The road immediately north of the Golden Gate Bridge winds through a long mountain tunnel, and it's easy to imagine the passage as a magical gateway. Ninety minutes later, the transformation fully takes place, and the road tracks through rolling hills, mountain ranges, twisting rivers, rock slides and oak trees with balls of mistletoe in the otherwise-bare early winter branches. And then, of course, there are the redwoods.
No tree can make you feel as insignificant, as lost in awe. Driving through Avenue of the Giants they are towering, endless, the tops too high to even see. What light that gets through is that of a fairytale, splintered into shards of translucent milky blue-white, beacons of mysterious adventure, of imagination. It's easy to get lost in thought, in memory.
Humboldt County announces itself clearly as Highway 101 snakes North. The roadside stands selling burls and carvings are fewer now, the old diners and truck stops I remembered so well as a kid now shuttered and empty. I was young then -- 5,6 -- riding the Greyhound (the 'Big Dog,' the adults called it) alone, back and forth between parents. Now, stores advertise trimming tools and grow lights, irrigation pumps and ventilation systems. Behind those stands of redwoods, tobacco companies are buying up huge tracts in anticipation of legalization, the same property that welcomed back-to-the-land enthusiasts, poets and musicians and Vietnam vets escaping North, merging -- at times uneasily -- with the loggers and fishermen of rural small-town America.
East coast folks consider San Francisco Northern California, but there's a good seven hours of driving left before Oregon, and six of those before you get to Trinidad, the smallest city in the state. It was a fishing village when I lived there, 412 of us, Captain Beefheart and Thomas Pynchon included. Now it's mostly empty, save for summertime vacation rentals and a few old timers, my father included.
It had been a few years since I'd made the drive North, and as the miles slipped by and the angle of the sun dropped beneath a high valley fog, the soft light horizon of late November and the easy blues of KMUD pulled me back. I remember driving this road once in 2001 with my girlfriend, taking her to meet my father. She was European, blonde, and so beautiful that her mere presence changed the energy in a room. She was wrapped in a scarf and sunglasses, seat way back, staring at the trees, and I was so smitten I pulled over and stood on the hood with my camera, taking pictures through the windshield of this amazing woman. A black mustang zoomed past, a young girl driving, and for some reason I noticed.
Ten minutes and a few curves later, we came upon that mustang, stopped, smoking, smashed head-on into a little red Toyota. It was eerily quiet, and we could feel the sudden, palpable absence of the life just gone. The girl was not visible, and there was a body slumped sideways in the front seat of the Toyota. They'd met head-on, and both died. It turned out the woman in the red car was someone my dad knew, and in the backseat, still alive, was her new baby. She'd been on her way to introduce the child for the first time to family.
Three years ago, on the morning after Thanksgiving, I woke my dad up for coffee and found he'd had a stroke, half his face eerily contorted, his ability to speak temporarily gone. Fear and confusion and shock and misdiagnosis, airlifts to Stanford, a week in the ICU -- it came and went. He's made so much progress since then that people who meet him can't tell. But I can.
He was funny and loud, raucous and inappropriate, curious, a storyteller, a wine drinker, a basketball player. Now he's fairly quiet, nearly invisible in a group, and by his own admission on a downhill slide. He's been in California 40 years, and is lucky to have the type of extended community around him that only small towns can provide. But most days, and nearly every night, he's alone, and poor, and getting older and less able. It is a brutal combination, and tonight, after arriving, and dinner, I am again floating backward, disconnected, watching him sitting on the edge of his bed. I was like this the morning of the stroke, looking at him looking at his own twisted face in a hand mirror, unconsciously moving away, backing up slowly, until the voice of my mother saying the word "hospital" pulled me in again to reality.
His empathy for and interest in other people hasn't diminished. He is still a voracious reader, and every Wednesday, like clockwork, the poker players arrive, and the night is filled with wine and music and laughter. But there is sadness, and it hits me hard tonight, where I spent so much of my own childhood dreaming about being someone else, being somewhere else. I watch my dad walk more tentatively now, down that inevitable path, and I'm 42, and single, at another crossroad in my own career, and I wonder, apple and tree and all that, and it scares the shit out of me.
The next day, Thanksgiving morning, I take my dad with me, and we drive four hours south, across the mountains and through the redwoods to the coast, where the sun glints stunningly off the jagged rocks and churning water of the Pacific. It's here, Mendocino, where I spent the other half of my childhood. We are at my mom's, where the stroke actually happened, three years ago to the day, and my dad makes no mention of it -- no one does -- gamely returning, superstition be damned.
We're eating Manischewitz-brined turkey with latkes, 11 of us, lighting candles for Hannukah in a mishmash of celebration. I'm the youngest by a lot. There's my father and mother, friends for more than 50 years. The last man my mom dated before she came out is also here -- he and his wife as much a part of my life and family as anyone. My mom's two ex-girlfriends are also here, these women who have known me, and loved me, for decades. And in the mix is an old friend of my mother's from Mexico. We picked her up on the drive down, and she slept the whole way, and now, glasses of wine and rounds of joints in, she pauses the meal to ask in heavily accented-English what Thanksgiving means to us, Americans.
And there is pause, and then the expected answers -- family, football, food, the slaughter of natives. And the feast continues on, sublime, joyful, this community of friends in this open room with a fireplace and glass walls looking out on to dusk and the trees and the stars. But I am drifting again. What DOES it mean, Thanksgiving, giving thanks, being thankful? Hannukah commemorates the burning for eight days of fuel enough for one, and I am back again to fossil fuels and climate change, and it doesn't take much before I'm worrying again about career and health and war and my father and when will I fall in love again.
And then the Pope -- the POPE for Christ's sake -- appears in my mind, flogging the Church for its interference with gays and questioning aloud why the stock market dropping two points is news, but the death of an elderly homeless man to exposure is not. If that can change, what can't? A single moment three years ago forever altered a life -- lives. And another moment, around any corner, is always coming. Opportunity? Another car? We just don't know. We have this moment, only and always. And I am strangely comforted, feeling again the inevitability of change, finding strength in letting go.