≡ Menu

Of a Fire in a Field

“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”

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rob De Witt February 8, 2021, 4:24 PM

    There was a time, all right, beautiful in our innocence. All the crap I fought through to get here, and then perfect days over and over.

    Twenty-five years ago I had a weekend gig in Redding as a music festival judge. Fat check, wonderful break from the Bay Area insanity, and a lovely drive back to Sausalito on Sunday.

    California 299 from Redding to Arcata in the fastest car I’ve ever owned, a ’79 528i with a 3.5 liter replacement engine, Koni shocks, 20 mm sway bars and new tires. Eight a.m. on a Sunday morning and nobody out there but me, over the mountains to the coast on a perfect two-lane road. One hundred-thirty honest miles per hour after hour.

    Never forgotten, still experienced in dreams.

  • nunnya bidnez, jr February 8, 2021, 4:27 PM

    a little driving music….

    Commander Cody, Hot-rod Lincoln

  • gwbnyc February 8, 2021, 5:44 PM

    VW Bug racing in bucolic, estated, Kirtland, Ohio. c. 1968. beautiful country roads always in excellent repair, twists-turns-off camber etc. best done at night. heel&toed instinctively.

    …you can still obtain a beetle.

  • mmack February 8, 2021, 5:50 PM


    If The Sailor was an IndyCar driver at one point, did he ever qualify for and start the Indianapolis 500? If so I have a sneaking suspicion or two as to who he is, especially if he is California born and bred.

    Never pushed a car past the century mark on twisty roads but got to 110 – 120 on the highway before backing off realizing I’d be a cop’s wet dream rolling past in a sports car at 50+ over. Interestingly enough both times it was to teach a Porsche owner a lesson about thinking an American highway was the Autobahn and that no one could catch him.

    A lament for a better time. It’s up to us to grab it back.

  • Snakepit Kansas February 8, 2021, 5:54 PM

    I cannot top your story but many many years ago I was recovering from a financial setback after divorce and was working 20-30hrs./week at a liquor store in addition to my regular job. I had worked Christmas Eve at the liquor store and ended up getting into a fight with a shop lifter. I used a suplex, old wrestling move, on the guy, and the fight was over pronto. He spent the night in the pokey for trying to steal a bottle of Chivas Scotch. Christmas was at my sister’s house in Topeka and my folks were there, all waiting for me to arrive. Got off work in my ’89 Mustang GT all still all jazzed up from the scuffle, and hit the turnpike about midnight for a normal two hour drive. There are rolling roads through the Flint Hills, but also some very long straight aways. In some high spots between Wichita and Topeka you can see for more than five miles, and cars were very few and far between that night. I got the Mustang up to 105 and simply let it roll. It would do significantly more, but held it there steady for stretches. A memorable trip 25+ years ago.

  • Skorpion February 8, 2021, 5:58 PM

    I was in your neck of the woods last week, Gerard. Was helping a friend and doing collectibles business in Chico, Oroville, and Palermo. It’s nice country around there, and I even got to drive by “The World’s Smallest Mountain Range” — the Sutter Buttes, which rise out of the flat Sacramento Valley like the knuckled fist of an angry Earth Goddess. Underappreciated part of the state, to be sure.

  • Zaphod February 8, 2021, 6:40 PM

    Gerard, it’s very understandably been a while… But By God, You’ve Still Got It.

    Seriously, Head Down, Ass Up and bang out that magnum opus.

  • Mike Anderson February 8, 2021, 6:57 PM

    For me and the wife it was the afternoon of March 13th, chowing down on apres-ski beer and burgers at the Pig Pen Saloon slopeside in Park City, Utah. A crowd of loud and rowdy brand-new best friends embellishing a darn good day of skiing and shouting at the WuFlu Devil. Flew home the next day, and heard the news a day later that the ski season was shut down, finis, zip, officially over. Lots of folks got stiffed on tickets and accommodations. Crash, indeed.

  • Zaphod February 8, 2021, 7:42 PM

    For me it was al fresco lunch in Hong Kong with a friend on January 23. Glorious sunny day. We finished up and I checked Twatter as I paid the bill and saw that the Wuhan Lockdown had begun. Straight off to the supermarket to stock up on needful things.

    These days I’m not super concerned about the virus – more the insane and sociopathic responses to it. But back then with little information available and some scary videos coming out of Wuhan, it made sense to take precautions. Going back over my daily journal for same time last year, I saw that I noted that nobody ‘Back Home’ in the West I was emailing or chatting with gave this early news any credence or paid the slightest heed to my suggestions that they might want to stock up on items. Of course as soon as their own preferred Official Expert Sources started freaking out in March, different story.

  • Dan Patterson February 9, 2021, 3:51 AM

    Excellent piece of work Gerard.

  • Alexandria February 9, 2021, 5:32 AM

    This piece is, without a doubt, one of your best, Gerard.

