I can still remember the sweat on my palms as I gripped the steering wheel of my father’s rental car—heading away from the Best Western, heading towards Ashley. I can still remember the adrenaline coursing through my body. I can still remember the existential sense of dread. I prowled on a secondary road along the riverbank. My high beams flashed on sparse trees and steep bluffs. It was hardly ten o’clock, but the road was quiet—surely everyone out for a good time was safely back in their beds, nursing a hangover from New Year’s Eve. I tried not to remember that Humboldt County led the State of California in murders and deaths by car crash.
Ashley had given me the name of a bar that matched a famous strip club in Downtown Toronto. It was called the Brass Rail. I recalled the one time I had allowed myself to enter that disreputable joint: the horror I had felt at the objectification of those “innocent” women; the familiar hunger, shame and overwhelming desire. A similar emotion passed through my bones. Suddenly, I remembered the last time I had felt this intense sense of impending doom. It had been back on Vancouver on the summer solstice. The previous evening, Sally and I had had a vicious fight. She had admitted that she was in love with the other man, and she couldn’t decide which one of us she wanted to choose. I responded by calling her every hurtful slur I could think of. The fights had been escalating between us for weeks, but this one was the nuclear option. After the screaming and the yelling and the crying, we lay silently next to one another in an anonymous bed, in an anonymous condo that we had sublet from a French woman who I had met through a friend of a friend on my Ultimate Frisbee team. The plan was to stay there a few weeks before we left to Walk to Mexico. That was what was at stake. The next morning, the summer solstice, Sally had left the apartment in tears, and I spent the whole day wondering what I would have to say or how I was going to apologize to take back those un-takebackable things that I had said, so we could kiss and make up and be in love again and decide that we were really and truly going to Walk to Mexico. Sally never came home that day. At sunset, I had taken my bike to sit at the beach to watch the light fade behind the forested mountains, trying to think myself out of what I now know was overwhelming dread. I was in denial as I cycled back to our borrowed apartment, though on some level I already knew what it was I was going to find there. The relationship was over; all that was left was the finale.
I felt the same sense of imminent disaster as I parked in front of the Brass Rail.
The Brass Rail was one of those old logging country bars that seemed like it had been there forever. There was peeling wallpaper and stag trophies on the wall and a handsome hand-carved bar that was made out of redwood. You could feel the history emanating from the walls, you could only imagine what had been lodged in the black leather booths, you could still smell the party from the previous night. There was hardly anyone in the bar, and it was easy for me to spot Ashley immediately. We made eye contact. Her eyes lit up, and for the briefest of instants, I could feel the butterflies. Then the person sitting across from her turned to face me, and the butterflies all tumbled to Earth at once.
It was strange, but when Ashley had texted me that she was out with “a friend”, I had never considered that she meant a Man.
My instinct was to turn on my heels and leave, but I had already stolen my Dad’s keys and made the trip. My momentum was already carrying me towards them. When I reached their booth, Ashley sprung off the black leather and wrapped me in what I now understood to be her trademark hugs: breast to chest, pelvis to pelvis. I peered over at the Man as we embraced. I could see that my arrival had unnerved him.
It was obvious that he was the He that Ashley had met, four days earlier, in the Garberville supermarket. She had felt “a spark”, she told me. As I shook his hand, I struggled to understand. Immediately, I could tell that this Man was a sad guy. He had long, shaggy hair and an obnoxious mustache and an army green revolutionary cap pulled low over his eyes. He looked a few years older than me: 35, maybe 36, but already with grey hairs coming in at his temples. His eyes were dead. His shoulders were slumped. His name was Jason.
Jason had a Story that was almost unbelievable. He claimed that he had grown up in a Rust Belt steel town where his father was a Mafioso kingpin. Several years ago, his father was murdered. The considerable estate was set to be divided between Jason and his brother, but Jason’s mother took her two sons to court—and won. By then, Jason had already left the Midwest, moving to Los Angeles to follow his dreams of becoming a filmmaker. He had made one film about the town where he grew up, he explained, but I presumed by the way he talked about it that it wasn’t any good. Now, he was drifting across the country, catching rides, interviewing strangers, trying to find an idea for his next movie. He had come to the redwoods because his Mom had a condo in Leggett that she didn’t use that much, and he thought it would be a good place to sit and think. I understood that the condo in Leggett was where Ashley had been headed when she dropped me off with Jolene and Stella the other night.
