Chapter 6 : ON THE ROAD

The battered Ford Econoline van lurched into the powerful Southern California sunlight from the carpark of the Anaheim Hilton & Towers and pulled out onto Harbor Boulevard. Inside, on the two front seats and sprawled across the mattresses and blankets in the back, it carried its precious human cargo of Allan Baum, Donya White, Spike, and -- most precious of all -- me. It was Monday 3rd September, shortly after one in the afternoon, and we were just starting out on a journey that would take us along the 420 miles of highway that lies between Los Angeles and the fabled city of San Francisco.

Alan, my foot, Donya

On Sunday, I'd mentioned to Spike that I was hoping to pick up a lift to San Francisco, and since she intended visiting the city herself after the con to look up John Bartelt (whose convention membership she'd been using), she proceeded to arrange a ride for both of us as far as Palo Alto with Allan and Donya. And so here we were, Anaheim swiftly slipping into the distance and into the past as we barrelled down Highway 5, the Santa Ana Freeway, heading for the centre of town -- if Los Angeles can truly be said to have a centre, that is. Raymond Chandler once said of Los Angeles that it had all the personality of a paper cup, and I recalled Lucy Huntzinger saying of it that "... this place shouldn't be called a city -- it's just an endless suburban sprawl ... ". I decided that she was probably right, blissfully unaware as yet of the rivalry between Angelenos and San Franciscans that might inspire such a comment. Even so, one part of L.A. did look much like any other and apart from such occasional oddities as the tyre factory built to resemble a castle, the most interesting thing about the drive through town was the road signs. These pointed the way to locations with such wonderfully evocative names as San Bernardino and Santa Monica, Pasadena and Sacramento and, yes, Hollywood. To be cruising past turnoffs to such places seemed no less fantastic than would discovering roads that led to Barsoom, Arrakis, or Middle-Earth, because I'd only really encountered these places previously through TV and they seemed to belong to the realms of fantasy every bit as much as the creations in any book. For a time it was almost like traversing a fictional landscape, as if all of greater L.A. were in some strange fashion an adjunct of Disneyland, one that extended deep into the heart of those dreams that spring from the popular culture it's so much a part of. Lost in such neo-Ballardian reveries I almost missed seeing the famous Hollywood sign -- emblem of a force that has helped shape the dreams of us all -- as it came into view high on a hill up to my right, and I cursed myself for having packed my camera away.

At length we hit North U.S. 101, the Ventura Freeway, and as we turned onto it I chuckled at a sign that advertising local cultural delights: FEMALE MUD-WRESTLERS -- NITELY 7PM-2AM. Pretty soon the housing around us began to thin out, with the hills becoming more pronounced as we approached the outskirts of L.A. Crossing a bridge above one of those concreted-over rivers that will forever evoke images of THEM for any SF fan, I spotted a turn-off to Sherman Oaks, home of that famous short collossus of science fiction Harlan Ellison, and reflected for a moment on how different his lifestyle must be from those of the aspiring young British SF authors I counted among my friends. The final suburbs we passed through as we cleared the city seemed to be composed entirely of houses built on stilts that clung to the sides of impossibly steep hills and canyons. Over one of these -- Topanga Canyon -- sky-writing planes spelled out the need for fire vigilance.

"When there's a fire around here a lot of million dollar homes go up in flames," observed Allan, celebrating our escape from the city by putting his foot down on the gas pedal (as our American cousins call the accelerator).

With Los Angeles fading away behind, the land around us resolved itself into a thin coastal strip, one rendered sporadically green by the efforts of the occasional farmer, flanked by parched and rolling hills overlaid by a mottled mantle of hardy desert scrub. And it stayed thus most of the way to San Francisco. Route 101 wound along the coastal strip of course, and as well as drinking in the strange beauty of all this foreign scenery I continued to jot down those names we passed that took my fancy. "Rancho Conejo Blvd" declared one sign, while another pointed to "Solvang -- Danish Capital of America". "A Danish village transplanted to Southern California," explained Allan, never taking his eyes off the road before him, "big tourist attraction."

Now that we were on the open road I felt that I recognised it from a hundred Hollywood movies, and it was easy to regard it with the intimate familiarity one would an old friend. Steppenwolf's 'Born to Be Wild', a track that seemed an inseparable part of the landscape around us, was playing in my head, but a few miles further on it would be replaced by Beach Boys numbers....

Just beyond a place called Oxnard -- a name familiar to me from Los Brothers Hernandez' 'Love and Rockets' (who says you can't pick up anything but illiteracy from comics?) -- U.S. 101 finally reached the sea, and I got to take my first look at the Pacific Ocean.

"Look, the ocean!" said Spike, late.

"Yeah, I know."

"We don't see that in Wisconsin."

"Well you wouldn't -- Wisconsin is conspicuously free of ocean."

"Maybe we could stop and take a swim."

"But I don't have any trunks!" I protested, though the idea was appealing.

"You could fake it."

"Oh sure. I'd just draw a strap around my waist and claim I was wearing a codpiece ... and if anyone asked I'd tell them I couldn't afford a bigger one."

