Wednesday, April 4, 2012
California Road Trip
Road Trip, Part 1: Smith River and a Few Redwoods
Drove down to California in February, a road trip I hadn't made for many years. I can tell I am older. I can neither see nor hear as well as I used to do, but once I got into the groove of driving it all went pretty well.
The first night I only went as far as Vancouver, Washington, where I stayed with my friend Sonya.
The next day I went down I-5 as far as Grants Pass, and then cut over to Crescent City on the coast, where I spent that night, after driving up to say hello to Smith River.
I had to say hello to Smith River, because my father's family used to have a place there. My grandparents, Percy and Lyllian Litchfield, owned a fishing camp at the mouth of the Smith River, a few miles north of Crescent City, in the 1930s. It consisted of a few small wooden cabins built on the bluff over the lagoon at the mouth of the Smith River. Down below was the dock where fishermen set out to to catch the wily trout.
Nowadays there is a motel, a restaurant, a permanent trailer park, and accommodations for traveling RVers there. You'll know the place if you drive by on Highway 101 because the whole property is now the Ship Ashore, so named because there is a red and white ship sitting by the highway. Back in the 1950s the ship sat out at the top of the bluff, and the fishing cabins were still there. We went up there when I was five or six and I remember those details.
I don't know how it came about that the Litchfields became attached to Smith River. I've heard that my grandmother Lyllian was the one who loved the place dearly, and Percy loved Lyllian dearly, and that's why they bought the fishing camp. Lyllian died in 1938 at the age of 51 from Pick disease, a form of dementia, and Percy sold the camp and stayed in Watsonville from then on.
But during the 1930s they went to Smith River often. My mother worked in a garage in town, and she told me that they'd get done with work on Friday afternoon, get in their cars, and drive all night from Watsonville to Smith River, spend Saturday and Sunday there, then drive back Sunday night and go to work in Watsonville Monday morning. My cousins and I have asked each other how in the everlovin' blue-eyed world they did it. These people were driving 1930s cars at 1930s speeds on what was then the twisting two-lane version of Highway 101, a distance of about 500 miles. Our parents told us it took them about ten hours, one way. I've got to figure they took turns driving while the others slept.
When I was a child and the family drove up that way, my mother was always pointing out the window and saying, “There's the old road,” and I'd look, and sure enough, there was the cracked and overgrown pavement of a winding two-lane road. You can still see it in places, the road and one or two of the bridges that were built back in the day with their quaint concrete railings and lovely arches. That road drove around hills and ravines and threaded through the giant redwoods. The part that threaded through those giant trees is still there, preserved as The Avenue of the Giants. You have to get off the freeway to see those redwoods now.
About twelve miles south of Crescent City is the tourist mecca known as the Trees of Mystery. We always stopped there on the way home when the boys were little. It was great – you took a walk through the woods, which was perfect for two little boys who'd been sitting in a car for days, and you came out through the gift shop, where we'd get a toy or two for each child. Cheap thrills. Broke up the trip, and if the kids got to talk with the giant Paul Bunyan statue in the parking lot, so much the better. This trip I stopped long enough to take a picture of Paul and Babe the blue ox with my cell phone, and text it to our sons. A little reminder of another time, before the children they were grew up and got into rap and metal and employment.
Yeah, driving 101 through northern California brings up lots of memories, some of which are mine.
Road Trip, Part 2: Switchbacks & Irish Coffee
The first stop I made in California after I left Crescent City was at my cousin Charlotte's house in Middletown, California. She lives on a hill with a view across a valley to another chain of hills, and frequently when you look across the valley to those hills you see wisps of steam rising from the geysers there.
There are a lot of little earthquakes in this area. Residents believe the earthquakes and geysers are somehow related, and I would not argue with that hypothesis.
Charlotte and I spent a pleasant evening visiting and the next morning we went to the local casino for lunch and I won $8.50 before bidding Charlotte farewell and heading south on Highway 29, which runs downhill to the towns of Calistoga, St. Helena, Oakville, Yountville, and finally, Napa.
