Crossing the Divide

The legal matters settled, Stephen was free to rejoin us and lead Caravan Part II to Tennessee. A considerable amount of our collective stash had been comfiscated by the local sheriff’s department, but no one had been arrested or charged. We’d earned enough from the azalea gig to pay for our gas and then some. At about 20 cents per gallon, getting a little under 10 miles to the gallon and with a couple thousand miles to drive, we were cool and able to help other buses with their fuel buys.

We drove all day to reach Clear Lake where another dozen or so buses and vans would join us. For the first time, along the lake road, I could see the entire caravan in a line. It was damn impressive. But looking at Shades of Blue, I feltCaravan at Clear Lake there was something missing in its paint job, so I decided I’d embellish it with a narrow strip of white trim long the bottom edge of its body and around the wheel wells. With its white roof, that would make a handsome frame for the three broad bands of blue.

The next morning we drove over another range of low coastal mountains, hit Route 5 south and then turned east on Route 80. We overnighted at Donner Pass, the high point of the Sierra crossing. It being March, there was still plenty of snow and we piled on the sleeping bags and blankets for a cold night. Stephen didn’t come through banging on bumpers the next morning. There wasn’t a driver’s meeting. It was understood that the first order of business was to start the engines and get the heaters working. We cooked breakfast on the road, with all of us huddled in the front of the bus within range of the blowers.

The practice of caravaning continued to be one of “stoning the squares” by “givin’ ’em some” – smiling and waving at every car that passed us heading west. The reactions were so effusive that we never tired of hamming it up. The Caravan was not merely a means to get us to a destination; it had a purpose of its own. We wondered about the conversations we stimulated as people described their experience of us to their friends and families. “I swear, Gladys, there was A HUNRED of ’em. All full o’ these happy hippies!”

For us – with no music playing – the road beyond our windshield and our mutual company served as our entertainment. For me – never having been to California, Nevada or Utah – the great American West was a feast for the eyes.

At a gas stop in Nevada  I picked up a can of white spray paint. The next day at our overnight stop I sprayed, freehand,  a narrow strip of white all along the lower border of the bus’s body. From a distance, it looked like an improvement. But the fuzzy boundary of the spray pattern – applied unsteadily in my rush to get the job done without others noticing and commenting on it – left a decidedly unprofessional impression.

We’d stocked up pretty well on bulk foods back in San Francisco, but some items began to run out and the occasional shopping trip was required. Not wanting to take the entire caravan through towns to take over the supermarket, one bus would be assigned shopping duty to fetch food staples, and other basics, like paper towels and toilet paper, to be distributed at the next drivers’ meeting.

The vital sanitation issue of shit disposal needed to be dealt with by each and every vehicle.

There may have been a bus or two with a holding tank or some other more sophisticated means of collecting the products of human alimentary elimination, but Shades of Blue and all the buses I knew of used the simple, though primitive, technology of the plastic snap-lid food products bucket – a five-gallon plastic container that could be obtained for free from just about any burger joint. A toilet seat, secured from a salvage yard or hardware store, would sit atop the bucket and, depending on how many people were using it, the bucket – affectionately called “the shitter” – would fill up – or become intolerable – every day or two.

Because we would drive for 6 or 8 hours every day the Caravan had to make a daily fuel stop – an operation that might, in itself, take over an hour and would usually blow the minds of the service station attendants sufficiently that they didn’t notice the line of us carrying buckets toward their restrooms. And naturally, on occasion we caused major toilet malfunctions, yet somehow we always managed to unload enough to keep our onboard shitters functioning.

On our seventh night after leaving Panther Flat, we stopped in a roadside parking area on the high Wyoming plateau some miles east of Rock Springs. We’d been noting the intensifying cold all day and wondered how bad it might get during the night. In preparation, we brought out everything we could find to pile under and on top of us and wore several layers of clothes as we settled in for a long night. Someone told us that the thermometer in another bus was reading 15 degrees before sundown.

The next morning, as we’d feared, it was not just cold, it was fucking cold. A thick layer of ice coated the entire inside of the bus, including the windows. It was bitter getting out from under the warm pile and scamper to the driver’s seat to start the engine. But the engine wouldn’t even turn over. The starter motor wouldn’t even click.  I could only hope there was enough anti-freeze in the radiator, because I never would have guessed we’d see such temperatures.

Rudolph and I confered from under our covers. It was plain what we needed to do, or so we thought.

