Sunday, February 19, 2012

Shadow O’er the North Coast



Your Humble Author. Just out of frame: The Monster.
We didn't set out to find a monster. We didn't set out to find anything in particular. We just found ourselves with the same week off work and decided to power up the Hybrid and point it North.

We would wander through almost 1000 miles of California Coastline, from Santa Cruz to Eureka and back, and we would battle the monster at the end of our journey. Both ends of our journey, actually, at the very edges of the Western World - and beyond...... 

The first night we stayed in Jenner, after we got to the coast, which we had lost track off after crossing San Francisco Bay. Blame it on the spooky spell of the trip, but we just crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and didn't realize we were on the wrong road until Petaluma.

Maybe something WAS trying to keep us away from the shoreline. Or maybe we were listening to the Giants on the radio and weren't paying attention. It was in Jenner that we got the first distinct impression that things were not quite right. Normally it is bad luck to stop at the first motel you see in a town, but Jenner only has 104 people in it, so motel row was a motel at each end of town and not a whole lot in between. 

We entered the local B+B, where we were regarded by a darkly silent lady behind the counter. "Hi!" we said. "Hello...." she replied, a beat too late, as if she were receiving her lines from some other source. We blinked at her, and then looked around the lobby, which was devoid of humanity, and some of its furnishings as well. The silence continued. The adjoining restaurant was closed at brunch time on a Sunday.

We came back to the counter. The wax figure of Morticia Addams remained unmoved. "So," I said, trying not to be condescending, "we. would. like. a. room. please." "Oh," she said, snapping back to life, "Here?" She handed us three keys to three different structures, all located in different parts of the town. Oh goody. The Stepford lady wants us to go on a little scavenger hunt. All of the rooms were cheerless, dark and smelled like the bottom of Grandmas purse.

So we checked into the other motel. This one had a restaurant that was open on a weekend in summer. A good sign. We were greeted when we walked in the place. Another good sign. And then the cute little old man kicks off our conversation by telling us about the grisly murder that took place here last year, pointing from our balcony to where the body washed up. Charming. Our choices in town then were either the Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock presents.
View from our hotel room - the Russian River meets the sea.

The clouds and fog only added to our mood of festive gloom, and the city block-sized stone monoliths just off shore were appropriately brooding. (Did Poe ever do a coastal California story?) It is this feeling of sublime isolation that draws millions of people here every year. But the intangible creepiness is not just a result of the pretty scenery.

See what defines the North Coast is the sea and the sand, the cliffs and the coves. But those are just surface characteristics of something sinister and dangerous that lurks below the surface. And it has been there since the dinosaurs. It knows no name simply because it was active long before there were names. Today however, in this blip of an eon in the life of the planet, we call this subterranean killer the San Andreas fault.

It is plate tectonics that make the California Coast so scenic, provides that intangible creepiness, and makes life here seem all the more precious.  Because now and then Saint Andy’s fault lets go of a little stress and wipes the scenery clean off the map.

Most people don't realize that the big jolt of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake was not centered in Rice-A-Roni land. According to the 2001 report Ground Motions for Site Response Estimates (Read it to be cured of insomnia): “The largest concentration of slip in the 1906 earthquake occurred well North of the epicenter, between Point Reyes and Fort Ross”. "Slip" here is referring to the entire tectonic plate going whoops-a-daisy, and is a very skittery concept for we Golden Staters who live West of the fault.

Admiral Karen at Fisk Point
The epicenter in 1906 was off the coast of Daly City, just South of San Francisco, but the utter devastation of the city was strictly a sideshow. The BIG bump and grind was Bodega Bay, where the fishing fleet came flying into the town and reduced it to kindling. Ah, but that was a century ago, right? Yes, because there are very few standing structures in this part of the state that are older than that. But someday, when we least expect it, the North Coast is gonna show its slip again.

We stopped at a milkfoodpopsnacksice place North of Jenner and asked the proprietress if she had felt an earthquake the night before, like we had. She thought for a moment. "nah, not last night. But night before last yeah, a couple of days before that mmm-hmmm, and last Saturday we had a good jolt." The local yokels around her nodded at her recital. And we fled for the car.

But that wasn't the monster. Oh no: the one that attacked us is responsible for far more carnage, death and misery than the planet's magic fingers machine.

