Strawberry Fields Forever

Portland area folks, I’ll be doing a reading at Portland Community College Rock Creek Campus on Tuesday, June 27th at 2pm in the Women’s Resource Center. About 25 minutes or so, from the blog and the memoir-in-progress, and then Q & A and some light refreshments! Spread the word! (Many thanks to the faithful reader who is coordinating this event!)

In 1967 my parents brought me with them on my father’s business trip to California. We flew into Los Angeles, where a sick pink-brown haze of smog hung over the city and washed against the surrounding mountains. We were in Los Angeles for three days, then my mother and I took the train up the coast to San Francisco to meet my father, who had flown ahead to attend a meeting.

In the way memory works, I remember bits and pieces about the train trip – that it seemed to take forever, that we wound along the coast, catching spectacular views. I don’t recall coming in to San Francisco, nor do I remember the taxi ride to the Mark Hopkins Hotel at Number One Nob Hill where we were staying.

What I do remember is dancing that night with my father in the splendid lobby of the grand old place.

My father loved to dance, and for a large man (6’3″ and around 220) he was remarkably graceful. When I was small, I would stand on his feet while he danced to the music – we had all the Ray Conniff records of all my parents’ favorites – “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes,” “For All We Know,” “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.”

Earlier that year of our California trip – I was fifteen – my father had taught me how to waltz in the front parlor of our old Ohio farmhouse. We might have danced to “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” but I don’t recall. I caught on quickly, though, and let him lead me in wide swirls around the room, feeling the sweeping joy of the three/four rhythm while the floor creaked softly under our feet.

Now, as my parents and I sat in the small intimate bar at the back of the hotel lobby, where my mother and father nursed their scotch and sodas before we headed out to dinner at Lawry’s Prime Rib, a small three-piece orchestra began playing, and my father asked me to dance. I hesitated, feeling awkward and shy (did I mention I was fifteen?), and then my mother cajoled, saying “Oh, go on, dance with Daddy,” so that I got up and followed him the several feet away from the bar.

An enormous crystal chandelier sent shimmers of light across the polished marble, and the sweet sounds of the music floated after us, but I couldn’t make my feet work, and kept stumbling, my eyes glued to the floor. Finally, I looked up and saw several tables full of people, watching us with smiles on their faces.

My whole body felt wooden, my face burned with embarrassment. “Daddy, I want to sit down,” I remember telling him.

And he said, “All right,” and we walked back to the table where my mother sat waiting. “Why did you stop?” she asked, and I said, “Because I wanted to.” But that wasn’t true. I just couldn’t take all the people watching.

I never told my father that I immediately regretted the decision. I never told him how I’ve kept and tended that precious memory for all these years. I never thanked him for teaching me how to waltz, and for inviting me to dance in the lobby of the Mark Hopkins Hotel.

Last Monday I drove Roadcinante to Daly City, parked, and caught BART into downtown San Francisco. I got off at Montgomery Street and began walking toward Nob Hill. Along the way I stopped at Sam’s Grill for lunch, where a dapper gray-haired Frenchman in a tuxedo brought me some greens topped with crabmeat, shrimp, and a large prawn, all drizzled with a light vinaigrette. After I told him about my trip in 2015 to Sancerre for a language immersion class, he only spoke French to me, causing my heart to thrill but my brain to hurt.

In forty-nine years I had forgotten the steep hike up to the top of Nob Hill. How steep? Two-thirds of the way up, a taxi spun its wheels crazily, trying to get traction, sending smoke from the burning rubber tires and leaving dark stains on the pavement. I watched in horror, feeling the panic leap from the driver over to me, standing there gaping from the sidewalk. Within seconds the tires caught and the vehicle jolted up to the top.

(For the record, I checked, and the grade there is a terrifying 24.8%. But there is a steeper 31.5% grade street that is actually open to vehicles.)

Let me just say, I was not dressed to walk into a place like the Mark Hopkins. My unwashed hair was caught in a tangled scrunchie, I was without a smudge of makeup, and I wore a slouchy sweater over nylon hiking pants and carried my twenty-year-old leather backpack that is scratched and faded.

