Hell, Ritzville Again!
The following was written to my daughter during a trip she made a few years ago to Washington State. It recalls a trip I made to Eastern Washington, a great many years earlier.
Let's call this story - Hell, Ritzville Again!
It was the spring of 1961, and I was not much older than you are now, Meghan. I was living at home in Gilbertsville and going to Hartwick College in Oneonta. I was just finishing up my sophomore year - you know sophomore means "thinks they know everything" (roughly translated) ; and I certainly thought I did.
I had been watching those '50s TV shows - like "77 Sunset Strip", "Route 66" and "Dragnet", based in California in general, and Los Angeles in particular. It looked like Nirvana to me [by the way, in the '60s Nirvana was a heavenly destination from eastern religion, not a rock group...]
Anyway I imagined that if I could just get to Los Angeles that summer, I would be in Heaven, living on the beach under the palm trees and collecting driftwood for a living.
Coincidentally I saw a notice on the campus bulletin board about someone in Morris - you know, that pretty little village we go through on the way to Grandma's house - that wanted a truck driven to Missoula, Montana, in the far western part of the State! You probably went close to it on the train - it is due south of Glacier Park. This was a great chance to get most of the way to the west coast for free, and I contacted the guy right away. Turns out another student had already called him, but if it was OK with that guy, we could share the ride.
I found the guy and it was fine with him, and as classes ended I got a little dinky sleeping bag, a cheap back pack and some gear together, and picked up the truck.
It was an old telephone line repair truck, the kind with a covered back, double rear wheels, and tool boxes all along the sides. But it was a beast. In the back the owner, who had moved to Montana already and just wanted his truck with him, had loaded two gasoline powered generators, a big one and a little one. They were real heavy and made the truck ride - well, like a truck.
In addition, the steering was so warn that it had about an eighth of a turn play in it - in other words, you had to constantly turn from one side to the other to keep it going straight down the road, and in that middle area, you could move the wheel and nothing happened. Because of that, you really couldn't go much over 45 and stay on the road. And it stunk of gas and oil. Other than that, IT WAS GREAT!
To add to all this, the guy I was sharing the job with - and the "job" consisted only of the promise that once, or if, we got to Missoula, he would reimburse us for the gas, oil and tolls - no pay. Anyway, this guy had his own plans, which involved giving a ride to his girlfriend to her parents', somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania.
So for the first day we were crammed into the front seat like half cooked sardines, and I had to listen to their stupid chatter. This guy had a 10-speed bicycle on which he planned to tour the west after we dropped the truck off, and this he stuffed in what little room was left in the back, next to the generators.
But I was heading west, on a great adventure, so although this was not what I had originally imagined, it was still OK.
We spent the first night on the road in some god-awful coal mining town in the heart of Pennsylvania. His girlfriend's parents had a typical two storey mill worker's house on a crowded, and - as I recall - dingy, street typical of those documentaries you see about dying coal mining towns in Virginia - well, in Pennsylvania too - but it was all part of the adventure.
At dinner I had my first glass of wine - a little bit of red wine that took me forever to finish off - and that night I camped out for the first time in my new sleeping bag - on their living room floor! No stars overhead, but some wildlife.... for when I woke up in the morning I found their little nervous, bug-eyed Chihuahua dog had climbed down into the bottom of my sleeping bag with me. Why do dogs like me so much? [But that is a subject for another story - or psychoanalysis.]
The next morning, shed of the girlfriend and her baggage, we were finally heading west. I remember seeing the great flatlands of Indiana and Illinois and we must have camped out along the way, but I don't recall.
But the first clear memory I have that really sticks in my mind was reaching the Badlands in western South Dakota. Remember those? We were taking the northern route, heading toward Oregon, and the Badlands were my very first look at the real west - something unlike anything "back home". That is why I love them so much. It was a spiritual revelation that I never got over.
While Mom, and maybe you too, just saw hot baking desert sand hills, to me it was the portal to Nirvana [remember, not the rock band...].
By this time a general difference of traveling style between me and my co-pilot was emerging. He always wanted to stop and explore places, I wanted to keep going. I was on a quest and would have happily driven for endless hours without stopping to get to the Pacific.... sound familiar?
