In my nineteen or so years (at the time), I had never really been to California’s Central Valley. I’d been through it, but never intentionally to it. Still, a trip there turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
A few times in my high school years I’d driven with Ma to Disneyland, taking the long, straight stretch down I-5. My perspective of it, coming from a valley at the leading edge of redwood country, was that it was a dismal place. Everything was beige. I’ve heard that the moniker of the “Golden State” comes not from actual gold but from the golden grassy hills. It’s a lie, I thought. It’s not gold, it’s beige. Beige and bland. And flat. Ohhh, how flat. My hometown’s valley is small, and wherever you are there is a hill you recognize on the near horizon. You always have a sense of perspective and of direction. The Central Valley is flat as far as the eye can see. At least, that’s how it appears with so much smog.
A friend from high school was getting married, and I was invited. The destination was Paradise. Paradise? Where the heck is that, I wondered. Oh, it’s in the Central Valley. Yay. Who the hell would name any place there Paradise? I was just being judgmental – elitist about my mountain home. Of course I’ll go. I love my friend Marlena and had been on some fun road trips with her, and it’ll be great to see her and be there for her wedding. In Paradise (spoken with a sarcastic sneer). Plus, my friend Lila was driving, and I really did love to spend time with both of them.
The drive out was fun, really. The journey from Willits out Highway 20 past Clear Lake is a good couple of hours, mostly winding along through small towns and scenic views. We rolled down the windows (no A/C), listened to the radio, and played cribbage. Yeah, cribbage. Ever play cribbage with someone while they’re driving a car at 70 mph? That’s a good idea (spoken with a sarcastic sneer). We really did have a blast, though, except for the squirrel incident. I remember vividly that Lila cried as we tried to figure out what was so freaking different about that side of the road than the other side. In the quiet of the hot summer day, why did the squirrel have to cross just then, right in front of us? Lila lived on a communal ranch where all the inhabitants stop their cars on rainy days as they navigate the ranch’s driveway so that they can carry salamanders off the road towards either the creek on one side or the pond on the other, depending on which way the salamander is facing. Humanity on a level seldom seen. The squirrel incident was devastating to her. We stopped the cribbage game and turned off the radio and rode in silence. To Paradise.
Once we cleared the foothills and the summer heat intensified, my former impression of the valley immediately washed back over me. Why would people live out here? It’s so hot! And what’s up with all the smog, anyway? The rest of the drive seemed longer and more painful than the actually longer and slower leg we had just completed passing the lake. Ugh. Golden State, indeed.
Eventually, we reached Paradise. We got the impression that hosting us had not been expected by all, but with some arguing we were begrudgingly taken in. We were shown to our accommodations on the couches at the groom’s former roommates’ house. It was only going to be for two nights, so no biggie. Couching it was no major inconvenience, especially at nineteen. I’ve slept in worse situations, truly. Thank you for the couch. It’s paradise.
The wedding itself is not all that clear of a memory to me, honestly. It was in a church, and churches are odd places to me and had always left a bad taste in my mouth (but that’s a different story). I remember the church itself – a long, low, 1950’s ranch house style number – and for the longest time after I kept a rusty old musket ball I’d found in an adjacent field that was littered with them. And I remember it was hot. And flat. Surrounded by the glory of the Golden State. And I remember Marlena looked beautiful.
The morning Lila and I went to leave, we didn’t eat very well. I do remember that very well. I grew up a hippie kid, and sugary junk food had not been a regular part of my upbringing, at least not with any regularity. I think for breakfast I had a slice of pizza and a big waxed-paper cup of punch that was diluted from the ice that had melted in it while it sat overnight on the side table. That was sort of the theme of food those couple of days. Lila and I loaded ourselves into the car, cribbage board set, and hit the road. It was early in the day, so the heat was just starting to build up. We knew it would be intense by the time we got to the foothills on the western side of the valley.
Many of the roads across the valley are on elevated berms. Levees, really. The rainy season traditionally floods parts of the valley, and the elevated roadways ensure dry passage in the wet season. At the time I thought the elevation was about getting a higher perspective in a flat land, so you could see where you were going. The windows were down, the heat was building, and suddenly I started feeling nauseated.
I’d had passing-out experiences twice before. Ma raised me vegetarian and out of natural foods stores, but that didn’t mean a well-rounded diet. I grew up anemic and unaware of dietary needs and variety. Had I been more self-aware, I would have recognized that these incidents came with sugary food on an empty stomach. But that cognizance was not to be.
I was feeling nauseated, but not recognizing where this might lead. It was a mystery, this passing out. Lila noticed I had turned white and clammy. In my own mind, the world had gone white and was vibrating and pulsing around me. There was a pressure in my head, I was sweating, and had I been more hydrated I would likely have wet myself at that moment. Lila asked if I was okay, but I didn’t notice. She pulled over to the side of the road, thinking I needed to sit next to the car and recover for a minute. Perhaps I needed to throw up or something. When we stopped, she opened my door from inside. I was passed out leaning against it, and rolled out.
When I came to a few minutes later, I was in the field at the bottom of the steep embankment of the road. Lila was kneeling over me, extreme worry in her eyes. It’s okay, I do this sometimes, I told her. I don’t know what it is. I was lying supine, prostrate on the ground, and Lila suggested I stay that way for awhile. Good suggestion. It was so hot, too. As the pins and needles subsided I realized I had little sharp pains all over my body. The slope I’d rolled down was dry and weedy, and had left me covered in hundreds of tiny burrs. They were unlike ones familiar to me. They had two long spines and a row of small spikes down the middle between them. I lay there thinking it was ironic how much they looked like little devils’ heads, having just been in a church the day before.
As I lay there in the sun with Lila picking out the burrs, looking up at the car on the roadway above us and marveling at how far I’d rolled, a car appeared up the road and slowed as it approached. It was a sparkly green Cadillac, and the waves of heat from the pavement covered the wheels in a mirage. It looked like the green Caddy was levitating as it smoothly rolled to a stop behind Lila’s car. Nothing happened. The green shimmer just sat there, floating behind ours for a minute. That’s weird, we both commented.
Eventually, the driver’s door opened. A man stepped out in a black chauffeur’s uniform. He stood there for a moment, his torso floating above a legless mirage in the heat, before walking around to open the back passenger’s door. Door open, a small old man slowly climbed out. He steadied himself with his cane as the chauffeur helped him down the embankment towards us. As they neared, I thought the chauffeur looked like Telly Savalas, and it amused me. The chauffeur stopped where the slope ended, letting the old man come the remaining dozen or so feet on his own.
This little old man was in a suit, and a very nice one at that. I couldn’t see too much of his personal details since he was in silhouette, shielding my face from the sun, but I could sense the pale, withdrawn wrinkles of his face and see he had on a hat. A fedora, I believe. He asked what happened and I told him it’s okay, this just happens sometimes. He asked if he could pray for me. Sure, why not. These few days have been strange enough already.
He knelt at my head and placed his palm on my forehead. I closed my eyes and just went for the ride as he began mumbling in a language that neither Lila nor I recognized. His prayer must have lasted only fifteen or twenty seconds, but I felt lighter. I felt it. He stood up with great difficulty, using his cane, and extended his hand to me as he moved towards my feet. I grasped his hand and stood up easily as if his were the only effort in my doing so. “You know you’re blessed now,” he told me. And I did know it. Lila and I stood there with an odd sense of disbelief as he labored back to his chauffeur and they struggled up the hill to the magic floating green carpet and drifted off.
That was just about the strangest thing ever, Lila and I commented to each other. But inside I knew something was different, and I’ve felt it ever since. I am blessed.