Wheels are essential to any road trip. But to do justice to an epic, cross-country road trip, the wheels must be exceptional. Besides having to cover 7,356 miles of highway on a zigzagging odyssey from New York to California and back, braving the potholes and soft-shoulders of the Mother Road, plus desert and mountain and endless corn fields, it is also requisite that my own cross-country machine have its own Merry Prankster magic, an indefinable quelque chose, so that when I roll into Beeville, Texas, at least one shopper looks up from unloading his shopping cart to notice that we have arrived.
This is 1978, the last year a VW Beetle will roll off a German assembly line. Nixon and Agnew are long gone, replaced first by a klutz, then a peanut man, and now a B-actor who likes jellybeans. We have all seen the image of the helicopter dropping into the South China Sea and will watch every single film to be made about Viet Nam, starting with The Deer Hunter. Although a large chunk of the lineup at Woodstock has died of overdoses, and Haight Ashbury is now just a hippie slum, their legacy has been branded into our psyches. The world and I are twenty-three and we are living on the vestiges of sex, drugs, rock and roll—and the cross-country trip. It is our destiny.
To satisfy my perpetual wanderlust, I have already taken a first trip to Europe and have come back with a Frenchman in tow. Gégé loves L’Amérique and driving and bluesmen I have never heard of, like Big Bill Broonzy and Lightning Hopkins—making us nearly perfect travelling companions. We have forged a dream, so to make enough money for the trip I have sold out to The Man and gotten a job as a teller at the Greenwich Savings Bank, while Gégé strips the oak chair rails in the dining room of my father’s senior citizens’ home for two dollars an hour. The paint remover is skull-and-crossbones toxic so Gégé is pretty loopy when he gets home; I’m just bored. I find the details of my colleagues’ sleeping arrangements only vaguely interesting, and counting other people’s money just leaves my hands dirty.
Like any decent future cross-country traveler, Gégé’s got a guitar. But instead of Crosby, Stills Nash & Young or the Allman Brothers, he sings, “Babee pleeees don’t go” with a French accent, explains finger picking to me, and teaches me blues riffs. Gégé’s dream is to visit the Deep South and Chicago—that’s his Amérique. Mine is California dreaming and “Highway 66 Revisited.” While we’re waiting for the cash to accumulate, we plan our trip and make tapes.
Every night after work, we unfold the giant US map onto the bed in the rooming house where we are staying, and the plan evolves. Flattened out like that, the country comes alive. The red lines of the roads crisscross like veins, the Great Lakes bloom like a purple iris in the north. Each state seems to vibrate with possibility. Since we plan to leave in early spring, we will take the southern route, following the sun and allowing the northern snow to melt. Our departure date is set for April Fools’ Day, our first stop will be Washington DC (party in Georgetown), then down to the Keys (Hemingway’s hangout) and along the Gulf Coast to New Orleans (our first blues stop). After that, we’ll follow the Mississippi River up to Arkansas (Big Bill Broonzy’s birthplace) then head west. We establish our list of must-do’s: Nashville, Graceland, Georgia O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch, James Dean’s Texas, the Alamo—until there is an impossible tangle lines connecting the dots. The more we plan, the murkier our plan gets, so we end each session with “On verra” and hope for the best. By mid winter, dreaming over the map is getting old, and Gégé has almost made it around the dining room. We are getting itchy: we want to move, but still don’t have wheels.
“Winifred” finally arrives on a freezing day in February, as I huddle in front of a fire at my parents’ house and consider going back to school for my Master’s so I won’t have to work at a bank anymore. Because Gégé possesses another traveler’s essential—he knows cars, and better still, motors—he has been appointed the mécanicien and placed in charge of finding a vehicle with my father. For once Cher Papa is being helpful. Or maybe he’s just decided that since he hasn’t managed to kill Gégé with the paint-remover fumes, he’d better do his best to make sure we get across the country and back again in one piece. Dad is an antique car buff and has put the word out to his buddies in town. “Low mileage and a good motor, that’s all that matters,” he says, and for once he and Gégé seem to agree. They’ve been searching for weeks but today a call has come in from Skip’s Garage in Port Chester. Gégé calls me to report back: “C’est parfait,” he says. “Un petit bijou.” And the deal is done.
Before a road trip, the energy poured into the fantasy is enormous. In my fantasy, we travel in an orange and beige VW Bus with whitewall tires, safari windows all around, orange curtains to keep out the light in the morning, and a sunroof. The bed, the table, kitchen utensils and all our belongings are neatly tucked away under benches upholstered with sunflowers or stowed in cabinets painted mellow yellow. There is room for three in the bouncy front seat, and as we drive along, Marshall Tucker Band blaring, we dominate the road. In this projection of my true, inner, but as-yet-unexplored wayfaring self, I have wild sex and amazing adventures with fascinating, erudite hitchhikers who occupy the third spot in the front. After long rap sessions under the stars on Indian reservations in North Dakota, ghost towns in Arizona, the painted rocks of New Mexico, I will reach my potential, liberate my masculine side, open my chakras and become one with the world and anyone who happens to be part of the group at the time. The inner and outer quest and the time-space continuum are aligned within the confines of our van.
I am standing on the front steps lost in my fantasy when I hear Gégé honk the horn, and see him turning into my parent’s driveway, flashing the lights. It is 5:00 in the evening. Night has already fallen, and with the headlights on, I can only see the dark, square silhouette of the van. He opens the door and jumps down, banging the side of the truck and making a clanking sound. “Voilà!” he says, “Sympa, non?”
