When we left Central Minnesota for Olympia, Washington, it was 5 p.m. the last week of August. I had a vial of Rocket Fuel, a 24-pack of Mountain Dew, and The Doors playing on a battery-powered boombox beside me. Shirtless, with long hair down to the center of my back, and very nervous. I had turned 18 years old just a week before and had a warrant out for my arrest.
I was driving a bright yellow Subaru station wagon with no working car stereo. Numerous cardboard boxes, backpacks, suitcases, and music gear were either tied to the top or packed to the roof inside. Among the boxes was a cage with a four-foot iguana inside named Grimace. Matt, who owned the iguana, was driving with me, hunched over his Japanese “crotch-rocket” motorcycle nearby.
Matt had been my friend since my Freshmen year of high school and was the smartest scoundrel I knew. He was the only Jewish kid in my homogenous Midwest town filled with German Catholics. Neither of us had accents like those we grew up with and didn’t look like them either. We had been taunted, teased, and hunted by the natives. The violence of our hometown was only overshadowed by the searing cold of its winters.
We had celebrated both our birthdays a week before at midnight because he turned 19 the day after me. We shared a number of other parallels that sometimes ran into each other. Matt was a classical violinist and I was a classical pianist. I had started singing in punk bands first, but he quickly mirrored me and became a singer himself. He found drugs first, and then I followed him down that rabbit hole.
Matt also had a warrant out for his arrest.
We crossed the county line, headed north then west, and crossed over the state line making it as far as we could into North Dakota on Interstate 90 before it got too dark to drive. Matt was concerned about not being able to see roadkill, hitting it, crashing, and dying. I was concerned about the 50 mile-per-hour wind blowing sideways into the side of the un-aerodynamically packed station wagon, which caused me to grip the steering wheel like a Nascar driver. I was also concerned about not being able to see out the rearview mirror because the station wagon was too packed.
We were both concerned about the police.
We reached the western side of North Dakota just after Bismarck, slept for the night at a motel, and left in the morning. Before driving off, I offered Matt some Rocket Fuel, and we both took two large droppers full. I didn’t tell him that the Rocket Fuel was a mixture of caffeine, guarana, bee pollen, and ten hits of strong LSD — but he didn’t ask.
Our second day’s drive was uneventful at first, but by the time we hit Glendive, the Rocket Fuel started to really kick in and things were getting interesting. Buzzing. Flying down the interstate feeling as though pieces of the car and everything inside were flying off. My pulse racing.
Matt liked to drive fast. Going 90 was nothing to him. In the station wagon that resembled the Beverly Hillbillies in their overpacked truck, I could barely get to 70. That changed as we got to the purple-tinted hills of Montana. I would creep up the side of one hill at 50, get to the top, then race down the other side going 90, 100, 110 miles per hour…gripping the steering wheel harder and harder. The Doors playing Roadhouse Blues on cassette as I lost then caught up to Matt. This game went on for miles.
Then I heard rustling behind me.
I wasn’t sure if my mind was engulfed in audio hallucinations, if the strange sounds were created by the batteries wearing out in the boombox, or if I was really hearing something behind me. That’s when Grimace the iguana jumped from the back of the station wagon onto my chest.
“WHAAAT IN FUUUCK!!!!???, I screamed like a man who had left sanity behind, swerving at high speed. “JESUS CHRIST! AAAAAH!”
The escaped lizard had scraped its long claws into my bare chest and I was bleeding. I regained control, then pulled the lizard off my chest as it wriggled out of my hands and up under the steering column.
“Oh, shit. SHIT!”
As I kept the car moving straight, I looked down under the steering wheel and all I could see of the four-foot miniature dragon was the end of its tail.
I tried to maintain control of the car as I thought, Oh, my god, I’m going to crush the iguana with the steering wheel. What if it dies down there? What if it attacks me?
Despite my growing fears, I decided it was best to save Grimace and I kept my right hand on the wheel while using my left hand to pry the lizard out from under the dashboard. It skirted around, bending and writhing, then hissed and slithered out, across my body, then up and into the back of the station wagon behind me.
It was back there now. Somewhere. Riders on the Storm was playing. The wind whipping. The veins in my hands began to swell from gripping the steering wheel so hard. My chest bleeding. Paranoia increasing. Were the police behind me? I couldn’t check anything but the driver’s side mirror to know.
My mind was electric wire taut and sizzling.
I have to catch up to that asshole. He said the lizard was locked in his cage.
I pushed hard on the gas to catch up to Matt screaming down the road bent over his motorcycle.
When I pulled up beside him, I started gesticulating so he could see me through the driver’s side window saying, “Pull the fuck over, man! The fucking iguana is loose in the car with me!”
