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California: my first visit (part one)

My first visit to California was as a college sophomore at Ohio State University (OSU), in 1970-71. Five of us, Honors Student suitemates, made the journey from Columbus, OH to California, ostensibly to be spectators at the Rose Bowl Game between Ohio State and Stanford (Jim Plunkett at their helm). Little did I suspect that the journey would change the course of my life. The trip was too long ago to remember all details flawlessly :-) , but I will attempt to bring back the lasting impressions that caused me to love this state of California, which would become my home.

We gathered in the parking lot between our dorm, Morrill Tower and the evil twin :-)  tower, Lincoln Tower, one very cold morning in December 1970. The vehicle, a pickup truck with a covered truck bed that contained a mattress and a 12-inch speaker for piping the radio to the back, was on loan from Dick’s father. The speaker had a switch with two positions, on and off. Dick was a chemical engineering student whose home was in the small southern Ohio town of Beaver. Dick would go on to graduate third in his chemical engineering class from OSU in 1973, marry, father several children, and die in the crash of a small plane, from which his son walked away.

The five of us climbed into the truck and were off. One of us, Ron, had never driven a standard transmission vehicle, but would learn on the trip. For me, all of the intervening years would blur the reality that we had traveled historic Route 66 and that the route became segmented by “progress” during those years. The reality would come back to me in force with the viewing of “Cars“, in Pixar‘s theater, with our friend María who works there.

The trip across, OhioIndianaIllinois, and Missouri was uneventful. From Oklahoma on, we would know when Ron (now a successful physician) drove, as he became used to working a clutch. Dick drove, and I navigated, as we followed a truck carrying explosives at night across the Texas panhandle. I remember clearing a rise in almost total blackness, only to see the street lights of the next Texas town, a circular grid of lights bounded by total darkness on all sides. :-)

I remember eating the oranges that we were not allowed to take from Texas to New Mexico, during a stop at the border, and I remember our first *long* stop, at the Petrified Forest National Park near HolbrookArizona. I must have slept as we traversed New Mexico, but I would return there several times later, on business. Imagine five college students, pent up inside the confines of a pickup truck, allowed their first exercise at the Petrified Forest. I think that we spent three hours there, hiking around and marveling at the petrified wood and the Painted Desert. I remember the lonely sound of the wind as it navigated the canyons of this environment, which was very foreign to all five of us.

We visited Hoover Dam and Las VegasNevada briefly, but since we were all under 21 years of age, our options were limited! :-)

My first clear memory of a California landmark was a sign for Zyzzyx Road, which, in our fatigued state that night, we wondered if we had really seen, or whether it was an illusion from lack of sleep. Little could we suspect that this was the road to Zyzzyx, CA, a settlement in San Bernadino County, in the Mojave Desert, and now home of the Desert Studies Center, a field station of the California State University. Little could we even imagine that Zyzzyx Road would become the name of a 2006 independent thriller film, which has gained infamy for its extremely low box office gross. :-)

Dick was driving and I was navigating as we made our way toward the Pacific Ocean. It was night and there was a heavy fog that extremely limited our visibility as we traveled toward the coastal town of Laguna BeachJimi Hendrix wailed on the radio – “Purple Haze“, which seemed very appropriate. Then, in the fog, police vehicles became visible. Police flashlights shone in our windows and in the window of the covered back of the truck. (Later, those in the back told us that they saw the lights, saw the police, and laid back down hoping for the best!) The police made us turn the truck around, and we had to think about another coastal destination.

The next day, a radio announcer spoke of a rock festival in Laguna Beach that had been broken up by police. Sleeping campers were awakened by police wielding shotguns and billy clubs and singing (I kid you not) “Here Comes Santa Claus.”

Yes, those were different times. [To be continued…]

-Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo

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