I had met Gil on Craigslist and he was to meet me up at North Berkeley BART station at 8am. It was the day before Christmas. He’d be driving me about 9 hours south, close to San Diego and the Mexican border. That was the plan. My goal was to get to Mexico and out of the USA, then meet friends from Amsterdam in Guatemala for a music festival of which I had never heard about nor knew any of the artists but for reasons unknown to me at that time was simply where I had to be.
I was still drunk from the night before and hadn’t slept. I left the apartment of a new friend in the Tenderloin at 630am after a rumbling night of clubbing and navigated my way from downtown San Francisco to North Berkeley in the morning light. My mouth felt like an ashtray and I could feel my dry contact lenses sitting uncomfortably on my red eyes but I had made it. I arrived pretty much exactly at 8am. I felt a little ashamed for showing up directly from an after-party but as long as I didn’t let it show I’d be OK. I reminded myself that it was all jokes anyway.
He was about seven minutes late, so I had enough time to pretend like I’d been waiting a while and put my game-face on. There were more people waiting for this ride than I thought. I was surprised to find out there were two cars, with two drivers, and a total of four riders, including myself, which suddenly explained all these people I saw waiting around awkwardly in the same spot checking their phones. Gil was driving down to the Palomar Mountains with his brother Mateo to drop off one of the cars to their mother and spend Christmas over there. Gil was tall and thin. I would have guessed he was around 60, but looked young for his age, like an ex-athlete or yoga practitioner whose body was finally showing signs of aging after an active, yet punishing life. He had short black-grey hair in a crew cut and blue-green eyes which weren’t very bright but still held their colour in the light. The creases on his face were in the right places, which is to say, he looked like a sort of guy who had smiled a lot in his years and it showed.
We stood outside of the car and I paid Gil $40 for the ride, which is at least half the price of a bus. We introduced ourselves and talked a little bit while we waited for a girl who never ended up arriving. I had almost been falling asleep on the train ride to North Berkeley but now I felt better. Talking was keeping me awake.
After the boring small-talk had ended and everyone had paid their money we split up into the two cars. Two of us would be riding with Gil and two of us with Mateo, we made polite plans to “switch things up a bit” which never happened. Mateo drove up ahead of us in a Red Prius while Gil would be driving myself and a guy called Sasha down in his van which was a white beast that reminded me of a van I had owned once in Australia. I never mentioned that to him though. I talked briefly with Sasha before getting in the car. He looked someone who had finished college recently and was trying to figure out what to do with himself. He had a friendly, familiar face and looked like he smoked weed. He reminded me of a shorter version of Zach Braff if he had tried to grow a beard. I noticed his polo shirt didn’t really fit him very well and the collar was half popped like he had just rolled out of bed which he probably had. His jeans were dirty but mine were probably worse although I had made a bit of an effort to pull my shirt over the worst of my stains. My head was hazy but I felt a certain chin-out swagger about myself which came from a mixture of the beer I had been drinking and the sense that I was doing a decent job of keeping a cheeky secret about myself that the others weren’t yet aware of.
I took the backseat of the van. Gil had removed a row of seats in the back so there was more legroom than the front seat. I was glad I was riding with Gil and his van, I had nothing against his brother’s Prius but I feel when it comes down to it you should always choose to ride in a van over a car. Gil asked me if I wanted to sit up front with him as Sasha moved in and sat down at the back. I told him I’d prefer the limo seat and sat down next to Sasha who then moved up front, apologizing to me for some reason as if he had taken my seat. I felt as if he had secretly wanted the back seat but our cards had been played. My drunken confidence won me the entire back row, which I felt I deserved for some reason.
A big smile broke on my face as we pulled out of the car park and started rolling. I felt my heart beating faster and my eyes opening more, things were moving and we were on our way. We drove through Berkeley, past large houses with trees on the front lawn with a few people walking around on the street, I had to remind myself it was eight o’clock in the morning.
I was careful not to talk too much in the beginning. It might have blown my cover, I didn’t want to let my confidence morph its self into arrogance and socially-unacceptable rowdiness. With Sasha and Gil sitting together up front, I figured it was up to them to guide the conversation anyway so I sat there listening for a while, half-bored. They were talking about the houses and how houses in the Bay Area are very expensive but they used to be cheaper. I agreed with them, but there wasn’t much else to say about that topic.
