Home Travel Stories Destinations DESERT OLDS - Part 2 Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, CA
DESERT OLDS - Part 2 Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, CA PDF Print E-mail
Written by Magnus King
Sunday, 28 March 2010 14:48

DESERT OLDS - Part 2 Portland, Oregon to San Francisco, CA

oneownercollectorcar.com

Writing and Photography copyright Double Dragon One Owner Collector Car Ltd. Protect-O-Plate image copyright GM Canada.

 

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THE CAR

 

Nantucket Blue 1967 Cutlass Town Sedan built Tuesday, Dec 20, 1966, Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. 330-2bbl-250 HP, two speed auto, 2.78:1 axle. Read the history of the Cutlass and check out its MPG in the GAS LOGS drop down menu in the TRAVEL STORIES. Below is the second Protect-O- Plate warranty service done at Grove Motors on Feb 20, 1968. The first (6 month) entry was torn off but lacked a dealer stamp in the validating dealer section.

67 cutlass protecto 12 month

The Cutlass was still in Penticton. BC at the time of the 18 month service. The faint stamp reads Folk's Auto Sales and Service, 2020 Main Street S, Penticton, British Columbia.

67 cutlass protecto 18 months

 

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THE TRIP

I watched Seattle skyline lights shrinking in the rear mirror… heard the engine and tires humming. I-5 uncoiled, dim and deserted... hypnotically pulling us into the void. Plunging into curves, floating in darkness, passing the occasional truck... Our headlight beams evaporate into the vacuum of space utterly absorbed in just a few feet. Blackness in all directions except for the three foot circle lit by the glow of round gauges, gleaming dials and buttons.

67-cutlass-night-driving

In the faint light from the dash Martin and I riffed away in a stream of consciousness conversation. The radio was on low because Leggy was asleep.

“This reminds me of being a kid camping late at night- you know; some kid always had a transistor radio on low volume. Everyone was talking about whatever popped into their heads. We were all energized about being somewhere new, all sorts of adventures awaited. Everyone had to whisper because some of the other kids were passed out.”

“Yeah, I'm willing to bet that Leggy was one of the kids that were passed out in the bunkhouse when the other kids were talking. Shit, he’s even asleep during the daytime!”

We both laughed.

Martin and I had been kids together and as we got increasingly tired we reverted to relating on that level. We lapsed into movie trivia contests, which we hadn’t done in earnest since we were kids at his old cottage. Eventually the drone of the tires wiped out talk, and our lights on the highway lines became jagged bolts dancing erratically as my eyes got tired. I cut the engine as we rolled into a mountain rest area.

Leggy was still passed out in the back seat beneath stacks of stuff. Martin and I laid our sleeping bags on a picnic table in the cold dawn. I kept a seven inch knife handy. We had barely drifted off to sleep when everyone’s car doors began slamming and engines fired up. The table was covered in dew and I was cold. A rest stop maintenance worker eyed us disapprovingly.

desertolds-washington-rest-area-leggy-at-his-post

Leggy slept right through breakfast, going to the can, checking the oil, slamming the hood, starting out, the radio, conversation, the road. The end of Washington State came up as we hit the Columbia River, which empties into the ocean a little further west.

Halfway across the bridge over the Columbia River we entered Portland, Oregon. The I-5 speed limit of 70 was slashed to 55 mph. Oregon also has a law preventing you from pumping your own gas. I hate people touching my car, so that was annoying. On the plus side, Oregon State has no sales tax.

We woke Leggy up and he dutifully followed us into Powell’s Books, billed as the world’s largest independent bookstore. Powell’s has other locations sprinkled throughout Portland, but the main store is the one to see. They have an amazing selection of new, remainders and used books all interfiled, which was an approach that they pioneered.

I rationalized the purchase of an obscure book based on the fact that it had never surfaced in all my years of hunting for it over the years in various cities. A book is also an experience that lasts. Spending money on food is temporary. I was just going to get hungry again anyways. No tax in Oregon sweetened the deal.

Spending money I couldn't afford became reasonable by adhering to a system of suspension of disbelief I've been using since I was a kid. Running out of time and money now took on the same meaning as the end of summer vacation did when I was a kid. For me the school year didn't start until the shock hit when I found myself sitting there in first day of class. You were going to end up in that class either way, but suspension of disbelief bought an unblemished final week of vacation.

desertolds-portland-wedge-block

Downtown Portland has a lot of cobblestones, red brick old buildings, old movie theatres and multiple steel girder bridges over the Willamette River which divide the city west/east. A long history of urban planning is evident. Portland was green before it was trendy. Portland isn’t much smaller than Seattle, but has a neighborhood feel to it.

As the car crawled over a rutted cobblestone road I talked to myself, although ostensibly addressing Martin who was reading. Leggy was asleep.