A couple of years ago when Charlotte's sister, my cousin Nancy, was living with Charlotte in Middletown, Nancy went through a course of chemotherapy at the hospital in St. Helena. Nancy and Charlotte spoke frequently of having to drive “over the hill” to the hospital and back, as if it were an onerous task, and one they did not enjoy. When I left Charlotte's I drove down the hill on Highway 29, and found out what they were talking about.
This stretch of road has so many twists and turns it would give a sidewinder a bellyache. I have never driven a road with so many tight switchbacks, where I was leaning either one way or the other in the car seat like William Shatner on Star Trek faking a tilt on the spaceship Enterprise. Some locals who drive the road daily crowded my rear bumper, while others whizzed by me at high speeds going the other direction. It was dizzying, and frightening, and when I finally reached the bottom of the hill and was once again putting along through the relatively level Napa Valley landscape, I felt tremendous relief, as well as a deep respect for my cousins for tackling that drive regularly during Nancy's medical treatment.
In general I don't enjoy driving on California's rural two-lane, high speed highways, but that road takes the cake. When I looked it up on Google Maps afterward, it reminded me of the small intestine.
The Napa Valley may not be worth that drive because you can get there by so many more pleasant routes, but it is beautiful, and worth going to see if you've never been. I recommend getting there on some less hair-raising road.
I enjoyed the quaintness of Calistoga and St. Helena as well as the other small towns in the valley, and the vistas of grapevines stretching on for acres. The whole wine country tourist schtick has quite gone to their heads down there, but what the heck. If you want to go, knock yourself out. It's a feast to the eyes and spirit, and if you have money I imagine you could eat and drink well and stay in ridiculously beautiful B&Bs.
I don't have money so I kept going, made a right turn on Highway 12, and headed over to Sonoma where my in-laws, Mark and Diane, live. They greeted me with warm hospitality and gave me a delicious dinner prepared by my father-in-law Mark, who is 90 and literally still cooking, and then they gave me decaf Irish coffee for dessert.
Mark recently acquired a whipped cream maker. It's about the size of a small coffee thermos, but you fill it with cream, vanilla, and sugar, install a gas cartridge, shake it up, press a button and voila, out comes the thickest, richest whipped cream I've ever tasted in my life. This on top of whiskey and decaf made a good night drink that put me out like I'd been poleaxed. I decided it was good I wasn't staying long because I could easily become an alcoholic.
After a pleasant night's sleep in their guest bedroom I set off for Benicia, where my cousin Nancy currently resides.
Road Trip, Part 3: Cemetery Tour
Cousin Nancy is currently going through a second round of chemo because her cancer came back. Hearing of her diagnosis is what made me decide it was time to drive to California. My cousins are dear to me.
We had a short visit before sister Charlotte showed up. She drives Nancy to her chemo appointments every two weeks. Nancy was losing her hair and a lot of it was gone by the time I arrived, and the rest went during the few days of my visit. She is now rocking the bald look.
The morning after Charlotte arrived, she and Nancy took off for chemoland, and I stayed at Nancy's, meaning to go back to Sonoma, to visit a friend in Napa on the way, and return to Benicia later in the week when Nancy was getting over the effects of her chemo. Then the phone rang: Nancy was not going to have chemo today; she'd skipped a treatment because of a low white blood cell count the week before. Now the white blood cells were back, but the clinic wanted her back on her original schedule, so she would not have chemo until next week.
“Great!” said cousin Charlotte. “We can do the cemetery tour today!”
We three had been talking about making a cemetery tour for months. My father and their mother were brother and sister, so we share grandparents and great-grandparents. Charlotte has become more intrigued by genealogy the last couple of years, and she wanted photos of family headstones to put up on the internet.
My cousins returned from the cancer clinic and picked me up, and away we went to Santa Cruz County and the cemeteries of Watsonville. I will now tell you that my remarkable cousin Nancy – the one going through a second round of chemo for cancer – drove us down, around, and back over the two days the trip took. She is amazing.
