The open road was a welcome break from virtual confinement at Wayne’s austere ranch. The three of us followed the crowned gravel and clay contouring for the better part of another winter’s day, finally reaching the fork where one direction led to the spot where Dana’s motor had fallen off the mount and the other would take us somewhere else.
“I say we head back the way we came, hike to Gaia Goddess Gulch,” I suggested. “Catch a ride with your mom back to civilization. Helga was your mom, wasn’t she? I forgot.”
Yes, Helga was her mom, but of course Dana and Fly said the other fork would lead us to Covelo, and once again my idea was nixed. “That’s where I was going,” said Dana. “Before my car broke down. What am I gonna do about my car?”
“Afraid it’s junk at this point.” I couldn’t help thinking the two of them would have chosen the other fork if I’d suggested otherwise, but let it go. The uncertain path might hold unimaginable opportunities. This was my first winter in California, and the only flu I’d come down with was a certain gold rush fever. I was certain that around the next corner was fame and fortune, shrimp cocktails at Hollywood strip joints, the lucrative lump sum at the end of the rainbow. Anything was possible if we took the road less traveled, I told myself, ecstatic enough to be temporarily free of my first significant Ex and the responsibilities of diaperhood and snotty noses. No doubt those little details like child support and visitation rights would turn out petty once fame and fortune had smeared red lipstick all over my envelope, spelling “magic” in cursive like an old-fashioned letter to the editor on college-rule paper. At the very least, another story would emerge. It would sprout the way morel mushrooms pop up through ashes in the spring after a forest fire.
We three pilgrims passed around an apple cider jar filled with water filched from Wayne’s spring, resting on a slab of granite, I thought it was, in the afternoon sun. It was hard rock, anyway. Basking like lizards, hearing the red tail screech, removing our reeking socks and boots and napping, too exhausted for whatever spark of romance had once jumped between us. Maybe a passing truck would rescue our asses.
No, though. The stingy winter sun was descending when we awoke somewhat collectively and decided the only thing to do was keep on walking. Bad thing was, Dana said she remembered the way back and no way we’d make it by nightfall without hitching a ride. Hitching was sketchy in these parts, she asserted, and it was a mute point anyway out in the ghostly silent Yolly Bollys. We argued about this or that but kept walking until we came to another fork in the road.
“Well, this looks like a driveway,” said Fly. “Maybe we oughta try it.”
“And end up practically kidnapped by another per-verted hermit?”
“Okay, Dana. You got a better idea?”
I just let them argue. Machs nix, my dad had always said in our version of German. One of his favorite stories is the time he’d been riding in the backseat of a ’66 Chevelle with the 396, his cousin driving, and they’d come to a tee in the road. In the farm country they’d had tees rather than forks like in the mountains. On a muggy summer night in 1969, half the half-drunk occupants had voted to go right at the tee, half left, so my dad’s cousin had just driven straight ahead into the corn field and eventually gotten lost out there. They made a near-perfect number “9” in the process of finding their way out. That’s what they told us, anyway.
In the end we decided to try the apparent driveway and approach the homestead with caution. Before long we encountered a fellow with black dreadlocks and a beard who was fervently cutting a fallen oak limb with a bow saw.
“We come in peace,” said Fly.
“Right on, brother.” The guy’s name was “Just,” he said. “Just ‘Just’.” His skin was barely dark enough to hint at some African ancestry, his biceps and forearms sporting bulging veins reaching out from short sleeves with the exertion from cutting firewood.
I’d never seen anyone cut wood like that without a chainsaw, and offered to take a turn.
“Well I was actually going to lug this length back to the cabin and do the rest of the cutting there. We have sawhorses.”
So Fly and Dana and I each loaded somewhat damp lengths of half-rotted oak on our shoulders and followed Just to the “cabin,” more of a one room, tarpaper shack heavily shaded by dense firs. Turned out that Just had four roommates, and all of them were refugees from Earth First! One was a very pregnant babe who called herself, “Avery.” Her guy, apparently, was a dreadlocked, freckled white boy from Michigan, “Carrot Top.” Carrot Top’s noggin was adorned with the reddest dreads you ever saw, and I almost wanted to point out that carrot tops are actually green. Then there was a self-deprecating dude from Indiana, originally, “Duck,” and another Michigan dreadee who claimed the handle, “Tree Top.” Tree Top was maybe six foot seven, hence the alias. These young folks’ story was they’d been dropped off at the cabin by a local pot grower who had subsequently gotten busted, so they were temporarily stranded with a dwindling supply of beans and rice. They wondered if we knew the way back to Covelo.
Beans and rice had never tasted so good.