Day 2

The next morning we were happy to discover that we were still alive. But we may have been the sole survivors. The motel office was closed. The restaurant was dark and locked. The parking lot was deserted. We slunk out of the empty town and had the highway to ourselves.

Up the road a ways we stopped at Fort Ross, an F-troop-style wooden fort built in the 1830's by troops named Ivan and Igor. Yep, the Russians had a thriving settlement here on the coast.  Who knew? Apparently nobody: great fort, cool history, spectacular seaside summer scenery - and not a soul there. Fort Ross was hacked literally out of the forest, and you can still plainly see the axe gouges on every log and board. This structure braved the largest degree of the slip with hardly a hand-forged nail out of place, and it looks like it'll whether the next 170 years with no problem.
View from the Blockhouse at Fort Ross.
Not pictured: Any other living soul.

The Ruskies and their Alaskan 'help' came here to farm. That didn't work out so well on the alluvial fan of the coastal range, so they switched to killing all of the sea otters. That worked great, for a while. But with the Otters slaughtered there was nothing to do but sell their vast acreage and head back to Alaska, declaring California to be "economically worthless". In the 1840's then they sold all of their land to one John Sutter, who opened a mill.....

Fort Ross was not completely deserted however. It was there that we encountered our first group of vultures. ('Group of vultures. Gaggle of vultures? Funerary? Buffet? No: an 'undertaking' of vultures.) This group, or ones remarkably similar would appear all along our way up the coast. It made for an interesting juxtaposition sometimes: Round one corner, picture postcard coastline. Round the next, half a dozen buzzards in the road, tucking into chunks of skunk.

We stopped next at Point Arena, which is good, because when you fail to stop at Point Arena you land in the ocean. This is the western most protrusion of the continental U.S. into the Pacific. Or maybe it isn't. No less than four different communities on our journey claimed this trivia factoid as their own. My money goes with PacBell, who laid the transpacific phone cable, and wanted the closest point between two continents. And the jumping off point is, wait for it.......Point Arena. It’s not worth seeing though. A plaque and a pipe: Yee-hah.

Just down the road though is something that is definitely worth seeing: The six-story Lighthouse. The first rung on this endless iron staircase is stamped 1867, but the outer shell molted off in the April, 1906 slip, along with most of the coastline. Nowadays the cliffs around the lighthouse are twisted into cinnamon roll shapes that are stunning in their mute violence.

The Sinkhole in front of the Point Arena Lighthouse.
The new lighthouse was built around the surviving staircase the next year, making it the first reinforced steel structure in California. See it soon, as directly in front of the lighthouse is a gigantic sinkhole that is carving big chunks out of the shore every year. Or, go see the Pigeon Point lighthouse, which is an exact copy of the Point Arena one. Not that I ever have. Pigeon Point is within bicycling distance of our home in Santa Cruz, but we had to overshoot it by 400 miles to learn its history. D'oh!

But wait a minute, you may be thinking, aren't lighthouses obsolete in this day of GPS systems for your habitrail? Why yes, they are. They don't do a thing anymore except provide a great view of the crumbling coastline. The one that served Point Mendocino for 150 years is now sitting dark in a city park.

But the Point Arena one was saved by the most unlikely business partnership I have ever encountered. The gift shop and tours are handled by a cooperative of genial stoner hippie dudes, beards and ponytails a-flappin, spoutin' local lore and ringing up organic t-shirts and groovy fridge magnets. The grounds are maintained by the stern jarheads of the U.S. Coast Guard, who use the Point as a helicopter landing pad. So we finally have the mystical pairing of Uncle Sam and the Grateful Dead. Search and Rescue meets Sex and Drugs. Captain of the Cutter versus Captain Trips. "Semper Paratus" vs. "Jerry Lives!" And I wonder which side flies the most?

We stayed the second night in Fort Bragg, which I hoped would be as impressive as Fort Ross. Wrong. There is no Fort Bragg anymore. There barely was in the first place. The site of the fort is now the shopping area of the town, but the actual location is pretty vague in most guidebooks. It was built in 1857 and flourished from then until...later on in 1857. Its purpose was to keep the local Indians pacified on their reservation, which wasn't a problem at all. See? Northern California has always been tranquil.

So a few months after its grand opening almost all of the troops of Fort Bragg were transferred up to Eastern Washington, where the local tribes were much more aggro (See 'Grunge'). Then the Civil War started and the rest of the uptight white devils hopped on a ship and headed South. And the Indians eventually wandered back to their lands and the non-Russian-built fort chilled out and fell apart. Dude.

