other vermin that will reach down into your body and rip it apart if you let it"
My father simply did not get it, he had no idea. I agreed to his making us take a bus to Fort Lauderdale only because I was underage and it was the only way I could figure out how to break loose of this miserable town over Spring break with my best buddy who was long on ideas and short on cash. Curt came up with the caper. "Take the old man’s money and the minute he turns the corner after dropping us off we hit the highway."
What a brilliant f*cking idea…we would race a god damn Gray Hound bus from Western Massachusetts across the Hudson rising in a swirl of panic fed by heavy snow, through the polluted flats of New Jersey, the bottom lands of Maryland, the AC DC of the United States itself, the tobacco fields of Virginia and all the old boys of the south scratching their asses and picking their teeth standing there at the side of the great American highway watching us fly by all the way down the 1500 miles of the east coast of the United States to Florida.
My Dad gave me $70 bucks for the bus, looked me in the eye and said “you be careful now” and at that moment I wondered whether he really knew we were on the verge of busting out of the simple life of children into the complex world of adult like trouble. The moment he turned the corner we shot up the side of US Route 91 to the blacktop covered with the oil and film of a million filthy trucks and flagged down our first ride that took us all the way to New Haven.
The sun was playing Parcheesi with the clouds and we knew that the weather was only going to get warmer and sure enough by the time we sat our itchy feet back on the blacktop on I-95 Curt was peeling off a sweater and singing sweet halleluiah like they do in churches down in the direction where we were going. We split a cigarette as we waited for our next ride, which turned out to be a couple of sad teenagers like us who were out looking for a donut shop or a new life or something just as strange and wonderful.
Curt asked them if they would not mind giving us a ride to Richmond and they laughed. I knew that if we pressed it they were coming along but not with their Daddy’s car. That would have to stay behind and with that we departed as friends but secretly hoping never to see these clowns again and sure enough we didn’t but we sure would have liked to have had that heater with us later that night when winter decided to remind us it was still around.
Curt led the way on foot across the George Washington Bridge making moves every once and awhile like he was going to jump but he never did. The wind almost took care of that for both of us, we did everything we could to stay on top of that bridge instead of treading water a mile below in the Hudson waiting for the Coast Guard to arrive in their pretty little uniforms. Before the wind could take us away, we were swept up into the back of a large RV driven by a missionary and his wife. A bag full of apples and oranges and a big wide view of the New Jersey countryside put us in a favorable mood and we headed south toward the horizon, not a care in the world, already ahead of that damn Greyhound bus by at least an hour.
The next morning light found us kicking small stones back and forth by the side of the road somewhere in the Carolina’s, the heat of the day melting into our backs as the muggy air from the ocean over the hill pressed against our eyes and our dispositions. By this time we had few clothes on other then our pathetic jeans and tee shirts of the road, by this time all crawling with every insect on it’s own personal vacation keeping us company while heading south for the winter. Before we could start complaining like we meant it another ride showed up and off we went again all the way to Georgia.
Before the day gave up to night and returned to new morning we had crossed the Florida border into the land of blissful sunshine and palm tress covered with coconut bowling balls that dropped suddenly without warning onto the heads of travelers not paying attention. By this time we were riding with a schoolteacher who had lost his job and was heading down toward the southern tip of America to learn how to put gold leaf on the top of church steeples.
We stopped at a roadside welcome station along the highway just over the border where a toothy young girl not much older than us was serving fresh orange juice out of paper cups, the kind you see in cheap stores engraved with smiles and sunshine beams and “Have a nice day” faces.
She was dressed in a short green dress with the words Welcome to the Sunshine State embroidered across the top of her ample chest in yellow letters. Her smile was warmer than the sun but she had way too many teeth and I got the uncomfortable feeling that we were entering the land of hard people dressed up soft.
Florida went on forever and so did the schoolteacher’s sad stories about all his lost students and the fact that none of them could read or write. Curt and I looked at each other and quietly thought the same thing I bet…no wonder you got your ass fired, what the hell is a teacher supposed to do but to teach a kid to read and write?
The last two miles into Fort Lauderdale was wicked, a not so subtle reminder that hell was just a few inches below the crust of the earth. The heat of the afternoon was stored up in the blacktop of the highway and not a soul would consider picking us up. Occasionally a microbus would slow down but seeing that there were two of us with backpacks they would carry on with the driver making pathetic hand signs out the window that he didn’t have enough room.
You get to understand the unspoken language of the road after a while, the averted eyes, the shrugged shoulders, and the demon smiles. There was no mistaking the nose of a Chevy Impala driven by a joker coming right at you in the breakdown lane and suddenly turning back into the main road, tires turning faster than the car was moving, spitting bits of rock and road kill directly at your face. We would learn in later trips to carry a hand made cardboard sign telling future good Samaritans just where we were heading, both as a sign of our new found literacy as well as protection from stones heading for our virgin blue eyes.
At four o'clock that afternoon I saw the ocean for the first time, and at four fifteen we were standing up to our knees in the warm water of the gulf steam itself watching playful bikini dressed women and handsome athletic men running about yelling back and forth to each other in a language we did not quite recognize or try to understand.
Here we were, two young hippy travelers standing in the water at the end of a long interstate highway looking out toward Cuba, or Africa, we did not know or care for that matter. All we knew was that we had made it that far on less money than most people spend washing their car on a weekend The bright light and warm sun reminded us that we had left the tail end of winter wondering just where we had gone.
There was one more thing to do. Curt recognized that we had beaten the bus by almost six hours and bursting with equal measure of pride and stupidity I ran for the nearest payphone to call my Dad. After he accepted the collect call, I told him how we had decided to accept our fate on the road rather than in the back of a bus surrounded by strangers with diseases and had made better time and saved the $70 bucks.
The first words out of my Dad’s mouth, as he stood in his kitchen encircled by Yankee woods was a harsh “You’re grounded for a week”. The next sounds I heard were muffled laughter; the kind a person makes when they realize all hope is lost.