At the end of the 1960s, I was carless and broke, heading for Oregon. My fourth ride out of Berkeley dropped me near the bridge over the Sacramento River at Red Bluff. Glancing high above the fading winter sunset, I caught Orion winking at me from beyond the solar system, a special friend. I settled my pack on my back and walked toward the town lights, trailing my fingers along the concrete rail above the slow waters swirling south.
Dinner was a burger and fries in the last of the old Main Street cafes. I lingered in a naugahyde and formica booth, sipping my herb tea and polishing a poem until closing time. I’d scouted the area and had a camping spot in mind. Snuggled down, alone and happy, I passed a safe and comfortable night on a sandy slope above the rushing water. Perfection was a good down bag and a bivouac sack. The next morning, I was back on the highway early.
A couple of years later my brave Prince Valiant (’67 Four-door) sputtered to a full stop on the highway north of San Francisco. I stepped out to check under the hood. The chatter and buzz of redwing blackbirds filled the air, the mystery of their nesting rituals close at hand. But the ailments of a slant-six engine remained beyond my ken.
Pink almond blossoms bounced in a light breeze. Not a bad day to meet trouble. A friendly trooper came along and radioed for help. The tow truck delivered me to Red Bluff, where the repair shop owner informed me it would be mid-afternoon before the required parts came in.
We talked. The gray-haired man was a local history buff, with interests in the offbeat. Now, he’d be a candidate for E Clampus Vitus, that society of eccentrics that dedicates monuments to California’s unsung anti-heroes. “We’ve got natural hot springs in the hills around here,” he said. “The same hot zone that gave us Mt. Shasta and Mt. Lassen turned out some nice steaming pools not far from town. A lot of us go up there to soak and relax.”
My interest was aroused. It was the early 1970s and public nudity seemed like a grand concept. I had a slim smooth torso and no shame. My fantasies ran to writing the definitive guide to open air bathing sites of the American West, research being the main attraction.
Sensing my curiosity, my host proved a natural storyteller. “The whores used to visit from The City, take the cure for a couple of weeks. They rode up in the stagecoach, fancy feathered hats and high heels and all. Must have made quite a scene when half a dozen of them stepped down in a dusty little ranching town like Red Bluff.”
“Take the cure?” I was puzzled.
“For syphilis No antibiotics in those days. The sailors brought every sort of plague into the bay. The girls knew heat would kill the clap.”
In August, a dozen years later, with my tall dark-eyed son beside me, I pulled off the Interstate in late afternoon. Being a long-time Oregonian, by that time, I’d never even considered an air-conditioned car. It must have been 110 degrees in the shade. We’d been drinking sodas non-stop. Cooling off was all we could summon the energy to hope for. We sought out Red Bluff’s riverside park and waded into the pull of the current, wearing shorts and sweaty tee shirts. We crouched until the water swirled around our necks, chilling out. Ahhh. Heavenly just to let the river sweep clean our souls. A crowd of locals had the same idea. While children ran in and out of the water, we quickly air dried on the brittle grass.
“I know an authentic fifties cafe,” I told my boy. “Let’s go get a burger and fries.”
“Great. Maybe it’s even air-conditioned.”
The cafe was long gone, an antique shop on its corner. We headed for the salad bar at the new grocery store and carried a picnic back to the park. After one more cooling soak we pushed on into the dark, north for Oregon.
Another dozen years passed like water under the bridge.
Today, my dark-eyed son is managing a consulting office in Shanghai. Nude hot spring days have faded to figments of forgotten fantasy. My husband and I are driving south in late winter, a blustery day. He’ll sell his running books at the Napa Valley Marathon before the big race on Sunday. After a generous meal in a bustling strip mall restaurant, we come out into the windy night. Orion winks at me, an old friend.
Joe says, “It’s been a long day.”
“Red Bluff is not far,” I reply as we drive off. “It’s a nice town. We could get a cozy room and waste a couple of hours watching TV.”