“We gotta chip the ice of the windshield ’cause we’re gonna need to get pushed to get the engine started. Rudolph, I’m going out to get some help.”

I added a sweater and my warmest coat from back east to the shirts, jeans and sneakers I already had on. I stepped out into a stiff wind that was so cold that my first breath seared my lungs and nasal passages. It was ungodly. My fingers went from shock to pain to numb to useless in the space of a minute. I wasn’t alone. Men were emerging from buses up and down the line, and all of them looked like I felt, running in place with looks of shock on their faces and wondering how and when they’d be able to get their engines to crank over.

Spontaneously, we found ourselves all heading for a central meeting spot out of the wind in the deep freeze. A guy named William from one of the four marriage buses spoke.

“I guess we’re all frozen here. A couple o’ buses have been able to start up, but I think we’re gonna need for us monkeys to push a few and see if they can get going that way. So let’s all of us start up in front with Stephen’s bus, then work back through the line.”

Huffing and puffing, slapping our hands together, desperately trying to withstand the cold, we marched as a stiff-legged gang to the white bus with the narrow red and blue horizontal bands around its middle. Twenty of us put our shoulders against frigid steel and dug in our feet. William signaled the driver – either Stephen or Michael – to release the brake, put it in gear and engage the clutch. The terrain was flat and level – there was no slope – and we could only get the bus going to trotting speed before the driver released the clutch pedal. The bus jerked to a halt. We tried again. And again. No go. Our panting created its own cloud above us.

So it was back to the second bus, Peter and Gerald’s – actually Peter and Kay Marie and Gerald and Priscilla’s bus – another of the four marriages and, significantly, always the second bus in the Caravan. It, too, had a nice loft appended to its rear quarter. Now a bit warmed up on the inside – though inviting frostbite on the outside – we heaved into the bus and got it moving. The driver popped the clutch and the engine caught, reluctantly at first, but then roaring to life. We all cheered and felt triumphant.

“Take it easy!” yelled a frizzy-haired Hispanic looking guy named Jose. “Let it warm up before you gun it like dat!”

We tried a few more buses with mixed results, then agreed to go inside to warm up, or at least to get out of the wind. I managed to recruit five guys from buses near ours to go in on a “co-op” deal, out of which, our bus and three others were successfully jumpstarted.

The idea went ’round that the running buses would push those that monkey power hadn’t been able to start. If the problem was in the buses not reaching a high enough speed, this would be the solution. It made perfect sense.

The first beneficiary of the idea would be Stephen’s bus, with Peter and Gerald’s blue and yellow bus doing the pushing honors. Shades of Blue had pulled into a position where we could watch the attempt while our interior emerged from the ice age.

Creeping up ever so carefully, the blue and yellow bus made gentle contact, bumper-to-bumper, with the white bus. Accelerating slowly, the coupled buses reached a much higher velocity than we frail humans had been able to achieve. The blue and yellow slowed to separate from the white, which then, quite obviously, popped the clutch. It appeared to take a massive jolt, then it jerkily came to a halt. It hadn’t looked good. Rudolph and I looked at each other as if to say, “oooh shit.”

“Something busted. Maybe the tranny.” Rudolph knew about such things, having grown up around farming equipment, tractors, trucks and all.

Stephen got out of the white bus, bent over and looked underneath. He walked around to the other side. Michael got out. He looked around underneath, too. Other people from the blue and yellow bus and other buses did their own quick examinations. There was a short meeting in the cold. Lots of shoulder shrugging. Some guys ran off, apparently to get tools. Rudolph went out to ask if they needed help. He was back in a minute.

“They blew their rear end. It was so frozen, when they put it in gear, it just cracked.” It seemed to amuse him just a little a bit, given our predicament and the ridiculous weather. “So Peter and Gerald are gonna have to tow Stephen to the next town, Rawlins. About 20 miles ahead.”

As it turned out that morning, Stephen’s was not the only bus to have metal failure. Several other buses needed to be towed to Rawlins. The Caravan would be based there for over a week, with some of its buses waiting for parts and repair for much longer. Nobody applied wind chill factors in those days, and it was damn windy, but the guy on the bus with the thermometer told me it was minus 12 degrees Fahrenheit when he woke up.

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(Photo: Gerald Wheeler)

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1 Comment

  1. March 23, 2009 at 2:22 am

    […] *  NEXT> Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)The Shades of Blue busBlue Line Buses – Not their […]


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