Letters from the road: Stitches out in Red Bluff

Hello Morgan! Greetings from Red Bluff, California! The Golden State enjoys a reputation as one of our country’s most liberal places, but I do not think the people responsible for propagating that reputation have spent much time here. On the one hand you have San Francisco and Los Angeles and et cetera, but on the other hand you have pretty much the rest of the state, which ranges from mixed-bag to Palin-esque (in terms of both attitude and policy preferences). It’s a big, weird, politically schizophrenic state.

Red Bluff lies somewhere between mixed-bag to just-right-of-mixed-bag, or at least that’s the sense I get. I’m not sure why I’m going on about this, other than that I drew my proposed California state mascot and I guess felt compelled to explain it using information that I assume you already know.

But here I am in the state that gave us Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, gay rights, and a world-renowned state university system.

I like Red Bluff. Or at least I like substantial aspects of life in Red Bluff. I like that it’s not a big city, I like the hills and oak trees that surround the Sacramento Valley, I like the proximity to the mountains, and I like the hot, dry summers and cool, rainy winters. Over on the coast the culture is I think what you’d get if you could put Ken Kesey and all the characters from his book Sometimes a Great Notion into a superpersonality supercollider. Over here it’s more like Jonh Steinbeck and pre-sobriety Johnny Cash raised a child together and it turned out to be Red Bluff.

The more I write, the more I think I really like Red Bluff best when I’m just passing through.

I spent a couple days down here at my aunt and uncle’s place after taking about a week to travel north from San Francisco along the coast and then through the mountains. I had the staples removed from my legs back in Santa Rosa, and I had the remaining stitches removed from my legs a couple days ago thanks to the help of a family friend. The “examination table” for the procedure was the La-Z-Boy recliner in my aunt’s living room. I think I got better health care here in Red Bluff than I did on any of my follow-up visits in Santa Rosa.

Hello, Morgan! It’s now mid-afternoon and I’m about thirty miles north of Red Bluff. Redding is warm and sunny and the air coming into town was hazy with the smoke of forest fires burning to the east. The fires are big, and Red Bluff was a little hazy this morning, but this is really something.

I’m sitting at a picnic table above the Sacramento River, looking at the Sundial Bridge, a pedestrian/bike bridge designed by a guy named Santiago Calatrava, who I don’t think was super well-known when he designed this bridge, but has since become Mr. Hot Stuff. He designed the transportation hub for the new World Trade Center site, and … I don’t know, also a bunch of other stuff. The point is, Redding was into Santiago Calatrava before he was cool, which I guess means the Redding city planners are architectural hipsters.

I watched a short-ish documentary about the bridge on Netflix. From what I remember it seems like the bridge was a controversial project whose construction was a hard-fought victory. I think it’s a good-looking bridge. In fact I would probably describe it as funky, but that’s mostly because I’m listening to a funk mix on my headphones, which engenders positive feelings and a tendency to describe things I like as funky. (Conversely, when I listen to the Democracy Now! podcast, I feel depressed about the world and have a tendency to identify things I think are undemocratic.)

So, here I am in Redding, listening to 1970s funk and enjoying the warm weather and campfire-scented air. And I’m eating cherry tomatoes from my uncle’s garden, with a side of dry-roasted peanuts. I think peanuts and tomatoes have a brain-clearing effect, because after yammering about funk music and a footbridge I don’t know what to write about next. In fact, I must have paused for a good five or ten minutes before writing that last sentence, just staring at the river.

Okay. Golly, I’ve eaten a lot of peanuts and spent a lot of time staring at the river. I don’t know why this place is called Turtle Bay. It’s clearly a river, not a bay.

Later today I drive north toward Oregon. My friend Tom is getting married in Portland on Saturday, and I want to be there for the shindig. It’s essentially a de facto college reunion for me. After that I’ll be orbiting Portland for a while, I expect, trying to draw out the summer, camping and doing what hiking I can.

I don’t think I have a good conclusion here. I like rivers and bridges, maybe? I’m not sure what the take-home message is there.

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Frenchglen: 80 kilometers of bad roads pay off

Yesterday at Hart Mountain I worked on postcards and found some animal bones.


Today I drove the back roads to Frenchglen, a small town on the western side of Steens Mountain. As you can tell from Frenchglen’s choice of motor vehicles, the residents of this AMC-friendly town have excellent taste.

