Archive for the 'California' Category



Living With Vampires

It’s vampire season in Oakland.

We sit at the bar, piles of cash and cigarettes and half-drunk bottles of wine—another end to another shift. It’s past midnight, and we’re all tired, itching to get home. “Just another ten minutes, I swear!” JL calls from the loft.

We sit there—all four of us—off the clock and waiting. Because we can’t leave someone to walk out alone.

I used to wonder as a little kid which would be worse: to live with werewolves or vampires? Werewolves could pulverize through anything, but you only had to deal with them one night a month. Vampires, on the other hand, were tricky, the color of shadows, and out there every single night. As soon as the sun went down, the streets would become a different thing, sinister, a free-for-all, an anything-goes zone where at any moment a pale, hungry creature could leap out and attack. And you could harbor illusions about fighting them off, but really, what were the chances you could actually drive a stake through their heart? You’d be defenseless, and all they’d see would be your virgin neck and throbbing vein and they’d want a drink—a drink of blood that was now theirs.

I imagined the constant stress, the constant level of awareness, the little ways that living with such creatures would reshape your life (“I left something in my car. Oh well, I’ll have to get it in the morning; not worth risking it.”), and in the end, I’d always decide that vampires were worse.

And it’s a similar feeling in Oakland right now—that when the sun goes down, the shadows come alive, and go on the hunt. There’s been a rash of robberies and violent assaults among the circles I frequent, enough that I can’t discount it as the usual fifth-most-dangerous-city-in-the-country shenanigans. No one can.

I forget how much it’s there, this constant consideration in the back of my head. I won’t take the train into the city if it means I’ll be coming home after dark; I don’t want to risk the walk back to my car from the station. I don’t go jogging at night—or at least, I drive up into Piedmont to do it. I suck it up and pay for parking in order to park right outside the restaurant I work at, so I again don’t have to risk walking farther than I have to.

But it’s gone a step further this year. After two guys I worked with got robbed at gunpoint leaving the restaurant, we stopped walking out even in pairs—we all leave work together now. After a girl from another restaurant got abducted, robbed and tortured, we won’t even let our manager stay late, even if her car is literally 50 feet from the door. She rearranges her schedule so that she comes in early, gets her office work done, and can leave with everyone else.

It’s like being a prisoner in a way. There’s no comfort in the fact that the fear applies equally to men and women, or that it’s not even fear that drive you all, but rather a statistical likelihood. When a third guy you work with got his nose broken last week, the reaction was largely anger—at him. “What the fuck was he doing thinking he could walk three blocks by himself?”

I keep thinking about Tirana, about my first late night at a bar, when everyone I’d come with had left.

“Where can I catch a cab?”

“A cab? You can walk, you know, it’s only 15 minutes.”

“Yeah, I know, but it’s late, and I’m alone…”

“Oh, but it’s totally safe.”

“I’d rather not risk it.”

A laugh. “Listen. In five years at the hostel, we’ve never heard of anyone ever having a problem.”

And it felt strange, walking through the two am streets, a foreign girl by herself. I couldn’t stop checking my back, walking briskly, staring down the few strangers I passed.

But eventually, I got used to it. And I almost felt giddy, elated by this strange sense of freedom—a sudden lightness and ease. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re missing until you get a taste of something better.

Just after one of the guys at work who got robbed, he posted a really telling Facebook status: “I knew it was bound to happen, living in Oakland caught up with me.” And it kind of broke my heart, because at times I feel the same way—like I’m just waiting for my number to be drawn. That I can be as careful and cautious as I’d like, but eventually, one day, I’ll let my guard down or take a risk, and it’ll be me, my turn, my time to get bitten.

When we finally walk out, it’s after one am. “That,” I sigh, “was not 10 minutes.”

“Nope.”

“But it’s not like we coulda left her there.”

“Nope.”

And we get in our cars and drive own separate homes, where we’ll circle to find the closest spot, walk briskly to the gate and slam it shut, tightly behind us.

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.

Sunday Morning on International

Sunday morning on International Blvd. A sidewalk laced in fog, car exhaust, the sick-sweet smell seeping from panderias. Little girls in patent-leather shoes, dudes crouched and smoking and speaking in Vietnamese outside the street shop: “Good tattoo ain’t cheap, cheap tattoo ain’t good.” The rattle of shopping cart wheels, the bark of fenced-in dogs.

I’m running late. I’m going to the 11am meeting at the In Between, a beat-up converted barroom now filled with folding chairs and faded banners, where we sit and curse and laugh, talk about God and booze, “hmm-mm”ing and “uh-huh”ing and drinking cheap coffee that stains our teeth. I love that place, its dusty corners and dying plants, the sag of the window frames.

