I had loved being in New York and Wash. D.C. for ll years, but had used up my reasons for being back east and wanted to return to Southern California’s climate, friends, and family.
I had flown home before, but never driven. I left in May on one of those solitary trips in which you are a free spirit, going wherever and whenever. You put your foot on the floor and rip off miles of scenery, towns, cities, sunsets, and bits of Americana.
I traveled route 40 [the old 66]. The lst half was through lush, green, rolling hills. The gas stations had signs on l00-foot poles. so you could see them in time to turn off.
Some of the signs and towns were: 55 mph – no tolerance, Climbing Lane, Elvis Presley Parkway, LBJ Freeway, Cochese Ave. Mechanicsville, Scaggsville, Town of Geronimo, Okalona, Taxarkana, Arkadelphia, and a ‘Hep Ur Sef’ gas station.
I saw snakes, mice, vultures, lizards, fire flies so large their glow lit the weeds, and a calf that charged my car. I liked the accents and naturalness of the people – especially Texans, who don’t let you go without, ‘Ya come back and see us.’
About there the ‘West’ begins as the rainfall drops below 20’/yr. Things began to look familiar: less greenery, dry soil, yucca, cactus, an sand dune here and there, and vast expanses where there little to do except honk at cows.
To an easterner, the desert probably holds little appeal, but if you’ve grown up near it, it’s part of you. I saw wildflowers, Indian reservations, and mountains [not the hills back east they call ‘mountains’]. These were stirring memories of scout and family trips I had forgotten.
Every day the scenery looked, felt and even smelled more familiar. It was a slow, hesitant unveiling of buried impressions. Here were signs that were the other end of the world to me as a kid: Santa Fe, the Grand Canyon, Kingman, Boulder Dam.
California was approaching. I felt like a G.I. coming home from the war. I crossed the Colorado River with a war whoop; anything could happen now, I was back in my state. The fields had been watered and a familiar odor welled up. I knew that smell. What a greeting!
The next part, from Blythe to Indio, was less thrilling – a forbidding desert like out of Lawrence of Arabia. I drank the water which had a strong taste of sulphur. What an desolate place – must be terrible in summer.
Once in Indio I knew I was getting close – oleander bushes, eucalyptus trees which have a gracefulness I had forgotten, a trailer park in a date grove! and finally … an orange tree. It was at a traffic island where I stopped. I stared incredulous. It looked unreal. I wanted to touch it and yell, ‘Hey Everyone, an orange tree – right here.’
Now came more signs you don’t see back east: Alpha beta, Market Basket, Standard, Sunkist – each with a memory.
I swopped down through Jack Rabbit Pass where as a teenager my Volkswagen was buffeted by the wind. Now a sign to Redlands; another to Claremont, then the Riverside Freeway, and the mere thought of surfing. The sun had gone down. The memories were coming faster and faster with each mile. The effect was multiplying and I was in awe. Down the Newport Freeway, off at l7th st. in Santa Ana – the street of my life – a few more turns and I was back in the old neighborhood at my folk’s house. With no one home I let myself in with the key from the hiding place and walked around in a daze as if in some ephemeral museum out of my unconscious. Here were the antiques, family pictures, book collections, and objects that spelled ‘home’.
I walked outside, smelled the honeysuckle, and understood what the Russian defectors meant by saying they missed the air, trees and grass of their homeland – the climate and vegetation of one’s youth is stamped indelibly.
After being away so long and driving those miles, I had discovered the past in the small things. They sprang at me from the signs, schools, street corners and trees. I was home now – where I had grown up – where my youth had been built on hundred of subtleties. Who could have dreamt of such a return!