Day 158: Notes From a White Suburban Family on Vacation, Part 1
by Tom Noonan
I get the feeling, while staying in San Francisco, that the city is only about 4/5 finished. Viewing the fog-ducking skyline with my parents from the Golden Gate Bridge, the buildings move logically to a point, when suddenly they’re gobbled up by trees and other vegetation. When new homes and other misshaped buildings begin sprouting up on the other side of the huddled green masses, as if nothing separated them from the rest, you start to understand San Francisco on a psychological level. You realize that something is missing.
Even at ground level this holds up. For every four established storefronts there’s one lacking an identity, questioning whether to become a German-Thai fusion place, a cardigan outlet, or just another dry cleaners. Entire blocks still seem to be getting used to the idea of supporting real estate, with most hills sloping so sharply you worry they might shrug the houses right off and let them roll into the bay. So much of the city still feels less than comfortable, and there’s a certain bewildered rudeness hanging around it that ends up making the whole experience feel like visiting friends who haven’t fully settled into their new house yet. Maybe while the city was focusing on accepting all identities it forgot to figure out its own.
Down below us there’s a wind surfer riding along the wakes of passing boats, some of them freighters heading out to the ocean. If he falls, there’s really no one who can save him, at least not easily; it’d end up being a big production, might even need a helicopter to come by and pull him from the tide. What an attitude to have, to ignore all that risk.
When my brother finally joins us, I’m more than relieved. You know the saying about arguing with a brick wall? Well sometimes traveling with my dad can be like traveling with that brick wall, only he’s slower moving and more easily offended. When he gets in tourist mode, my dad adopts the type of lingering walk that most people would associate with either an undercover cop or a serial killer. Without a buffer, his pacing can start to feel a little like having to push a broken down car uphill and a lot like finding a lost child. He becomes so intent on not missing anything that he ends up never making it to the end. Most of his trips to museums turn out like a stoned college student watching Donnie Darko; he has to keep backtracking to make sure none of the important information slipped past him.
By the time we get my brother from the airport, I’ve already lost my dad a total of three times over the course of the day. Once after we landed, again on the bridge, and, most alarmingly, just a few minutes before at a stop light where he fell asleep for around thirty seconds. I would offer to drive, but his name is the only one on the rental. Pulling out from the terminal, I’m at ease knowing I have someone else to share in the duty of keeping tabs on my dad’s distracted wandering.
Back at my cousin’s apartment, we find my mom asleep with a tall glass of white wine sitting untouched and warming itself on the table next to her. She wakes up confused, not realizing the geography has changed from the dream she was having, and asks where we were, sounding as if she’d been looking for us for years, like the last time she saw us was on the side of a milk carton.
Mom: “What are you doing?”
Dad: “I have to make a U-Turn over here.”
Dad: “I was going the wrong way.”
Me: “We were going the wrong way?”
Dad: “Just let me drive the damn car.”
The Muir Woods, like most famous national parks, are fairly polluted. Not with trash, the ground is pristine and the water, at least the little bit that remains during a drought, looked drinkable, but with people. These types of places are starting to feel more and more like malls, destinations people seek out to dispose of time and molding conversation. Tour groups barrel down walking trails like steamrollers, their tactless dialogue demolishing the illusion of nature they paid for at the entrance. Escaping is a notion they’re too proud to chase down, and the image is clearer on their TVs anyway, so why did they even come out?
The Red Wood trees seem to notice this, too. They huddle close together in clusters, sharing root systems built before this country became self-aware, closing themselves off from the aggressive banality passers-by. A family discusses the price of gas, and the trees swim in memories, reels moving too quickly for the massive immobile beings to comprehend. I’m reminded of my grandfather’s funeral.
We pass by a cluster of trees that survived a fire hundreds of years ago, their guts exposed, black like a smokers. My dad knocks on the base of the tree, perhaps wondering if he could knock it over. A particularly loud child asks his mom if the fire hurt the tree. “I don’t know, honey,” she says calmly, surprising me with her honesty. Even if she knew the answer, I wonder, would she have told him?
When you spend a day on a certain trail or group of trails, you start inadvertently spending a large chunk of time with the same people, begin recognizing them more easily, and maybe even share brief conversations if they speak English. My dad loves these cursory relationships, consistently greeting faintly familiar faces with a timid, “How’s it going?” It’s more of a reflex than a question that needs a response, which is why the 15% of people who actually acknowledge his query get him so flustered, and why those particular interactions usually end with him randomly confessing things like, “We had cereal for breakfast in our hotel room.” He usually only plans through his first question, so if the conversation goes any longer, it begins to resemble the uneasy ramblings of an improperly prepared defendant.
In Muir Woods, the child with the unreasonably pitched voice quickly becomes our consistent acquaintance, partially because his family and mine inadvertently chose the same trail but mostly because he is so damn noticeable. He has one of those voices that send a shockwave through your body the first time you hear it, the type of voice made for interpretive dance or playing the violin. If it was weaponized, I’m fairly certain no one would ever fuck with the United States again. We can hear it coming, all day, that voice, it’s behind every corner and then, improbably, around the next one. It’s everywhere, a different type of invasive plant. When we stop to watch an owl perched venerably on a branch, sure enough the voice isn’t too far off, finally departing, and calling out, “Bye Owl! Good-bye Owl!”
“He doesn’t know how to say ‘Bye’,” the boy’s mother whispers, her voice a pebble lobbed in the direction of his tsunami.
“He doesn’t know how?”
Mom: “Keep your eyes on the road!”
Dad: “My eyes are on the road.”
Mom: “You almost hit these cars.”
Dad: “I saw the red light.”
Mom: “I don’t want to die up here.”
Later we escape into the hills in search of a bench left behind in memoriam of someone we didn’t know. Up there it’s only us and columns of cyclists planning their next move. The bench turns out to be a difficult find, because it’s made of rocks and not out of wood like we assumed. When we finally stumble across it, all of us sit and admire the clouds settling over everything below, a lumpy comforter resting loosely on the highest tips of the forest. On the bench we find a plaque, and on that plaque we read, “Give me these hills and the friends I love. I ask no other heaven.” Up in the sky, above the clouds and the very idea of weather, I can hear a lizard scamper through the tall grass.