In 1966 I bought a 1939 Studebaker Hearse for 45 bucks. It was in mint condition. The red velvet interior sparkled and shone with a plush, brain-popping softness. When I looked into the ebony paint job of one of the fenders I saw William Burroughs staring back at me. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I sniffed ancient bones and parchment skin, the musty odor of death and life gone to seed. I handed over forty-five bucks, all in ones. Sven, Altoona and I drove it off the lot. Autumn followed us in her 1961 Impala. Life was grand. We lit up a joint and passed it around. Three miles down the road, the hearse stopped. Dead in its tracks.
A Rat on a Treadmill
We got the beast towed back to my friends’ cinder block house in Denver where they had a shop in their living room. We got under the hood and determined it was the carburetor that had gone on the fritz. After hunting for a day or two we found another at a junkyard down the road and promptly installed it. I got in the driver’s seat and started it. It spluttered to life, then the engine, a straight six, began to run smoothly. Like a rat on a treadmill with a piece of cheese hanging in front of it. Problem fixed. Now, we could go on a road trip.
Look Both Ways
Death would never get the better of us, not on our road trip. The hearse was nothing to fear, nor that which it stood for. The hearse was our wagon to which we hitched our lives to a star. At one time it carried the dead. Now, the living. The dead would care and look over us. We were one of them now. We had nothing to lose, but the fear of death itself. Still, I’d come to a full stop at stop signs and look both ways, I’d proceed with caution at red lights and train crossings. You can’t be too careful. Mr. Brink might be riding on the cow-catcher of one of those trains. He might want to repossess his death wagon.
Pack Some Pot for The Big Sleep
We packed our bags and heaved them (along with a plethora of tools and parts to keep the hearse running) in the back on the spacious cargo hold meant to carry the dead to their final resting place in the sun. When you’re dead you want sun. That or snow. Rain will rot you faster, snow will keep you frozen, ready for the next million years when they wake and welcome you into a faraway century. If you’re going to freeze yourself, you better have a cache of pot at your side. When you awaken from the big sleep, you’ll want to light one up and enjoy the new world that will open like a flower in the springtime. Hopefully, the pot stays as fresh as your frozen body. Hell, the deep sea divers dredge up wine in their urns, corked for the long haul, thousands of years old, found in the rotted hulls of shipwrecks in the Aegean. Roman or Greek wine. Still good, still potent. Why not pot? Safe in a super baggie, stashed at your side. An Egyptian burial. Well, sort of. You get the point.
The Wizard of OZ
In those days we were swimming against the current, stoned most of the time, if not all of the time. It was never hard to find a good baggie of Panama Red or Acapulco Gold, our favorite strains, flown in from destinations somewhere in Mexico or Central America. Of course, most of the time, if not all of the time, we were stone-cold broke. Usually, all we could afford was the generic pot, the kind that had no name attached, the kind one grew at home or bought from others for five or six bucks an OZ. Yeah, the Wizard of OZ. That’s what we called our friend and dealer Haggis Altoona.
The Long Goodbye
We headed out and got on I-70. Five of us we were: Sven, Autumn, Haggis, me and Roger’s dog, woofing it up in back, completely at ease playing with the ghosts of the dead. At least, that’s what we surmised in our stoned minds, as we watched him chasing imaginary flitterings we couldn’t see, but he could. Maybe it was fleas? Maybe not. We were on our way. No destination. Just out for the long goodbye that might take weeks or even a month. We had plenty of money. Had quit our jobs, saved up for the trip we knew would be more than a trip.
Is Mississippi Burning?
Someone mentioned that we should head south. I’d never been in the deep south. There were racial tensions tearing up the nation. Just two years ago, in 1964, The Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Still, tensions were flaring. There was still fighting in the streets. Was Mississippi burning? We figured that perhaps we should get down there and see what all the hubbub was about. Put our money where our mouths were. Of course, I’d read plenty about the situation and seen the boiling kettle of the South reported on the TV News and radio. Now was our chance. Not only to witness it, but to take part in helping our neighbors. To put it politely.
The Hellbound Train
In Kansas, we turned southward, getting onto I-29. We didn’t have time to take the backroads. Not yet anyway. Not until we reached Mississippi. The Hearse was running like the fine tuned death-beast she was, shining black outside and red inside. We were stoned and didn’t give a damn about cops. We were riding in the Hellbound Train. Not only was I driving the speed limit, but no cop in his right mind would dare stop a Hearse on its way into Hell. They might even motorcade us on our way to a demonstration. And if one did pull us over, he wouldn’t ever smell pot. The smoke and scent seemed to disappear into the plushness of the interior as though the dead were toking our secondhand smoke and getting high somewhere out of our reach. Now, if only we could get a casket we could take turns sleeping in those rippling satin folds that line a well appointed coffin.
Dogs Get Stoned Too
We stopped at rest stops along the way to walk Roger’s dog, who, I swear was as stoned as we were. He wobbled into the bushes, lifted his leg and fell over. I swear I thought I saw him laughing when he got up and meandered back to us. He was also eating like the proverbial horse at dinnertime. He finished his 50 pound bag of kibble in a matter of one week, one day ripping open the bag when we weren’t looking and consuming great amounts in one sitting. For a dog who didn’t like to eat he was becoming a Hoover. We were also able to catch forty winks (since we still didn’t have a casket) in the grass outside under the trees before we resumed our asphalt journey into the South. Autumn and Sven had made sandwiches for the trip, a whole cooler’s worth. But, we finished all them off in one day. We replenished the cooler with beer.
A Braver new World
In two days time we crossed the border into Mississippi. We decided to head to Oxford and the University of Mississippi and check in with our brethren: The local SDS chapter. There must be work for outside agitators, some rally we could attend, some march. We were not afraid, not of the police or the National Guard. We had taken the path to Mississippi in Death’s 1939 Studebaker Hearse. Death wasn’t proud and neither were we. A new adventure lay ahead of us in a braver new world that we would create.