  • jwm February 9, 2021, 7:06 AM

    And now?

    The first Sunday of the month monthly antique and classic ride has been canceled the last few because of the lockdown bullshit. But February’s ride was on. This month is ‘Girl’s Bike’ day, s0 I spent a few hours Saturday polishing up the 1956 Schwinn Starlet for the cruise on Sunday. The Starlet was my first bike project, a rattle can restore that I did forty years ago.

    The ride meets in downtown Long Beach, at a coffee house that is right in the heart of the LBLTQ scene. I’ve been a regular for the last ten years.
    Parking is awful down there, so I always head out way too early. Seven forty-five Sunday the whole Southland was buried in cold thick fog. But I got to Long Beach, found a parking spot, unloaded the bike, and wheeled over to the coffee house. I was the only bike there. Everyone on the street is (I’m not kidding) now shuffling along with the double diaper over the face. God, I hate this shit. I stood alone in the church parking lot next door to the coffee house, waiting. I didn’t need coffee, and it was too early for a wake n’ bake.

    A white van pulled into the lot. I watched some guy who’s about my age climb out. He’s a dumpy white hired old hippy with his way-too-thick Gandalf style walking stick. Of course, he’s all diapered over the beard.

    The guy turned to me, and called out, “Mask up, buddy!” His voice carried that fake familiar lilt that you use when you tell a kid his shoe is untied. His last syllable wasn’t still in the air, before,

    “FUCK YOU” I spit back.

    Dude was stunned. He stood there, incredulous, staring at me. I felt the floodgates open; rage and adrenaline charging through me like a bad amphetamine. I said nothing, just stood there staring him and his big stick down, mad-dogging him for all I’m worth.

    He turned away, muttered, “Have a nice day, asshole.” and shuffled off.

    I checked the time. Waited for my anger to pass. I stood there for ten minutes, which is a long while. The rush stilled, but now I didn’t want to hang around for the cruise. It was cold and shitty anyway. So I called my buddies and told them I had to leave- catch up with y’all at our gig, next week. I rode the old Starlet back to the truck and split. I got home, put up the Schwinn, and took my rider out for fifteen hard miles alone.


  • Sam L. February 9, 2021, 8:07 AM

    There must (MUST) be an ordinance in Weed that mandates that there MUST be weed shops in Weed.

  • James ONeil February 9, 2021, 10:11 AM

    I do wonder if the sailor is your friend with the house in the Keys.

    Up here, on top of the world, on the Richardson highway running south from Fairbanks, hit a ridge looking down at Donnely Flats, 15-18 miles of arrow straight, flat, road. Smoke over the area on each side from the ridge, assuring no moose or caribou close enough to the road to cause a problem. Empty road ahead, no rigs coming over hills on the far side. 1st gear, 2nd, 4th, 5th. Yes my Jeep Wrangler would do 120 mph, although you’ll have to trust me on the last 20 mph as the needle moves well beyond the last number, 100 mph, on the speedometer.

  • Graham February 9, 2021, 11:18 AM

    The.Last.Time. The other day I put on an old jacket, and reaching into the pocket pulled out a movie ticket stub, slightly yellowed, for Jan. 14, 2020 showing of “1917”. The last movie and coffee after. All the last times of 2020…

  • Ken February 9, 2021, 11:56 AM

    Great piece Gerard!!! Thanks.

  • Gordon Scott February 9, 2021, 12:23 PM

    A couple of weeks ago I rented a Kia Optima. It was nothing special. Just another Camry knockoff. Driving the freeway in Phoenix, I look down and the needle is sitting at 92. And there’s lots left; it feels like I am driving 65.

    Arizona has many speed traps. I ease back to 79.

    Geez, an ordinary production sedan does 90 with no strain at all. Cars today are amazing.

  • Todd February 9, 2021, 1:49 PM

    Many years ago now I was driving my highly modified 1993 BMW M5 from San Diego to Phoenix via I-8 East. I had my electronic counter-measures (Valentine V-1) cranked up and traffic was light so I kept checking 6 as I cruised at around 130 where that car worked exceedingly well. Before I continue, let me say that I am an alumnus of the ‘School of Bob’ (Bondurant School of High-Performance Driving). What I learned there was definitely worth the money and has stuck with me over the years. Back to my tale. As some of you may know, AZ has many walls of bush and trees splitting the East/West lanes of the Interstate.

    There are gaps where you can see vehicles coming your way to your left. Uh Oh! There’s the AZHP! My V-1 did not go off so I continued my travels.

    As I approached Buckeye, I saw him way back there and as I had slowed considerably I backed it down even more. He came up behind me and lit up my world. The Buckeye ramp was coming up so I signaled, took it, and stopped at the bottom off to the shoulder of the road. One of the first things the Trooper said besides asking for license, registration, and proof of insurance was: “How fast were you going? I’ve been chasing you for over 10 miles?”