I was going for Zen, but I look more like a porn director.
Our Fort Bragg motel was the first place we saw, breaking all of the standard no-reservation roadtrip rules again. Every room in this hotel boasted views overlooking the Noyo coast and its fleet of sailboats, with fireplaces next to the hot tubs. Or, Earth, Air, Fire and Water. No wonder we felt so balanced and refreshed there. Plus the Giants won again. That in itself should have warned us that we were in some strange Otherworld.

Day 3

Shortly after Mendocino the coastal highway loses its nerve. Indeed, it even loses its name. Highway 1 tucks its tail and veers inland here, merges with the 101 and takes it easy until Eureka. The huge chunk of coastline that the 1 entirely fails to penetrate is known as the Lost Coast, but really it is the highway that is lost.

We looked at the map, and all of the big, thick lines moved away from the ocean, leaving behind little, thin, squiggly lines to try to fend for themselves. We checked the guidebook, but all it said was: "Proof that if you don't build it, they won't come." We gassed up Hymie the Hybrid at Garberville, took a deep breath, dived off the highway, and headed due West, into the Lost Coast.

And everything slowed down. Our breathing slowed. Our perceptions slowed. Maybe it’s all the Humboldt pot that comes from around here. The car had to slow as the two-lane went all spaghetti on us. Spaghetti and meatballs actually. The meatballs are gone, but they left behind their gigantic craters in the road.

This road was last paved in the 50's, when they paved it the first time. But its fairly short, and takes you up and over the coastal range and then straight down down down down down in a wild, stomach clenching bobsled run to the only town on the shore around here.


The entire town of Shelter Cove.
Our Hotel is the white one on the left. Mario's is at the lower right.
Shelter Cove is a bizarre little burg whose only claim to fame is that it has never filed its claim to fame. There is a perfect harbor here, and yet the only craft we saw on the water were two lonely jet skis. There is an airport here, in fact, like a Pacific atoll the town basically IS the runway, and we saw zero air activity in 24 hours. There is a bustling golf course laid out on the runway approach. Bustling that is, with squirrels and rabbits. And our loyal undertaking of vultures, of course. There are a hundred or so large, airy homes, chock full of....air. A lovely city park (with Point Mendocino's Light house in it), miles of black sand beaches, a couple of modern hotels where you can literally throw a rock into the ocean from your balcony - and empty parking lots adjacent to all of them.

Part of this is the postage stamp size of the town: most folks just walk everywhere. But mostly it is just a profound lack of people to walk, let alone park. The silence is deafening. And, by coincidence, that night my bedtime reading to Karen was H.P. Lovecraft’s "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", which is about a deserted seaside town with monsters that rise from the ocean. I was checking all the locals for gill slits. Not that I could find many locals.

We lunched at Mario's, which had excellent food. This is good, because it’s the only restaurant at that end of the runway. As a matter of fact Mario's carries some renown as one of the countries best "fly-in" meals. Not that there were any pilots there for our meals, or anyone else for that matter.

Our waitress was the owner’s niece, and she was refreshingly candid about the drawbacks of living in Nowheresville: "There’s no one to talk to around here." The milkfoodpopsnacksice clerk was also forthcoming about his job: "Lots of sick kids in summer from that insane downhill slalom to get here."  Our hotel manager also had an opinion: "Did you know that this is the Western most point in the Continental U.S.?"
A black sand beach. Not pictured: Any other living soul.

Day 4

The next morning we were serenaded at Mario's. Apparently they were training a new cook who had never made eggs benedict before. So we got to listen to the instructions shouted in real time. Imagine that: getting a job as the morning cook at a diner without the slightest clue what Hollandaise sauce is. Then again, the pile of applications for the job couldn't have been too high. Admiral Karen pronounced it, "Not bad. Not Hollandaise, but not bad."

I got directions out from our hotel guy. I found him standing out in front of the hotel, staring longingly at the Sea. I told him that we had decided to head North, not East back to the 101/1. He shook his head, showing what seemed to be dark lines in the sides of his neck. "You might wanna pack a sandwich," he said, his large blank eyes never blinking," there aint much out there." This from a local whose town had maybe 6 people in it that day.

