Descanso: Highway 128

Yesterday, we attended a memorial for a friend up in Davis. It was a Quaker-style remembrance, where the three dozen or so people in attendance were invited to share their stories about the departed. Most of the stories were quite surprising to me — I learned a lot about this person’s life I really had no clue about, though we’d known each other since before high school. There was a lot to process.

I was really at loose ends afterward and just felt like a drive. So we set out. I have to say here that Kate, my wife and frequent exploration partner, did the greatest thing: She didn’t ask once where we were headed. We were just going, heading west, enjoying the light of a beautiful October afternoon.

I got to know the backroads in this part of the world — the western edge of the Central Valley, the hills and mountains on the way to the coast, Yolo and Napa counties, among others — while doing long-distance bike rides from the late ’80s through about 2010. So that led me toward Winters, a little valley town west of Davis, and up Highway 128 past Monticello Dam. This slice of countryside is much different from my riding days. Much of it has burned at least once in the past decade, with the greatest acreage by far incinerated during a series of lightning-sparked fires in the summer of 2020. Now, huge swaths of the landscape are marked by the skeletons of burned oaks and laurels and I don’t know what else. It is stark and sobering.

A roadside memorial on Highway 128 southwest of Monticello Dam in Napa County. It reads: “Rojo. Descanza en Paz. 03 21 2021.”

A few miles past the dam and a little resort called Markley Cove, we happened across this cross. There’s a good pullout a hundred yards or so down the road, so I stopped. But it’s at a tight spot on a curve with limited visibility for both drivers and anyone foolish enough to walk on the side of the road where the cross was erected. Kate was a little dubious of me going over to photograph it; she had a view around the curve and said she’d honk if cars were coming.

As it happened, after I took this shot, I could hear the sound of a car approaching … from somewhere. I didn’t hear the horn honk, so I started out into the road. Looking to my left, two or three cars were approaching. Not bearing down on me, exactly, but close enough that I felt I needed to hurry up across the road. I guess one of my ambitions in life is to not have one of these markers put up in my memory.

As to the person memorialized by this marker, here’s a snippet from the Napa Valley Register of March 21, 2021:

“A fatality was reported Sunday evening after a collision involving a motorcycle and another vehicle in the Lake Berryessa area, according to the California Highway Patrol. …

“A passenger on the motorcycle suffered minor injuries, as did the driver of the other vehicle. … The name of the motorcyclist was not immediately available.”

The CHP’s report includes a few more details: The motorcycle was headed west when it crossed the highway’s centerline and sideswiped on oncoming pickup truck. The motorcycle driver was 29 years old. It’s not lost on me that the date of the crash inscribed on the cross, March 21, was the birthday of the friend whose memorial we were attending.

As the cross in the picture says, “Descanza en paz.”

Vanishing Point

I learned last week an old friend, someone I’d been very close to in our intense teenage years, someone whom I’d tried to keep track of in the years since, had passed away suddenly. “Vanished” is a word that comes to mind. One moment this person was alive, someone I imagined myself speaking to in an endless conversation; the next, they were part of the past, beyond reach except for wondering about their last days and months and all the parts of a life they’ll never get to tell me about.

More later, I hope.

For Bigness and Excitement, It Has the Right to Be Called ‘Colossal’

A friend sent me a link to the movie trailer below — for “The Colossus of Rhodes.” It was made in 1961 and is listed as the directorial debut of Sergio Leone, who found his niche a few years later remaking Akira Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo.”

After seeing this preview, I don’t think you need to see the movie. The script for the trailer: a tour de force of overheated verbiage. The delivery: Bombastic and utterly credulous.

Over the course of two and a half action-packed minutes, you’ll encounter a pagan fortress, a city of sin, cruel warriors, devil worshippers, a raging fury of ecstasy and terror, a fiendish torture chamber, Dario the Daring, a beautiful princess, desire, treachery, a thousand towering thrills, the hall of the living dead, the infamous chamber of orgies, a cave of wild beasts, sinister barbarians, a slave revolt, a mob gone mad, depravity, and an awesome holocaust. (The film itself is two hours long and earns a surprisingly positive 56 percent Tomatometer rating at Rotten Tomatoes.)

Summary: “Colossus of Rhodes” is one motion picture that for bigness and excitement has the right to be called “colossal.”

