Hellish, speed ... grappling with the California Highway Patrol ... mano a mano on Highway 61
Tuesday, 12:30 PM ... Baker, California ... Into the Ballantine Ale now, zombie drunk and nervous. I recognize this feeling: three or four days of booze, drugs, sun, no sleep and burned out adrenalin reserves – a giddy, quavering sort of high that means the crash is coming. But when? How much longer? This tension is part of the high. The possibility of physical and mental collapse is very real now. ...
... but collapse is out of the question; as a solution or even a cheap alternative, it is unacceptable. Indeed. This is the moment of truth, that fine and fateful line between control and disaster – which is also the difference between staying loose and weird on the streets, or spending the next five years of summer mornings playing basketball in the yard at Carson City.
No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride ... and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well ... maybe chalk it off to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten. It's all in Kesey's Bible. ... The Far Side of Reality.
And so much for bad gibberish; not even Kesey can help me now. I have just had two very bad emotional experiences – one with the California Highway Patrol and another with a phantom hitchhiker who may or may not have been who I thought it was – and now, feeling right on the verge of a bad psychotic episode, I am hunkered down with my tape machine in a "beer bar" that is actually the back room of a huge Hardware Barn – all kinds of plows and harnesses and piled-up fertilizer bags, and wondering how it all happened.
About five miles back I had a brush with the CHP. Not stopped or pulled over: nothing routine. I always drive properly. A bit fast, perhaps, but always with consummate skill and a natural feel for the road that even cops recognize. No cop was ever born who isn't a sucker for a finely-executed hi-speed Controlled Drift all the way around one of those cloverleaf freeway interchanges.
Few people understand the psychology of dealing with a highway traffic cop. Your normal speeder will panic and immediately pull over to the side when he sees the big red light behind him ... and then he will start apologizing, begging for mercy.
This is wrong. It arouses contempt in the cop-heart. The thing to do – when you're running along about 100 or so and you suddenly find a red-flashing CHP-tracker on your tail – what you want to do then is accelerate. Never pull over with the first siren-howl. Mash it down and make the bastard chase you at speeds up to 120 all the way to the next exit. He will follow. But he won't know what to make of your blinker-signal that says you're about to turn right.
This is to let him know you're looking for a proper place to pull off and talk ... keep signaling and hope for an off-ramp, one of those uphill side-loops with a sign saying "Max Speed 25" ... and the trick, at this point, is to suddenly leave the freeway and take him into the chute at no less than 100 miles an hour.
He will lock his brakes about the same time you lock yours, but it will take him a moment to realize that he's about to make a 180-degree turn at this speed ... but you will be ready for it, braced for the Gs and the fast heel-toe work, and with any luck at all you will have come to a complete stop off the road at the top of the turn and be standing beside your automobile by the time he catches up.
He will not be reasonable at first ... but no matter. Let him calm down. He will want the first word. Let him have it. His brain will be in a turmoil: he may begin jabbering, or even pull his gun. Let him unwind; keep smiling. The idea is to show him that you were always in total control of yourself and your vehicle – while he lost control of everything.
It helps to have a police/press badge in your wallet when he calms down enough to ask for your license. I had one of these – but I also had a can of Budweiser in my hand. Until that moment, I was unaware that I was holding it. I had felt totally on top of the situation ... but when I looked down and saw that little red/silver evidence-bomb in my hand, I knew I was fucked. ....
Speeding is one thing, but Drunk Driving is quite another. The cop seemed to grasp this – that I'd blown my whole performance by forgetting the beer can. His face relaxed, he actually smiled. And so did I. Because we both understood, in that moment, that my Thunder Road, moonshine-bomber act had been totally wasted: We had both scared the piss out of ourselves for nothing at all – because the fact of this beer can in my hand made any argument about "speeding" beside the point.
He accepted my open wallet with his left hand, then extended his right toward the beer can. "Could I have that?" he asked.
"Why not?" I said.
