Summer Vacation

ink bottle

It was 1972. A wedding in Long Beach requested our presence, a friend in our tight-knit group to join with his true love in holy matrimony. So we embarked on a road trip to the West Coast, that fabled land of golden sunsets and salty air. A 1930s wedding theme had been announced, so for weeks prior to the trip, I had worked feverishly to sew a gangsta-style three-piece suit in pink gabardine for my husband Frank and a long-waisted light yellow dotted Swiss dress for me. Our friend Virginia, who provided her bright yellow VW bug convertible for the journey, got busy sewing her own pink vintage-style dress for the occasion.

We had plenty of fun planning the trip, gathering wide brimmed hats, Frank’s fedora, the gloves, the hand-held fans. Freshly inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing book, we gathered the requisite pharmacy, tame in comparison to his. The itinerary grew with each passing day. On the way out there, we’d see the sights traveling in tandem with Jeff, Robert, and Franz in Robert’s shiny blue Karmann Ghia convertible.

The day arrived. We loaded up at Jeff’s house and then headed west, tops down and hair flying in the wind. In those days, Interstate 40 had not been completed. Especially in Oklahoma we found ourselves detoured through small dusty towns on the well-worn two lanes of old Route 66.

Long before Oklahoma City, we put up the ragtop to stop the torrent of wind tearing around us. Somewhere before that, my beautiful paisley turquoise silk headscarf disappeared into the landscape. Late that night, past Tucumcari and facing into a storm front that lit up the sky with magnificent lightning, the front hood flew open and the garment bag with our wedding clothes blew out. Frank steered to the shoulder, latched the hood, and backed up until we found the bag lying unharmed in the median.

More hours passed. We made the last curve around a dark mountain and Albuquerque spread out below like a bowl of lights. The garment bag fiasco separated us from the other car but we couldn’t go another mile. A cheap motel room felt like the Hilton.

gr canyon
l-r: Frank, Robert with Franz hidden behind him, Jeff tempting death.

The next morning, a quick drive through the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest renewed our wonder in the natural world. We made our rendezvous with the other car late the second night at the Grand Canyon. I spent a miserable night freezing in a too-short sleeping bag on rocky ground, probably no worse off than the rest of us. The next morning some of us dropped acid for a walkabout along the south rim. The Grand Canyon is mind-blowing on its own. With LSD, it became a second-by-second discovery of bizarre vegetation, rocks of every epoch, and the mystery of distance, time, and existence. Then we were on our way again.

ghost town
Me and Virginia at the Calico ghost town in the Mojave Desert

The wedding was complicated—people we didn’t know, extended family, a church and reception. Before and after, we wandered through L.A.’s farmers market, Hollywood, Venice Beach and other places along the seafront. With the happy couple off on their honeymoon and the Karmann Ghia headed home, we set off to the north. From Santa Barbara we followed Highway 1, that hair-raising winding roadway that clings to the cliffs along Big Sur. I don’t do well with heights. My knees start shaking at the third rung of a ladder. I alternated between sickening glances down at the waves smashing onto rocks and hiding my face in my hands.

frank at big sur
Frank and Virginia along Highway 1 at Big Sur. Arrow points to two people in the edge of the waves. Perspective.

Exhausted, we gave up just south of Monterey and parked at the side of the road for the night. Thanks to Frank’s heroic decision to sleep outside, Virginia took the front and I had the back. Neither of us could lie down since there was the matter of bucket seats and gearshift in the front and an ice chest and assorted miscellany in the back. As it turned out, we both had it better than Frank who woke us in the frigid pre-dawn fog desperate to get warm.

frank golden gate
Frank at the Golden Gate

Disheveled and bone tired, we toured San Francisco, a drive-by effort to see the Presidio, Golden Gate bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf. We walked through downtown, gawking up at tall buildings, dodging cable cars, and musing over oddities like the man playing bagpipes across the street from Woolworths. We wandered around the fabulous Palace of Fine Arts, a preserved portion of the original 1915 exhibit for the Panama-Pacific Exposition.

Palace of Fine Arts


At this point we had sixty-five dollars to get us back to Northwest Arkansas. There would be no more cheap motels or souvenirs and precious little food. Even with gas at 35 cents per gallon, we hardly had enough to get us home. Fortunately, Virginia had a Gulf credit card. We drove all night, white lines blurring down the pavement as we crossed the gray-white moonscape of Nevada. We hit Salt Lake City sometime the next morning and found a truck stop with showers and a buffet, all of which we could charge on her card.

