Day 2: Big Sur to Salinas to San Francisco to Fort Bragg
Soundtrack: "Me and Bobby McGee" on radio; Pink Floyd, Wish You Were Here; Carmina Burana; Sublime, 40 oz. to Freedom; Violent Femmes
San Francisco put on a show for me. I saw her across the bay, from the great road that bypasses Sausalito and enters the Golden Gate Bridge. The afternoon sun painted her white and gold – rising on her hills like a noble city in a happy dream. A city on hills has it over flat-land places. New York makes its own hills with craning buildings, but this gold and white acropolis rising wave on wave against the blue of the Pacific sky was a stunning thing, a painted thing like a picture of an Italian city which never can have existed.
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley in Search of America
The atmosphere was chill and clammy, shreds of fog hanging in the air as we pulled back onto the Coast Highway out of the tiny picturesque town of Cambria, where there was no room at the inns. The road wound along beside the Pacific, rocky beaches and viewing turnouts drifting in and out of the veils of mist, hills to the right of the highway transilluminated and enshrouded, peaks and treelines flattened to gray cutouts against yellow sky. I pulled off into one viewing area where elephant seals rolled and bellowed on wet sand and woke up Laura, who did a National Lampoon’s Vacation quick take – look, nod, and hurry shivering back to the car.
One of our goals on this trip was to create and re-create peak experiences in sublime landscapes. I remembered the first time I rode through Big Sur in 1974 in a Pontiac convertible with my Iranian boyfriend. We had picked up a hippie hitchhiker who introduced us to Colombian weed. Talk about your double whammy! It made a Disneyland ride of the road from San Simeon to Monterey Bay, with tiny houselights dotting the high canyons as the sun set, each a private universe and refuge. At dawn we awoke on a beach covered with hundreds of intact sand dollars. Naturally, I wanted Laura to have a similar peak experience, so we fired up one of the joints. After a few puffs and much coughing and gagging, I returned the Charlie Lacy commemorative roach holder to the dash compartment and drove merrily along.
Laura found the silhouette of Hearst Castle, backlit by the rising sun and haloed in mists; she nodded off again, dozing through the magnificence of the Coast Highway and Big Sur. I have a vague impression of the road being shorter than I remembered. The magic and colors of my first sunset trip never materialized out of the fog and we pulled into the Salinas town square twenty minutes before the museum was set to open. So much for The Sublime.
In the Steinbeck Center we were thrilled to find the prototype Travels With Charley pickup camper, Rosinante (the name inscribed in flowery script on its flank), with its back doors flung upon provocatively and all the lovely wooden appointments exposed. Steinbeck had a little table in the center of his rig and a seaworthy bunk with storage underneath, all the things to make a vagabond’s heart glad. He kept a fully stocked liquor cabinet that would have got him pulled over for open containers now; he was lucky that gas was so cheap then because the mileage must have been terrible on that big truck. But I had to feel thrilled to attempt his feat, and even though the little HHR seemed puny by comparison, it was another Chevy after all. We took in all the interactive exhibits and I selected a road copy of Travels With Charley that had a sketchy map of the route, drawn by the ever clever Don Freeman. We had bypassed Monterey in favor of Steinbeck’s home town, so the way in to San Francisco lay through Watsonville and San Jose, away from the sublime and hazardous coast road. As Laura slept on, I fumbled north into San Francisco by farm roads and detours through an unmemorable rural landscape.
Laura woke up in time to enjoy crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, a reminder of pride and sorrow to our family. In the 60’s my sisters and I took our first trip to California with our parents in a newly air-conditioned Chevy Bel-Air, visiting the bridge my Uncle Lawrence helped paint orange and touring the Bay with him, his wife Opal, and cousin Eddie. In an itinerary that included Disneyland, the Grand Canyon, and the Painted Desert, San Francisco was the most magical of destinations; I was 14 and used my newly accumulated discretionary income from babysitting to buy an incense burner, coolie hat, and hapi coat in Chinatown. We hiked through the sequoias in Muir Woods and ate blackberries from the vine. I envied cousin Eddie and wished I could stay in California, never go back to Houston, where the weather was miserable in most seasons, and the tedium of suburban life was nearly as stifling as the summer heat.
But a few years later Aunt Opal disappeared and her car was found parked next to the Golden Gate Bridge, a scene straight out of Vertigo. She had been despondent over the failure of her furniture business, and we were never sure what happened to her. Soon after the Summer of Love, cousin Eddie, who taught me to play “North to Alaska” on the accordion and had successfully made the transition to guitar, came in after a gig with his band and was found dead in his bunk bed, leaving Uncle Lawrence with nothing to hold him in Hayward. He returned to Oklahoma to live out his days with Aunt Laura, who had never married and stayed her whole life in the frilly pink room where she grew up.
It may have been the stereotypical Okie’s dream to move to California, but we were always warned away from the dangers of eternal sunshine and the easy life. The family suspected that Opal had jumped from the bridge, though her body was never found. The romantic appeal of jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge has lured thousands over the years to almost certain death; there is no stopping allowed on the way across, but don’t think it didn’t cross my mind, that long way down.
Through the wooded slopes of Marin County and back up the coast we drove into the setting sun, heading for Fort Bragg, where the motels were cheaper than Mendocino but still in walking range of the ocean. As usual, we called ahead and reserved a place where we could swim and get a free breakfast, switching to the AAA Guide for Northern California and pulling out the Oregon/Washington guide for inspiration. Steinbeck’s route out of Monterey was sketchy aside from a cruise through the redwood forests that Woody Guthrie made famous. We were looking forward to Redwoods National Park and our first chance to flash the Eagle pass.
But Laura began complaining of a sore throat, stomach cramps, and shortness of breath, and all her sleeping became a sign that something was wrong. Tetanus? Mono? Meningitis? Like my mother before me, I always feared the worst when anyone was sick. We checked into the Fort Bragg Trade Winds Lodge, but there was no time to enjoy the dining and dancing establishment on the premises, flashing with light and music on the second floor, or even drink the champagne we brought with us.
Following street signs, we groped our way down dark streets to the Mendocino County Hospital and Laura checked into the emergency room, sharing the small facility with a couple of drunks and a screaming crackhead. Otherwise it was a slow night in the ER and I had time to follow the boys On the Road into Mexico. Laura was diagnosed with strep throat and given an antibiotic and a prescription to fill in the morning. Back in the room, we snacked on applesauce and cereal bars out of the cooler, fell asleep listening to the wind off the ocean whistling round the veranda, and dreamed ahead, without the anticipated walk on the beach.