He took it, then held it up between us and poured the beer out on the road.
I smiled, no longer caring. "It was getting warm, anyway," I said. Just behind me, on the back seat of the Shark, I could see about ten cans of hot Budweiser and a dozen or so grapefruits. I'd forgotten all about them, but now they were too obvious for either one of us to ignore. My guilt was so gross and overwhelming that explanations were useless.
The cop understood this. "You realize," he said, "that it's a crime to ..."
"Yeah," I said. "I know. I'm guilty. I understand that. I knew it was a crime, but I did it anyway." I shrugged. "Shit, why argue? I'm a fucking criminal."
"That's a strange attitude," he said.
I stared at him, seeing for the first time that I was dealing with a bright-eyed young sport, around 30, who was apparently enjoying his work. "You know," he said. "I get the feeling you could use a nap." He nodded. "There's a rest area up ahead. Why don't you pull over and sleep a few hours?"
I instantly understood what he was telling me, but for some insane reason I shook my head. "A nap won't help," I said. "I've been awake for too long – three or four nights; I can't even remember. If I go to sleep now, I'm dead for 20 hours."
Good God, I thought. What have I said? This bastard is trying to be human; he could take me straight to jail, but he's telling me to take a fucking nap. For Christ sake, agree with him: Yes, officer, of course I'll take advantage of that rest area. And I can't tell you how grateful I am for this break you want to give me. ...
But no ... here I was insisting that if he turned me loose I would boom straight ahead for L.A. which was true, but why say it? Why push him? This is not the right time for a showdown. This is Death Valley ... get a grip on yourself.
Of course. Get a grip. "Look," I said. "I've been out in Las Vegas covering the Mint 400." I pointed to the "VIP Parking" sticker on the windshield. "Incredible," I said. "All those bikes and dune buggies crashing around the desert for two days. Have you seen it?"
He smiled, shaking his head with a sort of melancholy understanding. I could see him thinking. Was I dangerous? Was he ready for the vicious, time-consuming scene that was bound to come if he took me under arrest? How many off-duty hours would he have to spend hanging around the courthouse, waiting to testify against me? And what kind of monster lawyer would I bring in to work out on him?
I knew, but how could he?
"Ok," he said. "Here's how it is. What goes into my book, as of noon, is that I apprehended you ... for driving too fast for conditions, and advised you ... with this written warning" ... he handed it to me ... "to proceed no further than the next rest area ... your stated destination, right? Where you plan to take a long nap ..." He hung his ticket-pad back on his belt. "Do I make myself clear?" he asked as he turned away.
I shrugged. "How far is Baker? I was hoping to stop there for lunch."
"That's not in my jurisdiction," he said. "The city limits are two-point-two miles beyond the rest area. Can you make it that far?" He grinned heavily.
"I'll try," I said. "I've been wanting to go to Baker for a long time. I've heard a lot about it."
"Excellent seafood," he said. "With a mind like yours, you'll probably want the land-crab. Try the Majestic Diner."
* * *
I shook my head and got back in the car, feeling raped. The pig had done me on all fronts, and now he was going off to chuckle about it – on the west edge of town, waiting for me to make a run for L.A.
I got back on the freeway and drove past the rest area to the intersection where I had to turn right into Baker. As I approached the turn I saw ... Great Jesus, it's him, the hitchhiker, the same kid we'd picked up and terrified on the way out to Vegas. Our eyes met as I slowed down to make the corner. I was tempted to wave, but when I saw him drop his thumb I thought, no, this is not the time ... God only knows what that kid said about us when he finally got back to town.
Acceleration. Get out of sight at once. How could I be sure he'd recognized me? But the car was hard to miss. And why else would he back away from the road?
Suddenly I had two personal enemies in this godforsaken town. The CHP cop would bust me for sure if I tried to go on through to L.A., and this goddamn rotten kid/hitchhiker would have me hunted down like a beast if I stayed. (Holy Jesus, Sam! There he is! That guy the kid told us about! He's back!)
