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.
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.
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.