Clear Lake is the largest lake in California and one of the oldest lakes in North America. I’d been there a handful of times in my life, once on a fishing trip with my father. Another time I’d been given a three hour wait time while driving truck and had dropped my trailers in a field and set off for Clear Lake in the middle of the night driving bobtail. It had been an impulsive gesture, one that I began to regret the further I got from Williams.
All in all, it was an eighty-mile roundtrip drive, and if someone would’ve known that the truck was AWOL, losing my job would have been the least of my worries. By the time I reached the lake I was panicking, and just hightailed it straight back to the field, not even bragging to my closest friends about my midnight run.
Now I was back on the road to Clear Lake again, but this time in the middle of a beautiful sunny day, driving a zippy blue Kia that I’d dubbed the Mountain Bluebird. For a day that had started out cloudy and rainy, things had cleared up dramatically. The sun was shining through the windshield, like a white hole, cut out of blue sky, and little wisps of cloud drifted over the hills.
When I got to the town of Clearlake, it was different than what I remembered. I searched for a campsite on Google Maps and just followed where the woman led me, not beginning to question her directions until I’d already traveled ten miles along the southern shore. At that point I needed to double check to make sure I wasn’t being led on a wild goose chase. The lake was way larger than I’d imagined.
At Clear Lake State Park there were four campgrounds to choose from. Thank God, I didn’t need to have reservations to camp there. The woman at the booth told me to drive in and pick out a site, then return to let her know what I’d chosen. All the spots were taken at the Upper Bay Campground, which came as little surprise since they were perched on a steep cliff, and the view of the lake rivaled one of the Mediterranean Sea. I drove through the Lower Bay Campground and most of the good sites were taken there as well.
Finally, I came to the Kelsey Creek Campground, and that was nice too, within walking distance of the lake. I drove back and told the attendant the site I’d chosen, number 46, and she gave me a receipt to clip to the post.
I’d just set up camp and was getting ready to drive down to the beach, when the attendant came rushing up in a white truck with a hesitant look on her face. The site I’d paid for had already been reserved by someone else. Would I mind terribly? No. That was OK. I’d given up on the tent pegs, relying solely on the sleeping gear inside it to weigh the tent down. It was a simple matter to pick it up and carry it over to an adjacent site. Within a few minutes, I’d made the transfer.
It was a sunny day, warm and without a breeze, but I had no idea what to expect from the lake. It turned out the water was lukewarm, but I needed to wade out far from the shore, through gooey black mud, to arrive at any depth. The swimming area was sectioned off with a rope. The only thing swimming in it was a few ducks. A guy in an inflatable kayak was fishing just beyond it.
To get to the deep water I needed to go past the rope. When it was finally overhead, I thrust upwards with my arms to propel my feet to the bottom. The same black mud was now cooler and squished between my toes. I did somersaults underwater and watched the light in front of my closed eyes go from yellow to green to black.
When I got out, I dried off and changed and then took my ukelele to a picnic table. There were two teenage Asian girls at another picnic table, busy on their phones. I’d come up with a song idea driving through the Sequoia Park, meant to be a theme song for the trip. It was called The Ballad of the Mountain Bluebird. Just as the Lone Ranger had Silver, and Zorro had Tornado, I’d found a true ally and friend in the blue Kia, one I would’ve been unable to embark on my journey without.
The next morning, I got up and followed a nature trail down to the same beach. A turkey vulture sat in one tree. Two great egrets were in another. There was a fallen log on the shore that I sat down on. The sky was already clear and blue. There were a few fishing boats off in the distance. From somewhere I could hear the honking of geese. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths. What I’d been doing wasn’t meditation as much as fighting to just sit still. Still, I’d taken a vow to make time for it at least once every day that I was off on this unchartered driving trip.
The sound of a plane occupied most of the space in my head, and then gradually faded to a hum. The excited voices of children came from the camp. Songbirds were singing. A gray squirrel scampered through the branches of a tree. The lake splashed softly on the shore.
Three loud women came down the trail, walking their dogs. One pointed out a few pelicans I hadn’t noticed. She told the others how the lake had been flooded only a few years earlier. It had been affected by drought since then and had badly receded. A friend of theirs was moving in with her boyfriend after five years. They all had their opinions about him. Right behind them came two old guys who didn’t like the San Franciso Giants’ new uniforms. According to one of them, they looked like they’d been spray-painted on.
My mind wasn’t clearing. I was just listening and thinking. Now I remembered fishing at the lake with my father years earlier. I believe he’d driven me up to Williams to drop me off at my truck driving job. Clear Lake was like the Midwest lakes we were accustomed to, with the same kind of fish: bass, bluegills, crappies, bullheads, carp. Renting the poles had been my father’s idea. We’d gotten a bucket of minnows and a carton of worms. Fishing was something we’d always bonded over. It was easier than talking. We just fished from the shore and never caught anything. The wind and waves had picked up and it was hard to really say what was happening with the bobbers. It wasn’t the nibbling of fish that was causing them to sink.
A man came up behind me with a pug dog. He threw a stick for it to fetch, and the little dog went wheezing after it. I was wrapping up my breathing cycle, eleven sets of eleven deep breaths, and had gotten to my closing prayers. A loud honking came from directly overhead and some shadows fell over the earth. It was a flock of Canadian geese, flying in formation, heading out over the lake. A minute later, here came another flock, in a tight V, following their leader.
A woman came down to join the man with the pug dog. All she noticed was the stink. The lake was too smelly, she said. It smelled like a cesspool. True, but there was more to it than just that. Two boats were drifting off on the horizon. It was time to head back to camp and hit the road.