When we finally arrived at that circumference road that surrounds the entire lake, the green trees and beautiful surroundings had my spirits high. I smiled and kept the windows open, and even Helicopter jumped up to the front seat from her bed in the back to stick her head out the passenger side. We bucked and dove up and down, past campsites and quaint boutiques. We went southward first, through Zephyr Cove and around Marla Bay, eventually emerging into the awkward neon casinos of Stateline. Then over the border into California and South Lake Tahoe, which was much more reasonable and inviting. The architecture was white and brown, with points and pillars. The ski shops were speckled with independent coffee shops, the traffic lights were friendly, and the gas stations were clean.
We pulled over and made a plan to find a campsite somewhere on the west side of the lake. Once you leave South Lake Tahoe and turn north, the road climbs steeply up and the landscape is the tops of the pine trees that root themselves in the forest floor hundreds of feet below the precipitous guardrails. And every now and then the branches clear and the lake glistens and throws tinkerbell reflections in your eyes. We drove along, admiring the mecca where we’d make our home, and eventually drew further from the lake into the woods. Vacation home communities with nice driveways emerged now and then, but set on, guided by the signs for Sugar Pine Point State Park in Tahoma.
We eventually found our campsite and secured a spot for 20 dollars. I had been hoping it would be free, but I guess that was the trade-off. Tahoe is too crowded to reasonably find a spot to camp on one’s own without drawing the ire of park police. We had a clear fire pit, we could cook food, play guitars, drink, and if it got too cold we could just sleep in the car. The park ranger warned us about black bears, but we had a bear box so it wasn’t a huge deal. We picked up food at Albertson’s, still willing to drop a little more money for our celebratory beginning to a new life in California.
Over beers and the rest of N8’s whiskey, we cooked and drank and discussed plans across the light of the fire. Ryan’s sister worked in fashion in San Francisco, and lived off Hyde on Nob Hill— although they fought often and weren’t too close, he was still headed that way for Thanksgiving. He was also still in touch with Interiors Alex, our friend from the last year, who was living in Benicia. So the plan was so— Ryan would leave his truck at the campsite and once we paid off the ranger to not tow it, we’d drive out to Alex, party tomorrow night, go into the city the next day and spend Thanksgiving at Jen Quinnelly’s place, drive over to Berkeley on Friday to crash with Jane, and then come back to Tahoe on Saturday. Hell, maybe we’d even call up Kelli in Marin. Foolproof, fun, yes. Ryan, Heli, and I built up the fire, played guitar, shook nails in a can, ate burgers and hot dogs, called old friends on Ryan’s phone, and eventually resigned.
I woke up at 1:30 am or so and climbed out of the sliding door to piss. Right when I turned to get back into Astro, Heli jumped out and sprinted into the woods. I cursed, grabbed my flashlight, and walked toward the forest, yelling for Heli. Then I tripped over some trash on the ground. The box of empty beer bottles lay torn apart along with pieces of hot dog wrapper plastic. Right as I realized what had happened, a low mammalian moan sounded from far off in the forest. I froze, gathered myself, and continued yelling. I could hear her scampering around somewhere, running herself out of breath, and I called and called.
Finally she came back and jumped up on my legs. I picked her up and put her back in the van, following behind and shutting the door.
“Helicopter and Guillermo, 1, Bear, 0.” I said sternly to Heli, who licked my face and curled up in the blankets on one of the middle seats. I bundled up in my sleeping bag and went back to sleep.
V- San Francisco
The next morning, I sat on a log and wrote a long journal entry. It included this:
We forge on into Lake Tahoe, to this campground I now sit in watching the dewdrop morning slip into the dry cold midday, with the pinecones hurling down on the earth, the black bears that watch me from somewhere cathartic, where I come to an epiphany. I should stay in Tahoe and write my book. And it makes sense….I’ve left camp and come West to do what I always meant to- write a book about volunteering. I’ll call it “A Year On The Coast.” I suppose this is, in a way, the scariest part of things, having now committed to a family-less Thanksgiving and to my thousand-mile-deep ballpoint inkwell.
After I finished writing, we found the park ranger, who said it was fine for us to leave the truck at the ranger station over the break. We took a loop around the lake, looking for work wanted signs at post offices and public buildings from Tahoe City to the southern tip. Ryan wrote down some leads, we stopped in a free internet coffee shop to grab a few more, and then we turned our attention toward the Pacific.
We drove west, drinking Honey Browns and having a California music tournament to pass the time in the flatlands. We decided on a new format to see who had the best music on their iPod— we’d put both of ours on Shuffle, blindly match-up whatever came up against the other, and see who won 10 songs first. Little contests like this that kept driving interesting, and I felt content in creativity.
