The Season of the Open Road
This is one of those moments in a movie you never forget. A whole new world suddenly opens and says, “Come on in. Join us.” Summer revitalizes that memory every year.
The movie begins. Title: “Columbia Pictures presents A Stanley Kramer Production.” The music is foreboding, even scary. The camera sits low, locked down on a wide angle shot of a two-lane highway.
A white stripe runs down the center, and in the distance stand a couple of sparse trees. A young man’s voice-over talks about the events that lay just ahead. Then – and this is the part that is burned into my memory to this day – a gang of motorcycles appears at the end of the road, headed towards camera. And right at me, a skinny 18-year-old kid in my seat at the Varsity Theater in the Loop. The bikes (a term I learned in the movie) come closer until they swarm over the audience, their engines roaring, the music building in volume and excitement. Cut to a closeup of Brando on his bike, aviator- style sunglasses, cap, and that confident look on his face.
The next day I bought a pair of those goggle sunglasses (couldn’t find a hat like his) and assumed that same tough “Don’t mess with me” expression. And nobody messed with me as I bought my milk shakes at Velvet Freeze or strode across the Quadrangle at Washington U. In fact, nobody even noticed me, to be honest. Skinny kids carrying text books don’t stir up much dread.
This all comes back to me about this time of year, when the highway beckons. No, I never rode a bike (except for my Schwinn with the balloon tires and a really dumb horn). My mother had instilled a deep-seated fear of motorcycles in me, along with bb guns and switchblade knives. Mind you, it wasn’t the biker culture that intrigued me. It was the freedom it signified, a freedom not limited to motorcycles. By the way, a bit of trivia here. Brando and his gang rode Triumph bikes. The enemy, headed by Lee Marvin, rode Harleys. Just thought you should know for your next biker meeting.
The other day I was driving on I-270 and went to pass a large “residence” on wheels. I don’t know if it was an RV, camper, trailer, coach, or motor home. All I know is that it could probably accommodate my entire subdivision. It was pulled by a Ford F-350 with Colorado plates, tooling along at 65 mph. What is it like to travel in that? I wondered. How many miles do they put on each year? Do they go to Canada, to Alaska, to Mexico? How much do they spend on gas each year? Each day? I caught a glimpse of the driver. No, not a Brando, no cool sunglasses. In fact, he looked more like a checkout guy at Schnucks. I honked my horn and waved. No reaction. He probably didn’t hear me, or even see me in my little Hyundai Elantra.
Two books I’ve read stirred my wanderlust, the pull of travel on new roads through unfamiliar terrain. One is John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.” The other is “Blue Highways” by William Least Heat Moon. Maybe at one time in my life I would have been inspired to take off into the unknown. But that’s another lesson I learned – Don’t drive anywhere unless you’ve made room reservations.
Maybe the best part of my summer Open Road Fantasy is just that – a fantasy. Better left to the imagination. Sure, I’d like to get on a Harley – or a Triumph – and fly along blue highways. Or sit behind the wheel of a Ford pickup with my “home” behind me, headed for the wilds of Canada with my wife and golden retriever. For now, I’ll watch “The Wild One” again and dig out my old sunglasses. When someone asks me, “Hey, Gerry, what are you rebelling against?”, I’ll answer as Marlon did: “Whadda you got?”
Gerry Mandel is a free-lance writer and video/biography producer. He also writes two blogs, which he invites you to enjoy. HeyYouHoser.blogspot.com, and TimeWithCharlieChaplin.blogspot.com. Your comments are welcome. clm