99 cuts northeast off the five after the 3,000,000 square foot ikea distribution center at the base of the grapevine.
there is a strong stench of manure as you go past the industrial dairies which half a century ago were located south of los angeles in orange county.
the mp3 player in my vehicle randomly switched from hundreds of tunes, donald byrd and dave alvin, blind willie mctell and nina simone, patti smith and miles davis.
clouds floated serene over the sierras as i crossed the distance, hundreds of miles, turning right on 180 at fresno, heading toward the windy mountain roads through green oaken squaw valley.
leaving the valley behind, the road ascends, windy and unwinding, curlicuing through oak forest mostly in sunshine and sometimes glare or dappled shadows, i’m tired from driving all day, don’t ease up on the gas quick enough, gotta brake suddenly as the heavy vehicle swerves out on the edge of the road, hanging out over empty space. out there, i catch a glimpse of far-off green chaparral slopes folding under scudding brilliant clouds.
the campground is only half full, easy to get a nice space at the edge of a little meadow which till recently looks like it was full of icy old snow. a bunch of kids playing and shouting nearby.
not far from the azalea campground, i walked through the “general grant grove” of giant sequoia. naming these 1500 and 2000 year old great trees after presidents and states was somebody’s idea to help protect them against loggers, and it worked, as they made the area one of the first national parks. but the road down into kings canyon is still closed for winter. i thought, without snow, it would have been opened by now.
in the last light of afternoon, the giant sequoias glow burnished with life and with time. the biggest of the great trees thrust up hundreds of feet, their gnarly branches curl like old horns of the male bighorn sheep, shining rugged in the sun, wafting fans of their cedarlike flattish needles. they look like they grow to embody the planet’s love for the sun. they look like one giant declaration, each one a 200 or 250 foot tall sentence from the planet declaring its love to the sun.
ravens croak and caw and burble unseen in the trees. i see them sometimes, flitting through the forest. ravens always look like they love their lives, live to fly and have fun. they got dignity in their black suits, wings tucked and walking like a man with hands in his pockets, even when they’re out on the road eating flattened roadkill. eyes pitch black as darkest night.
i took a large portion of dad’s ashes and walked around the back (north) side of the ‘general grant’ tree (supposedly one of the three or four largest trees on earth) to one called ‘kentucky’ on a map of the grove. it’s tall because it rises from the slope above the general grant tree, towers above it, rising from boulders, topped by a bare jagged snag in the sky. there i poured the ashes in a fire-blackened hole in the thickened and scarred bole, and patted it, patted the dust off my hands. redwood bark is fibrous and stiff, but matted, kind of like hair. the fire-blackened hole in the bole sweated moisture i took for resin.
i couldn’t get into king’s canyon—though i drove out to the overlook near where the road was closed. the overlook gave out on a deep view of the confluence of two forks of king’s river, way down there. it was all strikingly beautiful, raw and grand as the rapidly moving front of a big thunderstorm. chinese tourists and white tourists posed and took pictures in front of the view.
i thought of dad throughout the next day as i drove out to the coast. i drove through vallejo, where he’d graduated from high school, where his mother had been a school teacher, his father head of security at a shipyard, where his granddaughter had graduated from college; i passed the big old hotel where naomi met ed. i missed the turn-off and ended up driving through still run-down downtown vallejo without intending to. as i drove past the old bus station (which no longer seemed to be a bus station), it was a further sign that the united states of the 20th century that dad grew up in and embodied was long gone—and in particular its high hopes and big promises. now it’s a smaller country with smaller hearts and minds, smaller and more limited lives, without big dreams to remind it how low it goes.
as i gassed up in a gas station by a malfunctioning pump, a guy in convertible pulled in to chat up a carload of young black women, the driver laughing loud, tattoo on her left breast striped by a strap. i drove north on sonoma blvd, past the alley where dad had been jumped once as a tipsy old man by a bunch of kids who might’ve killed him for no reason, but he was too tough, stumbling away with yet another broken nose. that was when he lived above a chinese restaurant on sonoma, where i’d found him (with his broken nose) by walking along sonoma avenue calling up to any apartment above a chinese restaurant, like he’d mentioned to me in a letter. of course that chinese restaurant seemed to be long gone.
i took sonoma north to 37, west on 37 past mare island naval shipyard where grandpa had worked till he retired (long closed, the naval buildings stand abandoned). i impatiently followed a lumbering tow truck atop highway 37 across the dike over the marshes of the wildlife preserve of san pablo bay, west into the afternoon.
after getting lost once in mill valley taking a wrong turn into a residential neighborhood, i found the right road up onto the slopes of mount tamalpais and picked out a sunshiny campsite at pan toll in the state park, where i read joe milazzo’s wonderful novel manuscript, CREPESCULE W/ NELLIE. then the area was invaded by a bunch of noisy college students, drinking beer and making merry, shooting off fireworks late at night and getting in trouble, getting citations and negotiating with rangers as i tried to sleep, but i didn’t especially care.
i was going to make coffee before leaving camp the next morning, but the stove was out of propane. so i packed it up and drove down the mountain, in a few minutes turning onto highway one, running in a ribbon high on the cliffs above the ocean crashing on the rocks far below.
i drove the coast till the road turns inland at the golden gate bridge, and stood on the headlands above the bridge, looking down on a korean freighter packed high with containers, steaming under the bridge and out to sea, and the traffic crossing over the bridge, and crowds of tourists walking back and forth on the bridge, and the city of san francisco beyond. there were some misty clouds, but they cleared in a stiff breeze. the sun shone on the water.
past the world war-era bunkers and gun emplacements, and through a tunnel, the road follows the ridge line west to lands end and the light house. partway to that point, i pulled out and hiked down the slope to a beautiful black sand beach in the sun. two fishermen cast into the roaring surf at the far end of the beach. there on the pacific side of the mouth of the golden gate, i poured another portion of dad’s ashes into the surf as it swelled around my calves. the sun shining on the water in a very light breeze— the wave pulled out, carried the ashes out into the pacific.