By my judgement, there was next to nothing appealing about this guy. He’s just like me, I thought, narcissistically, only way crappier. I couldn’t understand why beautiful Ashley had chosen Him over me. In the Brass Rail, though, it seemed like Ashley was second guessing herself. As Jason told his sadsack and probably fictional story, Ashley had practically draped her body over me. I could feel her breast nestled in the crook of my elbow, when she wanted to say something, she made a point of grabbing me in the inner thigh just close enough to my knee that I could talk myself into thinking that she was just being friendly. I could see the fear in Jason’s eyes, and I could tell that he was looking at Me like I was looking at Him; I could tell that he assumed that Ashley and me had been lovers, maybe even were lovers. I could see him going through the same emotional rollercoaster ride that she had put me through and a part of me even felt empathy for the Prick, but a bigger, smaller part of me was taking perverse pleasure in the fact that I was now the Other Man. And fuck Him ans his bullshit, made-up Story.
I rubbed my elbow against Ashley’s breast, and I squeezed her inner thigh right back.
The conversation was mine to monopolize. I took center stage, and with all eyes on me I began to boast about myself egregiously. I talked about India and the things that I’d experienced there, painting a picture of myself as an adventurer like Indian Jones. (I skipped over the sections where I spent weeks stoned on a beach in Goa.) I could tell that Jason saw something in me that he wanted, but I didn’t bother considering what that might be. Instead, I was totally fixated on the thing He had that I wanted. In my mind, this was a faceoff over Ashley. May the better Man win. To the victor go the spoils. I didn’t need to bother with a drink, I was so drunk on my self-importance and the utter neccessity of destroying their burgeoning relationship. I was completely fixated on winning Ashley.
But when I excused myself to the bathroom, all I could think about was Sally. I remembered when I had faced a stand off with her Him, back when she had assured me that he was “just a friend”. (I could tell by the way that she said it that he wasn’t.) For six months, ever since the summer solstice, I had been analyzing the end, trying to find the moment when the pendulum swung from me to Him, trying to figure out just what I needed to do so I could be sure that I would never lose another faceoff. I needed to know exactly how to never be the cuckold again. I had been considering this for a thousand miles, I had been breaking it apart step by agonizing step, and it suddenly struck me that I had somehow come full circle. There was a meaning in this interaction that seemed perfectly and poetically tailored just for me.
I washed my hands and returned to the leather booth. Ashley let her hand linger on my thigh when I took my seat. Her purse slid beneath the table, and the way she contored her body to retrieve it took her face on a flight path that led squarely between my legs. With her face in my lap and her breasts squished against my thigh, I looked up and made eye contact with Jason. It felt a Pyrrhic victory.
Does she know what she’s doing? I wondered, an hour later, as I drove my Dad’s rental car twenty yards behind her pickup. Through the oncoming headlights, I could see Jason’s silhouette in her front seat. Why is she playing us against each other? I really didn’t know, I couldn’t have even guessed. I didn’t want to see her as anything more than a really desirable set of tits and ass, as the same brilliant, tortured artist that once upon a time, I had idealized I had found in Sally. The worst part about cycling home during that long summer solstice sunset was knowing that I had anticipated what I already knew I was going to find, when I reached our borrowed apartment. I had never really wanted Sally. I wanted Sally because she was available, I wanted Sally because it seemed like she wanted me. I thought about the other women who had passed through my life: the couple girlfriends, the one-night stands. How many of them had entered my bed because they seemed “easy”? Did I ever like Sally? Did I ever like Ashley? Did I even know what love mean? It seemed like these were the questions of a raving lunatic. I was thirty! Of course I was supposed to know what love was. Of course, because I was a Man, and if I turned down sex when it was offered to me, then what kind of Man would I be?
As we pulled off the main road onto the gravel track that led into Jimmy’s compound, I had the sense that I was being invited over for a threeway. Would I get the front? Would I get the back? Would I be in the middle? All options appeared to be on the table.
