It's a high pitched voice spoken playfully, but in our case, totally incomprehensibly. We ask him to repeat his question. Same tone and indecipherable vocal hieroglyphics. We dare not ask him again, so we just play dumb and speak our most humble Australian semi-arid strine. Without cajouling, he slows his request down, clearly, precisely. I now understand, but decide he's too well put together to be in real need, so I continue the path of "no-comprehendo". Some numbers for some fries; he wanted some "moolah" to buy some chips.
Staying in the Hollywood YMCA meant endless games of pick-up basketball. I was in heaven. As much basketball as my legs could carry me for. Junkie in Utopia. We spend the week taking in all the classic tourist traps. Disneyland for an unparalleled day of foolishness. Universal Studios to see how the movie business "strutted their stuff". From Jaws to Superman, westerns to Star Wars. We visit downtown LA and return to our habitat without even coming close to a mugging. No gang warfare, no drug deals, just a bustling hustling city sprawl.
Our plan is to buy a car and spend an unspecified amount of time to travel in the US before heading south. We start tramping in and out of the endless miles of "used car lots".
After days of methodical searching, we decide on an old van. Perfect for sleeping in and right within our under five hundred dollar price range. The body is in a bad way, but a short test drive confirms that it will get us around. Even though the salesman we deal with has a definite suspicious "air" to him, we confirm the deal.
Driving right hand side of the road in Los Angeles was like being in a slow paced demolition derby without the crashes. Real daredevil sensations, Brad sitting forward on his seat and giving directions like, "you're on the wrong side of the road, Pete," or, "there's a car coming straight at us". There are trucks, traffic lights, thickets of cars and aggressive motorists everywhere. Not a good place to learn right hand driving.
That night in the hostel we meet a traveller who has just finished six months in Peru, Bolivia and Chile. We're glued to his stories and try to gain as much practical information as we can without turning proceedings towards interrogation. He helps build on our already effervescent intrigue for the Andes mountains and the aura which surrounds them.
Next day, and "trucking on down" Hollywood Boulevard, we come across a gathering of people who are spilling out from the footpath and onto the street. We burrough into their midst and try to see what they're looking at. It seems to be an empty makeshift stage. Music booms suddenly from speakers unsighted, igniting the crowd into a frenzy. Everybody dancing, the electric sound of a female voice struts out beyond the instrumental opening. Wild scenes erupt! Then, surrounded by an entourage of bodyguards, press hounds and official looking characters, Diana Ross live! It's a magical moment, the laying of a concrete star into the footpath, nameplates of the famous.
That night, our last before leaving LA, we go to the Forum, a massive indoor basketball court, and watch a game of professional "ball". A dream come true; the Lakers, Abdul-Jabber and Magic Johnson. Fifteen US bucks for the cheapest seats and we're up in the outer. Seven foot players reduced to inches. We soon abscond to some closer seats to witness the almost supernatural athleticism of fine tuned pro's.
Next morning we're up and at it. A wonderful day, clear except for the eternal brown haze. Perfect for adventure. Into our van and head north. We buy a box of groceries, check out of the hostel, buy a map of California and criss-cross our way onto the freeway. We're joking and laughing, talking of high adventure and scullduggery, two pirates on the open seas. Not even an hour away - a bang followed by a gust of black smoke, a misfire in the engine and loss of power. We're now spewing an unrelenting tail of black smoke and hobbling along the freeway at twenty miles an hour. We pull over to the side and sit momentarily. We look at the engine for obvious problems, then climb back in to re-ignite our slow combustion smoke stack, indulging in the sublime wish that it will "just stop". A police siren juts rudely into wishful thinking.
Within an hour of setting forth into the wilderness to conquer new heights of tourist heroism, we're turned back, police sticker demanding repairs. Within four hours we've sold the car back to the dealer for a loss and we've booked a ticket north on a bus for San Francisco.
San Francisco. The Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz Prison, the enormity of Berkley University and cable car rides. I take to the streets and make the first sketches in my drawing book. My travel diary. I had already lost interest in facts and figures, daily entries into a written diary. I knew it was the "done thing" for long distance travels, but it bored me. Instead, I would draw, write poems, moments of thoughts, cartoons.
We visited major camping stores. New back pack, sleeping bag, tent, stove, walking boots, rainjacket, cooking pots and sleeping mat. The conversion complete, cash to travelling equipment.
Daily games of basketball supplemented the innumerable kilometres we were walking in the pursuit of tourist enlightenment. Some days I would wake up thinking, not of scenic beauty or sequoias, but of new "moves" I'd like to try on the court. It got to the point where it was extreme, whole days planned around being at a particular court when the standard would be "hot". A time when some Americans would be confronted by the oblique concept of, not only being beaten, but having their "ass whipped" by an Australian.
The previous few weeks had seen Yosemite National Park closed due to avalanches. We arrived, through purist luck, the day after it had re-opened. A day of splendid sunshine and staggering views into Yosemite Valley. Massifs of grey-blue granite, caps of snow and collars of pine forests. The air dazzling with reflected light.
