It's mid December. Northern California. A rainy and cold night, about 6 p.m. My partner Dan and I have just enjoyed an indulgent pre-holiday couples' getaway up on the Northern California coast three to four hours north of where we live, and are now headed back to our place. The return drive is precisely timed to coincide with our daughter Avery's arrival at SFO. She goes to college three thousand miles away and we haven't seen her in seven months. We plan to greet her at the American Airline arrivals area wearing our monogrammed Santa hats, as a way to signal the fun associated with home.
Dan and I make our way down the narrow strip of black asphalt that hems the West coast of the Continental U.S., known as Highway 1. He is driving. He has to. He gets carsick if he's not behind the wheel on these twisty roads. We lose cell coverage as expected, and won't regain it for an hour and a half. A bit of fog creeps in, which makes this part of the trek slower than usual. When we get to Petaluma, there could be construction on 101. And 19th Avenue in San Francisco can be a slow crawl, too. We've given ourselves an extra hour of buffer time to get to SFO. Just in case.
We're about twenty miles into our journey. The mountains to our left are interrupted by this tiny road and then continue their ambling slope down to the Pacific Ocean. Taillights brake up ahead. We can't make out what's going on, or how far ahead it's all happening. Over the years, stretches of this highway farther south in Big Sur have fallen away into the sea. We hope it isn't anything like that.
We join a line of cars stopped in the dark wet night. A few people get out of their cars, and walk ahead, and return, but it's not clear whether they learned anything. I think about getting out of the car to go see what's up, but don't. It's not like anyone is running or screaming. And what are we going to do about it anyway? There are so few routes in and out of this place. A detour is not easy to come by and God knows where it would lead. There's still plenty of time to get to Avery at SFO. Dan and I tell each other It's fine. We'll wait it out.
After about ten or fifteen minutes, a firefighter in a hat and yellow overalls emerges up ahead from out of the inky darkness, flanked by red tail lights. He bends toward the drivers side of a vehicle a few cars up, talks for a bit, then backs away. The driver does an inelegant U-turn and heads north. The scene repeats.
The firefighter is now ten feet from us, walking in the direction of our Prius. Our headlights light his young, jovial, and even eager face. Disaster is the reason you go into this line of work, I find myself thinking. Disaster means helping people. Not that a firefighter wants harm to happen anywhere, but being able to be of use, of service, feels really good, I know. It's clearly this kid's thing. Dan lowers his window.
"Where you headed?"
Our voices lap like melody and harmony on top of each other, singsongy, like eager children. "San Francisco."
"Where'd you come from?"
"Sea Ranch." Same sound. Eager to please. Comply.
The firefighter nods.
"Then probably best to turn around and take Skaggs Springs at Stewarts Point to Lake Sonoma. Same amount of time." He grins. We grin. We say okay.
But, we have no idea what he's talking about. There are only three directions you can go from here: North, South, and East; West being the Pacific Ocean. We've never heard of these roads. If he feels this other route will take the same amount of time, and we can't go South, we presume he's directing us East across the wide mountains that stand between this massive ocean and Napa Valley. We ask him to repeat the directions.
Then, while I did not lead with this because I don't want to seem like a rubber-necker, yet I am, I say "What is it?" giving a quick up-nod toward whatever lies ahead.
The firefighter's face beams like a little kid with a new toy truck. "Tree. Yeah it fell right across the road. Gonna take at least a half hour." A half hour will eat into most of our remaining buffer, I think, and I feel Dan thinking it too, which could make us late to get our sweet girl. We ask the firefighter one more time which roads we are to take, and where does the first lead to the next, exactly? We have no cell coverage so we can't look it up. Instead I hold my hands up toward Dan and the open window as if making a map of my fingers will point the right way home. Stewarts Point Skaggs Springs Lake Sonoma. I can feel Dan and I making a silent pact to remember the specifics of all of these S sounds. I want to say Wait, let me just jot it down. But our firefighter seems certain that people like us would know these roads, and we don't want to seem like strangers to this lovely helper on this cold and rainy night.
"No one hurt though?" I ask, hopeful. I'm not sure I can continue to travel for these trysts, no matter how languid I may feel once I get there, if we might have the road wash out from under us on the way to or from.
"Oh no. Nothing like that. Just a big tree." I watch him walk his jaunty life-saving self to the next car. I smile.
We want our daughter to feel the burst of Oh my gosh I'm HOME that you get when you're greeted at the airport. We've always done this for family and we're not going to stop now. Our firefighter said this route with all the S's is the same distance from the city. (Which assumes that this fallen tree does in fact only take a half hour to get cleared, which feels like a huge IF; We are seeing zero movement. Zero equipment. There is no evidence that this tree situation is letting up.)
