(we pick up our story halfway through the author’s wedding reception 25 years ago)
So there I was… awkwardly stuffing dollar bills into a middle-aged woman’s waistband in a feeble attempt to coax her down from the table she was dancing on at my reception because that’s how they roll in Northwest Ohio. Other than that bit of excitement, the party went on pretty much as planned. My new bride and I made our getaway mid-way through the festivities to our waiting hotel in Toledo. The following morning I awoke to discover that I had brought everything I needed for the return journey with the exception of footwear. I’m sure I was quite the sight walking through the lobby of the upscale Toledo Marriot in a t-shirt, shorts, nylon socks and blindingly white dress shoes. I didn’t even care for I was in love. It was our first day of our married life together, and we were off back to Pioneer, Ohio to open wedding presents and count up the cash.
I hope I don’t appear too unsavory in all this; there was a serious need to be fulfilled. My wife Kim and I were leaving Ohio for California in a couple of days to put down new roots, and we needed some fertilizer. Thankfully, our family and friends were as generous as they are kind, and we ended up well-funded. We just needed now to prepare for our journey and any obstacles that might arise. For example, the only vehicle we had was my ’85 Ford Escort, which was in no way large enough to carry everything we owned. The solution: UPS. We simply boxed up as much as we could and in six trips carried it over to the boys in brown to ship out to my sister’s apartment in San Diego. My sister Kelly had graciously offered to put us up for awhile at her apartment there, most likely to atone for all the physical and mental trauma she had inflicted upon me as a child. Oddly enough, the shipping company had a limit on the number of boxes you could send from one address to another. “We aren’t a moving company,” I was told curtly on the fifth trip. No matter, we just made up fake return addresses and hoped everything would make it there without having to be sent back to a place that didn’t exist.
The goodbyes were teary and heartfelt, as they always should be. I pointed the nose of the car west, and we were off on our Bunnymoon (the term is derived from our oh-so-cute way of referring to ourselves as honey bunnies). Neither one of us had ever been on a journey this long before, and I admit it took awhile to get settled into a routine. Compared to today, we might as well have in traveling in a Conestoga wagon. We had no hotel reservations set-up along the route because a) we were fancy-free spirits borne upon the wings of love with no set course and b) we didn’t know how. The first day I was happy to just drive, satisfied to have all the wedding stress behind me. Kim demonstrated her good upbringing and used the time to start writing thank you notes. We drove, and drove, and drove. For twelve straight hours. We stopped off for the night in Lawrence, Kansas. I chose that location because I was dead-tired, and I was familiar with the name because that’s where my student loan payments went every month. Thus endeth the first day of the Bunnymoon.
The second day of our Bunnymoon saw our first hint of marital strife, and, as is often the case in many marriages, it centered around money. Although we had garnered enough capital to cover our moving expanses, said capital was lying in a bank three states away. We had some money on hand, but our plan was to withdraw money from ATMs along our route. However, the machines were nowhere near as ubiquitous as they are now. Generally, they were only found in Plexiglas cubicles attached to banks. And if that wasn’t challenging enough, there was another small wrinkle we hadn’t anticipated. Folks today forget that in 1990, an ATM card was not universally accepted across the country. Your card might be part of the Star, Interlink, Pulse, or Tyme network and might not play well with the others. So not only did you have to find a bank, you had to find the right kind of bank. And you didn’t know if it was the right one until you got close enough to read the stickers on the machine. Imagine trying to find that in a strange city without the use of a smartphone or GPS.
As we approached the mile-high city in central Colorado, I noticed we were running low on cash and expressed my concerns regarding finding a compatible ATM. Kim then replied sarcastically with, “They’ll probably have an ATM in Denver,” which I mockingly echoed back in a high-pitched sing-song voice. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake because it led to our first period of what we later began referring to as ‘tense moments.’ Even now, some twenty-five years later, the phrase, “an ATM in Denver” can add an extra hint of spice to any of our disagreements. Just for closure, after an hour of nervous searching, we did find an automated teller. At the airport. That quest was immediately followed by another one; this time for a room. We were beginning to feel like Joseph and Mary after being turned away from four successive hotels in our search for shelter at an inn. Turns out mid-July in Denver is convention season and need can outweigh demand on such occasions. We did finally gain lodging at a Howard Johnson and thus endeth the second day of our Bunnymoon.
The third day passed relatively uneventfully as we travelled through the Rocky Mountains. It did mark the first and last time I ever appreciated being stopped for an extended period of time by road construction. It probably actually saved our lives since I was unable to stop gawking at the natural beauty that surrounded us and most likely would have driven over the edge of a cliff into a ravine where we wouldn’t have been found until a wandering hunter discovered our bones the following spring. Using our trusty Rand McNally atlas as our guide, we decided to bypass most of Utah and loop around south for a quick peek at the Grand Canyon the following day. This decision is what led us to the very isolated town of Tuba City, Arizona for the night. Neither one of us being that worldly, it was not a very restful evening. Its one thing to hear a coyote’s howl on TV, its quite another to hear one coming from your motel’s parking lot. We huddled close together and dreamed of California, but the terrain of towering mesas and the seeming absence of any organic life added to our feeling of being far from home. The events of the next day would only serve to confirm it.
