The Great American Road Trip (While Inhaling Exhaust Fumes)

Punks plus exhaust fumes plus a dangerously long drive plus legal energy supplements can only lead to misadventure on America’s west coast.
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Punks plus exhaust fumes plus a dangerously long drive plus legal energy supplements can only lead to misadventure on America’s west coast.

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Cars are always trying to kill me. Not simply by crushing my soft, dewy body with their hard metallic edges as I attempt a street crossing, but often by more devious means. Gassing is a popular choice. Cars are prone to gas me.

In the mid-1990s, I was travelling from the Bay Area to Olympia, Washington in a 1963 White Plymouth Valiant that was, frankly, a little bitch. Alongside were Justin and a boy called Ed the Punk. Justin was the only one able to drive, so he took care of the driving. I was there for moral support, Ed for decoration.

This lone driver plan was pretty shittily devised. But we were young and stupid and almost certainly on ephedrine. We decided to try and make the trip in one glorious blaze up the coast, even though we hadn’t remembered to sleep prior to embarkation. Here’s a tip. If you’re planning to drive for hundreds and hundreds of miles, sleep first. Two hours into the 20-hour drive and we were already seeing weird stuff by the side of the road that patently wasn’t there.

These would be known as the happy times.

Sixteen hours later, it was just getting light. We were in Oregon and the landscape looked sickly. The car only had an AM radio and all we could find to listen to was a Christian talk show. This would have been peachy if we had slept. But we hadn’t slept and were growing increasingly squirrelly. As their programming day began, we heard a man pretending to be a mamba. Not just a snake, but specifically a mamba. He was determined that we appreciate this distinction. ‘A mamba,’ he reiterated angrily. He adopted a cod English accent, hissed poorly and pointed out the dangers of Satan.

Then a character called Uncle Charlie was introduced. His opening salvo was ‘Kids, have you ever been spanked?” Justin and I looked at each other as if the world had just grown horns. Uncle Charlie made way for a programme of children shabbily singing hymns in a strange, out of tune falsetto. It was just dawn. As the sun rose, so did our hysteria. At the crescendo of one of these choral abortions, I heard a subterranean gurgling and felt a jet of hot sticky liquid strike the back of my head.

I turned to see the previously comatose Ed the Punk bearing an expression usually reserved for ventriloquist’s dummies and green ooze cascading from his mouth. Green. Ooze. The combination of projectile vomiting, enforced consciousness, close harmony singing and car fumes sent us all over the edge. All nods to sanity were gleefully abandoned.

I turned to see the previously comatose Ed the Punk bearing an expression usually reserved for ventriloquist’s dummies and green ooze cascading from his mouth. Green. Ooze.

I have never, ever seen anyone laugh as long and as hard as Justin at that moment. We pulled off the road and SCREAMED with laughter until we were curled, foetal, on the verge. Kicking at the ground, looking like dogs running in their sleep. Not enjoyable laughter, but pained robotic laughter, that grew inside us uncontrolled and then flew out like magma exiting a volcano.

These would be known as the times of hysteria.

We tried to drive again – but we couldn’t drive. We stopped at a gas station. Ed bounced out of the car like Tigger, careened across the forecourt and came to rest upside down against a pump. As we continued to giggle, a lady gave him some water and started making noises about calling the authorities. So we fled.

We got as far as Leathers, a legendary truckstop on the Oregon/Washington border. Ed was asleep or possibly dead. Spasms of laughter and excitement still rolled through Justin and me. We parked up, left Ed and headed inside to try to regain composure. I felt insane. I stood and stared at the candy bar selection as if it were about to hand me a prize. Then, I heard a trucker exclaim, “There’s some weird kid running around outside. I think he’s on dope.” I felt a clawing sensation of impending disaster. This had to be Ed.

By the time I reached him, Ed was spread-eagled by the flank of the car. A gaggle of hicks stood over him. One kicked at his sneaker, like he was checking the air in a tyre. I turned my Britishness up to 9 and assured them that Ed was always that colour and always making that sound. That was just his thing. Justin appeared and we attempted a hasty escape. But the happy, helpful truckers had called the cops and a trademark State Trooper pulled up on his motorcycle.

I turned my Britishness up to 10. I explained, while sounding like something from an Ealing comedy, that this was just a comical case of food poisoning and all was tickity-boo guv’ner.

He made it painfully clear that he didn’t like any of us very much at all. I turned my Britishness up to 10. I explained, while sounding like something from an Ealing comedy, that this was just a comical case of food poisoning and all was tickity-boo guv’ner. He seemed to be buying this, or at least amused by it, when Ed casually leaned his head out of the car window and threw up all over the nice policeman’s boots.

These would be known as the really fucked up times.

The atmosphere changed instantly. If there is one lesson that I learned that day, it’s that policemen don’t like being thrown up on. Our IDs were taken. This was slightly worrying for me, as I’d just been busted at Yardbirds in Olympia trying to steal sunglasses that didn’t suit me (which I used as a defence, unsuccessfully). Oh and I’d funded most of the car journey using stolen travellers cheques. While our details were being checked, another cop arrived. Even though he hadn’t been vomited on by anyone in our party, he hated us even more.

I turned my Britishness up to 11. Sadly Britishness doesn’t go up to 11, so I just sounded demented. He looked inside the car then demanded we open the trunk. Inside, he spotted Justin’s guitar. Then this happened:

COP: Is this yours?

JUSTIN: Yes.

COP: Are you in a band?

JUSTIN: Yes.

COP: What is it called?

JUSTIN: Unwound.

COP: Ok, play something.

JUSTIN: What?

COP: Play something. Play three chords.

Baffled, Justin took his guitar and began playing Police Story by Black Flag. Let me recap. I was in the wilds of Oregon, travelling by nefarious means in a semi-legal vehicle while Ed the Punk was pulling off a fairly credible impression of Paris era Jim Morrison on a nearby verge and my driving buddy played Black Flag unplugged to a State Trooper. I wondered if prison would be just like it is in the movies.

Let me recap. I was in the wilds of Oregon, travelling by nefarious means in a semi-legal vehicle while Ed the Punk was pulling off a fairly credible impression of Paris era Jim Morrison on a nearby verge and my driving buddy played Black Flag unplugged to a State Trooper.

But miraculously, Justin’s performance seemed to satisfy the officer.  He had requested a song, a song had been played, we had held up our end of the bargain. His companion returned and, without anything arrest worthy showing up on file, told us we were free to go. And to take Ed to the hospital.

We were almost angry in our incredulity, as we drove away. You’re witnessing all this and doing nothing? What do you have to do to get arrested in this town? Of course, we assumed this had to be a trap and the cops were toying with us, waiting behind the next billboard, chuckling and preparing to pounce. This high state of paranoia coloured the final leg of the trip. I’m told we did stop at some point and hysterically telephoned people back home and spewed out our tale in a highly agitated manner.

Once we’d crossed the state line, saw our destination in the distance and realised that we’d run out of insane things that could feasibly happen to us, we calmed down. I don’t remember our arrival or saying goodbye. I assume we hugged. We later discovered that the car was pumping gas fumes directly into our faces. Ed was not the sturdiest chap, so he was the most affected, though I imagine we all lost far too many brain cells on that trip. I had a headache for four days. I am still unable to drive. God wants it that way.

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