The journey continues. Night has fallen and a cassette tape of Link Wray rumbles on the car stereo. Cuz’n Roy and I burn down a rather deserted stretch of desert in time with the music, the swanky and ferocious beat acting as a syncopated counterpoint to the soothing thrum of the Pontiac’s smoothly percolating 400 cubic inches of internal combustion. These are the only sounds to permeate the mute omniscience of the California moon and interrupt the stillness of the surrounding darkness.
I pull on a styrofoam big gulp of jake, thick as motor oil and twice as sour. The brackishness of the caffeine is exacerbated by the faux liquid creamer, which has a consistency and overbite reminiscent of a night in Akron, Ohio. Despite the brutality of the acidic bile in my styrofoam cup and the realization that if I didn’t drink this stuff we would never reach Black Rock, Nevada in time for Breedlove’s record runs, nothing could harsh the mellow of a night that seemed to be in harmony with the cosmic consciousness.
“The sound of a well-tuned V8 is the sound of the universe at peace with itself.”
Roy agrees. “It is the perfect rhythm section for a twangin’ guitar,” he nods, reaching to crank up the volume pot on the tape player.
Like Link Wray, Roy is a North Carolina boy and he grew up around the souped-up V8s of stock car country. He is a strapping, towheaded country mouse with a build informed by a generous helping of corn beef hash. Neither of us are particularly mechanically inclined, but we both have a profound appreciation for an internal combustion engine and all of its trappings, not the least of which was the different ways one can sound depending upon fuel type, air/fuel induction system and cam grind.
Roy can find harmonic overtones from a variety of fountainheads, but he has a real penchant for picking out the symphonies buried in thermodynamic sources… He knows that machines are part of the great cosmic om. Many times at the drag strip as I fought for elbow room amongst the bleacher bums and professional photographers Roy would just stay in the parking lot and recline in the front seat of the car, content to kick back with a sixer and listen to the different types of drag racing machines gear up and wind down across the pavement. It is music to his ears, like the sound of bird calls to somebody in the Audubon Society.
“It sounds like you are down on compression in the number seven cylinder,” he says during a lull in the cassette.
I am colored impressed. Roy’s appreciation of the sonic qualities of an eight-cylinder internal combustion engine makes sense when one factors in that his birthplace, Ranlo, is not more than a three beer drive from a triumvirate of company towns whose main industry nowadays is stock car racing and its spinoffs. In recent years, surrounding cities such as Charlotte, Hickory, Rockingham, Winston-Salem, Spartanburg, South Carolina et. al., have all blossomed and roared with commerce as garages, shops, wind tunnels, checker flag themed coffee shops and other havens for horsepower research and development for stock cars replaced or supplanted the region’s rather moribund textile industry. Each of those cities is a point on a circle that envelops the modest digs of Roy’s childhood in the podunk burg of Ranlo.
The conversation turns to North Carolina and its recent history. We talk about textile mills and relatives with missing fingers; we talk about how Link Wray and how North Carolina has changed since the days of rockabilly and moonshine. We talk about the jail terms of the first wave of stock car racers.
Ahhh, the checkered history of stock cars in the Crimson State. The phenomena that became stock car racing as an industry transpired the moment when federal revenuers and local Good Ol’ Boy law enforcement were empowered by the sudden ubiquity of inexpensive radio technology in the 1950s and 1960s. This finally allowed them to stop (or at least stem) both the rampant bootlegging of corn liquor and its co-efficient, tax evasion. Sure, a hot headed soda cracker moonshine runner could out drive the local sheriff’s deputies, but good luck in outrunning radio transmissions carried on modulated electromagnetic waveforms that travel at the speed of light. So the daredevils who were at one time runnin’ shine and who were the object of hot pursuit from law enforcement became stock car drivers. Many had gone to jail at one time or another (and another), but these days they are respectable businessmen and/or tooth-capped spokesmen for boxes of Corn Flakes and laundry detergent, pitch men racing for maximum exposure on the boob tube and catering to the needs of the racing crowd and its Fortune 500 sponsors, their tawdry occupation of outrunning the law now firmly excised in life’s trail of exhaust.
