Mikey didn’t trust the Volvo to make it to Portland and back, so he left it parked in the Western Addition and took a Greyhound. “Use it if you want,” he told me and I hoped to. About a month before, I had been looking at grad schools and I found one way up north in a place called Arcata. The program looked good and I applied to it just before the deadline. It wouldn’t be long before I’d be hearing back and I wanted to see Arcata before I made a decision. I’d never been anywhere near that part of California.
Mikey’s Volvo was one of those cars you never expected to start, but it always did. The paint job was a Michigan gray, factory smoke on a cloudy winter day. The windows were filmy with neglect and residual cigarette smoke. The interior always seethed this cold morning fug which was strangely sweet and was like nothing I’d ever smelled, like fruit and wax and paint. A smell made up of natural and artificial components which fit together nicely. An odor that was nostalgic the first time it was smelled. There was a rack on the top, I kept this in mind ducking into the car late in the morning on my day off. I always hit my head on that rack. I threw a handful of cds in the passenger’s seat to listen to. Some of them roadtrip cds I hadn’t listened to in nearly a year.
I didn’t know where to take a left onto Van Ness, so I crossed into the Tenderloin and took a bunch of lefts so I didn’t have to do a U-turn. The traffic out of town and over the bridge was light. I looked over and saw Angel Island and Marin gloaming ahead like something I was going to run into. The bridge stabbed into the straw-colored bulk of Marin and the Volvo hit the rising road like a wall but kept moving. I had the window down and the eucalyptus and dried grass and sand were all blowing through the car, like a light current blowing through beds of kelp, my hair standing on end and swaying against the ceiling of the car. The warning light came on in the dash and I turned on the fan to pull the heat off the engine. The light went off. At the crest of the hill, the traffic and I went into that tunnel with the rainbow painted above it, in which at least one car always honks. It came from behind. A tentative beep from something like a Volkswagen, some personable and brightly-colored car.
After Marin, the 101 widens out through Santa Rosa and becomes like any great American highway; a gray ribbon incessantly tying stores, people, parking lots and the horizon together. It’s warmer up here, the coast moves out and the road drifts east into that strange desert of hills, cattle and chaparral that makes up the bulk of California. The heat, the dryness and the large reflective parking lots push the highway back west toward the water The towns get smaller until they’re insubstantial islands of gas stations and fast food places, just a few rooftops poking out from the jagged green horizon and a sign The temperate pine forests come down from the mountains and crowd the highway. The forest bends the highway into hairpin curves around tattered red tree trunks with the circumference of subway tunnels. The world tips on its side, the horizontal is framed by the vertical. All movement is upwards. It’s enough to carry you off. The car lumbers ahead, but it feels like your hair is on end and the blood is rushing to your head, vertiginously.
A space has been cleared, like a blight has attacked the forest. The gray light overhead is intense. The grass is wet, profuse and downtrodden. The gas stations that appear in these clearings look like humble franchises still owned by a local, someone living behind the place with a first name everyone knows, who sells the pies his neighbor bakes in chunky cling-wrapped slices next to the register. Even standing still, the redwoods dominate the landscape and drag the heavy light of the place back into the forest, exuding fog so thick it looks like suspended rain. The silence is intensified by the non-sound of falling pine needles everywhere and at once.
After crossing into Humboldt County, I stopped often. Despite the hour, the haze gave the place an early morning drive-to-work look and I needed a bad gas station coffee to go with the foggy drive for aesthetic purposes of imaging myself in an old pickup, metal lunch box in the seat next to me and a continuous flow of Maxwell House from a dented thermos. I still had the heat fan going in the car. It wasn’t cold, but I scooped up my beanie from the seat and screwed it on over my hair for effect.
The highway continued to twist in and out of the forest. The lanes peeled away until there were only two: wending their way between elephantine tree trunks, like alleys scuttling between skyscrapers. Every mile or so, there was another place to pull over. Frequently, these were occupied by a lone traveler, head craned 90-degrees back, looking for the tops of the endless trees, blinking against the falling drizzle. Tilted at an angle like that, your hat falls off your head. So you’re standing there, looking up, hat in hand, but looking more bewildered than deferential, squinting, mouth open, catching the rain in a smoky-mouthed howl.
Eureka is the first time you see water. Unlike the mist-drenched forest towns the 101 passes through, Eureka is a salt-scabbed port town. The water suspended in the air, is less diaphanous, milkier, reeks of kelp and dead shellfish and bumps through the seaside streets with the clang of buoys rocking in high tide. Shadows loom and disappear without connecting to form. Everything along the waterfront is warehoused and chainlinked. No windows. The neon sign of a bar drifts through the afternoon like stale cigarette smoke and gulls stab at sodden McDonald’s bags in empty parking lots.
