IT'S WINTER in Georgia, nineteen-seventy-five, and Steffi, who is twenty-four and a little lonesome and sad, builds herself a kind of a Conestoga wagon deal on the back of her pickup truck.
She bends conduit on a jig made of stakes in the ground in a semicircle and bolts three sheets of plywood on, overlapping. Paints the plywood. Now she's got a round white camper shell, with "Oregon or Bust" in black lettering over the door.
The truck's a canary yellow '70 Chevy and she paints "Rocinante" across the front of the hood, also in black lettering. From the rear-view mirror she hangs an ojo de dios made of two twigs and some rainbow-dyed yarn.
She builds a low bed frame inside the truck bed, wall to wall, with nine inches of storage space underneath. There she tucks books, canned goods, bags of beans and rice, water, canteens, backpack, extra pants and shirts and sock hats and gloves and rain gear and boots, all of one dress, an axe, a shovel, a propane stove, a cranky yellow chain saw, a child-size twenty-two single-shot rifle that she got when she was all of nine, fishing gear, compass, space blanket, firestarters, shoe grease, knife sharpener, first aid stuff. Lipstick? Ha!
On top of the platform she lays out a foam rubber pad, a Hudson Bay blanket, a sleeping bag, a little pillow she's had for years with "Princess" stitched on it in needlepoint by her grandma, a four-string Appalachian dulcimer, and an eighteen-chord Autoharp with finger picks. A small broom with its handle sawed off short will do for the housework. Bolted to the wall she has a homemade lamp bracket holding a family heirloom kerosene lamp.
In the cab, she's got food and water, maps, an eight-track player, a flashlight and a revolver. Also some cash. Not a lot. No credit cards.
The truck's insured. She's not. She's also unemployed. Does she care? She tosses her hair, puts her hands on her hips and looks west.
She's halfway across the pines of Alabama when a full size U-Haul truck passes her doing what seems like about eighty miles an hour.
State trooper's right behind it.
Trooper, blue lights bawling, peels out to get around in front of the truck, and the trucker whips left, kicks the patrol car into the median. Car fishtails all over the Deep South for a moment or two, then settles in for the chase, whooping. Out of sight they run. Then, one-two-three troopers and one-two county mounties, zoop-zoop-zoop, zoop-zoop and over the horizon. Get 'em, fellas! But what Steffi had seen as the truck went by was a guy grinning at her and her little prairie schooner.
Having a good time.
Bless you, brother. Bless you, sister.
Rocinante takes the wide wastes of Texas in stride with three pilgrims in her cab. Steffi's passengers, who are buying the gas, are a young-old lady with new-age self-assurance, freckles and huge hoop earrings, with a brand-new husband, a handsome Guatemalan she has met on a commune south of the border. They're hitching to Seattle so that Miguel, who knows almost no English and has never traveled, can meet his in-laws.
Hoop-ears teaches language and culture in the cab day and night, as freeway America rolls by underneath the wheels, concrete ribbon, gas station, concrete ribbon.
Steffi enjoys the lectures at first, and so does Miguel, but by Arizona, they're both schooled out, and each begins to examine with morose attention the road-killed recaps and armadillos passing by.
"Now, Miguel. This is a backpack, b-a-c-k-p-a-c-k, also called a ruck sack, it's not what backpackers call a backpack, 'cuz it hasn't got a frame. This is a zipper, z-i-p-p-e-r, like you have there on your jeans, and in here is a pocket, like a jeans pocket."
Miguel asks her something in Spanish, she rattles off something back at him, they go on a while like that, but faster. Then Miguel summons immense dignity, jams his hands in his -- jeans pockets, whatever -- and enunciates, slowly and emphatically: "You know ... always ... everything." A tear forms in the corner of his eye, and he turns away to regard the sunset on the passing, wasted hills. Stranger in a strange land.
Rocinante pulls up onto a bit of unfenced desert. The pilgrims gather dry mesquite branches and sit around a fire, close, under a wheel of stars turning earth-slow, brilliant as only desert stars can be when the night plans to drop to zero.
Steffi has never known zero but as it doesn't seem to worry her passengers, she's game. She brings her sleeping bag to the fire.
Steffi tells about Georgia nights. Hoop-ears translates for Miguel from time to time.
"My great-great grandfather, the Welsh one who married a Creek lady, raised cotton on top of Dugdown Mountain. Everything he did is gone now -- it's all red oaks, a hundred years' worth. The road along the ridge was through country without a single house, so it could get dark, I mean really dark. My mama told me this story as I'm telling it now.
