To Sur With Love
The 1962 Cadillac sedan was traveling entirely too fast. And I was behind the wheel. Over the long hood I saw the highway guardrail rapidly curving left toward the nose of my speeding ship. Stuart put one hand on my elbow, the other over his eyes and his right foot on the red metal dashboard. “Oh, Jesus!” was the plaintive sound that escaped him.
We had left the restaurant in Monterey with all our sheets to the wind and were now tacking south down the extreme twists and rolls of California Highway One. Before driving up the coast to dinner we had spent the day getting loose and toasty on beer and Dago Red wine in the warm scented forests of the Big Sur River Valley. Laughing, dancing, daring, climbing, grinning, and apparently, we later discovered, rolling in poison oak.
I’ve traveled that famous stretch of coast road many times since that long ago spring day. Each time I reach that first big set of curves I smile at the memory of us four wild kids squealing down the winding shoreline, sliding side to side unbuckled on the red leather bench seats as the wide white Caddy leaned to and fro in frightening syncopation with the rolling waves below the steep cliffs. Somehow in spite of the questionable brakes, bad shocks, lean tires and deceptively dangerous speed, we survived that squealing curve. Having magically foiled fate, we moved ahead at a slightly slower speed around the next few volleys of turns and made it to Point Sur Beach where we slept in the car.
The Roadtrip Thing
God bless me, but I still hit the road these days. Though often together with the sidekick shotgun love of my life and a stuffed octopus named Lefty. A lot has changed we have noted, and that leads me to some commentary on gypsyhood, the art and science of vagabondage. Turn off your spellcheck. I made those words up.
You may be aware that in our larger cities, where it used to be a real hoot to hide and hangout, we sport a different and more visible kind of ‘outdoorsman’. All you need now is a donated tent and a frontier attitude to claim the streets as your own. Lest you misunderstand, I am admiring and understanding, not judging or demeaning. Since I’ve long shared entitlement to any public or open space as safe harbor for the night, I would be disingenuous to scorn these new-millennium nomads. And though I never littered, panhandled or found a need to mess in an alley, I did busk with my guitar once. The proceeds of that endeavor would fall well short of covering the payments on my ‘stealth van’, which is the name given sleeping vehicles outfitted to be unobtrusive when parked in the dark. My several placid vans over the years would not remind you of “Breaking Bad.”
Of course there are campgrounds and parks for recreational vehicles, and that’s always a preference for safety and comfort. But those of us who are willing to trade those for convenience and spontaneity have found that shopping centers, transit stations, airport parking lots, highway rest stops, Eagle’s Clubs, and residential neighborhoods offer a quaint variety when waking wondering where you are. Living on the edge. The edge of the road.
On a bright day in early June, 1974 an unconventional little dental school commencement ceremony was held by the fountain on the University of Washington lower campus. A sign of the times, it was pompless and lacking in formal circumstance. It was jean cut-offs, T-shirts, aviator sunglasses, and hair to the shoulders. My kind brother Terry and sweet girlfriend Janine were there to send me off to doctordom. My parents somehow missed the opportunity to inspect the merchandise they had purchased. In fact, I don’t recall any parents being there. No dental faculty either. As was often said at the time, you couldn’t trust anyone over thirty in those days anyway. Nancy, the dean’s secretary, handed me my paper, I cracked a couple jokes, and I was on my own.
The following day I cleaned out my locker, boxed up the books, tools, waxes and little balls of gold foil we used to pound into fillings, and hit the road. Once more, I borrowed money from Terry and bought a shiny new Coleman ice chest for the back of my yellow ’57 GMC pickup truck. I filled it with leftover cold cuts and bottled beer, loaded up my Honda motorbike, a sleeping bag and a stolen mattress for the truck bed. I headed east over the pass, over the back roads, and over the diligence and discipline of 20 years of schooling.
I met up with my old buddy Pete in a godforsaken outpost in southeastern Washington where he was stationed with the state parks department. Late June was enjoying a heat wave as we bought whiskey and steaks in Walla Walla. We helped ourselves to fresh asparagus from the field next to his rundown single-wide trailer. Drinking and singing and talking about girls, we dreamed of life ahead. We found some old truck tubes and floated down the Touchet River to Waitsburg on a 105 degree afternoon. We hitchhiked back and drank and conspired some more.
The next morning I carved curves through the greening wheat fields on my motorcycle. Through the tiny towns of Dodge and Dusty and over the Snake River and through the Palouse. That night I slept under the stars in the back of my old truck, eyes wide open to the warm night. I fell asleep breathing the sweet air of blissful liberation.
I guess you could say the future opened on that hot week in 1974 on which I would play out much of my becoming me. At the time it was a mere beckoning to adventure, but after years of feeling the power of cutting loose, I realize now I was experiencing a call to mindfulness. Seeking detachment and learning through fresh observation can keep you in the moment. There is a lot of spiritual self-examination when you’re alone – never lonely, but alone. Willful solitude encourages you to appreciate your company of one. You learn to love the one you’re with. You get to learn that loving yourself guides you on the essential path to loveability. And how the heck are we to find love if we’re not lovable?
As I write this, I’m in Salinas, California on my way again to Big Sur. Last night was spent alone in a San Rafael parking lot overlooking the yacht harbor. After dinner and a live music show at The Terrapin Crossroads, I asked the valet parking attendant if it would be alright to leave my van there overnight, and he was gracious to oblige. It never hurts to ask. My spot was level, quiet and delightfully out of the ordinary. Much like the simple houseboats tethered across the canal. I certainly felt safe, as they secure the gate at closing. I was locked in until this morning, but nothing slows you down like being in a hurry.
The late autumn of 2001 found me wandering around Sonoma County, Calif. I followed a narrow road to the top of a hill painted with fall-colored trees. A lonely state park graced the grounds, and I parked the van beside a small brook. Having recently begun taking guitar lessons, I picked up my instrument and all three of the chords I had mastered, and went about crafting a melodically bland song I titled “Sugarloaf Ridge,” which was the name displayed on the old wooden sign at the entrance. The song begins with the line, “I’m gone again….”