All I wanted to do was drive around the country as fast as I could. After leaving the General Sherman tree, I jumped in the Mountain Bluebird and began speeding down the highway towards the General Grant Grove. When I reached it, however, I couldn’t focus and began jogging down the trail that the General Grant tree was on, only wanting to lay eyes on it so I could hit the road again. There it was. The second largest tree in the world. Duly noted. I hurried back to the car, ducking down to hurry through a hollow log that served as a tunnel.
My goal was to make it to Yuba City that day. It didn’t look far on the map. I got onto the 180, heading towards Fresno, and rapidly began to descend from primeval forest to the same yellow, baked hills that I’d been driving through the day before. In Squaw Valley I pulled over to take a picture of a signboard advertising an upcoming event, a rodeo with broncs, bulls, and wild horse races, followed by a dance.
Back in my truck driving days I’d been all over the San Joaquin Valley and had taken some runs down to Fresno. When I reached the 99 freeway and stopped to fill up with gas at an Arco, the group of guys loitering there on the corner didn’t surprise me. One shirtless, with black shorts, a headband, wrist bands, and a pit bull on a leash, another one skinny, with no front teeth, drinking from a jug of milk, the third, a Mexican with a backwards baseball hat, on a bike, clamping a boombox to the handlebars with his fingers. They all set off together in the direction of some dive hotel.
Back on the 99, I realized what a hell of a highway it had always been, two narrow lanes in both directions, cars and trucks five feet apart, going seventy miles an hour, hot as blazes, ugly as anything. There was a freight train to the right of the road, at least a hundred cars long. I thought I’d zoom right up to Yuba City, but it was taking forever and rattling my nerves. I passed through Merced, Modesto, Stockton, landlocked rural cities, like Fresno, lately plagued by meth and opioid addiction, shattering the last bastions of sanity left in the country, those of small farm towns and simple country folk. Now it was hillbilly hell all over.
When I got to Sacramento there was some mix-up on the freeway. Instead of continuing north on the 99, I got rerouted onto the 80E and by the time I got turned around, the sun was beginning to sink fast. I thought to look for a campsite at Discovery Park, along the American River, but it wasn’t that kind of park. Pulling out I passed a gangster with a red bandana and face tattoos, pedaling a big tricycle. He nodded his head in acknowledgement.
By now, there was no time to waste if I hoped to make it to Yuba City by nightfall. The muscles in my back were strained with tension. The traffic just got thicker once I was back on the 99. There were a lot stops and starts, not at all how I remembered it from back in the day when I’d be out on a midnight run and have the whole road to myself.
On the outskirts of Yuba City there seemed to be at least twenty new stoplights, all turning red, red, red, one after another. I still didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night. I seemed to remember a camp spot beneath the bridge separating Yuba City from Marysville, on the banks of the Feather River, but that had been many years ago.
Even though I’d been based out of Yuba City for three years as a truck driver, I’d never seen much of it during the day, as I’d always driven night shift. Now, I recognized the fast-food restaurants, but that was about it. There were even more of them, if that was at all possible. Highway 20 had become just another corporate avenue, indistinguishable from any other main drag in America. I was so exhausted, I considered getting a hotel. What a cosmic collapse that would’ve been, my second day on the road.
Up until a month ago, I’d never used Google Maps, but I’d been at a wedding a month earlier where two of my nieces had coached me on how to access voice navigation on my phone. Up until then I was always looking up places and then writing down directions on a scrap of paper. It wasn’t until I crossed the Feather River, looking down to see that what I thought might’ve been camp spots had become soccer fields, that I remembered that was even an option.
I pulled over at a Jack in the Box next to Ellis Lake and typed in campgrounds around me. What came up was a campground called Sycamore Ranch, thirteen miles east. I asked for directions and pressed start. The robotic voice of a woman filled the car, insisting that I turn left on 8th Street. I didn’t know where she was taking me. I just did what she said. Soon we were making our way out of town.
Highway 20 was one that I knew well, particularly in the direction I was taking it. The Gold Rush towns in the Sierra Madres had been favorite hideouts back in those truck driving days. Only forty minutes from the valley, they were easily accessible on a day off and a world away, all mountains, pine forests, meadows, rivers, and streams. If I found a place to camp, I’d hit them up in the morning before making my way over to the Redwoods.
There was a road crew doing construction, right where the turn off for the camp was supposed to be. I took a left into a trampled lot, but then looked back over the highway and saw the sign, almost hidden from sight. Thank God. My hands were trembling. I crossed the road and pulled up at the entrance booth. A sign said to use the kiosk, but someone had left that disabled. I drove in and found a spot along a slough, choked with algae. A nearby sign warned off swimmers.
No sooner had I thrown up the tent up, then it began to rain, which seemed highly improbable since it had been a cloudless day. Yet, there it was, big, gray drops of rain, and a distant rumble of thunder and small flicker of lightning.
It had been another lucky day, right at the brink of throwing down for a hotel, now dry inside my small tent, beating the odds, sitting cross-legged on a blanket, trying to slow my breathing. No. No. It was almost impossible. I still wanted to run. I still wanted to fly. The rain was making me happy. The world was making me happy. My body was ready to collapse, but my mind and spirt were still racing down the road. The Mountain Bluebird sat glistening in the rain.