As Gégé walks around to the other side and slides open the passenger door, my imagination is still bouncing along somewhere in Colorado next to Ken Kesey. So it takes me a moment to realize that this van doesn’t have a passenger’s seat, just a metal step up and a long stick shift coming out of a metal floor. I am stunned. Our miracle machine isn’t even a van—it’s a small brown UPS-style delivery truck. No curtains, no flip-up windows, no passenger’s seat, no sidewalls. No sunflowers. I still don’t say anything. Gégé, whose fantasies are obviously as different from mine as his taste in music, gets nervous. He slides the door on the passenger’s side open and closed, clicking and banging it each time, prattling on in Franglais. This is an important moment. I have fallen to earth and am standing in front of a brown delivery truck in the freezing February night and Gégé is making too much noise for me to think. Am I going to give into disappointment before the trip has even begun?
Of course not. It would take much more than this to quell my powers of reverie. In fact, my disenchantment melts away before it has even had time to leave a bad taste in my mouth, because the essential facts remain: this is 1978 and we are going cross-country in a van.
In the weeks that follow, Gégé finishes his way around the senior citizens’ dining room, I tell the bank manager that I do not intend to continue my career in banking, and we begin transforming “Winifred.” We install a plank over the step to extend the floor, and bolt a massive red leather armchair from Goodwill into place for the passenger seat. I sit there often before we leave, overlooking my parents’ front lawn, daydreaming. A bungee cord is hooked around the stick shift and attached to a screw loop in the wall to keep Winifred from popping out of fourth gear. Our living space in the back, which smells slightly of cheese, is aired for days. We add magnets to the cupboard doors to keep them closed, and fill them with pots and pans, clothes, books, food, a camping cooker, a cooler, and camping lights. We make orange curtains for the windows of the two back doors, and place a mattress on the floor. The mattress takes up all the floor space so we decide that during the day, we’ll fold it in half and tie it in place with another bungee cord.
With each of these transformations, we appropriate Winifred and vice versa. Sometimes as I sit in the red leather armchair, I imagine the truck’s nervousness about this whole endeavor. I realize that the evolution from humble delivery truck to cross-country dream machine could be a bit overwhelming. Will she rank? Will it matter that there are only four gears as we try to eat up the miles in Tennessee, Iowa, and Missouri? Will she feel ridiculous as we pull into truck stops to sleep among the dinosaur-sized semis? Will her dour brownness embarrass her when we finally hit the psychedelic surfing beaches of Malibu?
These are Winifred’s qualms, but the longer I sit, the clearer things become. I sense that this machine has inner resources that are going to surprise us. In that red chair a cosmic connection is created, opening a view into our future. After living the small, protected life of a local cheese delivery truck in Wilton, Connecticut, I see Winifred bopping along for days in open spaces, gaining confidence with every stop. As we cruise along the wide banks of the Mississippi and through the oil fields in Texas, I see a van unbound, spark plugs spitting until color, shape, and horsepower are no longer an issue. Because Winifred is now a truck with a mission, an indispensable variable in the cross-country equation. She will save our lives when we are hit by lightening during a storm in West Virginia as we rock and roll on her rubber tires. She will wait to gather us up as we make a quick getaway from a local bar in Alabama whose patrons do not take kindly to foreigners. As a loyal sidekick, Winifred will push herself beyond her limits, beyond her calling, and beyond her humble origins.
All of this has a price, though. Every mile on the open road is worth two delivery-route miles. There will be little signs at first: we make it to the West Coast where Winifred has trouble turning over in the fog of San Francisco, wheezing like an old smoker before finally humming to life. Then just outside of Vegas on the trip back she overheats because of a hole in the radiator and will need to be watered as regularly as a thirsty plant thereafter. It gets harder and harder to keep the stick shift from popping out of fourth gear. But to us, these are just hiccups. We can no more imagine Winifred ageing than we can imagine it for ourselves. Our roads are invariably entwined, and we will finish together. Then, in Wyoming, Winifred is felled by a stroke that leaves us bucking and stalling up and down the mountain roads. Even so, our faithful companion still gets us all the way to Chicago before limping to a final halt in Michigan City, Indiana. It is a sad day. We negotiate Winifred’s final resting place at Stanley’s Car and Body Shop in exchange for a bus ticket to Penn Station, and the cost of the postage necessary to send our things back by mail. In our last vision of Winifred, we see her parked between a Good Humor ice cream truck and an electric blue pickup, a silent, dignified bodhisattva waiting patiently to be reincarnated part by part into other vans, a rear view mirror here, a motor block there, so she can fulfill her fate and take to the road once more.
But that is later. In the meantime we are putting the final touches on her before leaving, and on the day of our departure, we tack the map of the US to the plywood wall behind us in the front cabin. After saying good-bye to my parents who never really believed we’d leave at all (“You sure you don’t want to go back to school?” my mother asks as the day nears), we put a Big Bill Broonzy tape into the cassette player and are on our way. It is morning. We head down the gravel driveway, turn left past the senior citizen’s residence, and take Greenwich Avenue. As we take the sharp right turn in front of the bank towards the Connecticut Turnpike, the magnets holding the cupboard doors closed give way and the contents of every single cupboard falls to the floor of the van. The crash is terrifying but Gégé is driving and he doesn’t even downshift. Winifred doesn’t blink an eye either, and I’m in the red armchair with the world at my feet. Gégé takes the ramp heading south, shifts into fourth and attaches the bungee cord to the hook on the wall. He hits the accelerator, I turn up the music, and we are on the road.
Dale Roche-Lebrec is an author and translator. Her poetry and non-fiction have been published in the Carolina Quarterly, Spoon River Review, Cold Mountain Review and other journals. She is the co-author of “What’s Next? How Professionals are Refusing Retirement” (Palgrave-Macmillan 2011). She has been living in France for many years.