He also asked us to stop in at a couple of the little stores on the coast road, "And buy a pop or something - those people up there don’t get too many visitors." At the word ‘Up’ he slowly pointed Northward, and I noticed that his sleeve was dripping. I gulped, backed away slowly and we pulled out of the empty parking lot, onto Poe place, turn left at Hitchcock Lane, and take Wes Craven road....till it ends......

Typical entry from the Kinetic Sculpture Race.
The road ends abruptly in downtown Ferndale, just South of Eureka. You wind down down down, spiral around around around and voila! You are suddenly on a residential side street in this quaint Victorian town. Ferndale has two attractions to it: The Kinetic Sculpture Race every Memorial Day weekend, and, quilting. But to say the town is schizophrenic is to give it too much credit. It’s more like it’s in a coma for 362 days out of the year and then has a psychedelic hallucination for 3 days.

The race, however, only ends in Ferndale. It begins up the highway in Arcata and then makes its human-powered way through 38 miles of sand, slough, mud, tidal bay crossing and Highway 101 before falling to pieces three days later on Main Street. We were there two weeks before Memorial Day however, and so the quilting still reigned supreme. (*yawn*) Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.........We pressed on to Eureka.

And then rolled right on through it to Arcata, a little hippie lovefest of a town on the other side of Eureka bay. See the problem we had with Eureka was its size. At 25,000 people it is only a quarter of the size of our home base in Santa Cruz, which itself is considered a small city when compared with San Jose and San Francisco. But after 4 days driving up the coast, the biggest concentration of life we had seen so far had been our undertaking of vultures. So, Eureka seemed monstrously huge. A megalopolis. We couldn't deal. So we bypassed it. Well bisected it, actually; the 101 runs right through the middle of town.
Arcate Square. You can just see the staute of President McKinley.

On the other hand the only thing that runs through Arcata are some joggers. Arcata was once the mining town compared with Eureka's lumber town. Now its claim to fame is Humboldt University, which is just a few blocks from the city square. Hum U is famous for its doctoral program in tree sitting for political activists, and for the ziploc bags you can buy at any music festival for about ten dollars. Or combine the two majors and get your PHD in THC.

Arcata's other claim to fame they have yet to file. A few blocks from town center is the Arcata marshes, hundreds of acres of beautifully wild plants, exotic birds, and hiking trails. Bring your picnic lunch and binoculars, but leave your reading glasses at home. This is important: read the pamphlet AFTER you leave the place.

For the dirty little secret in all of these sublime ponds and pools is that the Arcata marshes is also the Arcata sewage treatment plant. A marvel of engineering, hippie can-do, and bacteria, you'll never know you were wandering merrily through the town toilet. Heartily recommended, especially if you are the only one in the party who knows what a moving experience this really is.

We parked in Arcata's town square, across from the statue of slain President McKinley, who was now covered in pigeon poop. Is there no respect for this man? I parked there because this is where the sculpture race begins every year, and also because there is this extremely cool old "Barton Fink" hotel that overlooks the square.

Just a marsh. Nothing else going on here. Move along.
The Hotel Arcata is one of those rare city hotels that flourished in a bygone age when ordinary people actually stayed in urban hotels and not motels next to the highway. Most of these fine buildings have degenerated into 'shabby furnished rooms', but a few examples have survived and thrived. 86 rooms, claw foot tubs, hard wood floors, windows you have to raise to open, radiators that hiss, no parking lot. It doesn't get anymore noir than this.

We locked the door behind us - with a real key! - and checked to see if we were now in black and white. I had this insane urge to sit on the windowsill and clean a .38 revolver while wearing a fedora and a white undershirt.

Actually it was a good thing that I didn't have a gun with me, because that night, the monster moved in next door. We should have known. Our buzzards had flown the coop. The Giants were losing again. And we had reached the Northern limit of our journey. Time for a boss battle.

Through the whole trip we had been getting great hotel rates because we were a week ahead of the summer season. But in Arcata, class lets out early, so the students can harvest and pack the ziploc baggies in time for the summer music festivals. So Wednesday night in Arcata was peak rates because it was graduation night, and that meant there were 4000 drunk teenagers in the suite next to ours.

Alcohol my friends, is the ultimate monster: a multi-headed, ever-mutating phantasm that is unstoppable, and which provides more horror than everything our great writers and filmmakers can throw at us. Out in the square there was peace and quiet, but this was due to the police cruisers parked at every corner of the square. Pack a piece and you get quiet. But upstairs in Hotel Noir it was Lindbergh Lands, VE day, and the end of Prohibition all in one.

