One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star. –Friedrich Nietzsche
Thanks to three separate repair projects, driving north from Cloverdale on Highway 128 is a joy that lasts almost forever. Eleven miles, dead stop. Five miles, dead stop. Four hundred yards, then slow, slower, bang, you’re dead! They’ve been working on these roads my entire life; the point isn’t to restore the highways to Caesarean robustness, but to mend and move, bulldoze and dig, bow and pray to the washed-out hairpins and pot-holed straightaways that are the altars before which we now genuflect. A god of cement mixers and backhoes has replaced Zeus. Diana is now an orange-vested stop-sign assassin, murderess of rhythm and flow. Hermes has been replaced by a pagan icon ruling Facebook Friend Requests. Diana’s divine realm consists of gas station cash machines: Would You Like A Receipt? And somewhere a mile deep Poseidon’s tears are lost in oceans of watery regret…
Waiting for the elusive Pilot Vehicle to ferry me across the River Yorkville, the caw-caw of Ravens echoes from tree to drowsing rock. I think of Odin’s black birds, Hugin and Munin, Thought and Memory. Each morning the ravens would fly around the earth, then report to their one-eyed Nordic master the crumblings and grumblings of empire, natural and otherwise. That this cosmic power of first light has devolved into Good Morning America and bottle-blondes in tight skirts giggling over sitcom suicides is but one more crime against Cronos and Reason. But does it matter anyway? Call it the Trump/Clinton Effect, but my pathetic self-bleatings fall on my own deaf ears; life is made easier by not listening to anyone, especially myself. This is the world now: frivolous, disposable, and as absurd as hiking boots on a mountain goat.
With this stab of fatal insight my mediocre mind realizes the obvious: the modern world is a cheap approximation of the old. Writ small, the travesty is complete: instead of magical birds and a faithful wolf I have a half-tank of gas and an ipod lecture on the Punic Wars: the illusion of progress and the delusion of knowledge.
As the ravens screech off to inform Odin of the latest outrage, I listen to a description of Scipio Africanus the Younger sacking Carthage. Fire, spear and slaves. Proud maidens slit their throats rather than let their fountains wet the parched and vengeful centurion swords. Victory, gold, empires raised and razed: the millstone of Time grinds History’s corpse into different flours, depending on the place and manner of the milling. Through my bug-streaked windshield, the quality of mercy seems both strained and most limited in scope and depth. In this self-obsessed age, mercy is a poisonous elixir served in thimblefuls to purple lips frothing with ego. Chin chin!
I gaze impatiently at the flagman. Does he not sense what Machiavellian mania he stirs by backing traffic up like a swamp bog? Bereft of wifi or signal, I can neither email nor text. YouTube is the shadow of a skeleton’s stain on yesterday’s breeze -- but what’s that, enemy scouts in the tree line? Miraculous Fatima it’s the Pilot Vehicle! The truck makes a desultory u-turn to remind the wheeled chattel of our servitude, then slowly leads the steel caravan to the asphalt promised land beyond. Free at last! Soon I am speeding past Pomo Tierra, past three crows on a fancy gate, past Lawson’s Christmas Trees where we used to get the holiday Scotch Pine, and suddenly the day is made great by the radiant sight of Larry Carr Sr. flashing by in a white pick-up truck. It’s Panther territory now; can’t you feel it? And there goes the shuttered Oaks Café and the light dancing with forest shadows at the mouth of Fish Rock Road, but what are these signs proclaiming this area the Yorkville Highlands? Is this a part of Brexit called Take-It? Has there been an invasion of bloodstained lairds from loyalist Scotland, who even after these many cruel centuries refuse to lay down their Stuart swords and kiss the Windsor ring?
War. Pinots. Rieslings served by ruddy lassies in gluten-free kilts. As the basil said to the sage in the heirloom garden: The thymes they are a-changin’! But revolutions, like mailing addresses, come and ago. My own valley upbringing was that of a contained nomad. We first lived five miles south of Boonville on the old Mathias Ranch that is now a gay-themed resort and flesh temple. Our next bivouac was a few miles up the Manchester Road in a metal-roofed house perched in a meadow fringed with madrone and oak; what I remember most is the sound of rain splattering on the corrugated tin, a poem unsurpassed by any pen. Finally there was the original Fort Despair on AV Way, just north or west or northwest of the cemetery and across from the Titus homestead and adjacent to the Langleys and the Owens and Bill and Hazel Teague. Rumors are the old outpost is available to rent on AirBnB for an eye-gouging price. We had so much iron in the water that a single washing stained white shirts with rust-colored wounds, and the sulfuric water tasted as it smelled: like a newt-stew broth from the demonic kiln of a blind crone oracle. Fickle springs aside, the exorbitant tariff on the ancestral bunker should include milk baths, zebra-drawn carriage with liveried Mau-Mau’s, and a complimentary Gideon Bible Glock with an extra clip of hollow-points and Jericho™ suppressor. If you’re listening, Jack June, what’s Boontling for, “Put your smartphone down and start running, son!”?
But the world and its primitive monuments to folly are mere sand castles forever rearranged by immortal wind, hard water and gullible tourists. Not to mention the occasional marauding horde of barbarians, from Huns and Vikings to Goths and the DNC.
I find myself driving north, my famished soul desperate for glimpses of a sentimental past. The valley is the valley, but only busier. It’s winery after vineyard after tasting room. Past the landmark Lemon’s Market with their beautifully marbled steaks and the dilapidated yard where the Philo Mill used to hum and buzz. Rolling past the Apple Farm and Gowan’s Oak Tree and the sun-bleached sign for Art’s Apples, and I remember my dad’s old softball team, with Dick and Joan Warsing smoking cigarettes while roaming the clumpy outfield, and Emil Rossi and Angelo Pronsolino and Chris Rossi too. How many hours I stood in the grey dirt of the high school diamond, shagging balls, staring at the hills, feeling the first rush of fog push south into the valley’s sweet heart, like Mongols searching for new pastures for their ponies. But no silver-tipped invaders today, only sun and blue crowning Old Hendy’s giant virgin redwoods, which rise regally from the green, like sentry towers at the gates to pioneer wineries like Husch, Edmeades, Navarro and Lazy Creek started by the Koblers who were from Switzerland, then the Roderick drive-way and Dave’s Navarro Store and Guy’s BBQ and the Drunk Tree and now, to me, the spiritual heart of the valley: the sun-dappled cathedral of old growth redwoods guarding the Boy Scouts Camp, Masonite Road, past the Flynn Creek and Comptche’s lurking madness and Paul Dimmick’s serene camp sites and the ambling river to the left, winding, stealing softly through the forest to the sea. I remember there used to be a swimming hole called Iron Bridge down a brushy path cut through ferns and burnt out stumps. I wonder if it’s still there. I wonder if it ever was.