Friday, June 11, 2010

Crossing the Continent in a Yugo (Zastava 45)

Fully preppped by the dealer a 1988 Yugo cost just over $4,100 and would carry four adults and their baggage, being a hatchback design. Familiar with being passed by them, and by their Fiat prototypes, on mountain grades in Greece, while I was driving a small Citroen rented in Athens in 1987, I did not hesitate to buy one. I drove it for six years and only the impossibility of replacing door handles made me turn it in in 1994. It still ran perfectly. It had one fault, which it shared with some small British cars of the 1950s: a vacuum assist on the clutch, so that neither they nor the Yugo ought to be taken over the Continental Divide at Albuquerque. After descending a thousand feet or so, the clutch was OK again, but the experience was unnerving. It was not the Yugo's fault, however, that I ran over a sharp piece of metal on the Interstate in the middle of a desert, ruining a tire, and I was most grateful to the Hispanic family that stopped to help us, changing to the spare tire, even though they were, themselves, traveling with a family of children: sheer human goodness. I didn't want to speed through the landscape, anyway, and the Yugo was happiest doing 60mph on the flat and climbing the Rockies in 3rd gear at about 45–50mph. It never did use oil or get poor gas mileage.
The graduation ceremonies at UC Berkeley had been so large that no one could identify anyone receiving a degree, in so great a crowd, from such a distance, in the football stadium. Honors and awards as well as the courses I'd chosen, after all, were on my official transcript. Thus I had received three degrees without once wearing cap and gown. But my friend Denise had parents, who had helped her since she was little and who wanted to see the results of such effort. So we agreed that we would leave after the ceremony, which was in the morning (mercifully, given Louisiana humid heat), and we would drive to Pine Bluff that afternoon. Getting away from friends and relatives, however, before each had a chance to congratulate you and your parents and in many cases to take photos, proved to be the larger and more important part of the occasion. We got away from Baton Rouge a good deal later than I had imagined, owing to my ignorance of Graduation. We must have telephoned ahead to Pine Bluff, not to worry, but this was before cell phones in every purse and pocket. By the time we got there, I was tired, yes, but Denise was really tired, and a joyous and huge puppy awaited her at Wood's in Pine Bluff.
Denise with the puppy, Sylvia (named after Sylvia Plath, I am told) in Pine Bluff
Wood was always a wonderful cook, and I remember that he'd done something really good, but I can't remember what. Also, he was prepared to put up a couple of guests comfortably; again, he always can manage these things. From Pine Bluff we went to Little Rock, to join Interstate 40. On consultation, neither of us is sure whether it was on our way west or on our return that we were treated to a serious tornado warning at a motel just outside of Oklahoma City. Remembering a dust storm in southern Arizona on I-10 when I drove the secondhand Rabbit (Golf) VW from Eugene, OR, where I had bought it, to Louisiana, needing a valve job and leaking oil as fast as I could feed it, I thought that the more northerly route might be greener. Not much, and, instead of prone to dust storms, right in tornado alley every Spring and early Summer. Somewhere, from another trip I think, I have some photos of Little Rock, which is a nice little city with a state capital modeled on the national one.

I don't even remember Amarillo, TX, where we must have stopped, at least to eat, but Denise does. The map shows just as little as I remember between Oklahoma City and Amarillo or between the latter and Albuquerque. Even the wonderful Wurman 1990 Road Atlas has no remarks, and Kansas, directly north, has many more towns and small cities, though more if you take the old highway from Wichita through Garden City to Pueblo. Even so, conditioned by coastal California and by New York City and by Greece, to me the great American west, even the sea of grass east of the Rockies, feels confined by land rather than open to the sea and defined by mountains; it feels like an infinite trap. To my feelings, only the myth of the railway tracks is comforting.
If it hadn't been for the problem with the clutch, we'd have liked to stop and look around Albuquerque, an attractive city. As it was, only in crossing Arizona did things come into focus. I remember stopping at a Navajo truck stop, where, as at such places in Greece (for example), most of the local souvenirs had been made in far-off factories, and yielding to the real beauty of 'painted', stratified mesas and wondering at the geology they represented. We stopped to take pictures, even.
Denise photographing mesas

A telephoto or zoom lens would have been useful here
A friend of my grandmother's, in the Ladies' Aid at church, had moved to Arizona and for years sent her a subscription to Arizona Highways. It was good to see that the reality, both of sky and of rocks, was more beautiful (and much less gaudy) than that egregiously touristic periodical. Besides, there were otherwise unremarkable towns that had associations. I forget which actor was born in Kingman, but I have an unexplained snapshot of my father, labeled 'Winslow, Ariz."
"Sid Winslow Ariz" If he was about age 8 here, the date is 1917. My 1991 Road Atlas shows Winslow, AZ, on I-40 some 50+ miles east of Flagstaff and in smaller typeface than Kingman (about 200 mi. west of it). I don't know what they were doing there; by train it was a long journey and one that I doubt folks took six children on with a car of that date. Did they have one?