Letters from the road: The people you’ll meet

Hello, Cheyenne! How are you? I am doing swell. I am sitting at a picnic table in Northern California, writing you a letter. I suppose that latter information is obvious from context. This isn’t an official campground I’m at, it’s a makeshift (and presumably illegally “constructed”) hunting camp in a clearing. There’s not much to it. An impressive fire ring, a plywood bench, some shelves and a floodlight nailed to a tree, and also this picnic table, which was stored upright under a repurposed scrap of discarded carpet. Some distance off is a toilet seat affixed atop a metal drum; I haven’t had the courage to lift the lid, let alone try to, you know, use it.

When I first got here I thought it was a grow operation — I’m not sure if I’m still in Humboldt County or not — and I thought that certainly some unkind person would be emerging to chase me off. But there’s a feed trough for horses nearby, and I really can’t imagine a surly marijuana grower smoking a bunch of his product and then saying, “You know what? I think I’m gonna go for a trail ride.” Although earlier today a dude and his girlfriend rode up here on a four-wheeler looking for rolling paper and matches.

And that’s what your letter is all about, Cheyenne: The people you can meet. I’ve met a couple of characters this past week. One was at a coffee shop in Santa Rosa. I mean, he wasn’t in the coffee shop, although he did ask about the advisability of riding his motorcycle through the front door. He was in the parking lot, sitting on his broken motorcycle, talking to any chump who would listen. Unfortunately, one of those chumps was me.

The conversation began with him observing the scars on my legs and expressing his approval of my totally awesome scar “tattoos” and then realizing that they weren’t tattoos, but the real thing. His inability to discern the difference between an actual traumatic leg injury and a tattoo depiction thereof should have been my cue to say thanks and goodbye, but I missed that cue. Hard.

The guy on the motorcycle asked me how I got the scars, and then he started asking things like, “What do you think? Should I just walk in there and clock the bitch?” For the record, if anyone ever asks you this, the correct answer is “no”. Do not answer as I did, by saying, “Who? Where?” Sometimes additional information is not necessary to answer a question, and asking for that information will earn you a disappointed “Don’t you know, man??”

Then he started asking me how he could end the pain, if I would like a ride on his broken motorcycle, if suicide was the answer, if I would beat him up, and he also cheerfully suggested that he had a knife I could use on him if I liked. At which point I disengaged and called the cops — maintaining my lifetime record of only calling 911 to report white people — and then split when he was distracted by the task of parking his motorcycle in the street.

I saw a cop car heading toward the coffee shop after I took off, and the next day’s police blotter said he’d been arrested. At which point my white liberal guilt kicked in full-scale as I wondered whether he’d be subject to California’s three strikes law. The sad thing is I think his motorcycle was just out of gas.

After that I took off from Santa Rosa and made my way toward the coast. I stopped at a fruit stand on the road out, and sitting in the parking lot I was approached by a man who noticed my Iowa license plate and wanted to give me a fist bump for American Pickers, a History Channel show set in Iowa. He smelled like alcohol but I ignored this and continued talking anyway. Pretty soon we were talking about all the weirdos that live in California and also everywhere else. And that was when he dropped what I like to call “The Wisdom”:

“Now, you can’t carry a gun everywhere. And fuck a knife. A lot of cops, a lot of rangers, they’ll give you grief if they see a great big knife on your belt. So you know what I carry for self defense? A road flare. That shit is 800 degrees, man. No one’s gonna come at you if you’re waving an 800 degree burning road flare in their face. Scares the hell out of ’em.”

He went on to say how innocuous they look, and they’ll fit right in your pocket, and stranded motorists on a busy highway really appreciate it if you throw one their way. I said I thought this sounded great, and I asked where I could get one. And you know what? He gave me one. Right there. And also a bag of corn chips. Wow!

So in the world of people you can meet, I fit somewhere between the tweaker on a broken motorcycle and the drunk ‘Nam vet at a produce stand handing out road flares for self defense. Creeped out by one, conversant and friendly with the latter. And to think I ever thought I had trouble fitting in in the world.

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Letters from the road: Ruminating in Fortuna

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Stephanie — Here I am in Fortuna, California. The last time I was here would have been freshman year of college on spring break in 1999. I drove south from Portland with my friend Nico, and we stayed the night either here or a little bit up the road in the town of Eureka.

