I walked up from the Ventura River bottom where I spent the night. Nighttime in a homeless camp is very different, a strange mixture of camaraderie and distrust. Not unpleasant, but not great either. I was only interested in sleep without spending money. Short on funds, I decided that sleeping in the dry river bottom was better than an alleyway waiting to be rousted by the police.
The homeless had a great quality of not asking questions. I was an interloper in their community, but they must have decided that I presented no threat to the order of things. Last night, I had made my camp away from the partying element. Most for the residents had a more or less permanent 'home' of blue tarp, boxes, and cardboard. I kept my boots on for fear of broken glass and used syringes on the ground. A few people on the periphery had neat camps, clean and tidy. Small children wandered around under the careful eyes of their mother. She steered them away from the main camp and its rowdier crowd.
The morning was cool, and the clouds hung low over the hills that were turning golden as spring made way for summer. I hoped to catch a ride up the coast today. Los Angeles had been bad. Ventura had been better. My boots crunched drying leaves under the grey and green barked sycamores with their dappling canopies. A twisted red locust tree showed the difficulty of life at the coast, scarred and a gnarled. The air was soft before the temperature rose. I could hear the rumble of the highway above me, as I trudged along. In this part of California, Highway 101 and 'Wonderful One' is the same road.
I was happy to be moving on.
The driver of a red Freightliner with a full load of produce pulled up and opened the passenger door. I was lucky this morning, getting a ride without waiting, as car after car passed me by.
"Morning. Thanks for the lift."
"Morning yourself," the driver replied. She was a middle-aged woman; a little heavy, with strong forearms below the rolled sleeves of the flannel shirt. Grey flecks in her hair, but she had a wonderful smile, the smile of a younger woman. "You're not like the others in the camp below - too clean. You one of those people with romantic ideas of the open road? Read a Jack Kerouac novel and decide to discover yourself?"
"Maybe something like that, maybe not. I'm not sure." I was surprised. Usually, drivers just look for someone to talk to. But they aren't generally this direct. The truth is, I wasn’t sure.
"An honest man? Huh. Usually, they have a story to sell you. We're going to get along great. Throw your pack behind the seat and let's get this beast down the road."
I sat back as the truck bounced through the gears, picking up speed onto the 101.
"What's your name?"
"Call me Ellen," she replied.
We made small talk on the drive up to Santa Barbara. She kept glancing over at me, trying to size me up. There was talk of the surfers off of Rincon, the ghostly platforms off the coast and the beautiful flatness of the open ocean in the morning air. The squid boats were done for the night and were laying up in shallower water.
"Over there," she gestured towards a steep bluff. "Ten people died when that hill came down on them. Buried in their houses... The bodies are still there."
"What is this town?"
"La Conchita, a place to escape this California craziness. The dead didn't escape though. They're stuck, like the rest of us."
I gazed across the cab at the ocean. The clouds cut down the visibility, but the ocean was seemingly endless. Small and alone. That is what people are, small and alone.
The ride through Santa Barbara was filled with her stories of past accidents, rich celebrities, small joys, and weird happenings that she had seen here. The traffic thinned out past Goleta opening up a vista of golden hills to the right with fog obscuring the tops. Occasionally, black cows dotted the hillsides. To the left was an endless ocean. Words came less frequently as we continued to roll. I spotted three trash bags that had burst after being thrown from some previous vehicle.
"Who leaves their trash on the road in this beauty?" I exclaimed.
"People don't care anymore. Just like no one pays any mind of who grows their food, picks it, or hauls it to their supermarket. We are all just throwaways. Just toss your trash anywhere."
She looked pensive. Before I could speak, she added, "Look at me, fifty-seven. Think anyone thanks me for the groceries I haul to Monterrey?"
"Seems glamorous doesn't it? Driving up this beautiful coast three times a week. What could be wrong with that?" The words spilled from her mouth as if they had boiled to overflowing.
"How did you start?"