Well all this came to a head (pardon the pun!) at Mt. Rushmore, in the Black Hills, just after passing through the Badlands. Maybe it was fortunate for my own spiritual journey that it did. Of course we HAD to stop there - an American icon, a landmark - and we did. We parked in that same parking area where we stopped on our trip west a few years ago, and went up to gaze on the huge stone carvings. They were a lot smaller than I imagined; and in the woods - not the open western desert.
After ten minutes I was agitating to get back on the road and I became the straw that broke that camel's back. He had had it, and when we got back to the truck - I was undoubtedly walking briskly in my usual fashion - he said "That's it!" and pulled his back pack and bike out of the back of the truck and said goodbye. I never saw him again. Presumably he was heading, on two wheels now, to the same west coast I was, but if he ever got there one cannot say.
I was finally alone in my weird stinky truck, on my own, in charge of my own itinerary, and heading west as damn fast as I could. I think I loved it, and I don't recall that this angry encounter with bike-man even bothered me.
A while later - and I don't recall eating anywhere, and probably just camped out on the ground or in the front seat of the truck - I arrived finally in Missoula, Montana. I found the address - a little trailer park - turned over the vehicle and collected my money for expenses. I think they even gave me a twenty for a bonus, and they were surprised at how quickly I got there. They didn't know my traveling style.
Well, I stepped out of their driveway with my little backpack and sleeping bag all tied up together, and then it hit me. From here out, everything was up to me. I no longer had a dependable means of transport or other people to compare notes with about what to do and when, nor anyone else's trip plans I was following. Sobering situation!
So I walked to the west edge of town and found a place to start hitching. [Can't do that these days, but in the 60's I had hitched - plenty.] The high purple mountains were all around me and the sun was shining and I was ready for California!
Five hours later, standing in the very same spot, now baked in the heat of the day, and having had my outstretched thumb ignored by about 100 cars, I was still ready for California, but a little doubt had started creeping in around the edges of my dream. Reality was stuck on the shoulder of a big road in western Montana and it wasn't going anywhere.
Just about the time I thought I had better find a hole to retreat into if night came, a big old car pulled up, and I got a ride heading west, and I didn't even care if it was two miles. I would at least get a change of scenery, be off my feet, and be that much closer to the coast.
The driver was some sort of cowboy - or at least a ranch hand; but to me on my great adventure, it was a cowboy. He had quit his job somewhere behind us in Montana and was heading - guess what - to Los Angeles.
He drove a big Elvis kind of car, but old and tired, and he looked a little beat up around the edges himself. We talked easily, once I knew this ride was not going to end two miles down the road, and struck a bargain - if I was willing to split the gas costs, he would take me all the way to Los Angeles. Great! Why not. What luck.
Boy was I naive. By that very agreement I revealed I had like a hundred dollars on me. Lucky he was real - they had real people back then in the early '60s - or I might have ended up as bear bait in the woods of Idaho.
He had driven past twice, and only picked me up after he was sure I "Didn't have no gun sticking out of my pack." I later found out that that very day the news was full of a story about a driver murdered near there by a hitch-hiker. So I'll bet that was the last ride to be had west of Iowa that week!
And now I was really on my way west. We went through Idaho - all woodsy and steep. I remember Coeur d'Alene - the name of the place more than the place itself, and then into Washington - a state that actually touched the Pacific - somewhere way off to the west.
We had to make a stop, he said, along the way in - guess where - eastern Washington. He had a girlfriend there he wanted to visit. Was my entire trip to be diverted by these damn girlfriends? Of course if I had ever had one myself, I might have understood the motivation. But I was on a spirit quest, and who needed girls for that.
And besides, so long as the Elvis car was going to end up in Los Angeles, what was a little one night stand in eastern Washington? A mere mosquito bite on the butt of reality. I thought, how bad can it be. Another night of camping on the floor of someone's house and a home cooked meal. Not bad, I guess.
Well, not quite. We arrived in Ritzville, a little - I mean little - village in the endless flat wheat lands of eastern Washington. It had a main street, one road and one set of railroad tracks running through it, and it was presided over by one of those tall grain elevators like you see everywhere west of Chicago. His girlfriend's little house was ok, and she seemed relatively normal. How cowboy got to have a girlfriend way up here in Washington was beyond me, and I got the haunting feeling that she was kind of filling in while some unseen husband was off on the road somewhere. But none of my business. I had bigger fish to fry - Nirvana-fish.
