Posts Tagged 'northern california'

The Keeper, Yuba River Character Study

Didn't take a picture of The Keeper. Though he apparently doesn't mind. So here's a Flickr photo instead

He stood like a masthead on the wooden deck and yowled at the river.

His shirt flapped open in the breeze. The stomach was hard, muscles like little knots and skin tough as old leather. Cargo pants and sandals, not-quite-Birkenstocks. Eyes as spooky-clear and sharp as the river water, blazing from behind a scraggle of hair: shoulder-length gray and a light-socket beard that seemed reminiscent of those old miner photos, made you wonder if he wasn’t the descendant of some wayward band of them, a man born into the wrong era, or the last living vestige of an era that’s dying, been dying, might already be dead.

“He’s a dyin bread, for sure,” Alicia said as we tromped over the dirt path, stepping sideways so our worn old sneakers wouldn’t skid us into patches of poison oak. “Like a real-life troll gate keeper.”

Backpacks and coolers and limp plastic flotation devices—we were rolling 22-deep, a smattering of tattoos and a trail of cigarette smoke rode up from Oakland for an annual camping trip.

I could glimpse the river from the path: slick green between these flat, broad boulders, like a long line of really crooked molars. It was hot—Northern California hot, which isn’t really that hot—and each spot I saw along that Yuba River looked perfect, picturesque, a postcard of Sierra-Foothills pristine.

“The best spot is further down,” Chummy called back. “But we gotta to pay The Keeper.” And he smiled at the joke and people called out “Keeee-per” and we laughed.

“It’s the OG dude,” they’d explained, “that’s got one of the best swimming spots on the river on his property. There’s a fence and shit, a sign telling you you’re on private property, but you keep walking down and you get to this shack he built down there, where he lives and is always kinda hanging out. And you give him a couple beers or some weed or something, and listen to him talk for awhile, and he lets you pass.”

“I once took a photo of him,” Matt had said, “that I was gonna mail him, to some PO Box he’s got somewhere. I never did,” shrugged, “but he wrote the address down on one of those discharge papers they give you in jail—you know, we’re they’ve written down everything you have in your pockets and shit. It was all like: ‘$1.17 in change, a bus ticket, a pint of gin…’ Homeboy’d just gotten out of the drunk tank like the night before.”

“That guy is cool as shit,” Moe’d added, grinning. “The Keeper.”

And we tromped and skidded down, and sure enough: a wooden shack and the sharp glare off a tin roof and a gang of chickens clucking and a grizzlied old man standing in a semi-squat hollering at it all.

It seemed like a continuous stream of somewhat-intelligible drunk babble that we’d happened to walk in on—I could imagine him going on and on, with or without an audience, talking to himself and the chickens and the rocks and the river that didn’t ever stop flowing either.

“See that there,” pointed to a little fenced-in patch of green, “I call that My Feeble Attempt To Grow Something,” and yowled in laughter. A rooster yodeled back, as though in response. “Here you can hear the roosters crow all day long, yep. I been here, watching this tryin to grow—” pointed at the green again “—and haven’t left in damn near three weeks. Just had some people passin through to give me a few beers and some LSD from time to time and that’s all I need to live, you know what I’m sayin?”

Sadie opened her bag and handed him a few cold beers.

“Well alright, alright,” The Keeper said, nodding. “You are officially no longer tourists, you are guests, welcome. The only rules are that you bring back your cans and that you remember to come back, cause—” a pause here “—if you didn’t, it’d break my heart.”

“Yessir!”

“Keep coming back, it works!” The Keeper called out and laughed as we shuffled by. “And be careful on the rocks, watch your step—these are the most difficult steps you might take. Twelve steps, my own twelve steps,” and howled again in laughter, a not-quite-crazy kind of laughter that got swallowed by the rocks and the river and passing of the river, as we marched on to our swimming spot.

If No Man Is An Island…

Alcatraz Night Tour—wandering around the haunted empty of an old institution, relighted and relabeled, black signs with white letters. All hard lines and sparse materials—cement and steel—littered with the footsteps of tourists, the little echoes we carry in our shoes and our voices and, in some of us, our hearts.

Because you live here, you’d never done it—because there was always some other chance, some other day, any day, it turned into no day, never. So when Nick said he was going to Alcatraz, fuck it, you said you were going too.

So you roved, like everyone else roved, wearing your headset and listening to the gravely voiced narrator of the audio tour, a well-cast choice by any measure. Former prison guards and inmates read their recollections, giving the tour more weight, more significance than it would have otherwise had.