“I walked right over this exact road on a crazy Saturday night full of people the very first time I was in Portland. I met a girl on a Greyhound night bus. I was supposed to be going to California but I got off the bus with her. We walked along this exact stretch of road to catch the local bus to her dorm. I ended up staying in her residence at Reed College. Reed is a private college but you’d swear it was some kind of hippy commune. We should go over and have a look at it.”

No response. I continued on,

“It’s as if the 1960s never ended in that place. I think all that greenery and farming going on here draws the hippy minded liberal types to that campus. It also doesn’t hurt that Ken Kesey lived and wrote about Oregon quite a bit, too. Want to go see the campus? There are some huge Gothic buildings that are really cool.”

Martin grunted neither assent nor dissent.

Martin read and Leggy slept as I cruised through the city and crisscrossed a few of the bridges ending up in south east Portland on the way to Reed. I got sidetracked by the neighborhood called Sellwood, a former small town, long ago annexed within the Portland city limits. It still feels like a small town.

One antique store led to a frenzy of antique malls and barns on a rabid hunt for old Mechanix Illustrated magazines. I am a big fan of Tom McCahill, affectionately known as "Uncle Tom". There are times when you read his car tests just for crazy prose or opinions on then current issues. The test car is just an incidental part of the story. Rush hour was starting. We escaped out of town back on the I-5.

We’d only been driving for a short stint when I suddenly was seized by paranoia that I was going to melt away to nothing:

"I'm becoming soft and slack sitting behind the wheel. I haven’t done a workout in three weeks."

Martin shrugged. Martin is an advocate of exercise avoidance so he saw soft and slack as a normal consequence of 'proper living'. He did draw the line at big and fat, but really couldn't see what the big deal was. Martin's indifference didn't quell my frenzied sense of urgency to push my muscles to the max before I faded away into mush. I abruptly took the first exit I saw. We pulled into Salem, Oregon.

Trying to get a workout and traveling cheap are incompatible. Gyms charge an inflated one- time drop in fee to punish non-members. However, you obviously can’t be a member if you’re traveling. Having ID from a foreign city should entitle you to a reasonable drop in rate or even a free workout. Theory and fact don't meet in the city of Salem. The town itself had a good feel to it, but everything positive was blotted out by gyms charging $10.00; $15.00 and even $20.00 drop in fees.

I ranted and raved. We drove pointlessly, unable to find a community center. My fury exploded. Martin weathered the storm, gritting his teeth while amazingly Leggy slept through the screaming rage. I raced out of town taking a two- lane highway blurring the scenery with an incredible blast of speed.

Once we were away from everything I let the car glide down a dirt track. Martin and I ate a late lunch. It was actually dinner time but still hot and bright where we were sitting on a log in the blinding sun. A wall of insect hum rode right through our bones while pungent vegetation smells blotted out any food odors. Oregon’s green lushness regenerated my calm. In a peaceful state of mind we backtracked into town to rejoin the I-5.

Martin was concerned about my total lack of itinerary and tendency to follow tangents,

“I can’t believe how long it’s taking us to get to California.”

I brushed it off,

“We’ve got all the time in the world.”

He corrected me,

“Actually, we don’t. I can only stretch the money so far and we’re not even a quarter of the way to New Orleans. In fact we’re probably only half way to the Bay area…”

As the sun dropped we pulled into an Oregon rest stop up in the mountains. The air had a cold sting. Leggy didn’t wake up during the sleeping bag drill. Martin and I slept on picnic tables again.

The next day as we crossed the border into California I was impressed,

"The man made border between these two states so perfectly captures the dividing line of climate. It's weird. The instant we crossed the mountain into California all that foggy lush greenery disappeared. We turned that curve and were immediately plunged into this yellow dried straw-like vegetation. The air got thinner and hotter, and everything here has a yellowish tinge."

The sun intensified as I made time. Martin’s schedule anxiety overrode his preference for a steady 70 MPH. Leggy somehow sensed the velocity and awoke as the car settled in at 90 miles an hour. We held this pace right to the city limits of Sacramento, CA.

Rolling through the Sacramento suburb of Carmichael where Leggy’s parents lived felt like we were Martians landing on Earth. Old people gave the car a look of puzzlement. The suburb is very orderly, imparting a sense of security. The weathered old Cutlass made no sense to them. Deep trenches for runoff from sudden storms etched each block. The perfectly painted lines on the streets looked fresh. The roads and sidewalks were clean bright white and reflected so much light it felt like we were in heaven. Various types of fruit grew on tropical looking trees that silhouetted their branches thru the haze of almost blinding refracted light from the roads and sidewalks. Ripples of heat bounced back in simmering waves. I saw the world as if through a thin layer of gauze.

