Tor’s cousin A was standing next to his mud-splattered Toyota pickup, outside Petrolia’s wood-paneled general store. A is in his late forties and, like pretty much everyone in Tor’s mother’s family, enviably better looking than most people: bright blue eyes, strong features, and teeth chipped by a surfboard. He seemed extremely happy to see Tor which could possibly be because everyone is always happy to see the generous, pleasant, Tor but could also possibly be because almost any visitor would be welcome in this remote place where you may talk to only your partner, or perhaps yourself, for days on end. Tor told A that I had said, “How well do you know your cousin, what if he is an ax murderer,” which I had not in fact said. Since it was his birthday, I just stood there and smiled and allowed myself to look like an asshole.
They had met a handful of times but never spent a lot of time together. Nothing terribly exciting to report here. They seemed to have an instant rapport which could be explained by blood or just not explained at all.
A had told us this place was remote and I kind of got the message, what with driving over an hour through extremely un-populated territory to get here. But as we kept driving, I realized that I had not fully grasped how far we were from everything and how we were getting ever farther. We drove about three miles, past a few small houses, past the tiny school where everyone in the town goes—and which A himself had attended until eighth grade—and then we parked outside an odd-looking modern building. This was M’s workplace (A’s girlfriend) where we were to leave the
All three packed into the front, and we drove along the Mattole River. It was raining lightly as we drove, and A told us that it had been raining this hard or harder for pretty much weeks now, already surpassing the hundred plus inches of rainfall this area usually gets a year. The Mattole, which is about a hundred miles long, had flooded its banks and was now gnawing out a space under the paved road that runs alongside it. It was unclear what they would do if this road went and acknowledged this would be a very big problem.
We turned off the paved road onto a dirt one, some of which our Prius could have made it over, much of which it definitely could not have. Below us
(By the way, fir trees are not pine trees. True, they are not deciduous trees but they are not pines. A surf magazine recently referred to pine forests on the North Coast and locals were like, lol, dummies, and Popula will not be making this mistake.)
At the top of the hill the forest ended and we were in greenness, under an open, briefly-blue sky. Their house was storybook beautiful, built into the hillside at the end of a neat, daffodil-lined path. M greeted us at the door.
She was in her early 30s, glowing with good vibes and in lucky
I asked M if she’d seen the focaccia episode of Salt Fat Acid Heat and had to be once again reminded that they did not have the internet.
I told her who my favorite family member was and she said “interesting choice.”
Petrolia and its environs is beautiful beyond reason, of course, what with the forests, the calm-eyed cows, and the crashing ocean. But the best thing was that it was California, this beautiful, but there was no one here. Lying in bed that night in absolute darkness and quiet, I realized that if I drew a circle around myself with a radius of even 30 miles, there would probably be less than 1000 people inside of it.
(The Lost Coast was so-named, by the way, because when engineers and road crews were building the highway, they got to the terrain north of Ft. Bragg. and found they could build the road no more, not along the ocean anyway. So they stopped. The highway goes inland north of Fort Bragg, and does not connect with the Coast again until Fortuna, which is north of Petrolia, but which we went through both coming and going because the weather had made it impossible to come in from the South.)
“I think maybe we are just caught up in a rat race,” Tor said just before he fell asleep. These were the last words of his fourth decade. Not terribly original, but fine words nonetheless.
The next day was Tor’s birthday. We began the celebration by drinking extremely strong coffee and reading books by the wood stove, with the old dog snoring peacefully nearby. The dog had a bad hip, and this made me want to just hug and protect him. Sometimes he pressed his big head against my leg, as if to say, “I love you too,” or, “Isn’t life without the internet amazing?”
After calling the Humboldt Shellfish Safety Hotline (I am sure it has another name but I like this one) and making sure eating them would not give us permanent amnesia, we went down to the beach to get mussels. I almost wrote “gather mussels” but it made me feel like too much of a faux-homesteader.
We saw a seal and got very excited and were lightly mocked by A and M, whose entire life is made up of seal sighting after seal sighting. “For my birthday, I want to see a whale,” Tor declared, and, indeed, minutes later,
Mussels take more strength to pull off rocks than you might think. The whales never waved. The beach was strewn with storm refuse.
Here is a family of dead sea urchins:
Here is a frog:
We had tea back at the house, took naps, and read some more. The rain pounded on the roof. A and M told us they were trying to figure out a way to not be here from around Thanksgiving to the middle of March, that it really did get isolating. I would have liked to have stayed long enough to get tired of the isolation, though I apparently did stay long enough to drink some red wine with the mussels and have no idea what it was, or to register whether I liked it or not.
We admired their enormous knife. A told us a story about how he got it. When he was a teenager, one of his neighbors died in a car accident. He and his friend ran to the guy’s house before anyone knew about it, to see if there was anything good there. The dead guy had no family. A saw the knife and thought it was a cool knife, because it is, and he took it. A said he was embarrassed about it now, but I thought it was a pretty good story, and I bet that guy would be glad A still had his amazing knife.
M forgot that she did not have much confectioners’ sugar, so only the middle of the cake could be frosted. But I actually recommend this style of carrot cake; it forces you to not take the frosting for granted and to appreciate the cake, and this is the attitude I think Tor should take into his 41st year, and the rest of his life.