Monday, February 15, 2010

Sugar Mountain

Oh, to live on Sugar Mountain
With the barkers and the colored balloons,
You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain
Though you're thinking that
You're leaving there too soon...

[The following is excerpted from The Fire and the Rose, a novel I wrote my senior year of college. At this point in the story, the narrator, Jack Singer, has hitchhiked from Wilson College in Connecticut to Duke University to visit his high-school sweetheart -- only to discover that she has a new boyfriend. While at Duke, Jack meets up with his best friend Jesse Wolf, and together they embark on an odyssey across the state of North Carolina as they hitch their way to Nashville, Tennessee.]

A dirty-white Buick Cutlass swooped across two lanes and skidded to a stop in in front of us. Jesse and I looked in amazement as the two old winos inside gestured frantically for us to get in. We squeezed into the back and the driver vaulted us into traffic. The passenger turned around and squinted at us. He looked exactly like Otis the Drunk from Mayberry.

"Where ya headed?"



The driver now turned around. He looked like a parole violater.

"Either ya'll gotta license?"

Jesse said nothing.

"I have one," I volunteered.

"Lessee it."

I handed him my license. He scrutinized it for a second and then gave it back.

"OK, you get to drive."

He swung the car into a rest area, and the two of them got out to piss.

"I think it's safer for me to drive than him," I said, climbing over the seat.

"I guess so," Jesse shrugged.

They got in, and we took off. The car had a hair-trigger gas pedal. Not really a pedal, just a worn-down nub where the pedal used to be. The slightest touch and it would do eighty. I tried to keep it down to around fifty, but the two drunken fools kept urging me to go faster. The three of us were jammed in the front. Jesse was half-dozing in the back. The parole-violater was shouting instructions.

"Pull up next to that truck, boy. I want to shoot him."

"I think I'll stay back here." I tried my best to hide my fear, as I would with a skittish horse or a wild dog.

"Well, all right then... jes' lemme git my gun here."

He reached under the seat and whipped out a bottle of Night Train. I was relieved -- for the moment.

"Did we tell you that we stole this car, boy? Yer driving a stolen car!"

He turned to Otis. "Where did we steal this car?"

"Virginia, what'd he say, Belzey, Bezley? Beazley, BEAZLEY, Virginia!"

"We stole this car in Bezley, Virginia."


"Beazley... Bezley, who was that nurse, last night, we was talkin' to at the Duke hospital, who was she? We was at Duke last night..."

"Was it Bezley or Beazley, I think he said Beazley."

"That's where we stole this car, Beazley, Virginia!"

"Where was we last night, I'uz two-thirds drunk."

"Duke, we was at Duke, remember that nurse?"

"I remember, I'uz two-thirds drunk."

"Boy, did you know that yer drivin' a stolen car?"

"I think this is the exit for Davidson." I announced. "I'm just gonna pull off the road here..."

"No, boy, you wanna get off the Concord exit, that's seven miles." He turned to Otis again.

"Now where did we get this car? Belzey?"

"Beazley," Otis burped. He was beginning to mellow. He looked like a baby with gas. "Beazley, Virginia."

"Lemme write that down," said the parole-violater, pulling a pen off the sun visor. He opened the glove compartment and pulled out an envelope that had the official seal of the Governor of North Carolina engraved in the corner. Even Jesse was watching now. The parole-violater scrawled "Beazley, Virginia" on the envelope and stuffed it in his pocket. I pulled off the road and stopped the car.

"Thanks for the ride."

Jesse and I jumped out before they could protest.

Otis slid over and took the wheel. He uttered a loud belch and they sped off into the sunset. I looked at Jesse.

"Did you see that envelope?"


"Do you think those guys know the Governor of North Carolina?"

"Jack, I think one of those guys is the Governor of North Carolina."

The old parole-violater was almost right. We had to walk four miles to get to Highway 73. My feet hurt. We made a sign on Jesse's sketch pad that said "PLEASE" and waited by the highway. We got a ride before dark that took us all the way to the Davidson campus.

We stayed overnight with Spence, a friend who graduated from Watterson a year ahead of us. We had a nice dinner in Spence's frat and went out for a few beers. Then we returned to the frat to crash. We were leaving early for Nashville the next morning.

We woke Spence at seven a.m. and asked him how to get to Interstate 77. He got out of bed, led us across campus and pointed down a road leading west

"A mile and a half."

As we walked, the sky grew gray and cold rain started to fall. We stood on the side of Interstate 77 for two hours and got soaked. To pass the time we sang Grateful Dead songs.

Keep on movin' just a mile to go...

Our first ride was with a guy who said he'd hitched through these parts back when he was in the Army. We got his car soaking wet, but he didn't mind. He dropped us off under a bridge so we could at least stand out of the rain. We thanked him and waved goodbye. Jesse looked down the highway and predicted our next ride.