Then cowboy announced that I couldn't stay in the house with them - and I had to pack my gear after dinner and find a place to camp! Well OK, maybe they were noisy [did I even know enough at that time to think why they would be] - or maybe they just didn't want a stranger under the same roof. I looked like an axe murderer?
What matter. I liked the west - even Ritzville - and struck off for the west edge of town - about fifty steps, I think. And there, in the approaching dusk of evening, I found a peaceful little apple orchard on a knoll next to the road were I felt I could bed down without being evicted or arrested.
It was dry and pleasant and comfortable, until some huge, white fluttering moths - no doubt something common to Ritzville but appearing like small birds to an eastern boy - started attacking. They got in my face, and my hair. They didn't fly - they just came hopping over to me as I lay there - like they were so tough they just walked wherever they wanted to go. But eventually as darkness crept in, they went away. Not the best situation, but it was just for one night.
I wish. Each time I went back to the little girlfriend house to ask when - meaning when that day - we were leaving, cowboy put me off. "How about tomorrow?" I guess he was having a good time, at my expense, and I recall spending another night or two in that same awful orchard, filling the hot Ritzville days with wandering around and killing time. At least I could come around for dinner and a little TV. Cowboy complained how she kept waking him up all night, but he seemed to find the strength for another round each time the sun went down.
Finally, we got back in the car and hit the road, never to see, I believed, that town again. Some advice - don't ever say "never."
Anyway, we were on the last leg to the coast and struck at an angle southwesterly through the rolling wheat fields and into Oregon - pronounced like "organ", not "Ore-A-Gone" as we easterners said it. He didn't like the East - "More houses than you can shake a stick at." Had I heard that phrase before? Well, I heard it for the first time, as far as I can recall, on that ride.
In Oregon just a few miles from the ocean, we camped in a freebie Forest Service campground. A nice little campsite among strange Northwest coast plants - like rhododendron - and at breakfast he showed me how to make a campfire meal of baked beans with eggs on white bread. I am still kind of partial to that combination. And he taught me how to clean a greasy pan by scouring it with a handful of dirt and water. Real cowboy stuff!
Anyway we struck the coast - the Great Pacific - somewhere in the middle of Oregon. The Pacific - I thought it was all like California - sand dunes and palm trees [too much TV - not enough geography]. And here it was, rocky, lots of big trees, great hulks of driftwood logs littering the beaches, and cold as hell [comparatively speaking].
Was I disappointed? Maybe, but in retrospect I in that moment fell in love with the misty, log strewn coast of the Northwest, and the palmy beaches of California suddenly had a competitor.
Then it was due south through the redwoods, past San Francisco [I don't even remember seeing it, so I think we took the inland route], and finally into Nirvana - oh, I mean Los Angeles. Not quite like the TV shows. Big, super hot, jumbled and noisy - but palm trees.
We were going to split at this point, but as neither of us had any prospects, we got a dingy room in a run down hotel in the outskirts of the City as a temporary base of operations. And in the evening we heard stories from some of the permanent tenants, including one old miner whose tales I wish I had recorded. Real folklore! - and half of them unfit to print.
Cowboy was to get a job on the police force, he said, and I started making the rounds of the employment agencies. Guess what, no luck with either plan, and in less than a week of arrival in this less than heavenly place - just a big hot city when it came right down to it - cowboy comes up with Plan B.
He knew that when all else failed, you could always get a summer job on the wheat harvest in the Northwest. They were always hiring and you just followed the ripening wheat across the west and into Canada. Good money for combine drivers, which he had done apparently, and I could drive the trucks that they dumped the grain into. You camp in the field and get rich. Guaranteed.
Well a guaranteed job for the summer sounded awfully good, compared to sitting in a flop house of a hotel in LA with no work, and I hadn't even seen the palm-fringed Pacific beaches I thought I would be living on as a beach bum, except glimpses between the luxury hotels and private condos which lined every bit of ocean sand.
