Defeat at Shasta

or, A Tale of Horror and Woe at the Oregon Border

Forces beyond my comprehension aligned against me. A man can only take so much, and so here I sit, broken and ill, back in San Francisco. My fever rages, and my wounds are not yet bandaged.

As I write, I am filled suddenly with a righteous indignation and bitterness. I will hurt something innocent tonight. When the Powers That Be hit me, motherfucker, I hit back.

I rose with the dawn, exhausted and sickly. In preparation for the long and lonely burn North, I went out drinking with my sisters and got four hours of sleep. I played bodyguard and escort, putting on my leather hitman gloves and giving sharp looks to the forward and cocksure doctors the girls went out to meet. I’m terribly protective of them; the girls, that is. Potential suitors recognize the dark in my eyes for what it is; not a typical male territoriality or kind-hearted judgment, but a black and dangerous meanness held in check tenuously by social convention and indulgence for my female friends. Beware, I say, beware. The swine behaved themselves, for the most part, and we returned home around 4.

A wicked storm rolled in while we drank, lurching in from the vast oblivion of the Pacific and beginning its protracted siege of the west coast. It began with a hard rain, and by morning had revealed its true character.

I crossed the bridge at 10, and the waves were already 15-20 feet high. A wretched, omnidirectional rain assaulted me all the way to Vacaville; I say rain only because I don’t know that English has a word for the type of baleful precipitation I witnessed.. Speeding through the grey, violent murk of the storm, I hoped things would calm down as I got away from the sea.

Right.

Into the valley, the storm seemed to at least get a little organized. The rain started falling hard and straight, the wind gusting steadily east at fifty miles an hour. I thought I was home free. Despite three days of delay, disaster, and distraction, I had got myself on the road and out of the bay. No company, no money, no time to lose, no problem. It seemed that whatever dubious circumstances had proceeded my journey had resolved themselves. Evil portents and common sense be damned: on the road and all is right.

I drank a half gallon of Coke in Williams, to stay awake; the first sustenance other than Jameson I’d had in 24 hours. A late night and a vicious illness had unsettled my stomach, and I didn’t trust in my body’s ability to handle anything heartier than high fructose corn syrup and caffeine.

Hours pass. I barrel along through the endless, sprawling dreariness of the valley, up 505 and onto 5 proper heading North doing eighty. A straight shot from here out. The vast grey of the storm gave the already desolate valley and even more morbid look. Grain silos and barbed wire fences rose awkwardly out of lakes, formerly fields. Sheep and cattle huddled around any kind of shelter, and frantic farmers dressed in yellow slickers hustled around on ATVs. The lonely and monotonous plains of California’s interior generally create a meditative, almost trancelike state. You can drive up 5 at a hundred and fifteen miles an hour for five hours without a second thought, lost in internal deliberations and philosophical contemplation. The sheer boring emptiness of it makes it either peaceful or painful, depending on the driver’s temperament. Not today.

Hydroplaning and fishtailing around on the freeway at breakneck speeds detracts significantly from one’s introspection. Gusts of wind like the hand of God would slap my rickety gold pickup from lane to lane, and my poor Toyota rattled like I was attempting orbital reentry.
“Hold together, Juanita.” I said, patting her dashboard. “It’s just you and me baby, we need to do this thing. Just get me over that border baby, and I promise I’ll buy you a tank of premium.”
Dodging drifting bigrigs and rental sedans, tossed around by the wind just as easily as I was, I continued on full bore North. Always North.

The storm worsened.

