A Road Trip with Stephen King in Southern CA
As if an unwanted birthday wasn’t enough, my twenty-seven year old, freon compressed, central A/C decided to die of bad capacitance and a burnt-out motor a day before the two weeks of 100+ and 110+ degree weather. A subject matter expert came out to give me an estimate on a replacement unit. As he inspected the bowels of my house and noted problem points, he doubted the efficacy of my A/C efficiency to the tune of about 10K.
With the demise of the A/C, my living space was reduced to the inner sanctum of a single 10x10x8 room that contains all my connections to the outside world: the temporary room AC, the TV, the work laptop, the personal laptop, and the iPhone. I once read that the entire biomass of humanity individually put in 9x9x9 cubic foot containers could be stored inside the Grand Canyon. I don’t know if that is still true or not because the population has expanded by a few billion people since I was informed of that fact. I don’t think the Grand Canyon people-fill generated a lot of enthusiasm in the real estate market.
At work, dumped from two projects this year and waiting four months and counting to start a new one while COVID drove everyone from their offices to their homes, my living space also turned into my workspace. With time on my hand and inspired by the insane politics of the time, I read Hannah Arendt’s book “A Report on the Banality of Evil.” In the evilest empire of modern times, people hid behind platitudes. State a positive to overlook a negative. The road to hell is paved with platitudes. That is the banality of evil. I’ve had months to contemplate the platitude that made my pending work assignment once palatable, “Peace through Strength.” My workspace feels really small.
COVID had me in storage. Work had me in storage. An oppressive heatwave had me in storage. Regardless of the venue and with a milestone birthday imminent, I for one wanted out of storage. I decided to take the week off from work to get my head around my descent into decrepitude and to evaluate the efficacy of my own efficiency. Somebody called it a symbolic milestone, but the symbolism escapes me. It feels pretty real to me.
So what do you do for your symbolic milestone birthday in the age of COVID to get out of storage? Road trip! Particularly when you have Hetal and Chris for friends. Separate cars! Separate rooms! Stay outdoors wherever possible. Masks and hand sanitizer. We were going. As Hetal said, birthdays are a big deal.
The general plan was to head to Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park. The reason for this particular destination was my desire to visit Kings Canyon. I’ve seen Kings Canyon from a distant overlook and technically, I’ve been in the park before because of the small isolated piece of it on the road to Sequoia that contains General Grant. I’ve never made it into the canyon proper mostly because I have visited the area in the offseason on late-year holiday trips when the only drivable entrance to Kings Canyon is closed off. Not at all complaining about the beautiful overlook into the canyon but just seeing it from the rim is a teaser, like flying over in an airplane. If you go to one park, it is a wasted opportunity not to visit the other if you can, so Sequoia is in the mix even if it is a several time repeat.
I was strongly advised to get reservations for a campground because of COVID constraints and crowds. Indeed, my search through the campgrounds proved them all to be full and the first-come, first-serve campgrounds closed on account of COVID. So I made reservations at Eshom Campground in Sequoia National Forest, which looked pretty close to the parks on a small map. This was the part of the trip I did plan in advance.
During an unrelated astronomical conversation concerning the identification and alignment of planets, the topic of the trip came up with Phil, a lifelong friend I met at the age of 9. A potential hike I was considering to Mist Falls was also on Phil’s to-do list. So he would be joining us for a night of camping and a day of hiking in Kings.
I packed my car full of camping equipment, coolers, and clothes. I chose Stephen King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on the Craft” on audio for company. Listening to King on the way to Kings seemed fitting. The reservations were for Sunday and Monday. We left on a Saturday. We had an unplanned night before the visit to the National Parks. When Chris and Hetal showed up at the house, I still wasn’t sure where we were going first.
I offered up the idea of the Kern River but the final decision was Ojai with the possibility of continuing onto Paso Robles. It wasn’t a completely random destination, we had discussed it at the beginning of the summer for a possible motorcycle trip but the stars and planets didn’t quite align. In a previous motorcycle trip through Ojai with a different crowd, I did little more than take a quick lunch break before cruising through the picturesque Los Padres National Forest on CA-33 on our way to Paso Robles and beyond.
While Stephen King struggled through his childhood for the next couple of hours and without any hint of what his rambling had to do with the craft, I began a text-while-driving negotiation to meet Ann who lives in Ojai, a friend I haven’t seen in the six months since we collectively went into storage back in March, to give her fair warning of our impending arrival instead of just showing up at her house and telling her “Surprise, we are here!” Not so much because I’m courteous but only because I don’t know with any precision exactly where she lives. Even in COVID, LA traffic accommodates my texting session with stopped traffic in the middle of the freeway for no other apparent reason than to allow me to continue my conversation without the risk of driving. Over the course of the four-hour trip, I learned that Ann will meet us somewhere for dinner after she finishes painting houses in Ventura.
