Day 19. OR: open roads, smashed windows, dick-heads, debates

by Kevin May

For the sort of schedule that I was trying to keep to, skuzzy motels  were proving to be a boon. There was never any reason to hang around once I’d woken up and rarely any offer of breakfast to delay me. This motel was right down the bottom end of the skuzzy scale, and so I was up and out by 7.30 am.

It was a crisp morning and the dew was thick on the windows of the car. It was 55 miles to Burns Junction, which had been a candidate for my overnight stop the night before. When I got there, I was relieved not to have pushed on past McDermitt. The “town” comprised a meeting of two roads and a solitary gas station that didn’t even look open at ten in the morning (Mountain Time). That would definitely have meant a night shivering in the car. At Crane, I found the first accommodation available since crossing in from Nevada. It was 158 miles on from McDermitt.

Paul Harvey informed me that today was the 187th anniversary of the Star Spangled Banner. The other news was that somebody in Portland had stripped down his Honda Civic and put a rocket-engine in it. Unfortunately, this had brought him an unexpected problem. He could barely get between gas stations before he needed to refuel. I had become quite fond of these radio broadcasts. There was something soothing about the way Paul Harvey lackadaisically picked out a combination of serious and trivial news. It was like listening to your granddad reminiscing.

Lulled into this sense of security, I found myself being sucker-punched by the commercial clout of the segment. What started apparently as a news story about an exposé of unscrupulous garages that told you things were wrong with your car that were perfectly OK and then charged you for work that was never carried out (complete with a few statistics) soon metamorphosed into an audio-advertorial for Gemini. This culminated in “If you ring 1-877-GEMINI-1, they’ll give you a full lube check and service that you can trust. Tell them Paul Harvey sent you.”

His bulletin slipped seamlessly into the next article. A few minutes later he was covering a new report that showed how parents were failing to understand their kids increasingly these days. Once more some statistics were quoted. Some quacks had come up with a new theory that disruptive children were the result of an upbringing where music was absent from the house. It was important, especially at toddler age, to expose children to music if you didn’t want them to grow up to be criminals. Segue into 1-800 advertorial and promotional offer for Bose music systems.

Oregon was another empty state, albeit much greener than Nevada, but it did have Brothers and Sisters. Brothers was an agricultural outpost that offered little in the way of welcome. Silence greeted me as I popped by the roadside store for a coffee, leaving me with the distinct feeling that I’d done something wrong. I knew that in accordance with state law, dishes had to be allowed to drip dry in Oregon and I had been careful to pack away my tea-cloth when I’d crossed the state line. Perhaps I’d committed some other transgression, but nobody told me about it. They just stared.

Sisters was much more cordial. It was a joy to behold, a mess of old shops, wooden walkways and home cooking. No great conversations, but a friendly greeting met me wherever I wandered as I whiled away a couple of hours picking through the bric-a-brac and general curios that the town’s shops afforded.

Coming through the Warm Springs Indian Reservation, the landscape was magnificent. As I approached one bend, I saw two interlocking hills with an ice blue river running between them. I veered off the road into a small lay-by to take a quick snap. It wasn’t an ideal place to stop so I left the engine running and jumped out of the car to frame the shot. Perfect.

Or not. My trusty Mazda had a central locking button on the inside of the driver’s door perilously close to the door handle, and in my excitement to scramble out of the car I must have hit this button. I was now locked out of the car with its engine running and in the middle of nowhere. What was more, my wallet, passport, phone cards and cigarettes were all inside the car.

Most options eliminated themselves once I’d come to the conclusion that I wasn’t prepared to leave the car. Somehow I had to find a way of getting back in (preferably before the engine ran out of petrol), but I had no previous experience of breaking into cars and no idea how to do it cleanly. What’s more, I only had my bare hands.

