Archive for the 'Northern California' Category

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.

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Sink, Alameda, Sink

December 9, 2003

“It’s a special kind of anesthetic. So we won’t be putting you completely under—you’ll still be lucid—but you won’t remember anything.”

Paper gown and stirrups, they injected the needle and you didn’t flinch.

You took it as a challenge: remembering.

You stared out of the window—out of the white walls made antiseptically cheerful, away from the faces and charts and the gleaming tray of tools—looked at a pond outside, gray water against gray sky, the geese sitting and splashing and silently honking—no noise, just their beaks moving in the shape of a scream.

The room went away, and the sides became black, tight, squeezing in, like the end of an old-timey cartoon—tunneling, until the whole world became that pond and those geese, trapped there in a December afternoon and a pinhole of consciousness.

And it’s like you weren’t there. You couldn’t see them working, couldn’t feel them working (working on you). You couldn’t hear them—or at least, you couldn’t remember hearing them, maybe a sound floated in here and there, but it didn’t stick to anything, memory like fly paper or that sticky tape the rats get stuck to and sometimes chew their own legs off trying to escape. So in that way, they were right.

You focused on the pond, out the window, struggled against the squeezing black. You fought for that pond, those geese (which now seemed like plastic geese) and you wondered if it was real or man-made—the pond, that is—whether the office park was built up around a marsh, filled in and cemented and paved clean, and the pond had been left there as a charming relic; or if it was added later, an empty lot dredged, a sliver of pastoral idyll amidst the row of generic 60s architecture.

It was man-made, you decided, because this was Alameda and everything was man-made, an entire island of fabrication: unearthly flat, because it wasn’t earth; flat like the Bay, because it was the Bay. Because the Bay moved under the flimsy layers of landfill, murmuring, like a waterbed.

And they’d always said that if a big enough earthquake hit, the whole goddamn island would sink—crack and crumble and get swallowed into the water, because there was nothing solid underneath, just landfill, which you’d always assumed meant trash, like a trash patty, a whole city built on garbage.

And you imagined a big enough earthquake making the water reach up, tear apart all the little everyday cracks—in sidewalks and in the walls of old buildings—reswallowing the place: the office, the pond, the whole island. And you imagined those plastic geese rising up, flying off in a V shaped like an arrowhead, their beaks moving (open, close) in silent honking, which might have been prayers, or might have been screaming.

Because they didn’t need anything solid to exist, or anything unsolid either, but you did, or at least you thought you did—though whether it was the solid earth or the murmuring black underneath, you weren’t sure.

It was pretty fun, you told your mom later—a pretty good drug, all in all. Not one you’d do recreationally, there wasn’t enough of a high, but not bad at blacking out what needed to be blacked out, and keeping in some strange sliver of what didn’t matter, what meant nothing to nothing: the geese and the gray light of the gray afternoon. Which was, after all, all it was meant for.

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.

Boiler Room, Angel Island

Abandoned by time but not escaped from it. Rust and debris, peeling paint and the pages of old magazines, broken glass so old its become smooth. Like some dim chamber of our hearts, we climbed into the boiler room.

Angel Island is full of abandoned buildings, the crumbling concrete and sagging frames of old military structures. A big mound in the middle of the Bay, smack in from the Golden Gate, the island is more than brown grasses and hiking trails. It was a detention center/”immigration station” during the Chinese Exclusionary Act, then an Army Post during World War II, later a missile center. Now it’s a state park, filled with picnicking families, kids on field trips, tourists on Segways.

Summer in San Francisco...

It’s nice to spend a day roaming around, out in the middle of the Bay—packing a sandwich and riding the expensive ferry and taking the long, gentle walk around the perimeter. But what I love most about Angel Island are the abandoned buildings.

Some are open to the public, stairways smashed out so there’s no chance of climbing up into the desolate upper stories. You wander around the ground level, the empty gutted rooms, staring up past the chicken scratch graffiti, wishing you could poke around the dusty remains above, crunch your sneakers through the silence.