We follow our firefighter's advice, turn around, and head back up Hwy 1. We find Stewarts Point, turn East on Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road and begin a slow, wet climb in the fog up a road, one that looks like Grandpa Skaggs himself might have paved 80 years ago. It curves and winds up and around and screeches downward where it crosses a stream, and ferns creep onto the road, and the temperature falls to 44 degrees. The redwoods plunge straight up from deep valleys to our right. Gravel and bigger rocks collect on the road's edge, evidence that stuff around here can and will just fall. It's us and this road and the dead-reckoning of our GPS which can't access the internet or tell us how long anything will take but which shows us precisely where we are and depicts the seemingly infinite bends and dips that stand between us and civilization and SFO and our daughter.
Dan and I say little to each other as we stare through the windshield at the slanted rain and the unfamiliar terrain and the Prius creeps along with its electric silence. After what feels like an hour but is only twelve minutes I pinch the map out to get a larger view of these coming squiggles, that look like the grey matter of a human brain, and I try to estimate where we are and how much longer and finally I look up and say to Dan, Looks like we're maybe a sixth of the way. I make a mental note that the outside temperature is continuing to drop. Against my will, my mind inventories our provisions: Half a tank. Two Clif Bars. Whatever's in that emergency kit we got from the public radio fundraising drive. I tell Dan that I think we should turn around and go back to where we'd been staying and get cell coverage and text Avery that she will just have to take a Lyft from SFO and we'll come home tomorrow.
But that feels like giving up. We keep going. We've been together since a hookup thirty-four Januarys ago and nothing has stopped us yet. I look at the time. I don't know how fast our firefighter normally surfs these curves, but as for me and Dan we're going to be an hour late for Avery. We're regretting not waiting for our firefighter and his guys to clear the tree. Regretting not turning around within the first few minutes on Grampa Skaggs' road. It's nowhere in every direction. The black of the night pulls us forward. Up roads and down roads and around an endless configuration of bends that are small and squiggly on my little iPhone screen but immense as we drive the unbridled wild majesty of Northern California. We're committed now.
The outside temperature is 37 degrees. The penetrating chill climbs inside the car despite the heater being on, and my sockless toes inside my leather bootlets feel wet but I know it's just that they're cold. Dan takes a migraine pill. The last in the bottle. He says it's tiring to focus intensely on this winding road in this rain in this darkness. Yet we both know that if I take over, he'll get car sick. So there is nothing to do but carry on. We are silent except for me calling the play like a quarterback, or a midwife. This one's a very tight curve, and, it's about to straighten out for a moment. I can feel that we are both nervous. Maybe scared. Maybe wondering. We pass one lone car. A police car. I want to flag him down and say How will we find you again if we run out of gas? By which I mean Will anyone find us before we die?
You know how this story ends. We carry on. We make our way to the road that leads to the bigger road that leads to the highway that we've been on a zillion times before, albeit much farther North. What you may not have predicted is that I would decide that the only thing I could do was to stay lighthearted in my role as navigator. That I would stare at the twists and turns my phone mapped for me and see that some of them bore an uncanny resemblance to body parts. That for a good twenty minutes I would announce what was coming using R-rated descriptions and the enthusiasm of a circus ringmaster. To take our minds off of our fear.
When we get cell coverage, I track Avery's flight. She arrives late but it's no match for our lateness. I text Welcome home baby, sorry we're not there, we got a bit held up by a fallen tree. We show up at SFO relieved just to be in a mundane yet familiar place, and as we race to baggage claim I feel downright giddy as I don my monogrammed Santa hat and see Dan do the same. We spy Avery in baggage claim, sitting V-legged on the carpet with her back up against a large column and her belongings in an arc around her. I shout "hey" from thirty feet away. She looks up. She smiles then groans at the sight of us in these hats. It's a groan of love.
The author and futurist Jane McGonigal writes in her new book Imaginable that if you can thoughtfully envision what can happen in the future and plan for it (e.g., I might need a full tank, extra food, meds, a paper map; maybe I should let someone know I'm leaving and when I expect to arrive) it gives your brain a sense of control and therefore, comfort. When the thing happens, the brain will in effect say to itself, Hey I've imagined this scenario. I know what to do next. That's how I expect to feel the next time a tree falls on Hwy 1.
In the comments, tell me about a time when you felt lost. If you were afraid, can you admit that? What did you learn from it? What do you do differently now as a result, if anything?
And if you like reading about getting lost, read this piece I wrote about the time Avery drove me on a long scenic drive – my first car trip since isolating in the early months of the pandemic in 2020 – which was her Mother's Day gift to me that year. She got lost. This time, though, we both had cell coverage. Still, although we didn't speak of it, the lostness felt important so we didn't grab our phones and instead just kept going.
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