Where I Lived: 2

Westward through Hell

Faithful Ugly Car – 1963 Dodge 330

Summer of 1966, somewhere on Interstate 8 between Gila Bend and Yuma. I’m in the back seat of my father’s black Dodge 330 4-door sedan. The faithful, ugly car has carried us west across the country on the burgeoning Interstate Highway System four times, but there’s no return trip planned today. The destination is not a vacation. We are cruising to a new home, my father at the wheel, as always, piloting us to a concrete destination that he dreamed up in his imagination, with my mother’s agreement.

The air conditioning is failing. There’s a trace of frigid air emanating from the front vents, but not much. It’s 104 degrees outside. I touch the warm glass of the window. Mom wants to stop and give us water. Dad says no. Maybe he thinks the car will heat up too much and that we will all be baked alive before we get to Araz Junction and the bridge into California that crosses what’s left of the Colorado. The river is dammed six times south of Hoover. I’m cooked already and feel damned as well.

There’s water in the trunk of the car, but instead of fighting with Dad over a short halt, Mom hands out cans of unrefrigerated orange soda to us—the only liquid she has in the car at the moment. Lukewarm, sugared, vile—I drink it down like a parched sailor in a lifeboat on a salty sea. Immediately I want to throw up, but I don’t. I’d rather die. Dad would be sympathetic, but then I’d hear it as a tale told to his friends to embarrass me for years. No way will I let that happen.

As we speed down the brand-new interstate the road passes through a cattle ranch stretching to the horizon on either side of the road and into the distance ahead of us—a brownish ocean of undulating livestock. The reek of cow shit and my own fear enters my nose. I am breathing thickness and sickness. My head is spinning.

“Oh my God,” my mother says. “What a stench. Stinking old cows.” She waves her hand in front of her face as if shooing away a cloud of invisible flies. My mother never uses the name of the Lord in vain, something my father monitors in his children’s speech—something I am careful to avoid. Dad remains silent.

I am fed up with all this travel, weary of being cooped up in the back of the car—three days now. We are in a hurry and not stopping to see the sights. I already miss my Pittsburgh pals. I’ll never see them again. I hate everything.

Then my father turns around and leers. His wayward eyebrows bristle. He’s going to say something he thinks is funny, I can tell.

“This is what hell is like!” he says, and turns back to watching the road. All that’s missing is the “bwa-ha-ha.”

One Year in San Diego

Smart Assed Kid

Sun and Mexican food. Bicycles at last. Long road trips to watch the sun rise over the Anza Borrego desert. No more snow. Shorts in the winter. Picnics. More Catholic school—School of the Madeleine on Illion Street. Brown uniforms for the boys: short sleeves for First through Seventh grade, long sleeves and black ties for eighth graders. Plain plaid skirts for the girls. We arrive in late summer of 1966, and the local stores are all sold out of long-sleeved shirts. I receive a dispensation for my bare forearms, yet still wear the tie, which creates a rumor that I am really a Seventh grader who has advanced because of his academic qualifications. This marks me as an outsider. I am treated as such by my peers. I flunk math, but not intentionally.

The church is on the side of a mesa—a view of Mission Bay, the vista like something from the utopian science-fiction novels I love. Years later I look at it again through the reverse memory telescope—so tiny, so ordinary. But the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent is right there before me, and the desert and my father’s Edward Abbey dreams are not far from home. Daytime road trips on the weekend. Burgers on the grill. Family times.

A rental house on Cowley Way where I can hear the neighbors drinking and fighting at night. My closest friends are outcasts like me—now nameless, I cherish them. There are guitars in the house. My father is unhappy, beleaguered by his boss, a stupid man named Carl, whose girlfriend is English and sweet. Carl owns a yacht. On random Sundays we steam around Mission Bay in a cloud of diesel exhaust, a brief excitement. A day trip to Ensenada, Mexico, before the borders became impregnable without passports. Another to Tecate, where my guitars originate.

Our roots never take hold in that cultural soil, save for cuisine. Tacos and tostadas, not just from taquerias—a recipe from Sunset magazine that my brother still occasionally rustles up in my kitchen. Food that always leads to the redemptive chant today: “Thanks Dad and Mom…” Can they hear us on the other side? After a year we scurry north. To Oxnard.

Oxnard. A name right out of the Firesign Theatre’s “Funny Names Club of America,” christened by the town’s founder, Henry, who built a sugar beet processing plant there in 1897. Frustrated because bureaucrats couldn’t determine why Henry wanted to name the town after the Greek word for sugar, zachari, he named it after his family. Civic debates over changing the name ensue repeatedly.