Now I’m here again and Nico is also out traveling, but he’s spent the year in Asia and Europe. Yesterday I woke up at a campsite on a bluff overlooking the Pacific and listened to a new track that Nico had recorded and e-mailed to me.

Back in April I was camped in the desert in Utah, and I opened and read a letter that Nico had written me in Thailand and mailed me from Malaysia. I’d received the letter a few days earlier, right before I gave up the P.O. Box at my old address — in fact I got it the very last day that mail could reach me there — and I’d saved it to read while traveling. I was four nights into my trip, and it was about the time that loneliness takes hold if you don’t shake it off, and reading his letter was nice.

That was kind of a long tangent. So now it’s thirteen and a half years since Nico and I passed through Fortuna, and I suppose it’s obvious that the passage of time is on my mind. Nico was the first person to point out to me that I have something of an adversarial relationship with time, and that I seem to resent its passage. And I think he was on to something. That was back when were just out of college, living together in a house we rented from a guy named Dave.

Dave was a neat guy, but all my memories of him were formed standing at the front door of his place, handing him the rent check. And so in my mind Dave will always be a fifty-ish dude who’s just slathered about a pound of highly aromatic cocoa butter on himself before smoking an ounce of pot and then being surprised to see me at his door.

That was also kind of a long tangent. I’m not sure where I’m going with this. But Dave was a pretty good landlord, and Nico was and is still a good friend, and Fortuna still isn’t much more than a brief stopping point. (Sorry, Fortuna civic boosters.)

I’m not sure where to take this without getting into boring personal territory. I guess maybe I should thank you for reading and tolerating this; this is pretty much what it looks like when I ruminate on “what am I doing with my life” kind of questions. Anyway.

High desert country: Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge




Warner Lakes, a canyon whose name I forget, and a Paiute hunting blind(?). Lots of lichen on the rock tower — it seems to have been here for quite a while.

I have seen zero antelopes, but lots of tracks and poop.

Update: Never mind, there’s a great big herd of about twenty.

Letters from the road: Hippies versus loggers

Hello Aimee!

Here I am at a coffee shop in the tiny town of Fort Bragg, California, in Mendocino County, surrounded by a healthy mix of aging and well-to-do hippies, their poor and young kin, and couples wearing tight pants and cowboy boots, driving around in jacked-up pickup trucks. Throw in a few middle-aged tourists in cargo shorts and that’s pretty much the local scene as I see it.

Do I sound cynical? Maybe I am a little. It’s easier to draw critical pictures of people than it is to solve all the world’s problems. I mean, I’d probably be laughed out of town if I showed up at a Fort Bragg city council meeting and proposed clear-cutting half our remaining old-growth forests and legalizing half of the marijuana.

The thing is, all of the people I’m making fun of here are really nice in their own way. No, wait — not in their own way, that’s bullshit. They’re just really nice, period. As long as you don’t bring up politics. So I guess my solution to all the world’s problems is for scientists to invent an ever-expanding planet with infinite resources so no one ever has to share and nothing is depleted … and also they would invent some hotshot new pharmaceutical to obviate the inevitable social problems that arise as a result of man’s hubris.

Collage from reverse side of page. Click to embiggen.

Letters from the road: Salt Point dispatch

Well, clearly I didn’t go to art school. It’s a little hard to tell what all these drawings are. 02: Great Lakes shoreline. 03: Wildflowers. 04: “Cornelius” the mascot. 05: Rock formation and clouds. 07: Highway 50, sun, and a UFO.

This is a little sketch of Kaida lounging in a meadow at Salt Point State Park on the Northern California Coast. We’re in I think Sonoma County, an hour or two or three north of San Francisco, and it was tricky work sketching Kaida because her head kept moving as she listened to various sounds from nearby woods. There’s a bit of a fog bank or cloud moving through, and depending on how thick it is an any given moment the trees on the other side of the meadow look either green or gray or blackish-greenish-gray.

This is my first real hike since the pig attack that landed me in the hospital two weeks ago, and I’m perking up at about half of the forest sounds to make sure they aren’t announcing the presence of an angry boar. I can hear traffic on Highway One way down below — I’m up high on a hill — and earlier there were these weird, distant, metal-on-metal noises and a few gunshots. Every once in a while there’s the sound of the wind picking up.