I took a moment to sit outside and wipe my eyes, thinking of my parents, now gone – my father all those years ago, so elegant in his movements, and my mother, smiling brightly, trim in her wool suit. And trying to remember myself, fifteen and dreaming of how my life might unfold, and thinking how nothing has turned out as I imagined.

And whose life has?

Inside, the lobby seemed smaller, but that is because it actually was. I spoke with a clerk who explained the old bar where my parents had so long ago clinked their glasses before taking the first sip was now a conference room, hidden behind the wall at the back.

I stood, trying to take it in. Sat on a brocaded chair for a moment to gather myself and jot some notes.

I could have ridden the elevator up to the famous Top of the Mark to see the view, but I didn’t. That isn’t what I’d come for.

I walked around, looking at old photographs of the place, turned to the center of the room and whispered, “Thanks, Dad,” and then I walked out the front door and went to stroll around Chinatown.

The next day I was gifted with a tour of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a fun catch-up lunch with a former college student from the campus ministry program in Boone, who now works at the aquarium. After that, I drove to Salinas and the National Steinbeck Center.

And there I met Rocinante, the modest conveyance Steinbeck drove and lived in (off and on) during his Travels With Charley.

Steinbeck’s custom designed camper is as alluring inside as I had imagined. In fact, I got a little excited peeking in there, imagining living in that space, all cozy and happy.

Salinas and the surrounding area is taken up by literally hundreds of thousands of acres of agriculture – staggeringly huge fields full of strawberries. Cabbages, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and groves of avocados and citrus, and plenty of vineyards. And workers everywhere, small communities springing up each day in the fields.

And if you felt a disturbance in the force around 6:00 pm EST on Tuesday, June 13th, it was me driving through Castroville, California. The Artichoke Center of the World, y’all!

Now I’m back in Mt. Shasta for the solstice, then heading on up to Oregon. Happy Summer, everyone!

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Mendocin-ohhhhh….

Mendocino – wow. Where do I start?

With the absurdly charming little town that appears, literally out of nowhere, as you crest the hill on Lansing Street, the town a New England charmer with its own Cali twist?

With the bluffs at the Headlands State Park, grassy fields rioting with wildflowers (Mendocino Paintbrush, Larkspur, Mission Bells, Hound’s Tongue, Lupine, Sun Cups, California Poppies, Indian Warrior, Yarrow, Rhododendron) that end abruptly in sharp drops to the sea, the blue Pacific crashing against the slick bold rocks down below? I know these aren’t the moors, but I keep expecting to turn around and see Heathcliff running after Cathy, windswept with passion.

Would it be the man romping with his mastiff, down below on the narrow beach? (And those narrow hacked-out-of-stone stairs down, are you even kidding me?!)

Maybe it’s the organic health food co-op that is housed in an old church, the floors pleasantly creaking in friendly welcome.

Or the friendly shopkeepers. Or the glassy-eyed white-haired hippies (there are more than a few). Or the passel of young surfers living out of their van at the end of the main street.

Or the snapper tacos with garlic aioli drizzled over the salsa fresca I snagged at a small outdoor café. (Necesario: una cerveza Pacifico)

Or the magical feeling that seems to permeate this entire coast, echoing with barking harbor seals and calling water birds and always the beautiful undulating Pacific.

I stayed up the road several miles at an RV campground. The beach there was fabulous, littered with beautiful frosted sea-glass. (Up the road in Fort Bragg is Glass Beach, which I decided to skip, but plenty of the debris washes up elsewhere, like at Cabrillo, where I was.) The beach was great, yes.

The campground, not so much. I had my first negative camping experience (which is really saying something, since I’ve been on the road since January). When I asked to be moved, the staff was at first apologetic and sympathetic. Then, I don’t know, I think I became a “problem.” I won’t elaborate, but initially I was asked, “Why didn’t you say something earlier?” and what followed illustrated why people don’t say anything at all.

Anyway, I did get moved, to a sucky spot with leaking water next to the electrical outlet and no fire ring – but in drought-ridden California, previous tenants had a fire anyway, right there on the ground.

