“You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”
I arrived here Friday night with the intention of resting on Saturday. I had a fairly mellow day running some errands, catching up on e-mail, renewing supplies, and visiting bike shops looking for lightweight long sleeve jerseys to protect me from the fierce sun which is slowly but steadily baking any exposed skin into a deep red-brown, leathery color.
The owner of The Bike Shop gave me a wonderful book about riding through Shasta–Trinity National Forest. He seemed to suggest that going straight thru was going to be a pretty difficult ordeal given the steep inclines. After reviewing the book with its color-coded charts of the grades and the mileage, I had to agree. So I reluctantly decided to take a bus to Yreka, which would put me up near the Oregon border.
Sunday morning I got up early to put together the makeshift box I needed to pack the bike. I called the Greyhound bus station all morning to buy a ticket in advance but no one answered. When I didn’t get a busy signal a machine answered telling me “The machine is off.” After a few moments I’d hear “The machine is now hanging up.” With 2.5 hours before my bus was to depart I called a cab to make sure I got there early. 15 minutes I was told. A half hour later I called back and was told they were busy but I should see a cab in about 15 minutes. This went on for almost 2 hours. I wanted to scream at the operator but this was the only cab company in town with a van to carry my big box so I was afraid to get listed as a problem customer. Between the no-show cab and the unanswered phones at the bus station, I felt like I was in a Motel 6 Twilight Zone. At 15 minutes to departure time I cancelled the cab and re-checked into the motel. There wasn’t another bus leaving that day so I unpacked the bike and explored Redding.
While in Redding I had the chance to patronize a couple of Mexican food establishments. Below are two pictures of the restaurants. Here’s a cultural quiz for you. Consider the names and guess which one was a “Family owned restaurant, which, from what I can tell in the Northwest is code for “authentic” Mexican food. In the Southwest you don’t need to state this, but the further into the Northwest I get the more significance one can read into this as a signifier of the ambiance, the quality of the food, and the prices one can expect. One is called The Whole Enchilada. The other Tortilla Flats. Which is the “authentic” one? One is family owned and modest with about 8 small tables, the other is gaudy, pricier, is kept dark during the day, and has neon cheap, plastic lighted cacti on each table
If you guessed that The Whole Enchilada was the family owned one, you were right. As a name of a John Steinbeck novel about Mexicans in northern California, Tortilla Flats has a certain irony as I’m sure the owners intended to give it a ring of authenticity with such a name-instead, like Steinbeck’s novel, it’s pretty far removed from the real thing, but the all non-Latino staff and clientele seemed pretty content with their own little cultural fiction.
I will say, and I hope to be able to post more extensive comments on this later, that when I first read Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flats I was profoundly disappointed in him. I expected more from the author of the Grapes of Wrath. I read it in the early 80s before I was exposed to much Chicano literature and was still searching for our presence in literature, history, etc. I found his depiction insulting and crass–that of an outsider who was trying to invoke sympathy or pity rather than empathy or critical awareness of the relationship between culture, class, and protest. In preparation for this trip I read his 1962 book, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, and my respect for him was renewed. Though William Least Heat-Moon says in Blue Highways: A Journey into America, a book I just finished while on the road, that Travels with Charley isn’t one of his best, I found this memoir very insightful and revealing of Steinbeck’s own world-view, particularly when he confronts the raw and muted emotions that the emerging civil rights movement is causing in people of the south.