One California winter, many years ago, I drove north from San Francisco, leaving at mid-day on my way to visit my friends, newly settled on a round, brown hillside above the mouth of the Mattole River. It was there, on the road, that I entered the twilight zone.
The darkness stretches away in a perfect circle.
The Mattole River runs into the Pacific along the Lost Coast, so named for its inaccessibility. To get to the Lost Coast, you must drive the bright, crowded byways of California’s Route 101 north to Garberville where you exit toward the ocean to the west.
Once you leave the lights and the highway rush of tires, the noise outside ceases. A quiet, steady rain falls against the steady swipe of the blue van’s windshield and the muffled clatter of its engine.
A humpback range of mountains separates the Lost Coast from the highway. Before you begin the winding climb into the hills, the road snakes flat across the valley floor where a redwood forest has grown thick and ancient for millennia.
On this night, the van lights carve a path between the fluted, furry barked towers. The lights extend upwards from the road for only 20 feet or so. You wind through the wet darkness, the heavy green ferns leaning in toward the road, the underbrush clawing at the right of way. There is no roadside verge.
The great trees watch from above. You can sense them flying up to form a parasol, a prelude to the rugged range of hills along the Lost Coast.
You know the road from daylight traverses, not curve by curve, but by the general lay of it, the soft forest floor embracing the puny black ribbon of road. No one has passed you. The darkness stretches away in a perfect circle.
There is no land, there are no rugged hills waiting for you, only this circle of light and mechanical clatter, the rattle of rain on the metal roof. You become the center of a tiny universe in this ridiculous mechanical box. Really it seems ludicrous. You grow aware of your body, naked under your jeans and boots and bomber jacket, your toes dancing on the cruddy rubber slab of the gas pedal.
This image of body, so graphic, almost like a draftsman’s cross section, a clothed human crouched over a wheel in a tin cube. You laugh out loud and pull to the side on a narrow turnout. You listen for a moment to rain dripping on sheet metal and the idle clack of the engine. You reach down, twist off the ignition and slap the lights off. Everything stops. The tall trees fly up into dark space like rising symphonic chords, each massive shaft expanding upward beyond the scope of the windshield.
Trapped in the blue box, you open the door and step out into the gentle rain and darkness.
With a flighty sigh, your spirit, your being, your entire existence blows up and out of the top of your head. Nothing. There is nothing. Your body expands, dissembled by the soft pad of water hitting the pine needle floor, drops falling a great distance from the soaking parasol of treetops high above, beyond your vision.
A streak of fear grabs at your heart. Your mind stops. What if the van won’t start? You’ll disappear, dissolve into the infinite dark silence. You stand paralyzed, feeling your heart pound.
Against your will, the sound of the rain begins to calm you. You fight to find your familiar fear but cannot. Instead, you look up. You sense the soft, velvet canopy out of sight above you. There are no stars, there is no sky, only you.
But what are you? You stand on gravel. You hear only water. You see… nothing. The cooling engine ticks. You move away. You are not. Are not. Are nothing. Nothing. Nothing to push you, nothing to pull you, nothing.
You feel a great relief. You don’t have to stand; your legs stand for you. You don’t have to breathe; your lungs breathe for you. You do not have to imagine the road ahead or recall the reason for this long trip out of the city.
There is no city. There are no mountains, There is no Pacific breaking white against the black sand beaches of the Lost Coast.
Only the darkness remains, the gift of water, the great beings arching above you, caring for you. You listen to the whisper of your own steady breathing and the tempo of your own joyful heart.
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Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.
Wow, this is beautiful! And a little eerie! I was expecting something bad to happen, but I’m glad it didn’t. So many phrases that I love. Toes dancing on the gas pedal. Trees like rising symphonic chords. Too many others to list. Thank you for this amazing story!
Thanks, Suzy. Yes, the moment was eerie,and unforgettable. It’s not every day that the natural world encourages us to lose our mind! The symphonic trees remind me of Moussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Holst, The Planets.