Here is the thing – 3 other people left when I did, offering the same feedback. I expect we all became “the problem” so nobody had to deal with an entirely unpleasant and sorta threatening clan who spent most of the time belching, farting, and hornking up their lungs because cigarettes, and fighting with each other, hurling the F-Word at about Decibel 50. My comment to the staff: “This is escalating, and I have no way of knowing who has a gun.” I said this because of working at a domestic violence agency where we got to know way too much about the dynamics of family violence.

I think at that point they filed me in “crazy old lady” category. Sure, fine. Trust me. I don’t want to be right about it.

Anyway, putting jackasses on the page is the revenge I’m after. I shook the dust and headed away from there, spending the afternoon wandering the bluffs and then went to the Point Cabrillo Lighthouse and got another stamp for my Lighthouse Passport. I didn’t climb this one, though. You aren’t allowed to. Also, it’s like two-and-a-half stories high. Cutest little thing. Still lighting the way. (Guess what I recognized right away! The Fresnel lens!)

From Mendocino I headed toward Santa Cruz and landed in a KOA in the Alexander Valley, just to have a place for the night. I’ve decided KOA’s are the McDonald’s of the camping world. They’re a little canned, but you always know what you are getting. And the “little canned” part, well, at first I was all judgey about it, but now I’m starting to admire the ethos – basically kids playing outside all the time. Lots of riding toys provided, playgrounds, swimming pools, bouncy houses, bike paths. I’m going to repeat that. Kids! Playing outside. All the time! So, go, KOA! (Also, most of the time the bathrooms are spotless. So there is that.)

Next up – report on my trip to San Francisco, and what it was like to go to Salinas to the John Steinbeck National Center and stand next to Rocinante! (Hint: I might have cried a little.)

Happy weekend, all. (And I’ll add more Mendocino photos when I can get wi-fi that isn’t slow as an expiring snail.)

 

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We Interrupt This Blog Site…

Dear Ones – I am still in California, in Salinas and heading for Santa Cruz, where this weekend I will officiate at a wedding for some dear sweet young’uns, and do some re-uning with treasured friends. I’ll give an updated post next week about the amazingness that is Mendocino and also a few things I learned along the way to and from there.

In the meantime, a couple of requests: I am hoping to schedule some readings from the travel blog as well as the memoir-in-progress, in places where I’ll be heading – in Cali, that will be Cayucos and San Luis Obispo, and then I’ll be heading back north to Oregon and Washington – then on to Montana, Wyoming, maybe Utah, then Colorado…and various points east and southeast.

If any among you have a book group, a writers group, or can facilitate with a coffee shop, bar, library or other venue, please let me know! You can email me at chasinglightjourney at gmail dot com. (Shhh…that is the secret email address bots and spammers apparently cannot yet decipher…)

The second request is, if you think of people who might enjoy following along (the gang now numbers 300!), please send them a link of your favorite post and invite them to subscribe. There is still room on board this ever-evolving caravan. (“We are hanging off the ever-expanding vehicle’s sides, feeling the wind on our faces, as we roll along the freeway, bounce down new two-lane state highways that bisect new landscapes. We play ping-pong on the lower deck, calculating the variations for hitting a small plastic ball weighing 2.7 grams in one direction while traveling 65mph in another. We loll in hammocks that rock us to sleep. Our conveyance is powered by sunlight, cold fusion, and love.“)

Driving down from Cloverdale (in the Alexander Valley, for you wine enthusiasts) where I spent Tuesday night I watched the landscape change yet again, saw the return of palm trees and to my delight discovered the jacaranda are in full stunning purple bloom.

(Stock photo)

And as if that was not enough, I passed Garlic World (on the opposite side of the highway) with a small whimper, and then, hallelujah, found a stand on my side of the road where they sell Garlic Ice Cream! Yes, I did, and yes, it is delicious – anyone who has ever had garlic jelly that you put on cream cheese atop a cracker will get the general idea, except you skip all that cracker nonsense and just have the sweet garlicky creaminess.

Have a beautiful weekend, and if I have not mentioned it in a while, thank you so much for coming along on this journey. Often when I feel lonely, I go back and reread your comments and am deeply touched and much encouraged. Blessings to you all!

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Journey from “Grade” to “Grace”

Here is something I did not know: that trees could grow so very straight.

