by H. W. Moss
My sister lives in an ashram in Rikhiapeeth, India. Every five years her student visa runs out and she must return to the U. S. to renew it. This is an ordeal since life in the ashram is completely controlled and outside the ashram is our world where chaos rules.
Why a student visa? It seems she can have a permanent resident visa but that requires more frequent departures from India to maintain it. The student visa is what she prefers.
Alice follows a yogi and the relationship is one of leader/disciple, according to the books she sent me to read. However, she took umbrage with my description saying that’s not the way it actually is in the ashram which she sorely missed and to which she wanted to return. She had been away six weeks by the time she arrived in California.
Forced into exile while the paperwork was being completed, we worked out a plan to take a road trip together. She said she wanted to follow the California coast. I asked whether she wanted to go left or right when we got there and she said she wanted to see the Redwoods. That settled our direction: North.
I picked her up at San Francisco International Airport arriving on a flight from New York. During our three nights, four days on the road I learned a bit about life in India, what Alice does there and that she has been diagnosed with a damp stomach.
Human hair grows about half an inch a month. Alice has blonde hair which looked about one inch long all around her head. I’d say she arrived in the States bald.
By noon we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge intending to find the Luther Burbank Botanical Gardens in Santa Rosa. Somehow we missed that turn off and continued up Highway 101 into Cloverdale where we turned left on state highway 128.
This road runs through the Navarro River Redwoods State Park. Alice saw close up the first of many towering trees and made surprised happy sounds as she squirmed in her seat to see their tops. At the Pacific Ocean we turned right taking Highway 1 north, stopping occasionally to admire the rugged coastline. Our new destination became Avenue of the Giants which parallels 101 for almost 32 miles and where scenes for “Return of the Jedi” were filmed from the back of a moving truck.
The ashram in Rikhiapeeth, Alice said, has about two hundred permanent residents who serve the nearby rural community. When Swami Satyananda Saraswati arrived about twenty years ago, India had forgotten these people who were starving, wore rags, had no medical or dental facilities or education system, she said.
Since then the improvements for the people brought by the ashram are nothing short of wondrous.
Saturday was sunny all the way to the Benbow Inn. This Tudor style mansion was designed by Albert Farr and opened in 1926. Four hours north of San Francisco unless you take Highway 1 as we did which made it seven hours at least, we spent our first night on the third floor. The downstairs dining room is separated from a bar and restaurant by a spacious living room with a fire place and chess board.
The two or three flights of stairs to the rooms above may be favorably compared to walking inside a colorful M. C. Escher drawing.
Alice eats no meat. Sitting down to dinner, I learned the last of the lamb had been sold and settled on steelhead salmon. She ordered à la carte from separate main courses and was served a plate of polenta, potatoes and vegetables.
There were any number of modern roadside accommodations with names like Super 8 and Motel 6 to choose from, the numbers originally reflecting their over night fare, but Alice would have none of them even if they cost a third the price to stay at the Benbow. I admit I never alone would have elected to stay where we did, but she chose and for those selected I am grateful to her.
Alice travels with a small guitar which stayed in the trunk while we drove and went up to her room at night. While we drove, she often broke out in muted soft song when not involved in tree watching or forced to talk. She told me her primary focus at the ashram is chanting mantras. She is learning Sanskrit because many mantras are written in Sanskrit.
Benbow is a few miles south of Garberville where I drove before dinner last night to pick up a six pack. I asked directions from a couple guys out front of the Benbow who looked like working men and they directed me to Ray’s Food Place. There, while standing in line, I overheard a conversation between a self satisfied young man and a somewhat haggard looking young woman.
He: “Whole lot of great new restaurants opening up in town.”
She: “Yah. Well, you can eat for three nights the price they charge for dinner.”
Me: Whoever she was, she was quite correct. Dinner at the Benbow without alcohol came to sixty dollars for two.
It rained mornings and Sunday was no exception. We set out toward Eureka. We stopped for lunch with friends I have known for years who live in Arcata. John and I fish out of Trinidad Bay.
Alice explained to Darsty how she divides her days at the ashram cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets, teaching school children English, preparing food and assisting in festivals which can draw ten thousand people to the party.