Joe is agreeable.
In Red Bluff, we pass several acceptable motels. The river runs through my memories of this place and I want to be near the bank and to look at the moving water. I imagine a balcony, the sounds of the river flowing. Peace. As we roll across the bridge where I trailed my fingers on the concrete rail, we spy the Cinderella Motel with a line of rooms down beside the rushing flood, the water glimmering brown in the lights.
“We can stay there,” I exclaim with youthful exuberance. “Right on the water.” Joe turns into the parking lot, humoring me.
A high school girl rises from her sitcom to check us out, then in. I see Calcutta or Karachi in her beautiful features and lush black hair, and wonder about her memories.
“Do you have a room with a river view?” Joe asks her.
“First floor OK?” I’m disappointed that she speaks like she was born here just one of us.
“That would be fine,” Joe says.
As we unload our luggage I say to Joe, “I spent a night near the river here, years ago. I expect this night to be a lot nicer than the last time.”
Joe stops in the doorway and stares. Our room wears original decor. Over one bed, in a pink oval frame, is a huge cartoon high-heeled shoe. An orange pumpkin, in identical frame, stands above the second bed. Joe laughs out loud. I am baffled a moment, then hit my forehead with the heel of my hand. “Oh, right, Cinderella Motel.” The place was probably built about the time of the Disney cartoon feature that I loved as a child.
Despite the orange shag carpet, and colorful floral comforters, it’s cold in the room. Joe fiddles with the heat pump unit mounted under the window. It coughs then roars to life, battering our ears, drowning all river sounds.
The river lurks like a quiet giant behind a drape and an aging window screen. I gingerly remove the aluminum barrier and lean out into the night air for full effect. The racing hiss is just a few feet from the foundation, tugging around the base of a bare tree. The river is doing 20 knots, laden with mud, brimming full. It’s probably still rising after recent rains.
Is it safe here? Are we risking being flooded out? Should we leave and find a better place? Joe flops down on the bed and turns on the TV. He’s not moving. When I close my eyes later, I expect the hushed race of water to soothe me. But with the TV off, other noises dominate.
Heavy footsteps stomp back and forth. Dense objects drag, furniture perhaps, or sawhorses. It seems people upstairs are finally getting around to the much-needed upgrade work. But why at this hour?
I pop in earplugs, but they do little good. My sleepy brain convinces me the redecorating crew takes its breaks with workout weights. And likes to drop them. Hours later a hard body suitcase, or power saw falls. It shatters my dream. Then all is quiet. For about an hour.
At 5:30 a.m., the showers start. I figure this out only after some minutes fully convinced an industrial pumper truck is parked at the riverbank, working full tilt outside our window. Half asleep, I wonder how they can pump enough to prevent the river flooding, and where they will take the excess water. But it’s only showers. And it’s almost light now. My husband has two pillows wrapped around his head.
When he returns from a morning run at eight, Joe is in his usual exuberant mood as he wakes me. “Did you hear those guys last night?”
“Yesssss.” My eyes narrow. I am not happy.
“I saw them when I went out. Four big guys with pick-ups and dirt bikes. They didn’t get in until after two last night and were out of here at six. Sounded like they were dancing in hiking boots up there.”
“A regular barn dance,” I mumble.
“Nice to be young. ” Joe can sleep through anything, so why should he care?
I roll out of bed, open the drapes and lean out into the sunshine. The river has risen overnight and laps near the base of the wall. Upstream, I can see the overgrown bank where I slept peacefully in the silent darkness. It’s still wild, just as it was when I spent a perfect night in that excellent down sleeping bag. How excited I was, bubbling with pure happiness as I washed my face at the river and looked forward to a day of adventure.
The current of time passes swiftly, the joys and losses piling up until it’s hard to sort them all. We are not what we were, nor is the town of Red Bluff.
The river, renewed and altered each moment, runs through it unchanged.