Coast Road Trip: Double Back

A reader of the Toads writes:

“Hi Joe,  I have been reading your travel posts . They seem familiar like maybe I’ve seen them before . The photos are recent , though , so I must be wrong about that.”

personal correspondence

That is precisely the problem with writing, with, indeed, life, the feeling we’ve been here before, Déjà vu, been there – done that. Yet we continue to imagine our future, awake and asleep, waiting for something new.

“I pity the poor immigrant
Who wishes he would’ve stayed home”

“I Pity the Poor Immigrant,” Bob Dylan, from John Wesley Harding, 1968.

“Make it new,” Ezra Pound said, over and over again. But if you make it too new, who will recognize it?

HAMM: Go and get the oilcan.
CLOV: What for?
HAMM: To oil the castors.
CLOV: I oiled them yesterday.
HAMM: Yesterday! What does that mean? Yesterday!
CLOV (violently): That means that bloody awful day, long ago, before this bloody awful day. I use the words you taught me. If they don’t mean anything any more, teach me others. Or let me be silent.
(Pause.)

“Endgame,” Samuel Beckett, 1957.

A Google search of “Yaquina Head Lighthouse” will bring up over 300,000 results (in .78 seconds, no less). Click on “images,” and you’ll see more than 500 pics of the lighthouse. Nevertheless, I now double back and offer readers of the Toads these entirely original never seen before pics of the lighthouse, freshly taken about a month ago:

Coast Road Trip: Sans Pics

A perspicacious reader asked why I haven’t posted any pics from the road trip. I’m working on moving toward a new kind of blog, more like the one I started, back in December of 2007, which contained no pics, just short bursts of writing pleasure. I had in mind the kind of posts the venerable E. B. White wrote in the early New Yorker.

“From 1925 to 1976 he crafted more than eighteen hundred pieces for the magazine and established, in the words of editor William Shawn, “a new literary form.” That form was the magazine’s Comment essay—a personal essay that was, in White’s hands, light in style yet often weighty in substance. As White noted in a 1969 Paris Review interview, > I do feel a responsibility to society because of going into print: a writer has the duty to be good, not lousy; true, not false; lively, not dull; accurate, not full of error. He should tend to lift people up, not lower them down. Writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.

“Eighty-Five from the Archive: E. B. White,” by Erin Overbey, The New Yorker, June 7, 2010.

Not that I ever achieved anything everyone might call, “not lousy.” In any case, I drifted away, or off, and into a kind of academic stream, where I imagined I might augment my adjunct work at the time. And I tried to bring some attention to the books I was working on, both reading and writing. Then I began to work-in more slant, though never totally “false,” and found the proverbial bottom of the barrel when I started putting up some poetry. And I recently considered retiring The Coming of the Toads, leaving it to sink to the bottom of the archive abyss of the Internet, where some future crab scuttling along might find a few morsels to criticize.

E. B. White’s idea of the short, personal essay (note the importance of that comma) has been replaced in many blogs by the personal pic essay, with and without words, the latter like Beckett’s short play, “Act Without Words.” And I suspect more reading is done on phones these days than when I started The Coming of the Toads on a desktop computer back in ’07, and the phone and other smaller size formats encourage changes in aspect ratios of screen, pics, and writing. And thinking about that, I decided to remove this blog’s header pic, begin writing with a minimum of pics altogether, returning to the short, personal note or comment type essay. I even thought of a new tagline for the title space: The Coming of the Toads: No links, No likes, No comments. I know that sounds a bit anti-social, but what I’m aiming for is clarity, simplicity – a clean, well-lighted blog.

Besides, I don’t get many comments or likes, and many that I do get appear to be from spam and bots, and I lost all the pics I took on our recent trip, mistakenly thinking I had backed up my phone photos to Google Photos when I had not, in the meantime deleting all the photos from my phone, then crashing my Instagram account trying to retrieve what I had at least saved there. Seems poetic justice for an anti-social attitude.

Having at this point already exceeded my target word limit, not to mention having probably lost my target audience, those interested in hearing more about the Road Trip, I give you this portfolio of road trip pics, all taken by my sister Barbara and Susan as I was trying on the lighthouse keeper’s uniform jacket at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse, north of Newport, trying to strike poses I imagined a lighthouse keeper might have aimed at were he the subject of a live, on the job photo shoot:

Note: Comments On for this post. Have fun!

