DAY 5 - SAN FRANCISCO
Speaking of kelp, we’re on a beach. The sand is black. Earlier, we’d been reading the local guide in the warmth of our Gualala hotel. It seriously was the best piece of writing I’d read in a long time. I wanted to congratulate the soul who wrote it, for this is how they expressed themselves:
“The ocean is mesmerizing and extraordinarily beautiful, almost hypnotic. But the ocean is also treacherous, bitterly cold, and has awesome power…. Even on the calmest days, a roller of extraordinary size will crash ashore and engulf anyone on the water’s edge.
Never turn your back on the ocean…
If a large wave hits you, drop everything and hang on tight.”
I wondered for a moment what exactly you were supposed to hang on tight to? Sand? From what I remember, sand has a tendency to dissolve through your fingers like a poorly thought out writing career. But onwards…
A few hours later and here we were. At a beach that exhibited this awesome power—the reason to ‘never turn your back on the ocean.’
And Matt ignored it all.
‘What would I do,’ I wondered. ‘If Matt were swept away right now? Would I drop my camera? Would I scream? Would I gesture wildly at the ocean and yell for someone else to save him? Or would I be working on my ‘yeah, I seen it’ speech for when the reporters arrived.’
See, I’d been watching him as he, in childlike fascination, scanned pebbles on the beach and clearly turned his back on the damn ocean! It made me jittery and worried. And stressed.
I know he saw the sign. He pointed it out to me while chuckling at the ‘few survive’ line. I guess he thought that, push come to salt-watery shove, he’d be one of the ‘few’ to survive.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to find out. We all got bored with the sleeper waves and lack of people being swept away to their aquatic deaths, so we jumped in our vehicle and drove off.
We’re on our way to San Francisco. Scene of left-behind hearts, International Orange bridges, and wacky car chases down drunkenly twisted streets. I’m excited to get there. The hands on my watch tick over like the miles on the odometer.
A few hours later and the cold whips around my knee joints as we explore the lookout over the bay bridge. My poor knees. They crackle like a 3-hour-old fire most of the time. Today they seem particularly cantankerous and not very west coast, pot smoking, freebird, laidback at all. If you don’t stop me now, I’m going to throw all my stereotype cards on the table.
Hands bunched in sleeves, I hunch over in the shelter of the Battery, which smells quite a lot like days-old urine fermenting on dirt. I’ve just spent a good 10 minutes taking photos of the bridge in the open air. Wind blowing through corpuscles, through veins, through fluoride-chattering teeth and knotted hair. Through my skeletal foundation it rattles and plays a glockenspiel melody on my ribs.
“Bloody hell, it’s cold!” says Matt.
I know he says this because the sentence blows across the bay and out to Alcatraz right in front of my freckled face. I read it as it flies by.
God the wind! It whistles through my ears and the kettle of my brain cries out ‘get me out of here!’
“Are you done?” I ask. I’m done. I’ve had enough. I can’t take any more photos, and it’s cold as an arctic ice shelf out here. We all hunch-shuffle back to the car. The fog rolls in like a cliché. The Nikon snaps out the window and I shiver a thankful goodbye.
We drive across the bridge in the sniveling, Kleenex-seeking rain, looking for the other end to pull into. We can’t find it. We’re so enamored by a tunnel named after Douglas Macarthur, we drive through it three times. Still, we can’t find the turnoff to the other end of the bridge.
We do find a marina with a clear view to Alcatraz. Scuffing the ground with our touristy, defeated toes, we decide to cut our losses and head off.
But it’s not that simple. Traffic is mucus tight and bronchitis-y. We sit and stare at bumpers and squeezers in. Thumbs twiddle. Rain irritates.
“Why are blinkers orange on the outside of the car, but green on the inside?”
I am both amazed and in awe of Matt’s question. What kind of brain thinks that? It’s the most intelligent, probing question I’ve heard all day. But I guess gridlock brings that out in people. I have no answer. I’m so sideswiped by the question, I can’t even think of an amusing lie to feed the boy.
Even an hour later, when we break free of the traffic chains, I still haven’t thought of anything. I’m losing my touch.
Let’s stop for a minute and examine the theme of the gun. The barrel, long and distinctly toothy-proof. A stickler for truth and a headmaster of accuracy. The stock, angry and thumping, warning you to bolster your shoulder for the temper tantrum of its kick. Then the trigger and ammunition. Tied together but on an eternal blind date. Never to see each other after the consummation, but the smell still lingers. Reminding them of their encounter.
I speak of guns because we’re clacker-barreling down the highway at a rate of Don Knotts, heading for the Winchester Mansion. Gun, thy name is Winchester and you sure dun got dealt a loon. The widow Winchester—she’s one crazy lady, that’s for sure.
Stopping mid-paragraph to consult the brochure, you will observe that crazy Sarah Winchester started work on this mansion after a kooky fortuneteller told her that she had to. She had to move out west and start work on something that could never be finished, in order to pacify the souls killed by Winchester rifles.
