Ramona Expressway

I WAS HITCHHIKING OUT THE RAMONA EXPRESSWAY, standing to the side of some eucalyptus trees. The sun was slight summer south, so I was full under it. I stood there near an hour after I was left off by this guy pulling a set of hay barges. Alfalfa he was carrying, the sweet-smelling kind they grow in those drained marshes out near the lake.

It was past noon and pushing one o’clock, with the sun getting hotter and hotter, beating down on my head. I told myself, if none of the coming line of cars stopped, I was going over to the shade on the other side of those trees to lie down and take a nap until it got cooler. The first one of the bunch pulled right over when he saw me though, off onto the shoulder, blowing dust and all, a blond guy in a pickup truck. I climbed in. He looked to be about my age, with the sun glaring in his face through the windshield. He wore glasses. He waited for the last of the cars that had been behind him to pass, and he pulled out onto the roadway. “I’m Larry,” he said.

He continued out Ramona west, the wind tearing in through the side windows, wrapping my hair all around my head, slapping my ears and eyes and neck. Larry passed all the cars that had gotten ahead of him when he stopped for me. When we passed the first one in line, he gave it a long lookover in his rearview mirror. We traveled on another eight or nine miles, the dairies and pastures streaming by with the mountains and the lake in the distance. In all that time we didn’t talk. He had given me his name and that was it. At first, I tried to think of something to say, something that would sound natural. I couldn’t, so I just watched the scenery. I’ve been out the Ramona Expressway a hundred times, more than that probably, but I never paid attention to everything out that way like I did then. I noticed lots of things I had never seen before, like moss backing on old fence posts and water flowers in the watering holes and troughs near the mangers. I felt that comfortable in that truck.

We’d gone through Seedwood, and just past the hills where the Indians had their watering holes long before white men were sinking wells in California. Larry broke our silence to ask me where I was headed. I came away from trying the quickness of my vision on the gold and blue butterflies the truck missed to tell him the other side of Dry Dollar Lake. He said he had to stop and pick something up about a mile ahead, but that he was continuing out to Watershed Falls. I said sure, anything that would get me that close.

A ways further he slowed down and turned off onto a dirt road. It was fairly smooth as dirt roads go, and the few bottom-threatening dips there were Larry handled with a familiar ease. When I looked behind, I could see his wheels churned up only a little dust. The dirt road continued for a parched distance, inclining to pass over a low bluff with green but still sparse chaparral along the ridge. Then we were heading down into a narrow arroyo, and the truck bounced and swayed side to side. At the bottom a slight streambed began alongside the road and continued beside for the length we went. There was only the hint of a stream in it though, nothing more than a trickle.

Visible in the distance was a wooden house, a cabin, around which were set other slight structures, shadow grey against the bright goldscape. In closer I could see they were wooden shacks higher or near as high as they were long, a few smaller sheds, and chicken coops. A station wagon was parked in front of the cabin. There were trees further off, healthy ones, close together, but not quite a grove.  The few trees near the house were stark, mostly leafless. The cages close enough for me to see were empty, though here and there a hen scurried, scratched and pecked at the dry earth.

Larry pulled in close to the house, to the side of the station wagon. He said he just had to pick something up, but I could come in for a drink of water. As we were stepping up onto the wood porch side by side with a few of the hens clucking behind us a young woman with a baby in her arms opened the cabin door. She was half turned, saying goodbye to someone inside. We waited for her to come out, and she stepped straightaway for the station wagon, sending Larry a nod. We went into the cabin.

Across the room was a woman in a wheelchair. My being there didn’t take her aback any. She addressed herself straight off to Larry. “I told her to go and get that money out of the bank right now,” she said. Larry offered no reply.  Outside the engine started and then I could hear the tires turning out on the earthen driveway. “I told her to go and get that money out of the bank afore he dies.”

Larry seemed to not be listening to her, and he pointed across the room to the faucet. “Over there. There’s some glasses in the cupboard,” he said.

It’s not his money,” the woman continued. “She should get it before the State does.”

I know all that, Mother,” Larry said. There was a tinge of anger in his voice. He started into the adjoining room.

She should get that money out of the bank right now,” the woman repeated.

I went to where Larry had directed me, at the far side of the room. The faucet was built over a wooden sink. I had to pump a side crank to prime up the pressure in the line. The woman rewheeled and was regarding me in shifty looks up and down. I didn’t look her way back, just got a tall glass and filled it. I came away a few feet from the sink and still didn’t look right at her, but out the window beside the door we had come in. The station wagon climbed the last of the slope to the narrow gorge at the crest and then disappeared over the other side. The water, so deep cold it like froze my throat, tasted clean as from a mountain spring in June.

Larry came out from the other room with a toolbox. He set it down heavily onto the counter and went straight to looking in one of the drawers beneath the counter for something more. He popped up the toolbox lid and set something in it, a screwdriver or something, and shuffled some more in the drawer and then in another. “Where’s that flashlight?” he asked.

The old woman wheeled herself back and then around the table, then reached behind the sofa. I had a real clear look at her then, when she was looking to the side and when she was handing the flashlight to Larry. You could see she was his mother alright. Their hair was the same flaxen, except hers had grey in it, and their eyes were keen blue, like Texas Germans. She told him not to lose it, the electricity was always going out.

He set the flashlight under the top tray and closed the toolbox back up. I set the empty glass on the wooden drainboard and followed him out. We got in the truck and drove back out to the expressway with the toolbox rattling and sliding on the seat between us at the sharper bends in the road. We never passed the station wagon in all the six or seven miles he took me out further west like I thought we might. We didn’t say anything either, just drove. He let me off just above the flood control dam at the turnoff to the hatchery. A little more than an hour later I got another ride to where I only needed to walk about a mile to the trailhead for the cabins. I was back before four.

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