Field of Beans

Reading Road and Track

A brand-new tract house in the middle of lima bean fields—the local ranch family is selling off the family agricultural estate to developers. I can see over the back fence and watch the harvesting—bulky, rumbling machines running all day and night that keep me awake. Another steampunk sci-fi vision.

As months and years pass more homes are excreted onto the rich soil that have been fertilized for decades with chicken shit. Advantageous for gardening. My parents plant citrus trees, cacti, and succulents. I can still hear neighbors fighting—it seems that California is filled with unhappiness. I keep to myself. My brothers play ball in the suburban streets.

My dad never wears tennis shoes—in their place leather Oxfords tied with thin shoestrings, black socks that fall down around his thin ankles, revealing his pallid skin. Thankfully he never wears shorts. My mother, patiently silent, puts up with my father’s crazy schemes.

“If you don’t have anything good to say about someone don’t say anything,” she teaches me. It seems wise then. I know it is now.

Smart Assed Father of Kid

In August 1967 there is a day when Dad registers me at the local Catholic high school, not long after we move into the new house. We sit in the principal’s office. Behind the desk a priest, Monsignor Joseph Pekarcik, ex-Marine. Wire-rimmed glasses. Stern gaze. No grin. Curled grey hair like soap-scour pads. Next to me my father, a patriarchal smirk on his face. As they engage in autocratic small talk, I sit in a chair feeling unimportant and diminutive, as if I am being reduced in size due to the power of the invisible super-vision shrink ray transmitting from the priest’s totalitarian eyes. I think that if he smiles his cheeks will crack and his face might fall off. Wisely, I keep my mouth shut, rebelling internally.

He says to my father, “Mister Gill, how do you supervise your family?”

“It’s a benevolent dictatorship.” My father responds as if they are old friends sharing a secret handshake and winking at one another. I wonder what Mom would say if she heard that—she’d laugh in his face and require that he make his own dinner.

Monsignor Pekarcik nods approvingly and scrutinizes me again. He knows he’ll have no problem with me. I spend four years avoiding him while he catches genuine miscreants, sneaking up behind them while wearing thick-soled silent shoes, curtailing their felonies—violations of the dress code. “The heels on those boots are too high, Mister, and those pants are too tight. Go home and change them. Now.” 

Once again I don’t know anyone on the first day of my freshman year. Two parishes feed eighth graders into the high school. Everyone is confused—I seem to have come from some other country or planet. Yet in a few days I realize my family will remain here in this agricultural town for an extended time as it transforms to a Los Angeles bedroom community. The outlandishly named city becomes my first hometown, despite the crop dusters buzzing around the neighborhood. Here I make lifelong friends—not nameless and forgotten, still with me fifty years later: John, Tony, Marie.

No Sense of Fashion

I become a high school scholar, the pampered eldest Catholic boy—both my siblings are enrolled in public schools. My parents never speak to me about money. They never give me much of it either, but once again we seem flush. My dad finds a job in a camera store, builds a business selling high-end stereo gear and classical audiophile LP’s. Eventually my mother works as a secretary. I find baby-sitting jobs in the neighborhood for paperback book money.

Riding my bike to the public library is unalloyed joy. Freedom in the stacks as I search out science-fiction, dreams of future cities in my head—domed or doomed. Asimov, Clark, Bradbury—Heinlein not so much. Mystery and detective novels. World War 2 naval history. My father subscribes to Road and Track. I devour every issue, following Formula One in Europe, while helping him rebuild Alfa Romeo sports cars in the garage.

On weekends, road trips to Pine Mountain and Reyes Peak in the Los Padres National Forest. Racing down the long straightaway of Gonzales Road, my father behind the wheel. “Don’t you dare ever drive like this,” he says—while driving like that.

At the end of Gonzales Road, the Pacific Ocean and the edge of the continent. The smell of the sea. Occasional fog. On clear nights, stars. Sometimes, sporadic explosions of aborted rocket launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base 100 miles up the coast—the vapor from the blasts hanging like florescent blossoms, unfurling smoke and fire across the setting sun. C-5 Super Galaxy cargo jets rumble and roll over the house on final approach to Oxnard Air Force Base.

In 1969 men land on the moon. My father scoffs, I’m not sure why. I have nothing good to say to him about his cynicism, so I ignore him. One year earlier America burns. Martin Luther King is assassinated. In June I listen to Robert Kennedy speak after winning the California Democratic primary. Then another shot from a gun while the harvesters churn more lima beans from the ground and houses grow in the fields overnight.