The full script:

The fabulous Colossus astride the harbor of Rhodes, City of Sin, a pagan fortress with an evil purpose. 

Behind its eyes, cruel warriors watch the devastation they have wrought within its walls.

The temple of the devil worshippers, as the great god Moloch incited followers into a raging fury of ecstasy and terror. 

And behind the wicked heart of the Colossus, the fiendish torture chamber. 

Yet fighting back against terror like this was almost sure death. But one man gambled his fantastic strength and power: Dario the Daring, portrayed by Rory Calhoun, star of “The Texan,” racing at the head of a band of reckless horsemen.

Defying the treachery of a beautiful princess: *(Princess:) “Don’t you have the sense to realize you’re in danger?” (Dario:) “Who would look for me here at this time of night?” 

Sworn enemies, these two,  but still drawn together by their desire for each other.

“Colossus of Rhodes” is one motion picture that for bigness and excitement has the right to be called “colossal,” with its thousand towering thrills:

The Devil’s Cauldron, where slaves were forced to labor in the bowels of the earth. 

The hall of the living dead, where a kiss sprung the trap that led to the Cave of the Wild Beasts.

The infamous Chamber of Orgies.

The Arena — terrifying coliseum where sinister barbarians made sport of human agony and human sacrifice evoked the cheers of the crowds.

And as the crescendo of terror rose to a frenzy, a voice: “People of Rhodes! The Colossus you built is now a nest for the traitors!”

The slaves revolt. The people rise to join them. A mob gone mad with the realization of where their depravity has taken them until nature itself looses its fury — an awesome holocaust to destroy the evil all around.”

Your American Mass Shooting Calendar

This week marks the anniversary of a couple of recent mass shootings: The massacre of innocents in Uvalde, Texas, last year, and the slaughter of transit workers in San Jose two years ago. Naturally there will be coverage of the anniversaries. We’ll revisit the trauma. We’ll hear hopes and prayers that we’ve learned something about how to prevent similar tragedies.

The anniversaries made me think about how many dates mark major mass shootings. I kind of had it in the back of my head that you could make up a calendar of all these episodes where, when you look back just a little way, you could see the hundreds of lives taken, the thousands upon thousands altered forever, at the whim of well-armed strangers. What I had in mind was something like the Roman Catholic calendar of saints’ feast days. Or more darkly, one of those “page-a-day” calendars. This one would be “A Massacre a Day.”

It sounds like fun of the grimly ironic sort, if you don’t think about the people involved. But when I sat down to write down the incidents I recall off the top of my head — starting with one in 1966 and then continuing through those that occurred over the many years I’ve been in newsrooms — there’s little irony and no fun involved. The most sobering thing is that there have been so many of these mass killings in recent years that each new one seems to be making less of an impression.

Here’s the list, in calendar order — 36 separate dates (which, just. to be clear, I had to look up). I suppose the really grim thing about this is that if you searched a little and went beyond the most notorious recent and historic incidents, you’d probably have no problem filling up a 365-day calendar.

The Fifth-Grader’s Picture File: The Browns

Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown and Bernice Layne Brown, 1965.

It’s a little strange to look at this as a long-time Californian (or at least a long-time Californai resident. Are they the same thing?).

Pat Brown was a really important figure in state government through the mid-1960s, and there are several things I immediately associate with him: the State Water Project, for instance, and California’s Master Plan for Higher Education. And the fact he took office in a period where the state was growing like crazy. But what, specifically, would have made me, a fifth-grader in the Chicago suburbs, write the governor’s office for a picture? Maybe I had heard mention of him as a potential running mate for President Johnson in 1964 (yes, I would haver been paying attention). Maybe I heard some other news item or an approving remark from my parents. I have no real idea.

This arrived in the mail in March 1965 — probably the same week that I got the first picture in my collection, the portrait of Otto Kerner. Brown was in his second term, having beaten Richard “You Won’t Have” Nixon (to Kick Around Anymore) in 1962. Standing for his third term as governor, he wasn’t so lucky. In 1966, Brown lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan, winning just three of the state’s 58 counties (San Francisco, Alameda and Plumas).

How did he come by the nickname Pat? This is what he said during a 1982 oral history interview:

Brown: It was 1917 when I was in the seventh grade they had these four-minute speeches for the sale of Liberty Bonds. We had to write a speech and then we had to deliver it. I’ll never forget that I made the speech and I ended up by saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” and the kids at school started calling me “Patrick Henry” Brown. It’s an amazing thing how they shortened it to “Pat.”