Leggy’s parents stood befuddled at the door as a phenomenal amount of stuff was loaded out of the Cutlass into their house. Martin and I cooked our standard plain spaghetti and took turns using the shower. Leggy's mom wanted to know everything.

Leggy’s standard line, “There were complications…” never found a destination as his voice trailed off.

Leggy's dad smoked his pipe in his chair like a General contemplating the progression of the battle. The invasion left both parents a bit shaken as we headed out at sunset.

Leggy stood awkwardly at the door and waved farewell.

“We’ll miss that big old lug.”

I stepped on the gas sending the Cutlass lunging forward with a quick rising idle leaving black burnout lines half a block. I could feel the thousand pounds of Leggy and his stuff missing from the engine’s load. Despite the highway gears the car can burn the tires to the rim if you didn’t feather the gas on takeoff. Balancing the gas feed just right launched it with the nose straining towards the sky, catapulting us past the competitors at the stoplight wars as we left town.

The Cutlass wasn’t terrifyingly fast like some muscle cars I’ve owned in the past, but it was very surprising for a “family sedan”. Flying down side streets we seemed to be missing the tunnel of parked cars by a hairsbreadth. Martin hung on as we hit the highway running.

The Cutlass shot down the sparsely occupied interstate at a steady 100 MPH. The handling was more precise now that the car wasn’t massively overloaded. Even Martin felt relaxed and secure with the pace. I’m a very fast but attentive, exact driver. I’ve had lots of training. My girlfriends always lived in remote areas. I’ve spent years racing along high crowned, narrow, patchy, rutted rippled old country roads in a hurry to see a girl.

Driving high- powered cars at full throttle takes you into an alternate world. Controlling cars at these speeds requires perfect judgment of the massively exaggerated stopping distances and handling distortions that present themselves up in the 100-120 mph heights.

The sun was still hot when we hit the outskirts of Oakland, California. The open highway had gradually filled up with commuters, which slowed us to 80 MPH. I left a reasonable amount of space in front of us, which someone would instantly dart into. The traffic got heavier but the pace didn’t slacken. Hot sun beat on the five lanes of cars going up and down hills and round curves thumping on the sectioned concrete.

Retreating into the furthest, slowest right hand lane provided a slightly better margin of safety. People drive literally bumper to bumper. I was the only driver on the entire road allowing any semblance of following distance. The irony was that this sardine can 70 MPH we were doing was infinitely more dangerous than our sustained 100 MPH out on the open road, which none of these rush hour drivers would dream of doing.

A series of swerving panic stop brake lights flashing ahead hauled us down hard. THOOOOOM we both nearly hit the roof of the car with the tops of our heads as the car smashed through a trench in the roadway. I glimpsed cars fishtailing crazily in the rearview mirror. No mystery how these huge 50 car pileups happen.

Two minutes later we endured another panic stop. The road was full of brake lights, weaving cars and smoking tires. Everything had frozen into a massive traffic jam that went on for over an hour.

“This is completely asinine!”

I was preaching to the converted.

Martin agreed, “See, I told you cars are stupid.”

“This isn’t the cars fault, it’s just bad planning. Why not design communities to be a mix of business, industry and homes? The suburban commute involves vast amounts of time, gas and emissions. The whole thing is insane. Everyone acts as if this situation is tolerable and normal, resigned to it. They’re a bunch of sheep! How can anyone do this every day, day in and day out? It’s insane! We haven’t moved an inch!”

Martin put down his book,

”Cars are stupid. The more you drive the stupider you get. That’s why I never got my license. If everyone rode the bus there would be no problem.”

“Come on! Public transit is a joke, everyone knows it. You can talk forever, but no one wants to take it. The real solution is to simply mix business and homes into one mile square portions of land, thus eradicating the need to go huge distances twice daily just to work. A lot of people would walk, especially in California with a warm, dry climate. You could give people a subsidy reward for living within a mile of their workplace…”

“Nothing will make people get out of their cars. Years of driving have irreparably lowered their IQs to the point where there isn’t hope anymore.”

Pulling into Rockridge, I admired the house we were going to be staying in. This was an upscale area on the outer edge of Oakland. Martin’s first love, Leslie had plenty of room for us to crash in this amazing old rental house. Leslie was sharing rent with a bunch of her fellow students from University of California at Berkeley.

67-cutlass-rockridge-oakland

I suddenly realized ‘Aha!”. Part of Martin’s schedule anxiety was related to finally seeing Leslie again. It just hadn't occurred to me on the way.

Leslie’s rented white house stood behind two large white pillars at the edge of the lawn. The ornate exterior rose up to elaborate balconies. We hauled our junk up formal stairs leading to the entrance. Inside, it was cool and dark. Leslie welcomed us in and resumed eating her dinner.

Martin glanced at her meal and asked,

“What the hell is that donkey diarrhea you’re eating?”