Along the way I remembered that Nathalie was back at UC-Davis; we’d had a romp of dive bars, darts, and drunk making out the month before, when I was in Sacramento on honorarium giving a lecture at the Americorps NCCC* base at McClellan. I left her a message, and to give her time to call back we stopped in Davis and found a college bar. We waited around for two beers, but no dice— she was likely home for Thanksgiving anyways. And she probably hated me anyways, since I hadn’t called her back until that day. We continued on in the dusk toward Benicia.
Soon enough we met up with Alex. I hadn’t seen him since his drunken tirade in the Spin Cycle almost exactly a year before, so it was good to catch up. Admittedly, I don’t think he’s a friend I would have sought out had Ryan not been in touch, but it was good all the same. Alex had returned to school to finish his bachelor’s degree, and intended to leap frog straight into his Economics Ph. D.
We met up with some of his lady friends, none of whom were particularly attractive, and went out to a trendy microbrew bar. I remember being crowded, and non-enthused. I was much more comfortable in the Pub, or in a saloon along Route 50. The only reason to come out to a place like this was to pick up a girl, and since I was homeless and with my best friend, that wasn’t even a possibility. So chagrined and disillusioned with the situation, I pounded shots and befriended an overweight ruddy-faced man with a white beard at the bar. He babbled on about the local music scene, and I nodded and agreed or disagreed depending on the current of the conversation.
Soon enough I was drunk enough to walk across the street to the gas station pay phones and pull out my list of phone numbers I’d scrawled down back in Colorado. 11:30 pm California time equaled 7:30 am London time, and it was tomorrow, so why the fuck not. I called and did not expect Evelyn to pick up the phone.
“Hello?” Happy Thanksgiving! I relayed my story of being in California with Ryan, said things were good, it was good to be away from Biloxi, asked if she had a crew of Americans with whom to turkey it. I told her I thought of her still, and she told me she thought of me still too. I told her I’d be in touch, and that I’d get a new cell phone soon, and wished her well. She wished me the same and we hung up. The conversation put me in a great mood, so I walked back over to the bar and this time found my friends to drink and talk. Eventually the bar closed, and we caught a taxi back to Alex’s. We made plans to smoke a big fat joint in his hot tub; I would have done that too if I hadn’t passed out on the couch while Alex was getting us bathing suits from upstairs.
The next morning I woke up, drove to a Starbucks near Alex’s before everyone else was awake, and did more writing. It included this excerpt:
It’s been crazy, as always, but completely amazing. Tahoe is beautiful. I love you all, hope you take courage in every day, and never settle for anything that doesn’t make you happy. It’s all terrifying, but so is picking up and giving your life to a place you’ve never seen. God, love you all. Gotta run
I drove back to Alex’s house to grab Ryan. The three of us took some pictures in the backyard before getting back to it— me with my enormous, brown hair curling out into a mullet and my rainbow scarf, skinny Ryan with his thin black eyes, blue and white trucker hat, flannel shirt, ripped jeans, and cowboy boots, and Alex in a green bathrobe with his arms proudly around the both of us.
Jennifer Quinnelly lived in the Nob Hill neighborhood, which was topographically high and necessitated creative parallel parking of the Astrovan. I think the existence of San Francisco is a principal reason for the “check which way your wheels are turned when you park on a hill” five minutes of driver’s education. We walked Helicopter over to the apartment, which was more of a townhouse and set up on a terrace with a lawn and everything. Jen’s boyfriend was there to let us in, and he was completely non-descript. He did have glasses. But non-descript beyond that. We might have watched football for a bit, drank some beers before Jen got there.
This was the first time I saw Ryan with one of his family members; I think I’d previously imagined him as born of the interstate, from nowhere besides gas stations and parking lots. After watching his interactions with his sister, this illusion wasn’t exactly shattered. Jen and Ryan seemed nothing alike, possibly excepting the fact that neither spoke highly of Mr. or Mrs. Quinnelly. Jen was beautiful, with smooth brown hair and a beautiful half-Japanese, half-Virginian line-angle face. We took showers, and Jen begrudgingly let Helicopter in from the yard to sit with us. We ordered Chinese food, and the conversation was not smooth among the four of us. I think Ryan and Jen spent Thanksgiving together out of guilt rather than sibling love; this suspicion was confirmed when at 4 pm or so, Ryan asked me to walk outside with him.
“So Jen is going to some fashion party tonight, and we can’t come. So I think we’ve got to figure out something else to do.” I nodded.
“Are we going to be able to crash at her place tonight?”
“I don’t think so. She’s being a bitch, saying she doesn’t know you, and that Helicopter can’t stay, whatever. We’ll go figure it out.”
