Paltry Gestures

A winter road trip to California’s northern high desert in search of familial belonging provides hope—even in the face of futility.

lisk feng, lydia kiesling, alturas
LISK FENG

Shortly before Christmas last year, I spent a week driving my two small daughters 1,800 miles, from Portland, Oregon, to the Bay Area and back. Normally this trip is shorter, but I wanted to take them to my mother’s hometown, Alturas, which is in the very northeastern corner of the state, in Modoc County. I conceived my plan early in the fall, when it seemed like a good idea, and started the trip in the winter, when it seemed like a much less good idea. To drive from Portland straight to Petaluma, our first Bay Area stop, is a matter of 10 hours without traffic—basically a straight shot down I-5. A detour to Alturas added about 100 miles jutting out to the east, taking us over the Willamette Pass in the middle of winter.

I had the children in the back seat of a rented sedan with no chains. The road, Oregon Route 58, was covered in packed snow. SUVs and pickups were flying along it, but I was petrified and drove well under 25 miles an hour. The beginnings of panic prickled along my hands and shoulders, and I cursed myself for putting the three of us in what felt like danger. I seldom drive and never in the snow.

There was nobody waiting for us in Alturas. My grandparents had died 10 years earlier, and their neighbors had followed them in death or gone into care facilities in other parts of the state. The only things that waited for us were my own memories, hard to transmit to a five- and a two-year-old. I tried to explain to them, as we were driving, where we were going. The eldest had been to Alturas a couple of times when she was a baby, in summer, when we went up for Fandango Days, as the annual Fourth of July parade is known. During her first visit, we stayed at my grandparents’ house, which they had vacated in death and which still contained all their things and belonged to my aunt and mother. It meant something deep and painful to me to see my firstborn rolling around on my grandparents’ modest, comfortable furniture.

My father was in the Foreign Service and we moved every few years. But Northern California was the anchor of my childhood, and we came back often—to the Peninsula and the South Bay to see my father’s family, to Sacramento and Alturas to see my mother’s. When I became an adult, California was where I tried to settle. I met my husband in San Francisco; that’s where our children were born. It eventually became clear—through the simple math of salary, rent, and childcare—that living in San Francisco was impossible for us, yet I clung harder than ever.

After my firstborn arrived, a killed essay about Alturas for a magazine became the seed of my novel, The Golden State, which takes place in a very thinly veiled version of the town, in a version of my late grandparents’ house that is not veiled at all, and which was published when my second child was a baby. Last winter, a year after the book came out, six months into our new life in Portland, I found myself needing to go back. This is why we were in a crappy car in the mountain snow.

By the time we got over the Willamette Pass, it was already getting dark in that lovely but foreboding way that winter dims the sky early in the afternoon. We passed the turnoff for Crater Lake in blackness, drove through Klamath Falls, and then were on a flat road, windows cracked to the scented air of the northern high desert. My novel involves a road trip up from San Francisco to that thinly veiled version of Alturas, and I reflected sheepishly that I was doing a sort of backward version of the protagonist’s trip, a different direction, a different vehicle, a different feeling of need, an extra child in the back. But the draw was the same: a small town, far from other towns, once occupied by loved ones now gone.

When your childhood is peripatetic, you develop deep feelings for places you hardly know.

When we drove into town, it was around 7 p.m., and we stopped at the Brass Rail, a family-style Basque restaurant on U.S. 395 at the edge of town that has been there as long as I have been alive. There were a few people in the bar, separated from the restaurant by a beaded curtain, but no one was in the dining room. I had a glass of the cold red wine that sits at every table and gave the girls slices of the big, crumbly bread with pats of softened butter. I ordered, as I always order, the rib eye with garlic cloves scattered over it, and the girls asked for fried shrimp that they refused to eat. They filled up on the soup and pasta that came with every meal.

