The road out of Gualala, at least the road I chose, climbed from a pleasant creekbottom, cooled by tall trees and damp breezes, abruptly and continuously uphill for several miles. It doesn't matter how many, although I knew then: every few hundred yards a white aluminum sign marked the distance, measuring backward, so that my journey began at a precise distance from some uncertain object, a distance which became smaller as I moved forward and my past rolled up behind me like a sprung window blind, or a riddle of quantum mechanics. I felt myself drawn into something bigger, perhaps the place where numbers begin, or where stars are ground down in giant machines and polished in velvety baths by way of renewal. I couldn't describe what I was looking for, except that I wanted the quickest possible change of scenery, but there was a force to the rear which made retreat inadvisable.
Love and hate, loneliness and desperation, reality and fantasy. After years of mismanagement, my only real choice was to head for the safety of the road, with what I could carry on my back or the bike, and nothing else.
Sometime that afternoon, hours up and away from that cool flat, I reached a summit. The ridge was warm, high above any hope of fog, and the woods were an arid upland scatter of Doug fir and inland oaks. Brush and ferns were sparse and light, so I could see far between tree trunks. I came to a gate, which seemed rarely used, lay back against it, swallowed the last mouthful of water from my jug, which had seemed so plentiful on the coast, and fell asleep.
I had my mountain bike, the Giant I had beefed up with heavy-duty wheels and drive gear back in Arcata, sometime earlier that year. The tubular aluminum trailer was packed tight with my belongings. Most of what I owned was being left at the place I had been living, a house I have not seen since, inhabited, at least that day, by a woman bearing severe hostility toward me, a semi-innocent man. Although I was not guilty of the crimes alleged, I wanted to be, which is as bad if not worse.
Looking back, down the relentless hill I had climbed, I peered into my recent history, attempting to somehow tabulate and evaluate what I had lost. It seemed every move I made was a sure loser. On the way up the hill, as I struggled to push the wobbly bike and trailer, while also burdened with an overstuffed messenger bag slung over a shoulder, cursing, slipping in my boots on the loose gravel, as each corner, slightly higher and drier than the one before, revealed only more and steeper corners ahead, and all maddeningly measured to the hundredth place, I had an overwhelming sense of loss. For every door that closes, I thought, there's another just about to be slammed in your face.
That afternoon, in early May after weeks of rain, was warm and long in Mendocino County's uncluttered interior. I could see miles of repeated ridges, dwindling away toward dusty-looking grassy meadows and steep slopes of oak and fir woods. The bike rolled fine on flat ground and gentle slopes, but with so much weight the trailer made almost any grade too steep to climb without straining. I had plenty of time to admire the landscape; undue straining was out of the question. Instead, I spent hours patiently pushing the bike up small knobs and coasting into swales, between the precisely measured increments of miles I covered cruising easily along flat ridges.
I don't know what I thought, really. I had been caught off base, hung out to dry. A man does whatever he needs to after two or three years of bachelor living. For now, I paid attention to the mileage paddles, my only real company. There were no deer out, just a few thrushes rattling in the oak leaves, maybe a chipmunk or two, and jays. I was on the road from late morning until dark, in fact for half the next day as well, and encountered only a handful of brave drivers.
Like most of my adventures, this one began with, or because of, at least one female companion, this one lovelier than most, and full of lust. She sat near me, endured my funk, tantalized me, for several months, after a period of years notable for many a lonesome evening. A classic example of bad timing, she wanted me but was still, at that point, faithful to her pale, ironic boyfriend. She was a generation or two younger than me, and daring in ways I wasn't. As a result, she took me out for food and drinks, at all the best joints in Old Town, but dropped me off at home, like a date, each time.
As sort of a culmination to this months-long seduction, she had taken me to San Francisco the day the Giants blew the 2002 Series. As a fan, I had deep misgivings about the situation—I ought to have found a way to see or at least listen to the game—but as far as I knew the bullpen could be trusted without my constant monitoring. Instead, perhaps fatally, I hoped for the best and expected, later that night, to be forced to avoid downtown because of the mad celebration.