It was only a couple hours drive to the southern rim of the Grand Canyon. We stopped at the visitor’s center and go our first glimpse into that great abyss created by unimaginable centuries of painfully slow erosion. It’s a vista which causes people to speak in hushed whispers as they are humbled by the realization of the utter insignificance of their own life span in comparison. Let me offer some advice to those planning a trip there: don’t bother taking any pictures. We went through three rolls of film and were shocked to discover that every print looked exactly the same as the rest. Just download a few when you get back. Ironically, the most exciting part of the day came as we were leaving. We were driving on some deserted two-lane connector road when my usually trusty Escort decided to take a little break. The engine simply stopped running. Puzzled, I shifted into neutral and coasted to the side of the road. My level of concern began to rise incrementally with each fruitless turning of the ignition switch. My fresh-faced wife gave me a look which is intuitively understood by every spouse regardless if they’re a newlywed or have been married for fifty years. It’s the look that says this particular problem lies firmly in the happy valley of your responsibility. For us, anything that concerns the day-to-day operation of the house or the health of the children is my wife’s quandary. Everything else, including investigating strange noises at night, belongs to yours truly. That means whenever the car breaks down, I get the pleasure of dealing with it.
With the division of labor clearly delineated for the remainder of our marriage, I popped the hood to give the engine a quick look-see. Everything looked fine: no broken hoses or belts, no fountains of belching steam or plumes of smoke, just a block of iron that refused to do its duty. Obviously, this problem was going to require outside help. Luckily, a good samaritan, who had recognized my stance (looking thoughtfully under the hood with hands on hips) as the universal symbol for mechanical incompetence, pulled up alongside. Now a decision had to be made. Who goes and who stays? We both couldn’t leave because someone had to keep an eye on the car and its contents. As the alpha male, it was clear I would have to be the one to depend upon the kindness of strangers to bring back help. That, and Kim’s refusal to even consider it, ensured I would be hopping into the passenger seat and leaving my beloved behind to dwindle ever smaller in a stranger’s rear-view mirror.
My ride with the samaritan only lasted a few miles as we soon came across a service garage. Proffering my heart-felt gratitude to the driver, I went inside to discuss my precarious position with the proprietor of the establishment (whose name-tag proudly proclaimed his name as Jimmy, a moniker reserved as either part of a hitman’s nickname or for young boys who have never kissed a woman they weren’t related to in some way). Jimmy assured my worried mind that he had the tools and expertise to deal with my automotive woes. The solitary hurdle was that the only tow truck in the area was currently located along the canyon’s north rim, or in laymen’s terms, on the wrong side of the largest chasm in the western hemisphere. Great. This meant that Kim would be stuck out there alone for at least an hour with no way for me to contact her. Dejected, I sat down and began passing the time perusing the only reading material available to me, namely the warning labels on gallons of anti-freeze.
Eventually the tow truck did make its arrival and, without being too obvious, I tried to hurry the driver as we made the trek back to the car. The extra wait time had acted as catnip to my fertile imagination as I nervously fretted over all the horrible fates that could have befallen my bride in my absence. As we rounded the final corner, I was greatly relieved to see the familiar outline of my Escort shining brightly in the sun. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see Kim. The closer we got, the harder my heart pounded. Where could she have gone? There wasn’t a pleasant scenario that came to mind to explain why she would have left the car and all of our stuff unprotected. It wasn’t until the tow truck parked in front of my disabled vehicle that I noticed my wife was sitting in the front seat. Thank God, she was still alive. I rushed out of the truck and apologized for taking so long to get back to her. She explained that it was okay; she was just sorry that I went through all that trouble for nothing.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, the car works now.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look.” And with that, she got into the Escort and started it right up. She explained that she had gotten bored of waiting, so she tried the key, and it worked. Since she didn’t know where I was, she had no choice but to sit there until I returned. Now the mechanic was listening in with interest. His diagnosis was that with the heat and altitude, my car had probably just developed something called vapor lock. Once the engine cools down a bit, it just goes away. What doesn’t go away though was the mechanic without $75 for his troubles. Happily reunited, we started traveling again to our next destination: Las Vegas. Due to the unexpected mechanical failure and far too much time later that afternoon spent peering over the Hoover Dam, we didn’t roll into Sin City until well past midnight. Again, we didn’t have hotel reservations. This wasn’t really a concern since there were numerous billboards put up by hotels promising us rooms would be available. What I failed to note was the small print that said if they were filled up, they would place us at another hotel. Following the neon to the famous Vegas strip, we stopped off at the famed Sahara first. Evidently, they also hold conventions in Vegas because they had no vacancies. True to their word, they did secure us a place at the nearby Dunes hotel. Nearing exhaustion, we drove over there, waited in line in the lobby, paid the bill, got the key, and headed up to the room. It did not take long to discover upon our opening the door that there was a small problem with our rental, namely, it was hotter than a blast furnace (although it was a dry heat). I went to the check out the AC controls located by the window. Everything was set properly for cooling, but the unit was blowing heated air into the room like a giant hair dryer. This simply wasn’t acceptable, and someone was going to hear about it.