Q.: How did you see that at the time, as derisive or as something that was …?

Brown: Oh no, it was friendly, very friendly. It usually is when they give you a nickname. It was a fortuitous thing that happened because I think “Pat” Brown helped me later on in political life. It gave me an Irish connotation which was really somewhat undeserved because I was half German and half Irish.

Of course, I should mention Bernice Layne Brown, the governor’s wife, also pictured above. She and her husband were both San Francisco natives. Her official biography mentions that they eloped to Reno when they were in their early 20s. The short writeup also says this: “Bernice was ambivalent toward politics. The Governor’s Office confirmed this in a 1960 press release which stated, ‘Mrs. Brown frankly admits she never would have chosen a political career for her husband if the choice had been hers to make.'”

Not mentioned in the official biography: The Browns were parents to the state’s longest-serving governor, Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. But you knew that.

From the governor’s office postal meter: “California: The nation’s leading state.”

From My Big Pile of Old Baby Boomer Stuff: Governor Otto Kerner, 1965

Illinois Governor Otto Kerner, 1965.

The way I remember it is I was home from school — I was a fifth-grader at Talala School in Park Forest, in Chicago’s south suburbs. I’m sure I was bored and looking for something to do — I wasn’t that sick. I was as interested in politics as any fifth-grader — well, not counting my former classmate Billy Houlihan, whose father, John J. Houlihan, was getting ready to run for the Illinois House of Representatives (he won and wound up serving four terms). I’ve forgotten my specific motivation on the long-ago day in question, but I sat down and wrote a letter to Otto Kerner, who had recently begun his second term as governor, congratulating him on his victory and asking for an autographed picture.

The portrait above, with a short letter acknowledging my note, arrived a week or two or three later. I was inspired, and a hobby of sorts was born. I started writing to other politicians who were in the news: Edward Brooke, the Republican Massachusetts attorney general who became the first popularly elected Black U.S. senator and the first to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction; Pat Brown, the Democratic governor of California; Nelson Rockefeller, the “liberal” Republican governor of New York.

Soon, I started going down the list of members of the U.S. Senate. The notes I sent were brief and to the point, written in my imperfect Palmer method cursive on a sheet of blue-lined notebook paper: “May I please have an autograph of Governor X or Senator Y?” — not much more than that. I was pretty unaware of the politics of a lot of the senators whose portraits I was requesting. So I sent away for pictures of Richard B. Russell of Georgia and John McClellan of Arkansas, two of the staunchest segregationists in “the world’s greatest deliberative body.” (Robert Caro’s “Master of the Senate,” the third volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, is an effective antidote to that “greatest deliberative body” nonsense.) But I also wrote to Bobby Kennedy’s and Gene McCarthy’s offices.

After collecting about 60 or 70 of these signed pictures, I got bored with the project. I was still passionately interested in what was happening in politics — in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements, especially — but the interest took other forms: going with my mother to the weekly peace vigil at the post office in Park Forest, for instance.

What is there to remember about the man in this particular portrait?

Kerner became a national figure in 1967 when President Johnson appointed him to lead a commission studying the causes of the widespread riots of that summer — the ones that always come to mind were in Detroit and Newark. The resulting report unflinchingly concluded that the nation’s long history of white racism, oppression and abuse of Black people drove the 1967 uprisings. (“What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”)

The report was a little too unflinching for Johnson’s taste, and he declined to publicly endorse its conclusions or support its call for a sweeping program of investments to address the effects of past discrimination.

Still, before Kerner’s second term as governor was over, Johnson nominated him to serve on the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But Kerner’s undoing was not long in coming: He was indicted in 1972 for conspiracy, income tax evasion, mail fraud and perjury. The indictment said that early in his first term, he had agreed to set favorable racing dates for a Chicago-area horse track in exchange for stock in the track, which he later sold at a significant profit. Kerner was convicted on 17 counts. On appeal, all but four of the counts, all for mail fraud, were thrown out. But he was sentenced to three years in prison — a sentence that was cut short by the discovery he was suffering from lung cancer. He died in May 1976.

Kerner’s New York Times obit mentions that some supporters never believed he was guilty, and many others remained sympathetic to him after his fall. A few months before Kerner died, the Times reported, “Chicago journalists organized a ‘newsmen’s testimonial dinner to Otto Kerner.'”