We pulled onto the freeway and I decided it was time I told Gil and Sasha about my last-minute plans to get to Guatemala. The music was playing fairly loud out of a speaker on my right side (a Budda Bar CD that Gil owned) so I felt I had to shout quite loudly to get them to hear me. They didn’t give me any weird looks so I must have had my volume about right, in fact I think they appreciated my interjection in their tedious discussion about the housing market, especially Gil. He loved my plan and told me that he had lived in Guatemala for over ten years in the 1980’s, where he bought local crafts with his girlfriend and sold them on the East Coast of the United States. They had made a fortune and then broken up after 10 years, they had never married and their business ended with their relationship. And to this day they are still friends.
The next two hours or so passed in a bit of a blur but before I knew it we were probably 120 miles out of the Bay Area and I was leaning forward, resting my elbows on my knees, still talking to Gil about Guatemala and history and travel and women. I was still shouting, but it was more to do with excitement than a need to speak over the music which had been turned down by Gil as we got to talking. My inhibitions about talking too much were gone, I wanted to know more about his life. He had briefly lived in Amsterdam in the 1970’s with a Dutch girlfriend but they had broken up after a couple months. He told me that everything was temporary anyways when you think about it and I enthusiastically agreed with him. I decided I liked Gil.
We continued talking and talking and after a while I noticed that Sasha had fallen asleep. I could see him in the side mirror with his head leaning back on his thick mane of black hair with his mouth wide open. He didn’t seem to have much to contribute to our conversation so he had passed out at some point and I had taken a while to notice. We both had. Gil glanced over to Sasha and turned towards me and smiled. Nothing really needed to be said, we understood each other.
He pointed out to me an aqueduct which runs North to South almost along the entire length of California which carries water from the rainy North to the dry South. It runs mostly along the I-5, which was the road we were driving on so I tried to see if I could keep track of where it was. It doesn’t run in a straight line and sometimes I’d lose sight of it so I’d ask Gil where the aqueduct went. He always seemed to know where it was, he had done this drive many times before.
When you’re comfortable with someone you can sit in complete silence and nothing needs to be said. Overly polite people try to jam conversations through when it isn’t needed and Gil seemed to understand that. I was feeling a lot less tipsy and energetic and I was starting to crash a bit so sometimes I’d stop talking and Gil would as well. I kept on trying to find the aqueduct, scanning to my right and left, scouting for the soft shimmer of water off in the distance. Sometimes it was closer than I expected, and other times it would be getting pumped up and over a hill, passing underground, or making a detour of several miles out of sight from the cars barreling towards Southern California, or charging north to the chilly Bay Area I had been a few hours ago.
Off to my right somewhere over some hills was the 101 freeway, which runs largely along the California coastline and is a beautiful road to drive on. I had driven on that road a few years ago on a motorcycle. It cuts in and out from the coast, all the way down from Olympia in Washington State down to Los Angeles. On that trip, I had joined the road somewhere near Eugene, Oregon where it lines the coast and then through Northern California and the Redwoods. At night, the trees become shadows and their silhouette towers above you like monsters standing guard over the night. When driving, it’s easy to become distracted, especially if you take a detour through the “Valley of the Giants” or cut through onto my favorite road I have experienced in the US, Highway 1, which is as far from a transit road as you can get. You can jump across to Highway 1 from Leggett in Mendocino county which are some of the best bits of coastline California has to offer. On some days you can even get sprayed with water that crashes on the rocks along the coast and spits out onto the road. When coming into San Francisco, there really is no other way to do it, you wind in and out through the coast and the monstrous trees and push out the other side across the Golden Gate Bridge and you keep right to ride through Golden Gate Park and off onto 19th Avenue in San Francisco.
