Crossings by Philippa Hawley
The most reasonable car in the garage was an aged Jeep Renegade, green with just a hint of rust around the edges. The car hire guy said the vehicle made up in character what it lacked in style. Joe looked glum as he laid his guitar on top of its battered carrying case on the back seat. He was probably expecting a shiny Ford Mustang or a snazzy Chevrolet to carry his beloved instrument up California’s west coast on this celebratory graduation trip. At least there was still plenty of room in the back for our rucksacks, one tidier than the other.
Off we set, Joe still sulking because I was to be the main driver while he was in charge of the route maps. I’d only put him on the insurance document in case of emergencies because, to be fair, his concentration was variable, his mind usually up in the clouds with the birds. I’d convinced myself we’d be fine spending a whole month together having been friends since infancy. We had however attended different universities and never actually lived together so perhaps should have stayed in Los Angeles a little longer to adjust after the long flight from Heathrow. Jet lag was making us tetchy.
I certainly found it challenging driving on the right-hand side of the road when we left the garage and I’m ashamed to say I snapped at my navigator as he struggled to find the way to Highway One. Once signs to Santa Barbara appeared, I relaxed. Joe remained quiet, giving me time to think about my grandfather and how he would have loved making this journey.
We had been planning to go round Europe this summer but then Grandad got ill. It was the generous sum he left me in his will that enabled us to plan a different adventure. Joe loved Grandad almost as much as I did and called him Pops when we visited his house together as kids. Joe never knew his own grandfather and thought my Pops was something special, being a musician and teacher. Joe would play on his small upright piano and marvel at the numerous instruments in Grandad’s study while I was more intrigued by the dusty Baedeker travel guides in the bookcase. Shortly before he died, my grandfather gave me his North America Baedeker, dated 1909 and bound in that classic dark red fabric. It was filled with tiny print and tissue-like maps and I remembered finding a bookmark tucked into the page about San Francisco. I never had the opportunity to ask its significance.
‘You alright driving?’ Joe interrupted my thoughts.
‘Fine. Shall we try the radio?
Joe tuned in to the only non-crackling station he could find. It poured out endless old Californian sounds, ones our parents had filled our minds with when we were little kids. The music made me feel homesick, conscious I was a long way away and had only briefly messaged the family to say we’d landed safely at LAX. James Taylor came through the speaker with “Shower the People” to add to my unsettled mood. Joe sang along while I hummed.
Once through the city, the road to Santa Barbara was easy so my navigator dozed off while I fiddled with the inadequate air-conditioning. The backs of my legs were sticking to the driver’s seat and it felt like peeling sticky tape when I tried to move. I flicked off my straw hat, damp with sweat, and threw it behind me, twanging Joe’s guitar strings while he gently snored. I opened a window and the air that blew in felt no cooler but at least smelt sweeter than the plasticky interior.
In Santa Barbara I found a recommended hostel where a pretty girl greeted us at reception. I groaned when she said we had to pay extra for the air-conditioning.
‘Cool!’ Joe slurred, still half asleep.
He only became fully alert when a colourful hummingbird flashed across the path on our way to the room. Joe tried to snap a picture on his phone but the tiny bird whizzed away.
Our room was basic but clean and could have slept four in two sets of bunks. Thank goodness the receptionist said we’d got it to ourselves and there was a communal shower room down the corridor.
‘I’ll go first,’ Joe announced.
‘Okay, I’ll message home.’
Once alone, I checked Grandad’s Baedeker was still safe in my rucksack with the little container I’d managed to smuggle through customs.
Once clean and refreshed, we walked down to the waterside, picking up a couple of beers and some burgers on the way. A huge and handsome seagull seemed to watch us from his post as we walked up the wooden pier.
‘I can really imagine Grandad here,’ I said.
With a gentle shrug of his shoulders, Joe embarked on a photoshoot of the apricot sun setting over a sparkling, sugar-coated sea.
‘I like to think part of him is with us on this journey,’ I persisted.
Joe flashed his eyes sideways towards an old boy with a snaggled grey beard seated on a nearby bench smoking a pipe. I spotted bits of loose tobacco had fallen onto the man’s crumpled cheesecloth shirt.
‘Looks a bit like Pops,’ Joe chortled.
‘Ha, funny!’ I nudged him so he nearly dropped his phone.
‘You boys English?’ the man called out in a deep drawl. ‘Look at that colour, they call it roseate-coral. This sky sure feeds the soul, like a meal of fresh salmon.’
He extended a shaky hand in greeting.
‘It’s great,’ Joe said.
‘Every day’s a poem,’ the man continued.
‘Or a song,’ Joe said.
‘Or a fish supper,’ I added.
‘You boys staying long?’
‘A few days,’ I replied.
‘Just long enough to write a song,’ the man winked at Joe.
The large seagull hopped onto on the arm of the man’s bench and leaned over as if to stroke his beard with its beak.
‘My best mate,’ the man said.
‘He’s a giant,’ Joe said.
‘Sure is. This is Si and they call me Murphy.’
‘Pleased to meet you Murphy,’ I said.
