Archive for July, 2013

From the moment I reached the San Francisco County line on the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog was dense and consistent. There would be no trace of sun for six hours, until I reached that spot again. My destination, the VA hospital at Fort Miley above the Cliff House, would be in perpetual and chilling gray all day.

My last passenger would be a woman in the women’s naval corps during Korea. Her health had taken a turn a few years back, and now she was frail with hands so unsteady that she needed to rest one hand on the other’s wrist while she used the joy stick to guide her motorized wheelchair. It was one of the deluxe models, with six wheels – the big ones being the two in the center so it could pivot in place. It could recline, raise her up, and dip at the front for when she needed to get off of it.

Her eyes were bright and belied her physical status. We would have a lot to talk about en route, but first we headed south near where 280 and 19th Avenue merge to drop off my only other passenger, a dialysis patient that I see a lot of. He was trying to ween himself off of his wheelchair, and chose to use the steps rather than the lift to get off. His daughter who greeted him, herself in her 50s, was as always apprehensive about his risky choice. But getting back to a vertical routine for him was important on many levels, and she had to go with it.

After a surprisingly quick traverse of 19th Avenue heading north to Yountville and the VA’s retirement home in the Napa Valley, we were getting onto the Golden Gate in seemingly relentless monochrome. I told her that half way across that would all change, and sure enough it did.

A small pocket of clarity appeared to our lower right, providing a momentary glimpse of part of Angel Island bathed in gold with a sliver of bay behind it. It quickly disappeared. Scarce tourists huddled together on the walkway. Hopefully they hadn’t given up too soon, because they were only 100 yards from an incredible show.

Just before reaching the north tower, the world opened up in staggering fashion. To our left, the fog was being pushed along the steep contours of the northern mouth of the bay. It curved around a nearly vertical ridge and thrust out at us, dissipating quickly like a ghost in the night.

Beyond the tower, we were able to look steeply up at the fog tumbling down ferociously towards us, it’s very crest lit by the low sun. My passenger had her chair in full recline, so she had the optimum vantage point and enough glass above her to see it all.

As we approached the ridge cut in half leading to the Waldo Tunnel, the fog was even faster as it thrust downward, staying less than 30 feet from the dried grass and scrub brush it rushed over. When it reached that cut in the hills it swirled up again, twisting and expanding, looking like cotton candy in its moment of creation. Seconds later we were again in the thick of it – literally.

It was easy to pick out the one tourist on the road. He slowed down to 40 while all the Marin County commuters kept it at 60 heading for the tunnel.

Halfway through it the fog was gone, with sunlit homes along a high ridge in Sausalito visible through the end of it. The two curves at the other side prevented any wandering eyes for me, and the by crest and the overpass to Wolfback Ridge Road all traces of fog were nearly gone. The ridges were too high, and the fog hadn’t welled up behind them enough to get to that point near the crest where clumps get caught in the wind and get thrown over the side.

It had been a whirlwind of motion and awe that lasted about a minute. But I can close my eyes right now and relive that moment when white frosting flowed over dark shadow, lunging towards us like a child ready to reach for his daddy.


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Here’s the July 5, 2013 installment of ToddzRoadNotes on WordPress. I’m a paratransit in Northern California, and littler bits of my driving life can be found @ToddzRoadNotes on Twitter

Post begins 7/4 On the Reno strip–

My rendezvous with the other paratransit van was at the Denny’s in Corte Madera. My sole passenger was friendly, weathered, and ambulatory. The driver that got him this far gave me the bad news: we were going to Fernley, 40 miles east of Reno instead of Reno itself. Good thing I pleaded for and received a hotel room on the Reno strip.

It only took a few minutes to determine that my guy was a talker, and wasn’t overly concerned if I was listening carefully or not. Every landmark was a cue to an anecdote on another era; he lived over there, knew someone here, used to tend bar there. Even large businesses and/or factories were part of his travelog.