In the background of all of it my transistor radio and radio station KBBY—Beatles, Beach Boys, The Who, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin. All surreptitiously received through a small earpiece. I am in a safe zone—protected, loved, nurtured—even though the country is falling apart, and thousands of soldiers are dying in a pointless war in Southeast Asia.

My father tells me I’m going to college. Sounds good to me. Has to be a Catholic College though. I apply to Loyola in Los Angeles, Santa Clara in Santa Clara, and a small liberal arts college in Moraga—Saint Mary’s College of California. I am accepted at all three. Dad and Mom arrange for tuition, and I help out with a small scholarship from the State of California.

January 1971. Dad and I travel north to Moraga to see the campus. A rainy, foggy day. The place seems like something out of my own moist, murky, romantic dreams—redwood trees, owls, rain, and…coeds. I adore it, and it’s as far away from my dad as I can get.

The imagination should be allowed a certain freedom to browse around.

Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action

Where I Lived: 1

Deep in the white heart of Pennsylvania, a little town that had no dreams. Houses crushed by snow in winter, eroded by the lack of creative fire. To no other place on earth have I given greater joy on leaving.

Of course, I didn’t know that when I was a child. The memories are clear: my father’s Pontiac Star Chief convertible, the bats in the attic above my bedroom, the first day I had to climb onto a school bus and attend first grade in a brick building across the street from Saint Patrick Catholic Church. A boy was accidentally hanged in the school yard while playing Cowboys and Indians, though it didn’t happen while school was in session. I had no idea of mortality then. The tragedy didn’t register.

A day in second grade watching Al Shepherd’s lift-off, broadcast on a tiny black and white TV set. The Space Age rising while I was growing up in a region that never changed and is now the ailing heartland of an America that never got back to the moon. Today my brother and I chant aloud: “Thanks, Dad for moving us away from there…” We were still a few years from migrating to California, but the first stage of leaving that rural slough behind by a shift to Pittsburgh was a day of liberation, at least in hindsight.

The city on three rivers had cleaned up its act. No more darkness at lunchtime—when the opaque sun was trapped behind an impenetrable cloud of smoke produced by steel manufacturing. I’ve seen those pictures in books, but by the time we moved the mills were cleaner. Perhaps the toxicity was simply hidden. Both of my parents died young, my mother from cancer, my dad from a bizarre nervous disease that was never successfully diagnosed. I’m convinced their health was permanently impacted by the paper mills in the small towns where they grew up. We moved before my health was ruined.

Thanks, Dad. Thanks, Mom.

Baptist Road – Pittsburg

To my adolescent eyes Pittsburgh was elegant, our home on Baptist Road a noble castle made of stone. If I returned today it would be revealed as modest. That is the circumstance of memory—the old past is vast when it is new, and diminutive when it is visited in the future present—like looking through a telescope in reverse.

Yet in Pittsburgh there was little sense of natural geography—no mountains, no coastline, no sense of immensity. Three summer trips across the continent from 1963-1965 gave us all a taste. Mom and Dad sensed the radiance on the coast—Ansel Adams’s Range of Light illuminated the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, Zion—and called to my parents.

We were rich, though not monetarily. My parents agonized over the mortgage, always paying on time. When Dad lost his electronics store downtown after the block was condemned for the construction of the US Steel building, we wandered to California and left Pennsylvania behind—aunts, uncles, cousins, my father’s mother, and family friends. We took my mother’s photo scrapbook with us. I was uncertain about that move. I had buddies and did not want to leave, but today I am still gratefully living under a Pacific sky.

When we are children our passages are not the results of our own decisions but those of our caretakers. As adults we live with the consequences of our own decisions but more often those choices are again the result of unforeseen events and losses that become opportunities. We are never in charge.

Art, in its broadest sense, is about connections, not distance.

Martin Shaw, A Branch from the Lightning Tree

The Brookings Effect: 4

The rain pulses on the roof of the trailer in the post-midnight darkness. Occasionally the precipitation pauses, and I fall into a light sleep. Then the wind blows and the ample moisture that has gathered in the Sitka Spruce tree next to the camper falls all at once like a waterfall. I awaken—no deep sleep tonight, that’s for certain. My imagination rambles through memories rather than being adrift in dreams. I think of the times I camped with wife and children, and earlier, with my own brothers, mother, and father, before and after we migrated from Pennsylvania to California. The thought arises: now here I am in Oregon. The unforeseen events that led to a second migration of my own come to mind like scenes in a novel.

