California, there I went

It was a bright, warm morning in January when we crossed the border from Yuma, Arizona into California. As we descended the mountain range, the vast, open, lush landscape of the Imperial Valley laid out before us.

I was on a cross-country trip with my friend Arthur. The year was 1976. We had traversed from the great state of Maine through 11 states and a couple Canadian provinces to make it this far.

After weathering several snow storms and generally frigid conditions for most of the trip, the verdant orchards and fields of the Golden State appeared magical.

Winter crops growing in Camarillo remind me of my first trip to California 45 years ago this January.

Arthur and I naturally broke into a chorus of the Al Jolson classic: “California, Here I Come.”

That we had made it this far was something of a minor miracle. We were traveling in the “Brown Bombshell,” my 1963 Chevrolet Belair. We had no rear bumper and the gas gauge was inoperable (we kept a 5-gallon can of gasoline in the trunk as a backup).

Since we weren’t counting on the car making it the entire trip, we carefully packed just enough belongings to fit into two backpacks. In the event the vehicle broke down and was irreparable, we would hitchhike home.

We had something around $150 cash between us. Arthur had his Dad’s Sunoco gas credit card. We lived on Cheez-its and Cheerios. We had only AM radio. To this day, I cannot stand listening to Paul Simon’s “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” or Barry Manilow’s “I Write the Songs,” both of which seemed to play incessantly for the whole trip.

We made it into San Diego that day, and the next day saw our first ocean sunset off the coast of Santa Bárbara. We then traveled north to spend a week with friends in San Francisco. Although the Hippie Era was over, there was one notable protest against a new McDonald’s being erected in the Haight district.

The trip home was essentially nonstop along Interstate 80. We slept in the car, taking turns driving. We picked up a hitchhiker in Nebraska and somewhere in Ohio our headlights started cutting out.

We pulled into a rest stop to fix the lights and get a bite to eat. We went into the little diner and sat in a booth. We pooled our cash resources, which amounted to just enough to buy coffee.

That’s me on the shore of the Great Salt Lake. And that is the trusty Belair, sans rear bumper.

As we were counting our riches, a guy about our age approached our booth. He placed a $10 bill on the table and said it was from his mother. He pointed to her, sitting at a nearby table with another son.

He explained that she could see we were having car trouble and figured we could use a good meal. We thanked her profusely and then proceeded to load up on burgers and fries.

Haight District, San Francisco, 1976.

We dropped our hitchhiker off in Pittsburgh and decided to head north to route our trip through Niagara Falls, for one last sight-seeing expedition.

We made it home without incident. Twenty-five states, 2 Canadian provinces, 9,500 miles. Other than one motel room in Provo, Utah, we stayed with relatives or friends in Milwaukee, St. Louis, Denver, Tucson and San Francisco. Otherwise, we camped or slept in the car.

But that was a trip that changed my perspective. Within 2 years, I would have a California address and most of my siblings would as well.

The words to that old Jolson song were true: “California, here I come, right back where I started from.”

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