The I-5 is not a touristic road, but there are always things to look at. When the mind is active, there is no such thing as a boring road and the absence of beauty can become a beauty of absence. When I got bored of looking for the aqueduct I would try to look at the cars and the people we were driving past. I liked looking at the number plates, and I tried to find the ones that interested me the most. I saw a few cars from New York, Florida, and others from the Midwest. The most interesting one I thought was Maine, it was probably the furthest distance away and I wondered what they were doing here. It was a couple, probably in their mid-30’s and they looked like the type of people who would pick up hitchhikers.
Gil had been selling his Guatemalan products on the East-Coast, and had family in Connecticut so we talked about that for a while until we pulled into our first stop at a town called Los Banos at what must have been around 11 o’clock in the morning. We were making good time.
Sasha woke up as we stopped and bashfully apologized for falling asleep. “No need to apologize my man. You must have had a big night!” Gil said which I thought was hilarious given my seedy situation but was careful not to laugh too hard. Some time later, I told Sasha about my big night and he thought it was funny too. We met up with Mateo and the other two riders whom I never learned the names of and went into the store to buy some food while the cars were filled at the petrol station.
I bought two Vitamin waters, some dried banana, two packets of chips, and a chocolate bar. I realized I had not eaten anything aside from a stolen hostel sandwich on my rush out the door in San Francisco. I was starving and this would hopefully keep me awake down to San Diego. The cashier was an old man with a big smile on his face. He had a blue vest on and a name-tag which read “Steven”.
He was talking with every customer and seemed to have something new and funny to say every time which was very impressive. It took some people by surprise but in my sleep deprived state it made me smile. I fumbled my items onto the counter and he examined what I was buying as if he was some kind of detective. “Let’s see what we ‘ave ‘ere” he said in his best detective voice and I laughed and said “It’s the best hangover food I can find”. He named each item out-loud when scanning it and checked it off an imaginary checklist as if he were some sort of doctor now. He asked what my opinion on bags was, and I joked that I didn’t think they existed. He pulled a bag out and then hid it behind his back, as if he were performing a magic trick and cracked a big smile, his old benign face creasing up and shining through his eyes, like Gil, he seemed like he had been smiling most of his life. “Oh you’re probably right!” he said “Safe travels!” he chuckled heartily to himself and waved on the next customer awkwardly waiting behind me and I picked up my food and drink and almost dropped one of the Vitamin Waters on my way out the door.
I got back to the car, and immediately downed one of the Vitamin Waters and started eating my food. When we got driving again I noticed some palm trees starting to appear which is a sure way to know you’re getting closer to Southern California. SoCal palm trees tower high and look like light poles from close until you crane your neck upwards and see the bushy palms way up there which create a natural skyline of prickly clouds. Actually, Gil told me that although the palm tree is symbolic of Southern California are there are a huge variety of palms in the state, only one species (The California fan palm) is native, all the rest having been planted somewhere in the 1930’s as Los Angeles was anticipating the Olympics of 1932 as a way to promote the city as a tropical-yet-accessible destination to foreigners. He was full of interesting information.
Sasha was more awake now and he and Gil were talking to each other up front while I munched on my chips and stared out the window. They had found something in common, they had both spent a lot of time in some town in Southern California somewhere near Los Angeles which I had never been to so they were talking about different places and people that they might know. I was happy they were talking and having fun.
I was reading Kerouac (Dharma Bums) and feeling very Zen about things so I sat back and appreciated the three of us in the van together and all the road we had ahead. I was glad Sasha and Gil had found something to talk about but was also happy I had some time to read my book and look out the window. Eating the food had made me very sleepy all of a sudden but that was also OK, a phrase from the my book jumped out at me so I made sure to write it down before I dozed off.
“But let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious.”
Sleeping in chairs is stolen sleep, so whenever I manage to pass out in a car or a plane I feel like I’ve accomplished something. We had slowed down, which woke me. I didn’t know how long I slept so I scanned the signs to figure out where we were and guessed that it couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes. It felt like we were just a few towns over. I was still feeling groggy but curiously content in a half-dream state which I enjoyed for a good thirty seconds before coming back to reality.