I pass the bright blue letters of Iglesia de Buen Sabor, a storefront church with white bars over its frosted windows. The tambourine rattle and exalted voices of its congregation pours out the open door, from a faceless place—always black inside, when looking in from the street.

I make eye contact with a man standing in front of the doorway. He has a look of well-groomed desperation: cheap suit, overly combed hair, shoes shining like little black teeth. He’s got one crippled arm, bent and with a tangle of underdeveloped fingers; he cradles it next to his body as though he were holding an infant, or a small injured bird. I give him the half-smile and nod of a hello in passing.

He steps towards me. “Hello,” he says. “My name is Juan Carlos…” he continues on with a couple more names, surnames and second middle names. He leans his small hand towards me.

I pause mid-stride, take his small hand. “Right on, man, good to meet you.” It feels limp and strange in my momentary grasp, and I try to amend my handshake, make it softer, let it fit the contours of his curled-in fingers. “I’m running late, though—” I start to step away.

“You have a lot of joy in your heart.”

I stop, look at him with a slightly cocked head. “Thanks.”

He nods, smiles, then steps back into the black swallow and tambourine roll of his doorway.

I cross the street and squeak my own door open.

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.

Travel Tip: Get Inventive

What to bring and how to pack—it’s always a hot topic. But no matter how well you prepare—no matter how many water purification tablets and rehydration pills you stuff into your waterproof, weather-resistant backpack—you can’t anticipate every twist and turn you’ll encounter on the road.

At some point, you’ll need to get inventive.

Let’s say you do something as innocent and seemingly unadventurous as going on a day hike. Now, some people tromp off with walking sticks, CamelBaks, and a fanny pack full of First Aid supplies. But those’re also the same folks that wear their jungle-proof hiking boots in the middle of the city. (In your preparedness, you must also consider fashion.)

Let’s say it’s a hot day at one of your top 3 travel secret spots. Let’s say that Bass Lake is sparkling cool, and filled with the intertubes and joyous clamor of hikers. You paddle out with a friend and see carefree bodies flying through the air, limbs ecstatically free for one airborne moment before splashing ceremoniously into the murky dark.

Let’s say you forget that both you and your friend are total effing city kids and have never once been on a rope swing. Let’s say that you don’t stop to consider the physics of the situation, the centrifugal force and the fact that some technique might be involved. Let’s say that all that’s going through your mind is—“Fuck yeah, rope swing!”

And let’s say that both you and your friend completely gnarl your hands and are left treading water with a mess of twisted and bloodied fingers.

It’s time to get creative.

First off, remember your First Aid training: reduce swelling (and bleeding) by raising the effected body part(s) above heart-level. This means treading water hands-up for 500+ feet back to shore. You can also call on your long-forgotten lifeguard training.

Next, you’ll want to get a second opinion. You’ll probably try to tell yourself that your wound “isn’t that bad, right?” You’ll attempt to move the effected body part in a perkily healthful manner to convince everyone—but mostly yourself—that no serious injury has occurred. At this stage, it helps to have friends with a firm grasp on reality.

When it’s determined that you are indeed effed up, you’ll need to provide some sort of make-shift care for yourself. You won’t always have gauze and splints and medical tape handy. You’ll have to make do with what you have right in front of you. Dig through your purse and discover that a Bic pen is about the length of your finger. Now how could you secure it to your effected digits to both provide support and restrict swelling? You think, look around…

Using your traveler ingenuity, you’ll end up with a perfectly workable—and dare I say, fashionable—solution: Bic-pen/shoelace splints:

Stop hiking? No way! You’re totally good to go.

Bonus tip: Don’t waste money on needless medical care. If you happen to be American, you’re already well-practiced in the delicate art of determining when medical attention is and is not absolutely necessary. Unless your shit is sideways and needs to be reset, a doctor isn’t going to do much for a broken finger. So save the pennies in your travel jar, go to Walgreens, and buy a splint and some medical tape. Total cost: $7.

The Americanness of Garlic: Weekend Wedding Part III

We rode down the line, past the line, through it: the slice in the sky where the fog stops and the blue begins.

The California Coast and the Central Valley: there’s more than just a fog bank that separates the two. They’re culturally two different worlds. One is liberal, cultured, Priuses and windbreakers all year round. The other is hot, flat, migrant and dusty, rumbling trucks and fruit stands, too-neat rows of too-green produce lining the highway, whipping past your window in a monotonous flipbook, eye-numbing and strangely hypnotizing.

To us coastal folks, the Central Valley is a hazy strip of heat and pesticides, a nebulous region of towns we’ve heard of in passing, maybe driven through, but never really experienced past a gas station or two. Which is why Gabe and I had decided to stop in Gilroy, a typical agricultural Central Valley town, on our drive back to the Bay. That, and the garlic.