I stopped for gas somewhere south of Redding, and the second I opened my door the wind ripped the thing open as wide as possible. The hinges screamed. The hard, heavy rain was now falling almost horizontally, defying all defenses and blasting everything and everyone stupid enough to be out in such weather. Things were worse inside the station. The door to the minimart was lashed open, and bucked wildly against the ropes that bound it to the ice machine. Inside, the manager swept desperately, trying to shove the inch of standing water out his store and back out into the storm. Picking my way through floating bags of chips and unopened cigarette packs, I located the bathroom after much bad noise from the lady working the register. As soon as I finished up, the lights went out. In the absence of the hum of the refrigerators and the buzz of the slurpee machines, the barely-muffled shrieks of the storm were all I could hear. I came out to find the store manager weeping, his broom tossed aside. The cash register lady had a rifle out, and I scrambled for the door. She was screaming nonsensically, shouting about the End of the World and the Coming of the Lord.

“Quiet down, you crazy bitch!” The manager yelled through his tears. “Don’t worry about her, man, that thing’s not loaded.”
“Jesus Christ she scared the life out of me. All I want is a Kit Kat and a Sobe.” I said, still huddled behind the candy rack.
“Take whatever you like. We’re all dead anyway.” He was overcome with sobs again. I grabbed my supplies and a free Auto Trader, and headed for the door. The woman, gasping for breath now and exhausted by her frenzy, stared at me with the wide eyes of someone much too close to the edge. She still held the rifle, but I could see the safety was on. I set three dollars on the counter and backed quietly towards the door. Steeling myself before I headed out again, the crazy bitch and I stared at each other for a moment.
“…..”
“…..”
“I’m the fifth horseman, and as soon as I burn Yreka, I’ll be back for you. PRAY FOR YOUR SINS YOU CRAZY BITCH!” I shouted, sprinting out into the madness before I could see her reaction. I heard her screams above the roar, but the rope holding the door snapped and the minimart entrance slammed shut, probably forever. I’d got 3/4 of a tank before the power went out, which should hold me until I reached some kind of civilization. I sped off into the dark.

Two hours later I received a cryptic and garbled phone call from Nate, north of the border.
“…Terrible rockslides…en killed….indefinite closure of I 5…not be o….Thursday…” Cursing my fucking piece of shit phone and the team of chimp fucking Chico grads who engineered the damn thing, I hung up. Whatever lay ahead, I’d find out soon enough.

Traffic stopped dead 30 miles north of Redding.

For 40 minutes nobody moved. Every once in a while, an emergency vehicle screamed by on the shoulder, headed up front. I turned on the traffic advisory station, wary.

You’re listening to the California Highway Patrol Automated Traffic Advisory. As of 11:30 AM, I5 is closed indefinitely north of Yreka. Local ID and chains are required to pass the checkpoint. All traffic will be diverted up Route 97 into Oregon.

Grim news. I pulled onto the shoulder and sped to the next offramp, driving around until I found a workable cellphone signal.

“Nate? Can you hear me?”
“I5 is crushed, man. It’s buried under 400 tons of rock and mud; they might as well just build a new freeway. You’ll have to come out 97 and across 66, over the pass and into Klamath Falls. I can meet you there by sundown, and we can take the snowcat south back into Ashland.”
“I don’t know if I can even make it to the 97 turnoff at this rate. I’m still an hour from Weed and traffic is dead stopped. Let me call you back.”
I rode the shoulder all the way to the front, lurching in front of some maniac in a Subaru to cut in line. The people lined up in their cars gave little protest; most were too scared or too exhausted to care that I’d jumped in. A Ranger, no doubt coopted by the CHP for the day, approached. I rolled down my window; the scream of the storm was deafening. He clung to my door for dear life, the wind tearing at his black poncho, and leaned his head in the window to shout.
“You got local ID and chains?” I showed him my chains, lifting them out of the ammo box I kept them in.
“I’m no local. I went to college. I’m headed for Ashland, I need to get to Weed and head over the mountains to Klamath Falls.”
“You’ll never make it. There’s no way the Klamath pass will stay open after dark, and you’re still four hours away even without this damn traffic. They’ve already got sixteen feet of snow on the ground, and the Oregon Governor has just declared a state of emergency.” He shouted.
“Nonsense! I’m an engineer, I know what I’m doing. I’ve come too far to go back now.”