Sasha and Gil had stopped talking and we were in some sort of small traffic jam. A lane had been closed further up the road yet we were still rolling along at a decent but sluggish 30 miles an hour which was enough to cause some annoyed looks from the other drivers I could see from the window. There had been a minor accident, some sort of collision. Gil and Mateo were talking to each other on the phone about the incident. They called each other from time to time to check up on each other and see where they were. They were brothers but also good friends. Gil talked about Mateo a lot, he talked about his love of gardening and his property purchases. He talked about how he had come out to him as gay when they were teenagers and how it was one of the happiest moments of his life. They were each successful in their own way and from what I could gather generally happy people.
We rolled on and on and soon we were closing in towards Bakersfield for lunch. Gil was telling me about the time he was caught and arrested somewhere in North Dakota with 15 pounds of marijuana in his car. This was about ten years ago. He was driving it from California to help out a friend, or at least that’s what he’d told me. He got busted for speeding at first. He hadn’t noticed a change in speed limit and a police officer was there waiting for him. He almost got away without being searched, but as he was about to head off, his car was searched and the weed was discovered. He spent the night in the county jail while he contacted his lawyer friend.
Legal trouble in the United States is serious business, especially in North Dakota and especially for marijuana. Luckily for him, his friend was a talented lawyer who knew what to do. He was already pretty well off from his Guatemala money so he posted bail immediately. They had the right to decline judges (up to three), so they waited for a judge his lawyer knew to be more lenient and then accepted. He faced serious jail time, but they had a strategy.
Knowing the system, they delayed everything. You wait. You wait until someone gets caught with 30 pounds, you wait until someone gets caught with methamphetamine, you wait until someone gets shot, or you wait until someone does all of the above and then blows up a school bus. All of a sudden your 15 pounds doesn’t look so bad. If you have the money for court fees, its a genuine legal strategy in the United States to just wait until someone does something worse. During this time you’ve been busy getting character witnesses, signatories, and doing absolutely everything the judge tells you to do, even the stuff he doesn’t tell you to do. You check into narcotics anonymous, and attend every single meeting for months. You rack up the documentation. You create a nice story and you delay and hope for the best.
On the day of the sentencing which was a good 18 months after the fact Gil felt confident but his lawyer pulled him aside. “We’ve done what we can, but honestly, you’ve got to be prepared to take at least 2-3 years of jail time for this” he told him and Gil started crying, terrified. They walked in the courtroom, Gil was a mess but he was wearing a nice suit and his hair was combed just right. They had their argument and the paperwork and the character witnesses and everything else they had prepared. The sentence came down 2 years…of suspended time. It basically meant that he could walk free if he didn’t commit any other crimes during this time. He asked his lawyer if he was expecting that and his lawyer said “Sure, but you were looking too damn confident walking in that courtroom. I need you looking pathetic before that judge and terrified, that’s how we get what we want”. We didn’t talk anymore about that, and now with his cover blown he took our his vaporizer and started puffing away while driving, deep in thought.
We pulled into Bakersfield which is about 110 miles north of Los Angeles and got out of the car. The air warmed my lungs so I took a long relaxing breath and held it, went into the sun and walked towards a taco food truck where we had decided we’d all be getting something to eat. I breathed out and stretched my back and rolled my shoulders and smiled. I could tell I was getting closer to San Diego.
I ordered first and got three tacos, I was happy to be eating again. California has a lot of Mexican food but it can be hard to find the good kind. In Mexico the salsa is too hot and comes in small plastic bags with a knot tied at the top. You have to bite a hole in the plastic in the bottom corner and then pour it out onto the tacos. That or untie the knot at the top but they always have a way of tying it making it impossible to untie anyway, so you bite it open. You eventually learn how it works. You watch the others do it, and then you try for yourself. There, the tacos are small and each are served on two tortillas, never hard-shell, that’s gringo stuff. Here out of this small taco truck in Bakersfield it was the good kind of Mexican food, two tortillas, salsa in a plastic bag with an impossibly tight knot.
I finished my tacos while Mateo’s riders were still ordering. They were having trouble with the menu which was only in Spanish, but I didn’t help them. Mateo was standing by translating because he spoke some Spanish, but they were still having a hard time deciding. That was fine by me. Sasha and I had decided to head off around the corner for a cigarette which I had been trying to avoid but decided to do mostly out of boredom and curiosity as to how my battered body would react.