“‘We like the guy personally, no matter what he’s done, and we thought it would be a shame if someone didn’t do something for him,’ said Steve Schickel, a television reporter for station WLS-TV. “

‘Desperate End of a Desperate Life’

From a short visit to Virginia City, Nevada, in The Last Summer Before the Pandemic. (Caution: the following contains explicit details of gruesome Gold Rush-era saloon violence. )

We spent a couple minutes on the main street, but when I spotted the cemeteries on the north end of town, I knew that’s where I wanted to go. The carving on this monument drew my eye — it’s exquisite but restrained. I was slow to appreciate the inverted torches at the four corners. The inverted torch, a common motif on cemetery monuments, is said to symbolize death; the flame, eternal life.

As to Major George E. Ferrend: Who was he?

Below is an account of his passing, drawn from a January 1875 number of the London Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. The LIS&DN, which neglects to mention that Ferrend died in Virginia City, was republishing an account carried in a newspaper called the Pall Mall Gazette. The Gazette, in turn, appears to have borrowed its story from a somewhat more detailed account published Dec. 9, 1874, the day after Ferrend’s death, in the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise. None of the stories I’ve found mention his wife, who according to the monument died two months after her husband.

Among incidents not recounted here is Ferrend’s role as a second in an 1863 duel between the editor of the Territorial Enterprise and the editor of a rival publication. The Enterprise employed Mark Twain at the time.

Here’s the story recounting Major Ferrend’s life and demise:

DESPERATE END OF A DESPERATE LIFE

The death of an Englishman in California is reported by the San Francisco Call. On the morning of the 26th ult., Major George E. Ferrend, a well-known citizen of San Francisco and famous everywhere or the Pacific coast, shot himself in the head, and thus put an end to an eventful career.

Major Ferrend was born in Lancashire and was educated at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. He entered the Army, but owing to trouble of some kind sold out. He then went to Buenos Ayres, where he was the leading spirit in a revolution which was successful, but was subsequently driven out of the country, and came to California.

In June 1853, he left Sacramento with a company he had raised and joined General Walker in his Nicaragua expedition. With Walker, whose chief of artillery he was, he performed prodigies of valour, particularly distinguishing himself at the battle of Rivas, where at times he was a host in himself, loading and firing a gun which sent scores of the enemy to the ground at each discharge. During the Nicaragua campaign he was wounded 13 times, but these wounds were but a few of many others, for on his body there were 48 scars of wounds received in battles and personal conflicts at various times.

He had especially one terrible personal encounter in Camptonville, California, about the year 1858 with a man of desperate character, during which he received a most serious wound with an axe. He had previously had some trouble with this man, and it was understood that when they again met, they should “meet fighting.”

The desperado shortly after came into a saloon, armed with an axe, where he saw the major pleasantly sitting in his shirt sleeves with a large knife in his hand. As the desperado advanced, the major rose and stood warily watching his foe and perfectly motionless, save that he constantly turned the wrist of the hand that held the knife, so that the weapon disagreeably flashed in the eyes of his opponent.

All of a sudden, as the desperado’s eye was fixed on the knife, the major sprang forward with the leap of a tiger and drove the knife not through the heart but through the whole body of his foe, the point projecting at his back. At the same moment, the blade point projecting the axe was buried in the small of the major’s back. Both fell on the floor together.

The desperado was dead, but the major, contrary to expectation, recovered, and was as ready as ever for fresh exploits and adventures. His numerous deeds of daring would fill a volume. He ultimately settled in San Francisco, where he accumulated a considerable amount of property.

After shooting himself in the head, he lingered for a few hours and assigned as a reason for the act he had committed that he feared he would ultimately become insane owing to one of the wounds he had received which affected his head.

The major was proprietor of a well-known saloon bearing his name, he was much esteemed by all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance, and his death has greatly shocked the whole community of San Francisco. The only wish he expressed in his last moments was that “he might die a man.” He need hardly have troubled himself on this score, for whatever may have been his errors there was certainly nothing feminine in his nature. — Pall Mall Gazette

You Never Know Where You’ll Be

Janson grave, Mount Olive Cemetery, Chicago.

You never know where you’ll be when the next mass shooting or schoolhouse slaughter takes place.