I figured that I had little choice but to break one of the windows and started to search the immediate vicinity for some sort of missile. I found a small rock and tapped it against the rear quarter-light. This succeeded in merely scratching the glass, and so I threw it from as far away as I dared given the need for accuracy. It just bounced off. I tried the rear quarter-light on the other side, with exactly the same result. I now had two scratched windows and the engine was still running.

A blue pick-up came trundling down the road and stopped nearby. It was driven by a guy in his thirties, who was wearing overalls and dark glasses. He looked like a cross between Elvis and Roseanne’s stage husband Dan. There were some mailboxes that I hadn’t noticed by the bushes, and he’d come to check his post.

I went over and explained my predicament. He said that he had no tools and so wasn’t able to help. My forlorn expression obviously proved to be the male equivalent of bursting into tears, and so he agreed to have a look. Shrugging his shoulders, he produced a pair of pliers from his pocket and told me that I needed to hit the corner of the window there as hard as I could but that he wasn’t prepared to take the responsibility himself.

I stabbed pathetically at the glass and the pliers just skidded off. After three or four attempts, he took them from me and stood with his back to the door. I exonerated him from any possible legal consequences and with one sharp downward thrust from his elbow, the window was shattered. I thanked him profusely and apologized for being such a girl’s blouse, a turn of phrase with which he didn’t seem familiar.

It was astonishing how much broken glass can come from such a small window. The inside of the car was awash with fragments, and the wind made my ears go funny as soon as I got above thirty. Fortunately, I only had about 60 miles to go to Hood River where I was due to stay the night but when I got there, it was clear that there was no chance of getting the window sorted that night. It was a small town and looked like it only had one car repair place, and that was decidedly shut. I drove up the steep hill of the main street where I found the Oak Street Hotel. It had vacancies.

The guy behind the counter was a grizzled old man with silver hair and a wrinkled face, and he was wearing dungarees. Another couple were checking in and he went into semi-meltdown at the pressure of having to cope with so many people at once. The other couple were also English, which seemed to amuse and relieve him. It meant that he could “do us both at once”. He pulled two maps out from under the desk and proceeded to draw all over them with a highlighter, explaining where to eat, drink and see in town and how to get to all the nearby attractions. His lecture lasted about ten minutes, and then he handed one map to the couple and one to me.

After all that, I thought that the least I could do was to stay there the night and so asked him if I could check in. He was slightly taken aback and it had clearly slipped his mind that I’d not yet been allocated a room. Those formalities completed, I asked him if there was anywhere to get my window fixed. He said there was no chance tonight and asked me where I was off to tomorrow. When I mentioned Portland, he said that I might as well wait until then because the repair shop in town would need to order the glass down from there in any case.

I was worried about my car, and asked him if he thought I should unload all my stuff. He told me not to bother. He explained that he kept all his guns in the back of his pick-up (I gathered that these were to be understood as exemplars of valuable and desirable property) and that he was always losing his keys. He once mislaid them for two weeks and only found them when he went to check the vehicle, which was parked out on the street. He had left them in the door and nobody had touched them or the guns. I figured that the newspapers in the back of my car might just be safe.

The room contained a warning that I would be fined $100 cleaning charge if I smoked in it. It seemed somewhat arbitrary, especially given that the nightly rate was only $54, but I took the point and got out as soon as I’d dropped my bags. One of the restaurants that had been recommended during the old man’s lecture was almost next door to the hotel. They had a table free outside. The food was good and they had beer on draft.

After I’d finished eating, I lit up a cigarette and immediately sensed a panicked awkwardness from the staff. The manageress came and informed me that there was no smoking allowed on the veranda, but that I would be welcome to finish my cigarette out on the street. This involved my standing up and taking one step off the patio and down on to the sidewalk, which I duly did and carried on with the cigarette approximately two yards from where I had started it.

I wandered into town to a bar called Savino’s. It also had an outside area, and soon I was perched on a stool looking out towards the river. The presence of ashtrays reassured me that it was OK to get out my cigarettes. It was a warm evening, and I felt very mellow relaxing in this quiet little town.