I went around the corner with Sasha and lit one up but only got about half way through before I threw it away. Still not ready. Sasha finished his cigarette while talking on the phone to someone. I didn’t bother hanging around and went back to sit down. I talked briefly with Mateo but didn’t learn much about him that Gil hadn’t already told me. Gil had talked to him about me so I repeated myself to Mateo. I told him about my mission to get to Guatemala and my life and how excited I was to be getting into Mexico the next day and he smiled and approved. He was short and tan and a bit plump with small rectangular glasses and a haircut that made him look like a bit math teacher with a flat fringe that fell straight down and stopped about halfway down his forehead. I liked him. He reminded me of a friend of mine who is also called Mateo with whom I had worked at a ski resort for several years. He had an soft and disarming voice and was genuinely interested in what people had to say.
We got back in the car and set off again. My stomach was still upset from the attempted cigarette but it was manageable, I decided not to have another one unless absolutely necessary. Sasha and Gil were back talking about the common areas they knew, and I couldn’t hear much of the conversation anyway so I sat back and appreciated the road a bit. Eating food had made me tired again and that was fine by me. I kept an eye-out for interesting number plates but couldn’t find any and I had lost sight again of the aqueduct. A short while later we came to another stop at Pyramid Lake, just over the border in Los Angeles county.
The lake was formed by a hydroelectric dam, and gets its name from the pyramid mountain tops it creates as the area was flooded with water when the dam was built. The water comes from the same aqueduct which had been following us the whole way down from Northern California which I had lost sight of moments before. We walked around and I read the information signs with Gil and we talked about engineering. Sasha wasn’t very interested it the dam and was off a little ways behind us having another cigarette. My favorite part was a photo they had taken in 1972 before they had started construction. Here you could see the valley without water and really notice the huge quantity of water they had stored here and the massive power of the dam they had built. The peaking mountain tops are a lot more impressive when you can see the bottom of the mountain like an iceberg peaking above the waterline is that much more impressive if you remove the water in which it floats.
We all ate some half-melted chocolate I had found in my bag and set off again. Gil was still puffing on his vape, he didn’t pass it around but probably would have if I had asked, I didn’t feel like it anyways. As we started to enter Los Angeles we took a bit of a detour off the I-5 and drove through Santa Clarita to save some time. There had been the largest wildfire in California State history – The Thomas Fire – which at that time hadn’t been contained and off towards the coast near Ventura we could see a thick haze of smoke and knew out there were people fighting for their homes and their lives. Santa Clarita had also been hit hard and we drove past charred ground and trees and the occasional rubble of a property which had been razed to the ground by the uncontrollable inferno. We wound down the windows and smelled the air, different from the warm blanket of Bakersfield here there was a distinct smokey aggressiveness which forced anyone smelling it to think of the chaos happening off towards the coastal towns of Ojai, Camarillo and Thousand Oaks. I had been in a similar fire a few weeks before in Mendocino County up North and knew how bad things could get with wild winds which create a panicked uncertainty as to where the fire is headed next and who will be targeted. I felt for those people but there was nothing to do about it, we rolled on.
Soon we were in Los Angeles, back on the I-5, out of the fire zone and in the famous gauntlet which is L.A. traffic. Motorcycles split lanes with no fear while drivers bob and weave through traffic, everyone pushing and grunting their way to the head of the line cursing any and all drivers who dare cut them off, each on their own drive forward and be damned with the others. Lane closures mean a total seizure of the entire LA road system, in which case the carpool lane becomes a de facto lane for anyone who dares risk the $300 fine.
Gil drove like a true Angelo, the moment our lane slowed down he would push off to one side and cut into the faster lane, zig-zagging through the chaos as if our white van were made of water. Like pressure building up in a faucet, we made a final push through Southern L.A. and gushed out the other side somewhere near Buena Park. We were back picking up some speed and on our way again.
The wildfires raging had dropped a thick smoke over Los Angeles which rode the cold airs of the Pacific all the way up to San Francisco. To the West over the ocean we could see the sun which had become blood-red and hidden behind the smoke had created a thick warm blanket of orange and pink and crimson that reflected off the windows of the mansions in the hills to our East which gave off bright white lights as if we were in a stadium and the sunset was just for us which it probably was.