Other buildings are fenced off, doors bolted and windows shuttered, large signs warning of the repercussions of trespassing. The grass grows up around these buildings, consuming them; sometimes you catch shadows in the broken windows and they look like your own.

We circumvented a large, fenced-off building, found a spot relatively hidden from the main path. It’d been a long time since I’d hopped a fence, wedged my toes between chainlink and landed ankle-sharp with a laugh.

We tiptoed towards the building.

The boiler room. Heavy, huffing machinery now silent, steamless, bellies swollen with the memory of a howl. Old basins and the criss-cross of empty pipes, useless and buckled. Nameless parts of an old operation. A map on the wall of where tools once hung.

We crunched around, slats of wood and indistinguishable debris, the flattened beer cans of some lost era. There’s something about crumbling places that make you whisper, a kind of reverence—not just for what has passed, but what has remained, aged and weathered and somehow still standing.

It reminds you of your own ragged heart, those places you’ve closed off, chained off, boarded up and shut. But they’re still there—forgotten, maybe, but not empty, bloodless pipes waiting, dreaming of steam.

And sometimes, something goes traipsing on in there, flicking lighters and echoing voices and leaving new footprints, in a place you swore no new footprints could go. A place you swore was sealed shut and secretly dying.

We trespassed into the abandoned boiler room, then stepped back out into the dim squint of a fog-heavy noon—our lives.

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.

Garlic, Goodness and Fog: Weekend Wedding, Part I

Like a line, pencil-drawn, like someone had sliced the sky in half: where the blue stopped and the fog began. We drove beneath the division, up the curve of coastal mountains, and into the gray like a tunnel. The windows dimmed and the road darkened.

We’d entered our weekend: a summer wedding on the California coast.

Ain’t no sunshine. Hardly ever. The final wedding of my summer of love (other people’s love, that is—5 wedding invitations!) was a destination wedding at Asilomar, a state beach conference/retreat center near Monterey. Which meant that no matter what the rest of the state was cooking in, we were wrapped in an impenetrable blanket of fog all weekend.

The 101 had been hot, pink forearms and moaning wind. Gabe and I hadn’t had the chance to really catch up in a couple years, and there was a lot to talk about: dating and work, sickness and family, the little turns our lives had taken, as though our roads were getting clearer, more defined: yellower lines and harder asphalt. He played me his new band’s demo (“crust/doom metal from the woods of Northern California”) and we fell into that comfortable quiet of old friends.

Then I felt it stir in me.

Which was funny, because I was only driving 2 hours away for a wedding. But it was there, undeniably: the sleeping beast in me, rolling over in its nocturnal slumber—the traveler.

I don’t really know when it will strike in me—or rather, when something will strike it in me. My whole last trip, that sense of adventure and curiosity and freedom that I live for was never ignited. I never got to that mindset. But something about that highway, something about the light and the wind and the road arching up over the brown, brown hills, stirred up the traveler in me.

It’s like a meditation, traveling. I stop worrying, I stop planning, I stop thinking. I forget myself and I just experience. I get a place where I’m okay, deeply and wholly okay, and I can just sit and listen to the world humming, feel it reverberate in my own chest, like a bass line or a very small bird. I can’t do it, can’t get there, sitting crosslegged in my bedroom—the only way I’ve ever gotten to that place is traveling.

And something about that drive, something about sitting there with a dear old friend and thinking about the way our lives have taken shape, got me to that place, there—just for a moment, just for a breath. Which is all it ever really is, all you can ever hope for.

And then it smelled like garlic.

And I mean garlic. Weren’t no vampires in these parts. We were driving through Gilroy, an agricultural town filled with cherry stands and artichoke carts and tons of kitschy garlic-themed restaurants and shoppes. Every year they have a massive garlic festival; I’ve been hearing about it my whole life, and had never gone.

Gabe and I turned to each other and nodded. “On the way back?”

“Shit yeah.”

And then we entered the brooding gray of our weekend.


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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