You stopped in front of the steel doors to the solitary confinement cell, and listened to the weathered voices recall what they’d done to wait out the time in the blackness:

But if you would close your eyes—like right now, close your eyes, seal your eyes off with your hand—with a little concentration, you can see a light. And pretty soon that light will get brighter. And you’ve gotta concentrate on it—not a short while; it takes time and practice—but pretty soon you can almost put your own TV there, and you can see things and you can go on trips—and that’s what I did.

And it was an echo, the sound of a memory reverberating from some place inside. It was a night you’d stored away: summer, warm, the window open, the leaves cutting the streetlight into a thousand broken, dancing pieces. He laid on his side, held you under his arm, and you said you couldn’t sleep.

“Let me show you a trick.” And he said it softly—strangely soft, you’d thought, the way we’d whispered as kids in our hiding places, the places only children can fit.

“I used to do this when I was little, when I couldn’t sleep.” He rolled onto his back. “You put your thumbs against your eyes—you’ve got them there?—and you push. Not hard, but not light either. And keep pushing; don’t stop.”

You didn’t. You didn’t stop pushing.

“And eventually you see it.”

“See what?”

“Lights. Shapes. Anything. You go on a trip.”

And he got real quiet, and you listened—listened to the horrible silence and waited for your own show, your own little light parade. You saw only faint traces, dim colors, a couple gray buzzing lights.

He rolled back on his side, towards you. “Where did you go?”

You looked down, ashamed, though you weren’t sure why. “I don’t know. I don’t think I went anywhere.”

And he didn’t say anything, just traced your belly with the tips of his fingers—the fullest part of your belly, the part you hate and pinch and suck in in front of the mirror—and you felt so fucking lonely you thought you might die, that some part of you might die.

And it was the same feeling, standing there, alone with your headset in a silent group of wanderers. Like being a tourist in someone else’s loneliness—or rather, the ruins of someone else’s loneliness, what was left after the guards had gone and the light—now strange and harsh—had returned. Listening to their tricks, the little games they played (Your dad telling you, “Sometimes I’d bite the inside of my cheek, slowly, until it’d start bleeding and I’d play with it.”)—the ways they’d learn to escape, if only for a moment, into some place so deep inside that some piece, it seemed, never came back.

You blinked. You pushed the rewind button and the voice stuttered, restarted, and you listened again. And it was his voice, inside this other voice, and you remembered how you’d put it in a poem—or, you’d tried to put it in a poem, but it’d never amounted to anything, never quite fit, a parenthetical metaphor you weren’t quite sure related, or how it related, until right now, here, under the institutional glare of a tourist attraction, Alcatraz.

You half-smiled—what else was there to do?—and continued on with the tour, walked through the door in the steel bars into another emptied room.

Southbound

Fog so heavy

it wept

the dust from my windshield

/

what I’d carried with me,

wore on me,

up and over

a road soggy with night—

always becoming, becoming

just up ahead.

/

So this is driving

across the Golden Gate—

yellow halos,

the swallow of white,

pillars into nothing,

and beyond

the railings—black, black,

the hiss of black

underneath the stereo speakers,

whispering, “this is the end

of the continent”

/

and you can’t even see it.

Dancing in the Fog: Weekend Wedding Part II

Everything grey. Not the soft, floaty kind of grey, but heavy, brooding, impenetrable—like being underwater, like walking through a dream: the landscape all sand and crippled trees, windswept by something that came before you, something you can’t see, some kind of endless passing of which the fog is only a part, only a symptom of a larger sadness—the solitary transience of the Northern California coast.

Destination weddings are fun, because the party doesn’t stop, isn’t confined to six hours in impractical shoes and unforgiving fabrics. And you get to feel like you’ve gotten away, vacationed, traveled. So it’s a two-for. Guests complain about them because they’re more expensive, discreetly accusing hosts of choosing distant locales to limit the guest count. Which could all be well and true, but my first experience at a destination wedding pretty much ruled.

To qualify, it wasn’t much of a destination—a two-hour drive down the Monterey Peninsula to Asilomar, what could have easily been a day trip. But something about it gave me just a taste of travel, a hint, like passing someone smoking a cigarette on the street—not the real thing, but enough of a whiff to remind you of the real thing, evoke some sort of not-so-secret longing you try to muscle through, distract yourself from, most days. Something about the weekend was twinged with longing (for what?), some kind of sickly bittersweet lonely. Maybe it was the fog.

Asilomar is a state beach and rustic conference grounds billed as a “refuge by the sea.” It’s got some history, some charm, some Arts & Crafts style flair. But the conference grounds/hotel was unfortunately bought out by some large hospitality chain in recent months, and the service has gone from homey mom-and-pop to corporate nickel-and-dime-and-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-quality. Whatever. The scenery is still beautiful and the wedding was still awesome.