I left Mt. Shasta yesterday afternoon, early. What followed wasn’t really the trip from hell, but it wasn’t much fun, either.

I have a complicated relationship with Siri. She gets me, she really does. She takes me off the beaten path, which is where I want to go. But she does not seem to care much for my well-being in the process of leading me farther and farther into the hinterlands.

On the other hand, looking at an atlas after the fact, I suspect the only route was the one on which she directed me.

Here is how it went.

Just past Redding, California’s State Route 36, nearly all of it two-lane, snakes through tawny-colored grassy hills, thick with slow-moving cows and a lot of their scampering babies, and the occasional wide fenced-in pasture dotted with quarter horses.

The road along this stretch is winding, with unexpected dips, rises, and spates of broken pavement in varying states of repair, so that I had to keep Roadcinante at a pretty steady 30 mph. Siri mentioned I had 83 miles on this road (which, by the way, turned out to be a bald-faced lie, more like 140).

“Surely, it can’t all be like this!” I complained to the dogs, who frowned at me with consternation at the continual braking and curving.

After a time, the road straightened out and I could actually achieve the 55mph speed limit.

“Whew!” I thought. “Glad that’s behind me!”

But not for long. In a word, the route commenced to winding again, this time up and over mountains. Over the next nearly three hours, six or more climbs and descents across six counties. “S” curves and hairpin curves up, spectacular views from atop on a narrow road with no guard rails and a straight down tumble to one side, continuous rock slides to the other. Then “S” curves and hairpin curves back down. In an RV. With a recently added load of water.

Coming down from one of the most precipitous passes, where in places the edge of the road was buckled and broken, I was on a 10% grade (which is fucking steep, let me just say) with a couple of impatient drivers in massive pickups on my tail and ahead of me extra-sharp curves with signs pleading with me to slow down to 15mph, and suddenly I smelled brakes burning and suddenly I realized they were mine. I inched into the very next layby, trucks shooting on past me, and stopped, turned off Roadcinante, turned off the propane pilot light on the fridge in case anything was thinking about bursting into flames, and got out, the brakes smoking and reeking and me trembling like a leaf ahead of a big summer storm.

The dogs stirred and paced, so I brought them out, too, and walked them along the narrow grassy area, letting them piddle while I thought of what to do next.

What I thought to do was wait a bit. Let everything cool down. So after about twenty minutes I turned the vehicle on and pressed the brake pedal. Which went all the way to the floor with no resistance whatsoever. Also the brake light and the ABS light on the dashboard warned me to not move a single centimeter, lest fatal peril befall us all.

Shit.

Damn.

Hell.

I dug out the owner’s manual and read up on the part about the brake system, and confirmed those warning lights were a very bad sign. And here we were, stranded by the roadside in the very late afternoon.

“We may have to spend the night here,” I said to the dogs, and they thought that was fine as long as they got their dinner, but what did they know? About grizzlies and serial killers? Nothing, am I right?

I did not cry, even though I wanted to. I was too pissed off and frustrated and also afraid and shaking more than a little, washed through with adrenaline.

Turned Roadcinante on again. Same result of brake pedal to the floor, same red and amber “We are all going to die!!” warning lights.

Shit.

Damn.

Hell.

Oh, did I forget to mention there had been no phone service for the entire way? None. Zip. Zero. Nil. We are talking remote. No towns to speak of. A few feed stores. No gas stations. In fact, I had only seen a handful of other travelers until these last ten miles or so.

So. I could not actually call for help.

Okay, what to do.

I popped the hood and took a good look with my flashlight, as if I knew what I was looking for. Well, I sort of did know – anything leaking, disconnected. An empty brake fluid receptacle. But all looked intact. Just the reek of burning brakes and waves of grimy heat on my face.

So I left the hood open and waited some more. And put on my flashers, deciding to take my chances and hope for humanity’s best to stop rather than the alternative.

And after another twenty minutes, I turned her on and tried the brakes again, and lo and behold, Roadcinante, most noble of all vehicles, had healed herself. The brake pedal gave a nice bit of resistance and the warning lights had winked out.

