Thursday, December 20, 2012

Gold Coast ... the Wild Coast

The Chinese have a saying that a journey begins with a single step. I’d change that a little to say a real journey often begins in naivety, progresses to actuality by accident and somehow finds its place in one’s memory bank through sheer happenstance, perseverance and dumb luck.

Like some wonderful party that can’t be replicated afterwards even if all the same participants gathered together, once again, at the same place; a journey is really a time capsule. It’s a sliver of space in one’s life that gives birth to either good memories or bad, to wonderful thoughts or sad reflections. Yet it always remains locked in that serendipitous turn of events which can never be changed, replicated or replaced. Whatever happened did happen. Whatever was gained can’t be changed even if it later becomes lost on in a fog of future events.

A few months ago, I reflected on my experiences in San Francisco in my blog “Young Heart by the Bay.”  A tiny fraction of that experience was a road trip I took back in the autumn of 1964.

It was my first real road trip.

The idea was born early one Sunday morning in some unnamed dive bar on North Beach.

We were a motley assortment of drugstore cowboys, fast food aficionados and one kid with two years of college under his belt. Each of us ruminating on about our pending release from military service a monumental two years away. This was long before “Easy Rider” and my own sojourn to Danmark.

What were we going to do after the service? Return to college. Head out for Europe. Stay in San Francisco or hit the road just like Jack Kerouac did in “On the Road.”

The more sober philosophers among us thought we should get on with our lives. We should go back home after our hitch was up, get an education, marry our college sweetheart and settle down to the good old standard American life. The more inebriated among us thought otherwise. Another round of beers and an impromptu survey was taken. The open road garnered first place with Europe a close second. Returning home to suburban tranquility didn’t even register.

Some of us were already open road desperados. One guy had a big-ass Triumph 650cc motor-cycle with enough horsepower to fly between San Francisco to Los Angeles in record time. He went down to the city of angels almost every weekend to see his girlfriend. That is until a transfer landed him in the middle of nowhere Indiana in a snowstorm and his bike went into cold storage.

A couple of guys had souped-up cars they’d brought to the Presidio from back home. But soon one fellow was shipped off to Vietnam and another got transferred to Okinawa. Several more wannabes disappeared when sobriety raised its ugly head. So that effectively took most of my gang out of the picture. I was the only one left with my Vespa motor scooter and exaggerated, romantic notions of the open road still spinning around in my head.

A dream had been ignited in my plastic brain that resonated throughout my body. I decided I might as well hit the asphalt right then and there instead of waiting another two years before my release was up. My destination would be the distant lands north of the Golden Gate Bridge. At that point, they were just shadowy mounds of gray that kissed the skyline outside my office window.

This was the old Northern California countryside before multiple ballot propositions changed the political and social landscape and a bulging San Francisco spilled its inhabitants far and wide; spilling out across the bay to once tiny hamlets like Sausalito, Mount Tamaulipas and Stinson Beach. A time when cows roamed empty fields amid gun emplacements that still protected San Francisco bay from Japanese battleships. An era, before satellites, when radar stations scanned the northern skies for raiders from Russia. A time when only a few small enclaves of new housing slashed into the green hillsides. A time when the only sound heard was the putt-putt of my tiny Italian engine against a wind blowing ocean-side and birds on high, floating silently in the sea breeze.

So one Monday morning, instead of heading to work at the Command Information Office, I saddled up my trusty stead, wrapped supplies on the saddle rack and crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for points north.

After I had braved the crazy traffic on the bridge, I swung north to the tiny enclave of Sausalito. Even back then Sausalito was a very special place. During the war, the Navy had installed a host of ship maintenance facilities. By the sixties those had all disappeared but a lot of the ship workers had stayed. They were joined by displaced beats and hippies from across the bay. Together they made Sausalito an eclectic community, a growing artist colony and home to the funky and weird.

I got my regular cup of Joe and sat on the dock, peering out across the bay back to my new life and home and I wondered where the road might take me next.

On the way out of town, I spotted this inlet where fancy cars were parked in front and yachts in back. It was a novel idea at the time, priceless in this day and age. 


