Onion Rings and Angel Wings (Life on the Road)

We got lost somewhere around Los Gatos. The kind of lost you can get when you navigator has no idea how roads work in the USA, when you have no GPS, you are using the 2015 KOA brochure road maps as your only guide, and there is a shocking lack of pruning around signs in California, is the kind of lost that leads to an interesting life. That old curse. May you have an interesting life! Billy was curiously scared of Los Gatos. Something to do with a bunch of bikers in the 1970s, and a bad scene involving too much LSD and a flock of owls that flew at him while he was driving, their white wings blinding his vision so he rolled his car yet again into some ditch, leaving it there and walking on down the road to whatever party or disaster or bottle waited. You could never tell him that the wings and the birds and the danger was not real. To him, each corner held a problem that drove off forty eight years ago.

We pulled into a trailer park, looking for answers, camping, directions. Something to just stop. Or leave. Or at least not circle around yet again to the small crossroads with the overhanging trees and the rough road and the signs which seemed to point back at themselves, contradicting every suggestion they made as to how to get to a campground or to get back on the road. We had not yet learnt not to trust signs that said “camping this way”. You would drive down the road, for miles and miles. Eight, nine, ten miles, and come to a dead end, or a turning with no more directions. We had no home, and no direction to any temporary one.

I got out to be greeted with suspicious eyes and a man with a water hose and a pinched face doberman-cross. They did not do day-to- day camping. We could not just stay for a night, nor did they allow camper vans, only park style trailers. Other children jumped on trampolines and threw balls at each other, running campaigns of water fueled fights and chaotically dashing about in the failing half light of a California early summer late afternoon. Our wheels crunched on the gravel as we swung around and headed back out to sea. There was nowhere to camp in the area, despite us still having cash available in the upper cupboard of Beastie’s backroom. So we headed north, back up the interstate 5. The 5 is a boring old road. Busy and fast and dull. Towns pass by in an endless parade of strip malls and real estate offices, small houses and medium sized parcels with a single cow, or a couple of goats, or a horse or two. I liked watching the cows as they tested the strength of fences, or lay down in the dust or the grass, the bullocks kicking up their heels feeling the strength of spring and youth in the air and in their bones.

We ended going up up up, up to Weed, California. Weed makes lots of civic jokes about Marijuana, but I saw none, smelt none there.

Instead we pulled into a motel that advertised RV spaces with full hook ups, private shower cubicles, and tokens for drinks in the cafe. We pulled into a space, paid out thirty or so bucks, and hooked up. The sun was going down, but tomorrow felt like it was going to be hot. Billy and I unrolled the awning to give us some shade. You know how you can remember the feeling of a lost lover under your fingertips? The silk of their hair, the greasy soft of their skin, the sinew and muscle of their frame. The warm straw-like musk of their sweat after a day driving and worrying and hauling along the road. I remember all of this. I remember him. I remember how his hand felt tucked under my arm as we lay in the bed, curled up around each other in two perfect commas, mirroring each others breath as we collapsed fully clothed, jeans and all, on the bed. The children were already asleep.

And we were grateful. I heard Billy pray his hillbilly prayers to a Christ I feared had forsaken him and his drunken mistakes, years ago. Dear Lord, thank you for this place to rest. I whispered my own blessings under my breath, my own desires. My own breath of longing and fear and desire for a paternal hand of protection to hover over us in the heat and the isolation of a motel parking lot in June.

And we were grateful. We were grateful for each other. We were grateful for our freedom, and the food in our bellies, and the day. We lived for the day. We paid by the day. We did not exist outside of the moment, or the night, or the possibility of a tomorrow. At 1pm the next day, when we had to pay again, we had to start all over again, trying to find a place to rest, or else staying where we were. I measured out my life in camping-fee envelopes.

I was not prone to getting stuck in one place. Billy was. He stopped somewhere and it was hell to move him. His indolence chaffing against my own need to keep on moving.

The sun came up so hot and fierce the next morning, that I feared we were going to bake in our tin can of a shelter. We scraped together some money and treated ourselves to lunch in the Hi Lo café that was attached to the motel and the RV park. The kids split a sandwich, and so did we. Not enough money for something each for us, we ordered and shared it out between us. None of us were huge eaters. It was enough. Almost enough, anyway. Huge slabs of pastrami between soft pillowy slices of bread. Salty pickles. The best onion rings I had ever tasted in my life. The best onion rings any of us had ever tasted, piled up in a glorious greasy mountain in a paper lined basket. They were so good the next day Billy sacrificed a new tee shirt and wrote “Angel wings and Onion Rings” on it in black sharpie. We held hands. We laughed. We bonded. We were happy.

Happiness never lasts.

I don’t have any of the little wooden tokens they gave us to exchange for drinks in the café. I had kept one as a memento. Nothing ever lasts for me. Not past that day, that moment. It fades away as surely as the road behind me, or the love of someone whose face is fading in my minds eye. Someone I cannot touch or smell or hold ever again.

We stayed there in Weed a few days before heading out. The scenery became wilder, colder, lusher. It took on an alpine scent, as Shasta appeared in the distance, cold and gigantic.

We had come so far on one little KOA brochure map. It was already torn and frayed and dog eared, but we hadn’t yet stayed at one. I planned our next move. A KOA with a pool near Shasta. I figured the kids needed to stretch their legs and have some fun, and I wanted to get closer to the mountain. Billy, of course, was not keen. He was already sighing about tourist traps, just like he had done at Big Sur. This time, I held firm. I needed this. After years trapped in Tokyo, after years of being beaten, and hurt and threatened and caged, I was desperate to feel free, to be me.

We hitched up the ponies, unhooked the hose, rolled up the awning, gathered the children and headed for the hills.

Yes, these were some of the best of times, but the cracks were starting to show. But Ill leave you here with me for now, stowing the books and the radios, and the detritus of a life, getting ready to hit the road.

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