The problem: I’m writing a book about California. Not just a story set in a place, but a story of the place itself. A rooted story, one that will sweat California out of its paper pores. One that, with its California pheromones, will ensnare you from the shelf, radiating heat and salt air.
The problem is I no longer live there, haven’t for 14 years. I’m trying to conjure a geography that haunts my dreams, one I inhabited when I was still a girl, then a young woman, a college student, a young newspaper reporter, unencumbered except for my own insecurities, alone, finding myself. But the memories are vaporous–they dissipate like blue bay fog. I’ve compensated with several strategies involving the internet, photos, scraps of ephemera. Devouring songs and California literature like vitamins. But there’s a gap, something essential missing. I have less than three months to finish a draft of this book. I fear I’ve forgotten what California is really like. How do we conjure the spaces we’ve left?
Idea: A road trip through the state, revisiting the spots that are supposed to figure prominently in my book, the spots where memories are fuzzy. Not alone, of course. I’ll bring my best friend, who will fly from Canada to meet me in San Francisco. Four days, all we can spare, looping from the necklace of a state to her sandy calves. She’ll leave her nursing school behind and her 10-year-old son with her ex; I’ll shake off my day job and abandon my two daughters, the soggy laundry, the perpetually leaky Seattle roof.
We’ll be Thelma and Louise, but less murder and more literature. Suzanne is the perfect partner for this emergency trip: we’ve traveled together before and know each other better than anyone else. She’s in the book, making a cameo as a fast-talking 11-year-old Uma Thurman lookalike (circa Pulp Fiction)—so besides being my best friend she’s vested, as a character, in this book’s outcome. And she doesn’t question my ridiculous itinerary that has us traveling 1,000 miles in a few days, from San Francisco to the Sierras to Death Valley and beyond.
Crossing: I’m mainly obsessed with visiting a remote place called Beckwourth Pass, where in 1851 a ten-year-old girl who would grow up to become the first poet laureate of California, led by the legendary mountain guide and former slave James Beckwourth and followed by her family’s wagon, crossed over the Sierra Nevada on the back of a pony. “There, little girl,” Beckwourth told her as they crested the pass he discovered but was later not repaid for developing as was promised, “there is California! There is your kingdom.” Even as the girl, named Ina Coolbrith, lurched along that immigrants’ route, her gray girl’s eyes took in the valley ahead, the oxen behind, the nearness of the perfect clouds, and she began in her mind to write words.
Miscalculation: Something about this idea of a pass that marks a place of crossing, a place people would and did die to get to, is important to me. I’ve scanned Google Earth and plotted our route on Highway 80, through dusty specks of town and emerald forest, all the way east to Truckee for the night, then north on historic State Route 49, through remains of gold mining towns and buried dreams, to Beckwourth Pass in the morning. But after we’ve begun to climb up the slope of the Sierras, light rain turns to slushy flakes. At the aptly named Emigrant Gap I turn our blue Hyundai rental into the lot of a convenience store. The sky has darkened and 4 p.m. suddenly feels like midnight. The slush falls heavier. A sign in the window of the store advertises chains, $49.99 a set. I roll down the window and ask the tow truck drivers parked next to us, “Are chains required?”
“Yes ma’am,” one responds.
“We could get the chains,” I tell Suzanne. “But they’re not the easiest to put on. And it’s already dark and so wet out there.”
“Let’s just do it,” she says. “I’ll help. You came here for this.”
“Well, let’s go in and ask,” I say.
She looks outside again. “I’ll wait here. My hair’s going to get wet.”
I decide now, the sky already three shades darker, the slush turned to hail, Suzanne’s hair so perfectly dry, that the elements are winning. I have underestimated the weather of March, the power of the same nature that 165 years ago kept emigrants on foot and hoof at bay.
We are not getting across this pass or this range as planned. Even today with cell phones and radios and concrete, I realize, one can hit an impasse.
Backpackers: We usually fall into predetermined roles when we travel together, a pattern that stems from our first real trip backpacking through Europe when we were 20. While I stockpiled maps, guide books and language dictionaries, tracking train schedules and triple checking clocks to get us to the right place at the right time, Suzanne rolled out of bed every morning, Venice, Seville, Interlaken, sleepy and trusting: “Just tell me where to go,” she’d say. And while I made a show of mocking her directional bewilderment, I really didn’t mind navigating for both of us. I felt important and sure of my purpose.
Now though, just when I’m frazzled at my plans being blown to the wind, she’s on top of it, scrolling through her iPhone and calling bed and breakfasts, commanding last-minute accommodations with nice bathrooms while I retreat from the icy mountain pass, reorienting us south.
Loss: Now off my planned itinerary, we land in a Gold Country town I once lived in for a lonely summer as a newspaper intern covering landslides, fires and county fairs. The room in the historic mansion is beyond romantic, a waste Suzanne and I don’t mind because who doesn’t love a velvet-draped, chandeliered pied-à-terre? We poke around the town that night, wandering past an antique store doubling as the county’s Republican headquarters, snickering at bunting comingling with bloomers.
But what am I supposed to be doing here? I ask myself this later, as we settle into the romantic pink room. Am I getting any research done that will help me finish a book in three short months? My notebook is almost empty. I scratch a few observations, then feel blank. What is California to me, I think, anxiety rising a little. What is this book even supposed to say? How does a place change, or stay the same? How do we?
