I smoke marijuana (medical), drink Russian vodka (political, Go Vlad!) and take two pills from Big Pharma every morning to address my lifelong hypertension. When I was enlisting in the National Guard at 17 they took my blood pressure and told me to lie down and when they took it again it was still an alarming 140/90 yet I was declared fit enough to serve my country. I’m a real American, now 73, hiding from much of this contemporary insanity you young folks are going to have to endure for a long, long time. And I’m taking too much time to get to the point which is it was road trip time again because even though I live in a high remote mountain valley in NE CA where the freeway and the mall are far, far away I require contemporary insanity once in a while if only to rekindle appreciation how wonderful it is to look twenty miles out every window of the house and see the great natural sprawl of the world under a huge sky; the fields and the sagebrush and the junipers and the barns and the fence lines and the ridges of the surrounding mountains laced brilliant with snow.
The opportunity to road trip out of here again came up because an old friend from L.A. I hadn’t seen in forty years told me he was going to The Fly Fishing Show to be held at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in Pleasanton, could we reunite there? When I first thought of the drive to get there, 100 miles west to Redding, then another 150 miles south on the I-5 to the appalling traffic corridor of the I-80, then another 40 miles south on the equally terrifying 680 into what I regard as East Bay hell, there was no way I was going to do it. Then, after I smoked and drank again, my priorities re-adjusted, I had great memories of my friend Ben who got me (and my brother) insane for fly fishing fifty years ago. God, the rivers, the trout, the profound mysterious beauty that the sport entails. And Ben is even more into it than ever because it’s still also his business, he handles PR and advertising and promotion for many clients in the industry including the producer of The Fly Fishing Show germane here. So, what was I to do but go?
Since we agreed to meet Saturday morning I figured I’d better get an early start Friday and overnight somewhere closer to the grand oxymoron of Pleasanton. The question was where. I’d had some good experience in Calistoga at the northern terminus of the Napa Valley at the base of Mount St. Helena atop which Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife honeymooned in a cabin in 1880. And getting there involves relief from the I-5 at Williams and proceeding west on Highway 20 through some old oak-studded central California hill country of Colusa County where hoof prints still outnumber foot prints a thousand to one. My woman Gwen hates wine, and I wouldn’t give a damn if I never had another glass of it but we’ve had some soporific times soaking in the Olympic-size natural hot spring pool at the Indian Springs Hotel in Calistoga. Too, our friend Barbara is a local therapist specializing in facials and massages that leave you begging her for mercy. And another friend, Carlos, runs the bar at Brannan’s, a restaurant named after the town’s founder Sam Brannan and I know from experience it is a good idea to eschew the service in the dining room and choose to drink and eat at the bar where Carlos is in expert charge, where if you want oysters done off-the-menu baked Jalisco style no problema. It goes like that except, remember, it’s Friday, the pool at the hotel is aswarm with Bay Area weekenders, and when one of the kids yells up at Daddy that she has to go to the bathroom to pee, Daddy tells her “No worries, honey, just go in the pool,” I think, good night Indian Springs, it’s been fun.
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Zero dark thirty foggy Saturday morning Indian Springs Hotel. I fear driving in the dark, and fog only exacerbates my discomfiture but time/distance anxiety is my middle name. An early start seems prudent if we’re going to meet Ben at the fishing show at a reasonable hour. I have a naïve notion traffic will be zip as we make our way south at this ugly hour down the wine lovers’ Napa Valley corridor of Highway 29 which I know from priors can be a gridlocked nightmare on a weekend. Reality check comes immediately as blinding headlights of tailgaters in my rearview mirror indicate I’m holding up a series of seemingly crazed people who don’t care squat about speed limits, and near zero visibility that has me biting washers out of my driver’s seat. Let’s face it, I think, this whole state of ours is going bat shit. When I finally reach the road construction maze that defines the perilous abrupt transition to the I-80 and then to the 680 the only good news is the sun is coming up, the fog is gone, and at least initially 680 south is a fetching two-lane drive that affords views to the east of the vast gleaming wetland of Grizzly Bay, a fecund remnant of old east bay San Francisco before much of it was drained for the human tide, and then plying over the great bridge that spans San Pablo Bay at Benicia, and then it’s over, I’m on the most modern freeway in California, six lanes of perilous concrete where the off-ramps indicate more oxymoronically named places like Pleasant Hill where one supposes, at least from the view from the freeway, that living there in that massive monotonous urban sprawl can hardly be pleasant in anyone’s sense of the term, but what do I know?