So at 5 pm on Thanksgiving, Ryan, Helicopter and I walked out of the townhouse. We decided to walk around San Francisco. We walked through some alleyways and ended up in the older part of Chinatown, past some staircases and concrete playgrounds speckled with skateboarders. We walked down long hills and Ryan produced a pint of whiskey he’d had in his pocket. At least we had that. We walked in long loops as the sun set and the night got colder. We looped back toward the van and I put Helicopter in. Then we walked down toward Fisherman’s Wharf.
Walking alongside the closed veranda shops, the locked aquarium, the Ghiradelli factory and John Deere outlet store, alone with Ryan talking about this and that family issue, or this or that story from the last six months…I think at the time it seemed perfect. It was completely and utterly fine to be alone in a city where we knew nobody, where hundreds of thousands of people were sitting down with people they loved, in the Embarcado or Valencia or the Mission or the East Bay, with friends over candles and potluck potatoes and wine that they opened with corkscrews. Wherever these people were in this city, they weren’t on that wharf. Only we were, and occasionally a vagabond. The homeless didn’t even ask us for money, which made me think that maybe we looked like we were sleeping in our cars.
We hopped a fence and walked out on a plastic floating pier. There were a few small motorboats tied on shoot-offs, but we were content to sit on the edge of the ramp and split the whiskey. I might have said something about Otis Redding. And how this wasn’t how I imagined sitting on the dock of the bay, but it’d do. Ryan probably nodded silently, took a hard pull, and handed it to me. We probably talked of the typical make the best of it plan, going to a bar and pulling two roommates to take us home so we’d have somewhere to sleep. But it was Thanksgiving, and we hadn’t seen any open bars. And all of the sudden we were out of whiskey…that definitely happened, because it happened right as a boat started puttering toward the dock and turned its searchlight on. We stood up, and hopped back over the fence, back to the road, and walked on and on under the streetlights, past the abandoned bus stops, alone in this tourist part of the city and intent on finding alcohol.
Eventually we did find a bar in Chinatown, which happened to be two blocks from Astro. So we happily sat and ordered beers and whiskey. There wasn’t anyone there to make conversation with, so we drank a bit more, left around midnight, walked back to the van, and drunkenly watched an episode of DuckTales on the TV in the back of Astro. It was an episode I’d seen when I was a kid; Scrooge and the gang discover a lost world of dinosaurs, adventure and hilarity ensue. We didn’t finish though; I started to fall asleep, so I crawled to the front to turn off the battery, Ryan slept in the back-back and I slept in the middle back (we couldn’t sit in the front, where there were no blinds, lest we get cited by the police for not having homes or friends in San Francisco) and we fell asleep. And that was Thanksgiving 2006.
The next morning we called Jane in Berkeley and made plans to meet up and crash at her place. Her house was nestled in the nice academic enclave off Telegraph and before the big hill. Jane’s father was CEO of a major tech firm, and her mother was a professor. We met up with her family at a café downtown for brunch, and they graciously bought Ryan and I breakfast. We tried to refuse the favor and stick to water and fruit, but they insisted.
After brunch, Jane, Ryan, Helicopter, and I explored downtown. We went to Rasputin, which made me feel cool and hip, comparable to the effect of my technicolored scarf. Then we took Helicopter to the football stadium at Berkeley and snuck onto the field. We played with the blocking equipment. Someone had left roses on the field so I took a picture of them too. Finally Jane had to go to a dinner with her family, so she set Ryan, Heli, and I up back at her parents’ house.
She let us use her parents’ account to get a movie at Reel Video, which ended up being “The Peanut Butter Solution,” an old Canadian movie that Ryan and I had both somehow watched in our childhood. It was fairly awful, and Celine Dion did the soundtrack (I think it was from before she got famous.) But we each had a pint of whiskey, drank accordingly, and passed out before Jane came back— thus, going out was not an option.
While Ryan was in the bathroom the next morning, Jane and I had a few moments in her backyard on our own. I remember this because I vividly remember the low California sun, the porch door, coffee mugs in our hands, and the two of us standing silently like we used to a year before.
“Guillermo, I’m your friend, you know that. I know you.”
“And we’ve been through a lot together. And I can’t help but ask…as a friend, as someone who went to college with you and was in Biloxi with you…”
She stopped and laughed softly to herself, gently pawing the ground. “What are you doing running around the country with Ryan Quinnelly?”
I smiled and let it roll off my back. I was fine, and this was fine, we were going to go do work, I was going to finish my book, and this was the best way to figure out how to take it forward. The world was wide and open, and it was great. This was and would be great.
“Guillermo, you and your dog are living in your van.”
It’s only temporary.
“You don’t have a plan. And you know it’s almost winter.”
Don’t stop believing, Jane. Don’t stop believing.
Jane shook her head and gave me a family friend’s phone number that was a ski instructor on the north side of the lake outside of Tahoe City. She gave me a very concerned smile and a big hug.
“Take care of yourself, ok?”
I nodded and lumbered down the rock path of her father’s garden.