We’re out of town on a family visit. Around noon, I went out for a walk. I got an alert on my phone about some breaking news: a school shooting a few hundred miles away. The only question I have after seeing something like that is not, “How could it happen?” It’s, “How bad will it be?”

About the same time I was taking in that news, I started to hear sirens. I happened to be walking up the street toward a high school. A fire truck passed, then an ambulance. I wondered with a certain dread whether they might be responding to something at the school, and if so, whether the “something” involved firearms.

But there were no more emergency vehicles rushing toward the school, and I encountered a bunch of kids going about their day in what I took to be a happy, unconcerned way — just enjoying their friends and their day.

So at this hour, at any rate, tragedy is far away, out of earshot. But never out of mind.

Dispatch from 1973, Part 3: Hanging Out to the End of the Line

The San Francisco Zephyr at Yuba Gap, February 1975 — two years after my trip from Chicago to Oakland. It was not snowing when we crossed the mountains in January 1973. Photo by Drew Jacksich via Wikimedia Commons and Flickr.

Part 1 covered the San Francisco Zephyr trip from Chicago to Denver. Part 2 took me from Denver to around Evanston, Wyoming — the southwestern corner of the state. This part —the last! — picks up with me in the dome car — a car with expansive windows and skylights to accommodate meditative scenery gawking — sitting in what I describe here as a “lounge” — part of the car that was arranged in side-facing sofas.

***

I had been watching a couple in the dining car. The woman, a sort of plain-faced New Englander in her late twenties, now sat across the aisle from me in the dome car. The guy with her, probably in his mid-thirties, was suave Tom Wolfe radical chic: uninflated.1 He was leading her along, she was laughing and having a good time, and I thought, “How nice.” He was making excellent progress when a third party arrived on the scene.

The new arrival was a writer for a New Jersey paper, and had dropped in a brief conversation with Rodeo and me that he’d been to the North Pole. He was carrying a copy of “Luce and His Empire” with him, which he would momentarily open when he closed his mouth.

Well, he arrived, and I thought with interest that Tom Wolfe could be counted out of this business. The writer (Newark, I’ll call him) was successfully putting his foot in the door, and Tom couldn’t stop him.

They talked about some trivial things, and came to the Donner Pass, recalling there had been a train marooned there in the 1950s (1956, I think2). Tom went off to fetch a bottle of port he had acquired along the way, and on his return joined a discussion between the girl (Boston), Newark, and a guy on my side of the aisle on the expansion and contraction of freezing liquids. My friend was really mixed up about what he was saying, and Tom, Newark and Boston were finding him amusing.

Then they got back to Donner Pass.

“When was that? 1952?”

“1956, I think.”

“Yeah, that’s where the digger Indians sat watched the Donner Party go through their thing, isn’t it?” the guy next to me said.

“What?”

“The digger Indians just hung out up there and watched the people eat each other, man.”

“But Indians don’t ‘hang out.'”

And that comment by Tom evidently offended my neighbor, because he didn’t participate in the conversation of the wine drinkers (Newark had graciously accepted his own invitation to share the wine with the romantic couple) except to add a comment about “Governor Ronald Raygun.”

I had been watching the land move by outside while picking up snatches of this repartee, and now we were in Utah. The hills were now mountains of rock, there were canyons, and snow-covered streambeds below. We were in the Rocky Mountains.

The guy next to me asked if I wanted a beer, and I said, “OK.” He was a tall guy who was also riding in my car; with glasses, red hair, and a red beard. He came back, and we drank our beer, and told each other where we were going, where we were from, etc. He had come from Chicago and was bound for Frisco.3

We talked about the deepness of the moonlight on the mountain, and “hanging out” there, and a lot of good things. His name was John Sweeney, and his father was a Chicago cop, Tom Sweeney, and had been in Studs Terkel’s book “Division Street.”4

I went for a second round because John was, as it developed, tripping. Amazing! No wonder he had been having a struggle with freezing liquids. We continued to watch and talk and everything, and I was getting a little drunk and liking it.

We talked about a lot of things you talk about in Chicago: WFMT, what a great and valuable thing it is; the police, whom John didn’t like at all; the crooked government and the beauty of the lakefront. And hanging out.

Some observations he made:

“Hamm’s is a lousy scab beer.”

