Newton’s First Law

I’m trying to remember the last time I had so much hesitation and anxiety around a trip. Anxiety, yes – like when heading off to Liberia to monitor an election where rival factions spoke openly about civil war if things didn’t go…wait, no, too close to home there?

But this was just a drive down the coast to Palo Alto, to see Devon and the kids.The obvious factor was, of course, COVID. Yes, I’ve done the math – I’m a statistician. Or at least used to be. Marginal risk of one of us bringing COVID into the house from our respective abodes is low: Port Townsend, 5.8 cases per 100,000; Palo Alto 65; Boston area, 76; Rolla, MO, 93 – combined likelihood, ignoring other factors working out to 239 out of 100,000, or 0.23%. Objectively, those are not bad odds at all,  but I was still hesitant to the point of almost recommending that we call the damned thing off. 

Then there was that fear of…oh, I know there’s a word for it. Not being a team player, acting like I’m special: “Yes, the doctors and front-line medical workers are all pleading for us to stay at home, not to travel. But it’s okay – I know what I’m doing, so it’s okay for me to travel.”

Sure, I was coming from one of the most COVID-free counties in the country, and sure, I was sleeping in the car to avoid contamination/interaction, but still – it’s always the folks who think they’re special that ruin it for everyone else.

To add the (literal) icing to this double-chocolate fudge cake of anxiety, weather from Port Townsend down to northern California was forecast solid dreck: rain, wind and low visibilities, with snow across the Siskiyous for pretty much my entire travel window.

So it was with this kind of stomach ache churning around that I loaded up the car – camping gear in back, emergency food, fuel and clothing. Backup batteries for phone, and personal emergency locator clipped to my belt in case somehow I ended up in a ditch somewhere.

Tank topped off, snacks and caffeine arranged in the passenger seat, a fresh audiobook queued up on the stereo, and…

…by the time my wheels cleared the gravel farm lane and turned south on Discovery Road, the switch had flipped.

I’ve written about “the magic of departure” plenty of times, but had forgotten what it felt like. After all, I’d barely left the farm, barely left Port Townsend in five months. And as Newton observed, an object at rest stays at rest unless disturbed. Yes, yes, I know: you always thought I was just a little disturbed. But really, I’d forgotten what the road felt like. I mean, I’d forgotten what The Road felt like, and it all came back to me like a dream that didn’t quite get away at waking. And an object, once in motion, continues unless stopped.

Sure, the weather was crap, as promised. But it was beautiful crap: scudding clouds and flat light. Hellacious winds across the funnel of Tacoma Narrows, familiar towns rolling by the I-5 corridor – Centralia, Chehalis, there’s the tractor yard, there’s the cranky libertarian billboard. First the Cowlitz, then the mighty Columbia sidle up along the road, leading the way to where an olive drab double span of steel vault you across the water to Oregon, where you have to remember that you’re not allowed to pump your own gas. Still need to get out of the car to use the bathroom, of course, but there are pump bottle of sanitizer everywhere, including in the car’s cup holder.

Power on through the snacks in the front seat and the gathering gloom of the Willamette Valley, Albany, Salem, Eugene – Oregon is always so much bigger than anyone remembers. Dark already, and it’s still two hours to even get to Grant’s Pass.

I called it an evening just north of Ashland. There was an overhead light out at the end of the line of parking in the rest stop, with half a dozen other cars clustered in its shadow. Sleeping bag and pad (a good heavy full-width, four inch thick “old man” pad) were already laid out in back, so all I needed to do was slip over the seat, tuck myself in and snooze until morning came.

Morning brought a shift in the forecast – things had warmed up a touch and the roads were clearing. There was a gap, probably only three or four hours, but if I got myself moving, I might be able to shimmy through the mountains before the snow came back down.

And there was Ashland, belle of the Rogue Valley, timed just right for a pre-dawn grab and go breakfast burrito at Ruby’s before I made the ascent.

And then I was through it, rolling downhill through Hilt. No sir, no fresh produce in the car, and Welcome to California. By the time I hit Yreka, I was worrying that the trip might be over before I’ve gotten even a smidge of adventure. A call to the California DOT Hotline relieved that worry: what with the last night’s rain, Highway 3 through the Trinity Alps had reopened that morning. And I’d always wondered about the Trinity Alps.

So up and over, off the Interstate, once again on a blue highway following the signs through smaller and smaller farm towns until the two-lane road snaked up into the clouds. Couldn’t have seen more than half a dozen cars in the two or so hours it took before I descended to Trinity Center. Could have done it quicker, but kept pulling off the road to climb out and gape at the views.

But honestly, by the time I popped back out onto I-5, I was ready to be done. The sun had set, the sky was clear, and I had maybe four hours left to reach Palo Alto. Camp? Drive? Camp? Drive? I was at a bit of a cliffhanger in my audiobook. Drive. I don’t even remember the final 250 miles.

So that’s where I am now. Andy arrived from Boston last night, and I’m picking Jem up in a few hours. We’re quarantining together (Devon loaded us up on groceries), sanitizing everything and all getting tested on Tuesday to see if anyone brought home any unwelcome presents. Until then, there’s Netflix, a couple of books I’ve dragged along and…wait, who am I kidding? If I’m good, I’ll spend the time coding and trying to kickstart (not Kickstart) a couple of half-finished stories that have been mouldering in my writing queue for half a year. If I’m not good, I’ll…no, I’m not going to ‘fess that up so easily. Let’s just assume I’ll be good.

8 responses to “Newton’s First Law

  1. Hey, if you continued south from Trinity Center to hit !-5 at Redding, you went through the town where Devon’s great-great grandmother was born in 1858 (Andy and Jeremy’s 3x great grandma). Yep, Weaverville. Back then a booming mining town. Now an attraction for steelhead fishermen.

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  2. This reads like a short story. I was captivated, wondering what you were going to do next. But the coup de grace is the incredible photo of the tree at the beginning. I stared at it for a long time, and it came alive for me, the “legs” entwined around each other.

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