The lucky few of us who live close to the Pacific Ocean don’t always realize just how hot it can be out there in the interior, and judging by our first experiences on the road north to Canada (to escape?), it’s not only a sultry summer, but a surly one as well.
There is a whole lot of California up there north of Sacramento, and before you get to the Oregon line, you’ll notice that all is not gurgles of contentment in the U.S. of A. Just from the viewpoint of Interstate 5 — the spine that links together the three states of the Pacific Coast — a sharp observer can see evidence of a boiling point, in the literal and political sense.
In the latter sense, we noticed an enormous billboard near Redding that demanded “Produce the birth certificate!,” a cryptic reference to the latest absurdly misguided wingnut obsession. Close by to the “birther” advertisment are other signs, announcing an entity known as the “State of Jefferson,” a long-standing separtist movement fomented by many fine folks in the far northern counties of California to break away from the tyrannies of the Sacramento regime.
It’s an attractive fantasy for all of us these days, this notion of breaking away from a corrupt and unresponsive larger political entity. If you drive the nation’s motorways in a car with California plates, you’ll begin to notice that, once you leave the confines of the state, people look at you as an active agent of What Ails America. From the woman in Eugene who expressed pity to me for having to live in such a place to the tour guide in Portland fond of cracking jokes at the expense of Californians, out here in America, you are little more than what your license plates say you are.
The heat — that’s the literal kind — is epic as well, enough to make convince you that someone must have spiked your morning coffee. How can I feel this woozy and dull-witted before lunchtime? My children, bright and inquisitive girls usually, are having to shed the juvenile idea that north means cooler. I had warned them of the potentially blistering temperatures — they call it “Redding,” I said, dad-like, because that’s what happens to your skin there if you’re foolish enough to expose it. I’m troubled that I’m raising future citizens of the U.S. whose heads are full of such bogus factoids as the legacy of a dad who thinks he’s a stand-up comedian. But, as teens, they know better than to come to me for anything other than entertainment.
Our first day out, we made it as far as Mount Shasta, the tiny town that shares the name with the behemoth volcano that towers over it. While there, we found the headwaters of the Sacramento River, a gurgling brook issuing up from subterranean rock. People gathered around the spring, mostly to get their minds around the fact that the longest river in the state began here, at this tiny spot.
Then, we saw others approach with plastic jugs and bottles, to fill them with the water of this magic spot. For as long as I’ve lived, I have been so acculturated to the idea that you never, ever drink directly from a river, I was horrified to see one person, then another, then another drink of the headwaters. What kind of naive knucklehead would court the dangers of giardia just for the sake of a gesture? My kids walked away with a grimace. I bent down and cupped a tiny bit of the water in my hand. I drank it. In moments like these, during times like these, gestures are pretty important after all.