I never did tell you about my California adventure. Not that I had only one—I was born and raised in California and my adventures were many, like the time a bear stole my backpack high in the Sierras, or when the hood (the bonnet, in Britspeak) flew off my ’59 Jag on the Pasadena freeway, or when I nearly died from a bee sting …
But on a more recent occasion, while visiting family and friends, I was headed to the Central Valley from Long Beach, and had become so sick with a respiratory flu I wanted to clear my head and body in the wilds. I wanted clean air and uncluttered space.
It happened fortuitously. I missed the right fork in the freeway, literally, which put me on the 5, still heading north but a bit closer to the coast. On this stretch the country is wide open, dusty, and uninviting. Deciding to postpone my stay with my octogenarian mother (not wishing to compromise her health), I proceeded.
I saw that Pacheco State Park was a couple of hours away. I imagined trekking through dry grasses, over hills studded with oaks, sketchbook-ready, inspired. A picture formed in my mind of a lone live oak on a hill, spreading like a Rorschach test over the barrenness. I knew how I’d render the leaves; I knew how I’d render the grass.
My fever rose so high at times I felt the fringes of delirium.
As I drove further north and west, I recalled a Robin Williamson song.
Purple clouds turn scarlet in the setting sun
Where sagebrush turns to live oak and the white-tail run
The air is cool as music when the day is done
And God paints the sky above Pacheco
Driving all day up the San Joaquin
Turn west again, up through Pacheco
Through the blue hills back of Santa Cruz we're rolling fine
Where red-tailed hawks go circling like the waves of time
Lovers and friends will meet again around red Sonoma wine
When God calls the night above Pacheco
I drove all day and into the evening, arriving at a place I thought was near Los Gatos—The Cats (named after the mountain lions and bobcats indigenous to the region)—where John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath and violinist Yehudi Menuhin lived as a boy. But, getting sicker by the mile, I pulled into a KOA and sat for a moment. It was early evening and I was in Los Banos—The Baths. I hoped to rest a few hours, shower, and get back on the road to somewhere more scenic, expecting to be well enough to draw my dreamscape.
My fever dropped, my appetite returned, and I found a Panda Express near a truck stop. To get to the door I had to wade through a whine of feral cats, begging with their hungry tongues and their hollow eyes. They were all the same dirty beige. As I ate I watched them watching me, with a picture window between us. I could eat only part of my meal, and cracked open the fortune cookie, which prophesied:
You will meet an old friend.
Feeling worse again, I returned to the KOA, registered at the desk, and pulled into a spot to sleep. More cats surrounded a dumpster in the distance—surreal, ghost-colored cats, all the same dirty beige. My fever went up again and I sat there in a sweat. I decided to take a shower. On the way to the showers I passed the community room, a large windowed porch off the main office. Under cold, harsh lights people not much older than I shared a potluck meal, camaraderie, and card games. What a ghastly way to spend your life. But each of us must find his own happiness. They all seemed happy. In the mens room I saw a phantom in the mirror that looked too sick to shower, so I went back to the car. Perhaps in the morning I’d feel better. My fever would not quit. The night was a continuous John Fahey death chant. I sat and gazed at the dumpster. All the cats were gone but one, a sentry, perched on the lid, watching for rats. I shared my misery with it.
Around 4 am my fever broke. I was ready to get back on the road. I headed for the showers again but the door was locked. After retrieving the code from my car, I still could not get in. I lose patience with such things. The code had been hastily jotted down by the woman behind the desk, and after I realized the 8 was actually a 3, it was too late. By the time I had finished punching numbers I’m sure I’d re-programed the lock. I ended up in a posh outhouse, washing my head in the sink and taking what the locals back where I live call a sponge bath (from an earlier time when wells went dry and you had to conserve), avoiding the black widows all the while.
Enough. I was ready to see the sun, see the sea. Though my fever had dropped, I coughed like a dog. Changing my plans, I headed for San Jose. There was a gallery that displayed the works of an instructor I’d had during my Art Center days in Pasadena. Barron Storey. He’s in his seventies now. I had to see what he was up to.
for dreams and death chants, part two, click here
cover art from a John Fahey album