Drive-Away Car Does Coast-to-Coast Marathon

Times Staff Writer

If you like running marathons and climbing mountains, you might like driving almost nonstop across the continent. It is a challenge and adventure, especially in December, and when done in a drive-away car there is no cheaper way to go coast to coast.

Drive-away car agencies around the country--listed in the Yellow Pages under "Auto Transporters & Drive-Away Companies"--transport cars long distances, using the free labor of travelers such as Bubs and me, indigent college students who had flown from Boston to San Francisco but couldn't afford to fly back.

In exchange for our driving, we got a free car with a full tank of gas. All we had to pay for were the remaining 140 gallons of gas it would take to propel the Chevette to its owner near Boston. We would be reimbursed for repairs, but had to leave a $150 deposit with the San Francisco agency in case we wrecked the car or absconded with it. We planned to do neither.

Added Skepticism

But we did plan to be in Boston before our four days worth of peanut butter, jelly, apples and soda ran out. And I use "we" cautiously. Bubs was not convinced by my impressively calculated timetable.

"Thirty-two hundred miles at 50 m.p.h. equals 64 hours of driving. Right? Plus three hours that we lose crossing time zones. Right?"

"Uh-huh," said Bubs.

Adding to Bubs' Skepticism was a wild December storm that forced us south to snowless Tehachapi Pass. As do most winter storms, this one had a ticket to ride the jet stream from west to east, crossing the continent at a car's pace. It was not an auspicious start of our trip.

Hour 1: We eased the car into the Bay Area's rain-whipped rush-hour traffic, hooting at the rat racers clogging the road, feeling like hooky-playing school kids. Soon we were in the San Joaquin Valley where the gray road, sky and land merged, and our only company were a few trucks and the solemn high-tension-wire towers that march alongside the pavement.

Hour 10: Before Barstow, a pit stop. Darkness had consumed the moonless Mojave Desert, and a gritty wind scratched at the land, sending tumbleweeds hurrying past. I was filled with the same awe as if I had landed on another planet.

Gambling Refuge

Hour 13: A short detour took us to Las Vegas just as a downpour flooded the streets with a riot of reflected neon. We sought refuge in a casino, and for a few minutes pulled handles and tasted the fever that draws people to that outpost. At a gas station we prepared a dinner of P.B. and J. with a soda chaser, and an apple for desert.

Hour 22: I awakened as Bubs was checking the oil. Sharp morning light cut through the frost on the windows. We were parked beneath a blank billboard in a small Arizona town.

Our small car made the trip economical but uncomfortable. Few seats are made to be sat in for days at a time.

Another problem was the AM-only radio. Unless you are a dedicated country music fan, you're in trouble on most U.S. highways. For me, there is no better driving music than rock 'n' roll, no music so evocative of the beauty of mechanized movement. It is no coincidence that this industrial-age folk music was unleashed when the Interestate Highway Act started lacing super highways across this country in the 1950s.

Other than listen to music, think and talk, we had little to do except to watch the subtly changing moods of the landscape, which can be so big and empty that you feel as if you are inching across the tones and textures of a huge oil painting. It was as relaxing as sitting on a deserted beach, but because we rarely stopped, it was as frustrating as not being allowed to swim.

Freedom and Room

Hour 25: Climbing the slope of the northern Arizona mountains, the road disappeared behind a curtain of clouds. We punctured it and entered a snowstorm. We were pleased to find that the car had snow tires, but they barely kept us going.

Hour 27: The Painted Desert's watercolors made us stop to stretch our legs until a hailstorm pummeled us back into the car.

Hour 30: We created the Continental Divide in New Mexico as another--or the same--storm spread a stucco layer of hardpacked snow on the road. Not long afterward we wound down onto grid-lit Albuquerque and chased speeding tumbleweeds. We felt tired, and were not every halfway across the country.

To drive across the United States is to embrace it and become part of its folklore of pioneers and itinerants. Engrained in our heritage--from the Mayflower to Lewis and Clark to the railroads to Kitty Hawk and Jack Kerouac--is the freedom to roam and the room to do it.

Nowhere else in the world are these two things more available. And crossing the continents is still a pioneering act, because the lengthy trek demands a mild dose of the spirit that opened this country.

Hour 42: Lighting bolts briefly illuminated the limitless stretches of the Great Plains in the Texas Panhandle. A brief attempt at sleep was thwarted by the atmospheric pyrotechnics and the trucks that bombed past us. The radio shrieked blizzard warnings.

Hour 44: A disciple of Howard Johnson pumped me three cups of coffee, making me sweat and giggle inexplicably until Bubs woke up and took over, by which time it was light. I couldn't sleep. We were drinking so much coffee that our blood was turning brown. We had become marauders of the caffeine highway on a linear quest for the next steaming pot and bottomless cup.

Hour 48: It looks as if we're beating the storm.

Hour 54: Past Oklahoma City I exited from the highway and drove up a dirt road for no apparent reason. Bubs just looked at me, glassy-eyed.

We took turns driving. The worst hours were 4 to 6 a.m. when the body resisted all efforts at resuscitation, and we would inevitably stop and try to sleep by reclining the seats and getting into sleeping bags.

December may be the worst time of the year to travel, when winter subdues the land and daylight is at a premium.

Hour 61: Stopped to see an old friend in Little Rock, and were lavished with Southern hospitality even though Bubs and I were starting to look and feel like feral children.

The Lone Drivers

We got back into the car as tornado sirens began wailing. Looking for funnels dropped earthward from coal-dark clouds, we cried, "Damn the tornadoes, full steam ahead!" We were the only car on the road.

Hour 69: A brief middle-of-the-night pilgrimage to Elvis's mansion in Memphis. It was closed, but the Nativity scene and scrawled tributes on the wall surrounding the shrine captured its religiosity.

Hour 76: We bought fireworks in Tennessee, a very long state, and shot them out the windows to keep ourselves amused and awake. We thought that was very funny and laughed like lunatics.

Hour 80: It is spring! And the windows were open as we swooped along the Appalachian hills through Virginia and Pennsylvania and onto the familiar ground of the Eastern Corridor.

Crossing the country in one bold stroke leaves an Impressionistic sense of the mood of the land and sky, a taste of the deserts, the mountains rolling out onto the plains, the lonely towns, and the sudden contrast with the soft contours and cluttered settlement of the East.

Hour 90: Bubs was in dreamland as I drove along the bluffs of Hoboken, N.J., watching the sun rise over New York City. We crossed the Hudson and entered the city, which on Sunday is as quiet as beneath a billboard in Arizona, until Bubs awakened and detonated more fireworks that echoed down the canyon of Park Avenue. We posed a tumbleweed in the street and photographed it.

Fatigue clawed at our bumper, and our progress across the map became more frequently interrupted by excuses to stop. Words became garbled, nerves frayed, and we pushed on toward our goal of a warm bed and food other than peanut butter and jelly.

Hour 96: After toll-roading across a few miniature New England states, I dorpped off Bubs at his home and rove to my own, where my mother had a hot, delicious meal waiting. Food never tasted so good, a bed never more comfortable. I slept for 16 hours, dreaming of a long drive across an epic landscape.

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