Monday, December 28, 2009

Holiday road trip up the King's Highway

The bills come more quickly than the money.

Never is this more obvious than during the holidays.

On Christmas Eve, I have $10.35 in my bank account and feel terrible. I have some money coming, not enough to cover bills, too late for buying gifts.

I get paid for a week's worth of farm labor and buy cookies and berries at the market, a bag of green for a friend's Christmas stocking, and a full tank of gas for the drive up to King City.

I have enough left over to pay the phone bill, and maybe buy another tank of gas. I'll need it to get to the farm, where I can earn more money in the days to come. Meanwhile, I try to enjoy the holiday.

There's nothing like having cash in my pocket to spook away the depression that comes with an empty bank account. Not enough cash to do anything with, but enough to hand over to Amber.

She deserves it, more than anyone. I owe her big time.

I'll spend a night or two with her family in King City, where she grew up, Steinbeck country. I'm glad to be on the road, alone for two hours, taking in the view of the Salinas Valley, driving north along the King's Highway.

The Salinas River flashes between sycamores and willows as my rusty 1986 Toyota truck pushes 60 mph up the highway, along the western bank of the river. Except for the occasional rattle of a broken muffler system, the truck hums smoothly.

I travel, as usual, on a wing and a prayer.

If my truck breaks down, I reason, this is the best time of the year for it to happen. Passersby full of the holiday spirit will make sure I arrive in time for dinner at the in-laws, I tell myself.

Or, as in a holiday movie, I'll re-discover life's magic and mystery, and at the very least make new friends, or even elevate myself to a new station in life.

Live free, don't worry; that's the holiday message I've created for myself. What else can I do? Fretting just makes things worse.

This reasoning lessens my anxiety about traveling long distance in a less-than-road-worthy motor vehicle. I've got a cell phone handy. I can call for help. I've even got a supply of blackberries to eat, herb to smoke-enough keep the blues away for a day or two.

Then, as if on cue, out of the darkness-this is how my mind works-comes an image of a Christmas psychopath ruining my brief vacation by putting a bullet into the back of my head as I'm hunched over the engine, trying to figure out what's wrong….

I don't dwell on the psychopath thing, which occurs whenever I get too sentimental about people's good intentions or the universe's beneficence. “The universe will supply you with all that is required for you to meet your needs,” I've been told.

Yeah, that's what Santa Claus is all about, right?

It sounds great in theory, I allow, but how do you explain random violence and acts of cruelty? What great “Secret” or law of attraction is at play in a suicide bomber's intent to kill hundreds of unsuspecting victims?

The world simply isn't what we, or Hollywood, imagine it to be.

An oversized family truck, hauling an even larger camping trailer lumbers up behind me like an enormous sea-going vessel bearing down on a life raft held together with twine and duct tape.

I observe the truck and trailer running at full steam like an ocean liner in my rearview mirror; a young couple sits high in the cab of their truck as their rig rocks gently between the lane lines. The driver peers into his side view mirror, switches on his turn signal, and moves into the next lane to pass me.

The enormous family rig overshadows my small non-descript truck and passes me on the left. The couple don't even bother to look my way, their faces set on the road before them.

The fast lane is strictly off limits for me, I've decided. The holiday traffic on this rural stretch of highway moves steadily but faster than the 70 mph speed limit. I can always tell when people are speeding; at 80 mph, I see only the flash of color of a passing car out of my peripheral vision.

I have to carefully time their passing and turn my head to see what's going by me.

Fine Lincolns and Mercedes loaded down with suitcases, gifts and holiday goodies zoom past in flashes, heading for the Bay Area. Even trucks pass without hesitation. I'm the only driver on the highway traveling 60 mph.

It's a stunning clear and bright California Christmas afternoon, the skies swept of recent grey drizzle, the air fresh with the fecund odor of oak and wet grass and decaying leaves.

I travel with my window down and breathe in the air. It's chilly in the valley, even with the sun shining bright.

Honestly, I'd rather be on the river smoking a joint, sitting by a fire and drinking something warm. It's a hobo fantasy and I have no desire to be a hobo.

I just want the cool quiet of the river, the leafy rustling of wind in the trees, and a blazing fire at my feet, where I can forget about money woes, buying gifts and road rigs large enough to house young families.§

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