We lived in our camper and tents in the high grounds above Lake Oroville back in late 2016, early 2017. Rolling down from Oregon to California we had no idea where we were going. We were going somewhere that was not there. We were going anywhere else, somewhere else, hauling the children, Billy – minus his bottle, the Beastie, a few guitars, my fishing tackle box, reels and rods and lines, and my barely controlled morphine and oxy habit that was running out of time and space, along with us. It was all too heavy.
We couldn’t stay in the pine trees of Oregon, mostly because I detested it up there in the middle of nowhere, with its dying mainstreet, strange characters who may or may not have modeled for sports illustrated before having a major car crash and ending up on methadone, elderly male twins who shared a developmental disorder of some kind, as well as matching overalls and the sweetest disposition – Cletus and Travis, who mowed lawns for a living; the town hobo who had drunk himself silly, and was always begging for people to pay for his groceries – pretty harmless on the surface, but with a strong creep vibe, that made me nervous. The revolving cast of elderly pagan leaning hippies, small town doctors, and even smaller town cops, grocery store blow hards that loved to mention the fact I sound foreign every time I visited to buy overpriced avocados and bags of apples, bakers, bar owners, moose club goers, and summer cycling club fanatics made for a summer of mundanity. The most exciting thing in town was the occasional arson attacks. I suspected the real estate agent, or the hobo, but quit playing Nancy Drew, and barely looked behind me as we filled up the Beastie with gas and drove straight south to Modesto and Oroville Lake.
We didn’t know we were going to Modesto. We didn’t intend to go there. We just intended to head out of Oregon for a while to somewhere warmer for the winter, and Modesto is as good a place as any to see those tough months out when you live camping. When we set out, we never had a plan. We would drive down the road, in the general direction of ‘somewhere else’. The place I felt most alive was with a thousand miles behind me, and a thousand miles to go. It was where I felt safest. If I kept moving my past could not catch up with me. If I keep moving nobody could catch me to lock me up, deport me, hurt me, kill me, split my family up, stop me from enjoying life in the small ways I still could. Moving down the road bought me time. All that black top and white lines, all those gas stations and small town grocery stores. All those night time drives watching the neon and the dark shapes in the trees, and the tunnels with the streaming blurry lights and air lock whoosh of ear popping air pressure changes, all those bridges I cried over, all those mountain passes I almost passed out driving over, through sheer fear of falling off the edges, or smashing into the mountain side in the 26 ft long house on wheels. All those rest stops with the views of elk, of bufflo, of lakes and mountains and waterfalls and rivers. All those sandy lunches.
All those just down the road blissful half hours of changing scenery, the Girl patting my hand on the back of my headrest. The boy smiling at me and waving as I look at him in the rear view mirror, his feet up on the bench, listening to his radio and reading whatever he found in Billy’s cupboards. Sometimes it was Karl Marx, sometimes the history of punk or the collected lyrics of Leonard Cohen. Once I had to grab a copy of The Fountainhead out of his hands. “Sorry budderoo, in a few years, ok!” He looked at me curiously but passed the book over. “Kids see worse online, ma.” I shuddered. “Yeah, but not THIS kid, babycakes.” When he was younger he used to have a way of looking at me that was so ancient, so monkish, so considered and careful. The Boy was the adult of the gaggle. With me, his mother longing for open road, his friend Billy, being utterly useless, and the Girl variously torturing him along the way while I was not looking.
The 5, that artery that runs from north to south and back again from the Canadian border of Washington state to the border of Mexico and California, is not my favorite road. I have spent a lot of time on the 5, taking it from Anaheim and Los Angeles all the way up past Seattle. Not even my curiosity can make me want to see any more of it. The interstate itself is poorly maintained, some sections around Washington in particular are full of potholes and bone shaking lack of black top, but apart from the state of the road, it is the state of the people driving along it that makes me want to give up on life. Everyone is angry. Everyone is driving too fast, nobody pays attention on the conveyorbelt towards wherever their journeys are taking them. Autopilot, baby. There is a lot that can be got out of and avoided, even swerved, in smaller vehicles, that are manoeverable and have acceleration. What is irritating in a ford or a buick is terrifying in a 26 footer that cannot stop on a hairpin, move itself as if floating, nor accelerate away from trouble. In the end the only thing to do is remember that you are so much bigger than they are, and drive the thing like a bulldozer, scattering challengers and prius’s like steel and rubber confetti. Forwards, the Beast! Forwards into the blinding light that shines directly in the eyes of drivers in late afternoon. Forwards towards the next town, the next camp, the next state of being.