Coast Road Trip: Cork Tree and Whale

We followed Dry Creek Road into the country northwest of Healdsburg to Lake Sonoma. Along the way, wineries, carefully cultivated vineyards, acre after acre of grapes. We stopped at the Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Dry Creek Valley, a snazzy estate with an “Italianate” villa with views of the valley and vineyards and with exuberant gardens, where we found a cork tree, this one some 50 years old, though they can age to 300 years, and one doesn’t want to start harvesting cork from their bark until they reach 50 years of age. The bark looked like cork, folds of it, and felt like cork, a hard sponge. The trunk was 4 or 5 feet wide.

I was reminded of the cork tree later when back in Depoe Bay, Oregon, we saw a whale, just off shore, bending in vertical dives, showing its back and sides, along the edge of the cliff just north of the harbor entrance. It was probably a gray whale. It was certainly alluring, and we watched for it a long time, and it came up every 10 minutes or so.

The smaller, less manicured wineries or vineyards, off hardpack dirt and gravel roads, with small wood buildings and just a few workers going about their chores – these we preferred to the larger, commercial estates.

Lake Sonoma is partially created with an earth dam over the valley, and we climbed up to the top of Rockpile Road and the bridge viewpoint where from a 3 story observation deck built with thick but old and now weathered timber, parts missing, we learned we were in feral pig country. Wine and pigs. What a life.

Sign posted above Sonoma Lake
Snazzy Ferrari-Carano Vineyards.
Cork tree.
Bark of cork tree.
Villa.

 

Coast Road Trip: High Water Marks

Healdsburg turned on the heat for our arrival and stay, the temperature in the 90’s. My brother’s house stayed cool though under his big California Oak trees, and we slept with the windows open and ceiling fans running. John, old surfer and teacher that he is, always awakes early. I got up early, refreshed but with that feeling you get after awaking in someone else’s bed and for a moment don’t remember where you are. No one else seemed up and about, so I took off walking. I walked to the high school and across the baseball fields. I stood at home plate, taking a couple of high and outside fastballs. Then a curve aimed at my belt broke slow in my zone over the plate and I belted it out to left center, an in the park home run, though I walked the bases, and after touching home declined the interviews with the excuse I had to get back to John’s place.

John and I drove out to Jimtown Store, east of the Russian River, which half circles Healdsburg, for some coffee. A small bridge crosses the river, the road falls suddenly like the Pike roller coaster at Long Beach, a panoramic view of a wine valley flashes, and you’re on the valley floor heading east.

Seems everywhere we went around Healdsburg a former student of John’s said hello. John was just awarded teacher of the year for this past session, but the tall fellow working the Jimtown store today was a former field and track star who quickly recognized his former coach.

I was eight and a half years old when my brother John was born, the fifth in a family of ten kids, the first to be born in California. I was in the front yard playing when Dad walked Mom out to our 1956 Ford wagon, parked in the driveway on Mariposa, to tootle off to the hospital. Mom was never in labor for more than a couple of hours. Some girls have all the luck.

At Jimtown we drank some ice coffee and climbed back into John’s rig and headed back to Healdsburg. Grapes growing here, there, and everywhere. Some old, some newly planted. Up hills, down into valleys. And where no grapes, oaks, a few redwoods still, pines. Bay, willow, maple. Grasses, yarrow. Shrubs. Wineries. At a crossroads signs pointing this way and that to this or that winery. Not by bread alone. Bread and red, white, and rose.

Near the Russian River to the northeast of Healdsburg, John pulled over near an old barn off the side of the road and pointed out the high water marks folks had painted on the siding over the years. Historic floods. Several years where we were now standing we would have been more than 20 feet under water. The homemade historical markers seemed more dramatic and effectively sobering about man’s indifference to nature than the new tsunami signs we’d seen up north near the ocean on Highway 101.

to be continued: this is part six in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.

Coast Road Trip: Inland Slant

South of Eureka, Highway 101 again turns inland, curling through more redwoods, passing through a few small towns. The road curves and curls through the tall woods and slants south-southeast away from the ocean, the trees gradually grow smaller and more sparse, the land opens up into rolling hills, and you enter wine country. Travelers wanting to continue hugging the coast cut over from Leggett to Fort Bragg and continue down old Highway 1, through Mendocino, and can roll and stroll on down all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. Travelers wanting more Pynchon can spend a few nights in Garberville. But we were on our way to Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, in the heart of wine country, though we’d only be about 20 miles from the ocean as the crow flies, about an hour from Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds,” and on the south side of the bay, Dillon Beach, where my brother John likes to go surfing.

