Along 108, 11/9–11/10

We’re not even past Manteca when I wander carelessly into an argument about climate change and the primaries. It ends poorly, with one friend red-faced and seething in the driver’s seat and me in tears, confused—but not really—at how easily I make people angry when I’m only playing a game. 

A neutral third party, child of schoolteachers, tries to mediate from the back. It is gently suggested I tend to belabor semantics. (Moi?)

“Listen, have you ever seen Star Trek?”

“I’m not Spock,” I protest, wiping my nose on my sleeve. I’ve heard this one before. “I have feelings.”

Apart from semantics, color and light

Chief among them: I’m tired. In trying to make up for a summer lost to my new job, I set a rat-a-tat cadence of shoulder-season trips I didn’t really have the energy to take. The weekend-warrior maneuvers have always been hard: fractious Friday-night logistics, restless sleep, pre-dawn alarm. Sixteen or so waking hours of the good stuff before the reluctant slog back to reality, straight into the glare of the sun bleeding out in Central Valley smog. Those drives are so much longer than they used be, the dread of the Monday so much heavier in my chest. This late in the year the days are short and cold along the edges.

So what I want to do, if I’m honest, is crib from notes on another day I didn’t feel like trying very hard and have brunch on the deck of the Jamestown Hotel. My friends will not say no to me, now that I’ve scared them by behaving like a girl—so I order French toast and inform them we will be here for a while.

I know, but there’s a miniature town in the stem of the glass.

Our waitress is a grandmotherly type in sensible shoes and a black butterfly-sleeved blouse. I can see her pausing over it at the sale rack, a scene so vivid I realize I may cry again when she arrives to take our orders. She moved to Jamestown after a divorce, she says, doesn’t miss him or the city or a single damn thing. She works when they’ll have her. She likes seeing people find a moment to breathe.

The boys make steady progress on biscuits and gravy. When the server returns to distribute the remains of the mimosa pitcher, she just grazes their glasses before chugging the lion’s share into mine with a wink.

“Ready to roll?” one friend asks me tentatively as I finish my drink. We’ve got another hour or so in the car and they want to ride. “No,” I announce gravely. “I want to go antiquing.”

We get to Pinecrest eventually. I bail on a long cross-country route in favor of dozing by the lake like a civilian, guzzling sun in the brief afternoon hours that still look like summer. The crowds are manageable now, and if you keep out of the shadows it’s warm enough.

I do ride a little: just the short stuff, more a vague gesture at the French toast than anything else. There is a moment after dropping in from a road crossing when my friends and the trail turn directly into the setting sun. As they pull away from me they are cast suddenly into silhouettes against the their own rising dust, lit deep orange and red through the trees. I hit the brakes, taste the dirt settling on my tongue as I watch them disappear into plumes of light.

Even when I won’t follow

Sonora, 4/23–4/24

I’m usually the only one in the car who wants to stop at the Oakdale Rodeo Grounds. But today is different: Alex is game. There’s goat-tying, steer-riding, and an unattended toddler marching industriously back and forth across a mud puddle. We debate expensive shirts that say “RODEO” in a lariat script and ask to pat the vendor’s unimpressed pony. “We used to ride but now we live in the city,” Alex explains, as if it needed explaining. As a kid she’d take her horse to the gas station in town as a lark.

In Sonora I instead buy a cheap necklace with a tiny charm of the state flag’s bear. I wasn’t born here, but I am certainly closer to being Californian than to being the type of Californian who knows how to tie up a goat.

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Here we find Alex effortlessly matching everything.

Shiny stuff and legitimate claims are interesting subjects to consider in Gold Country. Its history is in front of my face in literal ways—Sonora, Mi-Wuk Village, Chinese Camp—and yet I’ve never really thought about the names or pictured anyone living here other than grizzled white miners. Now, though, I’m reading Carey McWilliams’ Southern California: An Island on the Land, and getting schooled.

The trouble began, naturally enough, in the mines … . In 1850 a mob of 2,000 American miners descended on the Mexican mining town of Sonora and … proceeded to raze the town. The rioting lasted for nearly a week, with scores of murders and lynchings being reported … .”We can see only indirectly, wrote  [Josiah] Royce, “through the furious and confused reports of the Americans themselves, how much of organized and coarse brutality these Mexicans suffered from the miners’ meetings.”

April 2016
Seen downtown. Advertising, art installation, or a concise history of labor?

In the first 25 pages I also learn that the indigenous population of California pre-Columbus had four times the density of the rest of what would become the country—whereas previously I imagined Indians living mostly in the Great Plains and dying mostly because of East Coast people.

My ignorance is especially egregious because I was assigned this book in college and hardly touched it. Nor was this the first time such a history lesson was lost on me: fourth grade I recall building a model of Mission San Luis Obispo without having the slightest idea of what a mission was—my closest point of reference being Redwall Abbey, where certainly no one (“nobeast”) was ever held against his will, even by weasels.

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Left: 5.8. Right: 15.2.

The road to the Grotto crosses the hills that front the highway and descends unexpectedly into a broad green valley that for its part doesn’t look Californian at all. “Kentucky,” Alex says. She’s in sales and has lived a lot more places than I have. The asphalt runs out amid a smattering of muddy yards and “KEEP OUT” signs, but we determine we’re in the right spot based on the presence (here I initially wrote “pretense”) of a Subaru and a Tesla.

The approach trail winds up from a red dirt road and runs a gauntlet of poison oak, emptying high on a scree slope of volcanic rock. There’s a lake on the horizon and columns of lichen-accented basalt looming overhead like organ pipes; something about the afternoon light makes me expect grazing brontosaurus. There aren’t any of those, but for a relic from the past I instead end up climbing next to some dude I met once on an ancient Internet date. Neither of us says anything, of course.

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Getting there.

Both climbing and dating are things I previously believed I could learn to enjoy by diligence and repetition. Having grown bored and skeptical of this I wonder now, why not simply do things that are pleasant from the get-go? To find out, I brunch lavishly on French toast and biscuits on the porch of the Jamestown Hotel and then, instead of climbing, ride my bike. Not far, and real easy—in a place that’s new and warm and blowing up with flowers.

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Sun’s out, tongue’s out.