Leslie ignored his taunt, “Its vegan chili with some wheat substitute whole grain burrito and a glass of Mung bean milk.”

Leslie has gluten problems, lactose intolerance and is allergic to everything. Only the purest organics keep her headaches and ailments to a semi manageable level. Martin maintains his equilibrium on a steady diet of junk food. It's a bit like Oscar and Felix from THE ODD COUPLE.

Martin and I ate cereal in lieu of going through the whole hassle of cooking. I poured out muesli that he wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. He dug into his stash of Count Chocula, pouring whole homogenized non organic milk over it. Leslie flinched as he heaped white sugar onto the cereal. She resumed popping her vitamins, minerals and digestive pills.

“So how was your trip down here? I was expecting you a few weeks ago. You must have had some interesting detours.”

Martin muttered about how long it took, switching the subject to her academic accomplishments. Leslie proudly recounted her progress,

“My thesis is coming along pretty well. The one prof who was putting all the pressure on me really seems to like my work after all: I got an A in both of her courses.”

I piped in,

“This house is amazing. This is way nicer than any of your old places in Oakland. Good neighborhood.”

Leslie corrected me,

“It’s a nice house, yes, and Rockridge used to be a nice neighborhood, but don’t get complacent. There’s a crime wave going on right now. Gangs have been breaking into houses around here taking everyone hostage. They torture the captives into revealing their PIN numbers then clean out their bank accounts from ATMs. Which reminds me: at night we have to lock our windows.”

Martin gritted his teeth, “Now you’ve done it! He’s paranoid to begin with. He’s going to be totally insane now for the rest of the stay.”

He was right. My brain was whirling at a million miles an hour. I was imagining all the things that could happen and all the countermeasures I could implement….

Leslie and Martin went upstairs to catch up in private.

I lay on the floor and looked up at the wood inlaid designs in the ceiling which was crisscrossed with solid wood beams. I soon forgot about the home invaders and focused on how perfect the night air felt and smelt in California. On the second floor a long wood balcony straddled the open living room. A cute girl with brilliant white teeth and dazzling energy looked over the balcony edge,

“I’m Lita.”

I introduced myself still flat on my back.

“How long are you staying with us?” She asked.

“Based on our track record in Seattle, it could be a long time.” I started to laugh…

"Meet me at noon for lunch. I often have lunch out back in the garden."

I promised to show up and she said goodnight. I had the couch in the living room and some blankets. We'd barely slept on the road. Logically I should crash out, but as usual I was vibrating with energy. I hit the spaghetti tangle of highways merging and crisscrossing on the way to San Francisco. Hitting the right lane felt like threading a needle across five columns of solid traffic even at this late hour. The pressure was on. One missed exit and I'd be miles out of my way without gas or money.

I got onto Hwy 80 and handed three bucks cash to a morose guy in the toll booth for the bridge leading to San Francisco. Halfway across the bridge a tunnel passing through Treasure Island cut off the AM radio… as the road rose up again, the echo of engines in the tunnel faded and the radio came back for on the last section of bridge.

I was dropped down off the highway in a roundabout exit ramp spitting me into downtown San Fran. I rolled through an apocalyptic mess in the Folsom area. The Rolling Stones “Gimmie Shelter” started to play on the car radio. Hundreds of guys wandered in the streets past boarded up buildings, cardboard box sleepers, steel mesh and graffiti.

After parking north of Market Street and walking to some bars outrageous prices forced me to abandon the area. I drove down to the Mission area, Mecca for hipsters and cheap drinks. I got some conversation going with young girls. The place is a mix of skid row drunks and college types slumming. This was long before dot com self styled bohemians moved in causing gentrification. The only whites living here in the late 1980s and early 1990s were gay. In every bar someone was telling a story about a Central American gang or a Mexican gang shooting that happened in broad daylight.

The long night became crazy as they always do in The Mission. I awoke with a cute young girl named Selena in a ramshackle house. It was already noon and she was still sound asleep,

“Hey, I’ve gotta go.”

She groaned and rolled over back to sleep.

desertolds-mission-san-fran-truck

Miraculously, the Cutlass was still intact. Selena told me the safest place to park was in front of the radical communist headquarters on Cesar Chavez. The CIA supposedly photographed anyone entering or exiting the building. The day and night surveillance created a tiny bubble of safety in this tough area.

I barely made it back to Leslie’s house in Oakland in time to eat a nice lunch with Lita.  She put some chairs out in the garden. We sat with flowers, humming of bees and buzzing telephone wires. Breezes wafted thru Lita’s hair… she managed a computer store while taking night courses. Her sense of purpose and straightforward energy lit her up the way the sun infused the garden with brightness. She had a dazzling semi flirtatious way of smiling. When she left for work we agreed to meet again.

> Chapter 3

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 23 June 2015 20:45 )