Chapter 14

“Smooth landings 
can come with some 
rougher patches, buster.”

          “And purple…it’s got some of that in it…”


          “Yes, purple! And these amazing red and orange-like rays streaming out of a radiant sun on the horizon.”

           “Sun, got it—purple and sun.”

           “Oy, James has such an incredible way with sun rays. Never seen anything like it.”

           Back then, once Nevada had finally ended, the blinding beauty began. California conceded a little borderline spillover—the lesser third of Lake Tahoe, some lower range forested hills—but otherwise gerryrigged the topographical splendor like a Carolina Congressional seat. Before long, drab, middling mountains thrust dramatically frosted skyward. Stubborn gray overcast turned baccarat blue. Tall pine thickened and ran indelibly emerald. Dull snowpack suddenly sparkled like granulated sugar. Everything else just sped up and gained attitude.

           Snorting Trans Ams, 280-Zs and Turbo Carreras blew past my balky Volkswagen Squareback in tight formation, racing-striped lemmings with ski racks, loaded for Squaw Valley and Boreal. The Truckee River gushed quinine clear alongside, over eel-smooth boulders, under felled tree trunks and melting snow flows, meandering north and south below as Interstate-80 viaducted up with the blue jays through Tahoe National Forest.

By Truckee itself, I had surrendered to the bus lane, waving off pesky Rabbits and Pintos, struggling to keep pace with wagging U-Hauls and the freight train plowing along a far mountainside rail shaft left standing from the Gold Rush days. Relief had come momentarily at the state Agricultural Inspection Station, where we spotted that Oakland HVAC van being strip-searched while Sydney sacrificed two overripe Florida mangos to the uniformed produce guards.

           Wiser drivers than I hunkered along I-80’s narrow, stormfenced shoulders, drifts choking orange ‘dipsticks’ up to  their red reflectors, thick and slick from daily thawing then refreezing. Snow monkeys strapped on tire chains at the base of craggy, steeply canyoned Sierra walls. Cars with far better traction dodged shot patterns of rocky sediment cut loose by crosswinds and concurrently freezing and melting snows, by waterfalls pounding down green-gray rock channels to either side.

The squareback rather more faltered than fishtailed, tractor-trailers blasting relentlessly as they locked us into dead heats upwards of 5,000 feet—me double clutching and downshifting, Syd coaxing, rocking forward like a baited quail. Eventually, we rose above streaked window glass, frozen extremities and isolated cloud pockets, up to heavenly wraparound ranges and white-capped Sierra lakes.

          “So, missy, where was this?”

          “I told you, out at Ocean Beach.”

          “No, I mean, where was it…”

          “Right on the front seat. Honestly, what a perfect way to end such an exhausting trip. You getting all this down?”

          Fuel injectors sputtering, gas pedal slammed, the Volks bucked northerly alpen crosswinds above 6,000 feet as we wound around Donner Lake, its ripples reflecting the frosted peaks and alabaster crevices that sealed it off from greater turbulence. Upwards of 7k, the winds were relentless, battering twisted pines, tossing stone rubble and bull boulders across the slow lanes like so much rocksalt. I dodged the slides by bumper car veers and turns, falling into a dead heat with a three-trailer Intermountain Express, the both of us downshifting full throttle to maintain strains of forward momentum.

          I was silently cursing Syd and all her baggage when she pointed out the majestic mountaintop vistas up and downrange, to a road sign reading 7,239 feet above sea level. She marveled at the pioneers who had rope hoisted and lowered wagons and all over whatever pass they could scout out and surmount—whatever it took to make their weary way into the paradise called California. Just thinking about that, and towel wiping clear the windshield, had me working up a powerful appetite, to be sure.

          Atop Donner Summit, a historical plaque hashed up any sudden hunger pangs in short order. I noted that the stranded Donner Party had originated in Springfield, Illinois in October, 1846 to traverse the Sierra bound for the promised land, running some 30 days late out of Hastings cutoff, getting trapped in 15-foot snowdrifts, basically starving to death. Sydney countered that two-thirds of the women survived, only one-third of the men. I ventured as how the snowshoe party desperately butchered their cannibalized kin, stripping dead members of their organs and flesh—even proactively killing a couple of young Indians for their innards and hides. She said that one Sarah Fosdick had watched her harebrained husband die, eating his tongue as his heart roasted on a stick. From there, everything was a refluxed, gut-thumping downhill rush, with whitewater rapids patched into the scenario for some extra-sensory saturation. I-80’s six-percent downgrade wound us past ice streaming mountainsides, backed by dense stands of gnarled birch and wintergreen valleys, where ghostly pioneers still circled their battered Conestogas.

          A frigid yet slushy draft jetted further up through the floorboards with every snow buried milemarker and drifting curve. Sugar Bowl, Soda Springs, Emigrant Gap, Dutch Flat exits blurred into an ear-popping, wheel-grabbing brakefest goosed on by the airhorn blasts of that now stampeding Intermountain Express. It blew the squareback off altogether, left me with a snootful of diesel fumes, before plowing three trailers deep onto a designated runaway lane, hatches flapping open, cases of house paint graffiti spraying across the scattering snows.

          “Let’s see, leather with purple, front seat, Ocean Beach. Yep, think we’ve got it covered…”

          “S’cuse me?! What do you expect to find with just that,” Sydney said presently, pounding on the San Francisco Police precinct countertop. “Listen, officer, it was my absolute favorite handbag ensemble. I had all my everything in there…”

          “Do you really expect to find anything no matter what I write down,” asked a pudgy, preoccupied Sunset District station desk sergeant. “It’s probably washing out to sea in a storm drain by now.”