It was surreal to be back in Ashley’s cabin again; just three days earlier, I had sat on the futon and endured my latest humiliation. Now, Jason was tending to the fire in the woodstove, Ashley was making us tea and rolling a spliff. She changed into something a little more comfortable: a wool sweater with black, jailhouse stripes that showed off a fetching touch of her muscular midriff. She pressed her body against me, cooing, squealing, and as we shared the spliff, from me to her to Him, I realized it would be so easy just to let it all happen. Why not? It would be an experience. It would finally give me what I had been craving…
But no: not like this, not with Him, not with her, even. I thought about my Dad, still splayed out on the queen-sized bed back at the Best Western, and I decided that the best thing to do would be to leave.
“Nooooooo,” whined Ashley. She embraced me, and her hips moved in a sure, certain circle that left no doubt in my mind where things were heading. I wasn’t going to be in the middle; she was. I was there to make Him jealous, He was there to make me jealous. We were there because having men objectify her and fight over her was how Ashley got off.
“I gotta go,” I said, disentangling myself. Now it was Jason’s turn to give me a generous, lingering bro hug that communicated how grateful he was that I was leaving him Ashley. I felt sorry for the guy, already knowing that Ashley was going to lose interest the moment that I walked out the door. It had nothing to do with either of us.
I felt relieved as I piloted the rental car along the twisting road that led through the giant redwoods to return to the Best Western in Garberville.
I slid the keycard in the lock and eased open the door. My Dad was still snoring. I never told him that I had gone.
The next day would be my last with my father. He planned to stay just one night; after spending the day together, the plan was to drop me off back at the junction between the two highways, so I could continue to the coast, finally leaving the redwood forest behind. I felt ready to leave, and I felt strangely grateful to my father, as if his presence alone had helped me find the perspective I had been sorely lacking. I was done with Ashley, I was done with Garberville, I was finally ready to keep moving again. But first: one day of touristing with my old Man.
We’d already seen the redwoods, so I decided to drive him out to the Lost Coast.
In the hundred-or-so-mile stretch of the Lost Coast, there’s just one town that is directly on the coastline. That town is called Shelter Cove. Shelter Cove sits tucked on a picturesque peninsula backdropped by the rugged mountains of the King Range—the highest coastal mountains on the West Coast. Shelter Cove is a tiny resort community, with about 700 full-time residents spread over 2,000 acres of low-lying marine terrace up to forested ridges. It is a stunning and unique fishing community that feels divorced from the rest of California.
Anyway, Shelter Cove is about a 45 minute drive west from Garberville along a road that follows the high mountain valleys before descending sharply to the sea. The day’s weather was cloudless, and from my familiar position in the captain’s chair, I listened as my Dad philosophized about the freedom in his just-out-of-reach future, and complained about the imagined forced that were still holding him back. The empathy I’d had that morning was waning quickly, and even as I tried to listen to him empathetically and attentively, I found myself struggling to keep up the act. Who is Julian? I wondered, as we approached the coast. Julian may not be a Prick, but he may end up being not much more than a pretty boring and lonely and impotent dude.
Would I rather have a father who was a Prick? Or would I rather a father who was a pretty boring and lonely and impotent dude? The answer to this question wasn’t immediately obvious.
Just north of Shelter Cove is long, sweeping Black Sand Beach, which is fringed by uncountable millions of what look like smooth river rocks. When the waves crashed, the sound of the rocks clacking against each other was immensely pleasing. That day was a Sunday, and there were just a few people out on the beach, happy to chitchat in the sunshine. I took them up on the invitation, noticing the way that my Dad shrunk away from conversation. He looked rudely off in the other direction, then looked at his feet. I couldn’t tell if he was being mean or if he was just uncomfortable. For some reason, my empathy had now completely evaporated. I wanted to be rid of him.
We wandered south, following the steep bluffs on the spectacular coastline. The sea air was thick, and I felt like I was being shaken awake from a bad dream I had been living for days—weeks—months. Why the fuck had I been hanging around for Ashley in the first place? Why the fuck had I wasted so much time between Garberville and Arcata? Why the fuck was I chasing my tail endlessly, spiralling around the same beaten down neural pathways that I’d been following for what felt like forever? I didn’t know, but I was suddenly sure that it was all my Dad’s fault. I trailed twenty yards behind him like a penitent child.
