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The Cloverdale Road

Dear Cloverdale Road,

I won’t say it’s been too long, but even now my feelings are mixed. Over the years our relationship has been complicated, happy, tumultuous. With you I have endured banality, adventure and farce; and like all great love stories, you have left your mark. At times my heart leapt at the sight of your verdant mouth, wild and lush from April rain. But there were also moments when I wanted only to be done with your endless twists, stuck behind an RV pulling an economy Cadillac, or huddled beneath a tarp in the back of Gene Waggoner’s pick-up during a storm, en route to another cold gym, another loose ball, another impossible fade-away jumper like a dolphin leaping in the surf: perfect in mid-air then lost once more beneath the waves. Joy, rage, benevolence, despair, it’s all there. Road, you have been an escape route, catastrophic accident, emergency restroom, gateway to the future, wormhole to the past. If I close my eyes I can hear poems delivered in stanzas of frost-bleached meadows, exuberant geometries of untamed Christmas trees, and mile marker signs with fresh bullet holes.

For years we were almost inseparable, you and I. So what happened? What always happens? I suppose we can blame American Time, with its pretensions of modernity and pathological desire for speed, convenience, and super highways. But there was also something less malicious, less conspiratorial: Natural Time, with its eddies and pools, eventually overflowed its banks and swept me towards the sea and the city, away from you and the valley. I won’t lie: for years I rarely thought of you. But the other day as I sped south towards Cloverdale I glanced over and saw you waiting there, in your old spot, across from the lumber mill and near the hamburger stand… like your first girlfriend smiling at your from across the gym.

Now, decades later, broken pieces rush back. Countless hours I spent hurtling down your asphalt curves, climbing your hills, looking out at a plume of smoke or the glint of a half-hidden cabin in the deep woods while Lon Simmons called Giants games on the radio. Coming north, turning onto Highway 128 was like going off the reservation into the familiar wilderness. The oppressive fear of CHP and Cloverdale cops instantly lifted. The air was fresher, the road windier, the freedom palpable.

Initially you weren’t only a road, but my home. We lived on the Matthias Ranch, five miles south of Boonville, where my father attempted a grand social re-engineering project bombarding urban juvenile delinquents with trees, crickets and ferns. He had a vague hope of reform, or at least turning his charges into burglars and con men instead of homicidal maniacs; surprisingly, it worked once or twice. I rode the school bus into town, and got into arguments with new classmates over the length of my hair, and who won the Viet Nam war. The ranch was headquarters for McGovern’s failed presidential bid in ’72, and our domestic scene was a heavy dose of political idealism mixed with outbursts of Marine Corps-style hijinks. For example, nothing beats the pure joy of watching my dad fire his pellet gun at boy inmates creeping through the midnight grass towards the (allegedly) innocent girl inmates. To see a 16-year-old kid from Oakland suddenly jump up and shout, “You bastard, Bruce, that’s illegal! You can’t shoot us with a BB gun!” Pffft.-pffft-pffft. Three direct hits to the torso, sending the enemy sprinting into the darkness, screaming, “I’m gonna tell my P.O., Bruce, you honky bastard!” Pffft-pffft-pffft.

While I began as a hippie-anarchist kid in a valley where logging, sheep ranching and apple farming dominated, I soon became one of the locals. My dad, a self-described law-and-order, redneck-jock-anarchist who favored foreign film and American guns, coached my various youth baseball and basketball teams, along with the likes of Rodger Tolman, Ron Penrose, and Paul Hughbanks. When we started to play away games in Cloverdale and points south, you, Road, became more familiar. The Carrs lived in downtown Yorkville, and I went to school with Larry, Gina and Denise; their parents, Larry Sr. and Anne, were fixtures at all of our games, home and away. There was the faded red barn of the Y Ranch where we’d drop off a kid named Lance Coe, Lawson’s Tree Farm, and the field of rusted machinery, giant tires and discarded culverts that was the Burgers’ front yard. There was the Oaks Café just north of Yorkville, where my dad’s wild tribe would congregate, drinking cheap beer and listening to the jukebox. (To this day I cannot stand “Lay, Lady, Lay,” or anything by The Band or the Grateful Dead (which I suspect might even be the same guys). Ditto Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell. Crystal Gayle and Billy Joel.