"Grandpa was coming home on the buggy, coming along with a lantern, he was just in this pool of yellow light, oh about twenty foot across. And the horse, which was a good horse, not one you would think of to get scared a lot, just pulled up short and wouldn't gee, get, nor haw. So Grandpa, who was real tired and not thinking to stay out all night, gets down to go around front and talk sense into the horse, when right then the horse up and hauls off the buggy toward home and Grandpa is in the road in pitch black.
"Well, he can see just one thing and that's the light in the window of his house, across the cotton fields way around the ridge. It's two miles by the road and about a mile, mile an' a half down and up through the fields. He's standing there thinking what in the hell has got into that horse and then he thinks maybe he hears something. Or, no, he thinks maybe he feels something, like there's eyes looking through his back. He turns, and he doesn't see nothin' -- but he feels like the front of his face sees something, you know what I mean? Like there's a kind of living headlights out there, and he's caught in the beam, and he is food.
"So Grandpa, he starts running down the road, and he sorta hears something soft and heavy trotting in the dust of the wagon ruts behind him. So he throws off his hat to give that thing something to sniff at and jumps down into the cotton field and cuts across the rows toward that light in his kitchen window. Well, something thumps and swishes into the cotton behind him, and so he throws off his shirt and runs on down by the pond. He's running about as hard as he can go, goes by the pond, and through the willows, and right behind him something's rustling willow twigs. So he quick somehow shucks his pants and runs in nothing but his shoes up through the cotton on the other side of the draw to where he's about at the end of the farm yard.
"He can see Grandma is working at the table by the window, rolling dough with her big arms, and hollers: "Ma, open that door!" She runs over and pops the door with her floured hand and he comes through on the jump, slams it behind him and whap! something hits that door so hard it bends the hinges.
"Next day they see where there was deep scratches all over that door, had to plane it down like it was new-sawn. The tracks they found in the farm yard was cougar tracks. He said he could put both his fists side by side like this" -- Steffi demonstrates -- "and stick them down in a track with room to spare."
Miguel likes the story. Hoop-ears does too. Looks like they have made up. She snuggles down deep in her sleeping bag, tucked under his arm, and Miguel gets out a long wooden flute.
He plays, something startlingly complex, something Central American and lovely, entirely suited to night in a wild place. If there were any breeze he couldn't do it; the night is the coldest each of them has known. But the air is still as a black sea of glass, and his notes rise like owls to the mountainside close by.
Rocinante carries Steffi and her passengers into Los Angeles, and Steffi's not happy with the place. She's staying at some ashram full of people in turbans, which is cool, but the streets outside are unremittingly mean, full of men in long black coats and black glasses that walk into places and everybody gets quiet. Y'know?
So she goes out to the curb to see if Rocinante is still there or has she got her tires slashed or anything, and there's goo all over the windshields. "What is this stuff?" she asks, sliming her thumb.
"That's smog," says one of the turbans.
I'm gone from here, thinks Steffi, and says goodbye to her cross-country passengers. She goes about ten blocks toward Oregon, but something keeps catching her attention.
There are all these little shops, with signs on them like "House of Oral Love," in neon. Each has a storefront window with one or two bored-looking women in it. One of them waves her over.
Business must be painfully slow. She pulls over to the curb. Two of the ladies lean out of a doorway, framed in high-gloss enamel. They don't look particularly prostitutish to her, but then she's never met one.
Sheltered life, Ms. Deep South, really sheltered.
One lady has a kind of Sixties page-boy hairdo, a string of fake pearls and those pointy-framed black glasses that women wear in sitcoms when you're not supposed to think they're pretty. But she is. The other has long, long hair and a fresh face, someone who gets enough sleep. Steffi can see the book she's been reading, upended on the broken-backed chair behind her. It's a college sociology textbook.
So, is she doing her research here? Or, yeah, just earning tuition? Work-study, ha-ha-hah. If she were less shy, Steffi'd like to sit and talk with them awhile, learn something about them, and about stereotyping, which she realizes she's been doing.
These are people. Just like, y'know anybody.
"Y'want work? You're not bad lookin."
Me? "Wow, thanks, but I'm off to Oregon."
"Oh, gee, lucky you. I'd love to go there. Good luck, honey."
In an hour Steffi rounds a bend, pulls off the pavement through a gap between two guardrails, bumps along to a stop on a high cliff, and steps out of the truck's cab to hear the waves collapsing among the rocks of the California coast. She's experiencing her first sunset on the Pacific Ocean; the smell of the strange nameless wind-sculpted vegetation all around brings her for the first time some awareness of just how far she is from Warren County, Georgia, or pretty much anywhere she's ever been. On the beach below, small energetic birds are running, running, matched by their reflections on the wet beach, running down to the restless water, running back with it as boils up the darkening strand.
She's only seen them in books.