One of my favorite things in life is to see that road sign that announces that another state is about to be entered, leaving behind the mindset, the culture, the scenery and the life of the one just left behind. After driving from Los Angeles up to Seattle, Seattle back down to Oregon pausing for a while in the place I loved the least, heading out back down to California brought me one of those rare flushes of pure joy. Billy detested California. He said it was full of phonies and motorcycle cops. He didn’t dig the surfers, he didn’t dig the music. He didn’t dig the sun and the happiness and the hippies. He didn’t like the tourist spots or the sweet little towns along the coast. He didn’t like the driving – apparently no Californians can drive. He didn’t trust the place at all. His dark and dour personality refused to allow him to see what was good and safe and beautiful about California. His selfishness refused to accept it was safer for me and the children. He wanted to be in Oregon, and that was that. He got what he wanted. He remains in Oregon, dying slowly, making a nuisance of himself on the way out of life. He can’t feel his legs. He can’t feel his hands. I can’t feel much compassion for him at all any more. It died somewhere out in Klamath Falls.
We almost missed the sign that said Welcome to California. No one was ever as interested as I was. My own the road might have had my very own car stealing, candy bar pilfering, lover in every port Neal Cassady wannabe, but my road also involved two small children, neither of them in their teens when we first set out, and one under ten years of age. The freedom enjoyed by my male counterparts was not available to me. I had to worry about food, about safety and find myself saying things like “look, kiddos! It is the California sign! We are in California now!” I was generally either more enthused than everyone around me, in a concerted attempt to keep morale and energy up. Billy has always been prone to stagnation. If not moved on and given his own way, he would still be living in the parking lot of Walmart in Aberdeen. Getting him to move was a combination of carrot and stick. Getting him a treat, a coffee from Dairy Queen – he had a terrible iced coffee habit at a time when I barely had enough money to put food into the kids’ bellies. Passing over $5 for a moolatte when I was in a sheer panic over having enough to feed the children, and going without anything to eat myself for days on end, in order to get him moving down the road, used to induce a deep and lasting rage. Sometimes I would start a fight, screaming at him to move, to get going, that we needed to be somewhere else, that we couldn’t stay. He would bitch and gripe, moan and complain, and eventually start driving in a sullen fit of pipque.
He was in one of these half enticed, half propelled by my grouching episodes of driving a bit too fast, a little too recklessly, making his bad mood and disapproval fully known by everyone in the car. We drove past the majestic Shasta, snow topped, wagon wheels propped up in the little northern California town, surrounded by potted plants and hand painted signs. The alpine rocky snowcapped beauty, the mystical energy of the mountain had attracted a whole bunch of hippies and their sweet little mercantile endeavors. Whizzing past Dunsmuir, heading towards Red Bluff, the light going down, the wheels going round, the traffic moving in a speedy procession, orderly and equally spaced, idiots riding on our bumper, idiots pulling out in front of us, craziness to the left and right of us, insanity behind, and in front just the road, the long open black topped bone shaking road, guided only by our old KOA map of the USA, that listed their over priced and stuck up campgrounds that never had any space around, nor privacy or scenery or enjoyment, yet always asked for at least $50 to park up overnight, and even if you pulled in there after 9pm at night, wanted you gone by 11am for the same price, so we kept driving. Even if we had the money I would rather sleep in a rest stop than pay the KOA camping bandits. We made it to Modesto reservoir late at night, Beastie’s wheels crunching on gravel, arguing about whether this slip road went into the camp or not, bickering over how long to pay for, and hoping this would be the place we could all just stop.
Modesto was unremarkable. The cows in the field next to the campground had sweet personalities, Billy tore his favorite shirt on barbed wire helping to retrieve the Boy’s baseball, and the local store, some pioneer market, had cheap vegetables and pretty paper bags with covered wagons printed on them. Billy comandeered all of them, as his right as Beastie driver and owner. We drove out to Oroville, as usual not having a particular plan to go to Oroville, but seeing a campground marked on the map as national forest area, the little caravan meandered south to find warmer weather. Mini waterfalls trickled off rockfaces, fallen boulders littered the roads, it looked parched and soaked at the same time. Not the lush of regular rain on vegetation, but rather water laying uselessly on top of parched baked, hardened soil. It was cold and windy as we pulled into the ranger’s small office parking lot.
We paid using Billy’s old bastard card for a discount. There is not much that matches the feeling of being on the road, and having an entire weeks camping paid up in a place you want to be that has electric and water and a shower. It might have won prizes for being the worst shower on the road, almost freezing cold, fithy and inhabited by spiders the size of dinner plates that watched me undress and tried to drop onto my head as I washed as fast as possible.
Then the rain came.
