Big Sur
Big Sur

Today started in Northern California. Lake County. Clearlake. A special kind of place.

Not short-bus special, not red-rose special. It’s where the city crashes into the country. And it hurts.

In the early part of the twentieth century, the town of Clearlake was a thriving resort community an easy two hours north of San Francisco by auto-mobile. Newly mobile urbanites swarmed up to enjoy the warm, if murky waters of the shallow Clear Lake (clear in name only) to catch catfish, crappie and later, bass. Clear Lake postcards featured waterskiing and glowing red reflected sunsets. It smelled like algae, but small price to pay.

Then, timed for the Olympics at Squaw Valley in 1960, construction of Highway 80 over Donner Pass made Lake Tahoe accessible with its crystal clear depths. Suddenly Clearlake was abandoned, it’s quaint cabins shuttered, wobbly screened doors left banging in the wind.

Soon a new type of guest filled Clearlake’s cabins: the meth-head.

This 2013 Thanksgiving roadtrip began in Clearlake Oaks, the comparatively glitzy suburb of Clearlake just to its north. Mostly modular homes, double-wides with faded plastic fallen-over bird baths in the yards, Clearlake Oaks is populated by a strange combination of kind-hearted blue-collar retirees and parents who yell through broken screens at their toddlers: (and I quote,) “get your ass out of the street.”

My mother-in-law’s place is a mobile home that hasn’t been mobile in about 50 years. In addition, on two neighboring lots, she has another trailer she uses for an office, and a third she uses for storage.

Or I should say used.

My mother-in-law, who in the early 1950s stood out as one of very few women to graduate from Stanford’s medical school, settled here with her husband, also an MD, refused to pay for the multi-million dollar malpractice insurance the local hospital required, and set up her own medical practice, offering internal medicine services to the limited-income locals for a price they could afford.

But now, at age 84, (and having survived three husbands,) she has been moved to an assisted living community near my brother-in-law in San Diego.

I am right now typing on a well-worn picnic table at Morro Bay Beach campground.  The sun just set, so the shrieking sky is turning to starry starry delight.

Somehow I got signed up to drive her camping van filled with stuff … ahem … somehow I landed the fantastic opportunity of transporting her large white vehicle and a load of treasures to her new home, a two-day drive south along the lovely coast of California … during this week of Thanksgiving.

I will skip over the three hours cleaning the van (it had been stolen for a few days) and I will skip over the time on the phone with in-laws trying to find the various items needed to be transported. I’ll get right to the good part:

I left Lake County at 4 a.m. to meet my mother, who had flown in from Hawaii the night before, for a 7:30 breakfast at the Monaco.

Breakfast room at the Monaco, Taylor and Geary in San Francisco.
Breakfast room at the Monaco Hotel, at Taylor and Geary Streets in San Francisco.

The Monaco Hotel is made swank by the red couch on which I devoured the New York Times as I waited for my mother and Chas. (“please, do not call me your stepfather, call me ‘the man who is sleeping with your mother.’ Honestly, he signs his letters “TMWISWYM.) For the record, yes, Faye and Charles, 79 and 83, are married.

This vaguely Art Deco haven of the Monaco is alive. Breakfast is enlivened by the discovery, on the part of my stepfather, (er, TMIY…whatever,)  of an error in the breakfast menu. Chas., who finishes tomorrow’s New York Times crossword puzzle every evening before dinner (he is able to download it in Hawaii by 6 p.m.) notices that Gravlax is misspelled.

How did I miss that?

What the hell is Gravlox … or Gravlax anyway?

I still don’t know. I have bacon and eggs.

But the manager does. And now he knows how to spell it too.

By the time I get to Santa Cruz around noon I am exhausted. I fall asleep on the first beach I can find.

A barking seal awakens me.

I don’t see the seal until the woman it is following has carried her surfboard up the sandy slope. The seal watches her like a rejected lover. The woman turns as though to say good-bye. The seal’s head above the water looks much like that of my dog.

Crossing the path of the woman, along comes a chocolate lab to take her place. I watch as the dog barks at the seal from a restraining red leash, its human companions unaware of the wet mammal swimming along with them as they walk. Two women, a man and two children toddle along on the edge of the waterline as the dog barks furiously. I wait for the moment of discovery, but the people don’t see it. As the seal, the dog, the ignorant people disappear down the beach I stretch and get up.

Brighton Beach
Mammals bark at each other at New Brighton Beach

I continue south.
I have been this way before. I see that the human spine still bears much of the cost of planting strawberries, but that the fields are now planted entirely in plastic. I see that brussels-sprout acreage is encroaching on the artichokes, and that the food on which this country depends is still produced entirely by immigrant labor.
Soon I pass Monterey, skipping the aquarium, the butterflies, Cannery Row and the whole John Steinbeck thing. I also skip Carmel-by-the-sea.

My next stop is Big Sur.

The Santa Lucia Mountains drop here off the geologic cliff that is California, to meet the Pacific, which today is living up to its name. The calm waters are clear, the tide is low and kelp loose.  I see that a post-middle aged couple is trying to do a selfie with a notebook. I offer to help, ask where they are from.

Brazil.

I speak in Spanish and they understand.

“Gracias” they say when I’m finished. I see them again at another vista point further south.

She dyes her hair.

He does not.

They are in love.

When I get to the beach with the elephant seals I know I have my Thanksgiving photo. The huge beasts loll about on the beach  making flatulent noises and generally acting like jellyfish out of water. They do not look nearly as graceful as the footage I’ve seen of them swimming.

Elephant seals at San Simeon.
Elephant seals at San Simeon.

I blow past Hearst’s castle, a cruel reminder of what journalism used to be, and I land in Morro Bay, the place my father wanted to retire one day. A humble town on an estuary, Morro Bay is an in-between place, more civilized than the drug-derailed armpit of Clearlake, less precious than Carmel.

I look up gravlax on my phone.

I’ll stick with the bacon and eggs, thanks.

Now here I sit, wondering whether I really should be typing on a computer at this ancient picnic table, or whether I should clean my feet and my soul with a long walk on the beach.

Up next:

Southern California