The mansion itself is a glorious piece of architectural vomit. One that can only come about from a particularly hard nights’ drinking. The curious aftermath of mixing cocktails, wine and beer.
Mrs. Winchester never knew the intimacy or pleasure of a draftsman’s pencil. Pish posh. Her floor plans were all done by gut. And what a tortured gut it was.
Doors leading to 2 storey drops. Windows in the floor. Stairs leading nowhere. A chimney stopping 12 inches from the ceiling, never to feel an exhalation of smoke.
Screw convention, I say. It’s like Picasso with a building permit and no time limit. Thirty-eight years of continuous construction and it was still never finished.
The tour lasts an hour or so. We trip up stairs two inches high (she couldn’t lift her legs very high it seems). We marvel at the séance room. That every bathroom has a glass door, privacy be dammed! We tut-tut at a very expensive stained glass window that has never been molested by the sun.
Matt, Sergey and me. All gob smacked and amazed. This is so much better than San Francisco. But we must leave. The smell of gunpowder and mothballs tickling our nostrils. Well, the mothballs anyway.
We spend the night in Salinas. In a room that smells like lemon pledge. After a while, it all smells like life anyway.
DAY 6 – LOS ANGELES
Note to self: Avoidance is a dish best served cold.
It’s the last day. A day of drive-by shootings, photographically speaking. Of one hits, then up-up-and-aways again.
The first victim is a Franciscan Mission in San Miguel. I’m sure it would’ve been spectacular to visit if it had not been closed since 2003 due to earthquake damage. The earthquake, as fate would have it, occurred on Matt’s birthday. If it’s a sign, it’s a crappy one. I wanted to see monks.
Monks flaunting brown, rope-tied robes with birdies perched on their shoulders, whispering tweety secrets of eternity and such. Of snakes writhing at their feet in religious ecstasy. Of simple breads made of dirt. Milk from wild armadillo and wine from pure truth. But no. This mission is closed.
My anger evaporates after we partake in some drive-by wine tastings. We are in Sideways movie country.
I’m a passenger in this car, so get nicked with your drunk driving lecture. A body can indulge in the backseat until the gills are overflowing with goodwill and crappy advice. Sadly for me, the liquids ban is still in effect on the damn airplane and there’s no point in buying a bottle of vino, let alone a case.
I console myself with visions of a grateful liver, lighting a candle at the shrine of my sobriety.
Oh, here it comes.
The trip is winding down like a cheap robot bought at a 99c store. I feel it. The gears are grinding and my nerves are twitching with gloom. It’s nearly over. The reality forms like an ugly purple bruise on my arm. Ice will not soothe. Reality is unforgiving.
Soon, I’ll have to go back. Back to work. For six days I’ve not really thought about it. The Blackberry has been silenced by no reception. The emails lost in the air. I almost forget what it’s like to be chained to it. My brain is making preparations to replace the vacation nodes with work nodes. To rewire. To data dump.
I watch out the window. Oil derricks fly by. They sway their arms as though they’re in a giant wheat field waiting to be harvested by a man called Deere.
So many, I am thrown into a James Dean ‘Giant’ kind of world.
This world is flat. Screw Columbus. The world is flat and pasted in broad brushstrokes with multi-colored oil derricks that crunk and suck.
I sit in the backseat and wallow in the ticking down of hours until I board my flight. Squinting through tinted windows.
There are fires now. Chorusing through the mountains as we forge our way through, pioneer-style. Occasionally I see the flames moonwalk on mountaintops. I see helicopters, pregnant with water dangling from their bellies.
We search endlessly for an In-n-Out Burger. Priorities are askew.
“We have to find one,” I say.
It has become very important to me, to experience this distinctly west coast thing. Finally, we find one. Then we eat. This burger, it’s like slathering America on a sesame bun and stuffing it in your gob.
When you smile—cheerleaders in uniform, teenagers fresh from the game, American families—they’re stuck in your teeth for all to see. I don’t want to floss them away.
This is our last meal together. I look at my boys. Six days seems like a lot longer. We laugh together, but I am filled with dread at the parting.
Then we wind further down the highway. Down into LA. Until now, I have only ever seen LAX, but now I have been driven on the arteries of the roads. Not through the heart. Not through the aorta. I’ll leave that for another time.
Of all your escapes, Los Angeles, I have seen both air and road.
Not much to judge a city by.
We pull into LAX and I am thrown out with my bags. Ejected. I try to be stoic. I hug. I thank. I laugh.
Then I watch them peel off into the glaze of the day.
Later, in the bar as I suck down a lager, I realize something and smile that stupid smile that is not doing anything to improve the wrinkles around my eyes. I scribble a thought down.
As I write in pen, I get ink in on my fingers. The bottom of my hand rubs at the sentence I have just written, but it can’t smudge it out.
“Best vacation ever.”
Toodle Noo. Here endeth the missive.
©Janeen McCrae 2006