We left Si at the pier and spent the evening in a bar with Murphy, who apparently was an ornithologist, philosopher and poet. We explained our planned route up the Pacific Coast Highway, aiming to cross its creeks, canyons and dramatic bridges. Murphy must have guessed I was the organiser and he made me write a list of his recommendations, starting with Pismo beach, famous for a clam chowder, then Morro Bay with its ancient volcanic rock and the sealions.
‘Look for cormorants, blue heron and brown pelicans,’ he said. ‘Further up the coast you’ll see condors, big as vultures. Watch out for the Harley-Davidsons with their very special birds riding pillion.’ Murphy chuckled.
He continued, telling us about Point Lobos, Rocky Creek, Bixby Canyon Bridges and then describing the white horses crashing onto Carmel beach. By the time his virtual tour reached Monterey Bay, Murphy looked tired so we arranged to regroup over breakfast. We wandered back up State Street to our hostel where Joe quietly played guitar and scribbled words in the fading light and I dropped off to sleep.
Murphy seemed subdued the next day, over breakfast at Elysio’s near the pier. I was disappointed he didn’t rave about San Francisco as much I’d hoped. Perhaps he wasn’t a city kind of guy. The only thing he insisted we visit was the Beat Museum, where we’d spend the best five dollars of our lives learning about the 1950s, and the writings of Kerouac and Ginsberg.
After eggs and hash browns all round, Murphy stood up.
‘I need to go see Si,’ he murmured.
‘We’ll come too,’ Joe said.
Halfway up the pier, Murphy seemed to stagger, then he collapsed.
‘Murph?’ Joe yelled.
‘Can someone help?’ I yelled to a woman nearby.
She called for an ambulance and helped us try to resuscitate him. People gathered, then paramedics arrived and took over, A police team followed. I felt my own heart racing and glanced at Joe who looked bleak and pale as parchment.
The paramedics shook their heads. The woman, obviously familiar with Murphy, sobbed as she gave his details. We answered a few questions and gave our phone numbers to the officers, before slipping away to roam the streets. We found an outdoor market but felt uncomfortable mingling amongst the colourful flowers and cheery music, so chose to move on to investigate Murphy’s favourite places, see the birdlife and cross the bridges he’d described to us..
‘Let’s do it for him,’ I said with a wobbly voice, unsure if I meant Murphy or Grandad.
‘I really rated that guy,’ Joe added. ‘Guess that was a bit close to home for you?’
We were sad to leave Santa Barbara but looked forward to the drive to San Francisco. There were more things to discover and people to meet. I also had a most important task to complete.
The twisting, turning coastal road to Morro Bay lived up to expectations, revealing ever-changing views of the vast ocean to our left. At vista points we watched the huge condors, buzzards and gulls, gracefully riding the thermals. Looking towards the ocean we looked out for dolphins and whales. In Morro Bay itself, the famous rock stood tall and we laughed at the noisy sea-lions below the boardwalk. Joe went wild watching the cormorants and photographing the blue heron rookery. Moving on, when we stopped near Bixby Creek Bridge, I checked my backpack and was relieved to find my little sealed package was still attached to the Baedeker.
‘Next stop Carmel,’ I announced.
Soon we were exploring the manicured streets of Carmel, impressed by the thought that Clint Eastwood once lived there and had walked these paths before us. We strolled to the seashore, fringed with Monterey pines, and lapped up the view across to Pebble Beach in the distance, as the waves galloped in. We spent a few nights in a guest house so we could chill, think about the two old men who’d passed away. We visited Monterey Bay, and the Marine Sanctuary where we swam and drank beer. I updated my journal while Joe did a combination of people watching and bird watching.
‘I need proper binoculars,’ he said. ‘I’m seriously thinking of taking up ornithology.’
I sniggered and wondered how long this new fad would last.
Early each evening in Carmel, Joe went off to enjoy a bit of busking and investigate the night life before we met later to eat. On our last night he announced he’d nearly finished writing a song for Pop and did I mind that he’d added a bit of Murphy to the lyrics? Even though I begged, he wouldn’t play it for me, not until it was ready. He just wanted my permission in case one day it made him famous.
Heading north the roads were busier again. Approaching San Francisco, we got caught in the one-way system and I was overwhelmed by large gas-guzzling cars, great big trucks and scary 18-wheelers. I became a snarling wreck, swearing at every lane change. When we reached the drop off point, relief washed over me as we dumped our valiant Renegade.
‘Thanks for bringing me along, sorry I was a lousy navigator,’ Joe said.
‘It’s been good having you aboard. Now, how about navigating us to the hostel,’ I replied.
We carried our backpacks and the timeworn guitar down a treacherously steep San Francisco hill, following cable cars chuntering towards the waterfront. We found the hostel near Pier 39 where we would stay until our flight home.
After a good sleep we set out to see the first significant landmark on our massive to do list. As expected, the Golden Gate Bridge was not golden but Baedeker red in colour. It was very busy with traffic and impressively long in real life.
Half-way across the pedestrian pathway, I stopped and reached into my pocket.
‘What the hell’s that, an old tobacco tin?’ Joe squawked.
I leaned over the side railings and opened the lid.
‘I knew Grandad wanted to come,’ I said as an enormous seagull swooped past. ‘Don’t worry, just a few ashes, hardly a teaspoonful.’
Joe grinned. ‘I’ve got it, a perfect ending for my song.’
Morro Bay 2011