Thirty miles later what I do know is I should have stayed home. The Saturday morning 680 traffic isn’t gridlocked but I find myself wishing it was when a soccer mom with three kids in the car startles me by suddenly blowing by my right at about 85. Mom of the year, I think. But, ah, there it is at last, the Pleasanton off ramp, down I go with only a vague idea how to get to our hotel booked for the night, the Doubletree Inn by Hilton. Checking in there, dumping our meager luggage seems like a good idea. I finally find the hotel after conversing with some barely verbal locals at a Standard Station/Burger King/Kwikmart and find, not really much to my surprise, that it’s located in a dreary industrial park one off ramp north. Can we check in? Of course not, rooms won’t be available until “about 3:00”, the desk man tells me. Can we dump our luggage? Of course, he says, so the day isn’t a complete loss yet. A quick breakfast before we hit the show seems like a good idea so I try to find downtown Pleasanton, miss a turn and end up in a hilly upscale neighborhood of tony tract housing where I’m immediately being tailgated by a moron in a black Mercedes never mind the 25 mph speed limit. When I considerately pull our pickup over to allow him to pass he gives me a stink eye that would get his passive/aggressive ass chased and kicked by many people I know. Then I find old downtown Pleasanton and to my horror I see the Saturday farmers’ market is going on, streets are closed, traffic is horrendous, and throngs of people are scurrying everywhere. Finding a place to park is frustration squared. But I luck out thanks to a kind lady working in a restaurant not open yet who allows me to park in their lot and we walk a block or two to one that is serving where I enjoy a reasonably healthy portabella burger and Gwen inhales her usual the-hell-with-cholesterol deal, a crab and poached egg special under a lava load of Hollandaise. The cruel reality here is I know she’s going to outlive me.
Finally on to the fly fishing show to meet Ben who’s told me to call his cell phone from the vast parking lot of the fairgrounds so he can get us into the exhibit building on his press pass. How do the Chinese put it? It’s who you know that counts. I pay ten bucks to park at the gate, and then drive for what seems like forever through an old walnut orchard to get reasonably close to the show entrance. The Alameda County Fairgrounds occupies huge real estate worth way too much money to remain something of true value like an historic traditional venue that celebrates what was once the great bread basket of the county. Ben tells me shortly after we meet, say adios to this place, condos are coming. He’s 81 now, still possessed with wry humor suffused with cynicism, and he hasn’t lost a calorie of passion for what he calls tight lines and if you’ve ever fly-fished you know what he means, fish on, nothing else matters. Ben leads us through the aisles of the show he pausing often to schmooze with clients, Gwen and I enjoy many of the exhibits that include those of master rod builders, fly tiers, fly casters (there’s a long casting pool for demo and instruction) and those of promoters of places to partake of the apogee of the sport, like Turneffe Flats, Belize, in the eastern Caribbean, on the impossibly blue/green flats of the second largest barrier reef in the world where it is likely five pound bonefish and forty pound permit will inhale your fly and make you and your fly reel scream, and Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River in the tail waters below Glen Canyon Dam, a red rock wonderland where the trout have tails as strong, as Ben once wrote, as a blacksmith’s wrist. Fly fishing is fine sport because fly fishermen (many of whom are catch and release proponents) care deeply about maintaining a quality environment; they know without it the activity they love most is doomed.
Early Sunday morning, the Doubletree Inn by Hilton. As we prepare to embark on our long homeward drive I know I’ve caught something at the fishing show and it isn’t a fish and it isn’t pretty, it’s something that feels very much like the stomach flu, I’ve become much acquainted with the toilet in our hotel room during the night. As it turns out Ben is in similar straits and is too weak to depart for his home in L.A. until Monday, and it’ll take much of the ensuing week for both of us to recover. By the time I pull into a gas station in Winters on the 505 to fill up the truck, I feel like death warmed over and to make matters worse, the truck won’t re-start, the battery has taken a clue from me and died. I grab the jumper cables from the tool box and a kind Samaritan also at the pumps jumps us back to life. On we go but with trepidation because we’re still nearly three hundred miles from home and there’s the possibility we’re not going to make it with a dead battery. Gwen’s driving by now and I’m supine in the passenger seat wondering in a state of semi-consciousness where we can get a battery on a Sunday. I know there’s a major truck stop in Corning and just as that thought dances around my fevered brain, Gwen says, “I saw a billboard, there’s a place in Corning called Loves that has 24/7 mechanical assistance.” Ah, nothing like a little hope to make a man feel better. Nearly a hundred miles later we pull into Loves in Corning and I stagger to a line at the register where I wait behind three or four guys buying fried pork rinds and six packs of Pepsi from Loves that is also obviously a Kwikmart. When I finally get to the register I tell the lady there I need a new battery in my pickup. She picks up a phone and tries to call someone working in the service bays. She can’t get anyone on the phone, tells me in a rather perfunctory manner to go out there and talk to somebody. I’m feeling so weak by now I fear fainting but out I go to the bays and find a guy pressure washing some small tanks. Hey, I say, I need a new battery for my pickup. He says, no way, go up the frontage road for a mile or two and you’ll see O’Reilly’s Auto Parts, they’re open today, they’ll put one in for you.
God bless Ireland from Belfast to Dublin, we get salvation at O’Reilly’s Auto Parts. A capable considerate young man there installs a new battery in our truck and not without some real effort to remove and replace some ducting that the job entails. The cost of new battery is negligible, but there’s human cost too; Gwen has slipped and bashed her knee when she climbed into the bed of the truck to get a socket set from the toolbox the young man needed. Somewhere in the back of my damaged brain I remember we’ve got another road trip scheduled soon, with some dear friends north to Washington State. God bless Ireland from Belfast to Dublin. God bless Jameson’s, the Irish whiskey I’ve long preferred.