The weekend started with a Friday afternoon BBQ and wiffle ball tournament that got froze out by the cold. We retreated to the bridesmaid cottage (which was more like a suburban home than a cottage, beige carpeting and all) for epic hanging-outage.

The cool thing about the whole weekend-long aspect of the wedding was that it really gave you a chance to meet people. Not just superficially, but, you know, to bro down. I suppose the destination wedding thing could be hell if you were trapped in some resort with someone’s insane family, but my friends Katie and Steven have pretty awesome friends. They’re scattered around the Bay, LA and NYC; the disparate groups had never really had a chance to meld, so the wedding served as the ultimate meeting (the whole reasoning behind having it be a destination affair). I’ve got a particular affinity for rad, smart, independent girls, and got to meet quite a few of them.

I also got to hang out with some super good old friends, the kind of people that have seen you grow, that you’ve seen grow—who you’ve walked through all sorts of brutal life shit with. The beautiful part is that we’ve managed to come out on the other side, all limbs in tact. (I’ve also got an affinity for survivors.) There’s not so many of us, you know, when it comes right down to it. And getting to hang out with a couple dope old friends that you’ve been through some shit with definitely serves to renew faith, lend some perspective, validate some small feeling inside you that everything might just be okay—almost like a small kind of prayer.

And then there was the dance party.

I like to get down; who doesn’t? But there was something different about this dance party. It wasn’t just the killer music (soul, 80s, old rock ‘n roll), and it wasn’t just the super cool folks. It was fueled by something within, some drive to… escape? That’s not exactly right, but close—a drive to push through a kind of pain, not just an immediate circumstantial sadness (checking the phone for text messages), but the deeper, desperate lonely beneath that (gone, gone, and left me here).

Whatever it was, I let loose like I rarely do, like I was trying to dance my way out of something. I thought of the kids that used to hang out the swimming pool I worked at as a teenager. It was North Oakland, an inner-city environment to say the least, filled with a bunch of little hood rats with nothing better to do than hang around the pool all day. Forget what they say about kids having no worries—a lot of these kids had pretty gnarly home lives. But I used to watch the way they’d play and find some sort of solace in it—the particularly child-like ability to shed all that shit and just play, find some small moment of release amidst the dysfunction and poverty and pain. Almost like a small kind of prayer.

Let’s just say at the end of the night, it was me, a dude who looked like Owen Wilson in Zoolander and danced like a gay stripper, and a ten year old girl who could break dance. Magical.

The next morning was all eggs and syrup and sleeping in. There’d been an after-party, then an after-after-party, and everyone was spent. We staggered around in the dream-like fog, hair half-curled and wearing sweatpants. People bundled up on the beach and ate the remainders of potato salad and cupcakes, wrapped in blankets and sleepiness and the grey, grey sky of California.

Through the Green and Into the Dust

Blogging to you LIVE from the Wigwam Motel in Rialto—my own yellow, cigarette-stenched circle of heaven in the epicenter of strip malls, tract housing and Morrissey fans, the San Bernardino Valley. It’s the perfect place to end the drive down to SoCal, and to begin the journey into the dusty heart of whatever weirdness remains.

I started out on my roadtrip yesterday, sniffling and sore and in a DayQuil daze. I decided to press on with my plans, despite succumbing to a nasty cold that’s been going around, and if it hadn’t been so goddamn beautiful, it might have been painful. Spring arrived a couple days ago, with that certain lightness that makes everything seem young and hopeful and achingly pure. The coast was lit green by months of El Nino storms, a verdancy that’s rare in California. I twisted and turned on the skinny roads, blasting my stereo over the roar of wind through the rattlingly cracked windows.

I stopped in Big Sur, where I hadn’t been since I was a kid. I’d remembered it being so far away from home, which I suppose it is, but only if you measure in culture, not in miles. It was just as massively impressive as I’d remembered, with broad trees and heartbreaking cliffs and not too many tourists, being early in the year. I’d been too groggy to stop for a sandwich on the way out of town, so I pulled into Nepenthe, purported to be one of the better of Big Sur’s overpriced coastal cafes. Glorified Wonderbread, browned and soggy lettuce, and $20 later, I decided that eating a $7 sandwich from home of the hood of my car at some pretty vista point would have been a far preferable experience. Whatever—it’s Big Sur. You can’t stay disappointed that long.

Feeling a little pepped up, I tried to do a quick hike, but discovered that a lot of the trails are currently closed due to the pummeling storms this year. So I tromped down a little coastal path, with bickering families and friendly Germans, aptly named Overlook Trail. It overlooks this:

and I felt pretty satisfied.

