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SFO to Washington:Handful of Nowheres

Photograph by Preeti Verma Lal

The caper began in the heart of San Francisco. A friend had just sauntered out of the gay closet and wanted to flaunt it. He knew little English, I very little Spanish; he wore a blazing red shirt, I squeezed into a black sheath; he powdered his nose, I tied my hair in a tight bun, he ogled at men, I looked straight...

I saw the first scowl on my gorgeous silver Honda sedan and I knew she was in a funk. In the last two years she had done a measly 7,000 miles and she was pining for a jig. I was bushed with the symmetry too - of the marl grey T-shirts, of lettuce suffocating under the bread's weight, the flab of the bagels, the crimson of the grapefruit flesh and the congruity of the cheese. My Honda itched for a jaunt, I for chaos and a handful of nowheres.

Mercifully, it was summer. Ah! The tyres would not need snow chains, nor would I need the wool off a hundred sheep for warmth. No path was chalked, no days ticked on the calendar. All I had for an itinerary was a one-liner - the drive would be from San Francisco to Washington D.C.; all I had for company was the Rand McNally's map and the credit card. One needed nothing more, I knew the map could show me the way even to my favorite angel's doors and the credit card would take care of everything - it stuffs your stomach, launders your jeans, gets you a roof for the night. All I prayed for was a little less zealous feet - I had been hauled for speeding once.

The caper began in the heart of San Francisco. A friend had just sauntered out of the gay closet and wanted to flaunt it. He knew little English, I very little Spanish; he wore a blazing red shirt, I squeezed into a black sheath; he powdered his nose, I tied my hair in a tight bun, he ogled at men, I looked straight and together we walked on Castro Street. In Flore's restaurant, a pick-up joint for gay Asian men, in Twin Peaks Bar, the first gay bar in the world, and in Castro the woman in me felt redundant. Not since my breasts attained their fullness or my derrière their roundness have they gone so unnoticed. Men in lime green trousers and fuchsia T-shirts, caressing and kissing, shopped for make-it-yourself dildo kits, Robert Mapplethorpe's books, kinky leather accessories and such exquisite lingerie that I felt frumpy and dowdy deep inside.

But before I could swerve to Interstate 80 East I could not resist the lure of hurtling down Lombard Street that squiggles through the Russian Hill in a series of switchbacks. It is said to be the crookedest street in the world, but if you have a weak heart, sit blindfolded and count your rosaries; I plummeted wildly and took 80 East.

Nevada is sleazy but when on the road and a paltry budget nothing quite like the state that legalized prostitution. It has luxurious casinos where a lavish room can come for less than $ 30, with a cocktail coupon and a buffet discount thrown in. I gambled and lost, gorged on the bountiful buffet, snored in a queen's bed and dreamt of a knight. My Honda found friends in Corvettes and Vipers in the parking lot. By morning, her scowl was gone, I was bouncy and together we revved to reach Yellowstone National Park, the world's first national park.

Monotony veins through the highways of US, wherever you go the yellow arch of McDonald's looms, Wal-Mart sits smug in every exit, the homes are fashioned out of cookie cutters, all the cops are oh-so-handsome and Harley Davidson hunks are always in leather and bandanas. And gawd! Why don't they honk on the highways?

I heard only one heartening honk, saw one maverick coyote and reached the Grant Village within Yellowstone. The Yellowstone Lake skirts the Lake Lodge Restaurant that serves soy milk on request and the weirdest pizza in the world. By the time I hit the parking lot it was 9.15 pm, I walked hurriedly to the log cabin. An old couple walking past offered unsolicited advice: Don't go there, the food is really bad. Don't touch the buffet, you could try the pizza. I tried the pizza, it was really weird; maybe I should have touched the buffet.

