In 1968, Armando García-Dávila joined his older brother and two friends on a cross-country motorcycle ride that took 30 days and traversed over 7,000 miles. He was 19-years-old, just out of high school.
“We had real-life adventures,” says García-Dávila, who recounts run-ins with Texas Rangers and Mississippi rednecks and shares memories of seeing the Grand Canyon and stealing corn out of fields in Nebraska when the money ran low.
That real-life adventure inspired García-Dávila’s debut novel, The Trip: Speeding Toward the Cliff at the End of the World, out now.
It’s a novel that’s been 10 years in the writing, according to García-Dávila, who’s known in the North Bay more for his poetry. After majoring in English at Sonoma State University in the mid-1970s, García-Dávila fell in love with the North Bay and made the region his home, working as a landscape contractor and writing in his spare time.
His writing has been published locally in magazines and newspapers since 1990, and his short stories and chapbooks have sold well. His writing career has also included volunteer work with inmates of San Quentin State Prison and a year serving as literary laureate of Healdsburg in 2002.
“Finally, someone told me to write my memoir,” says García-Dávila. Growing up in a large Mexican-American family with a twin brother and Catholic upbringing, there was a lot for the writer to explore. Yet the memoir didn’t hold his interest and ultimately didn’t go anywhere.
“I thought to myself, what could be something that I would be interested in writing about,” he says. “It was the motorcycle trip.”
Initially, The Trip began as a memoir, though García-Dávila evolved the book into a fantastical novel infused with creative license that he says is loosely based on the Odyssey.
“It’s the hero’s journey—a boy leaves on a long dangerous journey and a man returns,” says García-Dávila. “And along the way, he has to face his deepest fears.”
Several visual references to the Odyssey pop up throughout the book’s wild head-trips and unexpected adventures, and García-Dávila’s characters develop in a similar manner. At one point in the novel, the main character, Tino Caballero, goes through an out-of-body experience akin to Odysseus traveling to the underworld in Homer’s Greek epic.
When readers meet Tino in the following excerpt from The Trip, he’s just setting out on the open road, wide-eyed and naive. Get a taste of the adventure, and find García-Dávila at one of several readings he is holding in the North Bay, beginning April 23.
San Diego, California—
Saturday, August 3, 1968
“¡Ándale! (Charge!),” screamed Tino Caballero, speeding out of the driveway on his powerful new motorcycle. He bolted up Euclid Avenue glancing into the rearview mirror. Standing at the curb were his identical twin brother Val, his pregnant sister, and his mother. She made the sign of the cross toward Tino, blessing him.
He shook his head. Pathetic how much faith she put in that invisible world of hers. Did her countless blessings and invocations to God, the saints, and her ancestors ever do any good?
He reached the Highway 94 on-ramp, narrowed his deep brown eyes, and raced down the incline toward the highway. Trees and shrubbery on either side of the on-ramp formed a darkened tunnel. He emerged into the light feeling as if he had shed his skin and could truly see—as if an entirely new world had just opened before him. He gunned the engine. The bike jumped with a burst of speed. He wove in and out of highway lanes, effortlessly passing car after car. A teenage boy sitting in a car stared at Tino on his bike loaded down with gear. That’s right kid, I’m on the trip of a lifetime!
The sun lay low behind him casting his shadow long to his front. He was leading himself, no one to tell him what to do. Warm air streamed gloriously through his dark wavy brown hair and whipped the sleeves of his nylon jacket. If he spread his arms, he’d fly.
Tino blasted through town after town. He had never gone on a trip without his family. Not even his twin was along. Tino had shared everything with Val: bedrooms, circle of friends, ball teams, they even shared their underwear. For eight years they’d made a daily mile-long trek to Saint Rita’s Catholic Grammar School. Their teachers, the nuns, called them “the Bookends.”
“Where’s Val?” people asked Tino when alone.
Val had made the responsible choice to register for junior college instead of taking this motorcycle odyssey to New York and back.
His father said, “No trip for you. You’re registering for school.” When Pa went to bed that afternoon to sleep before his graveyard shift at his job, Tino made his escape. Tino would pay a heavy price for his transgression on his return, maybe a beating. But he had planned this trip for a year with his older brother and friends. He was not going to miss out.
Screw the consequences, I’ll pay ’em.
Tino and his bike ascended into the Laguna Mountains in East County and entered the Cleveland National Forest. The multilane highway had narrowed to a two-lane road. Traffic, except for an occasional car or long-haul truck, was nonexistent. The air, cool with altitude and impregnated by the scent of pine forests, soothed him from the summer heat. Smooth round boulders nestled into the landscape looked like eggs from a prehistoric age.