Indeed, I had.

“I have to keep going. I’m sorry Officer. This is for the best.”
I put my hand on his face and gave the pig a good shove, rolling up my window. The wind caught him, and he tumbled back down into a ditch.

“You’ll never make it!” I heard him shout again. I flipped him off. I cranked the Toyota around the roadblock, fishtailing viciously, and headed northward, away from the endless line of headlights behind me.
Two more checkpoints followed, and I bribed and coerced my way through them with little trouble. These valley types are easily bamboozled by a man with a vocabulary and an IEEE membership card.

I had slowed to a crawl at this point, unable to drive faster than 25 and still maintain any semblance of control. Overturned RV’s and autos littered the shoulders and ditches, wrecked or abandoned by those others foolhardy enough to head for Weed. Bodies of truckers, tourists and livestock were scattered around the roadside, the wind rolling back and forth in a disgusting imitation of life. Perhaps I’ve underestimated this storm.

No. Keep going. Eyes on the prize, Trevor.

I turned the radio back on for comfort.

You’re listening to the California Highway Patrol Automated Traffic Advisory. As of 11:30 AM, I5 is closed indefinitely north of Yreka. Local ID and chains are required to pass the checkpoint. This is no storm. This is the Apocalypse. The end is nigh, none of you will live to see the sun rise again. Repent now, and may God have mercy on your souls.

I clicked it back off.

“I don’t need your fucking negativity.” I yelled at the radio.

At this point, I had to put chains on. Moving forward, even at a slow pace, caused me to drift and hydroplane instantly. With chains on and cranking the wheel 45 degrees into the wind, I managed to inch forward at about 10 mph.

A sign ahead, barely visible through the grey chaos.

Weed: 57 miles.

Fuck, that’s a ways.

I continued on, chains chewing at the asphalt. Even the corpses and wrecks had thinned out by this point. I was utterly alone, in the heart of the thing.

I cannot honestly say what drove me on. Every aspect of this trip, from day one, has ended in complete and utter disaster. Failures and bad omens at every turn. Every sign, every sensibility, was urging me to turn back. To never even go in the first place. With every fuckup, with every mishap, my determination grew stronger. Abandoned by my friends, no copier, no snow to ride the copier on even if we had it, no sun, no money, no hope. It was as if Nature, the Universe, and God had all conspired against me and my goal. Creeping alone that empty four lane freeway in the middle of that grey hell, all I could think of was continuing on. The destination is all that matters. Go. Drive. Win.

Win.

God, Nature, and the Universe tell me I can’t have something, and with all my juvenile and bitter defiance I tell them to go fuck themselves. I fear no Wrath, no Storm, no Divine Retribution. I am a Man, and these are but petty annoyances to me. Go fuck yourself, Universe.

I do what I want.

A shape loomed out of the darkness, stretched across all four lanes. I crept closer, and my meager headlights illuminated a jackknifed lumber truck. It had obviously skidded into the median, and then been dragged as a final, insurmountable barrier across the freeway by some National Guard tank. On one side, the concrete divider. On the other, a muddy ditch with four or more feet of frigid water. 53 miles to Weed, and I can go no further.

I zipped up my coat and stepped out into the chaos.

I weigh about 138 lbs, probably closer to 145 with my various coats and boots on, and I was literally blown off my feet.. The wind and the rain almost knocked me down again, despite a firm hold on the truck. I’ve never felt weather like that, anywhere. The sheer awful noise of the thing…

I fought forward to the overturned logging truck, and grabbed hold of one of the shattered logs.

Around me, the world roared.

“Fuck! Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck!” I screamed.

I screamed myself hoarse.

“Fuck you! I hate you! How dare you deny me this! How dare you!”

I kicked savagely at the logs, shouting and flailing until I slumped against them in exhaustion.

