“You’re from Needles?”
“Yeah, so? Are you going to make jokes about my home town?”
No, I wasn’t. I met kids from all over California in my college days; most didn’t want to hear crap about their roots.
Yet, I always wondered: is Needles, California so named because of the intense prickly heat, the proliferation of cactus, or what? Hot it definitely is. Death Valley is the all-time champion for record heat in California (and likely the entire USA), but sandwiched between the Mojave and the Colorado River, Needles is the hottest town. They clocked a record 125 degrees one July day in 2005.
But that wasn’t my first thought. For me, Needles conjures up an entirely different and decidedly unfunny image.
When I was a child in South San Francisco, my family would travel most summers to Colorado (my father’s birthplace) and Missouri (my mother’s). We’d travel east on US 40 through Donner Pass (which later became I-80) and return by the infamous Route 66 through Needles.
Five kids in one station wagon for days at a time with no air conditioning, just a burlap bag strapped the front grill for cold water. Did I mention no air conditioning?
On one such trip, we crossed back into California and climbed the hill out of the Colorado River gorge to the flat Mojave plateau.
“How hot is it?” I whined, knowing that this was the hottest spot of our trip. It didn’t help that we were stuck in stop-and-go traffic just outside of town with nothing but more desert ahead. Soon enough, we saw flashing red lights that signaled a traffic accident. A California Highway Patrolman was perched on a motorcycle giving instructions to each driver as they came alongside.
“There’s a pretty bad accident just ahead, ma’am,” The uniformed officer growled at my mom from behind his dark shades. “We’re only letting one car go at a time, so change over to the left lane. Do you have any kids in there?”
“Only three today,” Mom said.
“Well, you’ll need to have them hide their eyes when you pass the accident—it’s pretty disturbing for small children.”
My sister immediately covered me with a jacket, and I pretended to cooperate while our Chevy wagon inched forward. When I heard my mother gasp, I whipped off the jacket and looked out the side window. I wish I hadn’t. When you think of the word “decapitated,” you might think of Marie Antoinette and the guillotine. I think of a body behind the steering wheel of a mangled Cadillac being extracted from the underside of a semi-truck.
“Omigawd!” My sister hissed, looking at the carnage, then at me. “Did you see that bloody mess?”
“Yeah,” I mumbled, stupefied by the crippling the 120-degree heat, paralyzed by the sight of a headless woman in a fur coat pinned in the driver’s seat.
“She must've taken her eyes off the road and didn't see that truck until it was too late.”
I wiped my brow and said the first thing that came to my ten year-old mind: “She was probably adjusting her air conditioner…”