Climbers camp, a place for wayward adventurers and rock climbers, was a campground of random tents posing next to the fallout of granite boulders. We find our space near a rustic wooden table and chair set-up. We pitch our newly acquired tent for the first time. The next week is an eclectic mix of long walks up into the surrounding mountains, drawing in my book, letter writing, riding push bikes and playing chess with the German seaman from a tent nearby.
The walks into the mountains expose birds and deer, ice cold rapids with snow overhangs and wonderful waterfalls pounding out messages of strength. At night we cook wonderful concoctions over an open fire. Temperatures fall, layers of clothing are added. The final chore being to hoist our food bag, which is tied by rope, through a fork in the tree, up into the safety of mid-air, away from bears and squirrels. There were many stories here of the bear being caught with its paw in the honey pot, or at worst, ripping into tents to get a snack. If a human were to be in the way, a lot of harm could be done.
From Yosemite, Brad and I decided on differing "modus operandi". I wanted to hitch hike back to LA, he would meet me there in a week. So we said our "good-lucks", and then I tramped out to the edge of the park and stood by the main road with my hand out. I wasn't sure how "it" was done here. I wavered between "thumbs up" and "finger out" to a shoulder high semi-wave. My first ride was, as would happen, with an Australian couple who were homeward bound after living and working in New York for three years. We talked cricket and football, backstreet politics and home truths. They dropped me, with precision, inside an area known as Mariposa Grove. The giant sequoia trees. Biggest tree in the world. Mammoths of startling proportions. Limbs high up in the air which would double the girth of any normal tree. I wandered for hours, waiting till dusk to abscond into the bush to pitch the tent and camp for the night.
Again luck was with me. A great night sleeping amongst giants, an early morning lift with a travelling salesman. A second ride with a young couple took me closer towards Big Sur National Park. Stories of Patty Hearst and Charles Manson close at hand. I wait for nearly two hours without luck. I get bored and wander to a shop nearby, returning with a thick point texta and cardboard box. Using my Swiss army knife I cut out the shape of a huge thumb, clarify detail with the text and then write, "Bolivia or Bust". Within ten minutes I'm aboard a hot Trans-Am four-fifty seven Chevy, double this and souped up that. Wide wheels, chrome exhaust, the lot. We're zooming in and out of cars, hugging corners at unnerving speeds and generally adding the taste of grey hairs to my spirit. Daring to live. Time passes slowly, the kilometres quickly.
We parted ways in an awkward place. At a cross roads in the middle of nowhere. Rides had been non-existent, the numbers of cars passing by were few. I sat on my pack and waited. Exuberant at the sound of an engine, slouched and wondering at the silence.
I decided to put on my pack and walk for a while. The old "make them feel sorry for me" tactic. Still no success, the sun starting to slip down behind the hills. I decide that I'll camp and have my eye on a place just a little way ahead. Off the road a hundred metres near a large tree. At that moment a large snake slithers across the road in front of me and heads, I imagine, almost directly for that place. I decide to keep walking. Maybe I should limp, or try some theatrical gesturing. Begging, praying, throwing kisses. Still no takers. I was resigning to camping in the field nearby when I turned to display my hitching intent to the approaching car.
Time seemed to burst into slow motion. An angel in the distance, white and pure, increasing in size. I could hear them start slowing just as they passed me. Brand new white Mercedes station wagon melting to an effortless halt. Inside sat John. Gay millionaire businessman who had just spent a few days with the lover he "kept" in an apartment in San Francisco. He started to intimate toward me not long after I had been in the car, but I had been clear with him and, once resolved, we had a conversation that lasted for two hours.
He invited me to stay with him. I could meet his wife and two children. In Carmel. Home to movie stars and millionaires. Clint Eastwood just up the road. "His wife" I repeated in my own mind. It was all starting to sound a little on the surreal side now. I was momentarily suspicious. But hey, this was California. A university professor I'd met in Yosemite had suggested that "the United States is on a tilt towards California, and all the loose ends roll there!" The oddballs, the characters, the flamboyance of it all.
Some hours later I had, indeed, met his wife and children. I had felt embarrassed at being introduced to her, just wanting to reassure her that I wasn't a "friend", but really as had been told - a stray Aussie backpacker. Their home was a mansion. Elaborate but stylish. My "bedroom" was on an open verandah which overhung a cliff. I could look down through the slatted floor and watch the sea kneading the rocks below.
Three days of seeing how the "biggies" lived. Sitting in a spa bath watching people having individual tennis coaching at the Private Tennis Club. Sightseeing in the Porsche. Dinner conversations where the subject matter was on books, ideas and business. Had I read the Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough? I had to admit I hadn't heard of either. Boy from the bush meets royalty! Nonetheless, they were generous in the most open terms.
I finally made it to Big Sur. Camped in a magical location and spent two days bushwalking. Again I felt waves of the Manson murders, strange sects, the sixties. Two more rides, one with an awkwardly strange man, whose ute I fled at the first stop we made, the second, a bricklayer from Baltimore. Really!
Back in Los Angeles I team up with Brad who, like me, has a week of adventures to tell. We collect mail from the "poste restante" and return to lay around in our room, savouring news from home. I laugh heartily. My mother has written a wonderful letter. I realise that she has a wonderfully flowing script. Elegant. "...... but wouldn't you rather go somewhere else? What about Canada? Or Europe?" Anywhere but the mysterious depths of South America.