It’s a drug-free psychedelic epiphany in the Great Redwood Forest! Thank you for this playground of metaphor and insight.
Thanks, John. It was fun to draw this one out. I had often thought about that experience, how brief and profound but had never written it out. This prompt seemed just right to evoke the recollection… in retrospect ;-).
Beautiful writing, Just my cup of mystic tea.
This: “. . . no rugged hills waiting for you, only this circle of light and mechanical clatter, the rattle of rain on the metal roof. You become the center of a tiny universe in this ridiculous mechanical box. Really it seems ludicrous. You grow aware of your body, naked under your jeans and boots and bomber jacket, your toes dancing on the cruddy rubber slab of the gas pedal.”
Thank you for the kind words, Robin. The cup of tea would have been Japanese green tea in a thick porcelain mug. And the universe stretching away toward infinity.
What beautiful imagery, Charlie. We were in Big Sur a month ago, doing the Esalen baths from 1-3am…not quite what you experienced, but still, ancient Red Wood growth, very late at night, very hot water and the mind plays tricks. Your writing is always bravura. I look forward to it every week. This had a dark sense of foreboding. Glad it all worked out.
Thank you, Betsy. I love the 3am baths. Oddly enough, I experienced a Twilight Zone episode at the infant Esalen back in late 1960s. I arrived there, it was very undeveloped then, more of a collective, like a meditation ashram. Several people greeted me with the name Eddie. I corrected them each time it happened, these were barefoot members of the core community and each shook their head in disbelief. finally, one exasperated member walked me through the hillside eucalyptus grove to a rustic little lean-to, swept open the curtain. There, inside, sleeping peacefully in a sleeping bag, I came face to face with myself, from mustache to hair color to nose to lips. Very eerie. I was so freaked out, I didn’t allow my guide to wake my alter whatever. I went on my way, totally [Twilight] zoned out!
Wow…total freak out moment! Very eerie, indeed!
Great writing and a brilliant concept. I, too, expected an “And then suddenly….” moment at any time, right up until the end. But, instead, you have deftly and beautifully described to us the Twilight Zone itself, rather than an example of the weird sh*t that happens there. A real tour de force.
Just one smart ass question: no underwear?
Thank you, JS. It’s always so interesting to hear differences between writer intent and reader perception. I had no intention of creating ‘a dark and stormy night’ scary setting for Lost Coast. I simply wanted to capture the power of nature I experienced when I let go of civilization’s clatter, our locators in such a monumental environment. But I loved that you guys saw through that. Thanks for reading and describing your response. As regard the underwear, I think I simply didn’t want to burden the reader with a laundry list [sic] of garments. I suspect a shirt probably lurked beneath the bomber jacket as well!
Wow. Charlie, this is a gorgeous piece of writing. Achieving this state of immediacy in a reader is so rare— the piece leads to a moment of immediacy (nothingness, openness) and you have taken us there slowly and completely. The visual, aural, sensual, external and internal imagery, the changing land, the parasol of trees, the silence, the moisture, the drips, the darkness, the blue box of a van, the circle of light, the clicks, the nakedness in your clothes, the rhyming symphonic chords of trees… Distrustful as I am of second person, you nailed it here. I was you. I am unable to say for sure if having been to this place made a difference, but I honestly believe it would have been just as successful had I not. Well fucking done, dude. This could not have been easy, but you made it look like it was. (PS Were you heading for David and Jane’s?)
Thanks, Laurie. I’m pleased to hear Lost Coast had such a profound effect. I’ve been playing with second person recently, altho it’s not my accustomed narrative voice. But there’s a place for everything, I suppose and I was recently inspired to revisit second person after reading a piece in The New Yorker by Junot Diaz called ‘Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma.’ And yes, I was on the way to David and Jane’s. Here’s another Retrospect piece where I experimented with second-person narrative.
I read that, and he did do a beautiful job. So it can be done. The only other one that stayed with me as effective was way back in the day, Jay McInereny’s Bright Lights Big City.