“During the King riots, I was driving a junky old Buick, and it broke down on the Kennedy expressway and I had to get off at Cabrini-Green. There were squads rolling down the street, and dudes poking shotguns out of windows. I figured I had more to fear from the pigs than from the dudes around there. I’d be driving down the street in this old beat-up machine, and they were running alongside the car telling me ‘right on!’ There was one place they were looting a liquor store, they ran up and were pushing beers through the window at me. It was all right, you know.”

Looking then at the rocks we passed, he’d say, “It’d be all right to hang out up there.”

The black and white bleakness of the Wasatch Range rose up in the moonlight. It was all rock, and black where there was no snow. The train rolled past the lonely towns on I-80, all under the moon — it was the moon, the country of Frederic Remington.

And every once in a while, the voices of Newark and Boston, minus Tom (who had taken a powder at the strong advances of Newark) drifted our way.

We found out that Boston was a scientist (macro-biologist, I think (?)) and was going to some sort of conference in San Francisco. Newark stuck to his journalist story (the Star-Ledger5), but was just taking a week off from his daily column to skirt around the country by train. How nice!

Then John told me that “the god-damn idiot who tried to tell me that Indians don’t hang out” had made advances toward him during the evening. So I related my experience [with the amputee], and we were both relieved to find out it had happened to someone else.

Newark was continuing his campaign, asking Boston (quite phallically) where the dagger on Orion was. “Where’s the dagger?”

The mountains rose higher, and as we made the approach to Ogden, two peaks jutted high above the plain we rode on. Black and white, you could see the deep snow in relief on their summits. They must have been 6,000 feet high, seemingly right behind the town of Ogden.

Street lights strung right to the base of the mountains; there was nothing but darkness above. Where there was snow on the ledges, you could see the mountains, but otherwise they hid themselves under the full moon and the stars.

We started out of Ogden on the Southern Pacific the third and last leg of the trip. Within half an hour of leaving Ogden and the Wasatch Towers behind us, we were starting over the causeway across Great Salt Lake. The water sparkled darkly, was uninviting; there were only snow- and brush-covered hills in the distance now, and despite the noise in the car, everything had an air of dead silence.

John had gone back to the coach, and I lay on the seat and looked through the panels of the dome at the stars, watched them wheel as the train rounded bends in the track. Pretty soon, having lost interest in the Boston-Newark affair, and being tired (and a little drunk), I went back to my coach to sleep. I saw no more of Utah, and slept until we were about 25 miles east of Reno, thereby missing almost the whole state of Nevada.

And waking up (it was Sunday) we were still beside Interstate 80 (now heavily laden with signs for casinos).

We stopped first in Sparks, Nevada (six miles outside of Reno) and I have no idea why. It was a dirty little town with little or nothing that made an impression (except the men, who all looked desert-tough Nevada types; were wiry thin and sunburned, wearing faded denim and cowboy hats).

Reno was a dump. I thought there was supposed to be something big and special about it, but I couldn’t see anything to justify its reputation. But there must be something there, because two hundred people boarded the train; these were all California week-enders I guess, most of them just couples, and a few who had come with their kids.

There was one guy I remember in particular, whom I saw as he was getting on. He was wearing a cream-colored western suit with string tie, white shirt, and matching hat. The shape of his head was what really made me notice him: it was as close to cubic as it could come, like a block of granite, and sat on an almost non-existent neck hidden somewhere in his shirt collar. Everything about this man suggested the image of stone: his heavy, squared jaw, his nose, his forehead, even his obsidian black eyes. He had his wife with him, but somehow I didn’t note any of her physical details. She could have had a face right off of Mount Fillmore6 and remained unimpressive beside her husband.

I ate a heavy breakfast amid all the weekend gamblers, and then went to the dome car, and sat with a couple from Laramie. The guy was a trainman, and was just on a little vacation with his wife, I guess. They didn’t talk to me much (or at all) and I really didn’t say much to them, either.

But the train was rising now, up the abrupt eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Creeks foamed down the hillside beside us, there began to be thicker stands of pine on the slopes, and there was a lot of snow as we climbed higher under still cloudy skies.

Up and up we went, through a tunnel and a switchback, and to the west blue sky could be seen. As we cleared four thousand feet the sun came out, the clouds were just a grey band below us.