Within a few miles, we came to a gas station off-ramp, both drove off the interstate into the station, and pulled up in front of the pumps. I opened the car door expecting to be angry, but when Matt pulled off his helmet and I saw his pupils, I thought otherwise. Even though he was an expert at taking drugs, he looked shocked and somewhat terrified to have been dosed.
As we filled our tanks, the gas station swelled around us, pulsing and shimmering. Both of us looked filthy. Matt’s motorcycle had started spitting a lot of oil and it was covering his legs. I was bleeding down my chest, now half-dried, and mixed with sweat and car grime.
At that deeply long moment, we both looked across the station to the other pumps near us. There was a beautiful, glimmering, deep ocean blue Volkswagen bus being filled with gas, and outside the bus four elven hippies played, laughing and smiling. Clean and shiny and magical.
There were three young men and one young woman, all gorgeous. The woman looked at us and said smilingly, “Hiii! Where are you going? We’re headed to Oregon.”
I stumbled over my words but managed to say, “I’m headed to Oregon, too. But first to Washington…to Olympia…for my friend.”
“That’s coooool,” she responded. Her accent had the strong lilt of a second-generation hippie. “We’re headed to the river nearby to cool off. Do ya wanna go with us?”
Matt said nothing hiding behind his sheepish and demented grin.
I said, “Um, yeah. Ok.”
“Follow us then!” and she leapt into the bus, grinning with sunshine and tie-died innocence.
We followed the elven hippie princess in the bus with her elven boyfriend as a caravan. Their two elven friends, who looked like hippie twins, were driving a Toyota pickup parked nearby. Matt and I followed them.
The river was the Yellowstone and it was azure and tranquil. I plunged in naked, letting all the dirt and filth rinse off me. The group of elves played nearby. We didn’t talk much but everyone was jubilant, the sky blue and broad in the Montana hills, the breeze light. Matt stood smoking a cigarette, smirking, and taking in the scene.
When I climbed out of the water, Grimace was laying on the dashboard of the station wagon. He had found a place to bathe in the sun. His leathery, green dragon skin moving and swirling. I was transfixed for what seemed like a very prolonged period of time. When I pulled out of my drug-induced haze, that’s when I knew I should get rid of the rest of the Rocket Fuel.
I offered it to the four gleeful elves and they all took it willingly as the sun began to drop.
The princess and her boyfriend said goodbye, and the rest of us sat watching the sun sink. I hoped to come down at least a little to be able to drive with the lizard on the dash. The elven twins were hoping they’d start to feel the Rocket Fuel and they were letting the VW bus get ahead. It had been having mechanical trouble and needed to be driven slow.
After the blue of the sky had gone nearly black, we all climbed back into and onto our vehicles and started driving. Rolling along, I heard Jim Morrison singing, “The west is the best, get here and we’ll do the rest”.
We drove for about an hour and had seen no cars. Then in the middle of a snaking stretch of interstate, there was a long line of 30 cars stopped on the road. Ahead of them in the sinking purple glow of the hills, was a line of smoke from the right side of the interstate.
We stopped behind the cars and got out. The light was too low to see much, but in the ditch, we could see that a vehicle was on fire. We walked forward and found the elven princess and her boyfriend standing at the side of the interstate, eyes both mesmerized orbs from the Rocket Fuel having kicked in.
The boyfriend said, “That’s our bus, man. We heard a line break in the back of the bus, then it caught fire. We pulled off and jumped out before the whole thing…” he trailed off then returned, “…before the whole thing caught fire. That’s everything we own.”
Then the princess spoke, “We have to wait for the propane tanks to stop exploding. They’re three more. Everyone’s…waiting.”
Then one of the tanks went up. BOOM! My eyes bulged from the light and the sound. We all seemed to shake, flames leaping into the dark.
Matt and I looked at each other. Insane, lost, little long-haired boys from Minnesota. We had fed these innocent fairy creatures our drugs and now they had lost everything they owned, yet we could offer them nothing. No ride, no help, no money. The station wagon too full and our minds too broken.
I said meekly, “I wish…we could help. We don’t have any room.”
Matt finally breathed, “Yeah, man. We…want to help. We just…can’t.”
Then, we walked back to our cars. As we did, we walked by the Toyota truck and the twin elves. They were in shock and the Rocket Fuel would just be coming on. We cracked broken smiles but there wasn’t much to say.
We sat and waited for the remaining propane tanks to explode as dusk turned to dark, then we drove through a gateway of smoke into the Montana night. Grimace the lizard, eyeing me from the dashboard, as I followed the single taillight of Matt’s motorcycle.
We were in purgatory. Somewhere between the caged Midwest and the freedom of the West Coast. Or so I thought, as the Rocket Fuel began to burn off.