On the balcony, overlooking Highland Drive and California Highway 1, the Pacific was busy pounding relentlessly on two old rocks about 400 yards out. They stood side by side, but one could imagine them connected just under the visible water. He imagined how many centuries those two rocks (or that one rock) had been there, being worn away by the tides and the waves. They looked strong. They looked as if they would not give in any time soon.
He and his bride had landed in San Jose and rented a convertible to drive down Highway 1 for several reasons. Probably the most important reason was that they had decided to stay married for at least a few years longer. Twenty four is not really a large number.
On around day four of the journey, they were in Pismo Beach and getting into an elevator to go up to their room after lunch. An elderly man was pulling a luggage dolly down the concrete walkway with a lady only a few years younger following. They were obviously getting ready to check out of the resort. The still-happily married vacationer said, "Would you like us to hold the elevator for you?" The elderly man said, "Do you think there's room for me and this old thing I'm carrying?" He said, "Well, I think so; but I wouldn't talk about my wife like that if I were you."
All four of them laughed as the elevator doors closed. The older gentleman turned and said, "It's 61 years we've been married and this is our anniversary!" The younger man said, "You must have gotten married when you were ten." You could feel the love in that little cube going up three floors, and you could feel it in four ways squared. As was mentioned previously, twenty four is not really a large number.
But today they had not gotten to Pismo Beach yet. They were standing on a balcony at a place in Carmel called Tickle Pink. The ribbing he had gotten from some of his friends about this choice of a beginning point for this celebration of marriage continuation was harsh. His sexual preferences had been called into question, which was doubly ironic considering the amount of marital communication that was already taking place on this trip.
One of the harshest ribbings had come from a fellow in Los Gatos, where he convinced his wife to try one more time to meet some of his pretend friends on the internet. This time it worked out better than usual for his wife because one of the pretend internet friends had a blond girlfriend who seemed to hit it off with his wife in a very nice way. It had been a period of almost ten years with some other of these pretend friends showing up at various times at their house with mixed results. But these folks sitting here in Los Gatos were the solid folks; the ones he'd begun the pretend journey with and those whom he'd sworn he'd see face to face before he died.
After a long lunch which consisted solely of beer for the husband, they were off with the top down on the rented convertible. First stop: Tickle Pink in Carmel.
Carmel, California, seemed to have several faces. Money was obviously abundant and it was hard to imagine how the folks who actually did the work in the town could afford to live anywhere near there. He found it would be this way in all the stops along the way at expensive resorts. However, in Carmel, his wife found a shop downtown where she bought a nice warm Carmel hooded logo jacket for $20; a slap in the face to the shops all around which were selling clothes for the price of a compact car.
Katy's Place downtown turned out to be his favorite place to eat. It was clean as a whistle and had lots of country potatoes; even the potato pancakes he loved when growing up. The place was run by the most efficient and friendly Oriental lady one could imagine. She must have been Katy. He could imagine her dusting the knickknacks after closing time.
At one point, he was still working on a large portion of country potatoes when his wife said, "I'm finished. Do you mind if I go shopping for a bit while you carbo-saturate here?" He said, "Of course not," and she left. Soon, Katie was at the table in her beautiful blue chiffon dress and apron. "Where your wife go?" she asked in a voice that resembled Ms. Swan.
"She left me."
"Oh, she go shop?"
"Ah, you a silly man. Want more potatoes?"
They would spend a fortune eating at overpriced establishments along the way, but he'd remember Katy's on Mission Street between 5th and 6th Avenue in Carmel as his favorite restaurant. In fact, even though there were more spectacular views and higher priced resorts, he would remember Carmel and Tickle Pink as the place he'd go back to one day if he had the chance. He was fairly sure those same two rocks would be out there in full view from Room 35's balcony, no matter how many years it took.
After a few days exhausting Carmel, the drive down Highway 1 to San Luis Obispo was one of those things that he knew would be a challenge, but it was one thing that had to be done. In fact, getting over a particular fear had been the reason he chose this particular vacation. His wife was a roller coaster rider and he couldn't even stand to get on the roof of his house. They had been in San Francisco years earlier, in a happier time, before he'd uttered those almost maritally fatal words, "I'm never getting in an airplane again. I hate travelling." She'd suggested going to the top of some very tall building to a revolving restaurant for lunch. He agreed and she pushed the elevator button. Not even noticing the details, he got in and the door closed. The elevator started ascending and he turned around and discovered two things: 1.) It went directly to the top floor; no stops. 2.) It had full glass walls and was on the outside of the building.
As a youngster, he had been in the family car at the time -- a 1954 Chevy Bel Air -- as he and his mom and dad drove through some area of Mississippi. Suddenly, his dad pulled over and said, "Look! It's a fire tower. Let's climb it!" Barely past being a toddler, he saw no reason that this was a bad idea until he got to about 100 feet off the ground. At that point, one of two things happened: Either he discovered that he was terribly afraid of heights, or he suddenly became terribly afraid of heights. Either way, this is probably the seminal reason that in the glass elevator in San Francisco several years later with a grown woman to whom he was married, he shamefully ducked his head, closed his eyes and said, "Jesus Christ! Tell me when the doors open!"