This particular piece of ocean was in fact the Santa Barbera channel and the road followed the broad sweep of coastline that looked out over the channel for most of its length. Watching the lazily inviting way the mid-afternoon sun glinted off the calm waters I was genuinely sorry we didn't have time to take a dip, but the Pacific was, I decided, pretty triff. Then, of course, there were the oil wells.

The DALLAS-watchers among you will remember the beam-engine oil derricks that featured in the opening credits of that famous melodrama, and those same people would understand my delight when the first of these beasts hove into view. Penned in by wooden enclosures at the side of the road they appeared singly at first, but as we continued on they quickly began to appear in twos and threes until it seemed we were passing through herds of them, all grazing away contentedly. With the bulbous counterweights at one end of their beams, they reminded me of nothing so much as giant ants and, inevitably, evoked further images from THEM. One group, as if having gained in confidence and become more ambitious than the rest, was see-sawing away on a chain of wooden piers that jutted out into the channel by maybe as much as a half-mile or so, and on seeing these sucking up their black nectar we knew we could go no further. We had to have drink!

The small roadside store we stopped at had clearly been set up mainly to slake the thirsts of dehydrated travellers, and stocked all manner of drink, both soft and not-quite-so-soft. My companions, predictably, stocked up on Coke and other fizzy fluids designed to keep the dentists of America in lucrative employment while I checked out the 'beer'. Since the store carried no imported ales I settled on Michelob dark as being, potentially, the least offensive of the American brands, and carried a six-pack of deep-frozen bottles back to the van with me. To my great surprise this brew, when thawed-out, differed from most American beers in a very significant way -- it had a taste. Not a particularly wonderful taste, I'll grant you, but by this point any beer that was drinkable was savoured as if it were the finest wine. Donya cautioned me about making it too obvious that I was drinking in the back of the van since the consumption of alcohol in a moving vehicle was, she informed me, an offence. Guzzling down my third bottle I promised to be discreet and succeeded in changing the subject by pointing out the full size oil platforms now visible some miles out to sea, and by telling her how Walt Willis' shoes had drifted out to sea when he went paddling in the Pacific back in 1952.

"There's an American Walt Willis, y'know," Donya told me.

"There's always someone being hailed as that," I told her, surreptitiously cracking open another Michelob.

"No, I mean there really is an American Walt Willis -- Walter K.Willis, brother of Seattle fan Anna Vargo."

"That's a shame. We've had enough trouble with there being two Bob Shaws, two John Berrys, and one-and-a-half Michael Ashleys. Another ringer we don't need."

Though it was cool by local standards the temperature (somewhere around the mid-90s) was still enough to make several such pit-stops necessary, including one occasioned by an alarming amount of steam coming out of the radiator, but we nonetheless made good time, eating up the miles as we passed such places as San Luis Obispo, Los Alamos, and Vandenburg Air Force Base.

"Where they're building the second shuttle pad," said Allan, "the one for military use."

So much for those dreamers who thought that space would never be miltarised.

With the lengthening of the late afternoon shadows into the twilight of evening, we passed Gilroy ("Garlic Capital of the World"), and, as darkness descended, pulled into a gas station called 'Rotten Robbie's' for fuel. Spike was so amused by the name of the place that she insisted on taking a photograph of me standing next to the brightly lit sign. My TAFF photo-album now contains a picture of that sign with a greyish blob just discernable in the blackness around it.

Finally, and with great sighs of relief all round, we reached Palo Alto and a neighbourhood whose obvious affluence was totally at odds with the ramshackle vehicle Allan and Donya had driven us here in. Still, food was the order of the day now and after some prompting from me it was decided that we would buy a meal at Ramona's, Allan and Donya's local pizza parlour. After years of American visitors complaining long and loud about the "Disgusting" things sold as pizza in Britain, I was determined to sample a real American pizza and see for myself if they were all they were cracked up to be. When the pizza arrived it certainly looked good, what with the masses of tomato and ham, the melted cheese in great profusion -- but could it live up to its reputation? At their house Donya cut me a slice, revealing in the process that in the U.S. the 'deep' in deep-pan pizza refers to the topping rather than the base, as is generally the case in Britain. With great ceremony (I think I mumbled something about "one small bite for man ... a giant mouthful for mankind") I sank my teeth into my first ever genuine, honest-to-god, authentically ethnic American pizza -- and it was delicious! I had discovered the perfect food. Compared to this, every pizza I'd eaten previously was like a polystyrene frisbee, thinly spread with a pre-masticated mulch.

After washing the pizza down with a few drinks (more Michelob Dark in my case), we fell to chatting about this and that for a while, interrupted only by Rich Coad phoning from San Francisco and arranging to pick Spike and me up at the bus terminal the next day. It was only a short bus ride into the city from Palo Alto, but it had been a long ride from Los Angeles, and all present decided that it was time for bed. Another day was over but tomorrow we would travel to the beautiful Bay Area proper, and the City of Love. I could hardly wait.