Later that morning, I stopped at the Christian Brothers winery. I didn’t see any of my old high school teachers there but a couple of glasses of vino did wonders for the rest of my trip that afternoon.

The first sign of encroaching humanity. The pristine countryside of Sausalito was becoming just another suburb of San Francisco. 

Some rundown motel among the sequoias was my refuge for that first night. Exhausted, dirty and yet feeling exhilarated. Note the sleeping bag I had hauled along. What was I thinking?

This was one of dozens of inlets along the coast road where the sea had dumped its collection of driftwood and debris on land. I’m sure there were treasures down there but I never stopped to investigate

I was so tempted to ride down to this house to see who lived there. I can’t image a more remote, mysterious and wonderful place to live. It was probably some writer toiling on the great American novel and suffering the pangs of a broken love affair.

Back along the bay, I came across this new military housing complex being built. The view out their front door was to die for.

But more fascinating were the old World War Two defensive installations that ran up and down the bayside. A concrete collection of pillboxes, command centers and the foundations for large cannons which would have been pointed out to sea.

Then behind those old fortifications was a new radar facility and cameras pointed down at a kid on a scooter who was peering up at them.

Some of the dozen places along the coast where I was lost and didn’t really care. I had gas to go and wanderlust running rampant through my veins. 

By the end of the week, I was flying with wild abandon. Yet I only crashed once, taking a curve too fast on wet leaves and ending up in a gully sans my glasses, hat and pride. The scooter was OK except for the mud and leaves that coated its undercarriage with brown muck.  I found my glasses, picked the dirt out of my teeth and climbed back up on the saddle again.

During that week, one song in particular kept bouncing around in my head. “Four Strong Winds” by Ian and Sylvia. It spoke of loss, separation and the infinitesimal yearning for something better even if ‘it’ couldn’t be defined at the time. It’s a great song and still brings back a lot of fond memories.

After a week of meandering the bays and inlets, the back roads and tiny towns hugging the coast, I immerged out of a grove of redwood trees and found myself by some main artery that fed humanity back down toward the bay area. I used that as a beacon to head back south and my home.

The trip was soon forgotten and aside from being captured in some old color slides it became a fading memory that was soon overshadowed by a multitude of other life events including a traumatic trip home between transfers. Yet somehow those old slides followed me around for another forty-six years until a friend suggested I transfer them to digital.

ScanCafe released them from their cardboard sleeves and jogged a memory capsule in the back of my head. After gathering dust for forty plus years, those images took me back to a time when I was young and free and full of wondrous ideas and aspirations.

I realize now that during my trip I was living in the moment…what Buddhists all mindfulness. Today we would translate that as conscious living.  In his book “Wherever You Go There You Are – mindfulness meditation in everyday life,” author Jon Kabat-Zinn talks about mindfulness as enlightening and liberating work. “It is enlightening in that it literally allows us to see more clearly, and therefore come to understand more deeply, areas in our lives that we were out of touch with or unwilling to look at.”

I should ride a scooter more often.

My California coastal tour was the first of several road trips. That was then, this is now. I’m not much for road trips anymore. I guess I’m too impatient to get wherever I want to go. But back then, it was my first time skirting asphalt and concrete, tasting the grit and grime of the open road and opening my virgin mind to all kinds of possibilities. Some of which actually came true.

Life can be strange that way.

I Got to Play Cowboy Today

When I was growing up and we were very poor, my mother would give me the choice between a Saturday matinee western movie or a comic book. Both cost about ten cents each.

I went for the movie almost every time. The comic book would have lasted longer but it wasn’t as exciting as living out my fantasies for a couple of hours in some dark and cavernous theater with a lot of other overly imaginative youngsters. Nothing much has changed since then.

Aside from some of the classics by John Ford or Sam Peckinpah and a few other masters of their genre, most western movies back in the 50s and 60s didn’t really represent the true west. Even as a youngster back then, I think I could sense the Hollywood magic behind the war paint fa├žade.

