Road Trip – Part I, the precursor to Road Trip – Part II, was published on these pages last September, almost six months ago. So, you might be asking yourself, why did it take so long to produce the sequel? Let me count the ways, beginning with sloth, laziness, procrastinationistic tendencies, brain lock, a severely sprained typing finger and…well, I think you get the idea. But that’s all water over the bridge. The point isn’t why did it take so long, the point is that it’s done.
And please don’t hold your breath for Road Trip – Part III because there ain’t gonna be one.
On the sunny, warm Saturday morning of November 19, 2005, Clara Bellino and I hit the road as planned and almost on time. We were embarking on a 250-mile journey down Highway 101 to Chet’s Santa Maria, CA birthplace to visit Goldie V., one of his four female cousins who were born, raised and still lived in the area. For several weeks I had been in contact with Goldie, who was a few years younger than Chet and had remained close to him his entire life. She was also the primary Helms family genealogist and had already provided me with a comprehensive family history and had promised to give me copies of several old family photographs.
During my earlier conversations with Goldie, I sensed a significant amount of nervousness from her about my impending visit. The reason I sensed this was that she told me she was very nervous about my impending visit.
But when I had called her the previous evening to confirm our meeting and told her I was bringing a female friend of Chet’s along, I sensed that Goldie’s apprehension evaporated. The reason I sensed this was that she told me her apprehension evaporated.
As we cruised past San Jose on the first leg of our one-leg journey, I toyed with the idea of popping Clara’s CD into the player just to see if she would sing along, but I didn’t do that. I had another objective: a rolling interview. Clara, you see, had been one of Chet’s caretakers towards the end, keeping him company, keeping him on schedule with his meds and valiantly trying, but mostly failing, to prepare cups of tea to his exacting standards.
Although she was fatigued after a late, strenuous night of recording voice-overs, Clara was game to talk. And talk we did. She told me about growing up in France, about her semi-bohemian parents and she related a wonderful story of having traveled to Africa with her boyfriend when she was a rather, uh, young woman. The travelers spent some time in a remote village where Clara was stricken with a severe intestinal disorder. She was doubled over in their hut when a group of villagers showed up. She staggered to a window and was horrified to discover that instead of bringing her several gallons of Pepto-Bismol, the locals had decided to slaughter a goat in her honor. Which they proceeded to do. Clara was sincerely touched by the gesture although it exacerbated rather than diminished her discomfort.
Then somewhere between King City and San Luis Obispo, Clara told me a long joke. It was a very funny joke, but one that shall not be repeated here. For one thing, it is literally impossible to effectively translate it to written words; for another, it was what was once quaintly referred to as ‘blue’ material. In this case, we’re talking navy blue.
We pulled into Santa Maria just after noon and checked into the separate rooms I had booked a few days earlier. We were both hungry, so after getting settled, we talked about snagging some grub. I trepidaciously suggested that we chow down at the Denny’s next door to the motel. It has long been my experience that not everyone is a fan of Denny’s or similar eateries, but Clara enthusiastically agreed, which I attributed to the fact that she was delirious from lack of sleep, hunger and having spent several hours confined in a vehicle with me.
When the waitress showed up at our table, Clara ordered a breakfast item, requesting that her hash browns be extra crispy. I almost fell out of the booth in which we were sitting because that was the exact same thing I was going to order, and, in fact, did order.
Ms Clara Bellino was, I decided at that moment, the perfect traveling companion.
After breakfast/lunch, we returned to the motel. Clara said she wanted to take a nap so I told her I would call Goldie and arrange to meet with her in a few hours. (We had not set a specific time to meet.) Clara retired to her room and I made the call. To my shock, surprise and amazement, Goldie said, “But we’re all here, waiting for you.” Turns out that she had invited two of her sisters, Deanna and Frankie, to join us and they had come to Santa Maria from the Solvang area. I told Goldie we were on our way and went next door to inform Clara that we were on our way.
Goldie’s house was nearby and we arrived a short time later. After introductions had been exchanged and small talk had been made, Clara, who was now visibly fading, sheepishly asked if she could lie down on the couch for a while. She could and she did. Goldie got her a pillow and a blanket and then joined me, Deanna and Frankie on the foliage-ringed patio out back.
For the next several hours I listened to wonderful stories of Chet’s childhood and one astounding tale about Chet and Janis Joplin. The story, which was corroborated by all three cousins and a handwritten note from Janis to their mother, Chet’s aunt Ruth, contradicts a significant portion of the widely published account of Chet and Janis’s journey from Texas to San Francisco in late January 1963.
At some point, Goldie hauled out a couple of bulging photo albums that were filled with old black-and-white pictures of Chet’s grandparents, his parents and Chet and his brothers, John and Jim. It was, for me, a glorious afternoon and one I shall not soon forget.
As the sun was setting, Deanna and Frankie took off for home. After they left, Goldie and I woke up the slumbering Clara and we made dinner plans, settling on an old truck stop at the edge of town, a place that had been a local fixture since before the Dead Sea was even sick. You know, the kind of joint that has a menu thicker than War and Peace.
We had a rollickin’ good time at dinner, and Goldie and Clara bonded like you wouldn’t believe. Afterwards, we took Goldie home, thanked her profusely, and swore to visit again. (We did, three months later.)
Although Chet was born in Santa Maria, he spent his first nine years in the nearby Union Sugar company town of Betteravia, which, in November 2005, no longer existed. All that remained of Betteravia were the remnants of the sugar mill in which his dad worked.
Before we headed back to the Bay Area, Clara and I decided to visit the ghost of where Chet partially grew up. I had downloaded an old, blurry, grainy photograph of the sugar mill when it was in its glory days and I knew part of the mill was still standing. I told Clara I would know it when I saw it. S0 we headed west from Santa Maria on Betteravia Road.
Despite my confident boast, I never saw it.
We couldn’t find Betteravia, or, more precisely, I couldn’t find Betteravia.
The narrow, two lane road that winds through the endless green fields finally deposited us in the town of Guadalupe, which isn’t a ghost town and, therefore, isn’t Betteravia. So we backtracked. We didn’t see any other cars on the road, but we did come across a small crew of road workmen doing whatever it is small crews of road workmen do. We stopped and asked where we might find the remains of Betteravia.. They had no idea what we were talking about.
A few minutes later we spotted a rolling restaurant, more familiarly known as a ‘roach coach,’ parked next to a fenced-off collection of decaying structures. The vehicle, which was occupied by a middle-aged couple, was fully-stocked and open for business, which was a bit odd because there didn’t appear to be any potential business in the vicinity.
I pulled off the road and Clara jumped out to talk to the preternaturally optimistic couple, who turned out to speak Spanish exclusively. Fortunately, Clara is fluent in about 19 languages, including Spanish. After several minutes, she was back.
“We’re here,” she said, gesturing towards the decaying structures behind the fence. “This is Betteravia.”
And so it was.
We spent the next 40 minutes or so exploring what we were able to explore, which, because of the fence and our shared fear of encountering creepy creatures lurking in the waist-high weeds, wasn’t much. And we took several pictures of each other, backgrounded by the decaying remains of the old mill.
Then we got into the car and pointed it north, stopping at a ’50s-themed diner in King City for a bite to eat. Our main clue that it was a ’50s-themed diner were the huge photographs of Elvis, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe that festooned the walls.
Yes, we ordered the exact same thing.