After nearly four hours of talking, Stephen King is still only five years old in his memoir. I suppose five was a watershed moment in my life too, but all I have to say about that is you can’t trust old people. I think I could make a case for that lack of trust setting me off on a youth filled with long hair and informality and iconoclasm and introversion. With any luck, in five or ten years, I can inflict you with my own memoir on the craft so you can judge for yourself if my case has any merit.
Ojai is a tourist town and a gateway to the wilderness recreation in the coastal mountains outside of Ventura and Santa Barbara. The downtown has an adobe feel to it. Outdoor seating and drinking beckoned but our first stop was to Bart’s, the world’s greatest outdoor bookstore. Bookstores aren’t dead yet although it doesn’t hurt to have a quaint outdoor setting and a great reputation. I asked the kid at the register how they choose their books and he told me the books choose them. Fair enough. So I asked the books how they choose the store and each had its own story to tell. Haha. I couldn’t resist. Sorry.
We started our night on the town at the Ojai Pub. At Ann’s recommendation, we redirect to Topa Topa Brewing company where we finally meet up, and then from there to Ojai Beverage Co, all with outdoor seating and plenty of beer and food, a great way to spend a Saturday night. As much fun as I have in the inner sanctum of my personal storage drinking my homemade wine telling my dogs the errors of their ways, it just doesn’t compare to a warm night on an outdoor patio, eating someone else’s cooking for a change, and telling my interactive and three-dimensional and charming friends the errors of their ways. Ann is a gracious host.
After an overnight in Carpenteria and a coffee at a coffee shop to which people coagulate on a Sunday morning on a downtown artery of Santa Barbara, we headed out the scenic 154 for a panoramic view of Cachuma Lake and an involuntarily slow drive-by of a smoldering blackened car. We crossed over from the coast to Visalia through the golden hills inside the coastal range outside of San Luis Obispo. The yellow, gold, and tans with just an occasional splotch of tree were painting and picture waiting to happen.
Stephen King has been chatting me up as we cut across the state still talking more memoir than craft. He finally gets around to the topic of writing. He hates adverbs, I recall ruefully. He vigilantly culls his drafts for adverbs, but even he cannot purge his work of them all successfully. The road to hell is paved with adverbs, he says angrily and bitterly and ardently and abjectly. Abjectly sounded good when I wrote it but I actually had to look up its definition. Stephen hates pretense. Don’t fluff up your sentences with pompous and pretentious and supercilious and resplendent words that you don’t know the meaning of just to sound more erudite and educated.
He tells me half of writing is vulnerability. Stick your jaw out there, it will most certainly get punched. So far, when I’ve put my jaw out there for the punch, I’ve been hit hard by the harsh hands of irrelevance and invisibility and a complete lack of marketing skills. Needless to say, the other half of writing is about paying the hospital bill.
It pains me to no end that my fifty IG posts average about five hits compared to tens of thousands of hits in a single post of a hot babe in a pretend bikini telling me that life is an adventure. On second thought, maybe the other half of writing is about paying the shrink. In either case, my book sales to date won’t cover the cost for the phone call to set up the appointment.
Stephen ignores my pathos and moves on. It’s all about him. He lets situation drive his writing rather than plot. Plot is unnatural and forced and for him, at least, arises naturally from situation. Plot is emergent. Situation seems like an appropriate metaphor for a trip that was at least in part unplanned until its start day. Write this situation: what if we go to Ojai without a plan or a place to stay in the middle of a pandemic while the state is burning down?
In Exeter, we provisioned up at a little mom and pop grocery store that has only a mom and serves mostly the same fare as a gas station. The dairy section of the store is a single rack behind a glass cooler and there is no bread. But the lady is nice and sacrifices two sandwich bread loaves from her deli for our campout meals. In another encounter a day later, my vegetarian friend Phil stopped at a sandwich shop in Exeter and they gave him the Philly cheesesteak despite repeatedly clarify his order for something else. He’s pretty sure he could have ordered anything from the guy and he would still have ended up with a Philly cheese steak. So there you have it, the good and bad of Exeter. How many people even have the experience of being there?
From Exeter, we drove to our desolate campground in the Sequoia National Forest. We veered off to scenic back roads that narrowed into one car lanes and roughed ever bumpier and wound into ever tighter curves and bends. As the road turned to dirt, Google Maps told me, “Arrived.” I looked around. The only thing I saw was trees. In yet another unimpressive performance of the app, it had dumped me about a half a mile from the entrance to the campground. Google Maps once rerouted me in LA in the middle of the night down a freeway that ended, sent me into some dubious neighborhood, then cut out and dropped the image of the map while looking for its connection. I had no idea where the f**k I was. I once followed it in Idaho and it took me down a road that disappeared from the map while my impatient guide suggested over and over that I, “Return to the route. Return to the route. Return to the route,” as if it were my fault. They tell me AI is going to take over the world. Ha. Really? Wait. Now that I think about it, maybe that is one small step in its master plan.