"I was married once to a software engineer up in the bay area. We had it pretty good, stock options and all that. Then the dot-bomb happened. He lost his job, and we were pretty much broke. He had this big idea, a romance of the open road. Intending to be a tandem team of drivers, we bought this rig, licensed up, and set out."
"We found it wasn't much fun as we thought. One of us slept while the other drove. If the wheels weren't spinning, we weren't earning. We started fighting but there ain't no way to get space between ya in a tractor."
"At a truck stop in the long valley, he just got out and said he couldn't go any further." She wiped a sleeve across her eyes and looked to the left at the lonely ocean. "I finished the delivery and went back to find him. Never saw him again."
"What did you do?"
"What's it look like? I drove." Glaring in my direction, "Look, kid, we're all just throwaways on this highway - trash that just doesn't know it. We owed on the tractor. Now, it's my only way of making a living. I'm pretty good at it, sure, but it is a lonely life. I'm trapped. What else can I do at fifty-seven? I drive my rig, Ventura to Monterrey within a fourteen-hour window. Rest, turn around and do it again, Monterrey to Ventura. It ain't exactly stimulating and fulfilling. No crowds at the end of the line, cheering. No one to talk to. No one to share, no one to hold you at night. I might as well be a machine like this truck."
"I'm sorry, I didn't know."
"Aw, it ain't your fault kid. It just bubbles up sometimes."
We turned to climb the Gaviota grade. Ellen downshifted and downshifted as the heavy truck strained against the weight of the trailer on the steep cut. I sat in silence watching the fog burn off. As we rode along, I saw hills covered in grapevines. California's bounty is here for all to see. They don’t see the homeless in the river bottom. They don’t see the stoop labor in the fields.
She continued, "Look, they got us all trapped. They keep lowering the mileage rate. We're paid by the mile, not the hour. I gotta bust ass just to eat. She looked at me again, "Just like us here in the cab. You forget how to talk to people. You’re by yourself constantly. There’s nobody to talk to."
I went to interrupt, but she beat me to it. "How long have we been riding? Two hours? Bet we haven't had but a half-hour of conversation. Still, that's more at one time than I had last week... or the week before, or the week before. The only conversation I get is when I load or unload.”
"Sorry, I should have tried harder. I'm just thankful for the ride."
"Sorry back. That’s not a critique of you. Hey, that's a word I don't get to use much. Dockworkers ain't much for reading. Don’t use words like critique or persevere."
I rode along trying to be good company by making small talk, all the while thinking about what she said. This must be dreary in the California storms of winter. Worse still, must be watching everyone frolic in the ocean under that California sun as you wrestle a truck through freeway traffic. She brings us our food. And still the homeless in the river bottom had more friends than she.
As we pulled into San Luis Obispo, she pulled off. "End of the line for you, my friend. I ain't no good company for anyone, anymore," Letting me out with my backpack. "You find a place, and you settle down. This ain't no life for you."
"How do you know?"
"Trust me, I know."
"I mean, how do you know what life is for you?"
"You'll know it when you find it."
Fat lotta help that was.
I thought of her, Ellen, alone with the hills and the ocean. Brings us our food and we treat her as nameless, faceless trash. Cast out on the road.
I made it as far as Morro Bay. That evening, I sat, drinking my beer while watching the sunset over the big blue ocean. The sunset wind blew in my face. ‘Isolation,’ that word conveyed loneliness. But it was something more, a separation from others. One can be lonely and still part of the group, part of humanity. When you are isolated, you are no longer a member. You are outcast, different somehow. Blowing in the wind. Drifting on the ocean.
That night I sat, watching the squid boats with their bright lights out on the sixty-fathom line like a string of pearls. During the day, they lay up in what shelter they can find and sleep. Maybe we were a just flotsam on the ocean. Bobbing around until we wash up on a lonely shore. How can you be so alone in the middle of thirty million people? Why is it so hard? I needed the city. I need to talk. I needed to connect to someone, anyone.
What life is for you? You’ll know it when you find it. I am still looking.