Coming back from my father’s fast pitch softball games in Cloverdale, I would be crammed into the way back while his teammates smoked endless cigarettes and drank vast amounts of Mickey’s Big Mouth. In those days Mickey’s had a dangerous pull-tab that, if improperly opened (which was about half the time), revealed a sharp angular mess, half-piranha, half handheld power mower. It was my responsibility to crack new beers (a talent I’ve found useful), and between jobs I’d point my face towards the open window, breathing in as much fresh air as possible, and wondering when this hellish trip would end.

My dad coached a junior high baseball team that played in the Cloverdale league. We were called the Turbo A’s, because we were sponsored by some relatives of Rodger Tolman’s who had a business that may or may not have included adding nitrous oxide speed kits to the alphabet. Our team consisted of the usual suspects: Eric June, Danny Pardini, G.P. Price, Jerry Tolman, Olie Erickson, Eddie Slotte, Lucky Hickson, Nick Pallazola Carr, Steve Waggoner, Mike Hilton, Casey McDowell, etc. The legendary Blindman umped the games, which typically ended with the Turbo A’s on the business end of a 10-1 drubbing. (We needed more Turbo and less A.) Once G.P. Price went the entire season without making contact with a single pitch. He swung mightily and he swung often, but didn’t manage even one foul ball. A typical at-bat would be G.P. swings and misses at pitch in the dirt. G.P. flails at pitch three feet over his head, like a kid with a broom trying to knock a star from the sky. The third pitch would be a leisurely 55 mph, and G.P. would watch it meander in slow-motion right down the pipe. Strike three. He’d come back to the dugout smiling. Hey, it’s only a game.

During those years Jack June had a Subaru Brat, and a couple kids could fit in the back. As strange and dangerous as it might sound, our team (with adult approval and even participation) would often stop in a part of the road where we could see oncoming traffic, then have enthusiastic water balloon fights. Those days are gone forever, at least until this whole democracy thing crumbles and we’re back to horses and mules. Even today, I think, my god, did we really do that?

When I was in high school I remember a friend suddenly pulling over and running into a clearing to relieve himself. For toilet paper he scavenged a handful of the smoothest rocks, then crouched over a mud puddle: he called it a “Boont bidet.” The best part came later, as my friend hadn’t noticed the poison oak the rocks were laying in, and soon itchy welts covered his entire lower forty, east of his Taint Plains and just below Octopus Hill.

Once a friend flew into SFO, and a high school buddy picked him up. When his delayed flight finally landed at ten p.m., they drove straight back to the safety of Mendocino County. Just as they were crawling up the first big hairpin curve north of Cloverdale, the driver pointed out into the darkness and said, “Wow! Look at the chocolate waterfall.” My friend said, “What are you talking about?” “That’s a beautiful chocolate waterfall, man, with little lights like UFO peanut clusters.” “What’s wrong with you? Are you drunk?” “No, man, I’m not drinking. But when your flight was late I dropped a couple tabs of acid, no big deal.” “No big deal! You’re seeing chocolate avalanches—“ “Waterfall, bro, not avalanches!” “Pull over!” “Okay, relax…” “What are you waiting for?” “Dude, just wait until those robot camels get out of the way…”

Cloverdale Road, this is just to say I haven’t forgotten. Motoring now through Santa Rosa there is a stab of nostalgia and a sense of guilt. Why have I been away for so long? What did I expect to find at the end of other roads? You gave me everything and I rewarded you by abandoning you the first chance I got. Now comes a half-glimpsed memory of slipping down your sinuous body in the shadows of the oaks and in my Uncle Ken’s convertible Karmann Ghia. It is summertime, and anyone who grew up in Mendocino County knows what I mean. Robert and I are singing silly songs and laughing at the endless sky. Ken is smoking a cigar and has on sunglasses and a white longshoreman’s cap. I wonder why his hat doesn’t blow off. That was a long time ago, but my heart aches all the same. ¥¥


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