Leaving San Francisco, I headed up the 101. I could have taken it all the way up to Eureka but I got off to head west to the Pacific Highway. It was undoubtedly slower going and perhaps lovelier than I was mentally equipped to appreciate, but when I looked at the map and realized that the 1 went through Mendocino, I knew I had to make the detour. Granted, I knew nothing about the town except that it was the name of a song by the Sir Douglas Quintet, a song I knew because it was on one of the 8-tracks my Dad had left with my mom. I used to play "Mendocino" over and over again, timing the exact number of seconds of fast-forwarding before bouncing to section 4 to hear the Four Tops sing "Don't Walk Away Renee" and then back around to "Mendocino." I wasn't going to the real town to look for a real clue, but the 8-tracks had been a facet of the threadbare connection I had with Dad growing up, and I had the notion that going through the town would solidify that somehow.
It didn't. The drive was pretty, though. I had the thought of staying there, but the place was filled to the brim with boutique hotels, and I was feeling like letting the road grease sink in until I hit Eugene. Instead, I stayed in a Super 8 in Fort Bragg, waking up just in time to check out without incurring anyone's wrath or incessant knocks from housekeeping.
Further north, I went through Redwood National Forest and stopped long enough to take some pictures on my fancy new cell phone with the intent of sending them to Frank and Laura, although as soon as I took them I realized I never would, that sending them pictures as if I was some close friend on vacation was a fantasy. It was a sobering moment, realizing that my hunger for friendship put my visit in a certain light, but at the end of the day they were both probably happy to see me go, this drunk on a strange quest to find his father. Why not just take the money and move on? That was the question neither of them had ever asked me, and it was the question I hadn't really asked myself, because I knew the answer had nothing to do with reason or practicality. Those had never been my strong suits, as Laura knew all too well, and it seemed that as I got older my rationality was fading from sight like in a rearview mirror. Money is a blessed thing for the impractical soul; it forestalls the inevitable tumbling into life's spiked pits.
Looking at a bulletin board outside the public restroom at the national forest's entrance, I came across a poster advertising a two-week bicycling and hiking trip through the area. All one had to do was sign up and pay the money. I had a vision of myself going on this trip and having one of those experiences that you hope for when venturing into what passes for wilderness these days: forgetting the hideous complexities of human undertakings and rediscover a more primal attachment. A few hiking weekends outside of Missoula notwithstanding, though, I was not much for the outdoors.
Inside the park, I spent a short while standing in front of a coast redwood, thinking all the cliches one thinks about ancient massive living things, and feeling the comfort of the pedestrian thoughts of spirituality and vague connectedness wash over me. The sun and circumstance hit me in just the right way, and I felt the need for a long drink and a short nap, desires I indulged in my back seat. The sun was banking the ocean when I woke up, and I decided to make another couple of hours, sticking 20 mg of Benzedrine under my tongue to cut through the dusky haze that had descended over my brain as well as the road.
I took the 101 as far as Crescent City, then made a few bungled turns (which I blamed on poor road signs but were possibly more the drugs' fault) and finally found my way onto 199, which took me as far as my California highway map was designed to navigate. I could have bought an Oregon map at the next gas station I stopped at, but thought instead I'd rather follow the highway's bobs and weaves until it met up with some other freeway.
The night after I left the Redwoods I slept a few hours in the car outside of Gasquet, a town that manages to be charming even in the middle of the night, or perhaps because of it. In Gasquet, there's a trailer home park like there is everywhere (although this one was slightly more picturesque, with a bristlecone pine here and there to break up the lots), and they were advertising their rates of $225 a month on a largely misspelled billboard out front. Prices on apartments and hotels are my undoing; when I see one, I picture myself living there with such detailed imaginative force that pulling myself out of it is akin to the hassle of moving. I daydreamed myself into a charming little vintage burnished Airstream there at Gasquet Pines Village, my rent pre-paid through the end of the current century, a handful of cats and hordes of crappy books for companionship. Sounded good while I was shoving a jacket between my head and the window, but that's my problem, and I know it: the most desirable thing imaginable is the exact opposite of what I'm doing at the moment. It's not just the grass that's greener: it's the dirt, the water, the sky... I bet even the fence is painted a more pleasing color from the other side. Sometimes when I'm out somewhere with a group and I'm feeling chatty and social, I'll begin fantasizing about being one of those people who never says anything, who intrigues everyone with his silence. My new year's resolutions, back when I had more faith in the possibilities of self-invention, were predicated upon completely flipping over almost every personality trait I had exhibited in the previous year, and because I am nothing if not intermittently and fitfully passionate, I would often spend most Januarys in a bizarre state of my new superimposed self, while the old self bided its time until the new traits became too exhausting to sustain.
That night was when I decided to forego buying an Oregon map for a while. I didn't know where 199 would lead, and as with so many mountain highways, this one had many side roads leading off from it, some with names or numbers, some without, and I was tempted to take any and all of them. As I drove I thought of my trailer park fantasy the night before and recognized that with a map, my enthusiasm for escape would take over. Highway 199 was no good when 32 was right there, or Broken Promise Road--who doesn't want to drive on Broken Promise Road, despite the yellow No Outlet diamond by its entrance? It was one of the oldest mental tricks in the book: I transformed the highway into a metaphor for my life and its choices, and when I did I was glad to have the assistance of speed and pot, since together those two can be very effective yes-men for the most trite chain of pseudo-reasoning.
So the decision was made: don't look for just any fork, Edmund, you sap, but look for the right one. Easier said than done, but I find it considerable that as I climbed into my late thirties I was thinking of this as some new insight. And maybe I was propelled by the knowledge that for once there was a question in my life I wanted an answer to, and that the answer wasn't waiting down some random path but on the one I had to meticulously locate: What do they want from me?
There are two ways to think about the experience of driving along a mountain road through thick pine forests. If you look up and see the jagged tips of the evergreens poking into the sky, you can see them as spiked walls pushing in towards you. You can also see them as just parting to the width of the highway, protecting you as you shuttle along the river-like snaking of the two-lane road. Satisfaction or dissatisfaction with life is just a perception shift away.
The 199 meets up with Interstate 5, that workaday coastal arterial, in Grants Pass, and here I both bought a map at a Chevron and confirmed with the girl there that Eugene was just north from here. She responded "yeah" with the kind of forced indifference that the most snobbish effete would be jealous of. I probably looked like shit, and it's true that my question was really just to see if my voice still worked, which it only did after bringing up a substantial coating of esophageal phlegm.
I had a few hours drive left ahead of me, and I wanted nothing more than to sleep in an actual bed, knowing that after a few hours I'd awaken. Perfect. If the timing worked out, I'd be heading out to find a bar about ten o'clock or so on a Tuesday night, when only the serious drunks and barflies were out. Tomorrow I would see the sheriff; tonight I would mix a little business with pleasure.
(end of Part 12)