I look down at my hands. They look different now than the first time I set off for the west coast. Each, no longer a teenage grip for an anything goes pursuit of who knows what. They’ve now seen some miles. Fingernails dirty with grease and dried up acrylic paint, faded scrappy tattoos and a couple handfuls of permanently scarred and broken knuckles. These hands that started clearing the path that led me here today, are now just as prone to simply hold on for the ride, one I had set myself out on as a wild teenage version of myself years before.
Not much had really changed, but rather than hustling across state lines in a beat up old car, I’m hurrying to make a connection so I can pick up a rental car, a Chrysler Town and Country, power windows, unlimited mileage and all the modern perks for family travel. Still strapped for cash, gearing up for more Lo-Fi adventures into the unknown, where my friends and I will rely heavily on the currency we’ve built up over the years for shared rides, floor space and hopefully a meal or two. Just as it’s always been, times are lean in the land of plenty…
I felt like I was joining up with my old gang for another caper. Nothing criminal, just stealing some fun from the overlords of institutional boredom and monotony. The same beat scene, our kids bikes helped us escape from years ago. The same reason that led me to the land of milk and honey as a kid. Day Dreams of being free.
This trip wasn’t unlike a hundred others except the headlines were going haywire. We arrived the same day the news broke of a mass shooting and two deadly wildfires, and immediately beelined it for Yuba City, over the Golden Gate, past Sausalito, through Vallejo and Vacaville, past Sacramento and right to a Travelodge in a town whose statistics boasted that 1 in 250 people were likely to be a victim of violent crime.
Right off the bat, the continental breakfast behind the cardboard cut out of a bear, named ‘Sleepy’, was hopping. Standing room only, when I noticed the one character that was even more out of place than the people I was with. He was a short, almost stocky man, pants rolled up towards his knees, mismatched shoes, hat pulled over his eyes, and a giant crescent wrench sticking out of his back pocket. Normally I wouldn’t have paid much mind, but after just learning the crime stats, I was on heightened alert. I watched him as he hovered between the packaged danishes, and the fire exit that lead to the rear parking lot, weaving with his wide stance, half nervous like he was pacing in one spot, eyeballing the griddle, the coffee carafe just past it, and doing a terrible job keeping an eye out for ‘Sleepy’s’ co-workers.
Looking like either an old pool skater or a low level prison gang member, he appeared ready for anything, except getting caught by the hostess, distracted by the impatient stare at the griddle timer, he’d left his defenses down.
“Morning guys…can you snag that waffle for me when it’s done?” as he’s being escorted away. The ballyhoo of of Yuba City’s seedy reputation was proving not to disappoint.
From there, we would go to meet some new friends at a long standing local retail spot down the street, cozied up next door to a fresh donut shop and Sun’s cafe – a small handful of independent holdouts against box store and franchise bulldozers that have bled small cities like this one dry across the landscape. We traded coins for coffee in styrofoam cups, and got to know our new friends.
“You see those storm clouds over there!?” Glen said, pointing due north over the horizon, “that AINT a storm, it’s the smoke from Chico heading this way…”
It was a smoggy, dark, giant marshmallow that you could taste when you breathed in. For the entire week, we’d be in an air quality advisory. It was my first glimpse at what would keep our lungs burning and the sunlight dim and bronzed until we got indoors and coughed like coal miners in line at the company store.
We headed south, driving towards the East Bay on roads so congested that they might as well have been handwritten liner notes on every punk album I’d ever heard, with the driver almost as erratic as any bass line that echoed the walls of 924 Gilman. Matt trying to describe the limit of his ability, to the static pulse of the music trying to bring us to our escape, resisting despair in this world is what it is to be free. Finally, while on the lookout for our exit, we break free of the traffic. It was totally hectic.
Eventually, we end up in a small coastal town just south of the city on the 1, across the street from a fast food taco joint on the beach. I am sure Matt was on his way or had plans to get another burrito, when a skateboarder called the police on us for loitering in the park. The cop showed up, kicked us all out and left to respond to an overdose. We hit the road again…
The next few days were spent in Santa Cruz, where we had the best bus station dinner of my life. A Ramen spot called “Betty’s Noodle House” – where you can get Ph?? or green onion pancakes and watch people come and go. We spent afternoons among the redwoods, or roaming industrial areas mixed in with crowded residential districts, before wandering seaside on the northern side of Monterey Bay. Watching the water crash onto the jacks shaped pylons, (they call them tetrapods) from the Santa Cruz Harbor, we could see the beach boardwalk amusement park, which had been here since the turn of the previous century. It was late autumn and mostly closed down, yet almost crowded with gothic beach bums, and tweaked out street folks who would only be rivaled by the giant seagulls in their assertive demands. Aside from the rough crowds, the casual seaside atmosphere of the whole place made our group feel welcomed, and most of the locals only reinforced that with smiles and courtesy.