We climbed up off the coast and reached a residential road that ran past the simple beach homes that looked out over the Pacific. Across the road was a small one runway airport. The tension between us was palpable, but I couldn’t understand why and I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about. I suddenly felt profoundly cheated that this strange man was not the Prick I had imagined. He was just a boring and lonely and impotent dude. He was just Julian.
As we walked on towards the lighthouse in the distance, Julian looked back occasionally before letting out a long, pitying sigh. I hated him for it, I hated him for all the ways he reminded me of me. Was this my destiny? Would I be old and impotent? Would I have money but not love? Would I still being trying to earn the respect of my oldest child?
All these questions felt heavy and existential, and I suddenly felt myself full of extraordinary rage. I wanted to yell, I wanted to scream, I wanted to tear a strip off of him. Really, another sigh? Really, you want to still feel sorry for yourself? I found his self-pity unbearable, and yet it wasn’t like I could just leave him there. He was my Dad. I owed him.
I knew too much to pretend I didn’t know what I knew was happening. But I couldn’t bring myself to actually do anything about it.
By the time we reached the small lighthouse, I was famished. Nearby, next to a small RV park at the foot of the runway, there was a deli that was loudly advertising delicious fish n’ chips. I asked my Dad for money and bought myself the final portion, then I sat jealously on the nearby picnic table and didn’t even offer him a single fry. It was getting late, the shadows were already long, and my Dad offered that he was going to take pictures of the sunset. The lighthouse was just a hundred yards away. As I watched him go, I was shooting daggers at his back. I felt deeply sorry for myself that my lot in life was to be the eldest son of a rich Jewish man who wanted nothing more than to have his son’s respect. I knew there were three words I could say that would make his entire year, and I despised him for wanting me to say them.
I tossed my final chips to the seagulls. Standing up from the bench, I walked off in the opposite direction from the lighthouse, heading towards an access road that descended into the south-facing cove. I wasn’t trying to make a point; I just felt like I needed a breath of fresh air from my father.
Midway down the access road, I spotted someone I recognized.
It was Stella, Jolene’s younger sister. She was out walking her dog—the one she called Shithead. Her young daughter was with her ex. As we stood there, she asked me what I was doing back in town, again, with the rote emptiness of someone who didn’t actually care about the answer. Her shoulders were slumped, she had a hood over her head, her eyes were weary and defeated. But I couldn’t keep myself from glancing down and noticing the way her sweater pulled tightly across her substantial breasts. I felt the sudden urge to bury my face in them.
“Have you thought about what we talked about?” she asked.
I offered to continue the conversation. Stella turned around, and we followed the access road down to the beach, where a few burly men were drinking beers out of the back of their pickup trucks, poking fun at a driver who had gotten his Lexus stuck in the sand. The wheels spun, the burly men laughed. Stella didn’t crack a smile. As we walked along the tideline, she repeated what she had told me, a few days earlier, over the phone. She was going through a rough patch with the ending of her marriage and the sudden burdens of being a single mom. She needed space, she wanted some time to think, would it be okay if we spent a few days walking together?
I looked at her eyes. They were devoid of life. Then I looked at her breasts again. The decision felt agonizing.
But what about the logistics? I only had a one-man tent, did she expect that we would share? No, she clarified. She would bring her own tent and sleeping bag, but the question of what might happen between us was left up in the air. As we walked to the end of the long curving beach, crossing flowing streams and rocks matted with slick seaweed, I thought about Jolene and the new understanding we’d reached; I thought about our passionate night in the Motel 6 near Arcata. Was there something to be gained by sleeping with the pair of them? It was a ridiculous question, but I considered it gravely. What if Stella was even better in bed than her sister?
The sun had set, and already darkness was setting in. I announced that I had made my decision. Stella was welcome to join me.
Stella didn’t seem even remotely happy. She nodded weakly, and immediately we turned back down the beach. An hour had passed since I had last seen my father, and I hadn’t thought of him once since running into Stella. As we walked back to where the Lexus was still spinning its tires, we made a simple logistical plan: my Dad would drop me off at her house; in the morning, the two of us would start walking together. My chest was pounding: already, I was second guessing myself. The butterflies were flapping like mad. But I couldn’t bring myself to take back my offer. I told myself I didn’t want to hurt her. I tried to convince myself that everything would be justified when I saw her breasts.
