New York to Portland, 1999

Three days were needed to load the truck. It was July of 1999. My destination was Portland. It was during a hotter than usual New New York summer. That meant heat wave. The boxes of films were in the stifling attic of an 1880 building at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center on Staten Island. Each box had to be carried down three flights of stairs. There were over 200 of them, with an average weight of forty pounds. It was the equivalent of walking up 600 flights of stairs, picking up a 40 pound box, and carrying it back down to the bottom. The temperature was over 90 degrees at ground level but it seemed positively cool in comparison to the oven like third floor. I stopped after every three trips to gulp down warm water. Sweat rolled off me and splashed in droplets on the bare uncarpeted floor. On the night of the third day I slept on the floor of the empty room.

The next morning at 6:00 am I started driving west. It was August second and I was scheduled to begin showing films at the Clinton St. Theater in Portland on Friday the 13th. I had ten days and two hundred dollars to get there. Gas was around a dollar a gallon. I wasn’t worried.

Before loading my films on Staten Island I had previously loaded all of my other possessions. They including a 1938 Rockola juke box, thousands of books, LPs and 78 rpm records, two 35mm DeVry projectors, and several 16mm projectors. Everything I owned was heavy. My film archive had started in Seattle. I had relocated it by rental truck to New York in 1995. Moving to Portland would be completing a circle. I’d be back home. I trusted that this rental truck would be able to safely haul my possessions. After all, shouldn’t a rental truck be able to haul anything anyone could fit into it? I wasn’t taking anything as heavy as a huge coin collection, gold ingots, or metal scrap.

I had obeyed recommended procedure during the loading and had put most of the weight of the load between the axles. I happily hit the road. Crossing the bridge to New Jersey everything seemed fine. Once in New Jersey I was on crummier roads. Whenever I would go over a bump I would hear a weird noise from the front end. When I would put on the brakes a rubbing noise would last until I came to a stop. Somewhere in New Jersey I stopped for breakfast and inspected the front tires. I found that at standstill the front fenders were an inch or two away from the tops of the tires. When braking the inertia of the load would push down the front of the truck. The rubbing noise was the sound of the tires rubbing against the under side of the fender. In the sun baked parking lot of the truck stop I emptied out most of the truck and re-loaded. I had to move the weight back from between the axles, with more of it near the tailgate. It would make driving more dangerous. It would also make it possible. I tossed a thousand pounds of films of little interest into a convenient dumpster. They were mostly faded Eastman color 35mm x-rated features from the seventies. Considering how much weight I was carrying I decided to stay off the interstates and instead take slower state routes until I got past Chicago. There was no real rational for that decision. For the rest of the day nothing bad happened. That night I made it to Kent Indiana and stayed at a former Knights Inn. It had been re-decorated and no longer fostered the illusion of sleeping in a medieval castle. I was too tired to be properly disappointed.

At 7:00 AM I hit the road. It was a beautiful day. Before long I noticed a grinding noise whenever I braked. It was different than the rubbing noise. I stopped for coffee in Huntington Indiana and checked the front brake rotors. Both rotors were deeply scored. When a brake rotor gets scored it can seize at anytime and lock up one of the front wheels. At sixty miles per hour that can lead to interesting consequences. Death is one of them. I called the 800 number and was directed to a truck repair shop a mile ahead. There I was told new front rotors and pads would take a couple of hours.

While the truck was being repaired I visited the Dan Quayle museum. Yes, Huntington, Indiana is the birthplace of Dan Quayle. The museum was on the sun lit second floor of a decommissioned Christian Science Church. The room appeared to have been at one time a meeting hall. A small stage with proscenium was at one end. Blond oak glass topped display cases held mementos of Mr. Quayle’s boyhood in Huntington and later career on the national stage. They included high school yearbooks, school awards, and photos with Ronald Reagan. Several portable blackboards had actual news clippings thumb tacked to the cork facing. The clippings included pictures of Dan, and his wife Marilyn, many of them faded from the sunlight. It was the high point of the trip and I recommend it heartily to anyone driving across the US. The truck was repaired by 4:00 PM. I drove west until midnight. Passing through some small town I didn’t notice that when the arterial turned left. I kept going straight and was now on a city street. I was considering this when I was startled by a very unexpected stop sign. I slammed on the brakes with little effect. I was halfway through the intersection before I came to a stop. It was obviously time to stop for the night. I found a nondescript motel in Peoria, Illinois, thankful to have made it that far.