Alas, we would not go surfing this trip, in spite of the fact my brother has enough surfboards in his garage to supply a squad of dolphins, and Kevin had brought along his wetsuit. Healdsburg was a happy happening hive: a wedding was being planned though a couple of weeks out yet and anticipation was high; more immediate, a birthday gathering weekend was bringing California family coming in from all directions; Healdsburg High was holding its annual graduation ceremony; there was a jazz fest blowing in the downtown square; and at John’s place there were guitars enough to equip a choir.

After the long drive down the coast, getting lost upon arrival in tiny Healdsburg trying to find John’s house, and the excitement of seeing folks we’d not in some time, we slept like sloths.

to be continued: this is part five in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.

Coast Road Trip: Trinidad

Leaving Open Toe Beach, southbound, we climb again up into the redwoods, and come down near the water again at Orick. We’re on the Avenue of the Giants. That’s not a reference to the travelers or the locals. We slow down and check out Orick, where the highway becomes an alley passing through someone’s backyard. Shacks, old motels, a few cars and a few more pick up trucks parked this way and that, a snack place. A market, a school, an abandoned gas station on the way out of town.

“Uh-oh. Wasn’t there supposed to be some logger’s bar around here someplace? Everybody knew it was high times for the stiffs in the woods – though not for those in the mills, with the Japanese buying up unprocessed logs as fast as the forests could be clear-cut – but even so, the scene in here was peculiar. Dangerous men with coarsened attitudes, especially toward death, were perched around lightly on designer barstools, sipping kiwi mimosas.

from “Vineland,” by Thomas Pynchon, 1990

Highway 101 turns west, continues to follow Redwood Creek out to the ocean, where it turns south and crosses a series of lagoons (Freshwater Lagoon, Stone Lagoon, Big Lagoon). Not quite a bridge, not quite a road, it crosses over or passes near the marshy inlets in the longest series of tsunami inundation zones we’ve yet travelled through. The zones are introduced with new entrance and exit signs: “You are now entering a tsunami inundation zone…You are now leaving….” Basically, if the road is dropping, you’re entering. You know when you’re on the bottom. When climbing, you’re leaving. What you might do if a tsunami should occur while you’re in a zone is left up to your imagination. Turn the car east and try to surf your way back up into the redwoods. We pull off for a rest and to check out Trinidad.

We were not looking for kiwi mimosas, but coffee. The entrance to Trinidad, just west of the 101 entrance and exit, is deceiving. A gas station, a market, a surf and bait shop, and straight ahead, Trinidad Bay Trailer Court. But stay right on Main, passing by the Court, until you come to Stagecoach Road. Left there and on your left, across from the elementary school and next to the volunteer fire station, you’ll find Beachcomber Cafe. We got some coffee from the counter and took it out to the courtyard where we stretched and sat in the warm morning sun. We could hear the kids out playing at recess in the schoolyard across the street. An onshore breeze and a few gulls suggested we were close to a beach, but we’d not seen the water yet.

After coffee we walked down the street to the cliff overlooking Trinidad Harbor, a natural harbor formed by Little Head, which projects a short distance into the bay and is protected by the much larger Trinidad Head. On the cliff, the breeze became a wind, but the water below was still and smooth. A cluster of small boats, mostly fishing, were anchored off shore. There was a pier, but the view was mostly blocked by Little Head, but access to the boats in the harbor appeared limited to small, ship like dinghy crossings. The water down in the cove below the cliffs was translucent turquoise blue-green. The tide was out, and there was no surf, given the position of the beach which faced southeast and was protected from ocean swells by the big head to the west. We watched a fishing boat coming in. We climbed a trail a short way down the cliff to view a small memorial to folks lost at sea over the years. A landmark proclaimed Trinidad to be the oldest town on the Northern California coast.