We climbed the access road to the top of the short bluff, and at the top, we ran into my father. I could see the panic in my Dad’s face. “Where’d you go?” he asked breathlessly. “I thought I lost you.”
“Where was I going to go?” I said diminutively. “It’s not like I was going to run away”, even though that’s exactly what I had done.
My Dad glanced at Stella, then immediately made a show of looking off towards the fading sunset. “Dad, this is Stella,” I said. “Stella, this is my Dad, Julian.”
“Pleased to meet you,” she said kindly.
“I’m sorry I’m so flustered,” he said, looking past her. “It’s a shame that we have to meet under these circumstances.”
I looked at him. I looked at Stella. I looked at him again.
Suddenly, something clicked.
“Dad, can I ask you something?” We were in the rental car, heading back towards Garberville. The light had gone, and the twisting road was climbing up into the trees. The silence in the car had been thick.
He glanced over at me in the captain’s chair. “Of course. Anything.”
“I’m having a bit of a girl problem.”
“And you’re asking me?” he deadpanned. “I suppose I don’t have to tell you that I don’t have the best track record with women.”
I rewarded the bad joke with an easy laugh. My palms were sweaty, I couldn’t figure out how to back out of the commitment I had just made with Stella. Quickly, I summarized the predicament I was in, leaving out most of the soap opera: no mention of Ashley or Jolene or Jason or the legion of other characters who they reached seemed to represent.
It was the first time I had ever asked my father for advice about women, and he surprised me by taking his time to consider his answer. “You know,” he started. I felt like I could feel him restrain himself. “I think that you should… do whatever you think is right.”
His answer shocked me. The Prick had never said something like that in my life.
Immediately, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to call Stella, I was going to cancel our plans. The choice seemed suddenly obvious. What I thought was right was to keep moving alone. All of that hit me in an instant. From the Captain’s Chair, I glanced over at my Dad, feeling a new level of gratitude. For him. For Julian.
“Thanks,” I said, meaning it.
We drove in silence for a few minutes, the headlights flashing on the bushes on the side of the road. I felt myself yearning to be out there again, to keep walking. It felt like the spell that had been cast over me for weeks had suddenly broken.
“Can I ask you something else?” I said suddenly.
“Of course. Anything.”
I hesitated. “Why did you and Mom get divorced?”
He looked over at me incredulously. “What is this, an inquisition?”
“No. It’s just that I’ve never heard your side of the Story. I’ve heard Mom’s.”
He immediately broke eye contact to look back out the windshield. “What did your mother tell you?”
“She told me you two got divorced over chicken fingers.”
He made a face. “Chicken fingers?”
It was true. When I was younger, my mother told me that she decided to end the marriage after they fought on a cross-country flight. The fight was over the in-flight meals. My father argued that his three sons under the age of ten should be treated like Men, which meant that we should be served the regular meals. My mother argued that her three sons under the age of ten should be treated like children, which meant that we should be served the special kids’ meals. My mother told me that, in that moment, she decided that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life arguing over chicken fingers. As a fifteen year old I took that Story at face value, but it suddenly seemed naive as I drove away from Shelter Cove with my father.
“It’s a long Story,” I said. “Forget about it.”
My Dad let the conversation drop.
He stared out the windshield. He let out a long, sigh. He started then stopped a couple times. “You know…” “The thing is…” “Your mother and I…” From the passenger seat, I studied him—I saw the lines on his face and heard the emotions in his voice, and in that moment I felt like I suddenly understood something about Julian that had evaded me for most of my life. When the answer finally arrived, it was mundane and archetypal. It was stumbled and poorly refined. Suddenly, I realized it wasn’t the Story that mattered. It was the fact that He was finally telling it.
In Garberville, we stopped at a pizzeria to have a final dinner before he drove back to San Francisco. While we were waiting for our pies, I snuck outside and dialled Stella’s number to tell her that I had decided to keep going on my own. The conversation was uncomfortable, I could hear the disappointment in her voice, but it was over in forty seconds, and the moment I was off the phone I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. I went back in and didn’t say another word about it over my meal with Julian.