By the time he reached the foot of the eastern slope, night had folded over the land. He tripped the headlight switch and began the trek across the furnace-like Anza-Borrego Desert. He checked the odometer. Tino had only traveled seventy miles. So cool. He had barely started—the month of freedom lay ahead.
An hour into the ride, Tino rolled out of the dark into a Chevron station in El Centro. His body tingled from the vibration of the engine. Without the air fanning him, the full intensity of the desert heat engulfed him. He stashed his jacket in his gear. A twenty-something attendant stepped up to the gas pump—white uniform shirt taut over his paunch—navy blue pants smudged with engine grime.
Tino set the gas nozzle into the tank. “Bitchin’. Bought it from an old guy who hardly rode it, in his garage most of the time.”
“Damn, no kiddin’. Looks like it’s fresh off the showroom floor. You sure it wasn’t an old lady who just rode it to church on Sundays?” He stepped back to get a good look. “450 cc’s, plenty of power.”
“It carried me and my gear over the mountains without so much as a hiccup. If it were a horse, it wouldn’t have even broken a sweat.” He hung the hose and reached for his wallet. Tino peeled out a dollar and handed it over.
The attendant inserted a key into a cash drawer. “You been riding long?”
“Not really. I’ve ridden my big brother’s bike a few times, and I just bought this bike today. I’m taking a trip around the country.”
“Long way for a beginner.”
“I can handle it.”
The attendant fingered coins from slots in the drawer. “I tried a cross-country trip on a bike.”
“Cool, how’d it go?”
“Fell.” The attendant extended his arm showing a nasty scar. “Compound fracture. Wound up with this zipper.” Suture points on either side of the scar that ran palm to elbow. “Ended my trip right there.”
A dust-coated station wagon packed with adults and kids, roof rack loaded with baggage, windshield splattered with insects, pulled into the adjacent pump island.
The attendant grabbed paper towels, a squeegee. “Be careful.”
“Yeah, sure,” Tino said, disappointed he couldn’t say more about the trip. And who was this clown to tell him to be careful?
Tino swung a leg mounting the bike and gave the kick-starter a hearty jump. The engine roared. He gave it gas and let go of the clutch. The bike’s front tire lifted a foot off of the ground. The rear tire screeched, leaving a black line of pulverized rubber on the concrete.
“Whoa! Easy, boy!” Tino disappeared into the night.
Gusts of hot wind rolled tumbleweeds across the road. Tino leaned adroitly left dodging a tumbleweed then right dodging another. He laughed, skillfully zigzagging.
Damn, you’re a great bike.
Blink! Tino’s world turned black. The headlight had gone out. Panicked, Tino hit the brakes and skidded off of the road into the desert. He ran head on into a spindly creosote bush. The bike stopped dead.
“¡Ay!” He flew over the handlebars, through the bush, its stiff branches raked hard against Tino’s face. He slammed against the ground, tumbled over the loose grit of the desert floor and came to a dusty stop.
No hard pain anywhere but a wet sensation on his cheek. He put a hand to it. Blood. He walked unsteadily to the bike pressing a handkerchief against his cheek.
The bike stood held up by branches, engine softly puttering. Tino tugged on the bumper. Stuck. Pulled harder; maybe an inch of movement. A coyote’s howl. Tino had heard of javelinas that can slice a man open with razor tusks, and what man-eaters could be on the prowl for an easy meal? He pulled with adrenaline-fueled strength, ripping his bike from the entanglement. He pushed on the handlebars, jogging it to the road.
Tried the light switch—nothing. Lights from a distant town formed a faint halo on the horizon. His eyes, now adjusted to the dark, allowed him to differentiate between the black asphalt and the desert floor along the roadside. He rode slowly, pitched forward, eyeing the road for objects that might cause him another fall. He looked up at the halo, down to the road, checked his mirror for vehicles coming from behind. Up, down, mirror. A little more gas. The air pressed harder against him.
Bam! A jolt. He lost and regained control in a beat. What the hell? Rock? Dead animal? He slowed to a nervous crawl.
Lights from approaching vehicles shimmered through waves of heat rising off of the baked earth. A set of headlights riding high off the road closed in from behind. Tino pulled over. A Greyhound bus sped past. He hit the gas, caught up, and followed in a wake of hot diesel exhaust, resting his hand and foot on the brakes should the bus suddenly stop. They reached a town. A sign read “WELCOME TO HOLTVILLE—CARROT CAPITAL OF THE WORLD.”