After a brief gander at Mormon temples, we stuffed ourselves back into the increasingly crowded VW and dove into the Rockies. Up and down we drove, steep inclines, terrifying drop-offs, and legitimate worries about the VW’s clutch and brakes. Frank’s old friend John and his wife lived on the other side of all those snow-capped peaks at a little mining town called Leadville. He welcomed us with cocktails, grilled steaks, and a loft sleeping area in his mountainside chalet.

Oh the joy.

The next day, John took us sightseeing. Included in his agenda was an abandoned silver mine he’d discovered. What is commonly known as a road disappeared before we left the valley floor and soon we found ourselves clinging to the mountainside on a trail of sliding scree hardly wide enough for the Bronco’s wheel base. John was famous for his wild and crazy antics as a Kappa Sig in college, and he’d forged into Vietnam with the bravado only a lieutenant on point can respect. His patrol had walked into a land mine which nearly cost him his life, so when we neared the silver mine and the vehicle canted to a forty-five degree angle and he said ‘oh shit,’ it was truly an ‘oh shit’ moment.

After an hour of digging, Frank pushes uphill while John tries to pull out. Virginia watches.
How far down is that?

We gingerly crawled out of the vehicle on the high side and while Virginia and I watched, John and Frank began digging out from under the wheels in an attempt to level the vehicle. We lost track of time out there in the thin air. The view was breathtaking. Unfortunately, my breath had already been taken by the vertical drop-off to the distant valley below where towering evergreens looked like matchsticks. I was sure we were all going to die.


Over an hour later, John deemed the vehicle level enough that he dared climb inside to drive back up to level ground. With his success, I reluctantly re-entered the vehicle for the remaining terrifying jaunt to the mine. Scavengers had been here many times, but we wandered around thinking of the old timers who came up here with a mule and a pick to seek their fortunes.

mine shackGlittering chunks of ore scattered over the rocky ground. The old log structure wasn’t safe to walk in, but we nosed around in the scattered remains where I found a little Carter’s Ink bottle buried bottom up in the dirt. It had turned blue-green in the decades since its contents had been used to pen letters home or tally the proceeds of a day’s hard work. I tucked it in my pocket and braced for the slip-slide trek back down.

From Leadville we hurried south to hit our planned stops at Garden of the Gods and Royal Gorge before turning east for the last leg of the journey. If you’ve never crossed Kansas, be warned—it’s the original never-ending story. You drive and drive and you’re still in the same place. We had cleverly planned what seemed the shortest route but which turned out to be a maze of two lane roads to nowhere. It got dark, the gas gauge sat on empty, and we were in the middle of corn fields with lightning forking across the sky.

Somehow we found our way to a tiny town and waited until the local gas station opened. Later that afternoon, crammed into the back seat with relics of our journey towering in the seat beside me, claustrophobia got me by the throat and I had to get out of the car. We stopped while I walked in the gravel along the side of the road and said I could not get back in that car. Finally Frank convinced me to try the front seat and he squeezed into the back for the rest of the way home.

So many memories, so many emotions. Frank is no longer among the living, nor is Robert. The rest of us keep growing older. But when I think about that summer vacation, I’m lost in the past, my hair flying in the wind, our laughter ringing up the hillsides. I hold that ink bottle in my hand and I’m back in the hot sun smelling pine in cool air and breaking my fingernails as I dig it out of that hard packed ground.

We did things, went places, had adventures. We experienced profound wonder that never left us. We grew. I see now—that’s what vacations are for.

A Journey West, Part 3/5

San Lorenzo River

Part of my agenda for this trip to Santa Cruz and environs had to do with a novel I’m writing. I arrived with a list of locations to scout. Thanks to Ginny and Jeb’s patient chauffeuring and on other days my daughter’s use of a borrowed car, we managed to tour neighborhoods, the campus, the business districts, and the beach. I made copious notes.

Questions arose. Why is the San Lorenzo River dry at the crossing of Highway 1 and full of water further downstream near the coast? Why is Fire Break Road shown on the map stretching from Empire Grade down to the backside of campus but doesn’t exist in the real world?

Alemany Farmers Market, Bernal Heights, San Francisco. First farmers market in California, established in 1943.

A flurry of investigation resulted in answers. The San Lorenzo is dry because of a two year drought, and the lower riverbed holds captured water because of a sand bar blocking the mouth where it drains into the Bay, creating what amounts to a long lake. No answer on the missing road.

Fisherman’s Wharf area of San Francisco’s Embarcadero. Coit Tower on Telegraph Hill, on left. Courtesy

We spent a day in San Francisco, tracking sites of my fictional events. The Alemany farmers market is surrounded by steep hillsides with rows and rows of colorful houses built literally wall to wall.

deste and me
Deste and I walk toward the point at Golden Gate

The Embarcadero  stretches along its long waterfront up to the Presidio—shops, wharfs, boats in sheltered marinas, mobs of tourists.