No idea who might live now in the designer view homes up on the cliff overlooking the harbor or around the hill open to views of the ocean to the west. Not much of a neighborhood vibe apparent, but you can’t tell about a place unless you walk and talk and live and let live in it for a time. Some of the houses looked new, but a few appeared to be hanging on from the days of small beach cottages with yards still filled with wildflowers, seagrasses, surrounded by white picket fences and studded with beachcombing finds. There didn’t appear to be much industry in the small town. A commercial tour fishing boat was unloading at the end of the pier, a worker wearing a slick apron slicing the catch into fillets. Humboldt State University maintains a Marine Laboratory a few blocks up from the old Trinidad Lighthouse. But we didn’t stop in Trinidad to look for a place to live or even stay the night.

On our way out, we stopped at “Salty’s,” the bait and surf shop we’d seen on the way into town. I asked the young man holding a baby behind the counter what life was like in Trinidad, who lived there, and what did they do. He mentioned the changing demographic economic environment of the general area, focussing on the disruption to an established system prior to the legalization of marijuana. A lot of people now have to wear several hats, he said. And of course there’s the college, he said, referring to nearby Humboldt State, about 20 minutes farther south, just off the coast highway, in Arcata.

Back on 101 headed south, I started thinking again of Thomas Pynchon’s “Vineland.”

“The jukebox once famous for hundreds of freeway exits up and down the coast for its gigantic country-and-western collection, including half a dozen covers of “So Lonesome I Could Cry,” was reformatted to light classical and New Age music that gently peeped at the edges of audibility, slowing, lulling this roomful of choppers and choker setters who now all looked like models in Father’s Day ads. One of the larger of these, being among the first to notice Zoyd, had chosen to deal with the situation. He wore sunglasses with stylish frames, a Turnbull & Asser shirt in some pastel plaid, three-figure-price-tag jeans by Mm. Gris, and apres-logging shoes of a subdued, but incontestably blue, suede.”

from “Vineland,” by Thomas Pynchon, 1990

to be continued: this is part four in a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.

Coast Road Trip: Up Through Some Redwoods and Down to Open Toe Beach

Maps can’t find Open Toe Beach. No sign points the way. Likewise, one doesn’t feel any different having crossed the border from Oregon into California. Nature’s borders are difficult to see, to define, to mark:

“The immense sea, the ocean sea, which runs infinitely beyond all sight, the huge omnipotent sea – there is a point where it ends, and an instant – the immense sea, the tiniest place and a split second.”

from “Ocean Sea” by Alessandro Baricco

South from Crescent City, Highway 101 turns away from the ocean and climbs up into Del Norte Coast Redwoods State Park. Parts of the road narrow through the giant trees and begin to switch back and forth like a steep trail through woods. The trees have grown so close on some curves that the trunks have been trimmed back with flat scraping saw cuts to allow for cars and the big trucks to pass. Traffic slows, or should slow, to no more than 20 miles per hour, and even that seems here and there too fast as the curves rise sharply and fall swerving like a ride in an amusement park. You are in a massive forest at the end of the continent, climbing above the ocean, now out of reach. The dappled light coming through the branches thins then goes dark and you need your headlights on to continue. You are an oily steely slug crawling along the floor bed of an emerald rust forest. Here the sea continues too, in the form of high and thick fogs that water the redwood trees from the top down.

But we fall quickly to an elevation of about 30 feet, where the road crosses a bridge on the approach to False Klamath and again touches the water at DeMartin Beach, which we renamed Open Toe Beach for the various abandoned sandals we came across as we parked and walked down to the water barefoot and open toed. Where were the people belonging to all these sandals? The tide was out, and we walked along the cove, the beach covered with small pieces of driftwood. The water was cold but not burning cold. The surf was not big but it was loud as the swells broke on the big scattered rocks out in the cove. It felt good to be back in the open and on the beach and out of the forest. There is a boundary between redwood forest and ocean beach that can be measured or felt in scent and smell. The forest is loamy, quiet, the scent pungent like a snorted mint, the floor softer than sand. The beach is breezy, salty, and your tinnitus becomes more than mere suggestion. It disappears as the surf does in the sand.

“…you see there, where the water arrives…runs up the beach, then stops…there, precisely that point, where it stops…it really lasts no more than an instant, look there, there, for example, there…you see that it lasts only an instant, then it disappears, but if one were to succeed in suspending that instant…when the water stops, precisely that point, that curve…this is what I am studying. Where the water stops.”

from “Ocean Sea” by Alessandro Baricco

to be continued: this is part three of a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.