At breakfast I got out the map. I was past Chicago and could now get on an interstate. I also had to figure out which pass over the Rocky Mountains would have the gentlest grade. I was concerned that the heavily loaded truck didn’t have the power to make it over the top. My options were limited. Driving South through Missouri and Oklahoma seemed the surest thing. It would also add almost a thousand more miles to the trip. The other routes were on 1-80 through Rock Springs to Salt Lake City, or I-90 through Butte and Bozeman to Spokane. I decided to go north to I-80 and make the mountain pass decision later. I was making good time when the driveline broke. I was going up the one of the very few hills in the state of Iowa and had put my foot to floor to maintain speed. The driveline broke with a tremendous bang, like a bomb going off, and was followed by a series of crashing noises. I had no idea what had happened. I lost speed. Stepping on the gas did nothing. Shifting gears did nothing. The crashing noises stopped suddenly. I coasted to a stop and was barely able to get completely off the road. It was a very narrow shoulder. I was about to open the truck door when a semi truck thundered past, seemingly inches away. I carefully exited the vehicle, went around to the back, and sat down on the rear bumper. I hoped a police cruiser would stop and offer assistance. I finally gave up, cursed myself for not signing up with AAA, and started walking west.

It was a very hot day. I came to an overpass. There was no service station. I walked up the ramp to the road. Walking north I came to a modern split level house. There were at least three cars parked on the grass in front. A mongrel dog loped up to me, and instead of ripping my throat out, expected to be petted. I rang the bell and nothing happened. I knocked on the door and nothing happened. I looked at the three cars. They were all licensed. It struck me that the entire family could be cowering inside with cocked assault rifles aimed at me, assuming I was the anti-Christ, or a member of the government. My second thought was that the entire family was lying dead inside, having been murdered by some modern incarnation of Charles Starkweather, and that the police would find my DNA from petting the dog, and railroad me into the gas chamber, or whatever humane method of execution they use in Iowa. I wiped my fingerprint off the doorbell and went back the way I came. I said goodbye to the dog. I crossed over the overpass and walked to another house. It looked fairly new. Looking through the un-curtained windows it obviously had never been lived in. A lawn had been planted but had baked away. A very creepy feeling came over me. I hot footed it back to the freeway and again started walking west.

I had no idea how far it would be to a phone. After I’d walked less than a mile a biker on a Harley pulled over and offered me a lift. He was a Viet Nam vet on his way to Sturgis. He wore no helmet or shirt. He did have on the remains of a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off. I climbed on board and grabbed hand holds beside my seat. The twenty minute high speed ride was merely terrifying. My un-helmeted head was filled with a recurrent vision of a crash followed by my mangled body lying lifeless in the weeds beside the road. Just me, dead among the empty bottles and other trash. The biker dropped me off at service station.

For the second day in a row I called the truck company and around 1:00 PM a red pick-up truck pulled up and the driver asked me to hop in. He was a cheerful man named Jim with sandy colored hair and workingman’s hands. We drove back to the dead truck. I was pleased to see that it was still there and it didn’t have a ticket on it. It took some searching, but we finally found the driveline a few hundred yards behind it. The four-foot length of five inch rolled steel had hit the pavement so hard it was bent at a right angle. The loud bang I’d heard was the universal joint exploding. The thumping noise was the bent driveline repeatedly hitting the underside of the truck. We left the truck where it was and drove into Iowa City.

Jim gave me a card with the address of his shop. He said he’d arrange for the truck to be towed there and for me to check in later. He said there would be no need to unload the truck to repair it. That made me happy. He dropped me in town at the only espresso cafe within a hundred miles. It had a 1940’s phone booth with a phone inside that customers could use for free. It came in handy. After seeing the sights I called Jim and was told they had the truck in the shop and were working on it. A new driveline had to be custom built in Rapid City. It would take a day or two. The underside of the truck also had to be repaired. The muffler had a huge hole in it and the gas tank had suffered a fearful beating. He told me I was lucky to be alive. If the swinging driveline had been breached gas tank a huge explosion would have probably resulted and I would have ended my trip right there in a huge fireball.

The truck rental company was fine with repairing the truck. They didn’t think a driveline breaking was out of the ordinary. There was no offer of a new truck to replace the damaged one and speed me along. They refused to pay for my lodging or meals. My budget hadn’t included extra nights in Iowa City. I had ninety-three dollars in my checking account. I figured I would need all of it but the ATM would only give eighty. Luckily for me the ATM I found in Iowa City did not limit withdrawals to twenties, or tens, or even fives. It gave me all ninety-three dollars. Four twenties, a ten and three ones. There was nothing like that in New York.

I found a cheap motel not far from the coffee shop. It was called The Big Ten. It was $29. I figured with my starting traveling cash and the $93 from the ATM I would make to Portland. The only drawback was several bikers staying there on their way to Sturgis. Some of them were early risers. They were also in no hurry. They would fire up their bikes and then idle, rev, idle, rev, for half hour before roaring off. Not all of them arose at the same hour. The noise was continuous from 5:00 am till 9:00. Still, the two nights in the motel were a welcomed rest.

