Highway One presents a mirror image of the itineraries taken by ancient Hellenic mariners. Raised on tales of the fabulous creatures that inhabited the open sea and lacking the tools to navigate those trackless blue prairies, they would row or tack along the shores of the mainland and the archipelagoes, always keeping terra firma within sight. For most of its sinuous route through Mendocino County, Highway One hugs the sea.
At one point, though, about twenty miles north of Fort Bragg, the two-lane turns inland and twists its way eastward over the thickly forested hills. The sea quickly drops from view. Motorists headed north won’t catch sight of it again until they reach Eureka, the port whose name, Greek for “I found it,” echoes the ejaculation Archimedes supposedly made upon discovering the secret of specific density while stepping out of a wooden bath. Those wishing the pleasure of the sea’s company will have to take the Usal Road, a rutted dirt track that weaves up and down the rockbound coast along Jackass Ridge, past Mistake Point and Jackson’s Pinnacle and Point No Pass to the edge of the Sinkyone Wilderness. None of these curious or ominous geographical features, of course, is marked by a sign. The only sign on the Usal Road is the warning, just past the cattle guard at its entrance, which proclaims the road to be impassable in winter and suggests that the county’s liability for any mishaps is nil.
It’s not quite winter yet. In fact, the rainy season is two months late this year, the weather impossibly balmy, and we proceed, at our own risk, into the territory known to locals as the Lost Coast. We drive cautiously past slip-outs and over water bars, raising clouds of ochre dust as we maneuver around dry rills. Even in the very best of times, low-slung cars can lose their mufflers or their oil pans. Hunks of metal debris nestle here and there in shoals of fallen needles, remnants of vehicles that bottomed out. The sunlight, both straight from the source itself and reflected off an utterly calm sea, smashes its way through the green lacework of redwoods. Red alders along a stagnant creek seem to bend under the blast, as if they wanted to burrow back into the cool, dark earth.
We stop. We leave behind the sound of the car’s engine groaning as it cools. The only noise now is us, grass whishing under the soles of our boots as we follow an abandoned logging road past an abandoned homestead and head down towards an old pasture a thousand feet above the surf. Most of the fencing has rotted away, and the cattle run, and clumps of tick bush and manzanita are reclaiming the grassland. The sea, the normally roaring sea, has lost its voice this breathless afternoon. It is perfectly flat, no swells or waves in sight, not even one of those breakers poets liken to the generations of men, each new oncoming curl rushing the preceding curl towards its end on the shore.
She smoothes out lumps in the blanket we spread across crackly dry grass. We sip grape juice. We talk. Rice cakes that have traveled all the way from China crunch between our teeth. We kiss. Our clothes melt away. We enter the roaring silences we call our bodies, join them together, communicating with each other in the tongue that passes all understanding.
Later, as lovers often do when their flesh and blood become separate again, we tickle our way back into the real world with words.
Gaochao, she says, or something like that. “High tide it means. That’s how we Chinese call the orgasm.”
Her black hair is rumpled, and just long enough to fall across her forehead, shading her eyes from the sun. They seem to be looking through the fine strands at the leaves of a lone pin oak drooping in the heat.
She tells me bamboo is her favorite tree. When she was a girl, a farmer bought her from her father for three hundred dollars, and she would walk out into the bamboo groves after her stepmother beat her. She would pretend the rustling leaves were speaking to her, pretend they were the voice of her real mother consoling her. For her new parents she was no more than a slave, a mite to be ordered about, underfed and whipped for the smallest misdeeds, last in line to get a bowl of rice, which she would usually eat out in the yard with the chickens.
“Why I never grow,” she says. “The chickens hungry too. Only one who love me at that house is old granny, the farmer’s mother.”
The almost-senile woman would slip her loose change now and then so she could buy herself a bite to eat on the sly in the village. She would open the bedcovers at night when the little girl was frightened by the dark, or the mad howling of a typhoon, and let her crawl into the warmth. She never raised her voice, and when the granny was fading from the world, the girl brought her a bag of peanuts, her favorite food. The hard nuts had to be broken up in her own mouth first, before she spooned the pulp into granny’s toothless craw. And then she died.
“Your granny love you too?”
Yes, though sometimes she would whack me with her hairbrush, with the stiff bristles, not the flat side, so it would hurt more, my grandmother did love me. We lived, just the two of us, in one of those decaying wooden tenements that catch fire so easily, a gray building with rusted railings staring at its cousins across a busy thoroughfare. I slept on the couch, my lullaby the steady whoosh of traffic, the sirens of ambulances and cop cars, the clatter of trolleys rolling through the night.
Several decades and thousands of miles away, I can still see the beams of headlamps flashing through the window, lighting up bumps and stains on the plaster peeling from the wall. I can see my grandmother sitting in front of a flickering television. She’s watching Lawrence Welk and his champagne music makers, but the sound is turned off, in the mistaken notion that it might disturb my sleep. My grandmother sits in her rocker, hairbrush in hand, methodically brushing a few gray wisps through air where decades ago cascades of ebony hair used to flow.
Each slow stroke is an oar dipped in water. Each stroke noses an imaginary boat through the maze of channels and islands created by the blemishes and lumps of paint on the mottled wall above the couch, where she’s tucked me in tight. On one island, there’s a volcano. The shadowy slopes flicker in the blue light from the television. I climb it, slashing a path through jungle with my machete, my ears pricked for the footfall of a tiger. From the smoking cone at the summit I can see far-away evenings in cities dotted with lights from tenement rooms where old women fuss with tangles from another life. I can see white roses. The roses glow in their hair like those fish that are their own lanterns in the dark, in the silence in the deepest and darkest trenches of the sea.
Qingren, I hear, sweetheart. She’s already buttoning up her shirt. It’s time to leave. The sun is but a hand’s breadth above the horizon, casting a path of gold on the unruffled expanse, a broad, shining highway that must reach all the way to the rice paddies and pagodas of her homeland. How does she come to be on a bluff beetling over the Pacific on this most wild and lost section of California’s coastline? And me?
“Do you ever think about returning?” I ask.
She looks west towards the Far East, and squints. The jade ring on the hand she raises to protect her eyes from the glare of the dying sun sparkles.
“No,” she says after a moment. “A country where I was sold?”