The Promised Land’s broken promise

From the time I was hatched, I knew what Mount Pisgah was. It was My Home Town’s local ski slope. What else could it be? Well, as I was to learn, long after my hatching, it was a lot more.

In the Old Testament, Mount Pisgah was the peak from which Moses got to see the Promised Land. And alas, poor Moses. For it was his sad lot, as commanded from God Almighty Hisself, that he could see the Promised Land but wouldn’t live long enough to step foot in it.

Imagine that: Forty years of schlepping over the desert, being God’s own gofer, and before he can cross into the Promised Land, he crosses the Rainbow Bridge.

When I found that out, I related to Moses’s dilemma … though in a 20th-century way.

As a kid, I believed in the Promised Land — but not the one in the Bible. Predictably, mine was secular rather than religious, but it loomed so large it seemed of biblical proportions. It was California.

I was hardly unique. To many Americans, California held the promise of A Dream Come True. And how could it not? It offered one tantalizing scene after another. Endlessly blue skies and warm temperatures. A myriad of pristine beaches. Glamorous people leading glamorous lives (and to my culturally myopic vision, everyone in California was glamorous).

There were high-paying jobs and year-round fresh fruit and vegetables. There were sequoias and surfing, drag races and Dairy Queens, beatniks and bikinis. You name it, and no matter how impossible it seemed, California had it.

Of course I came by this illusion through no fault of my own. Blame it on Hollywood.

The film industry may have started on the East Coast, thanks to Edison inventing the movie camera, but I never knew that. For all I knew it’d been invented in L.A., because almost every movie I ever saw (and like most kids my age, I saw a lot of them) was filmed in Cali. And the films I saw were all of the Rock Hudson-Doris Day romance type: beautiful people with golden tans and dazzling smiles, dressed to the nines and cavorting about in what seemed to me tropical splendor. I may never have seen an orange tree in one of those movies, but I knew if there were any of them in the U.S., they were in California.

All those flicks did their imprinting on my young Dopeish brain till the early-to-mid ’60s, when a new kind of Cali propaganda took their place. It was the beach movies.

They were all mind-numbingly the same. The beaches in the flicks were occupied, apparently day and night, by bunches of treacly adorable young people. The boys all had modified DA haircuts and moderately flabby bodies. The girls were pretty, in a distant, prissy way. They also wore the most risque bathing suits ever imagined by any Adirondack boy. They were referred to as “bikinis,” but were actually two-piece suits, which in terms of coverage more resembled a burqa than a bikini.

As for plot? I guess there must have been some, but for the life of me I can’t remember any. Mostly it seemed gaggles of giggly girls and deconditioned dudes played volleyball, roasted weenies and had singalongs. They were supposed to surf, too, but the scenes with them on surfboards were so clearly shot in studios with ocean backdrops, my chums and I had all we could do to keep from shouting obscenities at the Pontiac Theater’s big screen.

Mostly, the guys in the flicks were popular singers of the day, like Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon and the almost universally untalented Fabian. The only woman I remember was Annette Funicello, who seemed to be in every one of them. Of course Elvis made a bunch of those stinkers, too, but at least he could belt out a song.

Still, as lousy as those movies were, from any critical perspective, they did one thing well — they showed the beaches, cars and generally what we considered glam lifestyle of Californians.

Then there was all the California surf music that kept our hormones flowing like the AuSable in spring time. The primo group was the Beach Boys, but there were a bunch of others, notably Jan and Dean, the Surfaris, the Chantays and the Mermen. While Jan and Dean were second-stringers compared to the Beach Boys, they had one song that for sheer teenage boy bumpf outshone any of the Beach Boys’ hits. It was “Surf City” (ironically, written by both Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Jan Berry of Jan and Dean).

What was it about “Surf City” that was so special? Just this: It had two girls for every boy. Oh my, talk of the Promised Land! And as I said earlier, talk about teenage boy bumpf …

Psyched on psychedelia

That was the early to mid-’60s; by the late ’60s, new versions of California as Paradise sprang up. This time it was due to the rise of hippies and psychedelia.

The beach and surfing thing may have been going on in reality, but according to the media, the beach bums and bunnies were as passe as poodle skirts and pompadours. Now it was painted VW buses, be-ins, love-ins, happenings, gurus, free stores, free love, tie-dyes, bell bottoms, bummers, and on and on and on.

There was even “the San Francisco Sound” in rock music, the most famous bands being the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, with lesser bands with names like Moby Grape, the Electric Prunes, Captain Beefheart, the Dream Merchants, and so on and so forth.

By 1967 it all peaked. It was the Summer of Love. There was Jimi Hendrix, the Doors, Cream, rock festivals, communes, day-glo posters, patchouli, incense and Hope Unbounded. And all of it was happening in the epicenter of Groove-i-tude — San Francisco. Meanwhile, I was dying on the vine in the Adirondacks. But not for long.

Dope flambe

In early August, a guy I knew was heading to Austin, Texas, and was looking for riders. That’s all it took, and the next thing I knew I was saying goodbye to him in Austin and heading west, eventual destination, San Francisco. And headed west I did.

Now, if you know your geography better than I did, you know between Austin and San Francisco there lies at least 1,000 miles of desert. I found this out the hard way — by hitching and riding buses through it. I’d never felt heat like that before, but on I went, visions of lush, lovely, loving California dancing about in my sun-baked brain.

At last I hit the California border, where another surprise awaited me: I’d forgotten what state Death Valley was in. I remember getting off the bus in Indio, which I’d label a hell-hole except it’d be an unfair comparison to hell.

Finally, I arrived in San Francisco and had another surprise: San Francisco was as cold as Indio was hot. And it wasn’t just cold in the meteorological sense — I didn’t run into groovy hippies, love-ins or even like-ins. Instead, it seemed everyone I met was either a runaway, a ripoff artist, an ex-con or a future junkie. In a very short time I found myself avoiding more people than I could’ve met.

I may have been a world-class, sadly deluded country bumpkin, but I wasn’t a stupid one. After a week of checking out the scene, I threw my seabag on my shoulder and headed back east — this time taking the northern route. The trip back was blessedly uneventful, the high point being a cafe in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where a cup of coffee still cost 5 cents.

So I ended my trip to the Promised Land as un-hip, un-cool and un-groovy as when I began it. But for all that, I wasn’t disappointed. After all, I did it, and did it all by my lonesome, which for a 20-year-old kid was an accomplishment of some sort.

So while nothing particularly good came of it, nothing bad did, either. And for all the time I spent hitchhiking and never caught a ride with Charlie Manson and fam, that was no small deal.