On the third day in Iowa City the new driveline arrived and by three in the afternoon I was ready to go. The truck seemed just the same as before, sluggish, but willing. I pushed on that night until I got to Council Bluffs. It was after midnight when I pulled into a motel in a bad part of town. It advertised hourly rates. The desk clerk didn’t ask for ID and I resisted renting any of the porno tapes prominently displayed behind the counter. My room was on the ground floor facing the street. I parked directly in front of the door. The shower looked like something out of a Roger Corman horror flick and sheets didn’t look like they’d been changed. I slept like a log and pushed off early the next morning.

I decided to cross the Rockies in Montana. I didn’t base that on any real data. I just decided that it was the most direct route and hoped the truck would make it. If it didn’t, I’d have more time to deal with the problem. I drove north to South Dakota and headed west at Sioux Falls. I sailed past Rapid City and stopped for dinner in Sturgis. There were hundreds of bikers there. I didn’t see the gentleman who aided me in Iowa. At nine that night I was in Gillette, Wyo. I decided I’d pushed my luck enough for the day. I wasted some time trying to find a place that sold beer to go. Strange liquor laws there. I found a motel called The Mustang. It had a spectacular multi-color neon sign of a rider on a bucking bronco. It also had a vacancy. It was perfect.

Gillette in the morning had a raw, high desert sort of feel. The wind was blowing with a lot of dust and grit in it. It was cold. The rising sun cast long shadows. From there to the Divide is almost all up hill. Driving west I passed through the Big Horn and Shoshone ranges before hitting the divide between Bozeman and Butte. The higher the elevation, the slower I got. By the time I made it over the top I was down to ten miles per hour. On the other side was no picnic either. I had to worry about staying off my brakes so I wouldn’t burn them out. I rolled into Spokane at 10:00 PM and looked for a motel. Everything was full up. I pushed on to Ritzville. Not a vacancy there either. I turned south at midnight and headed for Pasco. I was mostly alone on the road and very tired. I came to roadwork signs. The speed limit dropped to forty. Looming in the darkness on the roadside was hulking heavy machinery. When I got to the “End of Road Work” sign I opened it up to 65. Big mistake. I don’t know exactly what it was but I hit something that felt like sand and then my right front wheel caught some sort of lip in the road and pulled me to the right. I fought the wheel straight without braking while the top-heavy load swung from side to side with every indication of toppling over. I was half on and half off the pavement and still going sixty. I knew if I jerked the wheel too hard to the left I could shoot across the centerline and crash head on with some long haul trucker coming my way. Just then I hit a big bump that seemed to lift the rig into the air. When it came down I was still upright and again on solid pavement. The swaying side to side settled down. I decided right then that I would stop in the next town and sleep in the cab if I had to.

At 2:00 am I came to the town of Connell. It was the site of a state prison. I suppose the motels were there to house people visiting their incarcerated loved ones. Thank God For Crime! I safely parked in the near empty lot of a multi story, brand new motel. My ringing the buzzer aroused a sleepy clerk. My room was clean, comfortable and cheap. It included continental breakfast in the morning.

The next day a short nervous drive got me to the Columbia River. I crossed at Umatilla before nine AM. I was happy to be in Oregon. It was a beautiful sunny day. Mount Hood coming into view was a delight. Multnomah Falls passing on my left was wonderful. I drove straight to the front door of the Clinton St. Theater, arriving at 2:00 PM on the eighth of August. My journey and safe arrival would insure that the historic theater, built in 1914, would not close.

There was no one there to let me in. I jimmied the lock on side door and entered. It only took a couple of hours to unload the truck. There were no stairs. I hand trucked all the boxes, 16mm projectors, and left them on the stage. I covered that all with theater curtains. I left the juke box in the back room. I left the DeVry 35mm projectors in the truck. Finished with the load out, I drove to Seattle.

The next morning, I delivered the DeVry’s to Doug Stewart. Doug then went with me to Beth’s. She had everything ready to load. Doug and I got it all loaded in a couple of hours. I then drove back south. That night I stayed at my sister Debbie’s house.

In the morning I drove the Malibu into Portland. The first stop was the Clinton to where in the theater I could store my films. There wasn’t much room, but space behind the screen was available. There was also a funny room that was at a mezzanine level that was empty. The problem was the only entry was about six foot above the floor. I started tossing boxes up there that didn’t fit behind the screen. The next job was finding a house or apartment for Beth to live in. I looked in the neighborhood and didn’t find anything. I again slept at Debbie’s.

I had luck the next day. I rented a house. It was close to the Clinton Street, on Taggart at 23rd.

Beth and Pat Tennant arrived the next day. After dinner Pat drove back to Seattle. Beth and I drove around looking for a cheap motel. We found no vacancies among the affordable possibilities. We ended up sleeping on the floor in the Clinton. The next day we moved into the Taggart House. That night my two week run at the Clinton started. It was Friday the 13th.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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