Tino pulled into a Texaco station that serviced long-haul trucks. Small clouds of insects hovered around the overhead fluorescent lights. He dismounted and inspected the wiring—nothing obvious. Better to wait until tomorrow when he would meet up with Sal.
Tino’s neck muscles ached from keeping his head up against the constant push of air. He stretched and made for the bathroom. He washed the threads of dark dry blood from across his cheek. Cold water felt good against the heat. He then asked a clerk for directions to the town jail.
Tino parked at the Holtville Police Station and Detention Center, a single-story building, slightly bigger than a two-car garage.
He opened the station door. The policeman’s swivel chair squeaked as he swung around.
“Excuse me, sir. I’m on a trip and wonder if I could sleep in a cell.”
“Sgt. Wood,” read the officer’s nameplate. His dark hair was neatly combed, mustache trimmed, uniform starched. An ancient black fan on his desk begrudgingly oscillated side to side.
“Think we’re running a motel?”
“No, sir. My older brother told me that sometimes police will let a guy sleep in a cell if it’s empty.”
Wood looked to a cop at the opposite side of the room pouring cream into a mug. “Let him stay, Flattop?”
“I don’t know, Bobby. He fits the description on the guy that there’s an APB on.”
“I’ve never been in trouble in my life, sir.”
Flattop took a sip. “That’s what they all say. It’s your call, Bobby. Just don’t blame me if you wind up with a slit throat in the morning.”
“I’m going to lock you up,” Wood said. “You know, just in case.”
“Thank you, sir. You won’t have any trouble with me.”
“That’s what they all say.”
Wood took a clasp envelope from a desk drawer. “Empty your pockets.” A large patch riding high on the arm of his uniform had a graphic of the earth skewered by a carrot.
Tino handed over his bike key and coins, but hesitated letting go of his wallet, fat with bills. Wood tugged it away.
“Relax, it’ll be safe with me.” He placed Tino’s items in the envelope and into a file cabinet.
A tall, broad-chested policeman with beefy arms entered the station and pointed his chin toward Tino. “Whadda we got here?”
Wood took a heavy black skeleton key off a hook on the wall behind his desk. “He wants to stay the night.”
Tino sat on the lower bunk and leaned over to unlace his boots and jumped when a black cockroach the size of his thumb scurried out between his feet.
“Don’t step on Fido!” Wood said.
Tino looked out the wire-mesh window and took comfort in seeing his bike parked alongside a police cruiser. A mutt meandering by stopped, sniffed a tire, and lifted his leg. Tino sighed and lay down.
The cotton-stuffed mat smelled moldy and had nasty dark stains in the middle. The wall radiated the day’s heat like an oven.
The cops played cards at the sergeant’s desk under a blue haze of cigarette smoke. Tino faced the wall and covered his eyes shielding them from the light.
Sleep came in sporadic naps through a string of disturbances: ringing phones, slamming doors, the acrid odor of tobacco smoke. Tino awoke deep into the night confused then remembered where he was.
A different cop, alone, was lying back in Wood’s chair—feet on desk, hands on chest, hat over face. Tino rolled to his side and fell asleep.
Sharp spikes of sunlight pierced the gray dawn over the hills onto the cell wall. Relief—the long, hot night had come to an end; the air pleasantly cool. Tino rose and caught the eye of the cop at the desk.
“Good morning,” Tino said.
The cop stared.
Tino put on his boots. “I’m ready to leave sir. The sergeant put my stuff in an envelope last night and—”
“You think I don’t know the drill?”
“I’m sure you do, sir.”
The cop took the envelope out of the cabinet and walked in a deliberate gait toward Tino, waving the envelope in an ugly tease. “Is this what you want, August?”
“Y-yes, sir, but maybe it’s somebody else’s. My name is Augustino.”
The cop slapped the envelope against the bars. “Not here, it ain’t. You’re in America, Seenor Augustino Cabalero. I’ll let you out only because I have to. But first you become an American. We’re going to start by getting your name right. Say, ‘My name is August Wetback.'” He laughed mean.
Beads of sweat formed on Tino’s brow.
“You chicken? No. Not chicken, a yellowbellied taco bender. Ha! Ha!” The cop took the wallet from the envelope and peeled out a twenty. “City ordinance to cover costs.” He dropped the wallet into the envelope, went to the cell, and unlocked the door. He tossed the envelope, bouncing it off of Tino’s chest. Tino snagged it.
“Time to pick carrots.”
Tino made a wide arc around the cop to the door.
“If you people just came and worked and went back, but no. You got to bring your damn music and put your kids in our schools, spreading head lice. Go on, get outta here before I cite you for vagrancy.”