It didn’t take long to set up camp, then play catch with Chris and a real baseball, sneak glances at the two pretty lesbian (that’s how my mind processed it) girls in the campsite next to ours, and snap a picture of a gopher that looks like he is up for a game of whack-a-mole. Gophers at home have eaten far more from my attempts at agriculture than I have. Don’t let those cute buck teeth and that cute furry muzzle fool you for even a second. The road to agricultural hell is paved with gophers. And rabbits. And squirrels. And seed-eating birds. And snails. And insects. There is a lot of traffic on that particular road. It might work out for me if I trick the gophers into eating adverbs instead of corn and cucumbers.
Of course, I find my way into the alcohol and have a beer or four with my teetotaling vodka-drinking friend Hetal, commiserating over the last few minutes of my now spent middle age.
I awoke in the morning from my bivy sarcophagus to a new decade. In my head, I heard the voice from Google Apps say, “Arrived,” having dumped me in the middle of existential nowhere. A big part of the trip is over. It was what it was, it is what it is, and it will be what it will be. That’s the wisdom I’ve accrued over the years. Not having much shit on my shelf, I figure it best to go talk to the 3000-year-old Sequoia trees to find out what their wisdom is. After all, they’ve survived millennia of fires and fungi (but they do seem to be at the mercy of men and climate).
The campground is only fifteen miles from Sequoia National Park as the crow flies but an hour-and-a-half to get to as the car drives down circuitous and curvy roads. With another half-hour delay added to the ride for road maintenance, I gave up on my ambitions to hike deeper into the backcountry. There are always plenty of trees on the Big Trees trail to visit. General Sherman was way too busy showing off his massive girth to the hordes to have much of a conversation. Hordes was his word. He pointed out to me that its the same word I use for mosquitos.
I found an ancient that wasn’t so preoccupied. This is what it said to me, “I put out hundreds of seeds per cone and thousands of cones per year. Conservatively, over the course of my two thousand years of life, I might produce 200*5000*2000 or more than two billion seeds. I only need one success in two billion to be successful.”
F**king optimist. If I were 3000 years old, I’d be an optimist too. But they are resplendent and grandiose and flamboyant and Stephen King is turned off for a couple of days until I get back on the highway. So thinking with my cup half full, I agreed with his Majestic-ness. But then re-thinking with my cup half empty, it means there are two billion less one failures. So big trees suffer from confirmation bias even after all these years they have had to get their shit together. When I confronted them, they ignored my protestations and insights. The big trees spoke of resilience and perseverance as they looked down on me. I didn’t hear what the two billion less one missing trees had to say. Probably, the same thing I had to say. “Humph.”
Enough talking to the trees, I had to race back to the campground to greet Phil. Fortuitously, I saw him on the Big Trees trail hiding under an Illini baseball cap and behind a bandit’s mask. I was within two feet of him before I recognized that twinkle in his eye that makes him him. Two life long friends of over fifty years could have sailed past each other on the trail without a glimmer of recognition just like that. Easy come, easy go? It was a fortunate encounter. I didn’t have to rush back and he didn’t have to get lost in the middle of the night trying to locate the campsite. Well, maybe he has better luck with his maps.
Phil and I headed to Moro rock. Despite the haziness of the smoke-filled air and the ominous presence of ravens, the steep climb thinly protected by a knee-high rock wall from a drop of hundreds of feet and a view of distant mountains across a deep valley was thrilling and awe-inspiring. A thick haze obscured our view to the west. After our summit and viewing, we trekked back to the campsite under a pink and red and purple sunset stopping briefly to watch a flock of turkeys crossing the road before rejoining Chris and Hetal for a birthday celebration. Celebration is kind of a strong word for a gathering of four and an event that I would have strongly preferred to keep as a target in the sight rather than a fading memory in the rearview mirror. On the other hand, there are two billion less one seeds telling me to f**k off. They never made it this far, relatively speaking.
Back at the campsite, we all enjoyed Phil’s beers, checked out the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, talked about COVID and politics and retirement and travel and a few other things I probably needed to shut up about already. I scored three sci-fis from Neal Stephenson from Hetal and Chris and a six-pack of Stone from Phil. I never got around to playing “Time Waits for No One” on the guitar. That is how you turn sixty. It was what it was, it is what it is, and it will be what it will be. I heard a bunch of trees groan in the darkness at the thought.