Apparently, washing the floor on hands and knees and cleaning toilets is a form of veneration verging on ecstasy. Alice said one cannot spend a lot of time on one’s knees because that damages them. She demonstrated an arched body in an almost yogic position where the scrubbing or washing or polishing is done with both hands out front while the feet are firmly planted.
I told a friend from India my sister lives in an ashram and he explained one of the translations of the word “ashram” is: Come and work for free.
Over lunch seated around the dining room table, Alice said in India everyone sits on the floor.
I mentioned I had two friends who were Marines in Vietnam. They used to squat on their haunches in imitation of Charlie. Alice said this is common where she lives because there are no chairs and Westerners’ bodies have been damaged by sitting in them.
As we drove the coast I noticed roadside warnings which turned out to be beginning and end points for potential tsunami reach. We were headed toward Crescent City which is unusually susceptible to tsunamis and much of which was destroyed by the 1964 Anchorage, Alaska, earthquake. There also is the maximum security lock up and notoriously one of the country’s ten worst prisons, Pelican Bay.
“Almost no one in India, only the rich, use toilet paper,” Alice said. I don’t remember what prompted this comment, but when I told her ever since childhood I have known that the reason we shake hands with our right hand is our left is used to wipe our ass. She said a jug of water is always available with which to wash your privates.
Nope. No soap.
Corporal Jack Maatz was a member of the Yurok tribe. He was a paratrooper in the 101st Screaming Eagles killed in 1944 during Operation Market Garden.
I discovered his photo and a brief history written by a relative framed next to the fireplace at the ReQua Inn (where the river meets the ocean is the translation I received) in Del Norte County on the Klamath River. The citation in Wikipedia, however, says, “The name is a corruption of the old Native American settlement, Rekwoi.” It does not say whether or not the old name meant anything.
Alice and I spent Monday night at the ReQua. The hotel is an island to itself on a piece of land opposite the Klamath. Its nearest neighbors are two buildings across the street and up the road a piece that might have been grown in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina.
Everything that may have ever floated in from the ocean to the beach below has been collected and placed tenderly against the base wall of one of these shotgun structures. Walking past, the front door was wide open and I could see a color television at the far end and smell cigarette smoke emanating from within. Beside the building in a tree were hung the many buoys rescued from the sea making year round Christmas decorations.
Everything that floated in from the Pacific is piled up here.
The Klamath does meet the Pacific not a mile further down the road from the ReQua and there are amazing views of the coast as well as good whale watching, according to our tourist guide. Several times on several occasions in several locations Alice exclaimed she saw a whale! I was always driving, my eye on the rode and hands on the wheel. I never saw a whale or evidence of one other than churning ocean whitecaps.
Crescent City is about twenty miles from the Oregon border. Oregon is alcohol controlled which means the state has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol. You may only purchase liquor in state run stores. On the way out of California is a liquor store with this sign: Last Chance Liquors. On the return from Oregon into California that same store has a sign reading: First Chance Liquors.
We drove about ten miles into Oregon and the change of scenery was startling. There are no trees to speak of except along the mountain ridge behind the highway businesses and neither is there agriculture. The coastline is a mile or so further west and the land use is reminiscent of rural Pennsylvania. There are no tall structures, but the clustering of 1950’s buildings house recreational vehicle sales and service, the Little Bay Motor Company, gift shops in quaint pointy roof buildings, stores selling smoked salmon, coast camping gear and more gift shops.
We turned around.
Although generally we had wet weather in the mornings, our daytime drives were sunny returning as rain only at night.
We decided to see Mount Shasta and turned left onto 199 toward Grant’s Pass. We stopped a pedestrian rugged individual with a hat who was quite happy to give directions and pose for a photograph.
Alice asked, “Where’s O’Brien?”
Guy with the hat: “You’re in it.”
When she asked for the specific road we were looking for, he pointed to the next signpost up ahead and said, “That’s it. Where you going?”
We told him Mount Shasta and he said, “Oh. You want to come out the back way.”
When I asked, What back way, he said (Alice later claimed he was biting his tongue), “Oh, you want to go over the mountain.”
We got to the next corner and turned right. I read a sign saying chains required and ignored it. It was a beautiful afternoon with only occasional rain.
We began to climb another twisting mountain road with a solid yellow line no passing center divide. It was tree lined one lane in either direction, but we crossed paths with no other vehicles nor did we spot any ahead. Then, at a curve I could not see around which I approached slowly, I was astounded to see white cotton puffs in the air coming at us. It took a second to realize and at about that same instant, Alice said, “Snow!”
