I’m moving through the heartland of California on the Coast Starlight, decidedly NOT on the coast today because of track maintenance along it’s more picturesque route.
It’s still a wonderful way to travel. What might be almonds to my right and may be olives to my left, either way the short exclamation of delight -ah!- leaning into the luxurious diphthong of the approximant ‘L,’ as alive in the mouth as those fruits themselves.
Everything outside is gold and green and gray and blue, and I’m only combatting the soporific effects of the train’s clack and sway by writing this right now.
A night in Los Angeles. Another train tomorrow. My first trip on the Sunset Limited, bringing my collection of long-haul Amtrak routes to a lucky number 7 including
The Coast Starlight
The California Zephyr
The City of New Orleans
The Empire Builder
The Capitol Limited
The Southwest Chief
Some of these multiple times. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t make special mention of the shorter, state-supported routes the Pennsylvanian and the Pacific Surfliner.
But I’ll also be hitting up the Texas Eagle on this trip, so it’ll be 8 long-hauls, the number of infinity, the number of bloody marys one requires to make these trips with sanity intact, if sanity is what you’re after. Personally? I think it’s overrated. You kinda hafta go past insanity to manage all the bullshit this world throws at you and come out the other side, a divine madness right through to a crystalline sobriety that makes you effective, powerful, and A Taker of No Shit.
But I digress. Trains.
I don’t know why I do it. Or if I’m honest, any ONE reason why. I find myself resisting the urge to make a list, to make a case for it, which isn’t an unusual compulsion for me. But the reason this time is, because it is laced with guilt.
My fingers pause at that word. Guilt. The flow of words is staunched, which is what you wanna do with a wound, usually, but there’s a certain amount of bloodletting you have to do to wash the infection out, first. So I have to exert some will to make the words drip from my fingertips again. Why guilt?
A feeling of redhandedness.
Of getting away with something by getting away.
I love California. This is a known fact. And I love my home county of Los Angeles, to the point that I will go to blows – verbal ones, anyway – with anyone who disputes my claim that it is one of the greatest cities in the world for culture and diversity and food and and and ad infinitum.
I think, maybe, I have been less clear about my love for Sonoma County, Santa Rosa specifically. And there’s nothing like having the object of your affection threatened to force you to examine your feelings and make a public declaration. Loudly.
Girlfriend in a coma I know, I know it’s serious.
When Dave and I first moved to the North Bay in 2005, we rented a place for a couple years in Mill Valley. And that was fine, but my heart wasn’t in it. I was commuting up to Sonoma State to finish my BA, and I was making friends up there along the way. When our lease was coming up, and basically the whole time we lived in Marin, I kept expressing to Dave this desire to have a place to put down roots, to live IN instead of commuting TO the communities we were generously welcomed by/forming around ourselves.
This is maybe a strange thing for a nomad to aspire to, but I don’t really think so. I’m a shitty nomad. I love to travel, yeah. It opens up my brain and my heart and it scares me and thrills me and bores me and footsores me, but one of the reasons I can travel with such assurance is that I have a home. That a part of my heart is always locked away alone in a little house with books and a dog and cats and coffee the way I like to make it for myself and a view of some trees.
So when that little house was threatened, I despaired. I had some shitty hours, kids. Some crappy, selfish hours, where I didn’t so much mourn the potential loss of my stuff, but of the house itself.
Of the colors I’d chosen for the walls and the archway we knocked in one of those walls between the living room and dining room to let in more morning light and the library we built with Cody Bean’s profile hidden in the design of the wooden bookcases and the old Gaffers & Sattler stove in the kitchen that came with the house as persnickety as an actual person born in 1938 and the ridiculous Team Zissou bathroom and the trees in the yard and the sage in the yard and the hard work evident inside and out that we ourselves and the talented craftspeople and artists with color and light and flora we had employed had committed to make our nest itself a little work of homespun art.
But that house still stands. Mourning it prematurely now looks, with hindsight, like a luxury. Ruminating on my fears that it COULD have burned is an offense. To the people who have actually lost their homes, and to the people who have lost loved ones. We have been so, so lucky.
I only engaged in this morbid thinking for about 24 hours of the seven days we were evacuated. It quickly became clear that the only way to alleviate the anxiety and make the situation MEAN anything – nobody’s house burns down for a reason: you get out there and you MAKE reason of fire’s brute appetite and indifference – was to DO.
To donate food and medicine and underpants. To help sort said donations. To make soups and sandwiches and sack lunches. To crack jokes and give hugs.
I am again lucky in that I know all the best makers and doers in Sonoma County, the people who could point me in the direction of where and who to help when I felt so overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what needed doing.
I would still be blindfolded and spinning in place, dizzy and nauseous and nowhere near the donkey without their know-how, delegation and efficacy.
So I felt better, for a while. I said many times over the course of the week that there isn’t much altruistic in volunteering when you yourself are under threat, or at minimum you have the empathy necessary to imagine yourself in another’s place.
Volunteering is another kind of evacuation: escaping into service for others so that you are not preoccupied with yourself, with your own fears. In such times, other people’s needs are a gift just as much as our donations and actions. It’s reciprocal and terrifying and beautiful, the way we need each other.
And with that realization, a new fear crept in, related to but different from the old fear of losing the house. “What if…what if we lose the house, and then we can’t really afford to stay local, and I lose my COMMUNITY?”
I am not proud of my quaking and cowardice, but neither am I ashamed to admit that it was this thought, had on Wednesday night the week of the fires, that finally made me cry.
Ruminating on this now as I sit in this southbound, awaybound train, I realize that it was less the fear of losing the structure of my physical home than the fear that I couldn’t withstand the loss of my weekly/daily/heck, HOURLY contact with the people whose friendship and love and talents have created a home for my soul on earth so solid underfoot and sheltering overhead that I can travel just about anywhere on the planet safe in the knowledge that those people exist and are just out there being themselves. That they are who make California home to me. Sonoma County home to me. Santa Rosa, not the home I was born in but the home I chose, home to me.
What I’m trying to say fam, is that I’m traveling. I need a space to write and think. I’m on a trip planned long before the fires, and while I’ve chosen to make it, I can physically feel a tugging in my chest as I move further and further from Sonoma County, even on this late-ass, slow moving train. The concept of “heart-strings” may be a cliché, man, but is it ever apt.
I had to think real hard about sharing this trip on social media. I really don’t want to appear callous or unaffected by what’s happened to our beautiful county, but I don’t think that anyone who knows me really thinks that.
So I’ve decided I’ll go ahead and post like I normally would in the hopes that my dependably ridiculous, often scatological and sometimes even – despite my hamfisted efforts and so many pictures of cats – beautiful misadventures with the awesome Ms. Jenn Hsyu will make you laugh or smile. But my heart will be with you. And when I get back, my hands, too.
None of us is fooling ourselves with the fiction that now that the fires have died down, the work is over. We have so much to continue doing together to ensure we don’t lose a single, precious member more of our awesome community.