I was cautiously hopeful I was back in business, but a long incline, which had eased from that 10% grade but could still be described as sobering, loomed in front of me, and the thought of getting on that road and having the brakes fail brought on instant nausea.

Just about that time a pick-up truck hauling a trailer full of firewood passed me going uphill. The truck slowed down, then sped on by. About five minutes later, the truck came back my way and pulled in behind me.

And two of the sweetest folks you ever met got out, a burly man with thick graying hair in a gray t-shirt and his wife, a petite dark-haired woman in jeans and a dark jacket. “Are you okay?” he asked. “When we passed by, I saw you with your face in your hands.”

I wanted to hug him for that.

His adorable wife chimed in, too. “Are you okay?”

I explained my situation and the fact that I thought maybe I was back in business.

“Do you want me to take a look?” He asked it with a note of uncertainty, but like he knew as a man he was supposed ask.

“Sure, if you know what you are looking at, that would be great.”

“Not really,” he confessed, sort of laughing, “but I can take a look.” He did what I’d done – check for anything smoking or on fire, anything leaking, anything broken or dangling.

“Probably a sensor just needed to cool down,” he finally said, pulling his head back from under the open hood.

“Sure. That sounds right,” I said. So I had a second opinion that things were maybe actually going to be okay.

Then I asked, “How close am I to the bottom?”

“Oh, this is it. You’re almost there,” the wife exclaimed and then asked, “Where are you headed?”

“To Humboldt Redwoods State Park.”

“You’re almost there,” she said again and patted my arm. “You’re ten minutes away,” she said and pointed to a ridgetop. “Look! See those redwoods up there? That’s where you’re going!”

Which turned out to not be true, but in that moment it cheered me mightily, enough to get me going again.

I told them I planned to put on my emergency flashers and put Roadcinante in second gear and hop from layby to layby, checking to see what they thought about that.

The man nodded and said again, “Probably just a sensor.”

“And if anyone behind you gets too impatient, give them the California one-finger salute.” She demonstrated for me, and it turned out to be remarkably similar to the North Carolina one-finger salute.

She was right about being near the bottom. And only two trucks came behind me, and I let both of them pass me.

I had another hour ahead of me, though (the “ten minutes away” campground was not where I was staying), nearly all of it more curves. But no more mountains.

Still, I was in a pet, as my grandmother would say, and swearing continually. Once at the bottom I’d come into a little town where I’d stopped for gas and discovered I had phone service, so I called the campground to say I’d be late but got a recording saying they were closed.

I said every cussword I could think of, and then went through the list of portmanteaus (which is a very pretty word and nothing like what was coming out of my mouth). And then I started putting things together in brand new ways, sort of like scat-swearing, just letting it tumble out.

Finally, at long last, I did cry.

But not because of the close call with my brakes or my worries about where I’d stay the night or my rage and frustration in general for how the day had gone.

I cried because State Route 36, which I had loathed, cursing its creators soundly, including the Great State of California, had delivered me directly into the heart of a forest of enormous redwoods, the first I had ever in my life seen.

And I wept when I saw them, these beautiful majestic trees, so impossibly straight, so stunningly tall. The road threaded through and past and around them, and I searched for the word, the word, the word, and then it came to me.

Dignified. I had never seen trees so upright and dignified. Even the ones so close to the road their trunks had been scraped by passing vehicles, bore their wounds with a quiet unmoving grace.

The forest floor was thick with densely growing green ferns, and moss shrouded the trees that had fallen and now rested serenely on their sides.

I opened the window and breathed in the forest-washed air, and a hush entered my soul and escorted out all the noise, all the clamor, all the terrible words and hot anger. All the fear and anxiety. All the doubt and uncertainty.

A cool gentling peace took their place.

I drove along for miles and miles, coming in and out of dense redwood forests. I drove until I came to the way called the Avenue of the Giants and found the campground, where the dear young man at the office was waiting for me, and I checked in and entered the soft twilight of the trees and found my spot, and spent a soul-stilled evening nestled among sheltering tree-companions from whose treetops the night birds called.

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Mt. Shasta, Part 2

I’ve told myself from the beginning, I can go home whenever I want. If I hate it, this traveling life, this vagabond existence, this uprooted way, I can go home, climb back into my old life, pick up where I left off. No harm, no foul.