    I told him I was going around 85 or so. I’m sure he didn’t really believe me but by that time another couple of units had pulled up and the Officers were checking my car out. Now I know that a lot of cops are gearheads so I popped the hood, got out, and said: “Hey! Have any of you guys ever seen one of these?”

    I soon had an audience to whom I explained the wonders of the S38 DOHC 4-valve straight-six with its cool M Power cam cover, six separate throttle bodies for the fuel injection, and on and on. They must have been impressed because although I got a ticket; it was for much much less speed-wise than it could have been;>)

  • Ann Barnhardt February 9, 2021, 3:15 PM

    Kansas Highway 27, northbound between Syracuse and Tribune. Had just bought my 2002 Pontiac SLP Firehawk convertible, black-black-black of course, and was out visiting feedlots. You could see for miles, including any cars approaching on crossroads. The car had a speed limiter at 125. Had a tuner correct that and fix the torque curve while he was at it when I got back to Denver.

  • William February 9, 2021, 5:37 PM

    That was a good one! Thank you.

  • Dirk February 9, 2021, 7:03 PM

    Know of one Weed shop in Weed. In the city of Weed often, very nice small conservative community.

    140 mph, police intercepter, a Chevy 1994 Caprice with the corvette motor and trans. Actually 140s old news. Ive never enjoyed going fast.


  • nunnya bidnez, jr February 9, 2021, 8:23 PM

    I had a Piper that did 120… knots.
    It could also go as slow as 50 when you wanted to land.

  • Snakepit Kansas February 10, 2021, 5:14 AM

    I am an old Pontiac fan, used to have a ’72GTO. Syracuse and Tribune is way out there. More cows than people and beautiful and endless milo fields. Probably good mule deer and bird hunting. I pheasant hunt north of there annually around Hoxie.

  • Gordon Scott February 10, 2021, 6:48 PM

    “Had just bought my 2002 Pontiac SLP Firehawk convertible, black-black-black of course, and was out visiting feedlots.” Said no other woman, ever. Ann, you are a treasure.

    Should I ever get caught up for a moment I want to buy your course, Ann. I may be relocating to Arizona. I had thought, well, no cattle auctions there. But then I drove from Phoenix to Yuma, and There Be Feedlots, and where there are feedlots, there are auctions.

    Of course I’ll probably get it wrong and wake up one day to a truck driver banging on the door, wondering where my loading ramp is, so he can get my cows out of his trailer.

  • Daniel K Day February 10, 2021, 10:07 PM

    June 1973. I was 19 years old, hitchhiking around Europe, at this point, going west along the French coast toward Mont St.-Michel. The sun was going down, behind rain clouds. Not an optimal time to be hitchhiking. This time, I got very lucky (not that kind of lucky, wash your keyboard out with soap).
    This was my 2nd ride in a Citroen DS, an expensive, ugly, luxury car, the last of my only rides in a DS in 2 months of hitchhiking. This DS was driven by a beautiful blonde, nicely put together, with her 4- or 5-year-old daughter in the back seat. She was rather bitchy to the daughter. (Tu as sommeil? Oui. Bon!/Are you sleepy? Yes. Good!)
    She was, like many French women, justly confident in her skill behind the wheel, and either in a hurry or just liked to drive fast. There weren’t many cars on the road, at least not in our direction. We came to the top of a long downslope. We saw there were no cars ahead of us, and she put the hammer DOWN. I waited a discreet time, then leaned over and peeked at the speedometer. She topped out at 140 mph, didn’t hold it that long. Roads in that part of France are not straight for very far.
    Nice ride.

  • gwbnyc February 11, 2021, 8:57 AM

    saw a piper fly backwards at rhinebeck aerodrome.

  • April February 12, 2021, 6:57 AM

    A unseasonably warm March morning, just enough sun to open the windows if you kept the heater on.

    An empty stretch of the QEW highway between Toronto and Niagara Falls.
    1976 Lincoln Mark IV, a built big block, highway gears, a fresh coffee and an ipod full of rockabilly playing through a vintage Concord HPL-532 head unit.

    At around 75 mph the ponderous Wixom, MI built giant becomes light and nimble. I let the needle climb, settle into the fast lane and hit the steering wheel mounted cruise control button.

    Just me and this locomotive of an automobile flying down the highway, my heart bursts with childlike joy, I never want that moment to end.

  • MMinAR February 13, 2021, 7:05 AM

    Coming out of Nevada into Utah on the interstate after a ride up the CA Coast on my Norton Commando. Road was straight to the horizon. Had the strongest Thai Stick I ever smoked. Got that bike over 120 for long, long stretches. No windshield either.

    When I would slow down to 60, it seemed I could get off and check the oil. That was 50 years ago and I remember it like yesterday.

    It’s been a hell of a ride. Wonderful writing Gerard.