We called down to the desk. A voice that could not have yet shaved answered and said, "I'll take care of it." With all of the grim determination of Little Ronny Howard guarding the bridge at Khazad-Dum.

The Hotel Arcata.
We heard the phone ring through the wall. A voice quieted down the heaving throng, with a bullhorn I think, and answered the phone. Silence, and then, bless their pubescent hearts, indignance. "The neighbors think we're too loud." "What?" "I SAID THE NEIGHBORS THINK WE'RE TOO LOUD!"

And the din did ebb for about 10 minutes: the average length of time for 14 Long Island Iced Teas to snatch away your short-term memory. And then it slid all the way up to 11 again. Our amusement faded in proportion. Keep in mind that the night before we were in Shelter Cove where you can hear the rocks age at night. Going from creepyville to Grad night was like going from Space Station silence to an amphibious invasion of Mardi Gras.

And the human mind is an amazing thing. What was really bugging us wasn't the sleep we were missing or the myopic rudeness of youth. What was pissing us off was that they weren't having any fun at their party. All they were doing was talking loudly about nothing in particular. Come on, people! There isn't even any music going. I mean, we could smell the Captain Morgan through the wall, but nobody was dancing, trashing the place, or having a foursome under the bed. You aren't even worth calling the cops on!

After 18 or so hours of lying in bed and waiting for the party to get started so we could end it, I decided to check it out myself. I was a front desk clerk at a motel back in the day, and I'm pretty sure I was even a teenager once. It was time to have a talk with those who wouldn't shut up.

I pulled on some clothes and opened the door. There was a young couple in the hall. The fellow was clinging to wall like the gravity had just been switched back on. He was giggling silently, which is quite unsettling. He was small potatoes though compared with his date, who had downed aisle 3 three of the BevMo, and was currently riding out some pretty rough seas.

And if the human mind is an amazing thing, it is only complimented by the equally amazing human body. This young woman had both feet firmly planted on the faded carpet but was nonetheless circulating around in a wide circle, like a toy plane on a string. I got sicker than she was just watching her.

Round and round she went, left, forward, right, back, left, forward, right, back, and completely unaware of what she was doing. In her marinated inner ear this all made perfect sense and I was the one who was behaving strangely, while she stayed upright through the Perfect Storm 2: The Poseidon Adventure.

When my bile retreated I explained that that was some party going on in 207. She blinked in my general direction. I pointed helpfully to the door, which was rattling on its hinges. She followed my direction carefully, tracing the line from my hand all the way to the door, although this was serious multitasking for someone who was experiencing a 7.6 slip in her head. Her date continued to giggle like a dusty corn husk.

She eventually regarded me again. "It just aint right!" She declared, while she went round and round. I had to agree. "It just aint right!" She declared again for the first time. Again I could make no argument. She then pointed toward the door, but this was a mistake. Her careful car crash of balance had been upset by the sudden weight shift of raising her arm, and she began to lurch slowly out of control. "Drama just breeds drama!" she offered, which I could not protest, or even make sense of.

Her overcompensating inner ear now caused her to employ her last weapon in her war on gravity. She raised a foot to find her balance, but that only served to move her interior party Southwards. She took another step, still jerking and weaving. The Bride of Frankenstein gets boogie fever at the Ice Capades.

The Samoa Cookhouse. Not Pictured: The Dungeon.
She passed me in the hall, bouncing off of both walls in the process. She nailed her date however, peeling him from his careful clutch of our doorframe, and causing him to likewise have a running gun battle with gravity. They disappeared around a corner, careening off of each other and the hall walls like two pickled pinballs. Tomorrow’s leaders!

I listened to the world’s most boring blowout for a while longer and decided that they didn't even deserve to be busted up. I would not certify their party until I heard a punch land, the window open, something break, or an orgasm. Nothing doing. All talk and no action. I went back to bed, put in ear plugs, and pitied this new generation.

Day 5

The next morning we packed - LOUDLY. And we couldn't help it if our luggage bounced off our common wall a few times. "Oops. SORRY!!" We left a large tip for the maid, with a note thanking her for cleaning up our neighbor’s room. We then checked out with a very tired looking hotel manager. I mentioned the party. She looked sympathetic and asked: "Which one? What floor were you on?" So I left it at that.

