“We had the experience but missed the meaning.” — Eliot
I was working the California backroads with the sailor in his Porsche and “Slow” was not on the menu. We had come down out of a few days in the high Sierras around Mount Shasta and, hitting the flatlands, the Sailor decided to clean some carbon out of the Porsche’s engine by finding a long, long, long flat paved ranch road well beyond the range of the California Highway Patrol. There he proceeded to put the speedometer well above the century mark and just leave it there. In a fine-tuned Porsche this means that on the two-lane blacktop ”the lines in the road just look like dots.” It was a year ago. It was February 2020 and it was the last time the people and the nation were happy. Nobody knew it at the time. Nobody at all.
We didn’t know it. At 115 MPH on a smooth and straight ranch road, we were about as depressed as men could be in a Porsche at speed under the warm California winter sun. Around us was the Great Central Valley with its endless gravid fruit orchards and gleaming rice paddies that feed a large part of the world. In the towns and cities working people had jobs and their pay was going up. It had been the best Christmas and New Years’ in memory. All the movies and restaurants were full of people having a good time with others. Employment was booming as prosperity was everywhere. Stores were stocked to the rafters and the inventory was moving out the front as fast as the trucks bought it to the back. Everywhere buildings were going up and opportunities were blooming as the nation began to turn its back on and withdraw its business from the slave state of Communist China. Everywhere the song was, “Gimme the green light mama. It’s been red long enough.”
The sailor and I had been doing one of our “Photo Destination Road Trip (™)” Among his many other mastered talents, the sailor is an accomplished landscape photographer. (Although he would demur as is his wont.) The most rigorous discipline of “Landscape Photographer” would be to go Full Ansel Adams. This means one must either camp out in the cold and wind or rise at 4 AM to be on hand for the sunrise. A romantic notion and one the Sailor cites often as he sets up for Landscape Photography after a steak dinner in the evening, preferably somewhere you can drive to. This is a sensible variation since it’s cold and dark at 4 AM and a Porsche is not a reliable off-road vehicle at any speed.
We’d based ourselves out of a two-bedroom log cabin in the shadow of Mt. Shasta. During the time there we’d noted that the town of Shasta was, like the rest of the nation, booming. Bakeries were baking. Laundromats were laundering. The original Black Bear Diner was still serving its heart-attack-on-a-plate lumberjack breakfast. Nearby was one of the finest artisan breweries you could ask for with a stunning list of beers and some good food to go with it.
One day we went to take some shots of Mt. Shasta from its north face. To do that you need to shoot up I-5 and take the 97 cutoff toward Klamath Falls, Oregon that starts on the outskirts of Weed, California. Driving through Weed I had a weird thought and said to the Sailor, “Do you suppose there as any weed shops in Weed?”
It was just like a question, man, that you know sorta answered itself, man, and later, man, at the so very scenic outlook where you could like see which side of the atmosphere the rain was painted on and watch, man, Mt. Shasta shoulder half the sky so like the view, man, was like so impressive, man, that we almost forgot to like take photographs, man.
The next day, mission semi-accomplished, we decided to hit the flatlands back to Chico.
And so we’d come down from the high mountains onto the lowlands and were just a black German blur on the backroads.
I never worry when the Sailor pushes the Porsche past the century mark. The main reason is that the Sailor was once a professional racer with his own open-wheeled IndyCar and crew. He knows how to roll at high speeds and a Porsche does that all day long without complaint. The second reason is that I know if anything goes wrong at 115mph the best outcome for me is death. At my age survival is nothing to look forward to unless you get off on months in traction.
Out of the mountains and down into the clear and rolling headlands we came happy and carefree just like the nation. Up to speed and hitting cruise control just like the nation. On all sides, the rich bounty of California’s fields was getting ready for another spring of prosperity. Just like the nation.
Then on the edge of a wide field in the far distance, we saw a column of smoke bisecting the big sky of the valley. The Porsche eased down the speed slope and we turned into the field next to a stream and across from a curious farm-based sculpture park done for the pure pleasure of their making. The stopped engine pinged behind us as we looked across the field at the fire. From this distance, it looked like a pile of brush and trees made into a funeral pyre. It wasn’t difficult to imagine another era where a Viking King was cremated or an Indian Rajah on a gat by the Ganges. It was that kind of fire burning ever brighter and more furious by the moment there at the end of a flat field. We were, it seemed, the only witnesses. Nobody stood around watching it; making sure the flames did not spread to the orchard nearby. Nobody at all.
It was an omen but like all omens, we missed its meaning at the time. If it had been built at the top of a mountain peak we would have known it for what it was, a signal fire, a beacon, a warning of what was to come as the nation was invaded from without and within and undone by corruption and envy and spite and stupidity and hate from within and without. But like all the others in our Happy World we were blind to it at the time. The sailor set up and took some photographs of this fire in the field. Then we drove away and back to the Happy World of America in February 2020.
Then it all went smash.
“Rise, Men of the West”