“Hi. I’m Rebecca,” said a voice to my right. I turned my head and saw a girl smiling and offering to shake hands. She was in her mid-twenties and had shoulder length straw hair and steel rimmed circular glasses. I told her my name and put my paper down.

Rebecca proved to be a born conversationalist of the broadly one-way-traffic variety, and was off and running as soon as she had my attention. She’d only been in Hood River for a week having moved up from Wyoming, and so had come out to make friends. She’d come to the bar with a guy, but he was inside watching pool. Her talk was a constant stream of soundbites, and she rarely held a subject for much more than a sentence and a half.

We had just got on to what I was doing in the States, when her friend came out to join us and introduced himself as Frontier Guy. I wasn’t able to ascertain whether Frontier Guy was a nickname, or a conventional forename/surname combo. They both wanted to know what I thought of Americans.

I was about to pre-load my answer with all the caveats about generalizations and the limitations of my trip, when Frontier Guy broke in. He said that he and his girlfriend (evidently not Rebecca) were thinking of denouncing [sic.] the USA and taking Canadian citizenship.

This was remarkable. I’d never heard anything like it from any American. His voice was comfortably broken, so he was clearly past the adolescent hormone surge. I asked him why. He reckoned that Canadians were much better people than the Americans, and it just struck him that Americans were really bad. His example was the preparedness to drill for oil in the Alaskan wilderness. It seemed fair enough to object to this, but surely it was barely reason to renounce your home country. Especially if you’re American.

This brought the conversation on to the question of American arrogance, and Rebecca was surprised to learn that this was something the USA had a reputation for. She was aware that lots of people around the world didn’t like Americans, but she was puzzled as to why.

I didn’t feel qualified to speak on behalf of the whole global community, but I suggested that it might be something to do with begrudging the fact that the USA was the biggest and best at so many things. Most people think that their country is the best, but in the case of America more often than not genuine pre-eminence lies behind the self-belief. In addition, it exerts a huge and fairly non-reciprocal influence over everyone else. I was flailing, but Rebecca summed up on my behalf: “You mean everybody’s jealous of us.”

It was a relief when Rebecca went to the bathroom and we could change the subject. We were starting to attract attention from the other smokers on the veranda and I didn’t really want to find myself hosting a debate on the pros and cons of the American people. When she came back we talked about Wyoming and Rebecca wanted me to promise that I would go and visit Laramie. I told her I thought it unlikely, as it would mean a 700-mile diversion and I really didn’t have the time.

She didn’t seem to get the point. She told me that if I couldn’t make Laramie, then I should go to Centennial and look up Dick-head George. She then sang me a song that she had written about him getting drunk and shooting his puppy for pissing on the floor, and that was how he got the name Dick-head George. He certainly sounded like the type of fellow I’d like to spend an evening with. Sadly Centennial was also in the south east corner of Wyoming, less than thirty miles from Laramie.

When I asked her what she did, she went into an awkward stall. “Oh fuck…er, what do I do, er… well… er, I, er, I… live”. When I pressed her further she revealed that she’d done all sorts. She’d mixed cement, ridden horses and was now going to be working as a quality controller, presumably in a field that required neither precision nor conciseness.

With conversation reaching slurring overload, it was time for Rebecca and Frontier to go home. We had accumulated a crowd, largely because each time Rebecca went to the bar or bathroom, she came out with two or three new people whom she’d met on the way. We swapped e-mail addresses and astonishingly – after a clear stagger across the parking lot – they got in their car to drive home.

It was a short walk back to the guesthouse, but enough time for me to reflect on two conversations that were unique in my experience of Americans to date. I’d never met anyone from the USA who wanted to discuss the unpopularity of Americans, and I certainly had never met one who actively thought Americans were bad. Little did I know how portentous a chat it would prove to be.