Skye removes the plastic shield from his face and gives it a wipe. Geronimo hands him a pink rectangle.
“You take a picture? I want my wife to see.”
“Oh! Yeah, sure.”
Geronimo stands with the paint sprayer and smiles.
“Okay – action shot!”
Geronimo attacks the wall. Skye snaps off a couple more and finds a safe place to stash the camera. He returns to the shield, which is largely a lost cause. He has spent the morning covering Joe’s apartment in primer, and the ceilings are killing him, raining a mist of white onto his head. He’s annoyed at everything: the uneven spray, the sweat building up in his bunny suit, having to stay overnight and wake at eight to beat the building’s nine-to-five noise window.
The only positive is Geronimo. Joe picked him out of a crowd of dayworkers, basing his choice mostly on personality. Geronimo is a short, square dynamo, delighted at each new task, crafty in problem-solving, and eager to please.
None of which, for Skye, is helping. He was so enjoying the solitude of paint-stripping, and the obligation of managing an assistant is chewing at his innards. What started out as a time-filler has turned into a chore, and the only reason he’s still here is a desire to see Joe finish his new home. They day before, he found himself lugging heavy boxes of tiling, back aching, arms failing, thinking, What the hell am I doing?
When they reach the end of the final wall, Skye discovers that the too-small bunny suit has developed a lengthy rip over his crotch. He takes great relish in ripping it from his body like a tearaway suit. Joe returns from the front room, looking concerned.
“It’s not really covering. Why don’t you take a lunch, and then we’ll put on a second coat.”
Skye feels the marrow draining from his bones. “Joe, I have to leave. I am utterly burnt out.”
Joe looks disappointed, but seems to realize that it’s a reasonable request.
“Okay. I’ll take the afternoon shift. Why don’t you go downstairs and shower up?”
Skye places his sweaty work clothes in a bag and steps gratefully into the spray of the shower. He comes back out a new man, towels off and heads for the guest room. Given the changeable nature of San Francisco weather and Joe’s work schedule, Skye packed quite a bit of clothing, and he realizes that he could, ostensibly, take off on a road trip. Right now.
He takes the new Bay Bridge to Oakland, its single tower spooling out white cables like some kind of carnival ride. Feeling the onset of rush hour at his heels, he cuts across the East Bay to Martinez, where he crosses the yawning mouth of the Sacramento River on the Benicia Bridge. For Skye, whose escapes tend to the north, the Benicia’s long, low arch is the gateway to freedom. Just beyond the turnoff to Napa, he pulls into a fast food place and proceeds to fall asleep in the parking lot. He wakes up an indeterminate amount of time later and gets back on the freeway, dining on cold fries and a watery Coke. Next are the long, lonely stretches of 505, a farmland connector between Vacaville and I-5. The sun approaches the westward mountains, casting the endless fields in tangerine, and loosing a million bugs to flicker their last on his windshield.
An hour later, he passes the Sutter Buttes, the weirdly misplaced volcanic mountains plopped into the middle of the Sacramento Valley (called by some the smallest mountain range in the world). What’s more notable is what’s going on behind it, a sliver of pumpkin peeking over the far Sierras. Skye recalls his latest purchase, a tiny but powerful rectangle of Nikon camera in his writing case. He pulls off on a farm road and braces his arms on the top of his truck, pushing the zoom as far as he can. The results are excellent, the Buttes cutting a jagged silhouette in the foreground.
Another hour and he stops in Corning, pulling into the sprawling parking lot of the Rolling Hills Casino. He strolls the fields of slots, looking for something amusing, but the machines have all grown new complexities, so he settles for one that features African jewelry. The combinations are as enigmatic as sudoku, but it seems that a certain combination triggers an extra cycle of rearrangements. He’s playing at a satisfactory break-even pace when this extra level kicks in and keeps going, till he’s staring at a full screen of tribal chieftains and a flashing message that reads BIG JACKPOT! In short, a hundred dollars on a nickel play. As opposed to most gamblers he knows, he takes this as a good time to cash out.
Skye takes his winnings to a straggling little bar in the back, offering a full menu with its cocktails. He sits at a table beneath a television and orders a crème brulee, which arrives with Jackson Pollock syrup squiggles all across the plate.