Between the road noise, clanging lift, and the ever-present a/c on another 100-degree day, he was very hard to hear. But there was an expectation of participation, so every once in a while I’d catch a phrase and throw in my own contribution which would be quickly overwhelmed. Still, that was just fine. He was happy, and I could still keep most of my focus on the road.

Despite the BART strike, traffic was moderate going over the bridge to Richmond Parkway and connecting to 80. With cruise control set at the speed limit, I was the slowest vehicle around. Sometimes I was in the middle lane because the slow lane was too bumpy, and I was swarmed by speeders on a regular basis. Going past Travis AFB the reputation for renegades was fulfilled, with at least three cars doing 90 or more as they streaked by.

The high clouds beyond Sacramento stayed pink for a long time, and there was a big lumpy cloud to our west rimmed in gold. I caught sight of a sun ray, and its maker was hung in one of the cloud’s crannies, projecting an amber line through the plains with grey to its right. I pointed it out and my guy was impressed for a moment, then continued his rambling dissertation.

Traffic through Sacramento was mostly a breeze, and into the foothills I was still on cruise control. At the far side of Auburn I saw the sign for a Sizzler, and realized a steak would be a great way to use up my per diem. When we got there my guy was quick to pounce on a woman to ask for a cigaret. He explained that he had been in the hospital for two weeks and would really like a puff. To her the logic was counter-intuitive, considering that it was heart surgery that kept him in the VA’s Fort Miley for so long and he was pushing 80. While she relented, I came back with the bad news that they were closed.

My guy flicked out the glowing ember, stowed his prize, and climbed back on board. Just down the frontage road we came across a restaurant with a bar. As I turned in there was a banner right before me: “Prime Rib $15.95.”

It got better. The kitchen had just closed but the bartender went back and talked them into one last steak for the night. After a momentary chat with the folks at the bar, I hit the bathroom. When I emerged my steak was already there. And it was glorious. Same with the mashed potatoes and string beans. Me and my taste buds couldn’t have asked for a better respite. My guy stayed outside while the van stayed open for him. He said he wanted air, but he really was looking for matches. He found someone with a pack, and they talked until I emerged. With a brisk shake of a new friend’s hand, he again flicked off the ember and preserved his stub.

Back on the road, traffic had picked up. Now after 10 p.m., there was always somebody in my mirrors. Being the night of July 3rd, the four-day weekend had begun. Pickups held bikes, motorcycles, kayaks, tents, and coolers. Before the summit I noted only two times when my mirrors were momentarily empty, going around a hillside or over a crest. And past the summit the skies revealed a forthcoming delight: lightning.

At first it wasn’t widespread, lighting up specific clouds beyond the hills. Then as we traversed the last few miles of California in the narrow canyon leading to Verdi, all the ridges were exposed in momentary contrast.

But before that show picked up steam, I had to deal with stubborn pride. A car came up behind, approaching slowly on the narrow four-lane road with just concrete between directions. He had his high beams on. After he passed, I honked at him and flashed my lights. Dude. Be nice.

No chance. He later got stuck behind some trucks in the slow lane, too preoccupied to pass, apparently. The brights were still on as I passed him. Eventually he remembered what the second lane was for and came up behind me again. And again I tooted and flashed at his aging BMW. Nothing.

I wondered what was going on in his head. High beams apparently were his statement to the world. I’m superior. I don’t give a fuck about you, deal with it.

With every flashed beams before or behind him, his resolve must be maintained. It was like giving in to low beams would be as taboo as noticing a guy’s butt. Impervious, he continued into the distance, darkening everyone’s days with unnecessary brilliance.

But he soon was a fading memory. What seemed like a dozen cars coming up on my left were actually a dozen bikers lined up two by two. On the first bike both the guy and girl were in shorts. Still in the seventies at midnight, that wasn’t a bad thing. It was perfect. Except perhaps when the bugs hit her knees.