He lives in Little Rock, Arkansas, now and he has clients all over the area. Sometimes he has to drive to Fayetteville, Arkansas, up near the Missouri line. There is a new Interstate that goes directly north from Fort Smith, Arkansas, to Fayetteville. It was just built five years ago. Before that, you had to take an old two lane road called the "Pig Trail" which only allowed you to go 20 or 30 miles an hour and took forever. The good news, as far as he was concerned, is that you could only go 20 or 30 miles per hour and it took forever. This new highway takes off at least an hour of travel, but it is in high, high mountains and it does not have guard rails and if you do not go at least 70 miles per hour, there will be 18-wheel trucks passing you which are going at least that fast. This road scares the ever-loving crap out of him. In fact, on one occasion, he stayed one night longer in a hotel just because there was a possibility of rain on the day he planned to go back home.
From Carmel to San Luis Obispo, there is a highway that is perched above at least a hundred mile drop-off into an unforgiving ocean with few guardrails and rockslides and frequent earthquakes and a marine layer that makes visibility zero. Add to that several crazy folks who think it's their duty to scare the ever-loving shit out of both their passengers as well as their fellow motorists who are approaching them around blind turns. And the most fun thing about it? Once you make the decision to travel this stretch of highway, there is no option aside from turning back or going on. There are no left turns to the inland east; there are no safer routes or second choices.
The good news is that he managed to do it without freaking the hell out and might even be the stronger for it. That, and the spectacular scenery of which only a very cheap approximation can be captured on camera. Oh, and the bel air is magnificent.
In Pismo Beach just outside San Luis Obispo, the room was directly over the ocean and the marine layer was often disrupting the view. When he would see the marine layer from a few miles away, he fully understood where Mark Helprin got the idea of the "wall cloud" in Winter's Tale. When the wall cloud would abate, he and his wife would watch the pelicans as they busily floated just outside the balcony. He never saw them actually feed; they seemed to be just enjoying the riding of the wind and the thrill of the flight. They would fight the wind as they flew south on the beach, and then they'd ride it with a big grin back north. Somewhat like the surfers who fought the waves out west and then rode them back to the east, over and over. Both quite unlike the dogs that folks would unleash and allow to run free on the beach. The dogs had no directions except forward or down (if they were digging).
It occurred to him, as he was missing his own dog back home (and not missing his wife's cat), that perhaps something had been overlooked in all the talk of this cat/dog dichotomy. Perhaps the reason so many people hate cats is because cats are already just like the worst people you know. They are selfish and spoiled and aloof unless they have needs. They are uncaring and their only concern if you died would be that they are incapable of operating a can opener.
Conversely, maybe so many folks love dogs because dogs are in an ever-evolving state of trying to become what is good about the best people you know. They want to be loved and will adapt in their behavior to gain that love. They will smile when they are happy and frown when they are sad. They have little if any silly pride. Even now, he could see dogs on the beach running to and fro, always forward or down, with no purpose in the world except to enjoy the brief freedom they were offered by the humans. The fact that they will never be able to fully complete this mission of becoming human only makes them more lovable to the folks around them. They are like babies without the diapers. Babies who never grow up and disappoint you. Babies who can be "put down" when they grow old and become more trouble than they are worth. Babies who can be replaced with almost exact replicas once they've either met misfortune or grown a day too old.
So, in Pismo he and his wife walked the beach and watched the dog-owners letting their babies run free. Then they played badminton and ping pong all afternoon and were sore the next day. He remembered how lucky he was to have a wife in good health and with enough eye-hand coordination to make games like that fun for both of them.
Then it was off for the third stop on this tour of Beach Boys Land. There, in Santa Barbara, they again met up with one of the pretend internet friends from the lunch back in Los Gatos, and he was telling the vacationers about his 13 year old dog who had died a natural death recently. There was talk of diseases in remission, dogs who did not make it and those still living, marriages that lasted and those that didn't, but mostly talk of the Californian's days in Santa Barbara as a young man. There really is no tour of a new town like the one given by a man who used to live there when he was young. An old featureless apartment complex where he brought home $29 a week to feed his family suddenly has an importance as large as the stately Mission which killed an entire Indian tribe in the building.
He took them to the wharf for lunch in one of his old haunts. The fried clams did not stand up to the memories of fried clams, and the Californian wished he'd ordered the tuna melt like the savvy Southerner. The vacationers booked a sailing cruise for that evening; their last evening on the Left Coast. The Californian drove back to his own life, leaving the couple richer for his company and his calming voice. The couple went sailing and, as the sun went down over the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara and the seals argued for space on the buoys, they held hands and shared a blanket.
His wife struck up a long conversation with a lady sitting next to her from Texas. This lady's husband was nursing a Coors Light sitting six feet away from his wife with nothing but chilly empty space between them. He spent the entire sailing trip staring out to sea with a vacant look on his face as he replenished his Coors a couple of times. The Texan lady seemed to need someone to talk to and she was pleasant enough, with tales of her frequent moves around the country with her oilman husband; one of which brought them to Santa Barbara for a few years. She told the vacationing couple about her children and her animals and her fear of hurricane Gustav because she'd already been through similar hurricanes on the Texas coast.
But throughout the entire conversation (which was more like a monologue), the couple could not help thinking the exact same thought somewhere underneath the water being churned by the tilted sailboat; a place under that salty water where they were joined in an unseen way. They were both thinking, "Why have this lady and her husband not said one single word to each other on this sailing trip? Why have they not even looked at each other?"
Some women will allow their husbands to ignore them. He's glad his wife put her foot down about this. That's no way to live a life together.