In the morning we visit the inn’s black-and-white period kitchen, lovingly restored by the owner. As we admire the tin ceiling, painted glossy black (the secret is race car paint, she tells us) this mother unravels the story about her life at the inn with her two autistic sons. Struggles, supplements, fighting the system–and then, she whispers, her hand caressing the antique door casing, a few months ago one of her boys died.
Mortality: To get to southern California, approaching our final destination of Palm Springs from the east side of the Sierras as opposed to from the west side of the range, through Death Valley the way I had originally planned, I must drive through the wet heart of the state. Out of Gold Country we wend, coasting through curtains of rain on vertiginous roads, hugging slimy hillsides, pinecones the size of footballs smashing down around us from skyscraper trees. Wind battering the Hyundai as it edges around cliffs, I grip the wheel tighter and lock my eyes straight ahead. Can I use this for the book? I can’t seem to locate any useful data, only a climbing count of apocalyptic pinecones and the stubborn terror of dying on a—what? A book-research road trip? A trip where I’ve taken three lines of notes?—and leaving behind two motherless children.
“Do you want me to drive?” Suzanne asks for the millionth time. She means it–nothing scares her, at least nothing in the physical world. Roller coasters, cave spelunking in the Alps, narrow roads perched above rivers rushing with rainstorm and old flecks of gold.
“It’s fine,” I mutter. “I can do it.”
It’s what’s for dinner: Timing and distance make us land for the next night in Bakersfield, the place I once heard called the armpit of the state, pockmarked with oil pumps. The place I have no reason to visit. The place where a longtime boyfriend, six months after we broke up and I moved away to the desert to start a new life, asked me to drive to and meet him, a nothing place halfway between us on the map where nothing would happen because I said no.
Green everywhere, a fruit bowl, an outdoor farmer’s market for a giant. I think of The Grapes of Wrath, of the Joads, Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl refugees, entering this central California for the first time from the brutal Mohave Desert:
Pa sighed, ‘I never knowed they was anything like her.’ The peach trees and the walnut groves, and the dark green patches of oranges. And red roofs among the trees, and barns — rich barns. Al got out and stretched his legs.
He called, ‘Ma — come look. We’re there!’
Ruthie and Winfield scrambled down from the car, and then they stood, silent and awestruck, embarrassed before the great valley. The distance was thinned with haze, and the land grew softer and softer in the distance. A windmill flashed in the sun, and its turning blades were like a little heliograph, far away. Ruthie and Winfield looked at it, and Ruthie whispered, ‘It’s California.’
We end up in a historic hotel, The Padre. Tired from the road, we shuffle into the hotel restaurant. We order red wine, lots of it, and two steaks. I don’t really eat beef but Bakersfield on a road trip feels like a place I should.
“You’ll get the book done,” Suzanne tells me between wine number one and wine number two.
We eat until we are one second from exploding. I don’t know it at this moment, but I’ll dream of this steak for years and years.
Drinks in bowls: Speaking of food. We drive for hours southeast of Bakersfield, approaching the desert, heat baking through the Hyundai’s windows. Dusty towns. Dusty truck stops. Dusty mini-malls. Dusty thrift stores. Our stomachs are the dust bowls now, empty and churning. Outside a Mexican restaurant recommended to us by the previous pioneers of Yelp, we pose for selfies, squinting against the sun-yellow wall. Inside we devour the menu, big as a bible, and choose plates and plates of food. Margaritas arrive; someone has skipped over the glasses and decided we need massive basins to sip from, the sweet cold quench sloshing up over the rim. For unknown reasons these seem hilarious. We sit a long time, until those bathtubfuls of margaritas trickle through us.
End of the road: Palm Springs. Finally back on the itinerary, to a place I intended to revisit. We stay in an L-shaped motel, a mid-century modern refurbished paradise with doughnut floaties in the pool and gazebos sheltering us on all sides. In the culvert outside I can hear the frogs and crickets croaking at night. We lounge in chaises and ponder the universe with all its stars and scary unknowns and bursts of surprise and disappointment. We take 400 selfies of Suzanne so she can re-brave the realm of online dating. On the day in between our two nights at the paradise, I take her to Joshua Tree National Park where she’s never been, where she snaps pictures of yucca brevifolia. Monzogranite, alluvial fans, bajadas, inselbergs: I gather the language of the place to see what I can do with it. It feels far removed, even though it’s all around us.
I think of the time when I lived in this desert, when I found a wide-open space for myself, found my voice, found, too, someone to heat my heart and my body. Another word pops into my head. Scorched. This is a word I think I can use, a word I can put to work. One thousand miles for a word. I remember why I’m here. I panic about my book. I calculate the cost of this research trip, tally the days left I have to finish my manuscript. I roll scorched around my tongue, mildly hopeful. I scan the dirt for tarantulas. Suzanne scampers up mountains of boulders until she’s a tiny dot in the sky.
Natalie Singer is the author of the memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (2018). Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in Proximity, Hypertext, Literary Mama, Largehearted Boy, The Nervous Breakdown, Full Grown People, the anthology Love and Profanity (2015), and elsewhere. Her awards include the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction prize and the Alligator Juniper nonfiction prize. She has taught writing inside Washington State’s psychiatric facility for youth and inside Seattle’s juvenile detention center. Natalie holds an MFA from the University of Washington.