Leaving Home: Wandering Wheels
It was early June 1972. It would not be much longer until I would be walking in a graduation line to get my high school diploma. It was an exciting time. Life in Flint had just started to click. Things were going well; I had a girlfriend, my own car, and a decent job. What more could a 17-year-old teenager want out of life?
There was only one problem. In the eyes of everyone else around me, it was time to leave home, time to discover my future. The future was about next Friday night when I would go on a date. I felt pressure to blaze a new trail.
I wasn't afraid to leave home alone; I had done this already.
In the summer of 1970, I went on a bicycle trip with the Wandering Wheels of Taylor, Indiana. They put together a group of teenagers from all over the nation. I was lucky to be invited to participate. We met in Huntington Beach, California, intending to ride to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, from sea to shining sea.
Mom hugged me at Detroit's Metropolitan Airport and sent me off for my first airplane ride. She didn't think I was leaving home for good. I was leaving home to learn something about myself, and I would be back. She understood that leaving home, in this instance, involved some risk. The rewards of taking risks were that I would grow physically and intellectually as a man. I would inevitably experience things that Flint, Michigan, could not offer. There was never a doubt in her mind that I would be coming back again.
Mom watched as I boarded a plane in Detroit for my destination, Los Angeles, California. The trip started with high hopes and a brand-new green Schwinn Super Sport bicycle. I was ready to look for America. Just 16 years old at the time, and the longest bike ride I had taken until then was around the Dixieland subdivision. The neighborhood had four small hills. In retrospect, it was good training for the flat terrain of Kansas. Still, it didn't help at all in biking the mountains of Wolfe Creek Pass in the Colorado Rockies.
Mom didn't seem nervous about my taking on this ambitious adventure. She wasn't trying to get rid of me for the summer, either. Mom always encouraged me to leave home and try something different than Flint! She always said, "Art, see how the other half lives."
It took a long time to figure out what she meant by "the other half." My life was spent in a blue-collar town with people from all across Hillbilly Nation. I didn't need to leave Flint to see that half. The half my mother wanted me to see was other cultures and people.
The bike trip was my idea. Admittedly it was a crazy idea. The movie Easy Rider was released the summer before, in July 1969. It inspired me to think about riding these roads out west. I had never been further west than Kalamazoo, Michigan, up to then. Instead of romanticizing the drugs depicted in the movie, I fell in love with its scenery and theme song, The Ballad of Easy Rider. The song was written by Bob Dylan and recorded by Roger McGuinn and the Byrds. Easy Rider captured my spirit at the time. Here are a few lines from that song;
The river flows
It flows to the sea
Wherever that river goes
That's where I want to be
Flow river flow
Let your waters wash down
Take me from this road
To some other town
All he wanted
Was to be free
And that's the way
It turned out to be
Flow river flow
Past the shaded tree
Go river, go
Go to the sea
Flow to the sea
Rolling onto some other town appealed to me back then. Over the next few years, I rolled into more towns than I ever imagined possible. I was a 16-year-old teenager growing up with clouds of black factory smoke wafting over our house almost every day. The clear blue skies of Colorado or California beckoned.
Many songs spoke of travel, hitting the road, and leaving home, such as the Eagle's song "Take it Easy" and the Allman Brothers' "Midnight Rider." I'm unsure if the free-spirited cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s or my biological clock ticking made me want to travel on adventures. But as the worn-out saying goes, highway adventure songs were the soundtrack of my life during my teenage years. The only limits at that time to leaving home were my lack of funds to get out of town. To be clear, leaving home and not going back home to Flint were never part of the equation.
Flint never left my thoughts while biking. We had a lot of time to think as we tried to average 100 miles daily. The first stage of the trip was up and down the Sierra Nevada Mountains and foothills near San Bernadino, California. The road outside Los Angeles was smog-filled, and it was difficult to breathe as we climbed the steep hills.
While biking toward the Grand Canyon in Arizona, passing through small northern Arizona towns like Kingman, Seligman, and Williams, I realized what a vast country we called America. When people sing America the Beautiful, they have no clue how far it is from "sea to shining sea" until they try it on a bicycle.
It was somewhere before Flagstaff, Arizona, I began talking to myself. About this time on my journey, I was telling myself trying to ride a bike across America was a ridiculously nutty idea! The conversation continued: "Arthur, if you ever think about adventuring across America again, do not do it on a bicycle." So the reply in my head went, "I'll do it on a motorcycle instead, except that is a dumb idea too!"
Crossing the Mojave Desert in California on a bicycle teaches lessons about survival in the unbearable summer heat. I had never been to a desert before. The thing I knew about a desert was what I saw on the Death Valley Days, one of the longest-running television series in history. That show was staged in California's Death Valley, just 250 miles north of where we ventured into the Mojave Desert.
We could only travel early in the morning or late at night, passing thru the desert towns of Yucca Valley, Twenty-Nine Palms, and Needles, California. We slept in the public park in Twenty-Nine Palms. The automatic sprinklers went off at night, soaking us and our gear. At first, I thought it was raining outside. Our gear dried out in about three hours because it was so arid.
The Mojave Desert was the first place I ever saw rattlesnakes. We rode at night to avoid the hot sun. Dozens of rattlesnakes lying on the road made it difficult to navigate. The snakes found the road to keep warm. Most were killed as they slept on the warm asphalt roads. I feared being bitten by a snake peddling down the highway. Not all the snakes were dead.
The Colorado River and Davis Dam just north of Laughlin, Nevada, were a welcomed sight as we left the scorching heat of California's deserts. The road to that place was ungodly difficult and hot. It was about one hundred and ten degrees outside. You couldn't sweat because it was too hot and dry. That was weird. I felt dehydrated, and my skin was burned by the intense desert sun. I learned to endure that day that which I could never have imagined. I only had one thought. Do not quit.
I went toward the water and poured the freezing water over my head. I was 300 miles east of Huntington Beach, on the Pacific Ocean, and 2,000 miles from home. I was on my own. At this point, my bike ride was about survival and getting to the next stop.
In that area, places are far and few in between. I remember stopping to find water and seeing this shack with a corrugated tin roof. It did not seem possible that people could live in that heat. Like in the movies, there were tumbleweeds and not much else. All I wanted was to fill my water bottle and find respite from the blazing sun.
Inside the shack were two men in the back, looking perplexed as I walked inside. The men were huddled around a big water trough, the kind used to water livestock, and a massive fan over top of it. It was the poor man's version of air conditioning. In my mind, I drifted back to Flint to my Dad sitting in front of his airconditioner listening to Ernie Harwell calling the Detroit Tiger game.
The men asked what I wanted as I looked around this ramshackle place. I had enough change for a soft drink. They were kind enough to fill my water jug. Looking around the joint, I thought they were too poor to afford air conditioning. So I asked them what was up with this contraption. They said it was a desert cooler. In other words, it was the poor man's air conditioner.
I had never seen one of these coolers in Michigan because it pumps massive humidity everywhere. In Michigan, a very humid place in the summer months, pouring more humidity in the air would have the opposite effect of cooling it.
We had biked through California's Mojave desert just a week before. Our travels took us toward cooler temperatures near the Grand Canyon. There were at least some trees in the rugged hills as we neared Indian country.