Walk with Me…

…while I wait in line at the SFO airport.
What do you get when you reserve a rental car from the cheapest vendor available?

We wait in line for two hours while folks with reservations haggle over rental options, and those potential clients devoid of due diligence, argue, some sob, finding out they’ve waiting in line in vain, temporarily stranded in South San Francisco.

My two hours of torture is up. At the counter, I wade through the horrors of the client agreement: The tolls, pre- paid gas where the fuel option is twice the amount of any other state.

And finally the damage waiver.

Although I’ve waited two hours to decline everything, I’m horrified by the stories of superficial damage due to parallel parking, and the fact that parking anywhere in the city is a risk. And that is on top of the wildfires that rage across the state. The current one, just north of here, the largest and most devastating in US history.

I’ve realized, within the five minute conversation, that, like any village on the cliff edge, you’re paying top dollar to walk on soon to be extinct lands.
And you’re insuring yourself and your immediate surroundings just in case you become a part of that extinction.
I do not decline the damage waiver. In fear.
My Insurance becomes double what we paid for the rental.

The Judas Goat.

‘What’s up you fucking Judas Goat?’
I weave through traffic back to the terminal to pick up Steve. As with the dozen trips before this, every pick up from luggage is initiated by some meaningless insult towards me.
‘How was the flight?’ I ask.
‘Dude, you’re in the wrong turn lane.’

I’ll spend the next six days travelling up and down the California Coast. Driving in the slow lane, missing turns, heading the wrong direction from spacing out.

This was nothing new to me in my personal, daily struggle with meandering my home commute, in addition to battling general anxiety and the high blood pressure that accompanies it.

But with Steve as navigator, this ineptitude would drive him crazy.
Driving up US-1 through San Francisco in 5’o’clock traffic entails gridlock, the inching towards each light hoping you don’t get stalled in the intersection. Once finally out beyond the city-scape, The Golden Gate Bridge, the weaving through the NorCal hills and into the desert, past the prisons positioned purposefully in solitude.
Here we head to Yuba City, inching closer to that historic fire.

This is just the beginning of our road trip.

And given the circumstances, I begin to think that maybe Steve’s whimsical jab is some sort of roundabout prophecy: A van wreck, possibly turning too wide on a mountain pass lacking a railing, running a red light, a blown out tire.

I’m in command of a group of friends, leading the charge to fun.
But my terrible driving is coming into full perspective, and I’m starting to harness the possibility that this road trip, like any, where I chauffer a posse of friends, could lead to our demise.

Maybe I really am the Judas Goat?

The waffle iron…

…is a staple at motels in towns like these. Within the selection of run down desert ‘lodges’ to hang your hoodie for the night, the option of a manual waffle iron for breakfast mostly seals the deal.
Unlike the bagel, or the combining of milk with cereal, the intimacy of the waffle iron is an indicator of a productive day. Dripping the right amount of batter. Being cognizant of the time, where too little equals too mushy, too much and you’re swallowing carcinogens. And then there is the correct amount of syrup drizzle. To each his own, depending on what and how much that person drank the night before.

Sipping a cup of coffee, I watch those in line inch patiently towards the iron as if taking their morning communion.
Steve and I notice a man at the head holding up the breakfast queue.
As we look over, starting from his two mismatched shoes, going up to his shorts in sub forties weather, we notice that in his back pocket is an extremely large crescent wrench. One that you’d use to tighten an oversized pipe fitting.
He stands in front of the waffle iron, and in extended detail, cooks his waffle, waiting for just the right crispness.

‘Sir, are you a guest here?’
The motel manager approaches, questioning his extended stay in line.
She’s tiny, standing as if in the shadow of this unwelcome guest.
Having been caught, he makes his way towards the lobby. On his way out, he leans over to Steve and I.
‘Morning guys…can you snag that waffle for me when
it’s done?’

