Goin' Earp City, gonna have some fun. Yep, there it was---right on the California border: the one-room, Earp post office, "Wyatt" added in script on its stucco side.
And we were almost home.
"Gonna kiss the ground?" I asked Tom. Instead, the dog baptized it for us. But I did swing from the Welcome to California sign.
Between Wickenburg and Earp, there was little to recommend: Salome. Quartzite. East Blythe. Between Earp and Yucca Valley, there was even less. Sand to the left of us. Sand to our right. Somewhere, there was Lillian Gish.
The road could've been one-lane. No one passed us. For years. By Twenty-Nine Palms, we'd counted every frond. We were breaking the speed limit, doing eighty, easy, though I feared more for our air-conditioning than for our lives. It was blazing out there, and we could've been standing still. Nothing changed. Nothing.
Well, almost. We crossed the Colorado Aqueduct a few times. The water than lets L.A. dance. Without it, we'd be Son of Earp.
And there were train tracks following the road, and rocks along the tracks. I don't mean ordinary stones. I'm talking small painted boulders, each the size of a football. They seemed to be set in purposeful designs, unless the heat was making me see things. The best I figured, though there was no one at all to ask, it was a local high school custom: You make it through puberty in the desert, and you get to collect a pile of rocks, whitewash 'em, and spell out your name for posterity. Then you get the hell out of town.
The horizontal roll call stretched on for an hour. Each name seemed to average ten feet, though we didn't stop to measure. The heat would have zapped us faster than a mouse on Mercury. I approximated as we drove, but you do the math: 80 miles an hour. 60 minutes' drive. 10 feet per name. Lotta people wanting out.
And one poor dolt on a bicycle, pumping hallucinogenically toward us. Dressed in black spandex with a pitch-dark helmet. Tugging a cart with a ten gallon tank. Sucking water through a tube. Trying to prove he was a man? Why not just hump a cactus?
We waved. What else could ya do?
Dead ahead was Palm Springs and big money, looking just like a little L.A.---only hot. The best thing I know about Palm Springs is the cable cars. Go up the mountain, throw snowballs. Come down, fry eggs.
We passed. I'd been up the mountain. I checked the map and guessed it was maybe another hour till Victorville, Dale, and Roy, though I don't know what I was expecting. The name alone had a certain Dashiell Hammet ring. Gangsters. Corruption. Red Harvest. But, like Canyon Country,the name offers a picture it can't deliver. Still, I could see how the once-unbroken skies could attract a singing cowboy. Open spaces. High desert.
Now, it was smashed, all K-Marts and Wal-Marts and Shoe-Marts and every kind of Marts and their strip mall diminutives. This was our last night outside L.A. And this was Hell.
"We can't stay here," I muttered to Tom. "We can't end the trip this way."
"What about Roy 'n' Dale?"
"Roy's dead, and I know what killed him."
Still, it was hard to pass their museum. But, as with the Alamo, we waved. Fortunately, once we'd reached California, my detailed maps kicked in, and I could easily pick our way around traffic.
"Where are we going?" Tom asked, for maybe the last time.
I checked the road ahead. There was nothing left to see.
"We may as well go home."
So we did, driving perhaps the most beautiful road possible, through the San Gabriel Mountains. If there'd been an open ski lodge---if it had been the right time of year---we might just have stayed overnight. In fact, we might have stayed one more night if we'd happened on any kind of lodge. Though we were so close to home, we could almost feel it. This wasn't supposed to be our last day, but abruptly it was. Meanwhile, after a week of burnt out scrub, we were unexpectedly surrounded by green. And after Point A to Point B directness, the road was a coiling spring.
"Are you okay?" I asked Tom, meaning "You want me to drive?" Though having done it that far by himself, he was hardly likely to break.
"I'm fine," he answered firmly. But we were losing light.
And suddenly, there was a huge billboard at our side. "Welcome Back" it read, advertising a ski resort. Of course, we had to take pictures.
First, Tom and the dog. Then, the mutt and I. Astoundingly, she even looked at the camera.
Our first sight of L.A. was a twinkling at dusk. That swiftly resolved into strips of light, and, all too soon, we were back on a crowded freeway. Eight o'clock on a Friday night and everyone was going places. Both not fast enough, and too damn quickly.
An hour later, we pulled into Tom's driveway. Everything was as he'd left it, the gift of a watchful neighbor. Except for a pile of mail, rivaling Christmas. I was sure I had one of my own.
"We're back," I told the dog---who immediately lunged for the back yard. Maybe to report to The Big Dog, her boss: "Okay, I got the two jerks back alive. Now do I get my promotion?"
Tom started to unload.
"What are you doing?" I asked. "I'm ready to start again in the morning."