Now at a seaside cafe directly across the street from the Santa Cruz municipal wharf, for a cup of coffee, looking left you can see the off season tourist postcard, a row of tall palm trees, nearly blocking the view of the Giant Dipper, Fireball, The Cyclone and The Sea Serpent. A quiet, vacant, giant carnival playground. The lighting was a hazy mix of the wildfire smog, and light ocean breeze fog, or some kind of low isolated overcast tint, making everything look like a movie screen memory. If you looked right, there was an old train trestle being used as some kind of makeshift amphitheater, repurposed by the dregs of this quaint beachfront community. The day ended watching the rehearsals for drug deals and life decisions gone awry. In this exact moment, amidst the sounds of the beach and the seagulls, one of the troupers under the bridge screeched, holding the right side of his face, walking half aimlessly down the train tracks, in what I can gather was the aftermath of nearly losing any eye. We stared at the commotion for a few moments, and then pedaled off in the opposite direction.
Before wandering towards Watsonville, we met up once again with Ron Wilkerson for fruit and granola mixed with peanut butter, and story time with the local legend, where we joined him and his family at the Brazilian/Argentinian style health food restaurant they ran. In his earlier days, Ron was THE magazine cover boy for the California dream. A professional bike rider, who in many ways defined a good part of an entire culture. Now in his 50’s, he showed us videos on his smartphone of him trying to reach his goal of getting a 50 foot air, as a 50 year old rider. By his count, a twenty something foot air on a twenty something foot tall mega ramp would put him roughly fifty feet in the air. His goal, starting at age 50, now two or so years later, was being pushed further by the few months of recovery for each piece of math he had figured out along the way. This time a dislocated thumb, almost healed as he talked about how he would land his next attempt. It was ridiculous hearing him explain it, and at the same time made perfect sense. Anything was possible.
After a nice breakfast we headed out to get a good view of an empty swimming pool in the hills, once a country club type place that burned down decades earlier – a swim club that would give way to a piece of wayward transitional history. We spent the afternoon enjoying the fruit of the vine, re-enacting our own daydreams, listening to music, resting in between runs in the shade of the one nearby tree, taking cover from the sun which was both muted and amplified by the thick wildfire tinted haze.
After nearly a week of spending most of each day outdoors, the air pollution from the natural disasters up north started to take their toll on the group I was traveling with. Everyone was kind of shy to admit they felt a little off, asthma like symptoms, itchy eyes, flu like congestion, fatigue, everything the advisories warned us against. We did our best to ward off the effects of ash, smoke and thick air with bad jokes, laughter, and more bad jokes.
As dusk crept in, after a day spent hanging out in the deep end with a raffish band of ne’er do-well dreamers, we rejoiced on getting to share this empty swimming pool’s legacy with each other, and the countless errant counterparts before us. We were just west of Eden, as we made our way through the trees, down the manmade gulch to where we parked the Town and Country. We loaded up our gear, and cracked more bad jokes before heading over another hill, and not without some kind of road trip irony, to get dinner by a campfire at Rancho Hernandez.
This was the pinnacle moment of the trip for me, shared food around a fire, tacos and talk of all the tall tales that were all true, recounting every absurd interaction, and half planned mishap, while staring into the combustible abyss of wood scraps, making dancing light and throwing tiny glowing embers into the atmosphere. Looking across the fire at the glowing faces of my travel companions and gracious hosts, I decided the lit up smiles weren’t just from the fire, but also from the times we were sharing. This was it.
The last night of the trip, we bunked at the Beach Motel on the end of Judah Street, outer sunset San Francisco, where the fog calls home, right near the beach. As we settled in, the proprietor loosely choked his dog collar at Shane (Leeper) while faux sicking his hound on him, and asking what room he was in. Evening was like a ghost town, idled trolley cars, an opened door to a mostly empty bar where a woman danced by herself as we walked by looking for an after hours eatery.
The trolley lines end here, a half a block from where the morning surfers and end of the line vagrants coalesce with coffee shop locals and our band of traveling Wilburys.
A refill on the coffee I just had would cost the same as a new one. I had two cash dollars left. As I tried to bargain with the woman, leaving it on the counter as I walked away, she yelled “No more refill, this last time… you pay!”
I’d never been here before, and would likely never return. The coffee was almost as burnt and smoky as the air we had been breathing the past week…
Due to a week of poor visibility, endless delays, and the general chaos and aftermath of a natural disaster, our plane left almost an hour late. The connecting flight from San Francisco wasn’t taking off til 8:30. We got there at 8:23. The airline customer service representative kindly let us know we “just missed it” as if we meant to, while she shut the door to the corridor that leads to the plane. This was the last flight home of the evening.
For our troubles we were each awarded a ten dollar food voucher and a biodegradable blanket. We were told we could keep the blankets, but warned not to wash them as they would disintegrate.
Sleeping on the cold floor of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to the sound of cable news, and cleaning equipment under fluorescent lights, was atonement for not grabbing that guy his waffle in Yuba City…
Originally seen on the Least Most