He takes a spiral notebook and a pen from his writing case and sits there a while, savoring the custard, considering the beginnings of things.
Skye pushes uphill, planting his steps, kicking at rocks, his temple covered in sweat. He passes a gaggle of vacationers at their houseboat barbecue, laughing their heads off.
He works his way up to the meeting with Sarge, but stops before he gets to the hazardous ride with Bubba. To write that will take some energy, and it’s time to hit the road.
Skye’s modus operandi is to drive until the drowsiness kicks in. At times, the energy lasts all night. Others, he gets eyeblink hazy before ten miles. But he does have a destination in mind: the first rest area at Shasta Lake, which offers the waking traveler a bracing view of the reservoir and a smattering of tree-shaded picnic tables. He glides through the sleepy lights of Redding, makes the long climb up Mountain Gate, and is soon at his destination, teeth brushed, grocery bags screening his windows, ready to sleep.
But he can’t. Some devilish mixture of fucked-up circadians, road fever and his truck’s narrow bench seat has him conducting an endless progression of poses: feet on the floor, feet under the steering wheel, reclined in the passenger seat, head tucked against the door. And he cannot sleep. After an hour, he gives up, takes down the screens, cranks the engine and drives north, crossing the long bridge over the lake, a moontrail striping the water like a crosswalk.
This time, the goal is Mt. Shasta. As he spots the white flanks, as the sharp triangle of the Black Butte cinder cone looms ahead, something remarkable happens. An enormous stormcloud leads a front in from the north, and the impending dawn paints the underside in streaks of purple and ochre. He loses sight of it as he rounds the Butte into Weed and the high desert beyond. When he pulls into a rest area next to the Weed Airport, the sky is on fire.
Now, his body wants to sleep, but sleep is out of the question. The cloud is an airship tethered above the ridges north of Shasta, aflame with maroons, mandarins, bronze, lemon, copper. Skye digs for his camera, stands on a rock and shoots over the airfield fence, hardly believing that what he’s recording is real. He turns around, if only to rest his eyes, and finds burly gray clouds fringed in cabernet, merlot, burgundy, zinfandel, the kind of scene backing angelic choirs in baroque paintings. Across the highway, hovering over a semi, is something he’s never seen, a pre-dawn rainbow. A Mexican woman passes him. He says, “Have you ever seen anything like this?” She smiles as if to say Yes, she has.
He returns to the airstrip and takes a shot with a plane in the foreground, its nose aimed at the spectacle. The mother cloud shifts in the high winds, tucking smaller clouds against its belly like a spaceship retracting its landing gear. The sun slips its yellow eye over the mountains. Skye takes one last photo and heads to his truck for a much-needed nap.
At noon, Skye attains some semblance of wakefulness and climbs the Siskiyous. He descends to a Black Bear diner in Medford, Oregon, walks past a dozen post-church families in the lobby and seats himself at the counter. Ah, the privileges of the single class. He orders the New York steak and eggs and walks into the rain a very full man.
Skye stops at the Seven Feathers Casino in Canyonville and shuns the gambling entirely, taking a latte to the lobby to work on the next section of his memoir. It’s the ride with Bubba, and he keeps laughing at his own descriptions, which he takes as a good sign.
As his pen arrives at the Springs, his cell rings in with a voicemail. It’s Claudia.
“Skye! I just got the weirdest thing. It’s your check for two hundred grand to the East Village Women’s Shelter. There’s a note, female writing. And I quote: ‘Thank you for your generous donation. As the scroll will be used to raise funds for the shelter, however, we felt that your gift would be somewhat redundant. Thank you again for your interest in our cause.’ No signature. But I’m betting you can guess who our anonymous buyer is. Call me if you want, ya rich bastard.”