It’s between 10:45 and 11:00 a.m. right now, and it’s getting to be time that I should think about picking up and driving to a new campsite. I talked to another Vanagon owner and he suggested a beach that’s maybe 90 miles up the coast from here. I’m not sure what else to say here. This is my first full day of travel since leaving the Bay Area, and my brain feels foggy and tired.

Mike: Ben, how do you find inner peace?

Ben: I don’t.

Mike: Can you recommend any substitutes?

Ben: No, I think you’d want it, but I think activity is the closest thing you’d get to that. Activity with the feeling toward forward progress.

Mike: How do you find the motivation for that activity. Is it something you either have or you don’t?

Ben: I think when you lack an overriding goal in life, you can have calm and a sense of progress when you’re always moving forward.

Mike: Do you believe in free will?

Ben: Depends on what version of free will people talk about. The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no.

Mike: Do you think that we live in an entirely deterministic universe? Excluding small-scale quantum stuff.

Ben: Yes.

Mike: Are dogs the best?

Ben: Yup.

Mike: Double bass or double guitar?

Ben: Double guitar.

Mike: Electric violin, or playing an electric guitar with a violin bow?

Ben: Electric violin. Great question.

Mike: Anything else you’d like to sound off on?

Ben: No.


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Letters from the road: Encounter with Professor Stoolsworth

Hey Reid! Good morning! I am in Santa Rosa, California — again. Santa Rosa is to me what Lodi was to John Fogerty. I have an appointment this morning to get the staples taken out of my legs. Will they still be able to call me zipperlegs after the staples come out? (They = the two people who have used that nickname at my behest.) Only time will tell.

Anyway, I’m at a coffee place. I needed to pee this morning, but a dude was hogging the bathroom. When he came out after about 15 minutes it smelled terrible and he looked like an aging extra from the movies Swingers. In fact I think he’d been in there for the last sixteen years since the movie’s theatrical release. You can find an extremely accurate rendition of him above.

It’s a busy day here in the doctor’s office. My 9:30 appointment has had me sitting here for almost an hour and a half, and I have yet to — never mind. It’s 11:44 now, and halfway through that last sentence the nurse came in and removed my staples. If I’d known how easy it was I would have gone down to Sears, bought the medical plier tool (I assume you can get it there), and saved myself a heapin’ helpin’ of trouble and money by removing the staples myself.

The dogs were supposed to visit the vet earlier today, but I had to reschedule because the doctor appointment thing ran long. So now I’m hanging out at another coffee place where I think they roast the beans over burning motor oil. Three older women at the table next to me are comparing designs for a cartoon character — for a kid’s book? — saying things like “Now I know big eyes are ‘in’ right now, but they won’t always be.” I feel too judgmental; I need to stop listening in on their conversation.

Recently Flink was telling me how he overheard a couple people working on a screenplay for a cop thriller, and one guy was describing the protagonist: “He’s like, he’s just like — he’s getting too old for this shit is how he feels!” And the other was like “Yes! Exactly!” And it was apparently a major breakthrough for them. And at first Flink spoke critically of them, but then his dining partner observed how much fun these two were clearly having, and Flink felt bad for his criticality. And I feel similarly. These people are clearly having a lot of fun.

And also this morning one of the people you can meet in downtown Santa Rosa was the dude with stitched-up and pig-scarred legs prancing around in front of a locked bathroom door. I worry that my cynicism comes from the narcissism of small differences.

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Letters from the road: Revelations on the dawning of the Age of Aquarius

HEY REID! Greetings form California! I have some great news for you! It’s the dawning of the AGE OF AQUARIUS! Now, what does this super new thing mean to “the man on the street” (i.e., your typical “Joe Six-Pack”, ordinary schlubs like you and me)? Great question, my friend. I wondered the same thing, so I asked a hippie on the street. He was very excited and started to answer the question, but as soon as he opened his mouth lasers rained down from the sky like a multi-colored apocalypse hellstorm and his head exploded into a thousand pieces. A geyser of smoke and fire and heartworms and THC-scented glop shot out of his neck stump and then his lifeless body fell over. The hippie-corpse-on-pavement thud announced the arrival of a spectacular man who descended from the sky on rocket boots. He landed on the rapidly putrefying body and helpfully explained what this sweet new age of enlightenment means for us here on Earth.

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An informative and timely bulletin that I included on the reverse side of the page.