The winning entry in The Tribune's My First Car contest reads like a screenplay for a winning film at the Sundance Film Festival. Rhonda Raty's picturesque tale of juvenile adventure and misadventure is genuinely touching. It clearly left a permanent mark on the author.
It was 1976, my family was living in Vancouver, Wash. My dad had just given me a golden brown '67 Buick Wildcat.ÊI still have the title. Soon after, our family moved to a smaller ranch house in Scappoose, and there really was no room for me and the household of things I had already acquired in my young life. It was time for me to find a new life.
Having traveled around most of the Western states with friends a couple of years earlier (in a rare 1958 Chevrolet Impala), I thought of Colorado. Hmm, but where in Colorado? I got out the atlas and, to my delight, found a spot that had the same name as the middle name of my sweet Vancouver boyfriend. How is that for '70s logic? So, I packed up my Buick with everything I owned, with the good intention of starting anew in Lamar.Ê
I really overloaded that Buick, packing gifts and antiques from my grandmother, including a set of 24-karat gold-rimmed dishes from Italy; a library of keepable books; a record album collection that included everything ever done (at that time) by the Stones, Zeppelin, War, Uriah Heep and more; the baby book my mother had put together for me; family heirloom photographs; photo albums full of the dear friends I was leaving behind and my clothing and platform shoe collection.
A great start
The trip across northern Oregon was exciting, as all trips start out to be. My traveling companion and I drove straight through Ñ no side trips or tourist attractions. It was a road trip: no hotels allowed. Nights were scary out in the vast desert area where we pulled off the road for some shuteye. In the desert, small sounds seemed to magnify, making a tiny field mouse's movement sound like an impossibly huge, crazed badger ready to attack.Ê
The power of the semitrucks whizzing by the parked Buick would rock the car each time with a whoosh, and my nerves were on edge thinking of how near to the car they felt. There was not much car traffic, but each oncoming truck seemed perilously close. Sleep was just not possible.Ê
One night, a car pulled up alongside the Buick, and I just knew there would be trouble. It was just a police officer, checking to see if we were all right. He gave us a warning, and for some unknown reason at the last minute he decided not to issue a citation. Nevertheless, it went on record.ÊSo, in the dim gray light of an approaching morning, we traveled on, through mile after mile of surreal landscape, crossing the border into Idaho.
We continued on Highway I-80, finding humor in the names of small towns: Powder, Bully Creek, Thief Valley, Durkee, Emmet and Fruitland. Like a sponge, I absorbed the more picturesque names such as Summerville, Cottonwood, Black Canyon, Mahogany Mountains and Pearl.
A lonely holiday
On July 3, we stopped to do a little fishing.ÊA forest ranger arrested my friend for fishing without a license, confiscated the fishing pole and put him in the nearest jail in a town called Mountain Home. I had to drive the car back to a side street near the jail, and stay there, waiting, for two days. It was a family neighborhood, and curious eyes warily peeked from behind curtains and stared.
The night of the Fourth of July is one I will not forget. I'd never felt so lost and alone. Cold, tired and hungry,ÊI missed my family and friends. I sat in the Buick and watched the neighborhood children play with their sparklers and cherry bombs. I breathed in the delicious scents coming from their barbecue grills; they ignored me.ÊI had a loaf of bread to nibble on.
On July 5, my traveling companion emerged, and we resumed our journey to Lamar. No such luck. Somewhere outside of Gooding, Idaho, on a stretch of highway with absolutely nothing in sight for miles, there was a terrible loud, booming backfire from the Buick. We figured it to be a protest from the heavy load.Ê
But it was much more than that. We could not get the Buick started again.ÊEver. So there we were, stranded roadside, trying to flag down scarce drivers to ask for help. Then along came a stranger, in a truck with a tow hitch, who graciously pulled us into the closest village Ñ Wendell, Idaho, Hub City of Magic Valley, a town so small I could walk from one end to the other in three minutes flat.
The man towed the Buick into a fenced lot that contained detritus the likes of which I had never seen before and have not seen since Ñ old well-drilling truck parts, gigantic hunks of unidentifiable steel mishmash Ñ like a post-nuclear science fiction movie set. Three days later, his mechanic friend took a look at the underside of the Buick and could not believe his eyes. He said there was a hole blown through the transmission from the flywheel and crankshaft bolts. The car would never run again.
Family can't help
With nowhere else to go, flat broke in a town of strangers, I had to live in the car in that graveyard of abandoned junk, washing up in the gas station after dark. I sent a letter home to ask for some money and had my family return a letter addressed to me at General Delivery É yes, Wendell did have a post office! My family could not send enough to supply the kind of help I needed: a new transmission or a place to live.Ê
There were no jobs available in Wendell; I looked. There were hardly any people. The next large city, Twin Falls, was much too far away on foot or by hitchhiking. Soon, I was totally on my own, my traveling companion having left Wendell in a hurry because he had caused problems with local law enforcement, a brigade of ... one.
I was in Wendell for eight months.ÊI would go to the end of town and gaze with sadness at the I-80 N sign, wishing and praying for home. The gas station owners banned me from using their washroom. I made some friends and got to room with one in a house, but I could not earn my keep. Finally, somehow, I scraped enough money together to head back to Scappoose on a Greyhound.Ê I could only take what I could carry, barely more than the clothes on my back. All of my precious things were left in the trunk of the Buick.
I never made it to Lamar.
I never drove again.
Two years ago, I ordered a Wendell, Idaho, phone book.ÊShockingly, but not altogether surprisingly, some of the same businesses are still there.
Although I dream of it and even make imaginary itineraries for a trip back there, life happens. ... Vacation times are to be spent in nice places, and the jobs I have keep me bound to our fair city of Portland.Ê I know in my heart that the hulk of that Buick Wildcat is still there in that strange fenced-in lot, perhaps with a pair of platform shoes on the back seat or a record album or two moldering away in the trunk, along with a baby book and photographs being the only clue to the owner whom no one will ever contact ...Êmy dear, dear grandmother's china É
For her winning entry, Raty will receive $500, which The Tribune hopes she will spend on a return trip to Wendell.