Our grandparents' house
The house where I grew up
The first night we went to visit the Litchfield ranches in Green Valley, first our grandparents' house, then the house where I grew up on Litchfield Lane. No kidding.
The second day was Valentine's Day, and we went to visit some ancestors, some of whom were gone before we were born, and some of whom we remember well.
Our great-grandparents, Chauncey and Belle Litchfield, are laid to rest in the Pioneer Cemetery on Freedom Boulevard in Watsonville, California. We went to see them first. They have a large pink granite marker, but they are buried off to one side under black headstones that say, “Mother” and “Father.”
Chauncey and Belle's son Ralph is buried in the plot. He died in an earthquake in Santa Barbara in 1925 at the age of 28. Apparently he ran outside, and was buried in bricks as the building's facade collapsed. This is why you are not supposed to run outside in an earthquake. I don't know why I bother repeating that rule. People always run outside. I always do. Ralph did.
Also laid to rest there is Asa, who was one of Ralph's brothers. We all knew him as “Pop,” and he died at the age of 81 in 1967. He was my father's uncle, and he sometimes pitched in on the farm, and went to Giants' games up in San Francisco with my dad.
One night Pop had dinner at our house. He set out for his house, about a mile up the road. There was a thick fog that was hugging the ground, and Pop was a bit mellow with drink. About forty-five minutes later he appeared at the kitchen door to report his car had gone off the road, and was stuck. My father and Pop got into my father's truck, and my mother and I followed along behind in the car.
Sure enough, Pop had not quite negotiated a turn. The car had come to rest leaning sideways after taking out a post in the electric fence that ran along the side of the road. My father pulled in front of the car, and was attaching a tow chain, while Pop, my mother and I stood in back of the cockeyed car. Pop stepped back, and when he did his legs hit the top wire of the electric fence that was still standing, and he did a perfect cartoon windmill with his arms – woah, woah, WOAH - and fell over backward into the pasture. The man was almost 80, and my mother and I rushed to him, afraid he'd injured himself, imagining God knew what. When we got to him he looked up at us, smiled beatifically, and said, “I faw down, go boom.”
Pop and my father went back to replace the fence post the next day.
Pop's son Merle is buried in the family plot, right in front of the pink granite marker. He died in 1921 at the age of 11 or 12. I don't know if it was illness or accident that took him.
My own parents, John and Juanita Litchfield, are buried about 40 feet away from the Litchfield family plot. My father's marker describes him as a captain in the Army Air Force in World War II, but I remember him as a farmer, a guy in blue jeans and a dark green Penny's work shirt, with a battered, stained fedora hat, and a crooked foolish grin.
My mother's marker says she was a beloved wife and mother. It does not say she grew up in a Salvation Army orphanage in Texas, or that she was a gifted pianist, or a book keeper who kept track of all the farm's accounts and payrolls, or that she was a right wing nut job.
Valentine's Day was my mother's birthday, so I wished her a happy birthday. I stared at her headstone and remembered the day she was buried, and how I was one of the pallbearers because the funeral director was short a man. That's when I learned that caskets are incredibly heavy, but it was important to me to carry my mother one last time.
We took pictures of headstones and sat in the sun remembering these relatives, especially the ones who had been around as we grew up. Strange to remember those living, breathing, laughing characters, and look at their headstones now. Then we headed off to the other cemetery to find more relatives.
Road Trip, Part 4: My Grandfather's Foibles, and a Mystery Cleared Up
After my cousins Charlotte and Nancy and I finished visiting the Pioneer Cemetery in Watsonville, we headed out to the Pajaro Valley Memorial Cemetery to pay our respects to our grand parents, Percy and Lyllian.
When I was a child, we used to go out and place flowers on Lyllian's grave. She died in 1938. After her passing, Grandpa took solace in the brothels of Watsonville.
Everyone disliked his last wife, and my mother would mutter about her, “That old madam.” I didn't realize until years later that it wasn't merely my mother being nasty - in fact, Grandpa's last wife had been a madam.