Either way, it was horrible – and if these righteous outback predators ever got their stories together ... and they would; it was inevitable in a town this small ... that would cash my check all around. I'd be lucky to leave town alive. A ball of tar and feathers dragged onto the prison bus by angry natives. ...
This was it: The crisis. I raced through town and found a telephone booth on the northern outskirts, between a Sinclair station and ... yes ... the Majestic Diner. I placed an emergency collect call to my attorney in Malibu. He answered at once.
"They've nailed me!" I shouted. "I'm trapped in some stinking desert crossroads called Baker. I don't have much time. The fuckers are closing in."
"Who?" he said. "You sound a little paranoid."
"You bastard!" I screamed. "First I got run down by the CHP, then that kid spotted me! I need a lawyer immediately!"
"What are you doing in Baker?" he said. "Didn't you get my telegram?"
"What? Fuck telegrams. I'm in trouble."
"You're supposed to be in Vegas," he said. "We have a suite at the Flamingo. I was just about to leave for the airport. ..."
I slumped in the booth. It was too horrible. Here I was calling my attorney in a moment of terrible crisis and the fool was deranged on drugs – a goddamn vegetable! "You worthless bastard," I groaned. "I'll cripple your ass for this! All that shit in the car is yours! You understand that? When I finish testifying out here, you'll be disbarred!"
"You brainless scumbag!" he shouted. "I sent you a telegram! You're supposed to be covering the National District Attorneys' Conference! I made all the reservations ... rented a white Cadillac convertible ... the whole thing is arranged! What the hell are you doing out there in the middle of the fucking desert?"
Suddenly I remembered. Yes. The telegram. It was all very clear. My mind became calm. I saw the whole thing in a flash. "Never mind," I said. "It's all a big joke. I'm actually sitting beside the pool at the Flamingo. I'm talking from a portable phone. Some dwarf brought it out from the casino. I have total credit! Can you grasp that?" I was breathing heavily, feeling crazy, sweating into the phone.
"Don't come anywhere near this place!" I shouted. "Foreigners aren't welcome here."
I hung up and strolled out to the car. Well, I thought. This is how the world works. All energy flows according to the whims of the Great Magnet. What a fool I was to defy him. He knew. He knew all along. It was He who sacked me in Baker. I had run far enough, so He nailed me ... closing off all my escape routes, hassling me first with the CHP and then with this filthy phantom hitchhiker ... plunging me into fear and confusion.
Never cross the Great Magnet. I understood this now ... and with understanding came a sense of almost terminal relief. Yes, I would go back to Vegas. Slip the Kid and confound the CHP by moving East again, instead of West. This would be the shrewdest move of my life. Back to Vegas and sign up for the Drugs and Narcotics conference; me and a thousand pigs. Why not? Move confidently into their midst. Register at the Flamingo and have the White Caddy sent over at once. Do it right; remember Horatio Alger. ...
* * *
I looked across the road and saw a huge red sign that said Beer. Wonderful. I left the Shark by the phone booth and reeled across the highway into the Hardware Barn. A Jew loomed up from behind a pile of sprockets and asked me what I wanted.
"Ballantine Ale," I said ... a very mystic long shot, unknown between Newark and San Francisco.
He served it up, ice-cold.
I relaxed. Suddenly everything was going right; I was finally getting the breaks.
The bartender approached me with a smile. "Where ya headin', young man?"
"Las Vegas," I said.
He smiled. "A great town, that Vegas. You'll have good luck there; you're the type."
"I know," I said. "I'm a triple Scorpio."
He seemed pleased. "That's a fine combination," he said. "You can't lose."
I laughed. "Don't worry," I said. "I'm actually the district attorney from Ignoto county. Just another good American like yourself."
His smile disappeared. Did he understand? I couldn't be sure. But that hardly mattered now. I was going back to Vegas. I had no choice.
This story is from the November 11th, 1971 issue of Rolling Stone.
To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here
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