Coast Road Trip: A Body on the Beach

From our motel room, looking south/southwest, I could see Crescent Beach. A few surfers were out, but the waves looked very small, 1 or 2 feet. The water was glassy. There was no fog, the sun was coming up, and I went down to the lobby where I filled a paper cup with coffee and water and headed out for an early morning walk on the beach. We were staying at the Anchor Beach Inn, located on the west side of 101, at the southeast edge of the harbor. Tommy and Barbara were in the room next to us. I knew Tom would be awake, and from the street I tried to yell up through his open window to come down and join me. I didn’t want to sound an alarm, though, and he didn’t hear me. I walked on alone and crossed the street where a path led through the deep sand out to the beach area. I had thought the beach empty, but at the far end of the path a young woman came walking toward me.

“Are you staying in the motel?” she asked, as we approached one another on the path.
“Yeah. Good morning.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I don’t want to ruin your morning.”
“What’s the matter?” She was wearing beach combing clothes, barefoot, looked like she had just awoken. I thought maybe she was about to ask for a handout or some coffee.
“Well, I’m sorry, I don’t know if I should say anything, but, I don’t know, you know, but there is a body on the beach. I almost stepped on it. And I don’t know if its alive or do they need help. I don’t know, maybe we should just leave them be. I don’t want to ruin your day.”
“No, that’s fine, if they need help we should try to help. Where?”
“Over there,” she turned and pointed.

We were at the end of the beach, where the sand is deep and windblown into small dunes and strewn with driftwood and beached logs and trees of all twisted shapes and sizes washed ashore in storms, beach debris people like to comb through. Here and there smaller pieces of wood and log had been stacked or piled into fire pits. Long, thinner pieces were stood up into teepee shapes but with no covering. There were a few of these built along the outer beach edge. I didn’t know if they were meant to be works of art or something practical, shelter or bonfire starts.

“Where is it?” I asked.
“Right there,” she pointed.

I had thought we would find the body out on the open beach, washed in maybe, but there it was, against a big log, covered with a thin blanket, stretched out but elbows and knees and feet pointing this way and that as happens when people move about in their sleep. The head was covered. The feet stuck out. It was right there, maybe five feet away from where we had stopped short. There had been a sign at the entrance to the path. A city ordinance prohibited camping on the beach.

We were both watching the body for the same thing. We watched and stood staring for about a half minute.

“Oh,” she said, breaking our silent watch. “There.”
“Yeah. He’s breathing. Probably just someone spent the night on the beach.”
“You think he’s ok?”

The tide was very low, the edge of the water over a hundred yards out. A small creek flowed from out of the beachgrass and meandering stained the beach like a tiny river all the way out to the water’s edge. The beachgrass and sedge stuff held quickly and piled up and across a kind of no man’s land up to the highway, which took off at a southeast angle away from the beach. But there were few cars and trucks and you could hear the waves as small as they were and I walked on down to the water and the girl walked off back up to the road. I spent maybe half an hour walking at the water’s edge, rolling my pants up to my knees, walking out into the thin soup. The water was cold, but not so cold it stung like bees. The sand was smooth and worn fairly hard. There were no shells or agates or rocks or driftwood down at the water’s edge. The beach was all wet sand and low tide and shallow water for a long ways out.

I walked back up the beach and had another look at the body sleeping in among the driftwood piles before climbing the path back up to the road.

Later, before leaving Crescent City, we drove back up through town around the harbor and out to Battery Point, about a mile and a half diagonally across the harbor as the crow flies from where we had spent the night and in the morning I had encountered the body on the beach. At the point, the tide was still low enough that we were able to walk across the tide pools and out to visit the Battery Point Lighthouse, located on a small, rocky island at the end of the breakwater structure built up to protect the harbor from the open sea. We walked and climbed the trails up and down all around the lighthouse on the island, watching the water, the small swells breaking up on the rocks, listening to the sea birds, their open air market rife with the shrill economy of their language, calling out finds and deals and steals, calling off and calling to, calling, calling.

to be continued: this is part two of a series covering our June 2019 coastal road trip.


Coast Road Trip: Unpacking the Pacific Northwest

For most of my life, I’ve lived near the Pacific Ocean. Nothing special about that. A lotta people live near the water, all around the Earth, some, arguably, too close. At least that’s the opinion of The New Yorker’s Kathryn Schulz, whose latest piece, “Oregon’s Tsunami Risk: Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” takes aim at the new Oregon law that will allow further building development in tsunami zones along the Oregon coast.