          “With your cheesy description,” she huffed, rolling her eyes my way, “who’d know the difference, even if it was?!”

          Still, I couldn’t have helped but warm up to Syd’s initial California enthusiasm. Her nostrils fogged the streaky windshield as she blew kisses wild-eyed to a roll call of providential sightings: the first towering redwoods of Placer County, the red ore-rich foothills above Gold Run, that first lone palm tree outside Auburn. Below 1,500 feet, skies cleared, windows and roadways thawed amidst a time-lapse seasonal shift. Bougainvillea lined the freeway, Sierra earthtones brightened to Sacramento’s soft-white and pastels, palm trees ganged Kona thick, everything not yet paved either blooming or lushly green.

          San Joaquin Valley’s furrowed black flats and Syd’s FM sing along soon delivered me unto a dreamy ether space of springtime California. Candied fruit bowl frappes at the Nut Tree primed us for a rolling feast of small label vineyards, of pear, plum and apple orchards, which enveloped I-80 well up through the verdant Holsteined hills of the Coastal Range. But the green-on-green truck farms outside Vacaville gradually gave way to the tank farms of Vallejo. I grew uneasy with quickening traffic, towering power lines and overall East Bay sprawl. By the Carquinez Bridge, there seemed no turning back at all. Sealing things was the disco taunt Sydney radio dialed and belted to: ‘Shame, shame on you if you can’t pass through…’

          “Got your phone number here in the report,” sighed the desk sergeant, lowering his reading glasses, rubbing the bridge of his blotchy red, vascularized nose. “If anything turns up, we’ll be in touch…”

          “I can’t wait for that…I’m a busy person. How do you expect me to…”

          “Look, missy—we’re doing all we can,” he said, tossing her crime report onto the In pile.

          “Hah! Tell me about it,” she squared off, glaring at him, up there behind the blue and gold-crested bench. “And just what am I supposed to do in the meantime?!”

          “This is Everybody’s Favorite City, ain’t it?  Go enjoy the hell outta the place.  Oh, and you might wanna be callin’ in your credit cards…”

          When we had finally passed down toward San Francisco Bay, the churning, windshield-flooding expanse ringed from Mount Tamalpais south to San Bruno Mountain, back around to the Diablo Range. Traffic had swirled into I-80 from all directions, Berkeley and Oakland ripped by, marginally recognizable mind-sets on some progressive third world tour. Breezing along the Eastshore Freeway, I caught a first broad view of The City—a fearfully jeweled crown bobbing atop all that water, trivializing everything that had come before.

          The Bay span cantilevered us into the Treasure Island tunnel, an amber-tiled fallopian tube from which we emerged mid bridge. San Francisco zeotroped through the suspension cables, unfurling over its storied hills, awe-inspiring far beyond its physical scale. Tightly clustered downtown highrises glowed golden against a nectarine sky, waterfront lights refracting in iridescent rays about the ferry and freighter cross-hatched Bay—all so much more dazzling than the fog town I had recalled from the previous Thanksgiving weekend’s impulsive joyride.

          Sydney had pointed me onto one of the pretzeled upper peninsula thruways, spurring me rib by rib as we raced the sunset across town, timed traffic lights ushering us up over steep, compact hills, along the colorfully Victorian-lined Panhandle. I dodged around right-turners and double-parked vans, backfired on to JFK Drive past the lush gardens, groomed meadows—the pools, palm groves and bike paths—of Golden Gate Park. She was recounting a nearby buffalo pasture as I spun out onto the Great Highway, just as a flaming beachball sun sank beyond Ocean Beach, out on the perfectly linear Pacific horizon.

          Syd shot from the Volks, coaxing me toward The Esplanade to narrate this perfect introduction from Land’s End. In breathless bursts, she celebrated our long overdue arrival, pointed out Seal Rocks, the Beach Chalet and Murphy’s Windmill, framing this fiery marine twilight as if her easel and palette were at hand. In all candor, I was momentarily entranced by the ocean, the sunset, the sudden promise of a totally foreign place: Not confining like a craggy mountain front to be scaled, but the level, cinema-scopic infinity of the sea.

          Still, gaping at scattered couples, the surf-and-sand pasted children, I steadied myself against a seawall in the bracing wind, silently brushing away the cool, salty ocean spray. Once grains dislodged Syd’s contacts, she beckoned me back to the car for her eyeglasses and boar’s bristle hairbrush, promenade street lights cutting into the settling darkness as we dashed through clotted traffic to the median parking strip. There we found the squareback’s shotgun-side door slim-jimmied open, her hand-tooled leather purse and matching wallet gone with the late, carmine embering light of day.

          “Think we should have mentioned my radio?” I now opened the steel-reinforced front door of S.F.P.D.’s Western Station, bringing up my Blaupunkt AM-FM, which was ripped halfway out from under the dashboard. Dangling by several yellow wires and a stubborn black antenna cable, it looked to have been left behind by car looters beating a hasty escape.

           “What’s the point, they didn’t get your radio,” Syd snapped, zipping up her ski jacket, straightening her wrinkled vermilion leotards as onshore winds whipped more powerfully across Sunset District avenues.

           “Kind of a downer, huh?”

           “No, still an upper,”she rallied, somewhat rattled nonetheless—suddenly putting on a happy face, wrapping the arm of my sheepskin coat in the deepening darkness. “San Francisco is always on the ups—rule numero uno, no matter what. So let’s go, cowpoke, I’ll show you some ropes…”

Care for more?
Chapter 15. Polking around across
town, a scene heretofore unseen, coming face
to face with the local ‘farming’ community…