I have lived in the wild with beavers and deer for neighbours, so staying inside the park was not what tickled me, I yearned to look at the mud volcanoes, the fumaroles and of course, the Old Faithful geyser. It was midnight and I could not wait for a lazy sun to swagger from behind the lodgepole pines. I drove 20 miles in pitch darkness, the wind hissed, the wapiti loafed and the ospreys and the bald eagles leaned on logs. I was groggy, I waited but the geyser remained in a stupor. I returned the next morning, and there she was, the Old Faithful, shooting a column of hot water and steam as high as 170 ft.

I next stopped at Dayton, Wyoming, which is more like an extended family than a town, for in it live only 678 people. But things had changed, more than 100 people had moved into Dayton last year and the townspeople were despondent about such population explosion.

Anjelika Yardas was at the counter of Corner Grocery Store, the sole grocery store in town. I was looking for veggie sandwiches and all I could see was ham, turkey or beef stuffed in six-inch rolls. "Don't you have a veggie burger?" I asked. "Here we love our beef," she boomed. Yardas loves visitors but hates the occasional intrusion of porcupines. Dayton had seen three porcupine hits that month and she was worried, "When you drive up be careful of porcupines." I pick up cole slaw, cold sandwiches and drive away. Yardas was right, there was a dead porcupine on the street.

Ever since I began my spree I had grooved to an unusual routine - on the road all day, eating baby carrots and ranch for breakfast, picking up burgers for lunch and stopping at the nearest motel when the bones creaked and feet felt sore. And when my Honda howled for rest next, I took the exit. The signboard read: Newton, Iowa.

Over the teeming mop of white hair and stretches of wrinkles waiting in line at Perkins restaurant, there stood a tall girl in a pink T-shirt, her deep brown eyes looking lost in the crowd. Her name tag intrigued me - it read Priya. The World War II veterans were meeting in Newton and Priya was busy handing muffins and ringing the register. I was told that there were only two Indian families in Newton and both owned a motel each. Priya must have belonged to one of them, I thought. I was wrong. Priya was adopted by the Bells some 19 years ago from an orphanage in Kashmir. She calls herself an "oddball" and hopes to meet her real parents someday.

Stuffed with tortillas and salsa, I looked for a place to sprawl. It was two in the morning and having done nearly 600 miles across four states, my eyes needed rest. The exit showed Food and Lodging options and I turned towards Holiday Inn that serves free breakfast and is often the best deal within the $ 75 per night. But Holiday Inn had a sloppy notice that read " Sorry, no vacancies". I checked into Ramada Inn owned by - who else - the Patels.

Between Iowa and Washington D.C., two days went off in a huff. I downed veggie burgers with coffee, slept in motels owned by Patels, did not hear another honk and the whole idea of a trip was beginning to drone. So I lazed in Ohio for a day before hitting off the road again. And boy! did I bargain for that. I hadn't looked at the calendar, it was the July 4 weekend and all roads, all cars, all pick-ups, all Harleys, just about everything that moved was heading towards Washington D.C. It was so crowded that I felt like flinging the idea and the car and flying back. But I clenched my fist, read Pablo Neruda, listened to Lionel Richie and crawled to Washington.

The Smithsonian Folklife Festival was on at the National Mall in Washington D.C. and the last grass lay flat with human burden. Home-made candles and quilts, hand-pressed apple ciders and smelt pillows jostled for space with performers on stilts, actors in white canopies talking of Shakespeare, with singers awful and melodious. Bearded men in simple cotton shirts and women in long frocks provided a stark contrast to the young things in thongs and spaghetti tops and bare-bodied hunks. The music murmured in the air and beer flowed. I took off my jacket, pulled it over my eyes and dozed.

Eight days, 4,000 miles, a dead deer, a flat tyre, umpteen Patels, innumerable burgers, myriad landscape, sore feet and bushy eyebrows…Whoa! I had arrived, I had touched the other coast. I dipped my feet in Chesapeake Bay, rolled over and pretended dead; not too far my Honda flirted with a Humvee.

Published in India Today Travel Plus, April 2005

Contact: Preeti@deepblueink.com

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