Afterward, I asked for a ride south to Leggett: I wanted to be dropped off at the same parking lot where he’d picked me up, right at the junction between the two highways, so I could break my deadlock and finally make my choice. I needed a place to stay, and on my way there, I decided that I would call Jason. He’d given me his number and invited me to spend the night.
As we approached the end of our time together, my Dad was philosophical. This, too, was a familiar habit; when we were younger, our Groover trips always ended with a synopsis of the fun that we’d just had, as if he was trying to spin the Story we were going to tell our mother. But my Dad always did it in a way that felt earnest and honest, as if he’d used this skill so many times that he’d forgotten he was brainwashing himself.
“…so meaningful for me…so proud of my son…think it’s wonderful…can’t wait for more trips together.”
I tried to keep myself from rolling my eyes.
We stopped in front of Jason’s townhouse, and as we embraced, I found the courage to say the three words that I knew my Dad had been wanting to hear. The Prick was dead. I had killed the Prick. We had killed the Prick together.
My night with Jason turned out way better than I expected. We talked long into the next morning, and by the time I left him, I felt like I understood him, too, on a whole new level. I had even talked myself into believing that his Story about his mafioso father and heartless mother wasn’t just a Story, but the actual truth. I felt different. I felt like I had learned the lessons of the redwoods. I felt like I had leveled up.
From Leggett, Highway 1 climbs up a steep hill that is notorious among coastal cyclists as the most difficult challenge of the entire West Coast. The switchbacking road climbs up and up to more than a 1,000 feet before making a long slow descent back to the coast. I knew that once I reached the coast, I would stick close to the Pacific all the way until I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The world was opening up ahead of me. I had new momentum behind me.
As I climbed higher and higher, I slipped my phone into my breast pocket and sang along with the music at the top of my lungs.
I knew I wouldn’t make it to the Pacific by dark. From Leggett, it was 30 miles to the coast—too far for me to walk in one short January day. I knew that there were no campgrounds, so I had already decided that, when night fell, I would duck into the thick roadside woods and find a place to pitch my tent.
I walked into the early evening, revelling in my new sense of freedom.
The trouble was that the Highway hugged the hillside, and there was a steep slope on either side of the asphalt. Finally, I spotted a just-flat-enough area a dozen or so yards from the road. I pitched my tent, made my nightly stew and reveled in the feeling of being among the trees once again. Night fell softly, and as it did, the traffic on the highway declined as well. Soon, there was hardly a single car passing every ten minutes. I could hear an approaching car from far off. First, there was the faint rumble of an engine. Then—louder, louder—until suddenly a pair of headlights burst into the forest. The roaring engine obscured the subtle forest noises, the vehicle would rush past, and then steadily the engine would decline, until once again the forest returned to its subtle stillness.
When the vehicle was gone, I wandered out to the middile of the road and looked up to see the stars framed by the tall canopies of the redwoods. I felt like I was leaving the civilized world, receding into the trees again. Suddenly, I heard a distant engine, and rather than darting into my hiding place, I positioned myself directly behind a tree on the roadside. As the car approached—louder, louder—I reveled in the idea that I was secluded by a roadside redwood. A part of the forest. Hidden in plain sight. Something important was dying in me too.
I went to bed early, and even though I was alone in the woods, I fell asleep easily, feeling peaceful and quiet. But then, in the middle of the night, I was suddenly shaken awake. What is that sound? The hairs stood up on my neck. The butterflies went wild. There was an animal nearby. I could hear the twigs cracking beneath its feet. I knew that the sound was accentuated by the echo in my tiny tent, but panic suddenly gripped me, and I began to frantically imagine just what It was. A deer? An elk? A bear, a mountain lion? The animal’s footsteps were coming towards my tent, and I knew I needed to DO SOMETHING.
I reached for the can of bear spray that I had stuffed in my backpack, but my hand landed on my phone instead.
Immediately, I knew what to do. I opened my music library, turned the volume on full blast and scrolled through the list, looking for the most threatening song I could find.
I could hear the animal freeze.
“YOU DON’T HAVE TO PUT OUT THE RED LIGHT!”
I listened as the animal ran the other way, chased off by The Police.
The rest of the night, I slept soundly. And the next day I made it to the Pacific. San Francisco—and the Golden Gate Bridge—were only 200 miles away.