Just past Verdi, there was lightning over Reno. One flash took place in a mushroom-shaped cloud, looking like a filament. I got gas at the Keystone exit and kept my eyes peeled east while the gallons clicked off. Nothing. But once back on the road the show returned in earnest.

We passed Mustang, prior home of the Mustang Ranch of dubious legend, and collectively noticed that the lightning was clearly closer. It always seemed just one ridge away. I tried to focus on the road with one eye toward where the next flash would originate, but most of the time I guessed wrong and only saw the flash, not the bolt. There were some fantastic exceptions, though, including one where both of us reacted in vociferous awe. Straight ahead there was this big black cloud like a meatball in the sky while the entire sky went yellowish white behind it. The distant clouds made the perfect backdrop as the lightning bolt came in from the left, was obscured by the dark cloud, then crackled out the other side towards the valley floor.

Another blast of light provided a full 180-degree panorama, giving me silhouettes of hills out my window, the windshield, and the full-length passenger door.

As we got to Fernley, the sky show continued as we crept through his sleepy town. I knew that the one cop on duty would probably be parked near with radar protecting the main drag. My guy pointed out the landmarks and the one bar in town not in a casino. It was dark, like most things on a Wednesday after midnight.

He invited me in to see his place: a tiny, relatively new duplex with a living room smaller than some shoe closets. He was a racing fan, with a big Mark Martin felt mural in his work room. Dangling from the ceiling were a couple of airplanes he had made out of Coke cans. Intact ones comprised the fuselage, with cut and flattened ones making up the tail and wings. His most prized one, was a Baron von Richtoffen-era triplane. He said he could fetch $100 for one like that.

After parting ways and taking to my van, I scanned for lightning but it was now further north. On the way back to Reno I stopped one last time to turn off the lights, see the stars, then focus east for my last glimpse of lightning for what may be months.

Back at Reno on the main drag, preparations for the Thursday parade were already in place. Getting my vehicle parked out of harm’s way was problematic, but successfully executed in time for me to roll into bed on the 9th floor of the Eldorado well after 2.

Morning gave me sporadic sleep, yet by starting to write this I finally committed to consciousness. The casino’s buffet was sumptuous, with bbq pork and portobello mushroom ravioli proving most memorable.

The journey back was uneventful yet stunning, with big dark clouds all piled over themselves in threatening ways. The full-length plexiglass door for passenger entry was like a vertical picture window over six feet tall. I could glance over and see cloud formations and gnarled trees emerging from cracks in boulders.

Almost and hour after my visit to the rest stop at the crest beyond Donner Lake, I found that I had a stowaway. He first appeared perched on the top of my steering wheel. Thinking he was a pincher bug I flicked him forward towards the base of the windshield. Within seconds he was back near the edge of the dashboard, glaring at me with beedie little termite eyes. His world focused on the aforementioned gnarled trees before he flew into my van at the rest stop. And now he was apparently peeved that my dashboard was not edible. Far more perplexing, no doubt, was his experiencing of lateral g-forces while seemingly stationary. I was literally rocking his world. While I kept driving, gliding through the downhill corners, he stayed put for a few minutes before walking a few paces and reassessing. Then he decided to engage me in a staring contest, pointing right at me. I was busy driving, but I wanted to compete when I could.

Once he considered himself the victor he turned and strutted a few paces again. He was in a conundrum. A perplexed pest. A diminutive critter in a quandary.

Or perhaps there was some sort of fellowship in play. My bud the bug. Like a tiny black lab with too many feet. But no. He seemed to be getting insistent. So I pulled over at the next offramp and attempted to scoot him through the open door with a sheet of paper. But instead he flew up, glanced off my face, and disappeared behind my seat, thereby committing the next phase of his life to our vehicle.

I wonder if he’d like seat belts or the nylon wheelchair securement straps. If the van is still around Friday, maybe I’ll throw in a few twigs just in case.

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