If. You. Dare!
I was in too good a mood anyway. Why? That morning we were driving all the way to Samoa to have the coolest breakfast in the world. Now driving to Samoa may seem impossible, even if you have downed 60 beers the night before. But here it is not only possible, it is a bona fide claim to fame. The Samoa Cookhouse is located on a small spit of land between Arcata and Eureka, and across Eureka bay from both. It is the sole surviving lumber company cook house on the West Coast, and the experience is not to be missed.

What’s so cool? The disregard and lack of choices. Like typical suburbanites we will happily give our disposable income to someone who will dominate us. It’s the ultimate thrill for the Me First generation to be told You Last. At the Samoa cookhouse all the food is good, and that’s fortunate because you have no say in what you get.

Your waitperson waves you in the direction of the long row tables and benches, announces what they're making that day, sets down platters of steaming grease and carbs, and disappears. Orange Juice? Here's a pitcher for you. Coffee? Here's a pot. Cream and sugar? Get real. You wave if you want more food.

And your bill is the shortest receipt you will ever see. The number of people in your party and whatever meal you arrived for. So, "2B" in our case. Options? Fuggedaboudit. Comments? Don't make me laugh. The coffee? Abysmal. The food? Absolutely delicious. The atmosphere: Impersonal indifference. They should add a dungeon - make a fortune.

Ah, but we had run out of North, and would soon lose the coast as well. Having spent four lazy days driving up the coast at a pace a vulture could follow, we now had only two days to get home. And we were not out of the woods yet, even as we headed back into them. The Shadow o'er the North Coast would follow us, and the monster would rise again......

Dubious.
We were a bit giddy that day from the lack of sleep. And we had come through the fires of a teenage drinking binge with a new perspective on our journey. We realized, in the cold light of decent coffee we bought in Eureka, that we were tourists. And here, on the outer rim of our path, the extreme apogee of our orbit, we were okay with that.

And that meant a detour. The 101 will quickly speed you back to the Bay, but for those with a little time to kill, a sense of adventure, and no shame, there is a parallel road through the redwoods. The old highway crosses and recrosses the imperious interstate, never losing touch with today, even as it celebrates the past. And the past of any highway, be it route 66, Interstate 4 outside Disney World, or the Avenue of the Giants that we were on, means kitsch.

Enormous signs promising exotic wonders, dubious museums, and everything for the traveler (if by everything, you need only a postcard, an ATM and a bathroom). But we bypassed all of that. We were focused. Intent. We had a mission, and would not be sidetracked by tacky frivolity and dusty bunting. The hand painted signs trimmed in Christmas lights could not weaken our resolve: "See the Treehouse of Mystery!" "Tour the branch - of Death!" "Check it out: my hamster does back flips!" No, no and again, no. We would not be satisfied until we had achieved the ultimate car trip badge of honor: driving your car through a tree.

You gotta do it. As Americans we have no history or culture - we're still too young a nation. We have no Stonehenge, no Machu Picchu, no Mecca. Our claim to fame is simply to make something out of nothing and get people to pay money for it. That's what democracy is all about. So it is our duty as Americans to celebrate our mongrel heritage. We'll never ritually bathe in the Ganges. We'll never pray at the black mosque in Mecca. We'll never be gunned down at the Western Wall in Old Jerusalem. But we CAN fork over a few bucks to drive through a tree. Let Freedom ring!

Drive-Thru-Tree #1: The Cheaper one.
And, as luck would have it, we did it from the right direction. See, the other great thing about democracy is that once you find some scam that people will actually buy, your neighbor down the road is going to steal your idea and undercut you.

So there are TWO drive through trees on the Avenue of the Giants, one at each end. And the one to the North, the one we braved first, is definitely the weaker of the two. But, it’s cheaper at $1.50 a person, so there you go.

The more Southerly tree ($5.00 a car load) is also a park, lake, RV camp, and surprise surprise; a gift shop! Imagine the view for the cashier: Fridge magnets, T-Shirts, pens with a floating car that moves through the tree, and every time you look up you see the humiliated Sequoia with an endless line of smog belching cars eager to violate it.

There is no greater symbol of our great nation. It should be on our currency somewhere. Put the drive-through-tree on the back, and President McKinley on the front, with a bullet hole and pigeon poop.