Chelsea. The news stays with all through Southwest Oregon, which he’s always thought of as Ireland with mountains: green, bucolic, one grass valley after another, framed by evergreen ridges. During his years in Seattle, he joked that he lived in Washington as an excuse to drive through Oregon. He’s a little relieved when he departs the climbs and curves for the broad farmlands north of Eugene. The views to the east are perfect portrait landscapes, receding foothills covered in lush grass, volcanic outcroppings, lines of evergreens suddenly cut off, the signature of logging. A light rain speckles his windshield. He digs into the glove box for a cigar and lights up. A red-tailed hawk perches on a fencepost, giving him the eye. A broad, flat field opens up on the left, sheep grazing in scattered cliques. A front of clouds rises up over the coastal range.
His meditation comes to a stop at the onset of urban territories – the active, populous northwest corner of the state. The thickening traffic combines with his wounded sleep-cycle to call for a halt to the day’s driving.
A brown sign piques his interest, but he passes it too quickly to figure out why. A few miles later, he sees a sign more germane to his situation – Motel 6 – and pulls over into Salem.
He takes a long soak in the odd triangular bathtub, dries off, and sits on the edge of the bed to consider his temptations: 25 cable channels, a coaster ad for pizza delivery, fluffy-looking pillows. But he knows it’s a trap. He needs to go out and work himself back to a normal bedtime. He powers up his Kindle and searches for a coffeehouse: Broadway Coffee, a mere three miles away.
Just north of the downtown strip, the Broadway occupies the lobby of a former office building. The room is huge, furnished with a fireplace, leather armchairs, couches, a dozen tables and an espresso counter of blondewood cabinets and stainless steel machinery. When the clean-cut barista hands him a latte with a classic rosetta poured into the foam, he nearly breaks into tears.
“You don’t know! I lived in Seattle for five years and then moved back to California, and down there, a latte like this is like spotting a bald eagle in a shopping mall.”
“I’m glad you like it,” he says. “Still, I think you’re going to have to drink it.”
“Oh I will.” Skye shakes little curtains of cocoa around the rosetta, then looks skyward and realizes that the coffeehouse has an open-air second level. And a third. It’s a freakin’ tabernacle of coffee. He takes out his notebook and pen, ventures a sip – the rough-bark edge of the infused foam – and watches the tip of his pen as it lowers to the white.
Two hours later, he stops. He has heard of this time-tunnel effect from fiction writers, but has always ascribed it to overactive imaginations. With journalism, one is forever tethered to structure, word count and the regular interruptions of quote- and fact-checking. He credits most of this particular two-hour wormhole to the Springs, which conjures such vivid images that they fly from his pen in rapids of blue ink. And then the departure, the stealth truck, that moment at Walker Lake. He stops, finally, as his alter-ego walks into the casino at Winnemucca. He suspects that Lindsy would lead him into another time-tunnel, so it’s best to take a rest and enjoy the comforts of his motel room.
Lindsy. Lindsy. Her name knocks at his door until he receives a vision. The brown sign on I-5. The sign that said Silverton.
He fires up his Kindle and looks for Thad’s email address.
Skye sets out the next morning and enters road construction hell. He follows the detour signs for five miles and finds himself back at the Motel 6. Finally, he heads south on I-5, U-turns on an overpass and looks for the brown sign, which leads him onto eastward 213. Still, he feels nervous that the housing tracts are going on for so long, until he tops a rise and finds a spread of rolling farmlands. After a seeming eternity, he enters Silverton, which offers a classic downtown of early-century buildings with ambitious ornaments and old-school storefronts. The fire hydrants are painted in red, white and blue; or baby blue with white clouds, or the black and white spots of a Holstein cow. A sign sits atop a grassy knoll, offering a greeting to Friendly Silverton. The lampposts carry small banners for the Oregon Garden and Silver Falls State Park.
Just past the final store, Skye spots Oak Street and turns right. He finds an address to the left and pulls in at a petite yellow square of house. The gutters and drainpipes are painted white, giving the place a crisp look, and the flowerbeds under the windows offer stalks of lavender and bushes of rosemary. The smell is terrific. He’s halfway up the walk when a plump, friendly-looking redhead pops from the front door.
“Oh! I’m so glad you’re here. The washer is in the garage. It’s the spin cycle again. It’s rocking like crazy, and… Damn. You’re not the repairman, are you?”
Skye tries not to laugh. “No. I’m a friend of Lindsy’s.”
The smile sinks a little. “What sort of friend?”