One Oregon state senator, Brian Boquist (R 12), opposed the bill. His district runs parallel to but east of the I-5 from south of Hillsboro (which is just west of Portland) to south of Corvallis, an area covering a significant part of the Willamette Valley, and includes much of Oregon’s wine country, and, situated on the east side of the coast range, is not in a tsunami zone. Schulz mentions Boquist in her article as one of the state’s problematic republicans, but Boquist opposed HB 3309, the bill now signed into law allowing more tsunami zone development on the Oregon coast, with the following explanation:

Secretary: Vote Explanation. Thanks, Sen Boquist

HB 3309 is simply wrong. It allows local government to build unsafe facilities in tsunami zones to save them money. The deaths that will result by building new emergency services facilities that will be destroyed, with deaths, will and should make the city, county and state liable for the deaths. This started two sessions ago allowing OSU to build on liquified Newport Bay so future students will die in a future tsunami. It is clear, the State of Oregon really does not care about tsunami preparation nor the lives of its citizens. Bad policy.

Vote explanation, Senator Brian Boquist, June 17, 2019

The “catchline/summary” of HB 3309 reads as follows:

Directs State Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to study and make recommendations on provisions of state law related to geological and mineral resources of state. Requires department to submit report on findings to Legislative Assembly by January 1, 2021.Removes State Department of Geology and Mineral Industries’ authority to prohibit certain construction within tsunami inundation zone.

Overview, HB 3309

The complete bill, which is only 5 pages in length (“The hand that signed the paper felled a city,” as Dylan Thomas put it, in a different context) can be read here.

According to the Office for Coastal Management: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the coastal counties of the United States fund multiple economies: “Annually, coastal counties produce more than $8.3 trillion in goods and services, employ 55.8 million people, and pay $3.4 trillion in wages.” This helps explain why about half of the US population lives somewhere near the water. But for many, where one lives isn’t a viable choice one makes: “Approximately 40 percent of Americans living in coastal counties fall into an elevated coastal hazard risk category. These include children, the elderly, households where English isn’t the primary language, and those in poverty.” These people the OCM calls “vulnerable populations.” But Oregon’s coastal human population accounts for only about 5% of Oregon’s total population of just over 4 million. Of course that population increases somewhat in the summer tourist season. But for people living on the Oregon coast, life is rural and poor, with local economies largely dependent on tourism – which generates mostly service type jobs.

There are other reasons that might help explain Oregon’s sparse coastal population: the coast mountain range, which makes travel to and from the coast problematic; the weather, wet and wild for most of the year; very cold ocean water temperatures; a rugged coastline marked by cliffs, river estuaries, unnavigable headlands, and north south traffic limited to a single, two lane highway (US 101) with few bypasses and parts of which are washed away or closed by flood and landslide or tree fall nearly every winter.

In June, I spent nine days on the coast. We drove down to Sonoma County, spending a few nights in wine country Healdsburg, to attend a family reunion surrounding a 60th birthday celebration. We spent two nights in Crescent City, which this Slate article calls “Tsunami City, USA.” We walked along the big beach crescent out into the harbor area and ate fish and chips at “The Chart Room,” a local and tourist favorite. We shared our table with a couple of guys, one older even that us, a 90 year old gentleman celebrating his birthday month with a trip up the coast. We talked about the coast, places to stop and see, compared notes. No one mentioned the fact that we were drinking beer and eating fish and chips deep within a tsunami inundation zone. In fact, we were in what DOGAMI calls an XXL zone. That’s a tsunami t-shirt so big it will swallow a whale. From the Crescent City Harbor District History page:

The Inner Boat Basin at the Crescent City Harbor District was damaged by a 2006 tsunami, but was totally destroyed by the tsunami that struck the harbor on March 11, 2011.  The damage from both events required three years to rebuild.  (The word tsunami in Japanese translates literally as “harbor wave.”)

Crescent City Harbor District

I’m going to stop here for today. But for now I’ll leave you with this: between the devil and the deep blue sea, for most of my life, I’ve taken the sea.

to be continued: this is part one of a series that will cover our June 2019 coastal road trip.