In the oasis…

…you run into folks who’ve moved here for the military. If not for their own careers, the career of a relative.
I find out that the adjacent Air Force Base was central command for the U.S.’s lineage of spy aircraft. During the beginning of the Cold War, it harbored the U-2. Later, the SR-71 Blackbird.
As a child, I was enamored with those engineering miracles, so my ears naturally perked in conversation when a local filled me in:
‘The SR-71 was made out of some sort of porous material. When it flew at incredibly high speeds, the metal would heat up, stretch, and seal the fuel tanks.
But when sitting at the airfield, fuel would leak through the gaps in the skin, leaving a puddle below it’s belly.’
The wind kicks up, here in the low desert, the temperature plummets.
And in the distance, a scorched fog slowly rolls in. Fingerlets of the wild fire.
I began to worry, just a bit.
The thought of a nearby puddle of volatile rocket fuel didn’t help.
The pause allows for our conversation to switch subjects. In our new thread, I learn that in his adolescents, out of utter boredom, he decided to learn German.

Now, he’s completely fluent.

I’m taken aback by his obscure engineering knowledge, and even more so in revealing his complete grasp of a foreign language.
Embarrassed by my own ineptitude, I hide the sentiment by asking him in this parking lot of a Korean Cafe that prepares American style hamburgers: ‘In German, how do you say ‘˜there is sauerkraut in my lederhosen’?’

Motel Blues.

Smoke envelopes the pine trees as we wait in line to collect keys for our reserved motel rooms. We’re not sure if it’s the smoke, or if the clerk is simply a fledgling at managing the hundred or so rooms occupied by a mix of weary, choked out travellers and kooks.
From beside the office, a woman appears with two leashed labrador retrievers. The chocolate one sits idle, as the tan one heads for Steve, her nose targeting his feet.
‘Oh, excuse us…’ the woman says.
Steve steps back.
‘Don’t worry, she’s friendly, and she won’t sniff crotches…
…she lifts crotches.’

Thirteen is always an unlucky number.

On this trip, I’ve left it up to everyone else to decide on where we eat.
Off of I-80, we take a break in the evening, and pull over into a shopping plaza. Stereotypic in driving across the U.S., each has a sandwich shop, a Chinese Restaurant, and one of a selection of low-budget hamburger joints.
This one is an anomaly, where, somehow in the middle of the desert, a southern BBQ joint has found itself a home. As the crew chooses, I stake out my options, which have been limited to another Tex-Mex Restaurant. A choice that is reserved for desperate times as a lifelong, strict vegetarian.
I go against my gut and order three burritos. Each, a tortilla, refried beans and no cheese. Years ago, I renamed them bean logs.
Knowing the outcome, I stubbornly refuse to learn from past mistakes when, days later, this fast food has become my default.
Thirteen total by the end of the trip.
I see less and less people in my van.
The businessman who will sit next to me on the 5 hour
flight home will pretend like he wasn’t covering his nose.

To the Lighthouse.

I had a difficult time getting through Virginia Woolf’s Novel, To the Lighthouse. It’s been twenty odd years ago.

I understood why it was monumental, her writing style, fluid and poetic.
Maybe my reservations were in the subtle theme of Flux, perspiring from each page.
I unknowingly absorbed it, yet was unaffected as I felt my life, at that point, was simply gliding through the motions, devoid of e-motion.
But as I get older, flux has transcended into the physical. I’m balding. I’ve noticed bags starting to form under my eyes. My lower back aches every morning when I wake.
Flux is something I’ve begun to truly fear.

To the Lighthouse. It stands there in our peripheral vision, erect, at the end of this ragged peninsula. We’ve come here to carve a couple wall rides, cutting through the chipped asphalt, hoping to not wash out in the fine sugar sand.
Today, I feel twenty again. And as I hit the wall, at medium speed, the result is a mediocre height.
So I try again, a little faster.
The lip throws me nose heavy, my feet slip off the pedals and I begin to fall head first over my bars. Ejections like this are so much like watching an action movie at home, where, in real time with a remote, you can switch to observational slow motion.
That gift, having done it for so many years, gave me the ability to toss both of my hands in front of me as I made contact with the cement.
Hands first, both knees follow.
A dust cloud erupts from the dried out path.