I saw the silhouette of a commercial airliner high in the sky which had taken off from LAX and was heading west over the Pacific. It flew up and behind the red, orange, pink haze of the smoke and began to get blurry as it passed off in the distance over the ocean, looking like an eagle off in the sun. I wondered what the view of the sunset must have been like on the plane, or the view of the pilots who appeared to by flying directly into the sun. Everyone had a spectacular show that day from their own vantage point and it was nice to think that for a nice 30 minute window millions of people in this small corner of California were treated to a special experience that only they would ever know.
The sun finally sank behind the waterline and a final burst of color exploded out from the ocean. I learned that Mateo had stopped in Anaheim to drop off one of his riders and I wouldn’t be seeing him again since we were already too far ahead. I didn’t say much for the rest of the ride down, the sunset had muted me and I was feeling pretty beat from the days journey. I listened to Sasha and Gil talk and stared out the window and also checked my phone to see how I was getting to San Diego.
I decided to get dropped off a bit further north in Oceanside rather than in Encinitas because I figured it was easier for me to take a train from there to Ocean Beach where my hostel was. It was a wild guess, but for me it made sense. Gil would be heading east from there to Palomar Mountain and would be dropping Sasha off in Escondido. We pulled into the train station parking lot and stopped and I got out and took my stuff with me. It felt like I was changing scenes. I was groggy and tired from the lack of sleep and had been sitting quietly looking at an amazing sunset and all of a sudden I was saying a goodbye to Sasha and Gil and was on my way to take a train to San Diego. We hugged it out and I left them to their conversation and the white van navigated out of the train station car park and out of my sight. I took Gil’s business card and found out he was a massage therapist and I realised I had never asked him what he did for work nowadays which it seemed both of us had decided was not really important anyway.
It was hard to buy a ticket, I don’t know why but I got very confused. All of a sudden it was night and I was in a strange train station and trying to decide which between the Coaster, Sprinter, and Pacific Surfliner I should be taking. A homeless man came up to me offering help and asking for cigarettes for the help he never gave and I never accepted. I gave them a cigarette anyway and went to the counter which was still open and I asked for a ticket to San Diego for which he told me I’d need the Coaster. I struggled to find the platform but eventually did, which didn’t really matter because the train was an hour late which seemed like the perfect time for me to smoke a cigarette.
It went down a lot better than the one I had in Bakersfield and I felt I was back on track. I was dead tired but I had made it finally to Southern California which I could tell by the warm air which warmed my bones and the abundance of imported palm trees around my periphery. I started to get annoyed by the time delay of this train but eventually I got on board and sat down, thinking about Gil and Sasha and many other zen and not zen things which had formed my day thus far. I got into a small argument with an unsupervised child who cut me from my thoughts. He had been annoying and punching his little sister for about half an hour when he asked me WHY was I sitting where I was sitting. I asked him WHY was he being so loud and annoying and I caught the glance of his parents who were a few rows back though they didn’t get mad at me and were probably glad I said what I said. The boy inexplicably repeated himself, he wanted to know why I was seated in a single chair instead of a double. I stared him down for a good five seconds without saying anything and he went back to bothering his sister. I turned back towards his parents and they simply shrugged, they been through all this before.
After about 45 minutes I arrived in San Diego Old Town and although I wanted to take public transport to Ocean Beach, I had missed my connection due to the delay and took an Uber which I was secretly thankful for since it only cost five dollars and I was dead tired anyway.
I got dropped off at Ocean Beach International. A hostel that I had stayed at before where a party was in full swing. I rudely cut off the volunteer receptionist as she offered me tours around the town and asked where my room was. I dropped my backpack off, organised my sheets and treated myself to one last cigarette to cap off my day. Around me were young travelers bursting with energy and cheap alcohol wondering to where the night was headed but for me there was only one destination, bed. I went to my room after my cigarette and collapsed, thinking of cheap Modelos and spicy salsas in impossibly tight plastic bags and my walk across the border to Tijuana planned for the next day.