Enough of the moroseness of a happy birthday. Nothing to lift your spirits like the resplendence of a spectacular canyon. Parting ways with Hetal and Chris, Phil and I packed and hit the road for the Mist Falls hike. Kings didn’t disappoint. It was very Grand Canyonish, in fact, even deeper at its deepest point, with the advantage that you can drive down into it. It’s a long slow ride that makes a lot more sense if you camp down there over nights to spend more time participating in the wilderness than viewing it from behind a wheel. The campgrounds we drove past were closed and the road was empty.
At the end-of-the-road trailhead to Mist Falls, we caught up to other cars and hikers but nothing even remotely overwhelming for a national park on a perfect summer day. The first two miles of the Mist trail was flat following the South Fork of the Kings River. The walls and peaks towered overhead in the haze from far-off fires in the Valley. A mule train led by two park rangers passed us on a hot and dusty section of the trail loaded with metallic canisters of unknown cargo. After a mile or so, the open trail ducked under a riparian forest to a prehistoric undergrowth of horsetails and ferns. At the two-mile marker, the trail veered north turning into a gentle climb as it followed the contour of the canyon alongside the river.
We stopped so I could take pictures of the stream. I managed to forget my poles, walking for about a tenth of a mile before realizing my mistake. After I retrieved the damn poles, I contemplated the efficacy of my brain efficiency. It’s just a matter of time before I forget something critical like turning off a stove burner for a night or forgetting to zip up my fly after a bathroom break during an important meeting at work. But instead of getting angry at frustrating times like this, I remembered an extremely useful piece of advice, “ask yourself if what you are doing is helping the situation or not.” I heard it on a TED talk on resilience. Anger and or self-pity don’t help the situation. I know, I’ve tried. That one phrase has so far kept me out of any up and coming Stephen King novels.
A few stretches of the trail are steep enough to warrant a granite staircase. We passed cascades we thought might be the falls. A catch-and-release fisherman regaled us of his multi-species trout catches of the day and told us the falls were just up the trail about a half-mile. A sign marked the spot of the actual falls but once you see the falls, you won’t mistake them for anything else.
The falls were extremely photogenic with a peak off to one side, trees on the rim near the top, and a rock protruding from the bottom pool that allows people to stand right in front of the falls almost as if in them. I usually try to take pics without people but I think, in this case, the people add a sense of scale and contrast. Phil took full advantage of the pool at the base of the falls with a swim in the cool waters. We found Phil’s wheelhouse.
After a hundred photos, a quick jump in the pool, and a modest lunch, we headed back. Most of my hikes these days are solo filled with finding interesting things and composing pics in my mind but this one breezes by with Phil’s company.
On the way out of Kings, we made a quick stop at the Roaring River Waterfalls. It is just off the road on a paved trail and another photo op. A little further down the road, we stopped in Visalia for dinner. Surprisingly, Visalia had a pleasant restaurant row with outdoor seating. We ate at Corby’s Rock N Roll Heroes. Don’t be fooled, it isn’t it a record store, it’s actually a restaurant that plays great classic rock’n’roll with a very pleasant young server who surprisingly does a lot of day hiking on her own in Kings.
Stephen King rejoined me for the ride home to San Diego but he’s not such pleasant company on this leg of the trip. In 1999, he ended up getting run over by a callous man trying to stop his Rottweiler from digging into his beer supply instead of paying attention to the road. If not for the quick response and impeccable treatment by the first-responder, Stephen assured me that he would have died. As it was, he had a crushed leg that looked more a bag of marbles than a bone, a punctured lung, broken ribs, and bent frames on his eyeglasses.
Stephen told me that the inspiration credited to drugs and alcohol is a myth. He should know, he was an addict. I read somewhere that after decades of abstinence, he fell off the wagon again. I don’t know if he has once again kicked the habit. I do know he has published over 60 books. Two roads to hell and one to redemption.
He tells me I have to write, write, and write, and then write some more. He also tells me I have to read, read, and read, and then read some more. Damn it. I have a job.
Stephen finally shut up and I finally made it home. I watched the grittiness of the backcountry wash off me in black streaks swirling down the shower drain.
So one symbolic milestone came and went. I continued to doubt the efficacy of my efficiency and I learned that the road to hell is paved with platitudes, adverbs, and gophers.
I imagined myself plotting out the road to hell in Google maps. Same road as Stephen King’s and Hannah Arendt’s. And herds of gophers. I followed its direction. I got stuck in purgatory. I paved the road with colorful phrases like, “Where in the hell are you taking me?” No adverbs were necessary. With any luck, I permanently lose myself at the end-of-the-road on the Kings Canyon Scenic Byway.
I heard my internal map app voice speaking in my head, “Return to the route. Return to the route. Return to the route.” I’m sixty years old and I dumped me in the middle of nowhere. What route? What map?
I look at my older self in the mirror and say, “Now what?” He snarls his lips in disgust and disdain, stares back from inside the mirror, and says, “You live with it.”