Paul at Arch Rock Viewpoint

I’m in a sequel to the preceding stages of my life. The structure of the story that’s being written by my actions, thoughts, and dreams is vague, but it’s there—I can sense it as the framework of my experience in the same way that I can analyze plots, themes, and symbols when reading literature. As an undergraduate I learned how to discern the hidden, organic bones of prose and poetry. Decades later I recognize the same infrastructure supporting my lifespan. Art reveals everything if one takes the time to remain patient and pay careful attention. I can see the losses and gains, the rise and fall, the slow sections and the rushing moments that force me to keep turning the pages. The book of my life is not physical. I can’t tell how many chapters remain before I reach the end.

I know that my conclusion will not be “and they lived happily ever after.” That was supposed to have been the finale of the previous volume, but it didn’t finish that way. This follow-on will take me to a place where I have never been before.

These half-awake musings fill up the anxious wolf-hours of night before dawn. As the rain rides the wind from the Pacific along this harsh, indifferent coastline, a voice arises in my head once more: be still and know—be still. There is no end. The wanderer has no fixed abode.

The dead trees no longer refreshed by the moisture in the understory. The soil destroyed by fire and washed away. What was that neologism I came across recently? Solastalgia— a ‘form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change.’ Is that what I’m feeling? I try to be calm while the sky refreshes in a tinge of grey, morning light. The slow drip of moisture on the rooftop fades away. I hear Paul stirring at the other end of the trailer. The secure scent of coffee arises. The wolf-time lapses, and the gift of another day begins.

More oatmeal. More coffee. Then I walk through the campground. The rain has freshened everything. Wet forest smells mingle with the scent of the sea. Cool air aids my process of awakening and I recall that I did have a crazy dream last night: a conversation with a trio of old women whose faces were altering and merging, all of them looking at me benevolently. The Three Fates, I assume, though there was no spinning wheel or scissors. I remember something I read by Martin Shaw in his book, A Branch from the Lightning Tree: “Myth is not much to do with the past, but a kind of magical present that can flood our lives when the conditions are just so. It is not just the neurosis of us humans trying to fathom our place on the earth, but sometimes the earth actually speaking back to us.”

Myth and story. Life and death. Wandering, learning, exploring. Moments of love I still bear for those who have passed out of my life to the other side. Aches that can’t be healed that turn to gratitude. Those are the lessons of the stillness. They surface in my dreams, anxieties, and daylight actions every day because I am more aware of how they all fit into a single epic, layering on top of one another like a series of palimpsests, some partially erased but still decipherable.

I reenter the trailer. “How about we explore Carpenterville Road this morning?” says Paul.

“Why not? It’s no longer raining. Let’s go.” There is mist drifting in the constant wind. The moisture calls us out to the road and fresh sights under somber skies. No sun, but a beautiful day.

Less than a mile north of Harris Beach we make a right turn. It’s a road to nowhere, a ghost road to a ghost town, the former route of Highway 101 back when it was known as the Roosevelt Highway, now Oregon Route 255. We twist and turn and climb. There’s no traffic. The mist deepens as we gain altitude and I engage the intermittent wipers. Tree branches hang sullenly over the road, the leaves opaque green, dripping with moisture that splatters the windshield. Here and there I see a house, a farm, or a lumber operation. The views of the ocean are obstructed by clouds. I’m reminded of Ireland—the time when I traveled there with my wife to Sligo and visited the grave of William Butler Yeats at Drumcliffe Cemetery. All that’s missing here are the Celtic crosses.  

In 1921 the town of Carpenterville was founded at the high point of the road. Before the highway was realigned and the town was cut off from 101, it contained a post office, public school, a lodge and restaurant. 35 people lived there in 1940. Today there is nothing I can see that marks that a town ever existed, presumably at the highest point of the road—Burnt Hill Summit. We pass a sign for Windsong Ranch and cross over Whalehead Creek. The road is paved but I have to be careful to avoid occasional potholes filled with rainwater.

It’s a forlorn place. The specters of my wolf-hours are still hanging around like voiceless loiterers. There’s no sense of menace or anxiety, only loneliness, even though Highway 101 is not far away. It’s down below us someplace, invisible. I wonder if I could hear traffic if I pulled over and opened a window. The road turns northwest and drops in altitude. The clouds lift and then we see the ocean, slate-grey and impassive. I feel as if I am enfolded between dreamscape and landscape.

