For some reason I’d made for Highway 5 further west, when both it and the 99 that Merced sat upon led directly north to Sacramento. I think it had something to do with my closest entrance to the 99 being closed for road works. Indeed most of Merced’s roads looked like they’d not been maintained since the 1950s. From there I planned on hitting the Coast Highway north to Oregon via a left-turn at Santa Rosa, just above San Francisco. It turned out to be just as complicated as it reads. After driving through dry cotton and citrus fields to stop for some Macca’s breakfast at Gustine, just off the 5, I started to feel better, but there was one problem left: I was still in California and felt the further away I was from the state, if not entirely out of the country, the better. This led me to drive 12 hours-straight with only four short stops, on about five hours sleep, and still didn’t make it out of the Golden State. Naturally, I missed the exit needed to gain passage west within Sacramento’s hellish tangle of choked freeway interchanges, so kept burning up the 5 at a maximum of 75 miles per hour – which I guessed to be about 120 kilometres per hour. Have I mentioned the Dragon’s speedometer was in Canada’s kilometres, not ‘Merica’s miles? Redding lay about another 250 k’s up the 5 and seemed the best prospect for which to make it to the coast and then cross into Oregon within view of the Pacific. Its Highway 299 was one of very few crossing the enormous Trinity and Mendocino National Forests to the 101 coast road, which first met the water at fishing and probably former gold rush town Eureka. So the appropriately named and located town became my goal. The sun sets early in mountainous parts of northern California during November. It sets even earlier when you find yourself at Weaverville, about a third of the way between Redding and Eureka, and realise by 5.30pm that your watch stopped about two hours ago. Anxious recollections of sheriff’s patrol vehicles quite conspicuously circling and staking out the Dragon at the town’s supermarket were quickly dispelled by the prospect of driving a large Chevrolet van on wet, winding roads through the hills during a dark as death night. But, hey, like little else this far into the odyssey, things turned out ok and I rumbled into Eureka by about 8pm – without flipping the car or having a yokel from the sheriff’s office creep up on and screw me to the full extent of hick law.
An uneventful night at the cheapest motel I could find – at which for some reason down and out locals seemed to be living – followed. In the morning I felt I’d turned a corner, so to speak, and things would just keep getting better, as I busied myself for a prompt departure. Then I turned the key in the ignition. Nothing. Tried again. Absolutely, nothing. The Dragon had done died, to use the local dialect. Sighing audibly, I got out of the car and asked the friendly Filipino motelier to call me a tow truck. Of course, it took about four hours, during which time she and her husband tried to jump me with their weak as water station wagon and power hungry pickup. Neither succeeded so I lingered in wait. The tow truck driver brought the beast to life again and said it almost certainly just needed a new battery – the alternator, which allows the battery to charge while the engine roars, would not permit a jump start if it too needed replacing, he said. The Highway 101 splits north and south either side of a city block running the length of Eureka, and I was parked on the south-bound side. When I rolled out of the motel car park the van struggled to maintain power and then, when I approached the left turn to make for the northbound highway, it stalled again and rolled to the corner of the side street and the 101. “Fuck!” I thought. “If the local cops get here before the towie I could be in a world of shit”, as the van’s arse was poking out into the busy road. I bolted without locking it back to the motel, and all but yelled to the Filipino: “It died again! Could you please call the tow truck back!?” then quickly returned to the van which was indeed attended by the same truck driver only seconds before the cops. Whom he waved to. I couldn’t, and didn’t. It was dragged to the town’s one mechanic open Saturdays, where I cursed my misfortune. I was consoled there by old boiler female reception staff who said in regard to my voice and accent they “could listen to me speak all day”. I later sat in yet another motel room smoking and drinking Southern Comfort, while the Dragon lay at the mechanic awaiting its changes. I pondered mine. I thought specifically of the tumultuous events at Yosemite National Park. It is written I can’t remember where that men tend not to complete adolescence until about the age of 27 (while for women it it is apparently 21). My 28th birthday would take place only weeks later in New York, at a time in which I would meet yet another of the many beautiful and intelligent women who have graced my life. I realised, for all the mental anguish, shame and financial discomfort that that unfortunate event had caused me, I had learned the last great lesson of my childhood. And had become a man. I took another sip of the brown liquor, and inhaled another half-inch of Marlboro Light. Then prepared to head to the local speakeasy to drink soothing whisky, listen to better jazz than I’d heard even in San Francisco and salvage some kind of Friday night out, on the road.