The trees seemed to get bigger, the snow much deeper as we progressed toward the Donner Pass. I’d know what kind of trees they were, but they stood like spikes 180 feet high, with their branches laden with snow. There was snow standing two feet deep on the crossarms of the telegraph poles, making the oldtimer who’d gotten on way back in Cheyenne say, “The snow doesn’t stay like that in Wyoming, does it? We have that little breeze up there,” with his grin, and eyes watery from the brightness of the snow in the sun.

There was a man reading a book behind me, a book about this rail route, and he kept telling us what lay ahead — the snow sheds, tunnels, view of Donner Lake — and I sort of wondered what kind of enjoyment he was getting from it (perhaps an immense amount).

Soon after he announced we would be skirting Donner Lake, we were, two thousand feet above it. It lay frozen and cold, the only sign of life (and it was an outstanding one) was a string of cottages and summer homes along its shores.

My mother gave me a book entitled “The Donner Party” for my last birthday; it begins with the lines, “My name is George Donner/I am a dirt farmer…” and I thought of the dirt farmers from central Illinois who struggled here so long ago beneath the weight of an October storm.

The trees seemed there highest here, the snow the deepest. I said to the woman from Laramie, ” My God, those trees are hearty,” and she nodded. I felt tears welling in my eyes for a minute or two, but they didn’t roll down my cheeks, as I wanted them to. For a moment I saw or felt something there. I don’t know what: “My name is George Donner/I am a dirt farmer….”

The Southern Pacific wound through the mountains, now slowly down, and past a wreck. which re-inflated the Cheyenne old-timer with more story-telling energy. (Most of the stories I heard were about a train coming around the bend in a blinding snowstorm to find a wreck place inconveniently in its path).

We went through the clouds again, passed through Truckee8, and were headed for the Valley and Sacramento. I went to my coach and slept, waking up in Sacramento.

The sun broke out again as we went southwest toward Oakland, and it looked beautiful: many of the fields were under water; there were a few ducks in the flood (and thousands of decoys), and red-tail hawks glided in the sky between the soft green hills of the coast ranges.

The whole country, palm trees, bright blue sky with the purest white clouds sailing above, looked like a sort of paradise. (I’m not sure exactly what kind — advertisers’?). It reminded me of the part in “The Grapes of Wrath” where the Joads come to a ridge-top on Route 66 and see a Canaan-like scene before them. But it’s not clean; there is always something to remind you you’re in the middle of civilization: earth movers levelling a far off hill for a highway, or a junkyard overflowing with wrecked cars.

And we hit the bay and the tracks moved down alongside it. We passed lots of fishermen on the rocks (and the rocks were in the sun) who smiled and waved as we passed. We continued, farther and farther along the shore, and I thought, “Damn, this thing is big.”

On the highway next to the tracks we saw ads for all the motels in Oakland and San Francisco. We passed through refineries, and the Sherwin-Williams factory, through water-front communities and too-neat tract developments. “When do we get there?”

The train slowed, and finally stopped. Everyone anxiously asking, “Is this it?”

Then the announcement: “Oakland 16th Street Station.”

“This is it!”

Another announcement: “A bus will take you from here to San Francisco.”

I was very nervous all this time about my luggage [which consisted of a frame backpack and accouterments] — whether it would be destroyed or simply lost. But I saw it safe and secure on the luggage wagon outside.

I boarded the designated bus, and just as I saw them stow my pack, I was Rol9 outside. I climbed out, retrieved my luggage, and … California.