Back on the road, the coast got twistier, the pavement rougher, as I made my way down to San Luis Obispo. It’s a pretty typical California college town, with one major draw—one of the region’s few youth hostels. I grabbed a cheap bunk at Hostel Obispo, a cute old Victorian house, and took a leisurely stroll down to “Downtown,” which is really more of a high-end outdoor mall.

meeeeeat!

Traveling within the US is a novelty for me, and it comes with a couple major benefits, one of which is the use of my iPhone (far too expensive to use abroad). While the Cheap Gas and Public Restroom Finder apps have proven utterly disappointing, my old favorites are definitely coming through: Google maps and Yelp. I wanted to eat somewhere popular, that would give me a good feel for the town, and ended up at the Firestone Grill. It’s a BBQ joint heavy on portions and easy on the pocketbook, which makes sense in a college town. It was alright, about twice as good and half as much as my lunch—but 419 reviews? Then I passed the newly opened Chipotle, with a line literally out the door, and realized maybe, you know, I had had some of the best food in town.

I strolled around the town some more, filled with dudes in flip flops and girls in work-out clothes and pony-tails. It felt wholesome and relaxed—even the local riffraff felt quaint, in their barefoot belligerence. Everything felt cheerful and hopeful, like springtime and college students. I topped off the night with a much-needed soak in a hot tub at Sycamore Mineral Springs, a 12 minute drive from San Luis Obispo. My achy bones and sinus congestion thanked me.

This morning I backtracked to Montana de Oro State Park, for a little fresh air and strolling. Curving down a two-lane road, I went past coastal hills covered in purple and yellow wildflowers, orange explosions of poppies against the green green of the hills. The road took me into a tangle of eucalyptus trees; I pulled over where a bunch of cars were parked and scurried down a dirt path into a grove of trees.

The light cut through the leaves and branches and ocean mist in this dream-like haze, and all I could hear where birds and surf crashing. Over a hill and through a miniature valley (where a pelican glided past just as I rounded the corner), and I found myself at a surfer spot. I hung around a bit, sitting on the rocks and watching the waves and wet suits.

I headed back, this time inland on the 101, where flowers and green continued to line my journey. At home, I’m an impatient and cranky driver—I hate traffic, parking, street sweeping. Always an impediment to where I’m trying to go, what I’m trying to do. But driving down the coast, with my music playing and my broken skeleton doll dangling from the rearview mirror, I could let go and just go with the rhythms of the road. There was little traffic, just fresh air and beauty and my own wordless thoughts. The road was the place I was trying to go.

The roadside kitsch of Pea Soup Anderson’s was too much to pass up, so I made another stop—plus the soup felt good on my sore throat. Then I went to do a little un-urban exploring, swishing through thigh-high grass to poke around an abandoned diner I’d spotted from the highway. I peered through the windows at the stacked chairs, the silent booths, feeling a strange kind of nostalgia for a place I’d never been.

Things were starting to get cool.

As luck (or unluck) would have it, my iPod died just as I was cruising past Santa Barbara, so I pulled off to find a cafe. It’s hard not to feel alienated in a town like Santa Barbara, wealthy and white and homogenized and nice. Very very  nice. It’s the kind of place that feeds all your Southern California stereotypes, both the good ones—sun and long, tan legs—and the bad ones—everything else.

I got back on the highway just in time for rush hour. The green gave way to brown and billboards, the ocean mist to heat and just a thin layer of smog, the free flowing to break lights and miles of congestion. My 2 hour drive took 3 1/2. I climbed over the spine of LA, snuck around the backside, through one valley and into another. And finally pulled into the Wigwam Motel. It’s not as run-down as they say, the area not as “rough” as some reviews claimed. It’s a working class “ethnic” suburb and, hey, I’ll take that over a wealthy brofest any day. Even if it is damn hard to find a salad.

Blurry, but it does say "Get Your Kicks on Route 66." A better photo by daylight tomorrow.

So I’ve made it, my little car and me, crawling down the lip of the continent, down through the legendary beauty of coastal California, made more ridiculous by the green and tender spring. I’ve gotten reminded of what I already know of Southern California—bros and traffic—and am poised to head into the desert tomorrow. Found art, a rock n roll pilgrimage (and human cremation) site, and a honky tonk await. And that’s just tomorrow.


Lauren Quinn is a writer and traveler currently living in Hanoi. Lonely Girl Travels was a blog of her sola travels and expat living from 2009 to 2012. She resides elsewhere on the internet now.

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