How could it end like this. Here, at the foot of black, looming Shasta. So close. So god damn close.

“Fucking shit hell. How dare you deny me this.”

“How dare you.”

I got the chains off and turned around, finding a hole in the median a few hundred yards down and slipping over to the southbound side.

I was defeated.

——————-

Somehow, the storm got worse. Highway 5 runs dead center through the California flatlands, a narrow strip of asphalt raised five or so feet above the surrounding plains. It crosses various rivers and creeks; the Sacramento, etc. Twelve straight hours of gushing rain had flooded every field I passed. Occasional trees and silos stuck out pathetically, whipping and bending with the hateful wind. The wind, which I was now driving into instead of with, was blowing water onto the freeway from the flooded fields. I was forced to stop several times, dropping into first gear and fording six-inch deep standing water.

Six hundred miles and I hadn’t seen even a hint of an edge to this storm. Not one eye or weak point. Not one glimmer of mercy.

You all know me well, and you know I stretch and contort the truth at times. I’ll admit. Understand, then, that when I say this was…is… the strongest storm I’ve ever seen that I do so without exaggeration. I, a full grown and reasonably aerodynamic man was knocked to the ground like a child. Six hundred miles of swirling, vindictive grey hatred.

I digress.

My phone died around 3:00, after having been charged all night. I once again prayed for the waterheads who designed its’ death. Fuck you, you amateurs, and fuck your shoddy technology.

The headwind kept my speed down to around 65, once I got out of the flooded stretches. Fifth gear and 3500 RPMs would get me to 70, but my gas budget is not what it once was.

Five miles north of Williams, things got much worse.

——————

It sounded like a gunshot. At seventy miles an hour on I5 in the heart of the most evil storm in California history, my passenger window exploded. Supposedly shatterproof glass, carried on whipping winds, filled Juanita’s cab.

Somehow, I didn’t crash. At that point, I had become so familiar with death and danger and disappointment that such a catastrophe didn’t even surprise me. I pulled her over, hazards on, and kicked the remaining half of the window out onto the shoulder. Stepping out into the banshee winds and soaking rain, I stretched my shitty red ski jacket open across the interior of the passenger door. This afforded me at least some degree of protection, if only from the spray of bigrigs in the next lane over.

Who knows what hit it to make it explode like that. A storm like this could have picked up a piece of gravel in Tahiti and turned the thing into five hundred feet per second sniper bullet by the time it reached my window.

I picked most of the glass splinters out of my hands and neck, the only exposed flesh at the time of the explosion. Good thing I was alone, I thought. A thing like that would have killed, blinded, or at least horribly scarred anyone in the passenger seat.

Soaked and bleeding, I drove on, now with nothing between me and the storm.

We came to know each other well.

The next five hours were a Nightmare of Water and Cold and Noise.

Not knowing what else to do, I put on a CD of bootleg Nirvana, and turned it all the way up. Kurt shrieked despair, as only Kurt could, and the storm raged in my passenger seat.

—————-

grandma take me home, i wanna be alone

I drive forever. The road is a slippery four lane eternity.

serve the servants, oh lord

I left something, something precious and broken, at that wreck.

oh denial oh denial oh denial oh denial

The usual hate, the usual madness, the usual emptiness, they all got much worse on the drive back.

ain’t it a shame to beat your wife on a sunday, ain’t it a shame

To be screwed by a human is one thing. To be screwed by Everything is quite another.

still the life that’s inside of me

Limping back into Richmond and familiar territory, there was no place on Earth I wanted less to be than my City.

rape me, rape me my friend

Sitting in dead-stop traffic near Treasure Island, I could hear the bridge moaning under the relentless assault of waves and fury.

i’m not like them, but i can pretend

Now I’m back here, my truck and my soul both shuddering heaps. We are much worse for wear.

the results are always perfect, but that’s old news

Back in the City. New years is tomorrow.

Christ.

-T.

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