"This one."

A white Econoline van pulled over and we got in. It was loaded with all kinds of woodworking tools. The driver had a long, white beard and talked constantly about the rainy weather. He took us up to the junction with 1-40 West, leaving us under another bridge. He was going east. We waited under the bridge and watched a US Army caravan pass by. They all waved, and we waved back. A cop passed us too, and he waved. Hitching is legal in North Carolina.

Our first ride west was with a guy in a jeep. He had a CB radio and was able to cruise down the highway at high speeds dodging all the speed traps. He went so fast we repassed the Army caravan. The CB guy dropped us off in the middle of a beautiful mountain pass. The rain was just clearing. Directly in front of us, framed on both sides by steep valley walls, stood a beautiful peak as green and lush as Mount Abora. Jesse gazed up at it.

"Look Jack, Sugar Mountain."

We sang one of our favorite Neil young songs.

You can't be twenty on Sugar Mountain...

The sun was out now, and we hung our wet coats on reflector poles to dry. The Army caravan passed us again. We all waved.

"You know, Jack, I haven't felt this good for a long time."

"Yeah, I even felt happy when we were at Duke, even though I was miserable."

"It's just good to be on the road, no worries, no responsibilities."

"Here comes a pickup. He's slowing down."

A sky blue pickup truck stopped, and we got in. There was a welder's torch in the bed of the pickup. The welder was blonde and sunburned. He said he used to be a med student at UNC, but he grew bored of the books and dropped out. He was on his way to a job. We talked about school and life and the road. He seemed like the happiest man alive, just driving around from job to job. He dropped us off at his exit and went on his way. We waited there for hours but had no luck. Suddenly, the welder reappeared. He laughed. He was now on his way to see his mother. He drove us a few miles up the road.

"Now, I don't want to see y'all again."

We promised he wouldn't. I looked around. We were in the middle of nowhere. I thought we'd never get a ride. We waited for hours. Few cars passed by. None slowed down. Finally, a white pickup appeared from out of nowhere and screeched to a halt at our feet. The window was down. I looked in.

"Uh, where ya'll headed?"

"Just fuckin' around. Get in."

The two of us squeezed into the cab with the two of them. They were about twice our age, but a lot less drunk than the pair we'd met the day before. The stereo was blasting the live version of American Woman by the Guess Who.

"I love this tape," yelled the driver and turned it up even louder.

"Don't you?"

I nodded.

"Y'all heard about the coal strike?"

I nodded again.

"Yeah, they's haulin' in coal from outta state on trains. We're goin' to blow up the tracks."

I smiled. They were going to blow up the railroad tracks. I leaned my head back and bumped it on one of their rifles. I hoped we hadn't pushed our luck too far. The driver whipped out a silver cigarette case and opened it. It was full of joints. He gave one to me.

"That's for later."

Then he took out another and lit it. When it got passed down the line to Jesse, he lit another and continued the process until each of us had a joint.

"Check down by your feet, there ought to be some beer left."

Jesse reached down and pulled out an eight-pack with four left.

"We'll have to stop and get more."

"They's eight more in back," offered the driver's trusty sidekick.

"Then we'll have to stop and get them."

He pulled off at the next exit and swung onto an access road paralleling the highway. Off to the side of the access road was a small store. We slid to a stop in the gravel parking and the two of them got out to piss on the side of another pickup truck. Then the sidekick grabbed the other eight-pack and we were rolling again. The driver grinned, heading towards the next junction doing seventy.

"I 'uz born in this county, know these roads good."

We could see the highway through the trees, and I noticed that we were passing the Army caravan again.

"Wonder where they're all goin'?" mumbled the sidekick, as we all opened our beers.

The driver handed me another joint to light. We were now on the back streets of Black Mountain, where Interstate 40 turned into Main Street for a mile or so. Standing at every traffic light along Main Street were soldiers carrying M16 rifles. We waited at the light till the Army caravan passed by, then we swerved back onto I-40. The sidekick leaned over me to get a better view, spilling his beer on Jesse's lap.

"Look at that motherfuckin' gun!"

They drove us to a place where the highway makes a sharp right and cars have to slow down -- assuring us we'd get a ride to Nashville from there. As we retrieved our packs from the back, the truck rolled forward onto Jesse's toe. Jesse shouted, and they took off laughing.

Sure enough, we got picked up within minutes. A souped-up Camaro rumbled up and a long-haired dude signalled us to get in the back. He and his 'old lady' were on their way to Texas. She was cute.

"Got any weed, man?"

I produced the joint I still had, and we drove on towards Nashville. Jesse fell asleep. I stared out the window listening to Eric Clapton. When we stopped for gas, the long-haired dude asked us if we had any money. When we said no, his 'old lady' bought us some crackers and soda from a vending machine. She then took the wheel and drove the rest of the way to Nashville. We arrived at sunset.