“A bonafide hillbilly guitar player can’t get a job in county music no more,” Roy muses. It seems the landscape had been gentrified with corporate stock car bucks and Starbucks, he says and in reference to the motorsport that was once the domain of moonshine runners, he adds that, “and all of those famous stock car boys can’t talk about their vacations in the big house neither.”
Stock cars in the Deep South. Corn liquor squeezin’s. Hillbilly guitar players. None too shabby a cultural backdrop for life east of the Mississippi, but for Cuz’n Roy these trappings were not enough. As a kid, he had been exposed to the surf and drag culture of California via exploitation films and sound recordings. Throughout Roy’s youth it was, by day, surf guitars mixed in with hillbilly honky tonk on a dime store phonograph or transistor radio and, by late night under the blue cathode glow of a rabbit-eared teevee set, beach movies with gratuitous dragster crashes shoehorned into the plot and then the world fell into a sine wave and a test pattern. This imported culture shaped and informed Roy’s appreciation of California and fired up his sense of wanderlust.
(Early in our friendship while watching the vintage surf and drag trashploitation flick Bikini Beach on videotape, he told me in solemn tones that, “Every time I went to a drive-in movie theater in the deep South and I saw these beach movies with dragsters racing alongside those majestic mountains, or whenever I heard a song by the Beach Boys on my AM radio, I knew there was something going on in California I needed to experience.”)
Back in those days, for kids in the hinterlands, pop culture – late night television, AM radio, surfing and drag racing magazines, etc. – taught its impressionable viewers that California was not just a place on the map, it was the end of the line for the Manifest Destiny. It represented an ideal, opportunity, the last stop on the trail that began at the Gateway to the West, a logical extension of the last chunk of real estate within the borders of the Continental US. In fact, it is where the pavement ends and where vision begins for passengers riding the American Dream, a notion encapsulated in the idiom of Breedlove’s choosing, “the Spirit of America.”
As a transplant, Roy is the natural guy to tap into what that meant, i.e., to figure out what resonance and deeper meanings, if any, could be summoned from the whole Spirit of America ethos – as a phrase, as a concept, as an approach to life. It is 1996. California had changed; America had changed… all of which is natural, as life is nothing, if not change.
The drive continues. California became Nevada. Posted speed limits are ignored. The conversation dies and the mix tape of surf music spools out. I eject the cassette and scroll through the dial of the AM radio. We find a rock and roll station out of Reno, which through a quirk of electromagnetism, is able to transmit all the way to I-15 east of Stateline, Nevada with minimal fritzing. Late night radio in the American Desert is truly freeform and tonight the screed from the deejay in Reno is particularly temporal and metaphysical…
“… Nothing-uh is static-uh,” the voice from the radio says through some static, while a disjointed organ solo section of a vintage Pink Floyd space instrumental meanders in the background. “Things move both forward and backwards, as a function of space and time, but things move, my friends. Stars move, galaxies move, everything moves away from everything else. And the further away they get-uh, the faster they move, which indicates the universe is expanding and constantly changing. Only when something ceases to move, does it cease to exist. Can I get an amen-uhh?”
We lose the station not long after that and drive more or less in silence for the duration of the trip. And so it goes into the black vacuum of the Nevada desert. Vegas. Beatty. Tonopah. Hawthorne. Reno. By 3 AM, all are road signs in our rear view mirrors. Nixon. Little Nixon. Black Rock. We spend the night in Gerlach, Nevada, with me on a pool table and Roy on the floor of a joint called Bev’s Miner’s Club, whose back door is a crack in the lip of the dry lake bed. This next morning we drive out onto a ridge overlooking the dry lake bed, share a batch of campfire coffee with some backpacking survivalists, brush our teeth with salt and bottled water, and then spit the wash on gypsum dust white as the fossils of time.