Monday, March 9, 2009

Highway 17

"Have you thrown your senses to the war, or did you lose them in the flood?" -- Springsteen

Originally a track used by natives and stage coach companies, the 26 mile route between San Jose and Santa Cruz rises to 1,800 feet at the summit of Patchen Pass before descending into the coastal fog. The first time I rode through the wicked twists and narrow lanes between the trees of the Santa Cruz mountains, I was a passenger in a carload of partying students heading from the state college over to the beach.

The road had several popular nicknames at the time: Suicide Alley, the Valley Surprise, Glenwood Slaughterhouse. Separated at first by the force of wind generated by logging trucks passing in opposite directions along the lanes shadowed by the trees, Highway 17 wore a thin median fence and the occasional concrete barrier by the time I had moved to Northern California. You usually knew you were close to the center line by the chips of glass or broken fenders lying in the way.

That never stopped us from tearing along, passing bottles of Mickey's Big Mouth or a waterpipe between our cars, ten or fifteen of us en-route from the smoggy Santa Clara valley to the cool and salty beaches. Mark the Wop usually tore along in his modified blue Ford, driving like the erstwhile race driver he insisted he had been, the rest of us letting him get a few cars ahead so we knew where he was.

Cresting the summit, we wended between sputtering VW vans and terrified senior citizens in their camper trucks, letting it fly down the western rim through Santa's Village and Scott's Valley, finally planing out near the Branciforte where you could see the steeple of the Holy Cross Church in the salt-spray air. Safely--strange as that could be--on the coastside, we turned north on Highway 1 toward the beaches of Davenport, stopping only for fresh beer and sandwiches.

I liked the Red, White and Blue beach, marked only by its tri-color mailbox, where you descended again through a twisting dirt road to the sandy parking strip, and stumbled down the rocks to the nude beach, toting your cooler, towels, and radios. So long as you were going to be cold, your body prickled from the wind, you might as well wear nothing. We'd wake from hours of beer-snoozing, painfully sunburned all over. I used to joke that even the insides of our mouths, open to snores in the late afternoon sun, had been burnt.

Once, Ron and I climbed into Roger Andrino's Volkswagen and the three of us drove over Highway 17 to the flat beach between Davenport and Wilder Ranch. The tide was out, so Roger putted along the hardpack so we could picnic close to the waves. Later, the sea came in and flooded the car where it stuck in the sand and we had to wait until the tide went out again. We had long days and nights of bota bags and reefer and anger at the war, grave relief at having scored our draft deferments. The sun was setting into the anvil of fog, but across the waves on the other side of the world, it was rising over the jungles and hamlets where our friends and family members were dying or going subtly insane.

* * *

In my state college days I hadn't the slightest notion that I would someday live on the coast side of Highway 17. But when I went back to school to study literature, Maki-san and I drove her overloaded green VW over the pass and took a little beach house by Twin Lakes. I so hated Highway 17 then, for it no longer represented a road to freedom from the heat and choked thoroughfares of the Santa Clara Valley to the languid beach-side roads, but instead was a highway of inevitability going the other direction, toward the San Francisco airport where Maki would depart homeward.

On what I thought would be the last drive, a year after Maki had departed from my life forever, I was in the green VW she'd left me, packed now for graduate school in Alabama, a place as far removed from the laid-back surfer lanes of Santa Cruz as Albania, or Antarctica. I would not be back in California to live for more than fifteen years.

In 1999, having taken a job with a dot-com startup in Silicon Valley, I drove out Highway 17 to the coast. I rented a tiny apartment near the San Jose airport and found myself in a stranglehold commute, taking 45 minutes to travel less than five miles to work each day. One Saturday morning, I rose early and sped westward on the section of Highway 17 that had been renamed Interstate 880, hitting the pass before most people had woken up for coffee, descending from the summit in darkness, speedling along the patch from Scott's Valley toward Santa Cruz, the rising sun glancing off the whited steeple in the pastel pinks and grays of daybreak.

I had been sober for more than a decade and sought out other ways to smooth out the edges of life, but the sea had turned an inconsiderate shoulder, the Santa Cruz morning streets were walked by strangers or, worse, shadows and echos, and the buildings themselves wore new names.


Char said...

sometimes your journeys make me sad and this is one...but its beautifully written.

Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

My brother and I lived in Capitola in 1970-1, after spending our first month with friends in the mountains near Felton while we looked for an apartment to rent. Our car was some old POS, manual transmission with only 3 gears + overdrive, gear shift on the steering wheel. Every time we went over the hill, we'd hope the Highway Angels would let us make it to the top. We'd always make it, but we'd always worry, nonetheless.

J9 said...

Istill find hwy 17 a passage to my freedom, and renewal. The names and people and place itself has changed, but the sea remains the same. The salt still there in the air to recharge my battery and heal my wounds.

Blue Sky Dreaming said...

I have lived here since 1995 and it has been wonderful for me. Hwy 17 is still poorly banked but now the BMW's have taken over the commute. There is still the sweet mixture of hippy relaxed small town/Silcon Valley commuters aggresive but we find our places and everyone still loves the beach.

A Cuban In London said...

That's one of my dreams (n this lifetime), to drive in the US. To go from east to west and stop on the way and suck up the different locations and people. Fascinating tale and the quote by Springsteen is very apposite. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.

Anonymous said...

Another great trip down memory lane. The things we did are fantastic to read about again decades later; and your writing brings them to life like those events happened today. We've both grown and gone on our separate life journeys, but I would not change any of the experiences of my time with you......ron