Pulling my hands up to my face and flipping them over, I’ve suffered deep gouges in each palm. Layers of skin are folded outward, as if tank steel had been penetrated by a mortar.
Blood pools. My bones ache. It takes me much longer to reset.
‘Ah shit, man…’ Steve walks up, looking at my palms. ‘It’s a double stigmata.’

The Arborist…

…sheds light on this Redwood Grove. The city designated the area a public park where a pump track weaves through hundred year old trees. Next to it, a graveyard climbs the hill dating back to the mid 19th century.
The night before, the arborist threw us a bonfire at his place and prepared an incredibly large dinner for our caravan which has now hit a dozen bodies.
Among the fire, we talk about the old growth Redwood bead board that lines the framework of his house.
We talk about his chicken coop, and his prized blind chicken named ‘Helen.’
We talk about the hawk that preys upon them, perched above on the neighbors roof during the day.
We talk trees.

Today, at the pump track, is our trip’s farewell. The friends we’ve collected while on the road all converge here for one last session together.
Standing in the shadows of the Redwoods, the arborist and I pick up from where we left off the night before.
He points to a section of the park, home to a stand of diminutive Dawn Redwood trees. They are a smaller, deciduous cousin of the famous coastals.
He points out numerous invasive Eucalyptus brought over from Australia. A terrible, volatile tree that can reach up to 200 feet. The arborist tells a story of he and his crew having to remove a downed one recently, which took out power to a whole neighborhood–A job that took 28 hours of straight work.
We talk about Santa Cruz’s city ordinance of protection: Any tree with a 14′ DBH (diameter at breast height) is secured. Leaving most everything in this park spared.
And he tells me about the Bunya Bunya, another Australian import with a large cone that can reach almost fourteen inches wide. The arborist knew of two here in this town. Both he’s helped prune, as their shedding cones can be a mortal liability.

Connecting with folks, creating an instant, tight bond over food and mundane conversations, becomes the heart of road trips like these.

As I look around the grove, the light goes dim, early at 5pm.

And I’m incredibly thankful for these anecdotal experiences, small kernels contributing to the greater cob that provides personal meaning.
Steve passes within a couple feet of our conversation. ‘We ready to start packing up?’ I ask.
‘You guys talking about trees again? He asks.
And before I can respond with any witty rebuttal, Steve beats me to the punch:
‘You Fucking nerds…’

I keep Holding on.

Going down US-1, south out of San Francisco, the smoke from the worst wildfire in history obscures the extensive, sandy beach ending at the Pacific Ocean.
In the surf, dozens of folks on boards get pitted, it’s in the low 50’s, and their resilience extends to the poorest air quality on record in the city by the bay.
We will connect and reconnect to four major highways over the next ten miles as we head towards the airport, weaving a dodging one of the most congested cities in the state of California.
Here, in this urban maze, the events of the past six days kick in.
This is the beginning of the end. The closure of experience.

From this, now, I have to begin to formulate substance into meaning.
.. .
Although it is Wednesday, SFO is mad. The four lanes of traffic into departures are in complete gridlock. And as we’re three lanes removed from curbside, Steve decides to break for it.
Grabbing his backpack, he heads to the trunk to snatch up his large, faux-golf bag disguising his complete bike.
As he heads back, all four lanes of traffic begin to move, instantly making me the roadblock.
‘I’ll see you…’ Steve hollers through the rolled down passenger window. I watch as he lugs his bags across the lanes, where, after a second, my line of vision gets cut off by a man driving a black limousine.
He looks directly at me, furious.
I see his hand come off the steering wheel as he flicks me off, mouthing ‘asshole’ as he drives away within the commuter swarm.
On the radio, Simply Red’s song Holding back the Years starts its refrain.
‘Holding.’ ‘Holding.’ ‘Hold…’
‘…It’s all I have to say, It’s all I have today.’

Proper closure as I twist the radio knob to off.
And, like every road trip before it, these events will be filed away in memory until the time comes when you no longer can.

Check out Steve Crandall’s account of the same story here!

Matt Coplon

Work by day. Ride by evening. Write by night.