The Gilroy Garlic Festival is one of those things I’d heard about my whole life, but never been to. I wasn’t even really sure where Gilroy was. It’s one of those small-town events that put the place on the map, gives it some sort of name recognition to city folk. You get the feeling that the whole town lives for Garlic Festival weekend, that it’s their moment to shine—or more accurately, to waft.

We snaked along the single-file traffic leading to the parking lot. Everything was agriculture: produce stands, the Garlic Shoppe, a garlic restaurant, garlic paraphernalia. People with coolers stood on the roadside selling bottles of “ice-cold water, $1 here, $3 at the festival.” The town was amped.

We tromped across the dirt parking lot, past port-o-potties and shuttle bus lines, volunteers with bull horns, in towards the banners and balloons and cloud of cooking garlic.

It wasn’t cheap: $17 to get in. It didn’t matter. We were in it to win it.

At first, it was kind of disappointing—all the usual festival stuff: cheesy craft booths and “funky” bands, frozen lemonade (not garlic-infused). I was expecting some sort of kitschy throw-back vibe, a state fair kind of atmosphere. I was expecting uber-ridiculous, inventive garlic food, garlic everything.

But as we wandered more, went deeper into the booths and stands, the subtler ridiculousness revealed itself. And then we found this:

A flaming garlic effigy. How metal is that?

We went for it. We didn’t care that everything cost $5 and the lines were long and the sun was brutal. We wanted the full experience.

That’s right—garlic ice-cream. This is one of the festival’s great claims to fame that I’d heard about. And it’s ice-cream. So I had to have it. Oddly enough, they served it in a half cantaloupe. Not so sure about the culinary success of that, but I could appreciate the eco-friendliness.

Shit yeah!

Gabe was obsessed with finding deep-fried garlic. When he succeeded, we sat down on a hay bale and indulged in our treats (dipping deep-fried garlic into garlic ice-cream: amazing). One of the bands had broken into a cover of an obscure, early Johnny Cash song. As the families trundled by in the afternoon heat, there was something really sweet about the whole thing, something All-American in a way that I once scoffed at.

And then we found this dude:

Nothing like a man in drag resembling a human garlic nut sack to really get the party started.

While most of the booths were of the folk-art and rip-off variety ($20 for a flattened glass bottle window hanger), there were some hidden gems in the rows of awnings:

More vaguely scrotal goods

“The Originals”—thank god! None of these impostor custom toe rings.

This one goes out to all the vegetarians in the house...

“Gourmet Alley” was the closest thing to the state fair vibe I found. They seemed to serve all the same fare as the rest of the festival; the fonts on their banners were just of a more dignified variety. There was a cook-out section complete with demonstrations and seminars, where local hot shots flexed their garlic prowess. It was all proudly and unironically sponsored by Foster Farms (complete with chicken-shaped balloons bobbing overhead). We may have only been an hour and a half from the Bay Area, but the food culture was was a whole nuther world: purely All-American.

And in a way, beyond the deliciousness of garlic, that’s what I been looking for, hoping to find at the festival: America.

There’s a kind of beautiful part to participating in a culture, in mainstream culture. Growing up in a city, and especially in a place as distinct as the Bay Area, you don’t get a lot of chances to indulge in Americana—we’re all about film festivals and Critical Masses and dirty punk shows in dingy warehouses.

But there’s this American mythology, this agrarian life, a “simple life,” that’s always been there: a vague background noise, aired on old sitcoms, tucked into dusty paperbacks, into the heart of the big, wide country that I fly over and past, but never stop in. I’ve never experienced it, never lived it, observed it from a distance, as the Other.

I think us city people feel alienated from that culture. We judge it (“uneducated, small-minded, uber-Christian bigots”), and are afraid it was judge us (especially if we’re something other than straight, white, native-born). There’s a kind of deep distrust—“that isn’t me, can’t be me, not ever me.” There’s something lonely about existing in something other than the predominate culture.

It was nice, for an afternoon, to feel like in some small way, I can be a part of that too, that that’s in me as well: America. Never thought I’d say that.

And sweating garlic for the next day and a half was fun too.

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.

A Woman in the Sun

I sat in the sun, butt naked and heat dazed, my starving skin soaking up all the UV it’d been hungry for since my trip to LA. The sulfur smell of the hot springs had stopped burning my nose, and I was in that drool state of relaxation where everything floats in and out of your consciousness like a dream. The bits of conversation from down the deck came to me in whiffs, like BBQ or the burning of some far-off fire.

“You know, Mark called me on Friday. And he started up again. And I said, you know, like we’d practiced, ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.'”

The words roused me a little. Not so much really the words, but the careful way in which they were recited—deliberate, practiced, the memorization of an actor who knows the scene but hasn’t quite figured out their character’s motivation.

The patter of bare feet and a sleek ripple of water. “Oh, Myra, I didn’t tell you,” the voiced repeated. “I got to use that tool we talked about, when I told Mark: ‘I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.’ It felt so good!”

