Wednesday night was creepy.
After my duties were done in Sacramento I drove north through the center of a wide geographical corridor whose walls were distant mountains. The fields that lay between the ranges were patched with bright green crops, hemmed by fences and torn by brush lined creeks. Except for the mountains, it looked like parts of Kansas I have seen.
I had no place to be until about four o’clock the next day, and I was in (for me) uncharted territory. I’ve been to all fifty of our United States, and can easily recall distinctive impressions of each of them—Maine in winter with its sharp blue skies and numbing wind at the Portland Head lighthouse, where a man with a bagpipe played his mournful, majestic tune for the Atlantic; the rattlesnake coiled up on the trail in Albequerque; a field of soybeans in Indiana at dusk, swarming with so many fireflies you could almost drive without the headlights on; a hitchhiker who wanted to be dropped off on the shoulder of the interstate at the border of Tennessee and Alabama, where he said the woods were full of clean streams and thick old trees where a man could live quite happily for the rest of his life.
So now it was time to see what Northern California had to say. I had no hotel reservation, no advice from the locals as to what to avoid and what to seek out. The corridor of cultured land ended and my little rental car had no choice but to climb into the green backed mountains. The sun was setting. The towns grew sparser, and fewer exits boasted food or lodging. I started to imagine sleeping in the car, which wouldn’t have been that bad of an option except that I failed to bring my Swiss Army knife on this trip so I wouldn’t have any way to defend myself against the monsters of the wood, human or otherwise.
I pulled over at an exit with a motel called the Neu Lodge. “Neu” is fancier than “new”, I suppose. Right next door was a restaurant incongruously named Brewster’s Mexican Café. I rang the buzzer at the olde screene doore and listened. A lady in hair curlers with a cigarette between two fingers poked her head out of the back room, where an equivalent of Donahue prattled from the television set.
I asked for a room. She told me the price. I winced. It was about twice as much as I had expected, so I said no thanks. She asked what I had planned to pay. I told her, and she said, “Cash?” All I had was a credit card, so she waved me on, saying that the credit card fees were too high.
About thirty more miles up the road was a town called Dunsmuir, where, according to the welcome sign, a traveler like myself could find the best water in the world. I passed a Travelodge, then drove on through the little town to see what there was to see. A few empty bars, a few teenagers trying to look natural while smoking cigarettes in front of the vacant pizza joint, but other than that the streets were empty. It was barren as a ghost town. The town is situated on the side of a mountain, hunkered several hundred yards below the interstate and several hundred yards above whatever river it is that provides that impeccable water. It’s an in-between town. A town in stasis, mocked by the always moving rivers above it and below, the traffic and the water, forever going somewhere while poor Dunsmuir languishes.
I decided to stay. The town at night was so odd and quiet that I thought I might check in to the motel and go for a walk before going to sleep. That’s where this tale gets creepy.
Around ten thirty I made sure my key card was safe in my back pocket, lit my pipe, and went for a walk, during which I planned to pray, to think, and to work out some song ideas that have recently formed. The main street of the town is bordered by houses for several blocks (much like the mountains that bordered the plains near Sacramento). The blinds were open in many of the windows, and I could see people sitting on couches, silhouetted by light from their televisions. I could hear snippets of conversations. Then, only a block or so down from the hotel, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks.
A little boy. A toddler wearing nothing but his diaper, standing on the sidewalk, alone, at night. He saw me. I looked up and down the street, hoping to see a parent nearby, but there was no one. “Where’s your mommy and daddy?” I called. He shrugged and pointed down the street. “Where do you live?” He shrugged again. I crossed to the center of street, speaking loudly to him so that anyone nearby would know I wasn’t being sneaky. Finally, from a nearby house, I heard a woman call for the boy. She emerged from the house, marched down the long steps to the street, and swooped him into her arms. “Everything okay?” I asked. “Yeah,” was all she said, and the screen door clapped behind her.
I walked down the hill, past the residences and to the town proper. The businesses were asleep for the night, but the prowlers of Dunsmuir were not. A two big Ford pickups blatted by, turned the corner, and disappeared. A white Volkswagen Bus puttered past in the opposite direction, looking for trouble, or love, wondering how it ended up so far from the California beaches where it belonged. The teenagers driving these vehicles slouched in their seats, trying to ignore the nagging feeling that unless they did something drastic they would grow old and die in this little town.
I reached the end of the town, still unsettled by the sight of that little boy, and decided to head back. It was at this point that I realized what a Hitchcockian scenario I was in. A traveler, alone, choosing a motel in this purportedly quaint little town for the night, unaware that he would never, ever leave. Suddenly my room at the Travelodge seemed the only safe place in the universe. About halfway back I heard voices. Two drunk men, staggering down the main street calling for someone, or something. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it sounded like a pig call: “Soueeeee!” In broad daylight it might have been funny, but now, echoing through the barren streets, it was unpleasant and even a little frightening. I wondered if I should’ve woken up Jamie to tell her where I was. The drunks staggered on and turned down a steep street that went to the dark river below. The Volkswagen passed me again.
A woman appeared, walking toward me and talking to herself. She passed me without a word, without acknowledging me with even a glance, making me wonder if perhaps I was invisible—had any of the town’s residents paid a lick of attention to me? I remembered the mother of the little boy. She had answered me. Good. I wasn’t a ghost, then. When the woman passed, I could smell in her wake marijuana smoke still clinging to her clothes and hair. Then I heard two cats fighting in the distance, an inhuman, garbling screech. Behind me, in one of the dark houses, a baby screamed, and screamed, and the sounds of the cats and the child grated against one another and against my ears, and made the world seem for a moment like it was very near its end.
I sped up. I could see the Travelodge sign a few blocks ahead. Then I saw something that once again stopped me in my tracks. Across the street, in a gravelly, abandoned parking lot, something was staring at me. I was not alone. I was being studied. A deer, a buck with a fine crown of antlers nodded its head as if in greeting. He took a few steps nearer, so that he stood on the opposite sidewalk, watching me curiously, as if he expected me to pull a sugar cube from my pocket and offer it to him. One of the giant pickup trucks rumbled by, passing directly between the buck and me. The driver looked neither left nor right, oblivious of the encounter playing out on the streets of his town. We were both ghosts, the deer and I. The sound of the truck faded, and still we stood, regarding each other. The deer trotted across the street at an angle away from me, his hooves making hardly a sound on the asphalt, and disappeared between two houses.
I lit my pipe again and strolled back to the motel, thankful for beauty, and for grace, and the way they prowl and glide the dark streets of lonely towns, even those tucked deep in the mountains, dispelling fear and worry, blessing the traveler with the assurance that there is yet a Great Good in the world, unstoppable, unquenchable, lithe as wind and bold as light.
Have no fear.
By the way, I had a fine omelet at a café in Dunsmuir the next morning. The town was charming, and the water was delicious.
Andrew Peterson is a singer-songwriter and author. Andrew has released more than ten records over the past twenty years, earning him a reputation for songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. As an author, Andrew’s books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga, released in collectible hardcover editions through Random House in 2020, and his creative memoir, Adorning the Dark, released in 2019 through B&H Publishing.