Eureka, California, July 2011.
Our two hitch-hikers rolled into town, still following – more or less – the historic and breath-taking 101 freeway north.
North of San Francisco, the landscape pulls you along as the mountain ranges of our pacific northwest creep ever closer to the ocean. You have a foretaste of glories to come in the Humboldt Redwoods State Park that ushers you into Eureka.
The coastline now is nothing like the tame, surfing, comfortable beaches of San Diego. They go wild and wonton, foggy and foamy. Waves batter into cliffs and carve out coves and fling polished driftwood and stones onto the sand.
The boys began investigating this city, having no preconceived ideas other than wondering what the next part of the day might bring.
What with one thing and another, they found themselves on the outskirts of town, preparing to make their next move north.
Under a large tree in a clearing, they saw an athletic young lady. She had her effects and stood next to a bicycle that meant business.
Curious, they approached the dirty blonde to see what her story was.
It turned out that she had been part of a biking tour that had just left without her. They had been heading north on a summer expedition and as she had completely underestimated her own stamina, she had left the group just that day and was reevaluating her options.
My son remembers staring at giant wild blackberry bushes while she told her story. He was thinking, “Wow, we don’t have anything like that at home.”
They shared their own information, and once they realized they all shared a common destination – north – decided to try something radical: hitch hike together, three people, three packs, a guitar, and a bike.
Who’s going to stop for that circus?
“Why not?” they said, “Let’s give it a try.”
“Well,” she replied, “I don’t mind joining the party. I have to get home eventually.”
She looked at her bike.
“This could be tricky.”
Stopping for these wanderers in the little red rental car was a decidedly optimistic maneuver.
And at the wheel, grinning ear to ear, was Ronan O’Sullivan, his very self.
Sturdy he was, with the clean-shaven baby face of an angel, though he was thirty years old if he was a day. When the travelers peered into his car and met his blue eyes, twinkling like all of Father Christmas below his ginger hair, there was a collective and spontaneous YES.
“What’s all this?” cried Ronan in the thickest accent an Irishman could have and still be intelligible, “Who are you and where are you going?”
But the kids were busy trying to figure out how to fit into the car.
“We don’t know where we’re going,” they replied, “just north to explore!”
Mr. O’Sullivan could not believe his luck.
That was his exact agenda.
Mr. O’Sullivan was on holiday.
He had flown into America, rented a car, and with no idea where to begin, his goal was to experience and explore as much as he could before his time was up.
“Why, that’s just the thing!” he said, as they piled in, “Americans do this? Stand by the road and travel like this? Do you know where we should stay? Can you tell me what’s good to eat over here?”
His questions went on and on as they began the long and winding road up the coastline. He was so happy to have his own personal, thoroughly American tour guides, that the four of them travelled together for a solid week.
The kids thought his accent was wildly and wonderfully entertaining. Just listening to him talk was captivating.
Every turn in the road brought an exclamation of wonder from their generous driver. He stopped constantly to investigate a beach cove, massive canyon, torrid river, or massive trees.
Every couple of miles seemed to increase his happiness.
He cracked jokes, he told them about his home back in Ireland.
“San Diego, you said?” came his predictable question, “So how far from your house is Hollywood?”
My son has done a bit of traveling and without fail, people take one look at his blond surfer cliche self and ask about Hollywood. It seems to be the benchmark for all of Southern California.
Maybe all of California.
People from Ireland don’t know about Mt Shasta, but they’ve heard of Hollywood.
He stopped to explore a lot of bars, and my son is quick to point out that cliches are also foolish going the other direction. The bars were for nursing a pint of local brew while applying his same thorough investigation to the local people. That’s what pubs are for.
Ronan wasn’t there to party.
Ronan was there to assimilate and enjoy every atom of the culture and atmosphere.
Which meant that everywhere Ronan went, he brought the party with him, through pure happiness to be there.
The kids weren’t old enough to join him in the bars; although they were carded for alcohol, pot was beginning to be as circulated as loose change.
Perhaps Ronan would bring them back a bottle or two when he joined them later in the evening around the pool of a cheap hotel, but he was never interested in the rest. He stayed as clean cut as the landscape that was calling them.
They stopped in Klamath and ate at Paul Bunyun’s Diner. They made it to Crescent City.
From there, they detoured northeast, driving through Grant’s Pass and up into the forested gorges and coves to Crater Lake National Park.
This is a place that remains in my son’s artistic memory as one of prehistoric and pristine beauty.
“It’s the weirdest kind of beautiful,” he said, “The massive lake sits in a giant bowl and messes with your depth perception. The water is a deep turquoise, it’s absolutely gorgeous. I remember massive trees. And massive ants,” he says with a frown, “and for some reason, I remember snow on the ground in places when we were hiking there. But that can’t be right. It was July.”
That, my son, is because you can still find snow there, even in July. Crater Lake is mostly pure snowmelt. Your memory is better than mine, well done.
Like the volcano that collapsed and left Crater Lake, their adventures eventually came to a close with Mr O’Sullivan, leaving a crisp memory, many shades of blue.
They all stayed in touch after that summer, through Facebook.
Ronan flew back to Ireland and has a wife and kids now.
The young biker lives in Portland, and the boys visited when they eventually arrived there.
Her bike had a great many miles put on it, but not because she had pedaled all the way home.
Sometimes on their road-trip, half the bike sat in the back, and half the bike sat in their laps.
But sometimes, they held it, arms out the side window, rolling along parallel with the rental car.