It’s been exactly a week since we were sitting in our pink adobe house in Missoula, Montana watching the clouds gather over Mount Sentinel. The packing and garage sale-ing and clearing out of our house was intense. As were the goodbyes. But the clincher was when I discovered the night before we were scheduled to do the eight-hour drive to Seattle to catch our flight back to London, that I had packed E’s passport in a box that had just been collected by a grumpy FedEx guy. While I tried to sleep, my daughter’s passport was winging its way to London.
The following morning we learned that there is no VISA office in Seattle, but we could get E’s travel documents in San Francisco. Our leisurely eight-hour drive quickly morphed into a 17-hour drive to Northern California. Then there was the issue of changing our outbound flights from Seattle to San Francisco, and the dozens of mind-numbing and yet mind-filling details that needed seeing to.
We drove through Idaho, and stayed a night in Grangeville, where the waitress in Crema Café and I felt a connection. We have since become friends on Facebook. This kind of thing happens in the West. The following night, we drove into Nevada. “It’s already so different,” I said as we stopped outside a rock shop run by Joe White Buffalo. It turns out he is a shaman and knows everything about rocks. He sees them as story-tellers. We toured his place, handling stones millions of years old, while he told us about his life, his time in Vietnam, the 27 ghosts living in the empty hotel where he sometimes sleeps. His house is on the border of Oregon and Nevada: “We eat in Oregon but we go to the bathroom in Nevada,” he told us. Joe showered E with beautiful rocks and shells, telling her she was a “child of the sea”. Her job, according to him was to watch over the animals in the oceans around the world.
We stopped for the night in Winnemucca, which I found sad and surprisingly bland. Our motel was the ‘vintage’ (read: run down) Scott Shady Court Motel. I assumed the owner was called Scott Shady, which would have suited the place perfectly. But I soon realised from the coloured neon sign that the motel had been owned by someone with the surname of Scott who was proud of the fact his ‘court’ was ‘shady’. What a difference a name makes. My version was closer to reality as the shady court was in reality a concrete parking lot next to a highway and dotted with a few spindly trees.
The next night found us in Reno, Nevada. It’s on a more human scale than Vegas, and although it has its fair share of gambling addicts and homeless folk walking with huge duffel bags (to where? a hostel? a soup kitchen?) under a beating sun, it wasn’t as surreal or ghostly or alien as Vegas. And the typography is a lot more beautiful. Our casino-hotel had two conferences on while we were there: the Mini Miss American pageant and a therapy dog gathering. We shared elevators with 6-year olds dressed like American Girl dolls, all perfectly coiffed and zipped into pristine dresses, along with Dachshunds in knitted coats saying, “I am a therapy dog, please respect me”. Our bell hop who helped us carry our loaded suitcases to our room warned us of the Mini Miss America Pageant: “These kids are all from the south. It’s all big hair. Reminds me of Cormac McCarthy or Faulkner. It’s like something from ‘The Sound the Fury’.” He paused. “If you go to the pool, bring extra sunscreen, there’s a huge hole in the ozone layer from all their hairspray.” He then told E she was a million times cooler in her leggings, t-shirt, and cowboy hat. We loved our Faulkner-reading bell-hop.
The next day we got to San Francisco just in time for our appointment at the Consulate. True to their word, they got E a VISA in about forty minutes. It was my first time in the city and I didn’t warm to it. The streets were claustrophobic and the gap between the haves and the have nots was screamingly apparent to me. I couldn’t help but think about that open letter which went viral a few months ago written by the San Francisco tech entrepreneur Justin Keller. In his letter addressed to the city’s mayor, Keller complained that homeless “riff raff” were turning the city into an “unsafe” and filthy “shanty town”. His Presidents Day weekend had been ruined by homeless people he said, whose “pain, struggle, and despair” were things he felt he should not have to see to and from work every day. I could feel the presence of his wealthy Tech bros all over town and I found it kind of gross.
City Lights bookstore is great. The museum is great. But I was happy to get out of town. I don’t know whether it was from two years in Montana, or the result of my knowledge of Keller’s letter, but the city just didn’t do it for me. San Francisco doesn’t feel like it is in the West, or that it even wants to be in the West. It seems to be leaning towards New York, while looking firmly out over the Pacific Ocean. It is schizophrenic. Los Angeles, on the other hand, seems happy in its skin, happy to not be New York or Europe. It is firmly itself, a self that is always changing and surfing between utter pointless superficiality and profound ideas about life on the outer reaches of America. It is a city that retains its place in the firmament of the West, the impossibility of it all, the dreams that may or may not come true that are key to life there. For me San Francisco lacks something of this spirit. But I was only there for a day, so I am sure my friends who live there and love the place will have some strong words for me.
Point Reyes National Park beckoned. It’s a spit of sand that juts into the Pacific and is home to elephant seals, elk (not exactly a draw for us after Montana), pelicans, herons and a variety of marine birds and animals. So we drove out along a narrow road dotted with posh cafés and headed towards the ocean so we could look out onto infinity. The diminutive scale, the shingle houses, the tourists, it all reminded me of Cape Cod. After two years in Montana, we were used to having the wilderness to ourselves. We’ve become greedy for space. But we did get to see and hear elephant seals, who are aptly naked for their strange, antediluvian trunks and the noise they make like the trumpeting of an elephant. It was a cold and windy day, but we stood on Limantour beach watching the thunderous ocean breakers crashing against rocky headlands, running after them, letting them freeze our toes. The fog gave the day an aptly sad tone as it was our last day of our two years in America.
I am writing this from our friend’s place in East London. We have yet to move into our house. Their guinea pig chomps away next to me, sirens blare in the distance, traffic hums along constantly. I have forgotten how much noise there is, how dirty your feet get when you wear sandals in London, how quickly people speak, and how chaotic life is here. Everyone smokes, everyone drinks, everyone talks a mile a minute. My synapses ache. My feet are black with grime. But, I am taking my time, processing our new-old life. I am very much back and yet distant to it all. The adventure hasn’t ended. It’s still going on quietly inside me. Missoula, Montana is being lived in this crazy patch of London deep inside me.