So with the enthusiasm of knights on a crusade, we piled into the Elvis car and headed back north to the wheat harvest. I was a little slow on the uptake. I was too busy thinking how great it was that my first ride hitching west was now going on for ever, and would now transport me to untold riches and a summer of camping out in wheatfields.
My sense of good luck was tinged a bit by the fact that I kept shelling out for half the gas - of course gas was 23 cents a gallon in those days and you probably could get a whole burger and fries meal for a buck. But as we wended our way back north to the salvation - a different version of Nirvana - of the endless harvest -through Salt Lake City and Utah, up through Oregon, I began to realize - paying attention to the maps as I always like to do, that we were on a freaking bee-line for - Ugh - Ritzville!
Obviously the effects of our last visit had worn off on the cowboy, and he was overdue for another rodeo. I began to feel betrayed, but what the hell, I would soon be driving a truck on the Washington wheat harvest for big bucks. He could drive a combine or his girlfriend, it was no matter to me once I got there.
And soon the magnificent skyline of Ritzville appeared before me. And I was back. I had to supress a sense of going in circles, and nowhere fast. But I had been to LA and had seen the Pacific Ocean, so no camping in the goddamn orchard with the prehistoric moths for me this time. I got a room in the only hotel, a three storey brick affair, I think, and looking every bit like something out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. But I was willing to spend a bit more because soon I would be rolling in dough.
Talk about a depressing sort of deja vu. But it was only temporary, for in the morning I was signing on the harvest and kissing this dismal place good bye.
Or so I thought. I found out from the agricultural notices posted around this wheat town that due to the cold weather that summer, the harvest here abouts was delayed around three weeks.
Now it came down to the nitty gritty issue of being on your own and surviving. Should I wait here three weeks for a sure thing, or a maybe sure thing, or not? I asked around, in bars and grocery stores, if anyone had any temporary work. I tried to act cool and grown up, but I was shaking - by this time - in my boots. I was getting so desperate that I was even willing to spend my Nirvana summer in - god forbid - Ritzville Washington. But even that second-class dream was dying - there was nothing.
And I was getting sick, Sitting in my dingy hotel room, now entirely on my own, and eating poorly, I began to get depressed and delusional. Comes from malnutrition and stress. Same thing happened to me a couple years later in Germany.
It all came to a head when I decided to abandon my pilgrimage, and give up and go home - on the first available bus. That morning I barfed out my guts, and my dreams, into the tiny white porcelain sink in the Butch Cassidy Ritzville Hotel, picked up my dust covered sleeping bag and pack, and headed out the door, truly never to return. Again.
Some poor girl, your Gregory House counterpart, had to deal with that, and I am sure she made no connections between the mess and the death of a dream quest.
I was on my way home, via a small bus to Spokane and then a Greyhound to Oneonta - 40 hours of exhausting sleepless travel, the first of two such dismal cross-country bus trips I would make - both bad. Makes the train seem like a luxury cruise - believe me.
Well, all this could be written off to a failure and an expensive disaster. But hardly so, in the long term. I discovered the West and was thereafter drawn to make that crossing several more times, including once on a motorcycle, and once with my wife and daughter, who is now almost as old as I was when I crashed and burned in Ritzville, Washington. Isn't Nirvana connected to the Wheel of Life .... I see that wheel coming around, and some closure happening, during this trip of yours to the coast.
And I did get to the Pacific Ocean and saw the log strewn coast of Oregon, and I learned how to scrub out a greasy pan with nothing but dirt and water.
So, in your words, Meghan: "It was all good."
Someday I'd like to go back to Ritzville. I don't know what I would do when I got there. Maybe I would try and find that little orchard on the edge of town and sit there for a moment - to drink a toast to the circles in our lives. Last time - 36 years ago - I was on the edge of Hell - looking over. But Hey - I ended up OK - big time. That deserves a celebration, don't you think?
Maybe I'd see an old beat up Elvis car cruising the main street, and behind the wheel a really beat up old cowboy - still looking for the wheat harvest that never came. Ghosts like these die hard.
But more dreams than ghosts live in the West. Find them.
Dreams are like ships - we carefully construct them to our own
These often crash on the coastal rocks, and sink........
But visions are like wild birds, flushed from a secluded pond
They rise unexpectedly, and
Ancient Chinese Proverb (I just made up)