Later on, as I developed a fascination with the old west, I began to read some of the masters like Clay Fisher and Larry McMurty. I tried to understand what it was really like back then. I treasured movies such as Red River, The Searchers, the Fort Apache trilogy, Jeremiah Johnson and a few select classics. And I often wondered back then if I could ever tell such a tale.

Finally around 1973, in a spare bedroom in Reisterstown, Maryland, I began crafting a story of three individuals who find their lives inexplicably tied and twisted together, each dependent on the other for their survival and each deeply suspicious of the other two. It became more than just a story of white guys running from menacing Apaches. It was a story of people troubled by their past and uncertain of their future. It was a story of love between two individuals who hadn’t the right to wish for such a thing in their lives. It was a story of choices to be made and the consequences of those actions.

This western novel was my first attempt at recapturing that period in American history when there were no straight forward good guys and bad guys. When the Apaches weren’t mean or evil, just a small indigenous race trying to protect what had always been their way of living.

After struggling for over a year on that type-written, white-out manuscript, I finally finished my story and then promptly shelved it and began a second Western just to see if I could do it all over again. I completed the second novel a year later. That second Western was also shelved and, despite my wife’s urgings that I at least explore publication, I forgot about my venture out west and went back to my life on the east coast.

It was years later, thirty-nine to be exact, after I had phased out my video production business that I began looking for something else to do with the rest of my life. I thought about my first novel and pulled it out of a dusty desk drawer. I had my answer.

Without any real idea of what I’d do with that relic, I had those old tired pages transferred to a floppy disc and began my journey back in time to a place I had long since forgotten. It had taken me years to return out west but it was worth the wait.

Much to my chagrin, I found the story actually held its own and the characters still resonated with me after all those years. I rewrote the story, added a lot more period details, refined the characters personalities, cut out the well-written but unnecessary sequences and ended up with a story that remained true to my original vision.

My second (soon to be self-published) novel, Apache Death Wind, was first called Renegade Rider and then Apache Smoke before I found a name that hadn’t already been taken. So I bought the domain name of Apache Death and I can only hope the title lives up to the storyline. I think it does.

What I experienced in writing, and then rewriting of that western tale, was a transformation from east coast storyteller to Midwestern yarn-spinner to west coast reporter. By the time I was safely ensconced in my office in Palm Springs, I was finalizing a story that  began in Reisterstown, Maryland, found refinement and clarity in Apple Valley, Minnesota and finally reached its conclusion under the San Jacintos in my back yard.

Yet each step of the way I found myself riding alongside my hero and dodging Apache arrows just as he did. I was that drifter, lost and confused in a changing world after the war. Like my hero, I still hadn’t shaken off the troubling memories of the Civil War or the deep feelings that fiery Red-head stirred up in my head and heart.

And in much the same manner that I found myself mentally and emotionally transposed back on campus in the mid-sixties with ‘Love in the A Shau’, ‘Apache Death Wind’ found me high atop a saddle, peering over a vast wasteland of desert and rock, always on guard for prowling Apache war parties. I could feel the sweat pooling around my neck and smell the rank clothing on my back. I could taste the warm brackish water from my canteen, all the while sensing the threat of death coming from a dozen different ambush spots.

The characters back then may have spoken a little differently than my twenty-year olds who were ruminating on about Vietnam and Iron Butterfly and Carnaby Street but their cares and concerns shared much the same vernacular. And the emotions evoked by my western characters echoed those of Daniel and Colleen. So give or take a hundred years, nothing much had changed between a man and a woman. Or the good guys vs. the bad guys.

Charlotte was different from Colleen yet both shared a multitude of personality traits, good and bad.

Jeb Burns wasn’t Daniel, not by a long shot. Still both shared a vision of redemption and peace in their soul.

It was a very long journey both in terms of time and commitment but worthwhile nevertheless. I have no idea if there’s a sequel in the distance for that first western.  But it does look promising. I already have a twenty page treatment that picks up where the characters ended their tale.

So between blogging and manuscripts under construction and play-making, I just might find myself back in the saddle again.