You who live on the road, must have a code that you can live by.
Crosby, Stills & Nash, “Teach Your Children”
We were just west of Tulsa. We needed gas. Mariam needed the Ladies Room and I needed to get out of the car and see if my right leg could actually function again…as a limb of mine, that is. There was the beginning of a disconnect between my right hip, thigh and calf and the rest of my body. They were more intimate with the gas pedal than with the rest of my skeleton.
I also needed a baked potato. At least that’s what I planned to have as a side for dinner this evening. I had eyed a sign for Wendy’s, which, unlike Burgher King, carries a variety of them, mostly dripping with Velveeta.
As we pulled off I-44, I did some serious multi-tasking. Professional multitaskers like attorneys, brain surgeons and private school parents would have been proud of me. I was keeping an eye on the left fender of the R-Pod to make sure it didn’t come in contact with the Jersey barriers on the exit ramp. My eyes flicked to the right rear-view mirror to ensure that there was no Oakie trying to pass me on the right. I was flying New York State plates and you never knew what the locals would think of the Yank exiting on the west side of Tulsa. I was also checking the left mirror for signs of a semi that had plans on using the same exit but whose brakes had failed and was bearing down on me at the legal highway speed of 75 mph. That kind of experience could ruin a whole day.
Hey, it’s happened. You have to be ready for such things when you’re an experienced Road Warrior like me with some hard traveling under his K-Mart military-style belt. I mean I still had dust in my hair from a diner parking lot somewhere east of Kingman, Arizona.
All of this was happening while I tried to connect with the slightly sexy female computer voice on our GPS that was telling me what to do. When the programmers put her voice into the internet/satellite system, they took a young pretty voice model and layered her intonation with mid-western wildflower honey. We call her Moxie. She’s available at the touch of a button, like an escort at an Atlantic City casino hotel. Yet, all she ever does is tell you where to go.
I know marriages like that.
I was sitting at the red-light at the end of the ramp when I saw them.
Two of them. A young man and woman walked across the road just in front of my car. They carried backpacks and each had a dog on a leash. I noticed an overstuffed teddy bear sticking out of the woman’s coat pocket. It was the yellow-ness of the toy that caught my eye.
Look, run-a-ways, I said to Mariam.
No, just kids traveling, she said.
Two older teens with dogs don’t walk the roadways anywhere near Tulsa, I thought. My imagination kicked in.
She’s pregnant, I said. They’re running away from unaccepting parents. In a few miles they’ll be at a friend’s house.
The light changed. I pulled slowly around the corner and looked for an entrance to the Conoco gas station that was attached to the Wendy’s. The young run-a-ways were nowhere in sight.
You gas up, I’ll get the spud, I said to Mariam. We’ll take turns for the rest rooms.
I ordered my potato (baked, with chives and sour cream on the side…we’d add cheddar later) To go, please.
I stepped back to wait for my order. Someone stepped to my side. I backed up against the stack of “Happy Meal” boxes. I know that’s MacDonald’s, but hey). I knocked one over. I replaced it to the top of the pile. As I bent down, I noticed the woman next to me was wearing military boots. As I stood to replace the box, something in her coat pocket caught my eye. It was a very yellow stuffed animal. It was her! It was the pregnant run-a-way.
She looked at me and smiled. Her big eyes were made even bigger by the blue eye shadow she was wearing. She was holding a chocolate smoothie.
Hi, I said, I just saw you back down the road a moment ago. You’re traveling, I said. I think I heard her say “duh” under her breath. Yeah, she said, my husband and I are going to California…that’s him across the street. She nodded with her slightly spiked hair.
And then she dropped the bomb on me. They were going to California ALONG ROUTE 66!
I was looking into her eyes, not the eyes of a pregnant girl on the run, but a real child of the road. No, not a child (she was older than I expected) and she was willing to tell me her story. We went to a corner and she told me how she was born near Tacoma, not far from where my daughter, Erin, lives. She said her name was Jade. I felt rushed. Her husband was waiting with the dogs across the road. Mariam had finished tanking up with the gas, but I couldn’t let her just walk away. I wanted to listen to more of her story…her sad story. I filled in the blanks between the facts she told me. She was married and had three kids. Divorce. Trouble. Back and forth to Tacoma. A disjointed life.
I asked, if she didn’t mind, could I ask her a personal question. She said no problem.
Are you on the road because of necessity or just a long walk to California for the experience. Both, she replied.
We plan on getting some work in Texas and save enough for a van to get the rest of the way. She held up her Smoothie; this is lunch for the two of us, she said.
I hope you’re keeping a journal, I said. This is an experience of a life-time. She said that when it was over, they would be settling in California and planned on writing a sociology book about the people they met along the way.
I knew we had to go. We moved toward the door. I fished out a few dollars and handed the wadded bills to her and told her to have the next meal on me. I asked if I could take her picture. She said yes. We walked to the car and I introduced her to Mariam. Jade made a strong point that they were not Rainbow Kids. I asked what a Rainbow Kid was. She said that they were the young that were on the road (where? I thought) but they worked the system and always wanted a hand-out. I calculated that these Rainbows could be the age of my grandchildren…the grandchildren of the ’60s hippies. They (Jade and her husband) stayed clean and followed the Hopi Prophecies. I looked her in the eyes and they looked clean and clear and bright.
We parted. I honked to them as we pulled back onto I-44.
So, I’ve been looking for the drifters and the lonely along my journey. I have been looking for unshaven sun-burnt men. But they passed along Route 66 sixty years ago. Then, they were fresh out of the army, families heading west, following the sunsets and hoping the new sun would rise on a better life. Now, they’re out there again. But, I wondered, were they ever NOT out there? Did I stay too close to home to see the lives of people leaning against trees and fences, split-rail fences. Or, did I just have too many maps in my collection? Maps and Atlases that had colored lines and little dots on them. When you see the world that way, as I did for so many years, you forget that along those colored lines, cars speed along and people roam. And, in those little dots, in the big cities, small towns and the crossroads, old men still sat under cottonwood trees and diners smelled of real grease.
I had met the children of the children of the children of John Steinbeck.
This is Jade.