Skye hesitates, trying to think of some kind of definer for himself. “Did she mention a trip to Hawaii?”
The smile returns. “Skye! Oh Lord did she tell me about you. Sorry, we’re old college friends, so I probably have a lot of information that I shouldn’t have. I’m sure she’ll be happy to see you! But she’s at work right now. She gets back about eight.”
“Where does she work?”
“Oh, um, she works at Silver Falls.”
“All right. How does one get to Silver Falls?”
“Well, head back through town, and just before you reach the end of the main drag, you’ll see a sign telling you to turn left. Fifteen miles later, you will be among the descending waters.”
“Must be a nice park.”
“You have no idea. But I don’t want to spoil the surprise. You’ll see.”
“Thanks. Hopefully, I will see you later.”
“Yes. I hope so.”
Skye returns to his truck, feeling Kathy’s eyes on several parts of his anatomy. He’s happy to be getting such good reviews.
He gets the directions right and ends up on a winding road that passes several farms and climbs a wooded hill. None of it looks like state park material but soon he downhills into a grove of clean-looking evergreens and spots the familiar yellow-on-brown signs of parkdom. The first announces a parking lot for the North Falls, but he senses he’s looking for something a little more central.
The evergreens grow thicker, and he follows the road through a series of long curves. He sees a sign for Silver Falls Lodge and pulls in to a series of long, empty lots. He parks at the very end, among a dozen other cars, and walks to a kiosk hosting a large map and a description of the park. The most arresting line is the one promising “ten waterfalls in eight miles,” which seems preposterous. But Skye has a blonde to locate, so he rounds a corner past the lodge – workers setting up tables for the lunch crowd – and heads for a gift shop housed in a woodsy cabin. Off to his left, he sees what looks like a canyon rim and hears the sound of rushing water.
The shop smells amazing, and he quickly discovers why: a display of handmade soaps in bay rum, eucalyptus, green tea and linden. The rest of the store offers photo-cards, refrigerator magnets, walking sticks, collectible shot glasses and anything else you could slap a waterfall on. Skye heads for the front counter, where a tall, vaguely effeminate man rings up an order for an elderly woman.
“Thanks,” he says, and hands over the change. “Whew! Two customers in a row. This must be my rush.”
“Hi. Is Lindsy around?”
“Oh! You know… Oh. Wait a minute.” He reaches for a slip of paper under the register, checks it, then smiles. “Okay. You pass. I feel very guilty, actually, because I sent Lindsy out on trail-trash patrol. Ha! Sounds like ‘trailer trash,’ doesn’t it? Anyway, she left about an hour ago.”
“Oh, I cranked my ankle yesterday, so she had to cover for me. Plus, it’s Monday and the weekend tourists have probably left a veritable ticker-tape parade out there.”
“Do you know when she’ll be back?”
“Oh, um… maybe four hours.”
“Shit! Do you think I could catch her?”
“Sure. She’s picking up trash, you’re not. Here’s a trail map. Just start at the South Falls out yonder and continue along this loop. And I know you’re eager to find Lindsy – who wouldn’t be? – but do be sure and actually look at the waterfalls. They’re quite… Wait a minute. Are you Skye?”
“Oh my God! The sighs that girl has released on your behalf. Well go! Go get her. Here, have some trail mix, and a bottle of water.”
“Oh, you don’t…”
“Oh yes I do! All that sighing is driving me nuts. Now go! Out of my shop.”
Skye leaves laughing and heads for the South Falls, a downhill right, a downhill left into the semicircular end of a canyon. Above him, a slender stream of water drops 177 feet from the rim into a pool below. As he paces forward, he realizes that the trail cuts behind the falls, and remembers a bit of info from the kiosk. The land hereabouts is composed of volcanic flows of basalt over sedimentary rock. The rivers have eroded the softer sedimentary but caused little damage to the basalt, creating overhanging falls. During the Depression, workers from the Civilian Conservation Corps cut the indentations deeper to make for safer hiking. Skye can see the cuts in the wall next to the trail, the telltale work of humans with picks and grinders. He pauses behind the falls to marvel at the white veil and snaps a photo for future reference.
Photo by MJV