We were not close to Madam. She did not care for children. She drove a Cadillac convertible, had rhinestones on her glasses frames, and kept yappy little poodles and Siamese cats. I do not wish to impugn these animals, some of whom were friendly and fun, unlike Madam. After Grandpa died Madam married a man with Las Vegas connections. He died a few years later when he started his car one day and it blew up. In retrospect, we are glad we never were close to Madam.
When my grandfather died in 1961, the preacher speaking at his service said, “Percy lived a full life.” There was a wave of laughter. At the time I was too young understand that reaction, but later I heard the stories about Grandpa.
Percy is buried next to Lyllian, his first wife and our grandmother. There is an empty space in the cemetery lawn on the other side of Percy, and cousin Charlotte went to the cemetery office to inquire about that space because she wishes to be buried there.
While Charlotte was in the office, I decided to pursue a question of my own. Once when I was a child I accompanied my mother's sister out to the cemetery to leave flowers at various graves, and as we were leaving my aunt pointed at a circular area and said, “That's where your mother buried that baby she lost.”
I went home and asked my mother about that baby. She angrily said she had told me about it. If she did I did not remember. I wonder now what she had to say to my aunt for letting that particular cat out of the bag.
In later years she talked about it a little. She was almost nine months pregnant, standing at the kitchen window looking out. She felt the baby move inside of her, like it was turning over, and that was the last time she felt it move. It was stillborn soon after, a little girl, and buried in an unmarked grave in that circle of grass. That was in 1946.
There is nothing like finding out you have a dead sibling to set your imagination going. If she had lived, would I have been born? If we had both been born, wouldn't it have been great having a sister? My friends who have sisters tell me, “Not necessarily.”
The lady at the cemetery office found my father's name typed on a 3x5 index card, and walked out to the circular area with a plot map. Waving her hand in the general area of some grass she said, “Right there.”
There she lies, the sister who never took breath. When my mother was still alive, I asked if she knew why the baby died. “Women lost babies a lot in those days,” she said, waving me off.
I stared at the patch of grass. She is surrounded by the remains of other people, some of whom were also infants. I'm not sure why finding her grave had so much meaning to me or even what that meaning was, but it felt deep.
That was the last stop on the cemetery tour. Cousins Nancy and Charlotte wrote to me after I got home that there are more ancestors in a cemetery in Manteca, California. Maybe some day I'll get there. For now visiting the two cemeteries in Watsonville was enough of a family pilgrimage for me.
Road Trip, Part 5: Heading Home
I stayed on another day at Nancy's after the trip to Watsonville, and then headed back to Sonoma to spend a couple of days with my lovely in-laws. By that time I was getting the homeward bound heebie-jeebies: oh, for my own little bed. Oh, for my own little husband. Oh, for my grand daughter, my sons, and the dog.
I couldn't decide whether to go up I-5 (faster) or Highway 101 (prettier), and was driving north from Santa Rosa on 101 before it occurred to me that I never, ever dream of seeing the Sacramento Valley when I'm home on Vashon. I dream of seeing the redwoods and the ocean. I long for them. Who knew when I'd drive to California again, if ever? So the redwoods and the ocean it was.
Had a lovely drive up the coast. It was Saturday and Prairie Home Companion filtered in and out on my car radio as I traveled north from Arcata. Lost the signal entirely as the road turned inland around Orick, but the same show was on an hour later in Crescent City.
I decided to make the push to Grant's Pass, where I spent the night. The next day I drove as far as Vancouver, Washington, where I ended my trip as I started, staying the night with my friend Sonya. She handed me a twenty, said, “Early birthday present,” and took me to the Salvation Army nearby, where everything was half-off. Wahoo. I came home with an embarrassment of tee shirts, and a few new-to-me warm pants.
The next day I moseyed on back to the island. You know how it is with trips – good to go, good to come back. My roots are in California, and they tug at my heart sometimes, creating a longing that is intense. I've lived on the island now almost twice as long as I lived there in the Golden State. I want to go back again, to my first home, to visit, but it is good to come home to Vashon. It's good to be home.