Leaving California

Earlier this summer, a woman that I met in an elevator in Italy thirty years ago wrote to tell me of a dream. I read her message watching the stars whirl above the purple slopes of Mt Shasta at midnight. When we spoke some weeks later, I said it felt like a love letter, and she said that it was. After another short while she asked, “would you come?” And so I left California, heading east. 

I drove straight through the fires, not making my first stop until I pulled off in Reno on E. In California I left one very curious monk, one old friend newly with cancer, my mother and father, and a storage unit in San Rafael. I’ve tried to leave fifty times. I tried to leave North Beach in ’98 and I still get my hair cut there whenever I can. I left Potrero Hill in 2014 after crossing Market Street for what I thought was the last time. I left Sausalito just last year, and I still cry sweet memories every time I stop for coffee there. 

I love my native city, and yet I’m on the road at a moment’s notice, chasing a dream across three thousand miles of empty terrain. Trying to make up for lost time. Trying to fill in some missing part of my history, the old black and white family photo above the fireplace, corners turned and yellow, a dirty scrap leant up there with two candles and an old pocketknife. The photo that I don’t have, the photo that isn’t me, the photo that doesn’t exist of me, still happily married to a girlfriend from college. I still feel that I should’ve done better. I’ve felt this way forever. I know that it’s supposed be not my fault, but I find that very hard to digest. I still feel like I fucked up. 

I get some gas at the off-ramp and then stop to grab a sandwich from a friend. She says I’m doing the right thing. I take a last bite of turkey on two-day-old bread, anxious to get back on the road. She steps outside to water her garden of rocks and ash and I get back in the van and punch in directions for a two-lane through the Nevada backcountry. 

Twenty miles out, barely past Sparks, I feel a bump. The tire pressure sensor lights up and I watch in disbelief as it drops from 50 to 38 to 22 to 9. I roll to a stop on the shoulder, road hum replaced by the roar of passing chromeships making for Winnemucca, Elko, and Salt Lake. My rig sits lopsided in a spray of shredded rubber, piss jugs and dusty sage. I have a spare but I don’t trust it going into the desert at night, and now I’m laughing at the cards I pulled before leaving—the Destroyer and the Gem. I swing open the door and look back west towards Reno, a glowing smear across the wide Carson valley. I’ve barely left town, and the whole place has filled with smoke. The weak red sun is already close to the horizon. It stand there for a minute, thinking about what a dream might cost me, and then I step out and bend to change the tire.