The Brass Rail appears in my book as the Golden Spike, and this exact meal is more or less reproduced therein. Two scenes are set in a simulacrum of the restaurant, and sitting there gave me a sense of both familiarity and trespass that have been part of my Alturas feelings since the book came out. At my aunt’s funeral in Sacramento, someone from Alturas told me she’d heard she had to read my book, and I squirmed with embarrassment, particularly when I saw the State of Jefferson sticker on her car, trumpeting a separatist cause addressed with skepticism in the novel.

I have no illusions about ever living in Alturas, which is remote in every way from my daily existence and has been for my entire life. I subscribe to the Modoc County Record newsweekly for $35 a year and read about 1 of every 10 papers that arrive. When your childhood is peripatetic, you develop deep feelings for places you hardly know.

The loneliest feeling in the world is a deserted restaurant on a Sunday night in a small town in winter where nobody knows your name. It was melancholy to sit there and hear the sounds of merriment from a couple of bar patrons echoing through the empty dining room. My grandmother’s wake had been held in the bar long ago, and it had been filled with people. I acknowledged the futility of explaining this to my children—how to get them to feel what it was like to know someone and be known by someone in a town so small and rural. All I could give them was a visit to this restaurant where we were a closed circuit of strangers, eating mediocre food by ourselves.

We had a reservation at the Niles Hotel, a beautiful old brick building that takes up nearly a whole block of Main Street. I have photos of myself as a sullen tween standing by its ornate balustrade at my grandparents’ 50th-anniversary party. The girls and I were the only hotel guests, and the woman on duty seemed startled by our arrival. Her car had been totaled, and she had to walk in the cold from the other side of town to meet us with the key. I took a photo of the girls sitting on the bench outside the grand door, cuddling stuffed animals and shivering, a peculiar nativity scene. When we had finally got sorted, I settled the girls in a high antique bed. The ceiling creaked as a caretaker roamed above us, the only other person in the building. It was spooky, but the beds were comfortable and the room was warm, and the girls were caught up in the adventure of it. We all slept well.

In the morning, we went to the Holiday Market to buy flowers, and then we drove past my grandparents’ old house, which is in a mobile home park near the Brass Rail. Writing about the town had felt like a transgression, because I didn’t know it in the way you should know a place to write about it fairly. But writing about the house had felt right, in fact had felt obligatory. A piece of my heart is in that mobile home in the high desert, and I’d felt strangled thinking about it—a feeling that could be excised, in part, only through writing it down.

“There’s your great-grandparents’ house,” I told the girls, and they made noises of uninterested acknowledgment. My mother worries a lot over how things are looking in the town. It’s depopulated, and it’s the seat of one of the poorest of California’s many counties. Some of its streets reflect the hard times that many Americans find themselves in. I was relieved that my grandparents’ house looked cared for. It was tidy.

“This is where I learned how to ride my bike,” I told my girls, since I vaguely remember pedaling through the thin air on a pink bike, one my grandparents must have bought especially for me on one of my short visits.

We drove on to the cemetery, where we traversed the familiar expanse to the modest flat stone markers beneath which my grandparents’ ashes were interred. The yellow grass crunched with frost, and the fields around the cemetery were dun colored beneath a crystalline winter sky. I jammed an ugly supermarket bouquet into a tube in the frozen ground and snapped a picture of the girls looking cold and bewildered. I sent the picture to my mom, and then there was nothing to do but trudge back to the road where we had parked the car. I pointed out a small covey of quail crossing the road, another moment when life itself plagiarized from my novel.

I don’t have a cosmology that involves my grandparents gazing down on me from above. I don’t know that they would have approved of my book, which I was prompted to write because of an unusual longing for their house, sitting empty for years and then finally sold away. The only gesture available to me was this one, and it was paltry. Our 16 hours in Alturas felt incredibly quixotic yet satisfying within a very particular set of constraints. How else is satisfaction possible when almost everyone is dead? I suppose this is one of a number of paltry gestures I will make for the rest of my life. Or that’s what I told myself, in any case, as I bundled the girls back into the car with a promise to one day return.

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