After Denver, Max and I headed toward South Dakota in the red Volkswagen Beetle, reaching the Badlands late one afternoon. When we stopped to take a walk, the ground was clay and slippery, which I found delightful. I could almost skate on it, I thought, or make pots, though pottery wasn’t a local tradition—the Natives of the area had been nomads and carried stuff in baskets, which are much lighter to transport. Then it started to rain. The sunset was the most spectacular I’ve ever seen, with streaks of red cloud in the west, a rainbow bridging the thick clouds in the east, and lightning dancing across the eastern half of the sky. Back on the road, soon it was dark and the rain torrential. Camping would be impossible. We kept going until we came to a small town with a single run-down motel.
The owners were an elderly couple, looking rather run-down themselves. They didn’t move from their chairs but handed us the key to a room. Above the bed were religious pictures: Jesus and Mary with halos and hands over sacred hearts. We turned off the light and made love.
In the morning the sun was shining. I had driven over 1500 miles and it was time for an oil change, so first thing in the morning I went out and crawled under the car. While I was working, I saw another car drive up and park a few feet away. A middle-aged man emerged and walked into the motel. Once I’d finished, I went inside with two jugs of used oil in my hands. “Where can I dispose of these?” I asked.
The owners didn’t say anything but the guy who’d just arrived stared at me. “I’ll take care of it,” he said. “But I thought that was a man under the car.”
“It was just me,” I replied.
The man shook his head and said, again, “I thought that was a man under the car.” He added, “You never know what’s likely to happen. Why just last year, a white man and a Jewish woman came through here, traveling together! And they weren’t even married!”
I ran upstairs, not wanting to find out what the locals would think of two lesbians, one of them Jewish. We grabbed our belongings, jumped in the car, not stopping for breakfast, and put that town behind us.
One hot afternoon somewhere in the Midwest, the bug stopped and wouldn’t start again. I steered over to the shoulder. Just as I was lifting the rear deck lid, another car pulled up behind me. Two young men got out and offered to help. “Thanks,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure it’s just vapor lock.” I grabbed a shop rag, wrapped it around the carburetor, and poured cold water on it. After a couple of minutes, I turned the key and the car started again. My would-be saviors did not look happy.
I don’t remember all the parks we slept in, except for one in Minnesota. Whoever said the mosquito is their state bird wasn’t kidding. Despite the heat, we zipped ourselves up in the sleeping bags, exposing nothing but our nostrils and the hair on top of our heads.
Our next stop was Max’s home town. It began as a railroad junction about 35 miles west of Chicago and used to be called Turner’s Junction, after the president of the railroad. In 1896 the business leaders changed its name to West Chicago, hoping to sound more cosmopolitan and attract industry. While Max was growing up, the population increased from around 3,900 to 6,800. We stayed with her mother, who was kind and hospitable, but I was bored by the small talk and didn’t know what to say to her, so I spent quite a bit of time working on a 1,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. Max was displeased, reasonably enough. The next day she took me on a tour of the town, sharing memories of her childhood.
In Chicago proper we spent the night on a sofa bed at my Aunt Charlotte’s apartment. She and her husband (also named Max) were hospitable as well. My Max was already asleep, and I pretended to be, when Charlotte tiptoed in and gazed at us for a while. I wondered what she was thinking.
Eventually we came to Washington DC, where Max would take pictures of exhibits in the Smithsonian. I wasn’t familiar with DC, having been there only for anti-war protests, and I was pretty sure there wouldn’t be a place to camp. Then I remembered my mother’s Uncle Ben, who had moved to Silver Spring, MD after his wife died. Would he remember me and let us stay with him?
I dialed the number.
To be continued…