I kept up with the early part of Game Six by monitoring the crowds in bars as we drove or walked past them. Around the fifth inning, with what I assumed was a comfortable lead, we went inside a building in Fort Mason where there were no radios tuned to KNBR, and no chance of any. Instead, the room was full of women just like or very much like my young friend, that is to say lusty, fully developed, and prone to experimentation. They wore loose, comfortable clothing, many of them required bras, sometimes desperately, though nobody seemed to have one on.
I can't fully recall what happened in the large room with me, all the young women, and a few other guys, mostly in drawstring pants and smelling of clove cigarettes. There were at least several hundred of us. There was singing and a few poems and lots of hugging. One young woman complained to another, "it was totally feelable," after enduring a long hug from one of the drawstring pants guys. That's the one fact I can recall accurately, it was such a choice line, and delivered with deadpan naivety, by a girl with nipples enlarged and hardened inside her loose, transparent blouse.
It went on for hours. We had to stand the whole time. Most people would probably confess to just about anything if forced to stand still long enough, especially when required to hold a piece of ground in a milling crowd. I was ready to confess to anything from heresy to peeing in the Jacuzzi before it was over, although I'm sure I made the best of it, seeing that I was the bull male in a room full of young women who viewed sexuality as an expression, rather than a necessity, or worse. In any case my partner knew dozens of the ripest specimens and they were in hugging moods already, not to mention hardly dressed. It was titty-squishing time, a regular marathon of cushiony embraces. They came at me like comets ricocheting across the path of time, or particles excited by the shape of an ion, single tangible facts drifting across years of fluid illusions.
Between that and being unable to sit down, I endured a ceremony so bland I can't remember anything about it, just the atmosphere. When it finally ended, we emerged into the San Francisco night, where the streets should have been jammed with ecstatic Giants’ fans. I immediately knew something had gone wrong.
The arc from that happy, breast-filled evening in San Francisco to my present circumstance, kicking around in the dry weeds and mint, high on a sunny slope, somewhere between Gualala and Highway 128, seemed erratic at the time but was surely predictable if one subscribes to mathematical prediction theories. Somewhere along the way I got my hands on a vial of love potion (which came wrapped in a warning) something I had not believed existed, and didn't believe could possibly work. It was the one thing I brought home from that ultimately melancholy trip, so rich with promise at the start, and at least through the fifth inning. I fingered the vial for the first time as we cruised a desolate Columbus Avenue and then found the freeway downtown. Anything potent could only sour on a night like that. I know she meant well, and everything after she gave it to me was my fault.
Whether it worked or not I don't really know, but what happened was a small paper disc which had fit into the cap of the vial was lost, and I thought nothing of it at the time. However, I put the vial in my pocket and leaked a good dose of potion—maybe too much, I can't say—so that it soaked in, leaving a strong citrus odor not unlike, and easily mistaken for, perfume. As to why I was carrying the potion at all—I had suddenly, recently—because of an elk hunt in weather so cold we had to drink the wine quickly before it froze in the tin cups—become involved in a love affair which was not supported by the facts, and I was obviously, deliberately toying with fate, on that walk up and down Columbus Avenue preparing for the reading in the out-of-the-way tavern. All I can say is that I had desperately confused love, art, the muses, lust, and poetry, stirred them all together in my mind, and lit the resulting Frankenstein of midlife crisis, creative ennui, delusion and poverty—held together only by loosening glue of entropy—afire.
Once the decision had been made that I would be leaving, there was little choice. I chose the few possessions portable enough to strap onto the trailer, and what I hoped would be enough gear and coffee to get me to a new location, and was gone within hours. I'll never get back the treasures I left behind.
I unrolled my sleeping bag on a mat of greenish grass, careful not to include the near-ubiquitous star thistle. As the sun dropped into fog, now miles away from me, I rested in a crude roadside camp, siwashing it, down to the nitty-gritty. Some deer, sneaking down the hill to their feeding grounds in the gulch below me, suddenly started when they encountered me in the place they habitually crossed the barbed-wire barrier meant to keep some unseen cattle in their place. The deer made a great racket, two or three of them bouncing across the small head of a draw, to my right and up the hill. In a while I could see them, out in the open, picking their way through brush and vines toward the blue-green timber, where they would figure out another way down the hill, or make do.