Notes on “Big Cactus,” a Novel by Sylvia Wilkinson

In his third essay in Anatomy of Criticism, “Theory of Myths,” Northrop Frye places irony and satire in the “Mythos of Winter”:

As structure, the central principle of ironic myth is best approached as a parody of romance: the application of romantic mythical forms to a more realistic content which fits them in unexpected ways. No one in a romance, Don Quixote protests, ever asks who pays for the hero’s accommodation. (223)

But if someone does ask, tell them, “Aunt Lucy.”

The aging Lucy, accused of being at risk of not being able to take care of herself and forced into “the county home,” sweet-talks (in a manner of speaking) her teenage nephew, Benny, into a road trip in his pickup truck, a 1965 GMC. Lucy wants to satisfy her Holy Grail vision of seeing the Big Cactus at sunset, a quest suggested by something she’s seen in a magazine, Arizona Highways.

Benny is at risk of becoming a responsible adult and has dreams of someday becoming a NASCAR mechanic, but for now he’s stuck telling a story about his trip driving his Aunt Lucy and his dog, Polar, from North Carolina across the southern states to Arizona and back, a distance of some 4,000 miles of mixed terrain and worry in an old pickup, stopping in towns along the way, sleeping nights in motels and eating in restaurants, encountering a host of characters and trials of travel episodes. Benny falls for a waitress but must get back on the road, but Sue Faye is just a prelude to his own unrequited quest which develops on the run with Aunt Lucy, Polar, and the rich Tennessee, another road rescue.

In his This Year You Write Your Novel, Walter Mosley explains why aspiring authors might want to avoid a first person narrative their first time out. If you’ve ever tried ocean wave surfing, you probably know it’s best not to try to stand up on your first wave. Ride the foam to shore in the prone position, getting the feel of the surfboard on the water. But

I’ve tried to do a story in my mind about what happened to me (231),

Benny says, and besides, Sylvia Wilkinson knows what she’s doing when it comes to writing a novel. Big Cactus is her seventh, and she’s a master of the first person narrative.

Big Cactus features characters revealed through dialog and action. “What’s a body for?” Judith Butler asks in Astra Taylor’s film Examined Life. Big Cactus features comparisons and contrasts between wealth and poverty, the old and the young, their aspirations and problems, their ideas of love and the needs of the body, how they present themselves in public and to one another in private, how they communicate – “for better, for worse.”

Big Cactus is a kind of picaresque, quixotic novel, where two main characters play off one another as separate halves of a single protagonist. They get in one another’s way as opposites but share a symbiotic relationship in a shared endeavor as outsiders against some social antagonist. Think of Huck and Jim, or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, of Estragon and Vladimir.

Sylvia’s new book is a marvel of vernacular. The wit and humor is layered with carefully constructed confusion between what the reader sees and what the characters see, between what one character thinks is happening and what their foil character thinks. In the end, it’s Benny’s story, another marvel – of opposites between first person narrator and author. But Benny is a close observer, and as he says of himself,

I say a bunch of things out loud I ought to just think. (125)

That might be a good definition of a novelist. Gifts are a theme throughout the book. Benny has the gift of storytelling, a gift presented by Sylvia to the reader.

Joe and the Peace Truck April 1970_4151572268_mNo, that’s not Benny and that’s not a 1965 GMC. That’s me and my 1949 Ford pickup truck that my Dad bought me for $200 from a nearby motor pool. In the photo, if you look close, you can see the white tip of my surfboard hanging over the tailgate. I’ve just returned from a rescue trip up to Zuma Beach, towing my friend’s old, tiny BMW back home. My memory isn’t perfect here, but I think it was a BMW 700 convertible. It broke down in Zuma and we drove up to tow it back, pulling it with a rope from Zuma down to the South Bay along the Pacific Coast Highway, a distance of about 30 miles, but towing with the rope was probably illegal, required someone to stay in the disabled BMW to brake it at stops, and a smooth clutch operator in the truck with its three-speed on the column. Certainly not a novel in that story, probably not even a short story, unless Benny had been along for the ride.

Give me my good old American truck any day of the year (89),

Benny says. Now there’s some irony ole Northrop Frye might have enjoyed.

Big Cactus, a novel by Silvia Wilkinson. 2014. Owl Canyon Press: Boulder, Colorado.

Update, Dec 20, 2015: A review of “Big Cactus” in the Fall 2015 issue of Blackbird.