The path ahead was still black asphalt, but the sides were rimed with white which became thicker and the air whiter with growing intensity as we continued to drive. Then the road was all white except for two black tire tracks from some much larger vehicle that must have recently passed through. And then those tracks began to disappear as the road became covered in slush which grew in depth until it scraped the bottom of the chassis. At some point it was at least six inches of white with no roadway visible and I knew we had to turn around.
But where? There were no shoulders, only a drop off into the forest on either side and the vehicle was as long as the two lanes were wide. I continued anxious until a white covered area appeared that seemed wide enough, so I made a three point maneuver that got us turned around and we drove down without further incident.
Once in a while through my now many years of life I have on occasion found myself in a life threatening situation over which I knew I could have done something different, but there I was having made a very wrong choice. Where there had been a fork in the path ahead, somehow I picked the wrong fork and the instant danger that arose caused a voice inside my head to scream at myself for having made that bad decision.
The moment we were decided on turning around and returning the way we had come was one more moment where I chastised myself for being about to die for no damn good reason.
We made it out safely, returned to highway 101 South and again entered the Avenue of the Giants. We stopped in forest groves to walk among giant trees. Alice wore open toe sandals throughout our voyage. I asked if she had any shoes and she said these are what she wears in India and was comfortable in them.
On the return we drove through Miranda on the Redwood Highway. My pompous literary background regurgitated the factoid that Miranda was Prospero’s daughter in Shakespeare’s last play, “The Tempest.”
We stopped for breakfast where I ordered an omelet called a Western on the menu. But the ingredients described what we used to call a Denver: green pepper, onion, ham and cheese. As she punched a stylus into a tablet taking our order, I told that to the waitress.
“I know that, hon. I’m from Colorado. We call it a Western here.”
In the background over my left shoulder a tinny voice made harsh sounds. As the waitress used the stylus to punch our order, I asked, “And what’s that terrible sound? It’s not the television.”
She said, “That’s the computer. Don’t you know computers talk? If we don’t give the correct order or if I get the toast wrong it talks back at cha.”
I recounted the moment in an early Star Trek movie, I forget which one, where Scotty is in our century and asks for a computer. He sits in front of it, holds his hands up in the air and says, “Computer.” No response. All the locals think he’s nuts.
The waitress methodically punched her pad and said it is difficult to use the device because it has to be perfectly precise. And she had a headache and her eyes hurt at the end of the day from staring at it.
There’s another Western ailment Alice can describe back home at her ashram.
Everyone who has a tattoo wants to show it to you. That’s why they got the tattoo in the first place.
We pulled in for gas at Fort Bragg. The guy behind the counter had tats up and down his arms which were covered above the elbows by his short sleeve shirt. The knuckles of his hands, however, had lettering that at first glance appeared to be Cyrillic.
As I paid I asked, “Mind if I look closely at the back of your hands?”
Unfazed by my request, he turned them to fists and allowed me to read from left to right, his right hand to his left, “Hard Life.”
Alice said her stomach is damp. This is a medical term in Ayurvedic medicine. Alice has two medical communities with which to consult: Western. Not Western.
The Western analysis of her condition, for she is certain she has a condition, was analyzed by taking a blood draw and running a battery of tests for the usual ailments. These turned out to be negative. She’s perfectly healthy by Western medical standards.
The Ayurvedic practitioner, however, knew immediately upon looking at her that the fire in her system has been lowered. Thus, her damp stomach. A prescription was written which was filled by a Chinese herbalist and Alice was assured her condition would not lead to anything dire unless, of course, she does nothing about it which is what the Western medical community counseled.
We stopped at our Aunt Virginia’s in Napa. Virginia is nearly 94 and mentally sharp. She says she can no longer read (macular degeneration) or hear very well, she uses a walker, her legs are thin as broom handles and she drinks wine mixed with water. Virginia asked Alice how long she was home for, and Alice said, “My home is India.”
I asked Alice to recount our snow story. She did it quite well with the proper amount of anxious fear in the telling and at the end I said, “All I could think of was the Donner Party.”
Pause. Smile. Alice: “Good thing I’m a vegetarian.”