Notes

  1. The meaning of “uninflated” here is lost to time. Maybe I meant he was an “uninflated” — less than impressive? — version of Tom Wolfe? Your thoughts welcome.
  2. 1952, actually, which someone in the trio’s conversation says.
  3. “Frisco.” There — I said it. Possible explanatory circumstance: Maybe I was quoting my companion.
  4. After coming across this a week or so ago (January 2023), I went and found an online copy of “Division Street: America” and tried to look up Tom Sweeney. There’s no one in the book by that name. But there is an interview with a Chicago cop named “Tom Kearney.” Terkel says in his introduction that he had used pseudonyms for most of his interviewees, so my guess is that “Kearney” was actually Sweeney. Further evidence: In the interview, conducted in 1966 or so, Kearney mentions having a 22-year-old son. That would square with the age of John Sweeney, who I would guess was in his late 20s when we met in 1973.
  5. An actual paper in Newark, New Jersey. In 2023, I might have asked this person’s name and then looked up what he’d been writing.
  6. Fillmore? I think I meant Rushmore.
  7. The work (mis)quoted is indeed called “The Donner Party,” by George Keithley, who taught for decades at Chico State. It’s a book length poem about the epic of suffering endured by said group of emigrants from the Midwest to California in 1846-47. The actual first lines are: “I am George Donner, a dirt farmer/who left the snowy fields/around Springfield, Illinois/in the fullness of my life/and abandoned the land/where we had been successful/and prosperous people.” I note that the way I quote the line matches precisely the meter of “my name is Jan Jansen/I live in Wisconsin….”
  8. I’ve placed Truckee on the wrong side of Donner Pass. Maybe I was referring to Colfax here
  9. Rol Healey, a childhood friend of my mom’s from the 8300 block of South May Street in Chicago, met me in Oakland. Rol was a high school English teacher in San Jose who put me up during my Bay Area stay. He was a fantastic host — that first night in the Bay Area, he and a fellow teacher took me over to North Beach and City Lights Books. We also visiting Monterey (pre-aquarium), San Juan Bautista, and Yosemite. Rol was one of the reasons I came away with the idea that the Bay Area was an amazing place.

Dispatch From 1973: Part 2 Postscript

Part 2 of my 1973 train travelogue ended with an uncomfortable episode, and relating it made me uncomfortable all over again, even 50 years later.

Here was the scene: A man in his 40s or 50s, distinguished by his harassed demeanor, single leg and crutches, stops and asks a teenager, a total stranger, to join him in the men’s room “for a smoke.” Why was it uncomfortable? Well, I didn’t smoke, for one thing. For another: Is there any other way to interpret that as something other than a proposition? I thought after I transcribed that passage the other day, “Maybe he just needed some help with his prosthesis or something” or, “Maybe that was just his way of being friendly.” But he didn’t have a prosthesis. And it seemed from his behavior with other passengers as though he were capable of just sitting in the lounge car and striking up a conversation without being creepy about it. I have no idea, though, how many other passengers he might have invited to join him in the men’s room.

Later in that 1973 trip and for much of the rest of the decade, I hitch-hiked a good deal. Maybe it goes without saying, but I experienced this kind of proposition often enough to make me wary. From talking to other hitch-hikers, men and women, I assume that was true for most of us. Getting hit on almost seemed like a feature of that kind of travel, something you almost had to expect and know how to respond to. Still, it could be unsettling, just like the episode with the guy on the train.

Usually the advance was pretty low key — someone picking you up, maybe shaking your hand, and saying something like, “You have a nice firm handshake. Would you like to stop by my trailer for a massage?” Usually the men making the suggestions, and they were always men, were not insistent. “Would you like to party? No — well, OK.” Occasionally, though, they’d be insistent and then some.

Hitch-hiking through Reno late one night — yes, I often hitch-hiked all night, which I don’t hold up as an example of my faultless good sense — a guy picked me up and said he was headed a good distance east. I’d been in the car for only a few minutes, though, when he started to ask me some questions: “Do you like T-shirts?” “Uh … yeah, I like T-shirts OK.” “How about … white T-shirts?” “Um … well, I guess I like colored T-shirts. … ” “You do?”

I’ve always wondered whether “T-shirts” was some sort of code I wasn’t in on. I guess it was, because he told me he’d be getting off the freeway to go to his place and he wanted me to come with him. We were now in the desert and well outside the city limits. Being out in the middle of nowhere with this T-shirt guy and whatever he had in mind? No thanks. I insisted on getting out of the car immediately. He dropped me some distance before the next exit, and drove off. A few minutes later, he pulled up on the other side of the freeway, headed back toward town. He shouted that he had a gun and was going to shoot me.

If the idea was to put a scare into me, it worked. I ran down into the ditch alongside the road and stayed there until I looked over the edge and saw his car was gone — I’m not sure if it was two minutes or five minutes later. I didn’t know what to do after I see he’d left, so I started walking back toward town myself. I figured if I had to walk all the way back to town in the middle of the night — it was a good 10 miles at least — there might be a bus or train or something I could catch. But walking back was scary, too: As every car approached, and there were only a few at this hour, I wondered if it was the T-shirt guy with his gun.

After half an hour, someone did stop. I don’t remember anything about that ride except the driver took me to Lovelock, about 80 miles east, and I was very relieved to be off that stretch of freeway.