Why not go to the Grand Canyon? We didn't have the time or the money. After all, we were en route to the great Pacific Ocean, which I had promised was quite different from the Gulf of Mexico. We must have stopped at some place such as Barstow, where we would leave I-40 and take I-15. It must be said, too, that there is no comparison between the Los Angeles freeways and those of the San Francisco Bay Area, let alone of New Orleans, and once we got into them I found that getting to Malibu or Santa Monica was simpler on the road atlas than on the road and that there were no billboards advertising motels, anywhere. I'm not sure, but I think we made our way via San Bernardino to Thousand Oaks, a very good place for a good motel, and went back down to Malibu the next day. The Getty Villa wanted one to have advance reservations, parking and all being limited, but I managed to talk my way in. Again, as the driver (and this astonishes me), though I think we must have overnighted again before reaching San Luis Obispo, I can't remember stopping somewhere. Never mind, we were out of central Los Angeles, and it is strongly recommended arranging to park and use public transportation from there, as one does in Washington, D.C., to visit the L.A. Museum or the new Getty, very much worthwhile, and back to U.S. Hwy 101. Also, once out of both high mountains and desert, Denise felt fine, and the little car was just as happy, too.

A perfect specimen of Late Hellenistic use of mirror-image sets of piece molds to produce pairs of figures like these polite wrestlers. The Getty figures themselves are made from off-cast molds from the figures in Naples from the actual Villa.

I wasn't used to finding a motel in San Luis Obispo; as I recall we just took the downtown exit from US Hwy 101 and took the first one that was neither shoddy nor fancy. Not knowing that we'd find a very old neighbor on Church Street, and she didn't remember me, exactly, there was no longer anyone living in town to visit. My elementary school, Fremont, new when I entered it, and my mother's high school, new and the pride of the town in her days, no longer stand. The grocery on Higuera Street, Sauer's, where my father worked, and the best department store of my youth, Riley's, were gone, and all but one of the movie theaters, but old Sinsheimer's, an old department store, with a cast-iron front (commoner in the midwest, I think, than in California) and with pulleys to take payments and receipts back and forth to the office, had become Historical rather than just old, was there. The shop near the Mission of Ah Louis, the father of my mother's schoolmate, Elsie, also, by virtue of being Chinese-American and very old, is an historical monument; I remember playing with Elsie's Pekingese when, age 11 or 12, I visited her with my mother. The Carnegie Public Library has long been a little town museum. The Franciscan Mission itself had been gussied up and landscaped nicely and provided with a gift store, but it still worked as the main Catholic parish church of the town.

Houses now extended way up the slope of San Luis Mountain and wrapped around it. But the town remains as nice a place as anyone could wish to find, though it no longer tolerates a working brickyard right in town (a golf course is near by its site) and I found no trace at all of the blacksmith's yard where I remembered horses still could be shod. That had been only a couple of blocks from Church Street. Not surprisingly, the one-room former Nazarene Church where my grandfather had his shop and repaired antique, and nearly antique, furniture had disappeared. It was good only for a shop, barely having running water. The newspaper's press works was no longer across the street from the shop's site, either; I had loved to watch the paper coming off the press.
I took Denise to most of the places that I have named in the early months of this blog, but there was also the Ocean, much more accessible here than at Malibu or Monterey Bay. I'd have liked to go to Oceano, to see Edward Weston's lovely white dunes, but wasn't quite sure how to get there directly; I think we went to Pismo Beach, a family beach where you can dig for clams, too, if you know how, and we did go to Morro Bay, and I took pictures there.

From San Luis Obispo we continued north on "El Camino Real", US 101 (the Interstate went inland), and I pointed out the Paso Robles Inn and the site of Camp Roberts, inter alia, and we stopped in little San Miguel, since I did not intend to drive out to San Antonio de Padua much less to Nuestra SeƱora de Soledad, interesting because La Soledad is really rare in the USA, but a very small single room with a doll in black for a statue (I did visit it once). Now the a State Penitentiary is its main industry. But San Miguel Mission is its tiny town's main attraction, and it now has been professionally gardened. The interior is remarkably today much as I first remember it.

This post is becoming awkwardly long, so I shall complete the trip in the Yugo in a new one. From the bottom of the Salinas Valley to Berkeley, we drove directly on the route I had always taken.