Wilbur Hot Springs is a retreat place, and that’s what I’d come for. That’s what we’d all come for, driven the two-line highway through pastoral postcards, past cheese-commercial cows, down a bumping dirt road where the dust plumed and twisted behind us like everything we’d meant to leave behind.

Wilbur is the kind of place that makes you lapse into cheesy cliches (partly because your brain is too full of steam to think straight). A Victorian mansion “nestled” into the “rolling” California hills, it’s an uber-NorCal experience, an “oasis.” Everything is solar-powered. The natural hot springs are directed into four flumes clustered around a clothing-optional deck. There’s a communal kitchen where guests cook their own meals, and instruments for evening jam sessions. Everyone talks in low, soothing voices, and the place smells like well-oiled wood. Sustainability and spiritualism; regrouping, reconnecting, getting off the grid and soaking in 114 degree water—you know, the kind of hippie shit a punk rock kid like me used to scoff at. Until I went up on a gift certificate a couple years ago with a similarly suspicious friend.

We’ve been jonesing to get back ever since.

Retreat is what these chatting women on the deck had also come for, and like retreat, they were something, a certain kind of woman, a younger incarnation of me would have scoffed at: middle-aged, middle-class, white, all-American. Bad hair and worry lines. I’ve grown less judgmental in my old age, and in my hot-spring-infused sedation, observed them detachedly, from an almost anthropological distance.

They’d come on day passes. They weren’t entirely comfortable, held their robes and towels around them self-consciously, seemed self-conscious about being self-conscious—they averted eyes, glanced this way and that before letting go and slipping naked into the steaming water.

I’d pieced together their conversations, about ex-husbands and astrology, how to figure your aura energy by the kinds of animals you attracted (“You got lizards and butterflies; I got bit by a tick!”). This day trip to Wilbur appeared to be the culmination of a healing workshop. The leader of the group was some kind of psychic—not a predictive one, she assured, but one that dealt more in energies, a kind of cosmic therapist. They weren’t super New-Agey about it, talked in a kind of down-to-earth tone that made them seem less like people on board some kind of bullshit train, and more like people genuinely seeking, genuinely lost and hurt and looking for something, some kind of solidity.

“I am not going to participate in this conversation with you.” The statement rang in my ears, plucking me out of my sun-drenched stupor. The speaker’s voice held in it all the excitement of a pupil who’d just felt a switch flip—who’d practiced the arithmetic but wasn’t sure the equation would work for them, with their own dull and trembling pencil. But it wasn’t a young voice and a glance at the body from which it issued revealed a gravity, breasts heavy and hips wide, a child-bearing body.

My God, I thought, to have lived that long and only now have learned to say that.

The woman’s comment, the thrill with which she yielded it, struck me as tragic, in a particularly female kind of way—that a woman could go that long in her life without having learned to say no before.

Boundaries. Standing up for yourself. Not taking shit. They’re vital things for us girls to learn. You flat out won’t make it in this world without them, I’ve come to believe, and I don’t just mean with manipulative ex-husbands. You’ve got to learn where the world stops and you begin, what is and is not okay with you, and how to be firm and true to that. Cause you’re not going to make it—ride the buses or walk the streets or, shit, travel the world—you’re not going to survive the barrage of shit hurled at you without learning the word “no.”

And there, on that sun deck, a wave of gratitude swept over me, like the spring breeze on my pink and steaming body, for my mother. My tough-as-nails, take-no-shit mother.

My mother, my model: pretty and blond and trained in karate. She worked in factories, held her own in the male-dominated world of politics, worked in West Oakland during the worst of the crack years, dared a scab to follow through with their threat to punch her on the picket line (they punked out). It stems from that: my childhood love of Tina Turner and my vow that if, when I was older, I ever went on a date with a guy who tried to make me do something I didn’t want to, I’d “kick him in the nuts with my high heels”; my busted-Converse affection for Riot Grrls, Le Tigre, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. And it stretches before that: my grandmothers, no-nonsense Midwest girls who endured Depression poverty and marched in Civil Rights protests.

I come from a long line of tough ladies. I can’t ever forget I stand upon the ground they forged for me. It’s a generational adventure, this learning of how to be a woman in the world, and what my mother and grandmothers fought for is in me, my blood. So much so that it still surprises me, blinking-eyed shocks me, when other women ask me how I have the “bravery” to travel alone. It simply never occurred to me to not have the bravery.

In that sun-drenched moment, any residual judgment melted away, just like the knots in my lower back unclenched in the hot, healing water. It may have seemed tragically late to learn how to make boundaries, she may have had to take a healing workshop with a psychic, but this woman had learned. And she sat now, naked and free, gently turning pink in the sunlight of it.


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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