My stay here in Mt. Shasta has been wonderful – restful, interesting, energizing, inspirational. Also confusing, lonely, depressing, frustrating.

Until this extended stop, I hadn’t realized how tired I was. How tired I am. How homesick I have become, looking at pictures of the arrival of spring in the North Carolina High Country – the dreamy misty mornings, the varying layers of green, the lush clusters of lilacs and bright fronds of forsythia and the rhododendrons heavy with voluptuous blooming.

I see in those photos that people have come out of their winter hidey-holes to bike, run, walk, picnic, play. The restaurant porches are open and the crowds at the breweries spill out into the parking lots, and the farmers market is in full swing, all the beautiful produce like paintings, and the music on the wind, a fiddle and a guitar and a bass and your foot tapping along, you can’t help it, you’d have to be dead.

Back home, my kids will be having cookouts and taking hikes and going out to dinner without me. In another month the lightning bugs will be in full concert. They dazzle me every year, the winking lights covering the mountainsides and the meadows, sparking the trees and the grass with magic.

There are hardly any fireflies out here, and most of them are only bioluminescent in the pupal stage.

Next week I’ll head to Mendocino, which I’ve always wanted to see, but I just can’t get that excited about it, because I’m not sure my brain has room for any more new discoveries, new places.

But of course I’m still going. And this morning when I opened the sliding glass door that looks out over the sea of scrubby white-leaved manzanita, I could swear I smelled the ocean, a lure tucked somewhere inside the velvety breeze.

Here is what I learned from writing a book proposal: I am not ready to write a book proposal. This is helpful information and has actually moved me along quite nicely. I have new chapters I did not expect to have. I’ve read new books that have opened new doors down hidden corridors in my mind. But I’m having to readjust my expectations for myself and this journey.

I know that’s okay. It just feels sort of shitty, is all. Insert heavy sigh here: _________

I’ve been battling the urge to quit – both the trip and the book – by stubbornly going forward. Over the years I’ve learned that feeling isn’t always fact – to consider the possibility that on those days when my emotions take a nose-dive, it could be that everything is cratering, or it could as easily be the case that I’m short on magnesium or chromium or vitamin C. Or dark chocolate.

The hard truth is, there is no climbing back into my old life. A door has closed behind me. In fact, I’ve had to take a long hard look at that “old life,” the one in which I had exiled myself, fleeing inward, succumbing to the low-level depression that has been a companion for most of my adult life. My time beneath the protective gaze of Mt. Shasta has given me opportunity to do other readjusting, too.

I’ve dropped my red wine habit and picked up my yoga practice again, only this time with more focus on clearer intention-setting. And having an actual kitchen has helped me get back to my clean eating, which I know helps everything – brain, lungs, joints, muscles –  feel better. In the early morning or late afternoon I spoon with the dogs, just a short love-fest that leaves all three of us many degrees happier.

I keep returning to the headwaters, to Big Springs, to drink in more of the water, more of the cool, more of the wonder, more of the companionship with other thirsty people. I make lists of the lovely, kind folks I’ve met in this town – at the laundromat, at the dog park, in stores and restaurants –  and marvel at the brief intersecting of our lives, our stories, and in just these chance encounters we’ve altered each other’s trajectories, however slightly.

Last evening, I was out walking the dogs and turned to see the white of Mt. Shasta, still covered with snow, painted the same shade of pink as the dogwoods that bloomed last week, and right then I remembered to breathe. Later I listened to the faint singing of frogs in a nearby pond, and the wind stirring in the tall oak trees and whispering secrets to the pines, and I breathed in sweet perfume from wisteria blossoms just beneath the open window. Right before midnight I went out onto the deck and watched the International Space Station drift by, glimmering gold in the wide black sky. I followed it all the way until it disappeared behind the mountain.

Truth? It’s all good, even when it doesn’t always feel that way.

Reality? There is no climbing back into the old life, just as once a butterfly sheds its chrysalis, its unfurled wings no longer fit the former shell. The only thing it can do is rest its wings while they dry, fully aware that this time of stillness and preparation is also a time of great vulnerability.

Then, when the time is right – she will fly.

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