After that it was a sling shot back to the bay. In fact it was too quick coming back. We had two days to get back and an appointment in Oakland on the second afternoon, so we had to find a place to kill some time. A place where there are lots of motel rooms and maybe even a hot tub. So we tacked left and headed for Napa Valley. We stopped at the little town of Calistoga, to take the waters. In the hot tub in our motel room actually, as we were still too shy to be around too many other people.
Drive-Thru-Tree #2. The Nicer ($$) one.

But in two weeks, when Memorial Day hit, the serious crowds would be here in droves, in waves, in trains, and in enormous buses with enormous seats. People come from all over the world to this region to partake in liberal doses of a mild narcotic, (alcohol), explore their bodies (massage, mud baths) and be completely lazy. And no one raises an eyebrow. But when their shaggy kids up in Humboldt take mild drugs, explore each others bodies and sit on their asses doing nothing they are arrested, expelled, and vilified as the moral ruin of our nation.

Arcatans take pride in their Humboldt Crabs, who play in a great minor league baseball park right downtown. And how many towns have a sewer system that people picnic at? But in Calistoga the front page story of the daily paper that day was how Napa Valley should literally brand itself, streamline the tourist trade and "Unify the Winery experience" so as to attract the "right" kinds of people. Avarice and hypocrisy, bottled right on the premises and drop-shipped to your town.  Go Crabs! I suddenly knew why the graduation party up in Arcata was such a downer. And why drugs, legal or otherwise, liquid or otherwise, will always be popular.

We had a lovely dinner that night in downtown Calistoga, taking a booth near the TV above the bar. During commercials in the Giants game we listened to crocked moms and grandmothers flirt outrageously with the unbelievably homosexual bartender. This place could get depressing. Or maybe we're just not the right kind of people. Man, I need a drink. Naaaah.

Day 6

Next morning we killed some more time by lounging in our rooms hot tub and then we moved all the way over to the motels outdoor hot tub. Because if it’s one thing Napa valley has, besides overweight and undersexed middle-aged women, its hot water. Even our shower was straight from the geyser, which meant that every few minutes it would suddenly shoot out in hurricane force and rise to 8 million degrees.

No matter though. Refreshed, relaxed, massaged, hydrated, and blissfully free of crowds, we were ready to sail on home in the humming hybrid, which, after 600 miles was finally needing gas.

Just barely visible: Kitsch.
Oh, but there was one more errand. Serene and calm after our relaxing vacation, we strolled into the Oakland Coliseum for a Yankees/A's game. And we were surrounded, inundated, overwhelmed by 45,000 fanatics whose collective blood alcohol content could cause the entire stadium to be pulled over for a DUI.

The alcoholic continuum then is only 90 minutes long. 90 minutes from the gentile wine buzz of Calistoga to the Black Hole section of the Oakland Raiders endzone, where colorful partisans dress up like cardboard biker/pirates and drink rum like Puerto Rico is sinking. And even though this was baseball and not football, if you squint your eyes you could nonetheless imagine that you were in the endzone with these felons, or perhaps the Attica uprising, or maybe just an explosion at the Budweiser factory.

There are several reasons why we follow the Giants more than the A's, and they are the same reasons why it is so easy to get cheap tickets to A's games. The fellow behind us had a voice like a lifelong Yankee fan from Yonkers, which he was. On the first pitch he let loose with a war-whoop that blew all the condiments off my hot dog. He downed a 20 oz. beer every inning, which is impressive because the Coliseum stops selling beer after the 7th. And he was just one of thousands upon thousands of Friday night berserker idiots. We left before the finish, deaf from cheers, spooked by the boozy mob, and smelling like mustard and pickle relish.

Poe, King, Lovecraft and George A. Romero would have fled the scene long before, because the human imagination can conjour no greater monster than demon alcohol. We met the monster in Arcata, where it was too pathetic to fight, in Calistoga, where it was too establishment to be noticed, and in Oakland, where it was too awesome to confront.

And what is truly terrible, and what had the masters of horror squealing tires out of the parking lot, is this: We are the monster. We have met the enemy, and he is us, with an empty 12-pack carton on our heads. Lounging in the hot tub in the morning, dowsed with cheap, domestic beer in the evening. Welcome back to humanity.

And for just a moment I thought I saw the seagulls that circle the stadium turn into vultures. And they were laughing, maniacally, at all of us.

Angus McMahan
angusmcmahan@gmail.com
#AngusMcMahan


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