It started raining that night and kept on going. It rained on the little houseboats that bobbed on the basin of the lake, tethered and anchored. It rained on beastie and started to drip through the seams of our tin ceiling. It hammered out a beat on the tin, loudly and insistently, so fiercesome that it kept us awake. Not so much pitter patter as a din that would make Keith Moon blush at his feebleness in comparison. Up on the headland, being visited by deer (especially the sweet little adolescent halfbuck, aka as Buckie, the buckster, buckerroo the beautiful that came up behind me nudging me as I tried to light a fire in a lull in the storm), wild turkey who gobbled in gangs begging for corn tortila and left over scraps, and various birds, rabbits and circling vultures who lived with us in the empty environ of the campground. It rained, and it rained. I started to feel sorry for the houseboat dwellers on the swollen lake that was full to the bursting point. If I was feeling damp and cold up on the headland, they must be miserable down there in the cold on the wet.
Driving into Oroville to go to Walmart, the most pathetic walmart in existence, that barely had a morsel of fresh food, but plenty of frozen pizzas, hot pockets and chips and candy, the road sloshing with water, the skies cracking with thunder, the wind lashing at the sides of the Beastie, pushing us this way and that, Billy sulking that California was not offering the milder winter we had hoped for and needed, and that there would be no more script refils since he was away from the doctor and her miserly prescription pad, I became desperate to get people happier, make them realize how good this was that we were together. The plain facts of it were that I loved them all, I needed them all possibly more than they needed me. I needed them to be safe and with me, and this was the only way to accomplish it. If anyone asks the Boy, he will say, without hesitation that it was worth it all, that he loves me, that he needs me, and that he was happy to hold on for better times. These times are better and worse in their own ways. Whilst the freedom of the road is something which is my pleasure and possibly mine only, I tried so hard to make the journey, the lifestyle, the months and years pass as comfortably and happily for everyone else. I failed of course. I failed to hold my tribe together. I failed to make them as happy as they made me.
The rain kept coming, and somehow I pulled me back so badly that I could not move. Laying in the bed in the back cabin, I could not move my legs without unbearable sharp pain shooting up behind my eyeballs leaving me screaming in agony. I couldn’t twist, turn or get up to use the bathroom. I couldn’t lift my head. I probably needed a hospital. Billy shook the pill bottle. There were two morphine and one oxycodone left. The rain banged on the roof, and dripped down by my ear, sending puddles down to the space between the cupboard that was filled with Billy’s stuff, and the floor. My things were stuffed into a duffle bag, for ease of threatening to throw me out if I wasn’t pleasing to him. He could be such a jerk. I guess he is learning his lessons now, huh. Looking down at me crying in pain, he softened. He might have been a bastard, but he was a bastard that was fond of me at the very least. “You can have what’s left,” he muttered extravagantly. All four pills. Whoopee. Do. Fucking fantastic. “What do you want first? Oxy or Morph?” I told him I needed a hospital, he shrugged and sighed. “Take the morphine first, just swallow it, see if you can get up and move.” I ate the morphine. I still couldn’t move. I ate the oxy, the other morphine, and then the last pink pill. The rain still fell and I was still stuck flat on my back unable to so much as lift a leg, left pissing in ice cream containers and sobbing wetly as days turned into nights. There was no question of moving again. I was not portable.
The pain started to ease, and I began to be able to get myself upright and hobbling gingerly, when the radio told us that the damn was bursting. The rain was unbearable, claustrophobic, the lightening making me glad for the rubber on the road. The noise and fury of the weather was so intense that I started making deals with lost Gods and forgotten goddesses. We had four days camping left paid for when we did the unthinkable: we drove out of there, me bracing my sciatica-cursed back as the road twisted and turned cruelly.
The parking lot of Walmart was under a foot or so of water when we pulled up and started counting our pennies. Putting a tank of gas in the Beastie, and heading out to the Bay area we drove south to wine country and a small trailer park with over decorated Christmas themed lights and trees. Santas jostled for space with Rudolf, elves and snowmen put on a display of extreme kitsch, as Joni sang about it coming on Christmas and wishing she had a river to skate away on. We almost did float away on a river back in Oroville, I joked with an unsmiling Billy.
I read today that Lake Oroville is at it’s lowest point for decades, and is drying out, the little houseboats that live on there with their independent and sweet community of water-dwellers, listing sadly in the small puddle that is left. A far cry from the wet winter of ’17. Extremes of dry and wet, hot and cold, wind and rain – climate change is not some buzz word muttered at Greenpeace fundraisers, but a lethal day to day reality. The fires and the floods making my beloved California dry out. How long before we are living in a desert? New York under water. Oregon in flames. The beautiful little gold rush towns burnt to the ground. The past of the road and those years wandering around the highways and by ways is being incinerated and drowned in turns.
I remember the palm trees blowing, almost touching the ground with their leafy fronds, I remember the wind and the rain lashing as we tried to outrun the potential of the Oroville damn bursting and being sept away in the storm. Seeing it naked and dry, bare and brown and dehydrated is almost too much to bear.
It is already too late. Just how much harder are us humans going to make it on ourselves?