I found the mystery of the town depressing. In the empty streets I felt like the archetypal stranger in a small town. I imagined blinds being lowered, shutters slammed shut, locks turning in doors, but everything was already closed. Each building was a painted children’s block, dropped down in a marsh, adorned with decorative doors and windows but, ultimately solid and sunken in its foundation. Only the highway passing through town seemed to carry any traffic, walking back in the neighborhoods, the movement of distant cars looked strangely furtive, like they were all sneaking away.
Outside Eureka, the bay opened up like a lake placed too close to the ocean and had drained into it. At low tide, it was a pan of cracked mud, miles wide. Disused railroad tracks ran its length like a frame.
North of the bay, Arcata had three or four exits on the highway. I got off at the first one, drove a few blocks west and, finding myself in a quiet neighborhood, pulled over and parked the car. I sat there for a minute with my hands still on the steering wheel, listening to the plinking sounds of the car settling after the long drive. I’d rolled the window up, but a wet, reedy smell permeated the car: the smell of the emptied bay, the smell of gulls digging up crabs in the mud: an evening smell. I opened the door and it came rushing into the car. The lonesome feeling it dredged up was so intense, a bright child’s toy rake abandoned on the sidewalk, persuaded me to move it into the grass. I did so reverently, with both hands.
I took my empty backpack out of the car, locked the door and tried to decide on a direction to walk. Every street had the same look, even when there porch lights on. Nothing enticed me forward. It had been years since I’d moved to a place where I didn’t know anyone and now, faced with the prospect of doing it again, here, there was only a dolorous resignation. I couldn’t imagine being able to fit a single component of my life into this place. In the hills behind the town, a milk-white mist was curdling above the redwoods and floating, like soap bubbles on water, down toward the ocean. I lit a cigarette and watched it for a while, leaning against the car, afraid to leave the familiarity of its warm hood behind.
When I finished smoking, I walked north, without knowing where I was going. The sidewalks were quiet. I didn’t see anyone out. Droplets of water were suspended in the air like dew strung along spiderwebs at dawn. My exhalations disturbed these droplets, flung them further across the wet medium of the twilit sky. I focused on the veil of wet, gray air like a veil before my eyes and avoided looking past it into the background of monotonous single family homes and the moldy, bumper-stickered vans on tires so flat they look melted. My footsteps echoed. There was no one around. The mist had come down from the mountains and claimed the town.
I crossed the highway, walking over a bridge toward a campus painted the color of American cheese which dominated the right bank of the town. The windows of the library shone dimly against the twilight, glistening orange-gray. The automatic doors slide open on a tableau of campus life: scattered backpacks and their backs, thermoses with university logos, abandoned piles of books, most people dressed like they’d just rolled out of bed and a non-student, in a nest of papers at one of the computer terminals, typing carefully with both index fingers like he was pointing out each letter to someone before typing it. I waded through the scene, thinking I would find something to read, but the ripe, vaguely vinegary smell of construction paper became more profound the further I walked into the library. Somehow the smell reinforced the unfamiliarity of the place. I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on reading. It was getting late. I turned and went back out.
I considered walking around campus a little more, but there didn’t seem to be any point. In the falling darkness there wouldn’t be much left to see but the shape of the place, the buildings, the grid of the wet streets, solitary lampposts washing the curbs in light. A jogger passed me, leaving an audible trail of panting breaths. The bridge back over the highway, fenced and unlit, felt impossibly remote from the cars passing beneath, like the lights of San Francisco seen from Alcatraz, reflecting far enough into the water to almost touch the barred windows.
It took me a while to find the Volvo, tucked back as it was into a corner of the town. Since I’d left, someone had parked in front of me. There was so much room on the street, but this other car had sought out the companionship of mine. When I opened the door, I hit my head on the overhead rack. I dropped into the seat clutching the area just above my temple and clenching my teeth against the sudden pain, but the familiar sour smell of the car revived me. The car started, miraculously. I drove off and left the car that had joined mine alone.
I found the highway easily, it ran the length of the town. The temperature had dropped, but I kept the window rolled down so I could rest my elbow on the door. The ocean salts and the mountain pines both found neutral territory on the highway and the car filled and emptied like a sieve with a wild smell like something you’d notice in a burrow or a nest. The lights of Eureka melted into the bay, flooded, now, with high tide.
I only stopped once on the way home when I pulled over on the empty highway to pee after finishing the cold coffee in the thermos. Even with the car there idling next to me, the immense darkness of the place was overwhelming. The wavering starlight shone brightly on the wet highway, like the wake stirred up by a boat trolling the open ocean. I stood there in the dark, listening to the moisture bead and fall from the redwood needles, before nodding at the whole scene, getting back into the car and driving non-stop to the city.