Eventually we find the highway when we reach the Pistol River Loop Road. The sky is still sealed by banks of somber clouds but the view up 101 is clear. I tell Paul I want to drive all the way up to Humbug Mountain and check out the campground in the state park. He agrees—it’s always useful to scout out likely camping areas ahead of time. It’s not a long drive, through Gold Beach across the Rogue River, then Nesika and Ophir.

Humbug Mountain appears to be a suitable place for a couple of quiet nights later in the summer. There are a few campers sheltered under the trees, partially protected from the moist weather. They wave at us, smiling. We turn south again. I pull over at the same turnout as last Wednesday and get out of the car.

This time the handout of vision strikes me full in the face. I live here now. This is my geography. Rugged like the country my ancestors left behind when the potato crops failed. It’s been three years since I left California. I’ve been cooped up for months. We all have. That’s what these days are telling me.

Yet the world does not seem right. All this beauty in front of my eyes is endangered. There is something I need to do. I still don’t know what it is, but I can hear it calling. Its voice is muffled under the earth. I’m going to have to dig for it.

Those thoughts occur in an instant. I return to the car, fully awake. Back to the road. Back to camp. On the way we stop at Windy Point to see the view of Arch Rock. People are milling around in the light rain but by the time Paul and I reach the viewpoint at the end of a short trail everyone has departed. We are standing at the edge of a cliff overlooking a few rocky islands flecked with seafoam, one topped with a grove of Sitka Spruce trees. They will be there after I die, protected from fire and tree cutters—solitary sentinels protecting the edge of the continent.

My brother and I stand peacefully, gazing out at the sea once more. My parents are my ancestors now, I think to myself. My memories of them bringing us to California half a century ago are old enough to be my own legend—a story of decisions made by people who died long ago that brought me to this spot, on this day, at this time. It’s time for me to tell that story.

That Saturday night it rains hard. When I awaken I pack up my gear and start for home. Paul needs his own space. He’ll stay at Harris Beach for another week. The weather in Portland is dry, and I miss my own bed and kitchen.

The rain continues as I drive north, but it diminishes at Port Orford. By the time I reach Bandon the sky is clear and the sun is out. I drive by the Bandon Baking Company hoping that I can pick up some of those luscious cheese croissants, but the shop is closed again. I’ll try in May when we camp at Bullards Beach. I gas up Dark Star and then stop north of Coos Bay at William M. Tugman State Park and eat a cold bagel with cream cheese. I recall the time I walked Finn there as we traveled to Portland in 2018 to start a fresh life. It’s been 16 months since he passed unexpectedly. I have one of those unanticipated moments when grief surfaces and turns to grace as I think about all those I have lost.

East of Reedsport there is heavy rain on OR-38. The Umpqua River is wide there, and glows through the downpour, reflecting the muted light of the sky. I have the road to myself until the squalls descend. I stay in the right lane through the passing zones and let all the idiots go by. I generally drive right at the limit, but the conditions are not right for that now—thus tailgaters, all of whom deserve their own circle in Dante’s Hell.

I stop at the Cottage Grove rest area with the intention of taking a nap, but it’s crowded and there are folks that look untrustworthy hanging around, so I continue on without stopping. Traffic is heavy as usual between Eugene and Salem. That part of the drive is like I-5 in California. It seems to me that Oregon drivers are as unhinged as their northern neighbors in Washington these days—perhaps as a result of being quarantined for so long. I arrive home about 4:50 pm. Total trip mileage 881.5. Avg mpg just a shade over 30.

That evening while I am winding down for a deep sleep in my own bedroom I read a brochure issued by the Oregon State Parks administration advertising the Samuel H. Boardman Scenic Corridor. In a sidebar I read that the Arch Rock landmark was the root of a legend regarding Coyote for the Tolowa tribe:

“Coyote—a frequent character who teaches ingenuity and explains the inexplicable—was left to starve on Arch Rock after playing a prank on the other animals and people. Undeterred, he cleverly made his way back to land by gathering a basket of mussels and throwing them into the water. Each mussel magically grew into a small island, allowing Coyote to use them as stepping stones to shore.”

He’s a smart fellow, that Coyote. I’ll follow his lead and see where it goes.

“Something I heard an archeologist say in Oslo about deep time returns to me: Time isn’t deep, it is already all around us. The past ghosts us, lies all about us less as layers, more as drift. Here that seems right, I think. We ghost the past, we are its eerie.”

Robert Macfarlane, Underland, pg. 273

Arch Rock – April 2021

Photos by Richard Gylgayton