I marched downstairs and got back into line to speak to the hostess behind the desk. Usually, I am a very calm and reserved person who would rather negotiate in civil tones than confront angrily. Not tonight. By the time I got to the desk, I had had enough. My first step was to theatrically lay my receipt down on the counter in front of me. Then, I spread my arms out with my palms flat on the desktop, looked the worker in the eye, and politely asked how much was my room going to cost. Confused, she glanced down at the paper and read back the total. I thanked her and added that I just wanted to verify what amount the fine people of the Dunes Hotel felt was appropriate to charge someone for a room IN THE MIDDLE OF THE @#$!!*@#& DESERT WITHOUT ANY @#$!!*@#& AIR CONDITIONING!!” My tantrum resulted in the speedy appearance of the head cashier who came over to either solve this lunatic’s problem or to gauge how much tranquilizer to put in the dart. He quickly pulled me aside and was quite apologetic. He hurriedly explained how renovations had been ongoing which had caused some regrettable issues. With a quick Liberace style flourish at the keyboard (this was Vegas, after all), he got us a different room and humbly hoped we would find it acceptable. Feeling happily placated and treated like the valued customer I obviously was, I returned to my original room, gathered my wife and belongings, and strode like a Caesar (again, Vegas) over to our new room. Thankfully, the air conditioning did work very well there, and rejuvenated we headed out to try our luck on the slot machines. It wasn’t until the next morning that we discovered our replacement room had no hot water. Well played, Mr. Keeper of the Inn, well played. In the end though, it turned out we didn’t need any extra heat.
A late night meant a late start. By the time we made our way to the parking lot, the hotel marquee showing the temperature to be already 112 degrees, which was at least twenty degrees cooler than the pavement underfoot. Due to my lack of experience, I made two rookie mistakes. First, upon entering my car, I firmly grabbed the steering wheel with my bare and unsuspecting hands. I admit, I never knew what the term spot-welding really meant before that moment. Basically, my fingers were seared like T-bone steaks on a grill. My palms felt like a fiery mix of the colors of orange and silver. The wheel was so hot that I actually had to go back into the hotel to get ice from the machine to cool it off. And that’s when I made my second mistake. As I prepared to buckle myself in, I reflexively reached over my shoulder and grabbed my seat belt by its metal clip. Yeouch! This caused a reverse branding of the Ford logo onto my palm like the Nazi with the Staff of Ra headpiece in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
With light touches upon the wheel, we pulled out of Vegas to start the last leg of our Bunnymoon. All that remained was to cross some two hundred miles of desert in a severely underpowered, overloaded Ford Escort with no factory air. This was going to be a day long remembered. According to the “World’s Largest Thermometer” in Baker, California, the ambient temperature was around 120 degrees. This made the air so hot that it was actually cooler to ride with the windows shut using only the vent fans for relief. I’ll always remember this trip because it was the first time Kim or I ever bought bottled water. It was a concept that previously we would have found laughable, but under those conditions, it was a matter of life or death. Aside from the searing heat, there was another obstacle in our path, namely the Amargosa Mountain Range. Due to a dearth of horsepower, we spent a good amount of the time being cursed at by semi-drivers because we couldn’t go faster than twenty-five miles an hour, and they couldn’t pass us due to truck lane restrictions. We pressed on bravely in part because we knew that our new life together was waiting for us out there, just over the next ridge. No, literally. We saw the first road sign for Victorville, the town where I would be teaching in the fall. It was only thirty miles away. Barely a half-hour, now that we were going downhill. Turns out that was also a metaphor for what happened next.
For those of us raised in the Midwest, California has always been presented in a certain light. Not just the waving spotlights of Hollywood movie premiers, but the positive light of promise. The hope that there was a place where the sun always shone down upon beautiful tropical plants and palm trees. A place where the inhabitants were always tanned an even golden brown with remarkably straight white teeth and who frolicked without care alongside the ocean’s surf. A place where the motorcycle officers were jovial and danced away their off-hours at discos. It was under the spell of that image that I had accepted the teaching job at a middle school in a place I had never been. But from what I could see out the windshield now, this was clearly not that place. All I could see was death. Dead plants. The bleached bones of dead animals. There was nothing alive that wasn’t directly connected to a water supply. Dirt and rocks were everywhere. I was amazed at how many different shades of brown I could discern in the ground around us. I felt a hand holding tightly onto mine. I looked over to my bride of less than a week as she took in the lunar-like landscape of her new home. Her trembling lips formed these words, “I don’t want to live here.” She was openly crying.
And thus endeth our Bunnymoon.