Jeb and I ponder a large outcrop of serpentinite rock at the point. First pier of Golden Gate Bridge looms above. Photo courtesy Deste Campbell.

We walked along the old airplane landing strip, Crissy Field, and pondered the Civil War era red brick structures at Fort Point. Directly overhead, traffic thundered onto the Golden Gate Bridge. The narrow drive skirted a sharp embankment of crumbling pale green serpentinite that slopes down to sea level.

Standing on top of concrete bunker where guns were once mounted. Presidio, San Francisco. Photo courtesy Jeb Campbell

We drove up along the west-facing oceanfront cliffs of the Presidio where groves of redwoods shelter World War II artillery batteries. Ghosts of men in uniform seem to emerge from hovering redwood thickets. The urgent need to guard against invasion left its acrid residue in the air, in the massive concrete bunkers, along the pathways carved through the rugged terrain. What threats, real or imagined, kept these men awake at night, shivering in the cold coastal wind?

Burma Superstar, San Francisco

Lunch involved Ginny’s son Warren and his family at a hole-in-the-wall place on Clement Street serving Burmese food. After a wait on the sidewalk made friendly by a bench and hot tea, our party of eight was seated at a large round table.

How does one describe a Burmese feast? Savory catfish chowder, thick lentil/cabbage soup, lamb curry, coconut chicken rice noodle curry, tea leaf salad, crisp samusas—the large lazy susan kept turning as we sampled our way to gluttony.

Sated by our delicious meal, we said our goodbyes to Warren and his family. Our search for story settings then led south along the coast following the “Great Highway.” Densely populated streets disappeared behind us as the road merged with Highway 35. Soon our path became Skyline Boulevard as we neared Daly City. Our objective? The great and powerful magic spot at Mussel Beach, where the San Andreas Fault leaves land and enters the Pacific.

mussel rock
At Mussel Rock, looking north by northwest along the trajectory of the San Andreas Fault.

We missed the turn-off, assuming that such an important spot would be well marked. After doubling back, we found Mussel Beach disappointingly under-developed and lacking any signage that might describe the forces at work underfoot. The narrow shelf of land broke upward to the east with a steep eroding hillside and to the west down a sharp crumbling embankment to the turbulent surf below. Offshore, waves pounded the tilted outcrops of broken rock which continued the fault’s northward journey. The mostly paved ‘park’ area rolled and humped over conspicuously-disturbed ground. Multiple patches in the asphalt provided evidence of the fault line’s restless character.

houses at Mussel B
Mussel Rock shown with neighborhoods behind it. Rock outcrop from previous photo appears lower right.

Hovering above the precarious cliff faces and uneven terrain, housing developments cling to steep hillsides and beg the question of how anyone could in good conscience build houses literally on top of a major fault. The neighborhood centers on an elementary school and seems inhabited mostly by lower income residents. I took notes for my story as we rejoined Skyline Drive.

rr tracks Los Gatos copyThe drive back south along Highway 280 tracked the trajectory of the infamous fault. The miles-deep gash forms a valley between the Santa Cruz Mountains on the west and the less dramatic hills and rolling lands of the southern Bay communities of San Mateo, Redwood City, and Santa Clara. For part of the distance, San Andreas Lake glimmers in the day’s bright sunlight. Angling west onto Highway 85, and then Highway 17, we soon crossed over the fault itself at Los Gatos. The four-lane road jagged and bumped as it crossed the extended disturbance.

Then back to Santa Cruz. It struck me at this point that highways and landmarks tell only part of the story of what it means to be here. Less specific but more important is the feeling of the place. A unique scent permeates the air—pine, salt, kelp, eucalyptus. And something else I can’t name. It lingers in my clothing, on my skin.

The light is clean, thin, sharp. Fog rolls in and drapes over the roofs, hides the tree tops, waxes and wanes along the shore so that at one moment you see the lighthouse on the point, the next moment it disappears.

The whole place sits on an edge. The edge of the sea. The edge of light. The edge of visibility.

Here is the edge of North America, not part of the land mass that comprises the bulk of the continent but a sliver of earth’s crust emerging from the sea to shove eastward and cling to its reluctant partner continent. The energy of the rebel, the upstart, the adolescent swells from this nascent ground, lending its attitude to the human settlements that occupy it. From the shore eastward for a hundred miles, this new land presses its case, shoving up mountains and sliding along the tear called the San Andreas fault. Countless other faults branch off from it, all mute testimony to the mind-boggling forces at work on our planet.

You can’t live along the California coast and not feel the energy of this subterranean collision. What better place to set a novel that deals with the frontiers of human consciousness?